Remembering the twins

I waited this long to recap the two Dell Latitude LMs I had as guests last month because I couldn’t find the pictures I took while I was poking and prodding. This doesn’t usually happen where I lose photos of something, but I did find one leftover on my camera, taken the day they left.


That at least proves it wasn’t a dream. πŸ™„

The picture, of course, shows the ironclad and eternally trustworthy DSL running in its most basic form on the prettier of the two machines, replete with a wireless network connection courtesy of an old WPC11v3 b-only card. That was not my most successful attempt — and I really wish I could find those other pictures πŸ‘Ώ — but DSL did at least tell me that the guts of the machine were working.

I don’t have a picture of DSL’s graphical desktop on that unit because I never got one. DSL isn’t picky when it comes to hardware, but I have seen more than one computer over the years that is less-than-visual. In this case, both the vesa and VGA attempts, in every variation, resulted in a scrambled video display.

Some of my other attempts were also less than successful, but a few bore fruit. I had better luck with early, early versions of Debian and Fedora, but some very bad experiences with … anything after 2002 or so (which thanks to this machine, did not come as a surprise). :\ And of course, I managed to get a blinking cursor on a Crux 2.4 installation, which I count as a flawless victory. πŸ˜†

The biggest difficulty in working with these machines (I say “these,” but I did almost everything on the one you see in the picture) was twofold: First, these computers were not intended to boot from CD — only the primary hard drive or the floppy drive, of which I had none (and by that I mean the owner had none). Don’t even talk to me about a USB port. You know better than that. 😑

That’s a huge complication, but not something I haven’t had to work with before. I’m not above creating an entire system in an emulator, writing out the image file to a hard disk, and transplanting it physically into a target machine.

In that sense, these are great designs for that task. I’ve run into machines that were a bit curmudgeonly in that respect, but the drives on these laptops pull out of the front left corner like a drawer, connect firmly in a dedicated tray, and are more or less exchangeable in seconds. What’s more, there’s plenty of space in the tray for an IDE-to-whatever converter, which in my case was an SDHC adapter.

I did run into an additional mystery though, which constitutes Biggest Difficulty Part Two: a hesitance to boot from some systems, and I’m not sure why.

It may have been some sort of partitioning inconsistency, between the BIOS and the installation. Occasionally a system wouldn’t boot that I had written out via dd, but other times preinstalled or original installations wouldn’t boot either.

I don’t suspect hardware issues; instead, I suspect either (a) the old BIOS drive dimension limit, cropping up again decades after its relevancy, causing problems again in its passive-aggressive way of suggesting you should get a new computer, or (b) some misalignment between the way GRUB or LILO worked two decades ago, and what the BIOS expected.

I’ve seen machines — in fact, this EzBook 800 has it — that have a BIOS-switchable option for Windows-esque drive arrangements, with the other option as … “other.” :\ I know of one or two machines in my past that couldn’t boot an “other” system if the BIOS was set to Windows-ish, or vice versa. This old warrior was one of those.

I don’t have any way to document that, and I don’t know how or why it happens, but that’s my underlying suspicion. Since the BIOS in these Latitudes doesn’t have an option to switch, it was a crap shoot to see what will boot and what won’t.

Both of these issues, and their underlying problems, are magnified by the glacial pace of working at 133Mhz, and with the added time of swapping drives and bouncing between drive caddies. Plus, the constant risk of snapping or bending a 20-year-old pin array, or the natural brittleness of aging plastic. … I imagine even that caused a little hesitation on my part.

I can say with some honesty, if these were my personal machines, I’d probably be a little more aggressive in seeing what they were capable of. I tend to be a little antsy around other people’s computers though, for no other reason than general courtesy.

In any case, I gave them back a few weeks ago after giving each one a quick cleanup, and they returned to their home of record.

The irony of their departure is that the owner, when he came to pick them up, hinted that I might be able to keep them if I were inclined, and if my offer came within the range of what he thought they were worth.

I declined politely, partly in fear of bringing more wayward laptops into the house on a permanent basis, but also because I know he feels the pair together, with the power supply and a Dell-branded PS/2 ball mouse (woohoo!), are worth close to US$100. I put them around a quarter of that, maybe a little more. I doubt we could come to compromise, even if he were a little more realistic.

But if I were to find one of these in the recycling dump, I wouldn’t pass it over. It would be almost impossible (by my cursory research) to find replacement parts now, and even if you did, you’d likely be paying incredibly inflated amounts for something worth a fraction of the price tag. So you’d have to find one complete, unadulterated and in pristine condition to really appreciate it.

There are better machines of this era to experiment with. But treading the 20-year-mark on hardware this old, perhaps this exhibit machine and its “scavengee” comrade are a good investment. Maybe his offer isn’t far off the mark after all. 😐

(And in a worst-case scenario, it’s reassuring to think that Dell actually still has Windows drivers for machines of this pedigree. That, in itself, is amazing, even if the nightmare of running Windows 95 on those machines is only partially massaged by the thought of rehashing a few sessions of Age of Empires.)

Who knows? Junk — ahem, I mean, vintage computing is nothing if not an unpredictable hobby. :mrgreen:


5 thoughts on “Remembering the twins

  1. Ander GM

    Did you try NetBSD? With pkgin everything is easy. Just “pkgin in cwm urxvt” and you’ll get an ultralight desktop.

    It’s lighter than Linux, and well, Xorg even runs πŸ™‚ . Use Xorg, the framebuffer is not as advanced as the GNU/Linux one, but X is faster there, so you won’t lose a lot.

    Add “exec cwm” to .xinitrc and chmod +x it. Then, login from XDM (enable it from the setup stage).

    You’ll still have Dungeon Crawl, Cmus, Elinks and such.

    With less than 1GB installed.


    1. K.Mandla Post author

      No, I didn’t get a chance to try any of the BSDs. I need to work with them a little more, mostly because the trend in Linux is toward heavier machines, and the ones I (still) use don’t have the muscle to keep up. … 😐

  2. valkaiser

    I’ve got one of of those. Had a great time hacking on it (i.e. it wasn’t easy).
    Mine is the sucktastic P-100SD version. 100Mhz instead of 133Mhz and an 11.3″ Dual-Scan (STN) display vs a 12.1″ Active-Matrix (TFT) display. Pixel response time of 300ms is 5x slower than the TFT (I’ve not actually seen an uglier screen).

    Probably the biggest challenge was the paltry 16MB of RAM. With the kernel eating 4-5MB, there was only about 6MB free once it hit a prompt. I learned to compile my first stripped down kernel just to free up RAM.

    The other big adventure was wireless. I lucked into a used pre-cardbus wireless card (b only, like yours) and open networks were great, but I wanted WPA support for my home wifi. After a lengthy saga of loading firmware updates to the card (windows only utilities) I found that the version adding WPA support could not be permanently flashed to the card. It had to be loaded at boot by the kernel, and Linux didn’t add support for that till around 2.6.30. My custom kernel was a 2.4.x for size reasons and unfortunately I was unable to build a working 2.6.x kernel (I need to revisit this someday).

    Before I found that wifi card, I had to use a SLIP connection to another laptop. Glorious internet for distro packages! Downloading packages over a serial cable is slow.

    I just now booted the machine, and it claims to be running Debian Lenny (I don’t remember when I did that) without my custom kernel. At one point I installed DOS alongside Linux to try playing Master of Orion (disc was still in the drive lol).

    I never ran into that drive size problem because I used your CF SSD trick (awesome btw, I use it for all my “fun time” laptops) with a 4GB CF.

    The laptop got used as portable gaming rig (nethack). Although even nethack looks crummy on that screen.

    Anyway, sorry for the rambling post. I’m excited to see you updating this blog again. Love reading your harrowing tales of mind over machine.

    1. K.Mandla Post author

      I feel lucky to have tried the 133Mhz machines then. I know how you feel about pre-Cardbus cards and WPA too; the Linksys WPC11v3 I have is very comfortable with Linux, but these days it’s the networks that are the stumbling block. I set up a machine with create_ap and a wired connection just to get some of the original photos of those machines … which I never did find. … 😦 Maybe if the owner lets me mess with them again, I’ll get a chance to experiment more. I think he’s tired of dragging them across the country though, and he still thinks I’m going to fork over US$100 for the pair. Not happening. …

  3. Pingback: Like tears in the rain | Motho ke motho ka botho

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