Category Archives: Hardware

It never rains, but it pours

It figures. Only days after I am effectively overwhelmed with leftover computers, and after I get them all arranged in some semblance of order, and after I worry about what will happen next … the unbelievable occurs.

Quite nonchalantly and without so much as a by-your-leave, my boss says yesterday, “No one is using that old grey computer. You should take it home.”

Grumble, grumble, grumble.

Two years of surreptitiously using it as a Linux test bed, another year of shelf life, and out of the blue it’s suddenly mine to work with. I need a smiley that smacks itself on the head in disbelief.

Oh well. There’s naught so queer as folk.

So there it is. The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave is back, and it looks like it’s for good this time.

Another mixed blessing, it seems. What in the world am I going to do with this one … ? :shock:

Bring out the rack!

A couple more photos, just to see if I can make my fellow geeks jealous.


I am nearing critical mass in terms of the number of homeless computers I’ve taken in. This wheeled shelf and a rather pricey six-slot power strip seem to keep things organized though.

My wiring and strapping isn’t the best, but I wanted something I could keep organized and still pull apart at a moment’s notice.

Clockwise from upper left, the big dog of the rack, the 2.5Ghz Celeron, which is the media center for the house. Right now the palmrests are the only places those speakers will really fit.

Next to it is the scallywag 700Mhz Celeron, which looks a little better after a cleaning.

One odd thing about this machine, if you look close, is that the speakers are actually mounted on the hinge. It means the lid doesn’t block the sound when it’s closed. Ironic, therefore, that they sound awful. :roll:

Below that is the Pentium — the torrent slave and in-house nfs server. That’s what I use to pass stuff between machines, and is also where I keep my collection of ripped DVDs.

Finally, at lower left is the Mebius, which is really just resting there after being a surrogate two or three times over the past week or so.

Oddly enough, it was just as useful (although dreadfully slow) to install Debian for the Celeron on that machine, as it was to install it for the 120Mhz Pentium I’m using now. Of course, that means the Celeron is running i486 Debian. …

Altogether, my desk is pleasantly free of junk right now.

A clean desk is the sign of a disturbed mind. :twisted:

Of course, if things get any more dense in here I’m going to need to free up that bottom rack, and trap some computers there. That, however, could trigger the herd to panic. … :shock:

Catch and release

I have the good luck to babysit a laptop for the weekend. Or maybe I should say, the bad luck to babysit it.

It’s a Toshiba Dynabook V2/470CRC, and while it was loaned to me as a fixer-upper, I get the feeling I’ll be happy to return it to the owner.

It’s another Celeron Coppermine, this one running at 700Mhz and with a roomy 256Mb of PC100 in it. CDRW, 1024×768 screen, etc., etc. Not a bad computer, technically.

But this is one of those machines that looks good on paper — Intel guts, with the exception of the video card. A smattering of peripheral ports, but no built-in wired connection. Easy-to-get-to memory and hard drive bays, but a battered keyboard.

Some of that’s not the fault of the machine or Toshiba, just a sad history with an indifferent owner. On the other hand, that video card is for-certain a dealbreaker.

Arch can’t get a graphical screen on it, in either vesa, fbdev or the trident driver. Neither can Debian. Or Lubuntu. Or Puppy. Or Linux Mint Debian. Or …

Kernel framebuffer modules weren’t working either. Nothing short of the default font with a horrific framed effect … no matter who tried.

Until Slitaz came along. Yep, not only could Slitaz 3.0 push the framebuffer to its native 1024×768, but could get a full desktop working … with a little nudging. +1 for Slitaz, again.

So I wouldn’t call that video card a kiss of death, but this computer has an even bigger quirk I dislike … I can’t seem to get into the BIOS.

I’ve scrounged the Internet in hopes of finding the keypress that brings up the BIOS menu, but it eludes me. F2, F1, Esc, Del, the left shift key … nothing seems to work. It jumps straight to the first hard drive, no matter what.

Infuriating. Infuriating because that means it completely disregards the optical drive as a boot device. And without a floppy drive, there’s naught to be done but preinstall an operating system, and hope it works.

Which it usually doesn’t. Oh well. At least it’s easy to get to the hard drive. :roll:

So, let’s recap: Battered keyboard, tetchy video card, mysterious BIOS, won’t boot from CD, no wired connection, dirty from disuse, no battery … the list goes on.

No, this is definitely not something I’d like to keep. It’s a curiosity, and I’ll admit I like a challenge, but I have the luxury to pick and choose.

I’ll keep it around for a day or two, but then it has to go back to its owner. Thanks, but no thanks. :shock:

When an old laptop is better than a new one

It’s a very odd situation, but occasionally I need to take a laptop to work.

Currently, with one machine making a smooth, albeit extended, transition between distros, I found myself dragging the fastest (but not biggest) one into the office.

That was a huge mistake.

Mostly because that’s the one that has both Warzone 2100 and Wine-plus-Icewind Dale on it.

The hours ticked by like minutes.

Which was a good thing in a way, because that was part of the problem — large periods of time with nothing specific to do.

On the other hand, I know I should be working a little harder either on job issues or minor tasks.

But that is simply an impossibility so long as the burrows of the lizard men need cleared, or there’s another skirmish waiting in Warzone.

Next time, something so underpowered as to be no kind of distraction. :)

Just for fun: A three-part home media system

It’s a new year, so here’s something fun. I’m going to show you one screenshot, and then another, and then tell you what’s going on. First, this really boring console shot.

Nothing special there. mplayer is running. So is alsaequal; that’s probably unusual enough to note. I keep it on every system I have, just as a way to compensate for the sound qualities of the room.

Next, the Toshiba Satellite J12 bequeathed to me for a song, as I mentioned yesterday. You might recognize it; it’s famous on the Internet. :roll:

What’s worth mentioning is the fact that these are not the same computer — the console image you see there wasn’t taken on the Satellite.

It was taken from a machine that predates it by about 10 years, and is networked into the larger one. mplayer is running on the big one, but it’s being controlled from the small one.

Which means all of the interaction — audio control, position, subtitles, color control … everything — is piped back and forth across the network from the big machine to the little, and vice-versa.

But the video output goes to the Satellite’s screen. :twisted:

And there’s one more thing here that I can’t show you, because there’s nothing really to see. The DVD rip itself — the actual video file — isn’t on the Satellite.

No, it’s being served across the network by still another machine — and this one is almost as old as the control system.

But with an oversize drive and a fast network card, it can serve video data over a wireless connection, which is played on the larger machine, which is controlled by the oldest computer in the house.

(This is the part where I apologize for the post the other day, suggesting that screen and mplayer have a difficult time working together. They did, but the problem appears to have vanished with a fresh installation. My mistake. Sorry about that. :oops: )

More importantly, that means this is another possible use for an out-of-date or ancient computer: as a front-end for a larger one.

And most importantly — to me, anyway — is that the entire circuit, from controller to server to display, runs without the need for Xorg.

You only need framebuffer support on one machine — the display computer, and that one can be as powerful or as not-powerful as you like.

Considering I used to play the same DVD rips on a machine that was running at 550Mhz with only 4Mb of video memory, that’s not saying much. ;)

Here’s a little detail, machine by machine.

Controller: This only needs ssh access to the main machine. I run this with Crux i586 on the second tty of a 120Mhz Pentium, and ssh into the display machine. I also have the Terminus font installed, but that’s neither here nor there.

Networking hardware is an ancient pcnet-driven PCMCIA card, and that’s more than enough since the traffic in and out of this machine is negligible.

Server: A server system can be and do a lot of things, but for my purposes Debian is perfect, and easy to set up too. I put everything in the home directory of a privileged user, and serve that directory as an nfs share.

The network connection is a ralink PCMCIA wireless card, which was rather quirky to arrange, but gets good upload and download speeds, and so is best suited for this situation. Best of all, the power draw is less than a light bulb, it takes up almost no space, and has a battery backup in times of need. ;)

Display: This machine is the winner this time, chosen for its large (to me, anyway) screen, clear display and speedy network access. I using the wired Intel PRO/100 connection because I have a five-meter network cable, and I like the fast access speeds.

This machine needs the most in the way of software, because this is where most of the action happens. To wit:

  • Framebuffer access. If you’re using a modern distro you probably already have this. If you’re using a very old computer, it might be a little tricky to get working.
  • mplayer and codecs, if your conscience allows. I should mention that keeps a codecs package in its repository.
  • ssh daemon. Remember dropbear is considerably lighter than some other ssh suites. And remember Remy’s ssh dialog, if your connections are stacking up.
  • nfs client access. If you prefer samba or another service, you’re on your own. :|
  • alsa or another audio subsystem, of course. Unless you can read lips, I guess. … ;)

I also include screen and a few ancillary programs, like alsaequal, mc, htop and moc. They’re all useful on the odd chance, or for playing music if video isn’t required.

I mentioned networking equipment for all of these, because that’s where your bottleneck is. I am confident my 133Mhz Pentium can actually serve up those files in plenty of time for the Celeron M.

But if I have a slow wireless card in it, or if there is network pressure from other machines, things start to stutter. So be aware: Skipping playback, in my experience, is probably because of network speed.

(Those new Blue Ray DVDs ripped at 1080p or whatever are going to be tricky. Even my core duo has trouble with those, and that’s if they’re on the local drive. :shock: :| )

That’s all for the hardware I’m using. There are a couple of minor points that should probably be addressed, in way of configuration. First of all, it’s useful to know a few of mplayer’s flags, like …

  • -zoom, to expand or contract the output,
  • -fs, to push the size to full screen, which paints the outlying areas black, as opposed to leaving leftover text on the fringes,
  • -x and -y, to manually force the dimensions of the output,
  • -vf scale=x:y, to scale the output instead, or
  • -aspect x:y, to force an aspect, and
  • -vo, to force a video driver, although with nothing else on the machine, mplayer (in the default Arch version) jumps straight to the framebuffer.

In my case, this is what my ~/.mplayer/config file looks like.


The -3 in the vf line throws the y dimension out to a proportionate depth. I think. I can’t find the documentation on it, but I’ve had it around forever and it seems to work. I know, I know: Google is my friend. …

That’s not the last though. This little trick is this coup de grace:

setterm -cursor off -blank 0

Because even with mplayer’s -fs flag, the cursor on a tty screen will blink by itself, in the middle of the screen. Sometimes. But more importantly, -blank sets the default video timeout for the terminal to zero — meaning, never.

Otherwise, after about 20 minutes, your screen will go dark and you’ll have to get up and walk over to the keyboard, and press a key to get the image back. And we can’t have that, now can we? :mrgreen:

That’s all. Let me know if you can get this working with something in the handheld department, because that might be where the fun lies.

I have heard of people connecting to home networks with Sharp Zauruses (Zaurii?) or Toshiba Libretto minicomputers. Something that small … well, it’s practically a remote control. ;)

Just don’t fight over it. :mrgreen:

P.S.: I should mention, if you are more keen on forcing the video into Xorg instead of the framebuffer, to try the xinit command with DISPLAY=0:1 and your mplayer command. And to remember xset s off, which should stop screen blanking. Beyond that though, you’re on your own. … :)

The last windfall of 2010

One of the nice things about a hobby like this one, is that I am rarely at a loss for new toys. Sometimes I just mention what I do in my spare time, and people practically throw their junk at me.

That was the case earlier this week, and this was the result.

An offhand remark about putting old computers to use, and a Toshiba Dynabook Satellite J12 is mentioned as a castaway. It’s quite a nice machine as you can see, with no exterior damage and a clean surface all around.


In fact, the only visible shortcomings were a small nick in the lower center of the screen, and one missing foot.

The irony of those two points being, the nick was in fact just a smear and washed clean … and the weight of the system prevents the computer from rocking across the missing foot. So no loss on either point.

The guts are working great too. If you didn’t check the specs page, this has:

  • A 2.5Ghz Mobile Celeron, which will be lambasted by all the techy types out there for being slow and underpowered when compared to its Pentium equivalent. I can’t tell any difference;
  • 512Mb of PC2100, which is more memory than I will ever ever need;
  • A knuckle-busting 30Gb 4200rpm hard drive, which I promptly replaced just as a general principle. Now in place is a leftover 60Gb 7200rpm hard drive that is much quieter;
  • The video card is an Intel 852GM, which seems acceptable even though I haven’t tried out any real graphic-intensive stuff yet;
  • Intel e100-driven network port. My favorite brand;
  • Four — count ‘em, four USB2.0 ports, two side and two rear;
  • A working battery; and
  • a CDROM, standard connections for a machine of this age, and — best of all — a floppy drive. What’s life without a floppy drive? :mrgreen:

In all seriousness though, the real draw for this machine was its external condition, a relatively giant 14.1-inch XGA screen and a speedy network port.

It’s been a while since I have had anything larger than a 12-inch screen to look at, and this is very clean and very crisp. Sure, it’s only 1024×768, but I really don’t care much for more refined resolutions. This is plenty.

When it was shown to me, I did my best to try and convince the owner to keep it, and it backfired slightly. After I talked it up as a clean and sharp computer, the owner said she would like to get a small sum for it.

Which of course, was way beyond the actual value of the machine. I understand sentimental value, but I had to remind her that the price she was putting on it was higher than a new netbook.

So in the end, we agreed on about US$60, which is probably high but I can spare it and she felt better to get a little something for it. I always feel guilty telling people that the machine they bought new for more than US$1000, six years ago, is just a yard sale special now.

So far I’ve tried Linux Mint Debian on it, as well as Arch Linux and a very quick test run with Slitaz. I can’t find anything to complain about, unless it’s the fact that I already have too many computers.

And now, let’s see … how can I put this one to use? :|

Twenty-ten: The picks of the litter

Two-thousand-and-ten is almost over. I’ve done more than my share of distro-hopping this year, and not because of a fickle character, but because of a curious streak.

This year's judge and jury.

That curiosity is bent toward very low-end computers though, and it’s not enough to me to just show a pretty desktop at 150Mhz if the overall experience feels like your head is being pressed through a bowl of mashed potatoes.

To that end, some distributions stick out in my mind more than others this year, as good options for low-end machines. A few more I tried are just good options, for any kind of machine.

And some I mention because they are ingrained in my lifestyle now. Maybe I didn’t discover them this year, but in 2010, they became essential to my workflow.

So I have a few end-of-year “notes.” These are not awards so much as recommendations, since I am hardly qualified to award anybody anything. :|

The wake-up call: KolibriOS. In a world of multi-DVD distros, of thousand-dollar operating systems in a half-dozen flavors, of operating systems that require multiple processors and double-digit gigabytes of memory to use, KolibriOS hits you like a ball-peen hammer squarely in the forehead.

KolibriOS: Pocket-sized powerhouse.

It’s hard not to find something to like about a full-featured desktop replete with games, applications, hardware tools and even networking support that sits in a meager 1.44Mb of space.

And thus it’s hard not to include it in a list of things to love about 2010, considering that KolibriOS in its latest rendition is a stern lesson in software design and how to put together a truly ultralight desktop.

Granted, this is minimalism to the nth degree, lightweight to the point that you can’t conceivably pit this against any other “modern” desktop without feeling almost foolish.

But let’s be frank: Why is lightweight and conservative software such a crusade — in Linux and in other operating systems — when KolibriOS stands as such a stark counterpoint?

Why does the search for a lightweight operating system begin and end with racks and racks of desktop environments, window managers and alternative desktops, and page after page of lighter upon lighter applications, toolsets and support libraries?

Why is it such a carnival to say out loud, “I have a machine that dates back a decade, but still works great and I’d like to find modern software that will run on it”?

I’ll let you decide, but deep down I think we all know that software demands push hardware upgrades, and upgrades in turn allow for bigger, fatter software. In that way, everybody makes money.

It’s a vicious circle, but it’s hard to reach any other conclusion when I can hold up a decades-old floppy with a complete operating system on it. It’s not for lack of skill or ability or time or even desire.

KolibriOS is proof that it’s possible. Just as much as it is proof that perhaps everyone else is going about things the wrong way. Probably so they can take your money. :evil:

A chicken in every pot: Slitaz base. I’d love to say that I have a Slitaz CD perched at the ready, any time I need to jump into a live environment on any machine in the house.

But that would be a half-truth, since I don’t use the standard Slitaz ISO to do that. I stick to the base version.

Slitaz base: What it looks like inside your computer, with the lights turned off.

You won’t like it. You’ll be dropped at the command line without a stitch of help from a mouse or a pointer, and feel rather cold and naked and alone. Welcome to the underbelly of your computer.

But you’ll get there on a meager 12Mb of RAM or less, meaning that this disc can get almost anything with a working CD drive up and running and with a minimum of resources. It’s amazing.

And what you do from there is up to you. Install Slitaz, or use that hovering OS to transfer files across a USB port (or entire operating systems), or repair or recover a dying hard drive.

True, there are other distros that offer these same tools on bigger and better and more complete CDs, but the resources they will demand and the time it will take to get them moving is likewise bigger. And not necessarily better.

So for a lightweight tool that I keep coming back to, and for a full-featured console environment that will fit inside a sliver of memory, it’s tough to beat the Slitaz base version. I can think of no higher praise. :|

Knight in shining armor: Clonezilla. Clonezilla is crack for the distro hopper.

Clonezilla: So yummy, it should be illegal.

Clonezilla is going to eat your life away in small pockets, leaving you with dozens of archived systems, waiting on an external hard drive.

Clonezilla will save your life, when calamity strikes.

Clonezilla makes it too easy to backup and restore entire systems, and isn’t afraid of anything.

Clonezilla turns on a dime, needs less than the average memory available to a Pentium III to get started, and even comes in a i486 flavor, for weirdos like me.

Clonezilla boots from USB, boots to memory, boots to anything with a keyboard and an LCD attached, and won’t quit until you tell it to.

And what it does is free up your life to think about other things. New things. Fresh things. Knowing full well all the time that you can always go back to your old way of thinking.

Technically it’s not an operating system, so you can throw stones if you want. But if you’ve tried it, and you know it, you won’t make that big of a noise if I include it here. You’re a believer. You know you are. :twisted:

Tried and true: DSL. When I peel away the frustration and dismay, I have to admit a solemn reverence for a distro that manages so many convolutions in setting up this computer, and doing it so well, and being about a year or two out of development.

DSL, even at this late date, does things for ancient hardware that my best efforts still can’t. Maybe I’m just not well educated enough (no CS degree on my resume, pal). I am more than willing to admit my ignorance.

DSL: The ghost of Christmases past.

But the 60 seconds it takes this 5-plus-year-old distro to start, configure and announce its presence with authority are more than enough to spellbind me. Audio, video, network and peripherals, all moving at a good clip and with no sense of weariness.

It’s almost infuriating. I’ve been inside and out of the machine, probed its inner recesses and researched everything I can think of in terms of arranging and configuring. And an out-of-service, 50Mb distro beats me, with one hand tied behind its back.

Touche, sirs. For that, a small tip of the hat. I wish I could do as well, left to my own devices. :(

Service with a smile: Debian Lenny. I haven’t mentioned it much, but the Debian server I built to run at 133Mhz has convinced me to keep an otherwise superfluous computer and a network card I thought unworking. And that’s saying something.

Debian: The magical stuff that binds us all together.

Given the chance, Debian will perform back flips at the snap of a finger, and provided you don’t overwhelm a machine — of any architecture — you’re more or less assured of top-shelf performance.

Even so, combining a 13-year-old 133Mhz Pentium with only 32Mb, a RaLink-based PCMCIA network card and a gift-from-god 120Gb 5400rpm hard drive sounds like a recipe for disaster.

But like the rug that pulls the room together, Lenny makes it all work as a file server and torrent slave … with only a small bump in software for complete and perfect usability. No hiccups, no flukes, no spotty hardware performance.

And with uptimes in double-digit days, it shows no sign of stopping. You want a reason not to throw out an old machine? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Debian Lenny.

Not for the faint of heart: Crux 2.7. Source-based distros are not for everybody. That should go without saying.

But of the ones I’ve tried, Crux — and most recently in its 2.7 version for the i586 — is by far my favorite.

Crux 2.7 i586: You too can be an Internet hero.

Linux From Scratch is educational, but becomes esoteric for me. Gentoo seems overcomplicated, when compared with Crux’s spartan arrangement. Of the others … well, I should probably look a little more before saying anything.

Suffice to say that Crux has just enough automation by default to keep it from becoming obtuse. But it also skimps on a lot of other points, which keeps you on your toes.

I mentioned the other day that I learned more about Linux from a 450Mhz K6-2 running Crux than I ever did with any more powerful machine. That’s very true.

But you could probably substitute almost any hardware for that rotten little K6-2, and still learn heaps and mounds more than what Ubuntu or other distros have to offer.

I’m no expert, and your way is always the right way. But if your goal is to figure out what makes your hardware tick, I can think of no better suggestion than Crux.

And best of all, I can guarantee with 99 percent assurance, that any speed improvement you might remember if you moved to Arch from Ubuntu, you will see again if you move from Arch to Crux. Believe you me. :shock:

Up and coming: ConnochaetOS. It’s probably not fair for me to highlight a distro so recent in my mind, because there is an observation bias that can’t be avoided.

But let’s be honest. I have a half-dozen computers I’ve used in the past year, and the majority of those predated the Pentium II. What do I really want out of life? An Arch Linux for i586s. dried up more than a year ago, but the DeLi Linux project morphed into the latest i586 effort built on Arch. And I am 100 percent on board with that.

ConnochaetOS: A promising future on the playing field.

Any Arch veteran who has an old machine in the house is going to wipe a tear from her eye if there’s a living, breathing version of i586 Arch out there. Time saved in compiling is the first reason.

Simple ease of use, a minimal starting point and an easy-peasy configuration system are others, and are all hallmarks of Arch proper. All three of those are gold to an antique computer enthusiast.

So while there might be a curse attached to i586 renditions of Arch Linux, I’m hoping ConnochaetOS can ride it out, in part with its history as DeLi Linux, but in part because it’s got what Arch users are used to.

My fingers are crossed for this one.

Big toys for big boys: Linux Mint Debian. What I’ve mentioned thus far all has the potential — if not the promise — of running on extremely low-end machines. Pentiums. Maybe even i486s.

But if you were born after 1992 and you think a single-core machine is sluggish, then your idea of “antique” is quite different from mine.

No matter: I have one more candidate for you, and this one should run on anything from a Pentium 4 up, and suffer no setbacks at all.

And heck, you can even strip the machine down to (a no doubt frightening) 256Mb and still get plenty of use out of it. Put in those hours at Free Geek, because your reward will no doubt perform with Linux Mint Debian.

LMDE: All of the flavor, none of the fat.

Distros like this one should put fear into the hearts of big-name projects like Ubuntu or Fedora or OpenSUSE. Why? Because all the flash (dare I say “Flash”? :lol: ), all the glitter and all the goodies are instantly available for us peons suffering with leftover machines.

How can LMD be doing things so right, and all the others be doing things so … not right? I don’t know.

But spend a week with LMD and you’ll probably never walk back to Ubuntu. And you’ll probably never walk into another computer reseller either, because the machine you use now (I feel safe in saying) is powerful enough to run it.

And Mint’s reputation for making Ubuntu even easier … ? Well, what can I say. Back in August I dropped Mint into a neighbor’s Celeron, with the hopes that it would be easier and cleaner to manage than — but just as speedy as — Arch.

And it ran without a complaint — no, really: without a stitch of attention from me — for three full months. What do you make of that? :D

P.S.: Get yourself some floppies. What is life without floppies?! :mrgreen:

(All right. You asked for it, you got it. :evil: )