The machine had only 98 MB of RAM, and a crappy on-board video card. In fact, it was all kinds of funky. For example, check out the weird Targus power adapter that came with it. I have no clue if this was the original AC adapter that shipped with the laptop, or if this was bought at a later time as a replacement. I know one thing though – this thing is so big it basically takes over every wall plug or power strip you plug it into for itself:
When I got it it had Windows XP installed, and essentially it took about an hour to boot. I tried installing Windows 2000 on it but it was still sluggish. The system was barely crawling even after I set it up to use bblean as the default shell.
The only way to actually make it usable was to either install Windows 98 (not a good idea) or some minimalistic Linux account. The machine was ancient so I basically limited myself to the distros that claim to be fast, lean and optimized for old hardware:
- Damn Small Linux – the 50MB live distro that can be installed on the HD
- Deli Linux – specifically built to run on antique hardware
- Puppy Linux – another minimalistic distro recommended by K. Mandla
- Arch Linux – also recommended, but bit more hefty in size than the other 3 pocket distros.
After doing some digging, I noticed that Deli ships without the ndiswrapper package which I needed to make my WPC54G v1.2 working. This is the same card I use on my Ubuntu rig, so I knew it would work as long as I had something that would wrap around the windows driver. So Deli, while very promising was out the window.
Since I wasn’t sure if my hardware will handle Arch will handle arch, I was torn between Puppy and DSL. I picked the later, because I had more experience with it and I could verify that the 4.0rc3 version definitely had a recent release of ndiswrapper on it.
Booting DSL posed some problems on the hardware. DSL ships with two tiny X server modes: Xvesa and Xfbdev. The default one is Xvesa which gives you access to the higher resolution modes. I set it into 800×600 (which is the lowest possible resolution in Xvesa) but no matter how many times I tried, I could not get it working. The desktop would show up, but the colors were messed up, and the image was distorted and pixelated. Ramping down color depth and resolution did not help – below 16 bit certain threshold I just couldn’t tell if it the color distortions were caused by my settings or if I still was having problems.
Xfbdev did work, and booted into a usable desktop – or rather one that you could actually look at without getting seizures or eye strain. But the resolution was still somewhat wrong – the whole bottom of the screen was cut off making the taskbar and the pager invisible. When I killed X I noticed that this was also the case for the TTY – I could not see what I was typing most of the time. The only way to get DSL to conform to my display geomentry was to run DSL in frame-buffer mode with the cheatcode fb800x600, and then pick Xfbdev as the X server. It doesn’t look very pretty, but it works.
Is this an issue with my video hardware, or is this a DSL thing? I’m guessing it’s the combination of the two. Neither Xvesa nor Xfbdev really talk to the video hardware. Xvesa uses standard BIOS VGA video modes and Xfbdev draws directly in the frame buffer. So I’m guessing that whatever Xvesa is doing is not directly supported in the POS video card that is installed on this machine. Perhaps a full X server that actually attempts to talk to the hardware would fare better here?
The installation to hard drive went smoothly. It was actually very fast, since the whole distro is only 50 MB. You literally run it, go make yourself a cup of coffee and before you come back it is long done, and asking to confirm a reboot.
Before I started I partitioned the drive with cfdisk creating a 128 swap partition as /dev/hda1 (type 82 in cfdisk) and made the rest into a type 83 (ext2) partition /dev/hda2.
Then I created swap partition on /dev/hda1:
mkswap /dev/hda1 swapon /dev/hda1
Finally, I performed the actual install using dsl-hdinstall command, and specifying /dev/hda2 as my installation drive. I choose Grub to be my bootloader and rebooted.
Note that the default entry in Grub is the Xvesa, non frame-buffered mode. So when you boot, you need to make sure you choose the fb800x600 option. The boot was pretty seamless and relatively fast. My next task was setting up wireless.
I went and downloaded the windows drivers from the linksys ftp site. I think I wrote about this before – thanks to Linksys’ brilliant versioning WPC54G v1.2 is really v1.3. Go figure. I downloaded the zip file, and transferred the lsbcmnds.inf and bcmwl5.sys files to the laptop on a USB stick.
Here is the little caveat – watch closely what I did. I copied both files to my home drive:
# ndiswrapper -i lsbcmnds.inf Installing lsbcmnds # ndiswrapper -l lsbcmnds Invalid Driver!
Apparently you need the absolute path here:
# ndiswrapper -i /home/dsl/lsbcmnds.inf
I don’t remember having to do this on Ubuntu, but go figure. Then I of course loaded the ndiswrapper driver:
ndiswrapper -m modprobe ndiswrapper echo ndiswrapper >> /etc/modules
Once I did that I ran iwconfig from the GUI menu. Strangely enough you can’t use ifup to bring up your wifi – for some reason it does not recognize wlan0 as a valid interface, even though it does show up when you do ifconfig. The GUI tool works though. If you specify wlan0 as your interface, and input your channel, ssid and WEP key and hit ok, all should be well.
So now I have a working DSL install. The resolution is low, and everything looks bit ugly but it is quite speedy compared to the sluggishness of Win2k. The base install with just the window manager and a single instance of rxvt running takes only around 12MB of RAM (no swap) and less than 2% of CPU time to run which is quite impressive. Of course Fifrefox will happily eat up all your remaining RAM as soon as you touch it, so it’s usually better to run the incredibly speedy Dillo to browse the web. To bad that some pages look like crap in it.
My only issue with DSL is that it is not really intended to be used this way. DSL was designed primarily to be a quick and easy live distro and you feel it at each step. Every time you reboot it, forgets certain things. For example to re-set my wifi with iwconfig every time. Other settings mysteriously reset themselves as well. Perhaps some tweaking will resolve this but it definitely does not work 100% directly “out of the box”. But hey, I guess I can’t complain. It work – and much faster than windows at that. It will probably be hard to beat the memory footprint and installed size of this distro – but the video performance could be better.
K. Mandla highly recommended Arch so I decided to try it next. Unfortunately, that did not work. Halfway through the initial boot off the CD I got a kernel panic, and a (un)helpful message that my CPU is to old. I guess Arch and Presario were never meant to be.
So my next steps are: Slax or Slax Popcorn (shipping with XFce instead of KDE). If that fails, I’ll get the smallest debian install I can find and then just build it from the ground up till I have a working system. Either that, or maybe I’ll finally try Gentoo for that “optimized for this particular machine” touch.
[tags]compaq, compaq presario, compaq presario 1240, dsl linux, puppy linux, arch linux, deli linux, linux, windows, windows 2k, windows 2000, windows xp, laptop, notebook, dillo, ndiswrapper, WPC54G v1.2[/tags]