TI Extensa Scholar ESS2

My ancient Compaq Presario is gone. You know which one I’m talking about, right? It was the machine that used to run the Nethack server and then was turned into a very lightweight laptop running Hardy with Ratpoison. Well, it died on me recently. Cause of death? Old age I presume.

The damn thing simply stopped charging one day. Either the AC adapter gave way or the internal power supply went to the big data center in the sky. Either way, the battery juice ran out and the laptop is now just a paperweight. I could buy a new power supply, but frankly, I don’t think it’s worth it. The machine was ancient and in a less than perfect condition (cracks, scratches, dead pixels, etc…). There is just no point in investing any money into it.

The good news is that I found an even older, and slower computer to replace it – a Texas Instruments Extensa Scholar ESS2:

Texas Instruments Extensa Scholar ESS2

Next to this baby, the Compaq looks like a speed demon. The Extensa is equipped with 133 MHz CPU, sports a whopping 16 MB RAM and has an impressive 1.3 GB hard drive. This thing is ancient beyond words! It is also in much worse condition than the Compaq. Both batteries on this system are dead. The main battery is the size of a a small club, and I’m pretty sure it could be used as a deadly bashing weapon in a pinch. But I’m not worried about that – I can just keep it plugged into AC at all times. What is worse is that the CMOS battery is fried as well. This means I can’t change any BIOS settings such as, for example, the boot order. Or rather, I can change them but they don’t stick.

This effectively means I can’t boot the machine from a CD to install linux. Fortunately the laptop came with an external floppy disk that is the first boot device. So I could use a floppy boot loader of some sort that would punt me off to the CD drive and allow for CD based installation. Slackware ships with the right tool for this. It’s called sbootmgr.dsk. Just create a bootable floppy with that image with RAWRITE, pop it into the drive and you will be presented with a nifty boot menu. The only problem is that I no longer own a computer with an operational floppy drive. The Compaq had one, but it is dead. I actually had to locate an old computer at work, and create this boot disk there.

The question now, is what to do with this machine? I want to install linux on it, but I’m not sure if Ubuntu will actually run on this thing. Any recommendations for super-light linux distros that would be good for this machine? I will probably run it X-less, or with a very light window manager such as ratpoison.

Here are few caveats:

  1. The laptop does not have any USB ports
  2. It has no network card of any kind
  3. It does have a PCIMCIA, but…
  4. I do not have any PCIMCIA ethernet cards at home
  5. I only have the Linksys WPC54G ver 1.2 Wifi card
  6. My Wifi is WPA encrypted

No matter which distro I choose, I will need to figure out how to get that damn Linksys card working. Some distros make it easier than others. I believe newer releases of Ubuntu might actually support it out of the box. In the past however I always had to use nidswrapper for it.

Perhaps I should get myself one of those more widely supported wifi cards for my experiments with these ancient machines. Anyway, what OS would you put on it given the above parameters. Keep in mind that the machine only has 16MB of RAM and 1 GB of HD to work with.

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11 Responses to TI Extensa Scholar ESS2

  1. Morten DENMARK Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    The major limitation is the amount of RAM. Running a generic OS (as opposed Linux distro’s designed to be very light), is probably going to be impossible. I believe FreeBSD (not Linux, but close enough) can run on 16MB RAM, but it needs at least 24MB to launch the installer (yes, you can install it from another computer). Slackware and Debian both want 32MB RAM, and Ubuntu even more (64MB I think).

    According to wikipedia, DSL (Damn Small Linux) will run in only 8MB RAM so that might be a good bet. I don’t know what the options for booting DSL are, but I’m pretty sure you could put GRUB on a floppy disk and boot the CD from GRUB.

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  2. Ian Clifton UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Definitely not Ubuntu, but Damn Small Linux might work. I seem to always have to use ndiswrapper for my wireless adapters, so I’d be surprised if you could get away without it.

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  3. cAm NEW ZEALAND Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Try puppy linux.
    I think Puppy might be upto the challenge.

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  4. jambarama UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    I’d try vanilla debian. I’ll start up from a floppy. Then you’ll want a set of apt repositories on CD. Of course I don’t think you’ll get a WM working on it, and if you have to use ndiswrapper, that alone is probably going to eat all the cpu/memory cycles. Actually, I think you’ll need to find some form of embedded linux – like gumstix or android – that supports that hardware. Which I’m not terribly optimistic you’ll find, maybe you’ve can find some old Win95 boot floppies kicking around the net. DSL may work too, I know they have boot floppies, and the wiki says DSL supports a hardware specs that low [it says 8mb, 486 or better], but I wouldn’t be optimistic about getting a window manager on that either.

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  5. jambarama UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    PS – I looked up the supported PCMCIA card list for DSL – bad news, you’re in the “Work, But May Take Some Effort” category and you’ll have to wrangle with ndiswrapper. Good luck.

    PPS – related posts are listed as “Google Scholar”, “Not Always Chaotic Evil” and “Smurf Reproduction”. Pretty poor selection :)

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  6. What you need for the wireless is b43-fwcutter and the firmware. Worked fine on my WPC54GS and supports a pretty broad range of Linksys wireless cards.

    This link is good for instructions and links for the firmware although you should be able to find b43-fwcutter in your distros repos.

    http://linuxwireless.org/en/users/Drivers/b43

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  7. Marius FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Fedora Linux says:

    Hi,
    Take a look at this blog http://kmandla.wordpress.com. The guy is pretty “fanatical” about getting different distributions on hardware similar to yours.

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  8. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Morten: Tried DSL but the CD insists on loadin X and for some reason the ancient touchpad on that machine doesn’t work under it. I don’t even know if this thing has a PS2 mouse interface.

    @cAm: Puppy added to the list.

    @jambarama: Oh, I know – I got it working under various flavors of Ubuntu many times before. But yeah – it was always a considerable effort usually involving ndiswrapper magic.

    @Marius: Actually, I am well aware of that blog and read it regularly. That page sort of inspired me to start messing around with these ancient machines.

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  9. Morghan UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Debian GNU/Linux says:

    I used vanilla Debian for my ancient beast, only problem I had was the dropped firmware that I had to install myself since it isn’t in the Debian repos.

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  10. Morten DENMARK Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @Luke Maciak: I believe entering “dsl 2″ at the CD’s boot prompt should give you a console logged in as root (runlevel 2).

    Otherwise, NetBSD will, apparently, run on anything above 4MB RAM and 40MB HDD (8MB RAM and 200MB HDD is recommended). Now I don’t have any experience with NetBSD and it isn’t really Linux, but it might be worth a shot anyhow.

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  11. ST/op DENMARK Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    You could give SliTaz a try… Choose the “cooking” package.

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