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Resuscitating a Seven Year Old Laptop

2 replies on 1 page. Most recent reply: Jan 12, 2009 11:05 PM by Michele Simionato

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Michele Simionato

Posts: 222
Nickname: micheles
Registered: Jun, 2008

Resuscitating a Seven Year Old Laptop (View in Weblogs)
Posted: Jan 12, 2009 11:05 PM
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You may be interested in this post if you have an obsolete computer you don't want to throw away. The recipe to recover it is to install a lightweight window manager: you will see that your old box come back to new life.

Recently, I have spent some time trying to recover a very old Compaq laptop, which I have been neglecting for years (actually my wife was using it, by now she has her new Eeepc).

The laptop is seven years old, and it shows:

  • there are only 256 M of RAM (actually 240 M + 16 M for the video card);
  • the hard disk has 20 G, and it is pretty slow as compared to modern ones;
  • the video card is pretty poor, you can forget about installing compiz on it.

Moreover, the laptop is in a pretty bad shape:

  • the Athlon processor heats a lot and under heavy load the machine is likely to freeze;
  • the builtin Ethernet interface does not work, as an aftermath of a lightning storm of 4 years ago;
  • the builtin CD Writer/DVD Reader stopped working 5 years ago;
  • the external DVD Writer I bought 3 years go does not work either;
  • the BIOS is unable to boot from the two USB ports which only support the prehistoric USB 1.1 protocol.

It was clearly difficult to install some usable operating system on it, to replace Windows XP. I did not want to buy another external DVD Writer, since nowadays I have no need for it (I use an external USB drive for my backups, it is cheeper than buying DVDs). Luckily, by googling on the net, I discovered the Smart Boot Manager project: if you have a system which is unable to boot from an USB pen or an USB drive, but has a floppy reader, you can boot from the floppy and then dispatch to the real boot media. I made a smart boot floppy and I was able to install Ubuntu 8.10 on my laptop from a pen drive.

I have a wireless USB kit - bought a few weeks ago since it was really cheap, something like 14 Euros - and I used that to replace the wired connection. The wireless card was recognized out of the box by Ubuntu, without need of any external driver, whereas on XP I had to download the custom drivers from the producer site. That was a happy discovery, so I decided that resuscitating the laptop was a worthy project.

As I said, I installed the standard Ubuntu distribution, but the performance was not spectacular. Actually, the system was quite slow, and with Firefox open my memory occupation was dangerously close to the top limit of 240 M. It was clear that I should give up Gnome if I wanted to get a snappier machine. So, I tried to install Xubuntu, which comes with the lightweight XFCE desktop environment. With that configuration the memory occupation was reduced and the machine was indeed faster, but still too slow for my taste. I decided then to go back to the good old Ice Window Manager (IceWM) which I had used in the past with an even older machine with only 128M of memory. IceWM did the job: the memory occupation dropped down to 70 M (so says htop) and the machine is much more responsive.

I did install the ROX File Manager instead of Nautilus, and links instead of Firefox: with those little changes the laptop has become very much usable. I discovered in the process that now links features a very neat graphic mode: the trick is to install links2 (apt-get install links2) and to start it with the -g option (links2 -g).

I put this line in the .icewm/toolbar file:

prog XTerm xterm x-terminal-emulator
prog links /usr/share/app-install/icons/wsjt.png links2 -g
prog nm-applet /usr/share/app-install/icons/wlassistant.xpm nm-applet

The format of the configuration file is pretty simple: every line in it has the form prog alt icon app were app is the executable application, icon is a path to an icon that will appear on the toolbar and alt is the text which appears when you hover the mouse over the icon, or the text which replaces the images if the icon is missing.

With this trick a little icon for the Network Manager Applet appears on my toolbar and I can connect to the wireless simply by clicking on it. The applet is relatively resource hungry (around 10 Megabytes) and there are slimmer alternative out there, but for the moment I am keeping it, since I am familiar with it and I can afford it.

Generally speaking, IceWM seems to work well with Gnome applications: in particular all the Gnome applications I have tried with an applet in the task bar works under IceWM, and the applet appears in the system tray.

One advantage of Gnome is the automount mechanism, so that removable devices are automatically recognized and mounted. With a bit of googling, I found out a couple of programs to do the same job, ivman (to monitor the HAL daemon) and pmount (to mount the removable device).

Moreover, I removed the gnome-terminal, using the good old xterm instead. An advantage of xterm with respect to gnome-terminal is that it does not intercept the function keys, so it play better with programs like htop or the Midnight Commander. Also, I have found out that xterm used together with screen makes a good replacement for heavy applications like the gnome-terminal or the KDE Konsole. Plus, the scrolling is blazzing fast.

Since I always want to use a terminal with screen, it makes sense to open it at startup. So, I wrote the following .icewm/startup file:

ivman -s # volume manager daemon
xterm -e screen &

(notice that the startup file must be executable to be run). The first line starts the volume manager daemon, thats mounts and unmounts automatically the removable drives when I attach and detach them (apparently there is a bug in recent versions of the Linux kernel so I had to list the allowable drives in the file /etc/pmount.allow to get pmount working). The second line open an xterm with screen.

I have been using this configuration for a week or so, and so far it seems to work fine. The only issue I had is that I needed some time to adjust to links: it is definitely less convenient than Firefox. On the other hand, its memory occupation is order of magnitudes smaller, and that makes it usable. I had to renounce to Firefox since it was eating all of my memory and making all of my system sluggish.

Now I plan to use the old laptop as my main box for a while - I have already installed subversion, postgresql, g++ and lots of other stuff - and I will keep you posted with my findings. If you want to share some good tips for people with an obsolete machine, please do so!

Francesco Guerrieri

Posts: 2
Nickname: francescog
Registered: Sep, 2007

Re: Resuscitating a Seven Year Old Laptop Posted: Jan 13, 2009 5:18 AM
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This is precious :-)
I'm in the same situation... broken dvd and processor overheats. I will definitely follow your recipe :-)

Luis Sergio Oliveira

Posts: 22
Nickname: euluis
Registered: Jan, 2004

Re: Resuscitating a Seven Year Old Laptop Posted: Jan 13, 2009 6:22 PM
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I have a laptop Compaq with 6 years. It has a hardware problem in the motherboard that disables the power to reach the battery. I was dealing with it being a bit obsolete by upgrading the disk (40GB -> 80GB) and the memory (512MB -> 1GB). Its an expensive path to have an usable old computer that I may now loose altogether... Those damn things are hard to open!

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