Another computer

A customer recently brought a lap to be fixed, about 6 years old, 1.7Gig Compaq nx6120 with 512meg of ram. It quickly became apparent that the IDE 60GB drive was damaged beyond recovery. I informed the customer of the cost of a drive and rebuilding the operating system onto a new drive, and transferring data etc, and apparently it was more than the cost of the computer This happens more and more with older machines, particularly when you look in the adverts and see brand new netbooks running Windows 7 for $350, fixing older machines is just not worth the expense. So the customer decided to scrap the laptop and left it with me to dispose of. I gave her a large discount off the amount I would have charged her for the work I had done to cover the possibly ‘spares’ I could take off it.

I too wasn’t up for the cost of a new notebook IDE drive, which are getting quite silly compared to SATA drives. However, in my box of bits I had a 16GB compact flash card which I previously used in an old computer and used as a web server. I decided the time had come to build my self a laptop with a solid state drive!

First stop, a company called Nice Gear in Timaru, who sold me an adapter to allow me to install the CF card into the IDE drive bay of the laptop, cost including postage – $20! The card was installed just a few minutes after the adaptor arrived, and worked beautifully.

So what operating system to use? The card had Ubuntu 8.04 LTS on it, which had been upgraded to full webserver spec. It ran, but was a bit old, and a bit slow. It had also been modified to run on an SSD. This involves minimizing the amount of unnecessary and repetitive disk writing, by disabling the log files, and not updating files and directories each time they are viewed, and by not having a swap file. This sort of thing is not possible in Windows, so wanting to preserve my CF card for a few years longer, decided to stick with Linux, in particular Ubuntu, which I have experience of.

So my first try was an upgrade from 8.04 to 11.04. This worked after a fashion, but stopped after I made a few changes to it. So I tried a clean install of 9.04, which worked very well, so well that I though an upgrade to 11.04 would definitely be on the cards, as 11.04 is probably more efficient than 9.04. The upgrade worked OK, but with a couple of errors, which translated through into another locked up system after an hour or so of fiddling!

So finally, I did a clean install of Ubuntu 11.04 (Natty Narwhal) on the CF card, which took up less than 3GB of my available 16GB. Ir ran a bit slow at first, but seemed to settle down, and now runs reasonably well. First job was to tailor the OS for running on a Solid State Drive (SSD). A search on the web will turn up lots of resources for this, the one I used was provided by the “How to Geeks” – thanks lads. I also needed some information on stopping the EXT4 file system journaling, which speeds up the system and saves writes to the disk. This blog gives the details on the first page, and the other pages cover  the stuff in the HowToGeeks page

I have spent a happy day loading on various software and hardware, including getting my Telecom T-Stick and Vodem to work. This is a lot simpler than it was last time I wrote about it. Both systems are now fully integrated into the Ubuntu system, and it can all be done from the “Edit Connection” button in the connections  menu. I also set up evolution mail to access my various email accounts, and transferred my outlook.pst over from my desktop, to give me a basis for work on the machine in the future.

So total investment $20, plus about $150 of CF card being used again, and a few hours of my time (OK, 12 or so if you include the three tries at the operating system) setting it up. Not the fastest machine in the house, but so long as you stick to one task at a time, is reasonably lively. I am not sure how long the laptop is going to last. Without a hard drive, it is running a lot cooler (and quieter!) so may last a bit longer – it had serious overheating problems with the faulty hard drive in. However, some damage will have been done.

The next question is do I splash out on some more ram? 512MB is not enough, 1024MB would probably be plenty for an Ubuntu machine, cost to upgrade about $50 to $70. Without the extra ram I am quite wary of putting on LAMP (Linux Apache, MySQL and PHP) which I need to do web development on it, so I may need to bite the bullet on that one.

Next job? Well by this time next week I hope to have bought a copy of Windows 98 SE for a dollar or two off TradeMe. This I will put onto my 10 year old retired desk top. The reason for this apparently backward step is so that I can use the force feedback steering wheel I have knocking around. It will only work on a machine with Windows 98 or less on it. The driving game I want to  use on it, Colin McRae rally 3 won’t run on anything less than Windows 98 SE! Hence the very specific operating system requirement. If it works as well as I hope it will, I will “acquire” a sports seat from somewhere, and build a framework for it, the pedals and steering wheel, and the computer monitor(s), to make a driving game console. I also have a GP game too, so there will be some variety! Stay tuned – this one may need photos!



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