The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

Breathing life back into an old computer

Many years ago, a friend of mine sold me an early tablet PC that he’d picked up at a tag sale. the “ProGear”, as it was called, sported only about 40 MB of RAM and a modest TransMeta processor, not to mention a few gigs of native disk space. Over the years, I have played a variety of games to transform this useless tablet PC into a useful kitchen computer for Jodi. This past week, I managed to take it back into service one more time.

This machine is tricky. It only has USB ports, and doesn’t recognize them until the OS boots. One cannot monkey with the BIOS as a result. It doesn’t have networking built in, but instead relies on the user installing some kind of card (PCMCIA, USB). The USB is old – 1.0 – and the PCMCIA slot doesn’t seem to support the more moden “cardbus” cards. Needless to say, this machine is a beast.

Windows never ran on this. It was designed to work with a lightweight Linux distro, which is long deceased. Instead, I’ve tried Fedora, Damn Small Linux, and Ubuntu on it. Fedora has never supported the TransMeta chip very well, and I stopped trying to use it a long time ago. DSL is great, but for some reason the mouse isn’t recognized when the desktop starts. Ubuntu has proven to be the distro of choice for this machine right now – it installs correctly the first time, boots slowly but without issue, and seems to respect most of the limitations of this machine. I used the “Xubuntu” variation of Ubuntu, because the XFCE desktop (on which it’s based) is the most lightweight of the available options.

However, it’s not lightweight enough. Booting the machine takes about 3-4 minutes. Hey, it’s old. But the display server that handles the desktop is a bit of a beast, even on modern machines, and Ubuntu isn’t trimmed for speed for machines like this. Instead, I chose to use the wireless connection, achieved through a USB wireless card from US Robotics, to project a desktop from another machine on the network to this one. This is a “thin client” approach – that is, the machine is not responsible for running all the programs that it will use. Instead, it uses a network connection to pull programs from other, better machines. All it does is display them.

When Jodi logs in, her desktop is transmitted from a different computer. This is done simply using a custom startup script that runs a desktop manager over the net: “ssh -Y REMOTEMACHINE /usr/bin/wmaker”, where the desktop manager of choice is the WindowMaker. It’s a balance of good looks and high speed.

The combination of linux, some compact hardware (USB wireless), and remote applications has once more revived a machine that grows more obsolete with each passing year.