New Laptop

After posting so much about my old Thinkpad now I must report that it has died. Well maybe, the screen turned all white one morning and has been that way since. I know the computer itself is ok as it works on an external monitor without any problems. I decided it was time for a new machine. I have since found some info through Google that suggests the problem may just be a loose or faulty connection to the screen. I will get it checked out at some stage and see if it is worth repairing. Fortunately I didn’t have any data on it that hadn’t been backed up.

With the decision to buy a new one came the big choice, what to get? I looked around and found that there are some end of model specials at good prices and was tempted. First though I made a list of my requirements. For an operating system I wanted to run Fedora and the choice of buying one already installed was very limited. There are a couple of people that will sell systems with any operating system you request but they charge a premium over the regular retail price. A few suppliers have a Linux option if you search deep enough on their site but that is nearly always Ubuntu and at least one stated “not all drivers available”. So my option was a Windows system and self install Fedora.

If I was going to get Windows I wanted something I could use as a dual boot. That meant XP as some of the Windows software I use isn’t available for Vista and besides I have used Vista and was glad to get back to XP. That also meant a reasonable size hard drive so I had room for two systems. If I was going to spend some money I wanted something that wouldn’t be out of date straight away, I wanted it to be a while before I need to write another “New Life for Old Laptop”. So I set a budget of around $A1500 and started looking.

I found only a few places would sell with XP but several offered a downgrade option if you bought Vista Business. I looked at the Dell site but the weekly specials didn’t interest me and there were limited XP options. Later in the week I went back to the Dell site after the next week’s specials were listed and found many more XP Pro options and some large discounts. Several models that had been outside my budget now became available to me. They were the only place to charge a fee for supplying XP instead of Vista but it was only $29. My mind was made up.

I ordered an Inspirion 1520 and selected the options that a search of the Fedora forums told me would work with F8. I got the Intel 3945 wireless card and nVidia 8400 graphics. It also has 250 gig Hard drive. plenty of space for dual booting and 3 gig ram, plenty of space to run a virtual system if I get around to setting it up. With a 2 Gig Core 2 Duo processor I knew it would run at a reasonable speed. It had other features that weren’t really needed but they’re free, e.g. a web cam and MS Office 7 license were included. All for less than my budget.

When I placed the order they gave me a expected delivery time of 10 working days but I soon got a message to say it would arrive in 5 and it did. I checked everything was as described and working and proceeded to install the Windows software I use. After years of using a Thinkpad with their stick control I found the touchpad difficult to operate but as that is my only complaint I’m not unhappy.

Next came the Fedora installation. But that is a story for another day.

New Life for an Old Laptop – an Update part 2

After gettng Fedora running successfully as I covered a couple of days ago I decided to see if I could improve it a bit. I know from previous experience that memory usage is probably more important to performance than many people realise. One of the easiest ways to improve performance no matter what type of computer or OS you have is to make more memory available. When I upgraded the memory on this laptop it felt like a new machine.

The first  thing I did has no direct impact on performance but if done carelessly can have a negative affect. I customised the appearance of the desktop. While trying out different themes I discovered some activate “Enable GUI Effects” under the effect tag of Style. This can have a detrimental affect as I discovered so I made sure that was off. I also changed the Background to use colour instead of an image. Choosing the wrong (ie. a large) image can make a big difference so I played it safe.

With the desktop looking better, to me anyway, I looked a bit deeper. I found this page of Fedora 8 services. There is details on earlier versions on the site as well as lots of useful  general Fedora info. All operating systems include a wide range of services which are small programs that run automatically and handle such things as networks, interaction with hardware and all that “behind the scenes” stuff we take for granted. While they are essential often there are some included that aren’t required. Eg. no need to have Bluetooth running if your computer can’t handle it or you don’t use it. Following the guide here I turned off quite a few services I don’t need. I didn’t do a comparision of memory usage before and after but there was a small improvement in speed.

Sites like this are available  for all Linux distros and are worth the effort. At least you will learn a little about how your system works. If you follow the advice here there is little chance of doing anything terminal to your system. At worst some piece of hardware may stop working. Just restart the service and it should be OK again.

New Life for an Old Laptop – an Update

I detailed in the original article how my Thinkpad T20 was given a new lease on life. With a small investment in hardware upgrades, memory and hard drive, plus a new operating system, Ubuntu 7.04, it was proving useful again. As so often happens with these projects they are never over. So here are some details of the current state of progress.

Time for an Upgrade.

Ubuntu has served me well on this machine and although Gnome is not my favourite desktop manager it was working ok. I was aware that it was an older version and would soon be two releases behind so it was time for an upgrade. The question was what with.

I had a copy of a version of Xubuntu (Ubuntu with the lightweight Xfce desktop) and being aware that it used less memory than Gnome thought it might be a good idea. It lasted a couple of days. Not that there was anything wrong with it. Everything appeared to work, wifi worked “out of the box” as I have come to expect from Ubuntu. It had a few strange things , eg. the splash screen wouldn’t resize to my screen so it was off centre. It didn’t affect operation as it was only there while it booted and then it was fine. But it didn’t “grab” me. Not very scientific I know but didn’t feel it was better than what I had previously.

So I decided to go in the opposite direction and install Fedora 8 with KDE. This is what I use on my desktop with all the bells and whistles, Compiz-Fusion etc. I knew that wouldn’t work on the old laptop but I wondered how a basic KDE installation would run. I have used KDE most of the time I have used Linux and it is still my preferred environment. I look forward to KDE 4 in Fedora 9 but that’s a story for another day.

Installation

I installed from a dvd copy I had on hand and all appeared to go well. I had the system running with the correct video set up without any of the tweaking needed in Ubuntu. One serious issue, no wifi. I connected up an ethernet cable and had the internet working that way and left it to do an update. In the meantime I did some research on the Fedora forums. As usual the answers were all there just need a little patience to sort through all the information.

With the update done I installed the madwifi driver from the Livna site following the information here. My Netgear WPN511 (Atheros chipset) was now recognised but couldn’t link to the router using wpa2. I turned on the NetworkManager and NetworkManagerDispatch services in System – Services and now after setting up the passphrase etc. it all worked.

The Result

I now have a usable Fedora 8 system on hardware I doubted would handle it. It is slower than the desktop of course but no slower than the Ubuntu system it replaced. It is used primarily as an internet terminal with occasional office document editing or photograph viewing. I wouldn’t like to do much photo editing on it but for everything else it works great.

There are still one issue to look into. The hard drive has a partition I use for archives. It has an ext3 Linux filesystem and Fedora recognises it but any attempt to mount it produces an error. I’ll look into it further when I get some more time.

Living with Ubuntu

I installed Ubuntu Feisty Fawn on my Thinkpad T20 laptop as part of its rebirth. I also installed it as another boot option on my desktop. So what has it been like using it every day. I should point out I am not completely new to Linux having used various distros over the last few years. Linux has been my default operating system for the last year or two.

Installation went well. It was very simple, after the live cd booted I clicked on the install icon. The laptop installation was straight forward as I used the entire disk. On the desktop I have a spare harddrive and decided to use all of it which also was simple. Maybe too simple. I would prefer the option to select what gets installed and what doesn’t. I know I can do this post installation but why not at install time? Other distros do it.

There were some display issues on the laptop which I covered in the previous post but I was surprised how well most things worked, especially wifi. On the desktop all my hardware was recognised and works. Even the film scanner I have had to set up manually in the past. The graphics tablet works better than it has under any OS.

I like to personalise the desktop on my systems and here I found one of the weaknesses of Gnome. It is less intuitive to change colours etc than KDE. Once I got used to it though I was able to make some changes. I found editing the menus easier under Gnome. The desktop effects don’t work on the Thinkpad (no surprise there) but I use the cube on the Desktop.

I like single click having used it since it first appeared back in the days of Windows 98SE. I found it needed to be set in some programs, eg. Nautlius, although I had previously set it a system preference.

Installing additional software is a breeze, Synaptic is possibly the best tool currently available. I installed KDE and can switch between it and Gnome with ease. I also installed many other applications but that is a subject for a different day. The installation of the codecs needed to access some files, eg. MP3s, is handled well.

System updates are generally handled well. One update which included a new kernal reintroduced the display problems on the laptop and I had to redo the manual set up.

Localisation is an issue for many users and is for me. All systems default to US for English speaking countries and required some attention. During installation I was asked for my location and the time zone etc. was correctly set but I had to alter the language settings manually. There are Australian dictionaries and the local Ubuntu site covers this well. (As an aside Australian English is English UK with local place names etc. added).

I have had problems on the desktop with the USB sound card. Initially only Rhythmnbox would work but after searching various forums I got some system sound working but Firefox and other programs are still silent.

I will probably update to Gutsy Gibbon in the future but am no hurry to do it as I’m happy with the way it is running at the moment.

Overall though it has been a positive experience, Ubuntu is working well for me. It does nearly everything I need to do although I had to install several other programs to get to that point. They will be the subject of a future post.

New Life for Old Laptop

I’m writing this on my Thinkpad T20. Nothing unusual in that you may say and you would be right, sort of. This old machine hasn’t seen much use recently as it was showing its age. It has a P3 700 and used to run W98SE on 128meg Ram, all on a 12gig hard drive. It seemed its days of usefulness were over.

I had been considering replacing it but it doesn’t get a lot of use, mainly as a terminal for Internet use and occasional use in meetings etc. and it is in good condition. I couldn’t really justify the cost of a new machine. There is not much available under $800 to $1000 here in Australia. So what other choices did I have?

I found a dealer selling used ram, important as the new Ram was very expensive if you could find it. I had been quoted $220 from an interstate supplier. For $50 I had an extra 256m installed and tested.

The hard drive was the next to go. I was going to get 80 gig but on a dollar per gig basis 160 was much cheaper so I splashed out. My old machine now had almost as good specs as a machine selling for $1200 or more. All for an investment of under $200. All it needed was a modern OS.

I have been using Linux for a number of years on my desktop but the hassles of getting WiFi working on the laptop meant I hadn’t used it here. I have read reports of much better support now so decided it was time to give it another go.

I had a few different distros on disks laying around so I tried some. The older ones still had wireless problems and some of the newer ones had other hardware issues, the video card is a problem. The DVD drive is a bit fussy too, some disks that work fine on my desktop wouldn’t load on the laptop.

After a couple of experiments I installed Ubuntu 7.04 Feisty Fawn. WiFi worked with WPA (when I found the correct password) on my Netgear WPN511 card out of the box. But no sound and video was a problem.

With the Savage driver X refused to load. I set it to vesa and it worked but wouldn’t allow resolutions greater than 800×600 and 1024×768 is the native resolution of this screen. The screen looks terrible at the smaller resolution too, but that is probably the driver. I spent some time on Thinkwiki (a recommended site for Thinkpad users) and the Ubuntu forums trying many suggestions without success. A live CD is handy here, it allows editing of messed up files, I found it the easiest way of restoring the last working setup. Finally on the forums I found a way of editing xorg.conf that worked. Now I have 1024×768 on a good clear screen.

I wasn’t too worried about the sound as I often work with it turned off so as not to disturb others but a chance find on the forums mentioned a similar problem solved by pressing the volume keys next to the Thinkpad key. So simple I hadn’t tried it. I’m embarrassed to say it worked.

There have been other issues too. I spent some time trying work out why ACPI won’t load. Every time I rebooted I got a message that I needed to force it to load, which I had done. Then I realised it was loading. I still get the message but it seems to work. The battery life is not as good as it was previously but that will take some fine tuning. The battery icon works well as does the wireless one.

With memory of 384 meg, which is less than the recommended but more than the minimum for Feisty, I find some programs slow to load but work well once loaded. I wouldn’t try using too many programs at a time but I have had no problem so far.

This is the first time I have used Gnome. All my Linux experience has been with KDE. So far so good. Of course I could install KDE and thereby make my system Kubuntu if I want but at the moment it is fine.

The result is a usable laptop for a minimum of expense, around $A200 and an investment of several hours of my time. Would I recommend it to others? Not unless they are willing to invest the time to make it work but I am pleased with the outcome.

UPDATE. One small problem has come to light since I wrote this. As this is an old computer the bios doesn’t know about big drives. It doesn’t handle anything over 33 gig. However Linux overcomes this problem except in one area. Linux can’t do anything until it is running. Consequently the boot partition must be on the first 33 gigs. I tried adding another copy of Linux as a dual boot but as the new partition was added on the end it wouldn’t boot. Not a big problem but worth noting.