Would you like WiFi with that?

From March next year most McDonalds restaurants throughout Australia will be providing free wifi. Australian IT reports it will be “family friendly” as sites with pornography, terrorism etc. will be blocked. But at least that is better than the expensive options they offer now.

Of course the use of open wifi can be useful but many people don’t realise it can also be dangerous.

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.

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.