My latest pet project

April 15, 2017 in #linux #windows #xp #gaming #blog #ubuntu #foss #laptop #wine #networking #Dell #nostalgia

In the image below you can see an early '00s Dell Latitude X200 laptop I bought on impulse from eBay. I decided to embark on this refurbishment project back in February 2017 when I spotted this YouTube video about running modern software on Windows 98.

Old laptop running GNU/Linux with external DVD drive

For a little background my first experience with computers started with the crappy beaten-up old Acorns my primary school used to maintain before supermarkets started handing out "Free Computers for Schools" vouchers.

But at secondary school I spent most lunchtimes in the computer room using desktops that ran Windows 2000 and (as of 2005 when they replaced them) Windows XP. I didn't have internet access at home until I was in my late teens, so this and issues of Personal Computer World was how I used to try out new ideas and learn about technology. (I chose not to take GCSE ICT, as the syllabus at the time seemed to cover how to use Microsoft Office and not much else!).

My nostalgia for Windows 95 and 98 mostly comes from using the ancient school library computers on those occasions when the computer room was full and tinkering with the second hand junkers my step-dad found for me to dismantle and put back together again when I was growing up.

As I mentioned in my last blog post I became a "Linux guy" in my late teens. But I still used Windows XP on college machines when I was studing for a BTEC National Diploma and I also enjoyed playing epic CounterStrike and Halo LAN battles on them.

So, it's fair to say that nostalgia is a key motivator for this project!

Upgrades

My first step was to swap out the 30GB PATA hard drive with a 120GB replacement. I opted for that size because it's the maximum amount of persistent storage space 32-bit Windows 2000 or XP supports for C:\ drive before you have to start create a separate D:\ partition.

The machine also comes with 128MB RAM onboard and an expansion slot that supports a maximum of 512MB. I've upgraded it as far as I can, giving me 640MB system memory to work with.

As the laptop's onboard wireless adapter only supports the wireless-b WiFi standard I've also picked up a cheap wireless-g expansion card so it can still connect to access points and take advantage of modern broadband speeds.

Netgear RangeMax Wireless PC Card WPN511

I noticed quickly that the laptop struggles to hold a charge, leaving battery life at a paltry 45 minutes. This is a common problem with old laptops, but I was genuinely surprised to find a Chinese manufacturer that still made modern reproduction batteries for this model at a viable price. It works a treat and the laptop now lasts around 4 or 5 hours between charges during normal operation.

Finally I was glad to see Dell opted to future-proof the X200 by dropping PS/2 ports in favour of USB, so my emergency "ye olde" peripherals weren't needed and I could make use of an old 1TB external HDD I still had knocking around to copy large downloads across.

Software

While I'd initially wanted the laptop to run Windows XP so I could play old games on it I (annoyingly) couldn't get it to contact Microsoft's activation servers, and the usual steps to bypass the check wouldn't work after the community-supported service pack 4 was installed.

I managed to upgrade the system BIOS and the firmware for a number of devices using Dell's downloadable tools, but when the system suddenly refused to let me login even in safe mode a week later because of the activation problem I gave up on that particular plan and decided to install Xubuntu 16.04 LTS instead.

Xubuntu desktop

Surprisingly it's actually worked very well and the installer recognised the hardware configuration straight out of the box. Hard drive encryption works fine and common packages like LibreOffice, Scribus, the GIMP, Inkscape, VLC and even some 2D games I tried ran without a hitch and were still usable and responsive while multitasking.

The only real limitation I've run into is with web browsers. The 933MHz Pentium III processor this particular unit comes with doesn't support SSE instructions, so the only way to surf the modern web is with NetSurf or a very old version of Firefox I installed through Winetricks.

Also, since installing GNU/Linux I can't get either the onboard WiFi chip or the Netgear WiFi expansion card to connect to any access points, so I've only been able to use ethernet for network connectivity. I suspect this is a driver or configuration issue, given grub refuses to even load if the expansion card is inserted when I power on the machine.

Next Steps

I need to fit a new CMOS battery to replace the old depleted one so it can continue to keep track of the current date and time instead of relying on the laptop battery or a network connection. It's arrived in the mail, so I just need to find time to do it.

I also need to fix whatever ails Xubuntu support for the laptop's WiFi hardware. I've already proved on Windows XP that both units work, so it's simply a question of figuring out what is incorrectly configured or which driver I need to install.

Finally, I plan to find out which of my old Windows games run comfortably on Wine or have rival open source clones. Playing them and tinkering with old software was after all the original intent behind buying this old laptop.

I'm hopeful I can fix these issues. In the worst case I guess the option of trying to install Windows XP again is still open. But given it's no longer supported by Microsoft and wide open to vulnerabilities I'd probably limit how often it's connected to any networks! That being said, kudos to GNU/Linux for coming to the rescue once again when Windows let me down.

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