categories‎ > ‎articles‎ > ‎

Linux Matters - breathing new life into an old Tosh

posted 11 Oct 2009, 16:49 by Slippy Lane   [ updated 12 Oct 2009, 15:52 ]
First published in March 2008

Linux Matters


Giving new life to an old laptop

Well, I've successfully installed a linux distro onto an old toshiba laptop. Haven't got the first clue how to configure the machine for anything - even how to automatically load the "Enhanced Desktop" application or how to configure the keyboard.

I don't know whether this laptop has an IR port or not. If it does have one, then it doesn't work. Or I need drivers.

Speaking of drivers - I could do with some of those for the built in sound card too.

Why didn't I learn C instead of pascal? Why didn't I try getting to know linux years ago instead of letting Microsoft gradually move me further and further away from the understanding I used to have of how PC's work. Microsoft's long-term drive to remove users from the intricacies of computers, hardware and software is a bad thing. A real bad thing.

BTW, I started this laptop up on a fully charged battery with low cpu speed and everything in the BIOS configured to conserve power just over 15 minutes ago. After 5 minutes, the battery level was down to 30%. After another couple of minutes it went down to 6%, then a couple of minutes later it dropped to 3%. It's still at 3% now I've been powered up for 17 minutes.

Oddly, when T first got this laptop - an AMD K6-300MHz 64MB 8GB - for some unknown reason it was loaded with Windows XP Professional. Obviously, the poor thing just didn't have the power to be at all usable. Then it got dropped and stopped working.

This morning I managed to get it to power on again by stripping it down, giving everything a wiggle and screwing it all back together again. It would power up ok, but a third of the way through XP's startup, it would just stop and sit there looking stupid at me, so I wiped the bugger clean. There wasn't anything on it anyway - as previously stated, the thing was unusable. I started to install XP before realising that was probably the most pointless thing I could do.

So I dug out my box of CD-R's and started burning Live linux distro's. After much swearing, I finally got one working - Damn Small Linux v3.01. Had to run it from the CD in the Low RAM confiduration, then copy it to a partition on the HD using an app provided.

You know, I have tried installing linux on various machines before, but I've never managed to get it to install on anything. Anything at all. This is the first time I've ever managed it, and I'm actually quite chuffed. Like everything I've tried to do over the last few years, it's served to show me how little I actually know about a lot of stuff, but hey, there's nothing wrong with that. We all start out knowing nothing - it's up to us to figure out what we need to know and learn it!

Well, I've run it up to 26 minutes now, and the battery's still at 3%. I'm going to save this now, the close the lid and see how long she runs for.

* * *

10 minutes later, I couldn't resist. Lifted the lid, clicked the power button and whoosh - desktop back, document there on the screen, just where I left it. Funny, I've never managed to get windows to come back from standby so promptly - or reliably.

I'm starting to quite like this Linux stuff, and I think with a little patience, T will get to like it too.

Just wandered over to my PC and had a quick look on Froogle - found a company selling new batteries for this machine at just under 30 quid a pop. If I can figure the ins and outs of how this stuff works, and get a more configurable distro running on this machine, then it may be worth getting a new battery, and a wireless network card in it (not to mention a wireless router for my as-yet-unbuilt home network).

The negative side of this is - I can't strip this laptop down and use the bits to build a touchscreen controlled kitchen terminal. Still, that's a project for the future, and probably best built from scratch, going down the mini-itx route.

Another idea I have for my integrated home system is to use old computers as PLC's. A standard LPT printer port has eight output lines and five input lines which can easily be configured to accept input from 5 switches, and switch 5 relays. An old laptop or small form factor PC would be perfect for this. Run a DSL (or similar) distro from a memory card, read and write the LPT port directly.

Only difficult aspect is learning to code in a c-like language (unless I can get a pascal or basic compiler for linux) and coding an app to read and write the LPT port and communicate via the network, so that terminals on the network can read the state of the switches and control the relays.

As well as the 5 digital inputs and 8 digital outputs provided by the LPT ports, I'm sure I can also use the serial ports for analogue inputs and outputs (temp sensors, light sensors etc, motor control applications), and I know for a fact you can buy off the shelf USB motor controllers, digital and analogue I/O modules etc. Everything you need to turn an old computer into a PLC capable of running a home automation system.

(Still 3% battery after running for 48 minutes)

It'll be a long time before we have a home of our own to think about fitting a permanent integrated computer and automation system into, but if I can try out at least some of the ideas in a "hardware-hacking" style, then at least I'll have some idea what I'm doing when I come to do it properly.

I have visions of a home not with artificial intelligence, but with a transparent interface. One that is so natural to use, it requires no thought. The system will know who is where, and will be able to learn patterns of behavious so it can guess what their intentions are and "smooth the path".

This system will know, for example, that if it senses me getting out of bed at two in the morning when the rest of the house is in "sleep" mode, it should light my way to the bathroom with the settings down low. If however, it then senses that I am moving toward the kitchen, it will assume I want a drink and so light my way there, leaving the way to the bathroom lit, just in case. When it then senses that I am back in bed, it will dim all the lights to darkness. No input required. If I want to do something the house hasn't already considered, no problem.

Let's say I've gotten up at 2am for a reason. I have to pick someone up from the airport, for example, or I have a 9am meeting in Scotland. Well, chances are, I'll have entered an important thing like that in my diary (which is, of course, synchronised with the house systems) and the house will have been responsible for waking me up in plenty of time, but if I hadn't entered it in the diary, the house would assume one of the previous two scenarios. When, however, I get to the kitchen, and touch the light switch, giving a gentle increase in the brightness, the house knows that I am now "awake and active" and will respond appropriately as I move through the house. Of course, the house system will still be in night-time mode so lights, radios, tv's etc will all automatically come on at low brightness and volume levels. Of course, if I'm alone in the house, or all occupants are awake and active, any one of us has only to pick up our mobile, a remote control, a pda, or go to a terminal and switch the house into a different mode, depending on what we want to do.

Ideally, I'd like some kind of box that will interface between a whole bunch of I/O and the computer network without the need for a computer or PLC. That way, I can have dedicated systems in the control center for doing various jobs, all of which can read and write to all the various I/O devices in the house, simply by accessing the device's relevant IP address.

The control center I see thus - it is a small room. The first cabinet contains the power distribution systems (breakers, relays and terminals). All the power wiring in the house comes from here. Everything is wired point to point - no ring circuits, so that every device can be controlled. There are also I/O interfaces here so that everything can be switched from the network. The second cabinet contains all the network circuitry - patch bays, network switches, cablemodem, wireless hubs etc. All the network traffic comes through here. This is probably where I will also house most of the various computer systems, probably in a 19" rackmount configuration. The third cabinet will be the media panel. It will contain all the home theatre devices (PVR, cable, satellite, media servers, media control systems, stream servers etc.) this cabinet will allow any terminal or media device on the network to serve any kind of media to any suitable device on the network.

Of course, there will also be systems in place to allow access and control from outside, via the telephone, by text message, over the internet. The possibilities are endless. Got a new gadget to try? Plug it into the network and it becomes part of the house system. Going away? Set the house in "lockdown" mode - it'll power down all non-essential systems to conserve energy, deadbolt everything and let the police know if anyone tries to get in.

Well, I'm going to stop and shut everything down now. It's taken all day to get this laptop going, and I've been using it for an hour and a half on batteries. I'm tired, happy and full of visions of the future.

Now all I need is a lot of money and time, and a team of engineers!


It's after midnight. I couldn't stop playing with the bloody thing. Still, I've figured out how to get it to run the full enhanced desktop on startup, and I've created a shortcut to edit the config files (at least the ones I've discovered so far) all in one go. Tomorrow night's project? Figure out the boot configuration, so it'll boot straight into the desktop without user input. Still, it's definitely bedtime now...long day at work tomorrow.