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Hot Rodding Your Slightly Dated Laptop For Fun and Profit - page 2

Wrenching On A Laptop?

  • November 18, 2002
  • By Rob Reilly

Here are five tips to get you started on your way to notebook Nirvana.

  1. Get a laptop that allows at least 128 MB of memory. More definitely equals better. I have 256 MB and am extremely happy with the performance. Anything less than 64 MB is going to be just plain painful. The good news is... have you seen the price of PC100 laptop memory lately? You can get 128 MB DIMMS for $15 (via rebates) at consumer computer retailers. Super secret hint: check the retail office supply chains. Better get 'em while they're hot. You might want to pick up some extra memory for those other Linux desktop servers you have running around the shop, since it's so cheap. You'll need to do your homework to figure out what memory is compatible with your machine, of course.
  2. A friend of mine from the LUG recently was jumping for joy after he upgraded his 266-Mhz PII laptop from 64 MB to 128 Megs. In a typical LUG meeting, his machine encodes audio for broadcasting over the Web, runs the WindowMaker desktop anrd Mozilla, and has an installation going for some package that he is talking about during the meeting.

    My old PII 300-Mhz no-name clone would accept two 128 MB DIMMS. The maximum amount of memory you can use depends on your BIOS and the memory slots on your box, so that's something you will have to check. Put in as much as you can. I've estimated that going from 128 to 256 MB gave me at least a 50% increase in speed across the board. You will notice the difference.

  3. On a four-year-old laptop, the disk is now considered a classic. Go ahead and spend $100 on a 10-GB disk and be done with it! That old 2.1 or 4 GB relic of a drive doesn't have enough space anyway. My old drive started clicking and showing minor data errors in /var/log/messages. When I had to run fsck and recover data a few times, I knew it was time for a change. I've loaded KDE, GNOME, FVWM2, PostgreSQL, OpenOffice.org, Mozilla, Apache, SAMBA, some audio streaming stuff, plus all kinds of other tools and still have almost 4 GB of space left on my shiny new 10 Gigger. Life on a laptop is wonderful with lots of memory and a new disk.
  4. Next, pick your distribution. I ran Red Hat 6.0 (coexisting with Windows 98) a couple of years ago. Early in 2002, I upgraded to SuSE 7.3 Professional and am quite happy with their offering. At the time, SuSE seemed to bundle more applications than Red Hat 7.2 for roughly the same price, around $70. As for dual booting... huh, what's that?
  5. All of the late-model distros run the 2.4 kernel. The installation procedures have made giant leaps for ease of use, recently. I've seen lots of laptops that load the distros without a hitch.

    I've only had a couple of minor irritations with installations and applications. One was with the USB kernel modules. SuSE wanted to load the driver for OHCI type USB controller chip by default and mine was a UHCI type. Check for the "blacklist" file for the USB controller and change it to suit your situation.

    The other problem, again with USB, was that my equally old USB web cam (it cost me about $170 four years ago) loaded its driver and then would promptly lock up the laptop. The only way to recover it was to power-off the beast and reboot. The same camera seemed to work OK with Xawtv on my (new) 700-Mhz PIII desktop, but had the wrong video format for use with Gnomemeeting. Kind of defeats the purpose of a web cam on a laptop. Oh well, maybe I can sell the camera, as an antique on eBay in a few years.

  6. Should you care if your machine crashes? Heck no, why worry? I partitioned my cool new drive with a journaling file system. There are several to choose from and since SuSE defaults to ReiserFS, that's the one I've used. I can't tell you how much time and uncertainty this has saved me. With a new disk and a journaling FS you are just about guaranteed to have no disk related problems.

    That's not to say that once in a blue moon there may be an exception. The machine is on all the time when I'm at home, like any good Linux system should be and I've not had so much as a hiccup. Occasionally, I've brought the machine home after working at a client site and started it up without the power plugged in. Then in the middle of the night, the battery would run down and the machine would simply power off. Next morning, I would just plugged in the power, hit the "on" button and within about a minute and a half am back up and running. No fuss, no waiting for FSCK to finish and no data loss.

  7. Try to get two batteries when you acquire your laptop. Let's face it, four-year-old battery technology leaves something to be desired, even though they probably are lithium-ion. When I ran Red Hat 6.0 two years ago, a full charge was worth almost two hours. Now, with the bigger drive, more memory and more stuff going on with SuSE on the box, battery life is about 1.5 hours.

    Hey, that's OK. Power down, put in the other battery, and go for another hour and a half. Shoot, I bet if you booted up only in the command line and just edited some documents with VI you could stretch it out to 2.5 hours. You sure can't do that on one of these machines with Windows 2000. Also, laptops are made to be portable. Just plan your work accordingly and keep an eye on the power meter bar.

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