This Old Machine

I’m still looking for the perfect portable computer.

When I’m traveling on business, I’m like most “road warriors” – I have a full featured powerful laptop that can handle not just the basic Email/web stuff, but development work, run virtual machines, etc.

But sometimes I travel for fun, even take a short vacation now and then. And on a vacation, a developer laptop is like a sailing with your anchor dragging behind you. You’re constantly worried about it getting lost or stolen, or breaking. That’s not much fun.

My needs for a casual laptop are different. It has to run Windows and be full featured, but doesn’t have to be fast – I won’t be doing any serious development work on it. It has to be light, maybe a few pounds. Oh, and it has to be cheap – so if I lose it or it breaks or is stolen, it’s no great loss.

There are some very nice ultra-portables out there, and more coming, but they aren’t cheap. In planning for this summer, rather than shopping for something new, I decided to explore another alternative. I have a Thinkpad 240 lying around that I hadn’t used in a while. Could it be brought up to date?

So for those of you who are interested in a nostalgic trip into ancient (2000) technology, or picking up one yourself ($75-$125 on Ebay), read on…

This Ol’ OS

Like most machines, this one has accumulated a lot of crud. So I knew I wanted to start with a clean OS install. And at this point Windows 98 is out of the question for security reasons. Even Windows 2000 (that I had installed previously) is borderline. So I was looking at XP. Fortunately, this laptop was just new enough so that IBM had updated the BIOS to support XP. So step one was to install the bios upgrade (that’s one of the nice things about IBM/Lenovo – they keep old support files and info up forever).

I had an old 40GB laptop drive to drop in the machine (easy to do with all Thinkpads), but how to get XP on it – given the machine doesn’t have a CD Rom drive? The PCMCIA drive bay that holds the CD doesn’t help – you can’t boot to PCMCIA.

Fortunately, XP can still support a traditional DOS install. So first I copied an XP image to a FAT32 partition on the hard drive (using an external adapter on another machine). Then I booted to a DOS floppy (created on another XP system), and did the DOS install. It took a while, and the partition organization is odd (system drive is D), but it worked perfectly.

Peripheral Vision

The Thinkpad 240 has a single PCMCIA slot and a single USB 1.1 slot. Worse, it has no built in network or wireless (modem is standard though:-) ), so it’s pretty limited. Time to go shopping…

Fortunately, I live near a Fry’s Electronics. Like most electronic/computer stores they have a wide selection of PCMCIA cards and USB devices. Unlike most stores, they have the bottom shelf.

What’s the bottom shelf? That’s where you’ll find the super-discounted no-name brand manual-written-in -something-that’s-almost-English of whatever it is you’re looking for. $40 later I was home with a high speed wireless USB stick, USB 2.0 PCMCIA card, 10/100MB USB adapter and a 27 in 1 memory card reader (it is vacation, and there are all those digital photos to store).

Getting the drivers on the machine was easy. A USB thumb drive let me copy the contents of the various driver CD’s to the system using the standard USB port. Once the USB 2.0 card was working, I could plug in a USB DVD drive I already had available, and I could install additional software. All of the other devices came right up and worked perfectly. All that remained was to leave the machine running overnight installing software from Windows Update.

Memory

A 300Mhz Celeron running XP… this really is just fast enough for the basics: Email, the web, Word – one application at a time. But a 300Mhz Celeron with 192MB? On some things it just died…

The problem is, 192MB is the maximum officially supported on this machine. Fortunately, we now have Google, and it turns out I’m far from the first person to want to upgrade this machine. I discovered that you can get 325MB on it (replace the 128MB memory card with 256 – you can’t change the built-in 64MB chip). But not just any memory will work – you need an older style that has 8 chips on each side of the card (or so say the people on the forum I found). That brought me to EBay, where for under $50 I found exactly the memory that was known to work.

Mission Accomplished

The extra memory made all the difference. The machine is still slow, but it runs everything (even Visual Studio 2005) and is stable. It’s clean – no personal information to worry about if it vanishes. And total cost was under $100 (I know, I’m not counting my time, but who really does when dealing with this kind of technical challenge)?

Meanwhile, it’s small, it’s light, and the various peripherals add hardly anything to the travel weight. It should work out well.

If you decide to give it a shot, remember that the 240 came in a number of different models – some of which have only 64MB. If you get that one, you’ll definitely need to upgrade the memory. Good luck!

4 Responses to “This Old Machine”

  1. Demetrio Says:

    Hi Dan,

    I always find this sort of thing a little tricky to work out whether you’ve actually saved money at the end of the day.

    I know when I tried setting up an old pc as a test machine, it took so long that, if you calculated the lost earnings in consulting time, I could have purchased a brand new top of the line pc and got a tax deduction to boot. In my case, the cost of setting up the old pc was more expensive than buying a new one already configured with an OS.

    In your case, you may have got the thing together in a snap, but you’ve still got to weigh the cost of the whole exercise (including the time spent at the computer shop) compared with the cost you would have incurred insuring your main laptop against it being lost, stolen or broken on holidays (as long as all the data is backed up before you go away).

    The other thing to consider is the enjoyment (or pain in my case) of setting the whole thing up – as the Master card marketing says ‘priceless’ for those things you enjoy doing regardless of the cost.

    Cheers,

    Demetrio

  2. Dan Says:

    All good points.
    The deciding factor in this case was actually size. While prices of the sub-notebooks has been dropping, they are still very high. And this machine (the 240) is a very small (10.4″ screen, weights just a few pounds) which makes it uniquely ideal for travel.
    Much of the time doing the installs was actually PC time – I was busy doing other things while the machine loaded software. Was it the right economic choice? Hard to say – but it was an interesting exercise – perhaps even priceless…

  3. Neil Barnwell Says:

    This has got me thinking. We’re still in a position these days where there’s a gap in the market for something between a notebook and a PDA. For taking my notebook on trips my main consideration would be size and weight, plus it’s ability to back up photos from my camera, and allow me access to the internet. More than that is unnecessary. I currently have a Dell Inspiron, but it’s a tad lardy so the 2nd hand option is food for thought. Thanks for the article.

  4. Steve Nelson Says:

    Hi Dan! I was just wondering what you were up to these days, so a did a Google and got this (old) post.

    I saw in Popular Mechanics (Dec. 08) Philips has come out wth a mini projector and there was a comment that perhaps phones in the future will have them built in, just like cameras now. Moving forward from there, you might have your PC in your phone, set it down, project your PC on the wall, and the main thing you have to carry with you is a cheap bluetooth keyboard and mouse.

    Might be a ways out, though… : )

    I became an instant fan of yours after getting the Win32 API book a few years ago, as much for your writing/character as for the excellent content.

    -Steve

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