Dan Appleman: Kibitzing and Commentary

My personal blog

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.
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!