Resuscitating old hardware with a Xubuntu transplant

Was at the in-laws over the Easter weekend and as usual I can’t sit still for very long. I usually do a round of maintenance on their computer but this time there was the old laptop which was still set up and used from time to time. This Amilo M series laptop was about 8 years old and hadn’t been reinstalled since it was delivered with Windows XP on it. It took me 20 minutes to boot it up before I could actually start an application. Time for an overhaul – the in-laws said fire away. This is what I had to work with:

  • 1GHz Celeron processor
  • 256MB memory¬†
  • ProSavageDDR K4M266 graphics card
  • 8, 16 or 32MB configurable shared graphics memory
  • 20GB hard-disk
  • CD-ROM

A D-Link DI-524 Wireless USB dongle provided network connectivity. Also, the monitor was broken and had been removed. Instead, an LG 1510S 15″ monitor was attached via the VGA port which was just fine.

A flavour of Linux was the obvious choice of OS for this type of old machine and I chose Ubuntu. Downloaded and burned an image and stuck it into the CD-ROM. Configured the BIOS to boot first from the CD-ROM and presto up comes the Ubuntu start menu. There is an option to try Ubuntu without installing which I did.

This is where I encounter the first and most serious problem with the installation: a hard lock when starting X-Windows. This threw me. I knew the machine was old but a hard lock and a black screen wasn’t much use when trying to analyse the problem.

I switched to the more lightweight Xubuntu to no avail. I even looked in the BIOS and discovered the shared memory setting and bumped up the value from 16MB to 32MB to see if it helped, which it didn’t. Eventually, a Google search led me to identify the problem as a bug in the video card: “S3 ProSavageDDR K4M266 hard locks on X init when DRI is enabled”.

I stuck with Xubuntu and got it installed and presto!, logged in for the first time. I hadn’t managed to get connected to the network via the USB dongle during the installation, but once in in the windows system it was just point and click and connection complete.

The second problem occurred after I allowed the Xubuntu Update Manager to install the latest updates. After a reboot, the machine started doing a lot of page-swapping and the entire windowing system moved like tar. Well, the machine was newly installed and didn’t have any load so the prime suspect was the windowing system itself. This time I reduced the shared memory to 8MB (the lowest setting). Bingo! the paging problem disappeared.

With the basic installation complete, the most common use of the computer will be for guests to

  • surf (Firefox)
  • make phone calls (Skype)
  • chat (Pidgin, Skype)
  • watch videos (Flash player)
  • play single-player online games (Flash player)
  • play music (Spotify)
  • write documents (OpenOffice)
  • printing (Windows Samba printer)

All this was a breeze to set up with the Xubuntu Software Sources and the Synaptic Package Manager tools. Spotify was only available as a Windows application but the Wine tool takes care of that completely transparently.

Each user can have their own account but since it is mainly for guests, I only created accounts for the system admins and a common “guest” account for everyone else.

And now it only takes one minute to boot this 8 year old computer that can do pretty much what most casual users want it to do.

Some gory details

When encountering problems with X like a black screen or hard lock, boot Xubuntu into a root shell. By default there is no /etc/X11/xorg.conf file when the system is first installed, but X can generate one that contains the settings it is actually using:

# X -configure

This is a big help. If the command runs successfully, then you also know that X is installed correctly.
The generated configuration file can be edited to adjust your settings.

# vi /root/xorg.conf.root

The changed settings can be passed to X during startup to test them:

# X -config /root/xorg.conf.root

If a black screen occurs then you can switch back to the shell by pressing Ctrl+Alt+Backspace. When you are satisfied with the new configuration move the file to its proper location:

# mv /root/xorg.conf.root /etc/X11/xorg.conf

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