Friday, 5 October 2007

Linux on HP OmniBook XE2

(last updated 07/10/2007)

Sometimes working in IT does have its benefits. Take today for example. We´ve been clearing out some of our old hardware, and amongst the 80486, Pentium I and Pentium IIs was a small stack of old laptops. Most of them were digital doorstops, but there was a stack of three HP OmniBook XE2s. All three of them had problems - but thankfully not the same problem, so I was able to swap things around a bit and come out with a working (if low-spec) laptop.

The spec of the rescued laptop is a Celeron 433, 160 meg RAM, 40GB hard drive, 800x600 resolution display. Although the laptop doesn´t have any in-built network ports I do have an old wireless card that I´ve wanted to try.

I wanted to test the laptop out with Linux, but the only distro I had to hand was an old beta version of Freespire, but what the Hell, at least I could use it as a quick test even if I was going to replace it with Ubuntu later on.

The install was straight forward, taking around half an hour. I accepted the defaults and took over the entire hard drive. Everything (including the sound card) was detected OK. So far, so good.

Now here is a good thing. Freespire auto detected my wireless card and it works fine with my home network. In fact, I´m posting this from the Laptop.

I´m probably going to install something a bit more lightweight on this (probably Slackware), but I´ve got to admit that I am impressed with how easily everything was installed, and how little configuration was required.

I´m going to play around a bit more with this - who knows, I might even keep Freespire on for a few days.

. . . .

Update #1 - 6/10/2007

Or maybe not. One problem with Freespire is that it is dog slow on older hardware. This is a shame - as overall the distro seemed rather nice. Click'n'Run works well for installing additional software and updates, but the laptop just seemed to be running slower than my old Pentium MMX 233 laptop. I'm not too sure if this was entirely Freespires fault, as I was running on battery power so it may have stepped down the CPU speed. One good positive is that at least I know that my wireless card will work with Linux.

I did give Ubuntu Gutsy a try but couldn't get it to boot into the live CD. This is strange as Freespire is based on Ubuntu and it worked fine. I'll maybe give Ubuntu another try at a later date and see if I can figure out what is going wrong.

So instead I'm re-installing the laptop with Zenwalk, a Slackware derived distro. I've always fancied giving something like Zenwalk a shot and I'm certainly curious as to how it will compare with something more "modern" like Freespire, Ubuntu or Mandriva.

Ths Zenwalk installer is very similar to the traditional Slackware one in that it is text based. One important difference is that you don't choose the packages that need to be installed, this is a single CD with everything you need on it. I'm installing using the default options, so this will be taking over the entire hard drive and configuring the partitions itself.

The Zenwalk install took around 40 minute and takes up a similar amount of space to Freespire. One notable difference is that whilst Freespire creates one large partition, Zenwalk gives us separate Root, Home and Swap partitions. I've got to admit this is a much better way of laying out the disk, as at least if you need to re-install at some point then your home directory and files will be safe.

After the main install has finished, there are a couple of options to configure for things like the Admin password, adding a new user and so on, then you reboot, the sound card is detected and on you go.

Or not, as the case may be. Zenwalk uses a very minimalist desktop enviroment (XFCE) - too minimalist for my liking. Also although it detected the wireless card (whoo!), it doesn't work (boo!). It took a while to track down the problem - which turns out to be the firmware for the card (an Atmel based one) isn't included. Once I'd tracked down the firmware and copied the .BIN files into /lib/firmware, one reboot later and everything was working great.

Not a difficult thing to do once you know about it, but not really that well documented. Yes, there were warnings (available via dmesg) but how many novices are going to check there?

Oh well, at least it does work. Zenwalk certainly feels faster than Freespire, it also boots up a lot faster (around half the time that Freespire took). Right - time to play around with it a bit more.

. . . .

Update 2 - 7/10/2007

Well, Zenwalk works OK, MP3 and MPEG playback worked out of the box, USB devices are automounted, everything pretty much works as expected.

One issue I have found is with the Zenwalk tools. If you are running in 800x600 then you can't use all of the tools. This is especially true of the update tool - which although you can view the software, and add it to the list to install, the install button is hidden - presumably somewhere off the bottom of the screen.

I'm going to install KDE from the Zenwalk repositories and see how that works, as I'm still not sure about XFCE.

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