It was a beautiful day in May two years ago when I stumbled upon a pile of old computer parts in a parking garage. It felt like it was Christmas again. I don’t mean adult Christmas, but child Christmas, when you could still feel the magic of the season and couldn’t fall asleep on Christmas Eve because of the excitement. Finding a random pile of free old computer paraphernalia is what my dreams are made of.
In this pile of discarded computer crap I found… mostly crap. One of the most significant findings was this Dell Inspiron 700m complete with case, power cord, and car adapter. In 2004 this Laptop could be bought new for some $1500, I picked it up for nothing because nobody wanted it after a decade plus. I enjoy these types of finds because the computer itself works just as well as it did in 2004 (with the exception of the battery which no longer holds a charge and I discarded). Had I found this laptop for free back when I was a Junior in high school it would have made me the happiest teenager in the world. I would have used this computer every day for hours, playing games, browsing the web, and talking to my friends on AIM. Now, all that has changed is myself and my perception on how useful this small laptop is. It’s not 2004 anymore and this laptop computer is barely usable.
The Inspiron 700m has an assortment of features, some of which are still usable today. It has a CD-RW with DVD-ROM, a wide screen 1280×800 LCD display, 2 usb ports, ethernet, dial-up, an SD-Card reader I couldn’t get working, VGA and display out, and an unusable cramped keyboard. I considered writing this up on the laptop, however decided against it because the keyboard is not easy to use if you’re coming from a full sized keyboard. The punctuation keys are especially bad and whenever I need to use one I have to stop typing, look down, and hunt and peck it like an amateur. For that reason alone I have no intention to directly use this computer at all, however it does work fine as Linux box I can remote into.
Originally this laptop came with Windows XP, however I wanted a more modern operating system so I was able to load it with a 32-bit version of the latest Lubuntu 18.04. This operating system actually runs just fine with most of the hardware working immediately after installation, however there are some tweaks you need to know about before installing Ubuntu, or any modern OS on this.
Because this machine uses a Pentium M it’s susceptible to a weird bug where the CPU doesn’t claim to support PAE even though it definitely does. Pretty much any newer operating system requires PAE so to make the installer happy you need to add “forcepae” to the boot options both before and after the double or triple “-“s. You’ll also have to set “acpi=off” in the Other Options you can reach by pressing F6. Turning off acpi means Ubuntu cannot shutdown or restart the machine on its own, you’ll have to press the power button yourself. Not disabling acpi causes the installation to hang immediately.
Lubunut, which is a variation of Ubuntu that works better on systems with limited resources, works just fine on this older PC, however you will notice significant slowdowns whenever using modern applications. The Firefox browser works okay but fills up the limited 1.25GB ram with one or two tabs open. Youtube videos play but the frame rate is choppy and it appears to fall out of sync. Music works great but the internal speakers sound distorted and tinny at anything higher than half volume. There is an internal WiFi adapter which can cannot to 2.4ghz networks at up to 54Mb. The display is probably the best part since it still looks vibrant and colorful. The panel is also widescreen which is surprising since at the time many displays were still using the old 4:3 standard.
It’s a shame that the keyboard is really bringing the whole thing down. I don’t want to get used to another keyboard layout just so I can use a 14 year old laptop for novelty’s sake. But with that said, it is a fine computer for remote Linux usage, and I have been using this for automated server work relating to some of my other sites so it still is useful, but only barely.
UPDATE: I find adding the following to the grub config in /etc/default/grub works well with compatibility.
GRUB_CMDLINE_LINUX=”forcepae pci=noacpi initrd=/install/initrd.gz”
UPDATE2: It seems the laptop randomly shuts down after a couple minutes of running so maybe it does belong in the trash after all.