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An Old Laptop Made New

I’m going to walk you through the process I followed to update an old laptop into a useful computer. My thinking is that if I could do this, so could anyone else, especially educators in poorer school districts or even homeschoolers.

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IBM ThinkPad T40

A friend of mine gave me an old IBM ThinkPad T40 (shown at right). It has an ebay value of around $40 (U.S.). It was built for Microsoft Windows XP and worked decently, save for the outdated software and hardware and the fact that the onbooard wifi didn’t work. I decided to make it into something a little more useful for today’s computing.

Here are some specs:

  • Intel Celeron M processor at 1.5 GHz
  • 512 MB SO-DIMM SDRAM
  • 80 GB ATA Hard Drive
  • BIOS Date: 2006-06-02
  • 6x DVD-ROM
  • 2 USB ports
  • 1 video out port
  • 2 Sound Ports (1 in, 1 out)
  • On-board modem, NIC and wifi
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The panel covering the RAM module.

As I saw it, the best and easiest course of action was to upgrade the RAM. This can arguably be said to be the most approachable upgrade for any laptop or desktop PC as it’s a fairly easy procedure and a fairly inexpensive one as well. I bought my 200-pin SO-DIMM SDRAM replacement module on Amazon, but there are many other places online where this can be procured. For those of you thinking “Chris, I’m not a computer repair technician. It’s too complex. I can’t do this,” I say “Yes, you can.” Internally computers are compartmentalized and therefore easy to work on, so long as you’re careful about electricity. Laptops are no exception. If you turn the laptop over, you will see various panels held in place with Phillips screws. The screenshot at left indicates the panel we need to open.

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T40 RAM module

Once you have removed the panel (after taking out the screw, I had to use a small knife to lift the plate up), you will see the RAM module. You will notice two clips, one on the right of the module and one on the left (if you look at the screenshot on the right, you can see that the right clip is just to the left of the screw hole). These are simply pulled out away from the RAM module. The module will pop up and can then be slid out. Make a note of its positioning to make sliding the new RAM into place easier. For my RAM update, I chose a module offering 1.2 GB of RAM, which is a tremendous upgrade as well as being the maximum supported RAM for this system. Slide the new RAM module into place, push down on it until it lies flat in its cavity and the clips will lock it down. Put the plate back on and we’re ready for the next step.

I chose to install Xubuntu Linux 12.04 LTS (Long-Term Support) 64-bit as Xubuntu 14.04 LTS presented a warning during installation stating that Celeron M processors do not support PAE (Physical Address Extension). If you have the time and the interest, I have provided a link below to an article on working around this problem. In either case, I have provided a link to Xubuntu’s download page. Once you have downloaded the ISO file, you’ll need to burn it to a DVD as an image then place the disc in the DVD-ROM drive. You’ll also need to enter the T40’s BIOS and set the DVD-ROM as the primary boot device. To enter the BIOS, you’ll need to press the Access IBM key (located in the upper left corner above the keyboard) when you first turn the laptop on and choose Start setup utility from the menu. When done, save your settings and restart the computer. Installation will begin on reboot.

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IBM ThinkPad T40 running Xubuntu Linux

The reason I chose to install Xubuntu is that it is lighter than Ubuntu in terms of hardware demands, which makes it an ideal OS for older computers. You will be guided through the installation process. When it is completed, you will be prompted to remove the disc and restart the computer. When it restarts, enter the BIOS and restore the default boot settings.  Save your settings, reboot and when the computer finishes booting, you can log in using the account created during installation. If all goes as it should, you should be greeted with a desktop like the one shown in the screenshot at left..

Regarding the on-board wifi, you will find many discussions online about this topic. Rather than try to resolve it, I went on to Amazon and purchased a Panda Mini Wifi 150 Mbs Wireless-N 24 GHz USB Adapter. It plugs right into one of the USB ports and starts working immediately. It provides a reliable connection and after a year and a half, I still have no complaints. You may want to install additional software, depending on your needs, but other than that, you now have a perfectly good computer for education, Web surfing, productivity, gaming or whatever your needs may be.

Resources

Xubuntu Linux Download Page

Lubuntu Fake PAE -Community Help Wiki

Live Linux Distro using Window Maker

Whether regular readers of this blog are aware of the fact or not, one of my favorite window managers is Window Maker. For those unfamiliar with Window Maker, it is a window manager for the X Window System used on UNIX-based operating systems, like Linux. Window Maker is based on the now defunct NeXTSTEP operating system, which employed an application dock. NeXTSTEP was the model for Apple’s MacOS user interface. So, when I found out about Window Maker Live, a live (runs from CD/DVD or flash drive) Debian Linux distribution that employs Window Maker as its graphical interface, I felt compelled to write a blog about it.

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Window Maker Live in action

Why do I like Window Maker so much? First of all, it employs its own configuration tool, WPrefs, which allows users to graphically modify Window Maker’s appearance and settings. Most window managers require users to manually edit a configuration file in a text editor, which can be tedious to non-programmers, so this is a real treat. Another reason that I like Window Maker is that it’s fairly easy to use. Even the default menu, unmodified by user or operating system, provides easy access to commonly used programs. It also makes it easy to track running programs and to add them to the application dock. Window Maker also offers a great number of dockapps (see below). Finally, and perhaps most superficially, I think Window Maker looks cool. This is mostly due to its rather non-traditional interface (no task bar, no main menu button, no desktop icons, etc.).

First of all, upon boot, your are promtped to provide a user name. This is a great personalization feature that is seldom found in Live distributions of Linux. (Note: I used GIMP for my screenshots and therefore am unable to provide an image of this screen.) One of the options on the logout menu is to lock the session. I assume that this feature would work in such a way that someone seeking to access a locked session other than the user who is signed on, would have to provide the correct name to unlock the window manager.

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Window Maker Live Welcome Message

Looking at the screenshot to the left, we can see the start up screen (note that GIMP does not automatically run on start up. As stated above, I used GIMP for screenshots, so the icons in the lower left corner represent various GIMP windows that are minimized. The tile with the speech bubble represents the welcome message). As can be seen, the Window Maker application dock is on the right-hand side of the screen. Above this is the Clip for switching between multiple workspaces (though only one is provided by default).

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Integrated help is readily available.

A quick guided tour starting on the right shows the Clip in the upper right-hand corner. Just to the left of this is the Window Maker Live Installation button. Below the Clip is the application dock. The first button on the application dock is the Window Maker Info button, which opens a window providing information about Window Maker and the system upon which it’s running. Below this is the first of the dockapps (see below), wmtime, which is running in digital mode. The tile below this is a dockapp entitled wmbutton. Wmbuttom allows users to launch programs and system configuration tools with one click, just as they would with quick launch buttons on a panel in a desktop environment, like KDE or XFCE.

The next dockapp is wmudmount, which provides a quick way to manage mounted file systems. The next two dock tiles are docked applications that provide a quick way to launch Mozilla Thunderbird email client and Mozilla Firefox Web browser respectively. Below these are two tiles to launcn terminal emulators. The first opens a terminal as a regular user. The tile with the little devil (known as “Little Daemon” (a daemon is a program that runs in the background in UNIX or Linux)) opens a terminal emulator with administrative or root privileges. The tiles in the lower left-hand corner represent currently running programs.

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All of these dockapps to choose from!

Regarding dockapps, this leads me to address another neat feature of Window Maker. Desktop environments provide apps for panels to enhance functionality and to provide users with desired information such as the time or CPU activity. The capacity exists through dockapps to add this functionality to your Window Maker session. The screenshot on the right shows a menu list of dockapps available in Window Maker Live. However,there are many others available that are not listed there. In addition to the two dockapps mentioned above, there are dock apps such as wmweather and wmmoonclock that can provide information about the world around us. Other dockapps provide access to system information and configuration, such as wmmixer, a sound mixer, or wmtemp, which displays CPU temperature. Dockapps provide a convenient way to customize your Window Maker experience.

Finally, I want to add that as Window Maker Live uses a window manager in lieu of a desktop environment, it will run just fine on older computers. Give it a try. It won’t harm your computer and you may just find yourself a new operating system.

Resources
Window Maker Live Web Site

References
Kojima, A.D. and Pascu, D. (2006). Window Maker [software]. (n.d.). GNU General Public License.

Window Maker: Dockapps. Retrieved from http://windowmaker.org/dockapps/

Window Maker Live [software].(n.d.). GNU General Public License.