Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Race to the Bottom - Installing Ubuntu on the ThinkPad 760XD

The ThinkPad 760XD is a marvelous laptop. When it was devised, it was the flagship of IBM's ThinkPad 700 line. Large screen, solid construction. Typical IBM thinking went into it. One of the most unusual features is a keyboard that tilts up when the laptop is opened. By pushing the latch releases forward, you can lift up the keyboard and have access to the internals, so swapping things like the hard drive and battery are a relatively easy. Apple has aesthetics, IBM ease of maintenance.
This unit has an interesting history. It was part of a batch of government surplus, and found its way to the local thrift store. The operating system it came with was a very stripped down Windows 98, so stripped down, in fact, as to be inefficient.
There is also a very strong possibility that this ThinkPad is an ex-NASA unit, based upon the licensing of the original Windows 98 software.
Sadly, we will never be able to confirm that; the Windows install went buggy (go figure).
This brought up a few possibilities. I own a Windows NT install, but it would not look very good on the ThinkPad. Jamie and I also have some Windows 98 disks, but I really didn't want to go there again. So, instead, I decided to try something very daring; a stripped down Ubuntu install, complete with X Windows.
First, let me state that this is not something that the faint of heart or the impatient should try. It will take a long time to do the actual install, and then some basic linux skills to fine-tune it.
I have had some success with minimal Ubuntu installs before, though. While a regular Ubuntu install requires, at a bare minimum, 256mb RAM, I managed to get one custom install, Ubuntu 6.06 Dapper Drake with IceWM, down to 48mb RAM on a 233mHz Compaq laptop.
When I began to play with Ubuntu on older machines, I discovered a number of great resources. The first was the Ubuntu Minimal RAM How-To page at Bino na Biso.
Finally, for inspiration, there is K Mandla's site, "Motho ke Motho ka Botho".
Aside from K Mandla's experiments, this machine is even lower spec than ones the previous two sites dealt with. In a sense, this was unreasonable; this was a race to the bottom.
The 760XD has more RAM than the Compaq did at the beginning, 64mb, but not only a slower processor (Intel Pentium MMX, 166 mHz) but also it cannot boot from CD. Suffice it to say, a little cleverness would be needed.
The first step was to find a boot disk. I chose the Smart Boot Manager floppy. It was a little deceptive when put into use; initially, it reports an error when trying to boot from the CD. Press enter again (and again, if necessary), and it will boot.
But what OS should we use? With a machine of this age, it would be tempting to install something like DSL or Puppy Linux. Both are fine operating systems, but I desired something a little different. Tiny Core Linux was another possibility, but had issues of its own.
No, I wanted Ubuntu again.
Once more, I chose the Ubuntu 6.06 minimal install disk. Prior to actually performing the installation, I inserted my wireless card, in this case an Enterasys RoamAbout. Now I began the installation; boot Smart Boot Manager, select CD (hit enter twice, ignore the error). Load Ubuntu start screen.
At the prompt, go for a "server" install. Automatically, it senses that there is not a lot of RAM here. There are a few things it wants to know; what language, what keyboard, etc. Then, it prompts for the partition.
I should mention that it was at this stage that one of my latest minimal install distros failed; for some reason, 9.10 has a problem with finding the hard disk. 6.06 did not, and actually seems to work better with older equipment (if anybody from Canonical is reading this, please keep this in mind).
Now the real installation begins, and is going to take a long time; around 2 hours. It might appear to stall at around thirty minutes; it hasn't. It was at this point that I literally nodded of (it was very late when I began) only to awake over thirty minutes later to discover that the install was continuing. Eventually, you end up with a usable command line Ubuntu.
Following the instructions at Bino na Biso, I went in as super user or root...
sudo su
and uncommented the source file for Aptitude using vi -
vi /etc/apt/sources.list
For the novice, once changes are made, the command to write the changes and exit is ":wq" (don't use the quotation marks).
Run apt-get update, and we're ready.
Piece of cake... right?
Not quite. But, it would be going much faster now. While the initial install took over two hours, this would take around thirty minutes.
To get the applications and environment I wanted, I used the following verbose command-
apt-get install xorg icewm XDM xterm abiword DFM kazahakase
This would give us X Windows, the IceWM desktop manager, the XDM display manager (all of which are really needed to make the desktop usable). You'll need XTerm to launch the applications in this very simple environment. AbiWord is a nice lightweight word processor. DFM is a file manager.
Most important there is Kazehakase, the web browser. More on that in a bit.
Once these were installed (took around thirty minutes), I launched X Windows for the first time...
...and was greeted to an off-center screen that was pinched. What went wrong?
Well, it has to do with the video card. The ThinkPad 760XD uses a Trident video card. Normally, the Trident driver found in Xorg has no problems with this. However, as it turns out, there are issues with older versions. In this case, a couple of lines in the xorg.conf file needed to be changed. Again, we'll use vi. Make sure that you're logged in as super user (just sudo should be fine) and use the following command -
vi /etc/X11/xorg.conf
There were two things that I wanted to modify under the monitor and screen sections, the vertical refresh rate and the color depth. The default value range for the vertical refresh is 43-60. I bumped the upper value; 43-75. Moving down to the screen section, the default color depth was 24; I dropped it to 16 (this probably wasn't necessary, but I wanted to eliminate any problems).
Save file, reboot.
This time, it booted to the XDM login screen. Once my username and password were entered, it took me to a full 1024x768 resolution screen. You can use XTerm (you'll see it in the menu bar or by right clicking on the blank desktop) to open applications, just by typing in their names. DFM makes this a little easier if you desire, just open it the same way.
Back to Kazehakase. This lightweight branch off of the Mozilla tree is very light and spry. However, right out of the box, the version that Dapper uses is a bit out of date and needs one last file to run. I discovered this by trying to log in to Google. You'll need a personal security manager. The one that works for Kazehakase is, of course, Mozilla's. You can now do this from XTerm in the comfort of X Windows. Go to root (sudo) and apt-get install mozilla-psm.
In the end, what I ended up with was a computer that is a bit slow (but still faster than my clamshell iBook running OS X 10.2.8) that is able to access the Internet and can do light chores. To say the least, I'm pleased. There are real possibilities here in this race to the bottom; stay tuned.
And we shall dub it "Wushi-Buntu..."
(I want to thank the people who really pioneered the ideas here and gave me the necessary notions. I may not know you personally, but to Ingo, K Mandla and PsychoCat, many thanks for the inspiration and information).

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