How I brought my 15 year laptop back to life!

15 year old laptop still working

I am currently working on this post on this very laptop! It’s a Compaq Presario v2000. I bought it in 2006, but it was released around 2004. In addition to that, before I started writing this post, I updated all my WordPress plugins, themes and language packages using this very laptop!

Why?

How did this all began? One day, my son who’s 4 years old got interested in all the gadgets that I had (I have a lot!). After he saw all my old flip phones, palm based PDA’s and gaming consoles, he saw this laptop. Combined with his facilitation of CDs and DVDs, he wanted to bring it back to life, only to be able to open the CD drive and put a CD in.

I already knew the thing would indeed turn on, which id did. We could put a CD or a DVD in, but nothing more. Before anything, he declared that this computer was his and that he wanted to do stuff on it! It couldn’t do much as it was and this is how how my quest to make it into a functioning machine began.

Attempt 1 – Almost there but failed!

The laptop had a DVD drive and I had Windows 7 install DVD handy! Through various Microsoft programs related to universities and startups, I have quite a few free, legal, copies of Windows I can employ. I put the DVD in and lo and behold, it booted into setup, ready to install!

Windows 7 got installed! It booted up and luckily, it got all the drivers. Plan was to use the Windows Classic theme with minimal services and see how it went. I finished the setup, re-started the machine.

It was crazy, even on Windows Classic mode, with nothing installed, Windows 7 consumed almost all of the 1.2 GB of RAM I had. Everything worked, but the system was unusable! This didn’t feel right. Yes, the system was over 15 years old, but what the hell was it doing with nothing else installed and no user app running!

I loved the fact that all devices drivers were installed and everything worked, but this would not please a 4 year old, who had iPads and iPhones at his disposal, with not a lot of patience.

Attempt 2 – Going back to the roots, which were too lost!

When I got the machine, it came with Windows XP Professional. One of the claim to fame of this laptop was that it was one of the first laptops to have the AMD chip with a 64-Bit processor. Windows XP had a version for that and luckily, I had a DVD with a legal install of Windows XP Professional with 64-Bit courtesy of my time at Cornell University. I popped it in, install worked perfectly and I got booted into a fresh install of Windows XP x64.

Resource usage was good, system was responsive, which was excellent, but nothing worked! Unlike Windows 7, it had none of the drivers. Display felt like an 8-Bit display, sound didn’t work, and more importantly, neither did the WiFi! I used a USB driver to copy over a network driver. However, I had a really tough time trying to install Windows XP Service Pack 3. It would be suicidal to go online without it. Microsoft officially doesn’t support Windows XP anymore, hence, it was becoming impossible to have a safe and secure system to work with. Previously, you would install Windows XP and let Windows Update to take care of everything within an hour. Not in this case, since noting about the Windows Update worked.

Not a good position to leave a 4 year old in!

Attempt 3 – Third time is a charm!

Linux! The savior! I had install media on DVD lying around for Lubuntu 18.04 LTS on DVD. Popped it in and it installed without a glitch. Everything worked except the WiFi.

A little history lesson. The earliest Wifi chip’s signal processing was hardware based. All DSP processing of the signals was done on the hardware inside the chip and the OS simply communicated with the hardware and got the job done. As processors became powerful, you could incorporate all the DSP into the device driver. Hence, most of the time, you needed a proprietary driver. It was never an issue with Windows, since the manufacturer always provided Windows drivers on their support site.

With Linux, this was a problem. Nonetheless, with the brilliance of open source developers, you could still extract DSP code from proprietary driver and still use it in Linux. I have oversimplified the process a bit, but it took almost 2 days of tinkering with help files and instructions to get the WiFi to work. I had a Broadom B4318 chip. The primary reference was this website for Ubuntu. All I can say is, I’m glad the USB driver still worked and that I had a 8GB USB thumb drive handy. I dowloaded all the files on another computer and copied them over to make it all work!

Performance of the system running idle
System performance on idle

By default, the systems uses 224M / 1.08GB ram. This is great! A modern OS, which can run modern stuff, but only using 224M on idle. Let’s see what happen when we fire up Firefox.

Performance of the system running youtube in a browser.

With Firefox running with Youtube, 592M / 1.08GB ram. This mean that you can continue to use the browser easily with like 2 tabs on, but you probably don’t wanna run anything along side this.

Conclusion

I’d have to say, this was a fun project! I’ve installed a couple of educational software packages for my son. They’re pretty light weight and he’s been having a lot of fun. There are quite a few basic games out there as well!

Overall, you’ll have to be a bit patience with bootup, shut down and wake from sleep times. Launching things take their time depending on heavy something it. E.g. opening the browser takes some time but, running something like python is a breeze.

It will also serve (pun intended) you well to run a web, FTP or file server. One trick is to tweak the power settings to switch the screen off upon closing the lid but let the system keep on running. This was, you can run all your server’s, close the lid and simply slide it into your book shelf!

It will also probably do a decent job as a development machine, as long as you don’t use an Electron based editor like VSCode or Atom. You also probably want to avoid Java based IDEs like Eclipse. The actual interpreters like python or node run fine, and builders for C/C++ or Go work perfectly fine too.

Outside of that, it’s pretty frustrating to use it as your primary device. I usually have and editor running, a browser with like 20 tabs, slack & Spotify. It will be pretty useless to try to do that on this machine. This I guess is expected from a 15 year old machine!