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Old 12-01-2005, 07:48 PM   #1
Registered: Dec 2004
Location: Central New York
Distribution: Debian
Posts: 218

Rep: Reputation: 30
Debian Sarge On An Old Laptop

aka Making Due With What You've Got

Hopefully this anecdote will be helpful to someone...

The laptop I have is an old Dell Latitude CP M233XT, circa 1997. Its got a Pentium II MMX 233 MHz processor, 128 meg ram, and the original 3G drive is now a 4.1G hard drive swapped out from a dead HP Omnibook 4100. Originally, it ran Microsoft Windows 95. Network connectivity is via a Linksys Network Everywhere Fast Ethernet 10/100 (NP100) pcmcia network card. The machine's by no means fast, but it works fairly well and I get close to 5 hours out the 2 batteries I have for it.

I won't rehash the entire Debian installation process. Images of a typical Sarge installation can be found at I chose to install the 2.6 series kernel by entering 'linux26' at the initial install screen. Other than that, I did what that slideshow depicts up until the base install was complete - except for one thing: I had to modify the pcmcia module that is used for my network card. The card wasn't identified correctly.
I received the message:
pcnet_cs: this is an AX88190 card!
pcnet_cs: use axnet_cs instead"
I had to set it up manually, but it's only a minor PITA to do.
Here's how I did it:
  • - I had to switch to an alternate terminal when the original attempt to configure the network failed, via CTRL+ALT+F4, and activated it according to the onscreen instructions
  • - changed to /etc/pcmcia and edited the 'config' file, specifically the stanza for "Linksys NP100 Network Everywhere Ethernet" thusly: changed the bind line from "pcnet_cs" to "axnet_cs"
There's a report on the Debian BTS for this, and it's been noted several times on the lists for the pcmcia-cs project at, as well as several other lists and message boards. Apparently, it has been taken care of by using a later version of pcmcia-cs. I don't consider it to be a big enough deal (in my case) to bother upgrading, it was simple enough to handle on my own by changing 2 letters in a text file. (Note to the Debian team: THANK YOU for replacing vi with nano for the install... it's so much simpler to use!)

Once the base install was complete, I veered off of what that slideshow depicts. When setting up the apt-sources, I didn't bother adding any because of a few custom files I use for my convenience. This also took care of any package selections, since there weren't any sources to pull from. The base configuration was normal, other than not configuring the MTA (since I was going to remove it).

Once I was able to log in, I did so as root and started my custom install. I imported a sources.list for apt that included the debian-marillat repository so that I could easily get things like video codecs and realplayer. The other main custom file was the package list, which features mostly KDE components,, Firefox, and other things to create a nicely rounded desktop setup. Here's how that was done:
  • - command: apt-get update
  • - imported the package list to the machine
  • - command: dpkg --set-selections < package.list
  • - command: dselect install
Once that started running, marked packages were installed and uninstalled as necessary. A few prompts were answered (i.e. xserver setup), and about 25 minutes later the machine was just about complete. The install starting from inserting the netinst cd to this point took about 45 minutes. The total disk usage was about 1.2 gig, including all apps and the office suite. That left plenty of room for user files.

I still had the sound chip to set up. Because it was older hardware, the sound controller was on an ISA bus, meaning I had to tell the sound module some settings before it would work. I used the modconf utility to do so, adding information about dma, irq, and io port settings when prompted.

The next situation to handle was that the pcmcia subsystem conflicted with the onboard sound chip, making the sound go choppy and temporarily freezing the machine. Google led me to a solution. I had to edit /etc/pcmcia/config.opts and comment out the "include port 0x100-0x4ff, port 0x1000-0x17ff" line, which took care of the 2 systems trying to use the same resources. Problem solved. Sound and pcmcia were fine after that.

Though I had did have to do some minor tweaking to some hardware settings, the installation wasn't difficult and the machine's pretty solid. If the eye candy is minimized, KDE is very workable on this machine. I could have certainly run a [sic] 'lesser' window manager like Icewm, blackbox, or even XFCE, but my main desktop machine runs KDE and I like to be able to use those same apps when mobile. Also, when I install Linux on a client's desktop machine, it's the same customized KDE setup and it's nice to have something with me to showcase it a bit. One of these days I'll break down and figure out how to make a LiveCD of my custom install and be able to showcase it that way so I can further tweak the laptop to gain some more performance. In the meantime, since this laptop is what I've got to use for work, it's got KDE.

The pcmcia network card I use is the biggest problem. It seems to somehow get "saturated" when pushing files to the machine (i.e. scp files to the machine) and the connection dies, only being remedied by a complete power down. If I'm pulling the same files into the machine (ftp, wget, etc.) the effect doesn't show up. I can also push the same files out of the machine (scp, ftp, etc.) with no detrimental effect. This behavior is noticeable no matter if the card is used with Linux or Microsoft Windows. Similar issues for this card are noted on the lists for the pcmcia-cs project at sourceforge, but I didn't see any solution mentioned. Since I've found it not to be Linux/pcmcia specific, I'm going to blame it on the cheap hardware.

I use this laptop everyday for my business and I have zero complaints about usability. Things take a bit longer to start up than on my P-III 850 at home, but it's nothing I can't deal with. The only thing that pains me to start is It takes about a minute and 20 seconds to get oowriter ready to use - not unreasonable when you consider that 8 year old hardware is running a modern office suite.

If you're trying to get an old laptop running, there are some great resource sites like the Linux on Laptops site and TuxMobil. If you have trouble finding a specific model, try looking for models that are similar. Similar models might use the same hardware (sound chips, pcmcia bridges, etc.), and might point you in the right direction if you're having trouble getting some older hardware configured.
Old 12-02-2005, 11:00 AM   #2
Registered: Apr 2004
Distribution: Arch, Debian and FreeBSD
Posts: 243

Rep: Reputation: 30
Nice post. Great to see that you're still using such an old laptop

You chose KDE because you run it on your other computer. I choose ratpoison + screen (or icewm) on my fast computer because I use that on my slow p1 and I also want to use the same apps everywhere .

It's just a shame that openoffice starts so slow, patience is a good virtue when dealing with openoffice



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