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Forcing Linux on a crap Presario laptop

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The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

What a weekend it's been. I spent the better part of it installing Linux on what has got to be the piss-poorest laptop computer ever built. The comical piece of junk to which I refer is a Compaq 1200 series, which I bought quite deliberately for the road. I'm confident it's unlikely to get stolen, and if it does, I'll be inclined to thank the thief.

The Presario 1200 is an exceptionally poor candidate for Linux, having been specifically designed to run Windows, and having every conceivable money-saving dodge in place. It's grotesquely underpowered, with 64MB of RAM. It's got a CMOS setup which forbids tinkering past setting the time and boot order.

It's got a 'system restore' CD which Compaq is too cheap to put Windows on. This is perhaps the single most unforgivable item in a vast catalog of offenses. No, the Windows cabs are all taking up much-needed space on the thing's puny 5GB hard disk. So nuts to you if you fdisk the sucker and then fail to get Linux working decently and have no choice but load Windows again. Compaq will sell you the CD you'll need for that, the damnable cheap bastards.

Of course it's got a Winmodem in place of a real modem, and we all know it's just about impossible to make one of those toys work with Linux, thanks to the trade-secret paranoia of their manufacturers. And we all know how badly broken the 2.4.x kernel is for PCMCIA, which I insist on having.

But I did fdisk the little junker, and it did feel awfully good. And then I set about forcing Linux down its ungrateful Windows-compatible little throat.

Since I'd reviewed several of the most recent distros in terms of their ease of installation and found Mandrake by far the friendliest, I figured I'd take it easy on myself and start there. I do run SuSE on my desktop and my wife's, but considering the number of quality deficiencies Compaq saddled me with, I felt I could rely on Mandrake to ease the pain.

How wrong I was. First off, it was impossible to run X by selecting my actual video adapter, a crap item by Trident called the "CyberBlade" (a bit like naming a toy poodle "Ripper" -- fine so long as the irony is intentended).

After various attempts at making it work I finally had to load a generic VGA adapter, which compromised my lame machine's performance even more than Compaq intended. And once Mandrake was installed I had to wrestle with the Winmodem, which turned out not so bad in the end.

The shitbox has a Conexant Winmodem, and this, it turns out, is the only bit of luck I can report from the entire escapade. Conexant has got a Linux
driver
, and it's actually effective. The RPM didn't work for me, but the tarball did, so long as I deleted /dev/modem before running the shell script. Which I did, on my fourth or fifth attempt....

All right, so I got my pathetic Winmodem working. A fat lot of good that does me at home with my preposterously slow, dropped-every-ten-minutes connection to MSN. (I told you, the box is primarily for the road. MSN is traveler-friendly, if not much else.)

No, I'd have to get my ethernet card working with my little DSL home network. And at this point Mandrake beat me down.

I am not a quitter. I ran the two-mile, wrestled, and boxed in high school; and these are three competitive endeavors one wins solely by being more stubborn and willing to eat pain than one's opponents, who are themselves extremely stubborn and willing to eat pain as well (otherwise they'd be on the volleyball team, now wouldn't they).

Mandrake's idea of installing PCMCIA is to present you with a list of drivers. You've got to install one of them, which it insists on testing. The installer won't let you go further until it's satisfied with your choice. Of course if none of them happens to work, well, you'll just have to cancel.

I tried every driver that could possibly have worked, and Mandrake rejected them all. I did research -- I found out which other cards mine emulates. I was systematic. I was patient, stubborn, and willing to eat pain.

I tried, and tried again. Nothing worked. So I jotted down a number of drivers Mandrake had available for installation, and hiked up to my nearest CompUSA, where I bought another bloody card, for which I knew Mandrake had the drivers.

And I inserted it, and I attempted to install it, and Mandrake made a sucker of me again. Thirty bucks I burned on a spare ethernet card.

So I did some more research, and found a boot image for Mandrake tailored specifically for PCMCIA installation.

Ah, pay dirt.

This boot image immediately caused the lights on the card's connector to light up. Surely I was minutes away from installing it. I booted from the floppy and ran the Mandrake installation CD, and it crashed.

So i entered every safe-mode command I could think of -- ide=nodma, lores, nofb, noauto, expert, text....

No good, no good, no good. I even tried them all at once. No good.

At that point I fdisked the little junker again.

And then I busted out SuSE, which actually is my favorite, though YaST is undeniably clunky and entirely too present in the background. Linux is Linux is Linux, but different distros have their advantages and disadvantages. As distros go, SuSE is the most flexible one I've tried.

So guess what? SuSE likes PCMCIA, even with the crap 2.4.x kernel. There was no driver to choose; no bollocky 'test'. I just named it eth0, gave it a generic 192.168.0.1 IP and 255.255.255.0 subnet mask
like any ethernet card, and that was that.

It understands the 'CyberBlade' as well, with no difficulties.

SuSE has no decent DSL support unless you're in Germany, but that's not a problem if you're willing to tweak it. I did give the distro a black mark for this in a previous review, but that was from the POV of my foil Harry Homeowner, who's likely to be inconvenienced if not thwarted by such an omission.

As soon as I got SuSE installed, with eth0 painlessly configured, I simply ran two nifty RPMs from Roaring Penguin, which make DSL in Linux ridiculously easy whatever distro or homebrew setup you've got. I had the Compaq shitbox on Verizon's mighty broadband pipes in minutes.

So now we're an all-SuSE household here at Chez Greene, and pretty well delighted all around. We've got two desktops and one laptop, and room on our little $100 router for another machine.

We're expecting it in March. ®

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