Damn Small Linux for a Damn Small Laptop

Tied up with the various issues we’ve had recently with houses, I’ve got a new project. Its to turn my (mother’s) very old laptop into a dumb terminal we can have in the basement in the new house. The kitchen is in the basement and I’m keen not to bring any more hardware into that environment that we need to, just because kitchens are full of liquids and grease.

I’ve got a Toshiba Satellite 210CS, complete with its original “Optimized for Windows 95” sticker. It celebrated its twelfth birthday this year so its not doing too badly! Its had a couple of upgrades from its original configuration – it has a 1GB hard drive, a PCMCIA wirless card that will talk to our 802.11b router, and a memory expansion to take it to 24MB of RAM. The processor is a Pentium 120Hz and judging by the fact that it thinks its June 2nd 2005, its CMOS battery is flat.

On Sunday night (its a bank holiday here so we’ve had Monday off as well) we installed Damn Small Linux (DSL) onto it and hoped for the best. The most impressive thing about this is always trying to boot anything new. This machine predates real PCMCIA standards and predates USB; it has a CD drive but can’t boot from it and often won’t read written CDs. It does have wired network on PCMCIA but can’t boot from that either. And it has a floppy drive … somewhere. So we managed to find the floppy drive, and another machine with a floppy drive in it (we were quite surprised to realise the server has one), and even unearthed a floppy disk in the house. Which is more impressive than it sounds as all our stuff is in storage!

DSL went on like a dream but wrongly guessed the size of the screen on the laptop so on the first attempt when I thought it had stopped and I pressed return a few times to shift everything up the screen a bit, I discovered I had answered “no” to the question “would you like a boot loader?”! So we did that again and now its working fine.

Even more impressively, the DSL installation is happily driving the PCMCIA wireless card, out-of-the-box. Last time we re-installed this machine (we think 3 or 4 years ago) we gave up with getting a binary distro working and Kevin compiled some special Gentoo for it. I was impressed how painless this was, so a big thanks to the DSL people, I must send them some fanmail. Or money, maybe.

The plan is just to use the command line to ssh up to the main in-the-house server and use that for checking mail. We can use lynx and command-line chat equivalents if we get desperate too :)

1 If you were hoping for an update, we’ve commissioned the searches but must complete by the end of May to avoid losing the mortgage. Watch this space.

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