Minaturised marvel

I was thinking the other day that I write very few technical articles given how much of my spare time is spent experimenting with technology!

Having studied computer science and worked/played with computers all my life, I’m familiar with many operating systems. Many people have heard of Windows, macOS and Linux for laptops and desktops. For mobile devices, there are Android and iOS. An operating system is just software (a “super” app) that makes the hardware resources available to you. Apps, such as Word, Safari, Chrome run on top of the operating system, which, like a good manager, tries to share resources appropriately.

Although, there are many operating systems, many of them are related. Linux, macOS, iOS, and Android are all derived in some way from Unix. Some people prefer one over the other. There are fans of Windows or Macs, for example, and Android or iOS. Having used many operating systems, I see the similarities more than the differences and don’t have any strong favourites. Recently, I’ve been using Linux more often on my Windows desktop because it’s possible to run one operating system within another using a technique called virtualisation.

In about 2008, I was working at a company that unusually bought both Mac and Windows laptops. At the time, Apple released the first version of the MacBook Air and Toshiba released a lesser-known laptop, the Portege R600. We bought both laptops to evaluate them since we provided employees with Toshiba laptops if they preferred Windows or Mac laptops if they preferred macOS.

The MacBook Air received lots of publicity at the time, in the way that new products from Apple always do. It was another exquisitely designed Apple device.

The Toshiba laptop, unsurprisingly, received relatively little attention. Whilst Apple won all the design plaudits, the R600 was, in fact, functionally superior. Unlike the Air, the R600 had a DVD player, an Ethernet socket, an express card, a memory card reader, an eSata socket (that doubled as a USB socket), and a slot for a 3G SIM card. If that was not amazing enough, the R600 was lighter than the MacBook Air. The R600 was a masterpiece of miniaturisation. And of all the laptops I’ve used, I’ve liked its keyboard most.

Of course, not everything was wonderful about the R600. The screen wasn’t great by modern standards and the processor, even at the time, was underpowered.

Nobody remembers, if they ever knew, the Portege laptop now. I, however, found one at home a few months ago and decided to revive it. Running Windows 10 (or Windows 11 unofficially) was beyond the processor in the Portege and its 5GB of memory. However, there are many lightweight versions of Linux available for old/underpowered computers.

After some minimal research, I picked Lubuntu, a lighter version of the more well-known Ubuntu.

One of the advantages of Linux is that you can usually install it onto a USB stick and boot from it without affecting any installed operating system. I booted from the USB stick and gave Lubuntu a test drive. It was reasonably responsive. So, I decided to make the installation permanent.

Before I did this, I realised that the Portege had an old, mechanical hard disk (HDD), which was quite slow. I had a much faster (and larger) SDD lying around. So I searched YouTube to see how easy it was to replace the hard disk in the R600. I couldn’t find a video for the R600 but there was one for the similarly designed previous model. I proceeded to replace the hard disk in the R600.

I then permanently installed Lubuntu on the faster hard disk. It ran smoothly. Everything worked, including the webcam. I installed some more software but a lot of the software I needed for everyday tasks was already installed, such as a web browser, media player, word processor, spreadsheet, and so on.

Since I still develop software in my spare time, I installed various development tools, such as GVim (I had to compile v9), Visual Studio Code, various programming languages, and my programming font of choice (DeVu Sans Mono Nerd font ).

If you’re interested in extending the lifetime of an old laptop, the British consumer magazine, Which?, has an article on how to turn an old laptop into a Chromebook using ChromeOS Flex (a version of Linux). If you mainly use a laptop to browse the web, read email, interact with friends in WhatsApp and other social media, write blogs and lightly edit photos, Linux is perfect for an old laptop.

This all happened about a month ago. I’ve been so happy running Linux that I considered replacing Windows on my main laptop. My main laptop, which is about seven years old — so not new! — has been getting slower and slower running Windows 10. Sometimes, simply re-installing Windows can revive a computer but has the pain of having to reinstall your apps as well.

I’ll write about moving from Windows to Linux on my main laptop another time.

You can find my Linux scripts and configuration files on GitHub, where I’ve also saved my Vim setup.

Leave a Reply