In my second year as a trainee (nine long years ago) I bought myself a Samsung R50 notebook to replace my aging desktop PC and also take it with me to school (and play games on it – at home of course). At the time this computer was very efficient from a mobile perspective and also well suited to play serious games. Of course, at some point several years later its age became apparent and this year on April 8 the installed operating system, Windows XP, finally became officially obsolete. Since then the computer was sitting at my mother’s house, waiting for… well… a resurrection!
The first thing I had planned was to take that machine apart. I’ve always wanted to do this, just out of curiosity, and this time was no different. However, it also served the purpose of cleaning the cooling system which, over the past nine years, definitely accumulated some dust. Running the desktop (the quite efficient Windows XP desktop!) already caused the fan to spin up. In order to remove the dirt the laptop had to be opened. If the computer were to survive this open-heart surgery then I’d put Linux on it to have a physical machine to play around and explore Linux with. As a result, I wouldn’t have to boot my workstation for a virtualized installation, which makes experimenting feel a little bit like being at work. After all, this would mean to sit at a desk in front of two monitors with a computer under the table, just like at my workplace.
In my first attempts to take the notebook apart several years back, I had to succumb to the power of Samsung’s engineering and the hidden screws they installed to keep the R50 together. This time though, I didn’t have to care about whether I’d break the computer or not. To be prepared, I looked on YouTube if there are videos that show how this is done and unsurprisingly there is one.
Together with my sister (her tiny fingers were a big help inside the small body of the computer) we managed to take the laptop apart and have a look at its innards and the (expectedly) clogged air exhaust.
As was to be expected, we broke something. Taking off the keyboard was a little bit trickier than shown in the video and we didn’t immediately find the right spot to use as leverage in order to lift the keyboard component. This resulted in a little casualty in the form of the Right-Arrow key being ripped off. Again, my sister’s tiny hands came to the rescue when putting the delicate pieces back together. An all MacGyver like makeshift c-clamp then held it together while the glue was drying.
Lastly, I cleaned the fan and the air exhaust fins to reset air flow back to how it was when the computer was first bought. After reinstalling the fan, I covered a small gap between the fan and the exhaust with a few strips of tape (finally these finger injuries from years of basketball paid off) to prevent from air escaping inside the chassis instead of being blown out of it (MacGyver it is again). Initially, there was a tape covering this gap, but to remove the fan we had to rip it off.
The next day I installed the keyboard (the glue was dry now and the key’s socket was held in place) and booted the computer. Lo and behold it still worked, we didn’t forget to attach any of the cables and the Right-Arrow key fulfilled its duty as well. Congratulations on the surgery doctor, the patient’s not dead.
What to do With a Spare Computer?
Since the laptop still worked I downloaded an ISO image of Fedora, copied it to a USB drive and booted the computer from it. It took very long until I received any feedback and I was very surprised to see what it actually was. Out of habit I downloaded a 64 bit version of the Linux distribution without ever thinking about the fact that the old Pentium M processor is still a 32 bit architecture. Obstacle number one, although not a big one.
In a second attempt with a 32 bit version the computer finally booted into the live environment. My first action was to enable Wi-Fi so the installer would be able to download updates during the installation process. What happened instead is that the R50 was put to sleep by the OS without it ever asking me. After I have overcome this surprise and figured out what happened (blinking power light) I turned it back on and was greeted with tiny, funny, colorful artifacts running all across the screen (no drugs, I swear!) until the computer went to sleep one more time. Seriously, again? At that moment I felt like Guerrero on the show Human Target where he had to disguise himself as the janitor, again (the 2nd time in one episode), much to his annoyance. There was no way of switching to a command prompt with CTRL-ALT-F1 or F2 or any other F. Obstacle number two, and it seemed to be a nasty one.
At first I thought it was because of the wireless network – that seemed to be a viable theory at the moment – so on the next try I passed on the Wi-Fi and started the Installer without it. But as is the case with nasty problems, they tend to stick around. This one is no different and once I reached the HDD partitioning part of the setup routine it happened again. It wasn’t the wireless adapter’s fault after all. It seemed to be something else entirely. To verify that theory I rebooted (again) and let it just sit on the desktop. And it happened there as well (again).
Searching the Internet didn’t yield any results. After all, who’s installing Fedora 21 on an almost 10 year old laptop? Searching with Pentium M instead of Samsung R50 at least found something about that forcing PAE on the Pentium M is necessary via the boot parameter “–forcepae” because the CPU supports it, but doesn’t report it correctly. Sounded like a good reason to me for causing this weird behavior so I tried it. To no avail. Finally I gave up on Fedora and decided to give openSUSE a shot. Unfortunately the symptoms were the same (again).
Well, since the Ubuntu Wiki indicated that it would work on older machines I downloaded a copy, threw it on a USB stick and, without any hope, booted from it. I started the installation routine and with every minute that had passed I grew more and more confident that it would actually finish. Before, it took only around one to two minutes until the problem occurred. Ubuntu installed without any hiccups and now I have an almost 10 year old computer running with an up-to-date Linux distribution.
Unfortunately, I still don’t know what had caused the problems and it might very well be that a future update of Ubuntu will show the same behavior.
This computer now serves as my playing ground for Linux, if I ever have the urge. Or, now that I think about it, I could also install the preview of Windows 10 on it. We’ll see.
What is it like to run such an old machine, especially when you’re spoiled with quad-core CPUs, SSDs and even phones that have more RAM? It certainly makes you appreciate how far technology has come. Applications open pretty slowly. While the OS is working on one task it’s almost impossible to start a second one. Starting LibreOffice and trying to find an application in Ubuntu’s dash simultaneously is virtually impossible. After all, this computer is powered by only one processor with only one core and no hyper-threading and a hard drive that surprisingly is still working (now I’ve said it…).
Just for the fun of it I ran Geekbench 3 to see how it stacks up against modern computers. What we think of as a slow processor today, the Intel Atom chips, is actually faster – especially in multi-tasking scenarios. Here are the results for the Samsung notebook and, for comparison, these are values from a Dell 11 inch tablet.