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frugal technology, simple living and guerrilla large-appliance repair
Fri, 25 Nov 2011

Updating Debian Squeeze on a 1999 Compaq Armada 7770dmt

I decided to pull what I call The Laptop out of its bag and update the Debian Squeeze installation that has been running on this 233 MHz Pentium II machine since soon after the most recent Debian release went Stable in February 2011.

Prior to that, the now-12-year-old laptop -- which is as solid as a tank except for the weak joints where the screen pivots -- ran Debian Lenny for a long while.

I've written many dozen blog entries about Linux and BSD systems running on this machine, which I bought for (I probably overpaid) back in 2007 (or was it '08?) when I wanted a laptop but couldn't find anything I could afford.

I kept bidding on old IBM Thinkpads, which inevitably exceeded - in the eBay auctions I followed at the time. (Never mind that a year or so ago, I finally got an IBM Thinkpad R32, year 2002 vintage I believe, for about .)

The Compaq Armada has run Slackware, which is hard to fit on its 3 GB hard drive (yep, the original IBM drive that the machine shipped with), OpenBSD (which runs surprisingly well on old i386-i486 era hardware) and live distros that go from Damn Small Linux (back when it was still being developed) to many Puppys (2.13 is still my sentimental favorite) and recently TinyCore.

That it runs great on Debian Squeeze, the same distro I use on the Thinkpad R32 and my "grown-up" laptop, a 2010 Lenovo G555, is a testament to how Debian is the Universal Operating System in more than name.

In case you were wondering (and I know you were), the 1999 Compaq runs Xfce, (though I'm in the console now writing this in vi while Aptitude updates the machine in another virtual console), the 2002 Thinkpad runs LXDE (I'm testing it out; and I like it), and the 2010 Lenovo runs stock GNOME, which I've used over the years more and more and have grown to like and depend on.

Keys to the success of using a computer from 1999 with only 144 MB of RAM include using applications that won't choke the life out of it. The Opera web browser runs better than Iceweasel/Firefox. I expect that Midori would do well, too. It screams for an up-to-date Dillo browser. If only that were available.

Believe it or not, this machine can run OpenOffice. I've done installs of Debian with Xfce that included OO, and it runs, though painfully slowly.

To preserve as much disk space as I can, I don't do a desktop install. I start with the standard install with no GUI and build it up from there with Xorg, my favored desktop environment (I could have used FVWM or Fluxbox, but Xfce runs well enough) and select applications. I'm not crazy about Abiword these days. Instead I drop in the Geany text editor. I have gFTP, MtPaint for light graphics editing. I got a .deb package of the old Ted RTF editing program (which should still be in Debian but isn't for some reason). There's nothing that Ted doesn't run well on.

You really can't do "everything" on a laptop from 1999, but the screen on this old thing is super-clear. The keyboard is one of the best I've ever used. And it doesn't need an external power brick. Everything is contained in the laptop case itself, with a "Mickey Mouse" plug going from the back of the laptop to the power plug on the wall.

There is no built-in networking for the Compaq 7770dmt, save a modem jack in theback. I had an Orinoco WaveLAN Silver PCMCIA card for wi-fi that I used on my Apple Powerbook 1400 cs, and that works great with the Compaq. I bought a cheap TrendNET Cardbus Ethernet card, which I'm using now to do the update.

The Compaq can swap two media drives -- a CD-ROM drive (I bought one for from another surplus joint) and a floppy drive (never worked). I long ago maxed out the memory at 144 MB. Believe it or not, you can run Debian, even a GUI in that little memory.

It sure makes me complain less about my 1 GB+ machines.

I have more old, working computers than I know what to do with. I got rid of all the desktops, working or not. I suppose I'll keep these around for awhile, update them every once in awhile, and drag them out for the occasional blog post written while updates download in the background.

Now I'm going to flex my geek skills, such as they are, and upload this to my Ode blog server via the ftp utility in the Linux console.

It's nice to hang out in the console, use vi, ftp and crank out a blog post.

That's enough geekery for one day. I'm keeping it quiet for Thanksgiving tomorrow. I'll do my best to stay away from the keyboard.

Postmortem: It's not all roses and sunshine. The update via Aptitude removed GRUB Legacy in favor of GRUB 2, which I never got to work on the Compaq. Now the Debian installation won't boot. I got back in with a Quirky Puppy live CD.

Restoring GRUB: To make a long story less so, I used the Quirky Puppy 1.40 live CD to install the old GRUB (i.e. NOT GRUB 2) to the Master Boot Record of the Compaq's hard drive.

The system still wouldn't boot, but since I know my way around the old /boot/grub/menu.lst in what Debian calls "grub-legacy," I was able to find menu.lst.old from the system's Debian Lenny days.

I copied the boot stanzas from the old menu.lst.old into the new menu.lst, and tried to boot again.

The machine still wouldn't boot, so I went back into Quirky and looked at the menu.lst. It was easy to see what was wrong: all references to /dev/hda needed to be changed to /dev/sda.

I made the /hda to /sda changes to menu.lst and rebooted into Debian. It worked. My Debian Squeeze system was restored to health.

For good measure, once back in Debian Squeeze, I installed grub-legacy, which caused the removal of grub and grub-pc (aka GRUB 2). Rebooting again, grub-legacy couldn't find anything.

I went back into Quirky and looked in /boot/grub. There was no menu.lst. The backup, menu.lst~ was there, however, and I copied it to menu.lst (re-creating that file) and rebooted.

Everything works!

Now in addition to Debian Squeeze, I have a working Quirky Puppy setup on this machine. Quirky is faster than Debian, in case you were wondering.

Curious byproduct: At some point in my recent updates, the Opera web browser ceased to function. And I couldn't re-install. The Opera repository must have changed URLs.

I took this as an opportunity to remove Opera, saving myself 30 MB of precious disk space. I have Chromium, Iceweasel and the Lynx text-based browser on the system. I could very well re-install Opera if/when I figure out the new repository address.

GRUB 1 vs. GRUB 2: I felt like I understood how to make things happen in GRUB 1, aka grub-legacy in the Debian world. The failure of GRUB 2 to boot on this system from the time I did the Lenny-to-Squeeze upgrade until an Aptitude update removed grub-legacy (which chainloaded into GRUB 2) was something I could never resolve. However, it is resolved now. Removing GRUB 2 and restoring GRUB 1 is more than appropriate for this single-boot, 12-year-old system.

Postscript: If you've read the many-dozen blog entries about my successes and failures in free operating systems, you should know that I'm not an expert. I just bang my head against the terminal in as knowledgeable a way as I can.

I try not to forget how I solved things before. I use Google (though the solution for dead GRUB in Debian Squeeze that I did find did not work for my particular problem.

GRUB 2 on old hardware? According to this Debian User Forums post, the problem with GRUB 2 could be due to the ide-generic module not being loaded into the kernel. I don't know whether or not this would have worked for me. I don't much care at the moment, now that I have GRUB 1 back.

Opera returns ... briefly: I did get the Opera web browser back. Turns out I had commented out the Opera lines in my /etc/apt/sources.list. I uncommented the line and changed Lenny for Squeeze. I then updated via Aptitude, which which I then reinstalled Opera.

The problem was that my reinstalled Opera wouldn't run. I can't remember if the output in the terminal was "illegal operation," or something similar, but in any case I didn't have a working Opera browser. So I removed it again with Aptitude.

General Linux fixes for the Compaq laptop: I added modprobe lines to /etc/rc.local for both the Debian and Puppy systems to start my soundcard at boot. I also added xscreensaver to my list of startup programs in the Xfce desktop in Debian.

For Ode users and users of FTP in general: I added a bookmark for SFTP access to my Ode site (this very blog, in case you hadn't noticed) in the gFTP client. It works great, using Mousepad as the default editor. I'm more than able to use this ancient laptop to post to and work with my Ode site.

All's well that ends well, don't you think?