Putting Linux on a Compaq nc4010

The HP/Compaq nc4010 is a business-class laptop with no CDROM, no DVD, and no floppy – but with network, modem, USB ports, SD slot, and PCMCIA slot. The system has a 1.7GHz Pentium M – snappier than a Pentium II for sure. It will also boot from the network with PXE or from the USB ports.

Booting this platform is the most difficult part. I didn’t try using PXE, because although I was once set up for PXE on my home network, I don’t have the distributions (Kubuntu and Fedora) set up for installing from PXE and it seemed like a bigger headache than try to make it boot through USB. USB booting is not (apparently) enabled by default; it requires setting USB to use Legacy in the BIOS settings – and in my case, it also required playing with the setting for Quickboot: I had turned it off, but upon re-enabling it the system booted from a USB key.

I tried using Fedora 9, but the Live USB version come up in a lower resolution and crashed upon exiting. I tried also Kubuntu Hardy (8.04.1) and it worked beautifully.

Loading Kubuntu was a breeze – and recognized all of the capabilities of the laptop (amazing!). USB works, network works (albeit with proprietary drivers), PCMCIA works – it just works. Even hibernate works (although suspend may not).

I’ve never quite liked Ubuntu, and I mostly chalked that up to its standard themes (brown and orange) and its use of Gnome and so on – never fully experiencing Ubuntu and always wanting to get a better feel for it. I’ve tried running Kubuntu (which uses KDE) before, but never as an “active” desktop.

Kubuntu made a believer out of me. Everything works in the laptop. Even MP3s, Adobe Flash, Java – it all installed cleanly (upon demand) and works out of the box. Installation was extremely simple. The available packages are quite extensive, and include Debian’s packages.

I attribute some of this ease of support (specifically, MP3 support, Flash, Java, proprietary drivers) to the fact that the company behind Ubuntu (Canonical) is not an American company, but a South African company – which has different laws. So they can make it easy to get proprietary “parts” that they could not sell or support otherwise.

I’m switching from my FreeBSD laptop to this one for the most part: this system is smaller, lighter, faster, and has more memory. It was good to build a FreeBSD desktop though – and took more doing than I thought. I wonder what PC-BSD would be like….. Hmm….

The decTop $100 Computer!

Lifehacker has an article on a product called the decTop. It is billed as a Internet-browsing appliance, but is apparently a complete (and upgradable) computer as well. Sounds like the perfect hacker computer.

It does seem to be slowish by modern standards, and if my experience with 128M is any indication, it won’t run the most current distributions. There are some excellent discussions on how to install Ubuntu 6.06 onto it: one from Jonathon Scott and one from Ray over at Librenix. Juan Romero Pardines from the NetBSD Project has put NetBSD onto the decTop. Someone else put AstLinux onto a decTop – and added great pictures of the internals as well.

Over at Docunext there is a great series on the decTop, including pictures of the guts and of the locked drive (apparently no longer locked in current versions). There is also a set of tips on getting Debian to work on the decTop, as well as the author’s experiences in running the decTop on solar power.

The system advertises an ethernet connection, but it is, in fact, an USB-ethernet dongle. This fact combined with the USB-1.1 means that the ethernet connection is very, very slow. Everything hooks into the USB ports, including keyboard and mouse as well as the Ethernet connection. These two facts appear to be some of the worst drawbacks of the device.

There also appears to be no wireless support at all – the Internet browsing devices I’ve seen all use wireless connectivity as their main connection method – so this appears to be more of a desktop device, rather than a portable device. It is fanless, which means near absolute quiet. Who knows, maybe they’d make a good cluster (heh).

I must admit, when I first heard the name, I thought it might be a minature of one of these instead. Silly me.

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