The story of a laptop

I’m writing this on an old friend, resuscitated.

Back in 2002, I purchased my first laptop, an IBM ThinkPad X23. It had an 866MHz Mobile Pentium III processor, 256MB of RAM, a 1024×768 resolution screen, and best of all, it weighed a mere 3lbs. It was so small and light I could bring it anywhere. And I did. All around the world in fact. To me this was the epitome of what a laptop should be. So portable, you’d forget you even had it with you.

Three years later I was out of school, and its extreme portability was less of a priority. I was looking for something with a little more screen real estate. So I upgraded to a newer (and slightly heavier) model, the T42—which has been my primary computer ever since.

Meanwhile the X23 has lived a rather circuitous and lonely life. I sold it to my brother (on installment) and within a month or two it died on him. It would start up and run for a few minutes, and then just shut off. He held onto it for a few months—until we salvaged his data off the hard drive—and then my dad took it home to Texas to poke around. He took the whole thing apart (I think I remember seeing it in some state of disassembly last Christmas), but he couldn’t uncover the cause of the problem.

A few months later, I get a box in the mail. It’s the laptop, reassembled, still nonfunctional. It’s my problem now. Along with all my other things, it got packed up and moved down to San Francisco, where for the last few months it’s been sitting in a brown paper grocery bag, hard drive-less, on a shelf of things Stephanie and I don’t know quite what to do with.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, since I started riding the bus to work, I’ve read the free weeklies, I’ve been slogging through a book, but sometimes, especially right after work, when I have to physically pry myself from my computer to catch the bus home (lest I wish to wait another hour for the last bus of the night), my brain is looking for something a little more interactive. That and it’s completely dark out now.

I thought about getting a GameBoy Micro (everyone at work has been talking PSPs and PS3s and XBOX 360s and Wiis lately), but I’m not sure I’d only want to be playing games—I’m not sure I’d want to start. I thought about getting one of those neat Archos audio/video players like Kyle has, but I’d probably wish it had a keyboard so I could blog.

And then it occurred to me: what I want is a computer! I don’t want to lug my T42 around all the time (and risk breaking it), but the X23 is light enough and battle hardened enough that it just might do. All I had to do is find another X23 on eBay (preferably one with a busted screen) and swap out the motherboards!

Sure enough, the first day I looked, there were two different models sans functional screens. One was completely stripped down (not even a hard drive), the other had all sorts of accessories. Thanks to some last minute bidding, I won the auction for the former, for a mere $78. I ordered a new 60GB 7200RPM hard drive ($90), and I bought a new 802.11b/g mini-PCI wireless card ($40) on the off chance that I could upgrade my frankenlaptop to speak 802.11g. (My laptop already had a new battery and the memory upped to 640MB—for my brother.)

The broken laptop arrived on Monday, and I immediately set to disassembling both and swapping out the motherboard. Of course it wasn’t until I’d taken the new laptop completely apart that I realized all I had to do was remove the LCD screen assembly (with its integrated wireless antennas) from my laptop, and install it, along with my 802.11b wireless card, on the new laptop.

Justin performing open laptop surgery

Taking the computer completely apart did provide one rare insight. The thermal paste that connected the fan to the CPU looked pretty dried up on both models. It’s possible (now that I think about it) that the reason the laptop would freeze a few minutes after turning it on was because the CPU was overheating. Doubly strange was the behavior that if you torqued the base of the laptop just so, it would run flawlessly. Perhaps we were inadvertently restoring contact between the fan and the processor? Maybe my old laptop’s guts might actually be salvageable after all? Now all I need is another screen!

Amazingly I had some thermal paste in my box of parts, so I applied some as I put the computer back together. Meanwhile I not-so-patiently waited for my new hard drive to arrive. Today it finally did, as promised, along with the new mini-PCI card, so I put everything together, popped in an Ubuntu 6.10 CD I burned last night, and powered the thing up.

We have liftoff!

9 Comments

Brian/Dad

I am very impressed that you (1) remember to do this, and (2) were successful in your efforts. That’s great and congratulations.

You are just adorable. I hope to see you this weekend!

Awesome. Nice to see you’ve had success. And with such a cool model of laptop! I’m jealous. I wana light Ubuntu power laptop! Revel in the geek power cool. :D

Leona, just got back to the city from our Thanksgiving camping trip. Probably will just be lazing around the apartment/city today recovering. Hope you had a nice weekend. We’ll have to catch you on your next trip through town.

BrianR, definitely poke around eBay for other X23/24 models. There seems to be someone professional selling them for around $300, and occasionally individuals selling them with auctions that close at around $150-200. I’d recommend getting one with integrated wireless (which I’ve shown you can upgrade from B to B/G), but you can also just stick in a wireless card (the laptop has 1 PCMCIA slot and 1 CompactFlash slot, the latter I always thought was totally radical.

So how is Ubuntu 6.10 treating your x23? wifi? suspend/restore?

It’s working like a charm. Considering that swapping in the 802.11b/g mini-PCI card was a total experiment, I’m impressed. So far the time to associate with a wireless access point (at home and work) is much faster than WinXP.

Suspend on screen close works about 3/4 of the time, I’m not sure why, but I had the same problem with Windows. It’s an easy fix, I just manually choose suspend from the shutdown menu when I want it to sleep. Actually with Windows it was worse, sometimes it would take minutes to wake up (I very infrequently shutdown/restart my laptops). So far Ubuntu always wakes up a few seconds after opening the lid.

I need a new battery for the system clock, but otherwise, it’s still a passable, workable, functional system.

I’m going to try and test to see if my theory about the dried up thermal paste explains why my original system kept freezing. I picked up a refurbished LCD panel on eBay just in case, so I might have another X23 (sans wireless, hard drive) to unload if anyone is interested.

In order to get the scroll button to work with the trackpoint (both of those being practically the two reasons I’m a ThinkPad fan), I had to add the following lines to /etc/X11/xorg.conf under the “Configured Mouse” section:

Option  "EmulateWheel"  "on"
Option  "EmulateWheelButton"  "2"
Option  "YAxisMapping"  "4 5"
Option  "XAxisMapping"  "6 7"

(Thanks to the Thinkwiki for the tip)

Update: After adding the last two lines above to enable horizontal scrolling, I discovered in Firefox that scrolling up and down (actually slightly left and right) were occasionally moving back and forward in the history. Apparently with Mozilla-based browsers (like Firefox), the Mouse-6 and Mouse-7 events are overridden, interfering with horizontal scrolling” (whatever that means). In order to fix this, I had to change two settings in about:config. I changed mousewheel.horizscroll.withnokey.action from 2 to 0, and I changed mousewheel.horizscroll.withnokey.numlines from -1 to 1. So far, seems to work like a charm.

daniel

Congratulations for your succes with the wireless. I have the same card as you on a thinkpad g40 but couldnt get the wireless working on Ubuntu 6.1 and now neither on Ubuntu 7.1, although it looks that is seeing the wifi and connecting to the network, I get no internet… sounds familiar for you this problem? any suggestion is very welcome.

Daniel, in my case, “it just worked.” Maybe it’s your wireless access point? Make sure it’s enabled for 802.11g, and to make your life easier, I’d turn off all encryption/WEP.

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