Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A Cheap Laptop

A week or two ago, my wife's laptop stopped working. When she took it to the "Geek Squad" to have a look at it, they determined that the hard drive had gone bad. Rather than spend the $600 or so they quoted her to replace the hard drive and have as much of her data transferred as possible, she decided to purchase a newer laptop. We found something that should serve her well for under $800, including the operating system (which itself includes a free upgrade when the newest version comes out in a few months). She'll still have to manually replace the backed-up files, but it still seems to be the better choice.

That doesn't mean that her old laptop is now being thrown in the garbage. For years, I've made it a hobby to keep old computer parts around, getting use out of them for as long as possible. I purchased a new hard drive for less than $80, and popped it in the otherwise-dead laptop. Since I use Linspire, I'm allowed to put that operating system on multiple computers (most operating systems insist that you buy the software for each computer you plan on using the software on, at least if you're going to do it legally), so I just installed Linspire, and the computer is up and running with the new hard drive. Now, I have a laptop of my own, which I hope will prove itself useful in the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday weekend as we travel to see family.

Having gotten the hard drive working, there was still one major hitch: Linspire isn't that great when it comes to hardware compatibility. Although they intend for the system to work "right out of the box" (so to speak), if you're not buying a computer with Linspire already on it, but instead trying to install it on an older system, you're likely to be using hardware that Linspire is not yet (or will ever be) compatible with. In my case, the biggest problem seemed to be Internet access. Neither of the wireless adapters we already had at home seemed to be compatible. If I can't get the computer to work on the web, it's largely useless to me, since practically all software and driver updates for Linspire are done via Internet download (although it's conceivable that this laptop might still have proven useful for taking meeting minutes at work, a task I've been performing with a 5-year-old Palm VIIx).

I spent a fair bit of time at the Linspire forums, but couldn't figure out how to make my existing wireless adapters work. There were a few folks who tried to offer some technical assistance, but as is often the case on the Linspire forums, most of those were so technical that I couldn't follow them. This is a problem I've found with Linux operating systems in general (not just Linspire). They're not for novices. They're for the really computer-savvy. I consider myself pretty adept at computers, and this impression is often echoed by my co-workers who often ask for my assistance with various minor computer problems (there's a proper tech support staff here at the seminary, so they handle the major stuff!). But I'm not up to the level of many Linux enthusiasts. In fact, I found the Linux for Dummies book rather intimidating (and I usually sing the praises of that series!). When these gurus try to provide help on the forums, they often speak in a technical jargon that no doubt makes sense to fellow gurus. Unfortunately, I don't understand half of it, and so the long and short of it is that I was left no closer to getting my hardware to work than I was before.

A lot of people on the forums always suggest consulting the hardware compatibility list, but I've generally found this advice less than useful, and more like a cop-out. I have a suspicion that the list hasn't been updated in quite some time, so the absence of a piece of hardware on that list is hardly conclusive. In any event, the technical nuttiness on the forums at least makes perfectly clear that lots of hardware that's not on the list has been made to work perfectly well. Still, it's a good place to start, and I do have a tendency to be a bit impatient when it comes to these kinds of projects. I printed out a list, and took it with me to the local computer store. I found a PCMCIA card that looked to be on the compatible list for about $40, and bought that. True to the promises made by being on the compatibility list, the card worked fine.

I'm still working out a few other kinks (my USB flash drive doesn't seem to work on this computer now, despite that it did work when this computer used Windows XP, and it does work on my other Linspire computer. Also, my wife's USB drive works just fine), but basically, I now have a functional laptop to take with me on vacation. Expect to see Friday's regularly scheduled blog post, while I'm on vacation.


  1. As the author of Linux for Dummies, I'd like to invite you to share suggestions on how to make the book less intimidating. I'm always looking for new ideas and ways to refine the book! My email address is in the About the Author section. :)

    -- Dee-Ann

  2. I'll post here publicly first, then locate my book when I get home to find the e-mail address.

    First of all, thanks for your offer. I hope that my comments were not taken as an offense. My intention was to talk about the intimidating nature of Linux rather than any failing of the book, per se. If that wasn't clear, please accept my apologies.

    As I said earlier, I have long been a fan of the Dummies series, and in fact the edition of the book that I have is no doubt itself out-of-date by now. (It came with a copy of Mandrake Linux, which I know has since been renamed Mandriva.) Some of the concerns I had/have are no doubt already irrelevant. One of the things I *like* about my Linspire system is the fact that so much of it duplicates the Windows GUI interface. It is the Konsole commands that most singularly intimidate me. I used to be fairly adept at DOS commands back in the day, but even those skills are becoming outdated now that Windows has so largely eliminated the DOS prompt. Linux line-commands have a similarity to DOS, but have enough differences to require a learning curve. I tend to use them only when I have fairly explicit instructions that apply to a given program. This, of course, is difficult for an author of a book such as yours to predict, since software changes so regularly, but I would certainly suggest keeping up with the most common ones (for all I know, this may already be happening).

    The problem I cite in the full article is related to this in some ways. When I have a problem with Linspire, it is most often related to a particular piece of hardware or software. I consult the forums and books such as yours when I need help on such things, but access to experts giving clear information on such particular issues can be hard to find, if indeed anyone has actually commented on such a specific problem on any of the forums at all. I wish I could say that Linspire was better at this: it clearly is one of their intentions. But more often then not, the only person/people who's attention I can get on the forum for my specific issue knows little about the specific hardware or software at hand, and can only give general advice, which almost invariably doesn't apply to my particular situation.

    I expect that much of this can be related to growing pains. Linux is getting more and more acceptance from hardware and software companies, but for the most part, Linux is still not supported by such groups directly. This means that people have to "figure it out" on their own, and that tends to have mixed results.

    But again, thanks for your offer. I hope that my comments are at least somewhat useful.



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