Making low end computer systems work

While looking through old files I found this little post I started writing about a decade ago. I’ve decided to revisit and complete it, if for nothing else than for the sake of documentation. It briefly revisits the technical challenge I had putting together and donating old hardware in rural Chile.




The Start

Way back in 2003 I took on a challenge out of personal interest. The idea would be to take old low-end laptops and turn them into community internet access stations around rural areas of southern Chile. How low of the low-end are we talking about? How does 4 MB of RAM, 150 MB of Hard drive space and a 33 MHz processor sound? Already outdated at the time and laughable in the modern age. The cheapest smartphone on the market blows these old laptops out of the way.

IBM 701 Thinkpad with 16MB RAM and a 600 MB HDD
IBM 701 Thinkpad with 16MB RAM and a 600 MB HDD

What was the goal? We needed systems that could be used by just about anyone. It would need to be capable of browsing the web along with word processing. In the end, that is all most of us do.




At the time I was still in High-School working in an IT department. We had dozens of obsolete IBM 701 Thinkpads to get rid of. I always thought that these were actually a pretty cool model. They were about the size of a netbook with the thickness of a brick. It’s unique butterfly jointed keyboard was its selling point. As soon at you lifted the screen a full sized keyboard would flip open.

The question of course was what to do with them? You couldn’t really give them away because no one would take them. The simplest thing to do of course would be to throw them out.

I thought it might be better to try to put these laptops to use.

Linux? Windows?

The range I was working with was from 4-24 MB of RAM. Initially my hope was to use some Linux distribution, but I just couldn’t find the right setup for such a low-end system. After much research I found that I would be able to strip windows 98 of enough components to run comfortably on these low end machines. Additionally within windows 98 I would swap out the shell with the windows 95 shell for further reduced resource usage. This worked well on all systems down to 8MB, but I still had a few systems running on 4MB of RAM. For these I would have to forgo the features and improved stability of windows 98 and stick with a pure windows 95 installation. For the web browser I would choose the lightweight Mozilla based K-Meleon browser which worked very well in all systems. Microsoft Office 2000 would be installed providing productivity software.

Installation

Because these unit had no optical media drive I would have to figure out a way to set them up. I had approached a local university professor about what I was doing. He dug in an old box and passed me a null modem serial cable. With speeds twice as fast as dial-up, it was the slowest possible way one could ever think of setting a system up. Using Ghost imaging software I could deploy system images over night. In retrospect, it would have been much faster to remove the hard disk and work with it directly.

Delivery

Having to visit Chile anyway, I would pack these laptops into my checked luggage and go on my way. They would ultimately end up with our community center in Carahue. In the end the project wouldn’t go far as several programs with far more resources would soon be put into place. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation would donate lab to the local library which is still in use today. A lab that I had worked on after a major earthquake in 2011. Government programs have also stepped in, as we start to see students come home with brand new laptops.

Working in Carahue did present unique challenges. Voltages can be inconsistent ranging from 160-230 volts. Equipment tends to be expensive and a little harder to come by. Generic electronics are often heavily marked up. A failed power supply will be repaired rather than replaced. Software Licensing is often not an option as it is too expensive to be seen as affordable, but nowadays robust opensource alternatives do exist.




The use of technology in the region has improved leaps and bounds over time. Back then I would wardrive around the town with my distribution of backtrack linux looking for a wireless network I could get into to check my e-mail. There were two. Nowadays there are hundreds down the block. whether it be through a physical link or mobile broadband, high speed internet is also readily affordable and available these days.

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