April 16, 2009

Fix a Byte to Eat

After many years of loyal service, it's time to replace my Audrey. Her outdated and not-really-upgradable browser is having trouble recognizing websites more and more often. (She's free to a good home, so say they word if you want her).

For a replacement, I wanted a tablet PC, as it would have a touchscreen (essential when cooking, to prevent biscuit-dough-keyboard). Also, it would free up the space taken up by a keyboard and mouse. And finally, I was toying with the idea of mounting the PC upside down under a cabinet, and a Tablet PC would allow the screen to hang down in front, rather than in back.

Not mine, and not a tablet, but you get the idea

They're finally starting to show up for reasonable prices on eBay. I found a great deal on a Thinkpad X41 tablet there, so I grabbed it.

The reason it was a good deal, though, was because of this one bullet point

Not Included: Hard drive&Caddy&Cover,Stylus pen,Wifi,Ac,battery

It looks like the seller stripped it down and is selling each of the parts separately. That should have sent up red flags, but I thought I was okay because:

  • Hard drive: I have a dead laptop already, with a hard drive to donate
  • Caddy & Cover: Pshaw!
  • Stylus pen: I got ten of 'em, at the end of my arms
  • Wifi: Again, dead laptop to the rescue
  • Ac: I have a thinkpad power supply already. Somewhere.
  • Battery: Don't need it, as it will be under the cabinet and plugged in all the time.

When it arrived on Wednesday, though, I could see I was in trouble:

  • Hard drive: It doesn't take a standard laptop hard drive, it takes an "iPod Classic"-sized hard drive. Uh-oh.
  • Stylus: Turns out that the touchscreen technology is based on the pads that graphic artists use to draw, and that the stylus is a functional (and not cheap) piece of electronics. Uh-oh.
  • Ac: The power supply hasn't turned up yet, so I'm borrowing one for the moment.
  • Battery: This thing could be really cool if it were totally wireless. So I may end up buying a battery anyway.

Despite all that, I needed to make sure it would boot okay, so I could complain to the seller if it didn't. So I decided to try running Linux from a USB drive. There's a great program called UNetbootin, which makes this super-easy. I tried CrunchBang linux without success, and then gave DamnSmallLinux a try, and that worked great.

I was kind of amazed I was surfing the Web on a PC with no hard drive.

So for now, I know the thing works. But without a stylus, or an OS I'm familiar with, I don't yet know if the touchscreen is going to work.

The next step will be to get Ubuntu on it, as a lot of people have gotten the touchscreen to work with Ubuntu. Not sure if I can get Ubuntu to run well enough off an SD card, though.

Full list of tasks:

  1. Get Ubuntu working
  2. Install Ubuntu tablet functionality
  3. Test with borrowed stylus
  4. Get hard drive
  5. Get stylus
  6. Get Flash working
  7. Install Skype (also, test speakers/mic, install webcam)
  8. Mount under cabinet

Stay tuned.

Update 4/19: I can't seem to get any Ubuntu variant working from my 4GB SD card ("SRST failed, errno=-16", whatever that means), so I'm going to need a hard drive for sure. I eBay'd one, and it should be here on Monday or Tuesday.

Update 4/23: New hard drive arrived, but it's not the right one. I got the HTC426020G5CE00 instead of the HTC426020G7AT00. Duh! Boy, is my face red. Anyway, so I have to either order a new one or buy a ZIF-to-IDE adapter and hope that the hard drive+adapter still fit in the drive bay. The adapter is only $4, so I'm going to try that first.

On the bright side, I finally got Ubuntu to run off an SD card, thanks to an obscure forum post I found. I added "all_generic_ide" to the startup options in unetbootin's syslinux.cfg file on the card, and that did the trick. By also adding "persistent" and downloading the casper.rw file from unetbootin's site, I'm able to save any changes I make, so I have a working system now.

However, I can't get the touchscreen to work yet. I borrowed a stylus, and configured it using documentation others have provided (ubuntu on an X41 tablet, ubuntu on an X41 tablet, but no luck yet. It could be because I'm not using the stylus made for this laptop, though it surprises me that others don't work.

Update 4/25: Progress! The Lenovo stylus arrived today, and worked basically right out of the box, since I had done the configuration ahead of time. I'm still a bit bummed that I have to use a stylus at all, but so far, it's not so bad.

Update 4/26: I put the laptop through its paces for the first time, using it to display recipes for a meal I was cooking. I loaded each dish's recipe onto a different Firefox tab, and was able to go back and forth between them as I cooked. I also watched a bit of The Daily Show on Hulu while I did some of the more boring repetitive tasks. It worked great.

Update 5/12: The IDE-to-ZIF adapter arrived, and it's working well, after following the instructions on this page (translated from German). It's one of the geekiest tasks I've ever done, as it involved desoldering a piece from the circuit board, soldering a new connection, and opening the laptop (14 screws!) to get the adapter+hard-drive to fit. But it worked, and likely saved me about $100.

After a small hurdle (booting Ubuntu from the sd card froze until I removed the "all_generic_ide" option), I was able to see the drive from Ubuntu. Turns out the ebay seller didn't format the drive, and it seems to have come from a TomTom GPS, complete with the previous owner's cellphone contacts. Anyway, the next step was to install Ubuntu from the usb key, but that presented a problem. The installer couldn't unmount the "/cdrom" partition, since both it and the new drive were mounted to /dev/sda1. Apparently the fix is to create a new live USB key, which means I'll lose some of my work, but no big loss.

Update 5/13: New live USB key made, Ubuntu installed. Next up: Customization

Update 11/4: This project was been on hold for a few months, because I ran into an odd hardware problem: If I tightened the screws on the bottom of the laptop, it wouldn't boot. I got an error saying "No Operating System found." Today I had a brainstorm, though: It's likely that when tightening the screws, I was creating a short circuit somewhere in the ZIF-to-IDE adapter as it was being pressed against some other piece of metal. So I opened the laptop back up, applied electrical tape in all the places around the adapter where metal might meet metal, and then closed everything back up. Sure enough, it boots fine now and the project is back on track.

Posted by Kevin at April 16, 2009 08:17 AM

I can sell you a pen, index cards and a fancy holder for all your recepies on said index cards for 99 cents. Just a thought

Posted by: JayBoz at April 18, 2009 04:32 PM

Sometimes your posts make me feel like I'm really not enough of a geek.

I believe there's a version of Ubuntu that will run off a USB drive (assuming the laptop has USB)

Posted by: Brian Kelly at April 18, 2009 11:29 PM

You forgot to add a task:
9. Remind wife that geeks are sexy. Repeat several times as needed.

Posted by: Amy at April 19, 2009 03:41 PM

Saw you were looking for the Sierra On-line classics, I found most of them at DJ Oldgames for download. (http://www.oldgames.sk/en/) DosBOX works perfectly. Enjoy, I did.



Posted by: Gintron at July 9, 2009 02:46 PM
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