Linux on the Libretto, Part VI

Posted 2006.11.03 1.00 in Computers/Internet/Technology by Stephanie

The story so far: The Libretto is a teeny tiny portable computer, about 8 years old now, with limited resources, small memory and small screen, but it is wonderfully conveniently small. I found a linux distro that worked relatively well in the available resources, customized it, broke it, fixed it, customized it some more, and finaly ended up with something that worked about as well as could be expected, and looked nice too.

So far, all I’ve been doing is in the realm of soft ware: Operating system, GUI, customizations, tweaking. It has all been software. Today, finaly, I got out the screwdriver and soldering iron.

There is actually not much one can do with a Libretto 100. The small size dictates what the options are, and the options are few. The stock Lib100 has only 32MB of RAM, there is a memory expansion unit that will double this to 64MB but it’s a custom proprietary part. You can’t build it yourself or use an off-the-shelf part, so RAM is not really an option – you either find the special part, or you don’t. And I already have it, so nothing I can do there.

That leaves only the hard drive. Now, the Libretto 100 came with a 3GB hard drive, and the BIOS can recognize drives up to 8GB in size. Physically it will take any 2.5″ drive that is about 9mm or less in thickness. Nowadays, you can get drives that will fit, that are 80 or 100GB. This is cool and all, and if you’re running linux the 8GB limit doesn’t affect you (just make a small /boot partition and put it up front under the 8GB limit, then the rest is yours to play with). But this is not where I want to go. My whole linux installation is currently about 400MB. I don’t need a lot of space here, the Libretto is going to be used for surfing, connecting to the office with SSH, and perhaps some email. 256MB is about enough /home for my limited use.

So, rather than going big, I want to go small. Take the minimalist Libretto philosophy another step further. See, nowadays, you can get solid state flash memory in sizes up to 4GB. And it’s relatively cheap. I got a 1GB compact flash card for about $20. See where I’m going with this yet? Hard drives have moving parts, they create noise, they are slow, and turning those disks and moving those heads takes power. Solid state memory has no moving parts, is very fast, and has very low demands on power. And all you need, to use a CF card instead of a hard drive, is one of these CF to IDE converter cards:
IDE to CF card

For size comparison, here’s a side-by-side image of the CF to IDE card with a compact flash card installed (not the card I’m actually using, a 64MB one I had laying around) sitting next to the actual hard drive I took out of my Libretto:
CF versus HDD

To get in and do the switch over, I had to take the Libretto apart. No problem, just pull the battery, remove seven screws, and you’re in:
libretto inside with hard drive
Click to enlarge. Hard drive in upper right, PCMCIA slots in upper left, motherboard beneath PCMCIA and hard drive, battery area across the bottom.

Then all I had to do was remove the hard drive and slide in the IDE/CF card.

Hahaha, if only it were that easy. No, this was one of those 5 minute projects that ended up taking 3 1/2 hours. Oh yeah. Love when that happens.

When I put the IDE/CF card in the Libretto…it refused to boot! Just asked for a disk. I swapped the hard drive back in, and put the IDE/CF card in an external drive case. Verified that it was properly partitioned, verified my linux was on it, verified that GRUB was installed. Check, check, check. Also — this proved that the IDE/CF card was working right, since the external hard drive case was working properly and it mounted and worked right. So I knew the IDE/CF card was OK. And I knew my Libretto was OK too – it worked fine with a normal hard drive.

This is one of those little puzzlers, right? The Libretto works with a normal hard drive, but not the CF hard drive. The CF hard drive works in a hard drive case. The normal hard drive also works in the external case. So everything works, just not the combination of Libretto + IDE/CF card.

Then, I remembered something. I had read, somewhere, sometime, in the last 2 or 3 weeks. Something about somebody having a problem with a Libretto and some particular hard drive. Something about grounding a pin. One quick Google later, and I found it. Well not “it”, but something close enough. Some hard drives go into CSEL mode in some instances, when pin 28 is left ‘floating’. In those cases it has to be tied low. Here’s the details I found. Nothing to do with CF cards, but sounded plausible so I tried it, and hey! It worked! Of course, it took me THREE HOURS of screwing around with external hard drives, floppy drives, boot images, and extra wear and tear on the Libretto of taking it apart a DOZEN times more than I planned. But at last, it worked! My Libretto, with the IDE/CF card installed:
libretto inside with hard drive
Click to enlarge. IDE/CF card in upper right instead of hard drive.

So, how does it work? Well, it works amazingly better than I had hoped! It is fast! It is at least twice as fast as the traditional hard drive. Booting from a cold start, I get to a log on prompt in less than 1/2 the time I did from the hard drive. And from there, to a fully rendered X GUI also in about half the time. It lasts forever! The solid state “hard disk” just sips power. From a more-or-less full battery, I have had it on for two hours now, and the ACPI is still reporting 2.5 hours remaining. At one point it reported over 6 hours remaining, although it stabilized to about 4.5 hours after a few minutes. Still – 4.5 hours on a charge! That’s incredible, considering what it can do! And finally… It is Scary Silent. I mean, it is unnerving. It does not make any noise. The most intensive thing I do with it typically is launch Firefox. When I do, I’ve become conditioned to hear lots of whirring and clicking as the hard drive does whatever it needs to do. Now? Nothing. Just utter silence. The hdd light still flickers, so I know it’s doing something, but it does it fast, and silently.

What more can I say? This thing is now frigging awesome. Sure, it’s still only a Pentium MMX 166MHz, it’s only 64MB of RAM, and it’s only got 1 GB of “hard drive”. But it will fit in an overcoat pocket or cargo-pants pocket, it weighs less than 2 pounds (did I mention the CF card weighs nothing, compared to the hard drive?) and it goes for 4 frigging hours! Damn!

Smiley Face
I have a happy.