Another Recycling Rescue!! – Replacing Reliant

README.1ST

This post is a bit of a computer build log.  Though I really just swap the guts from one case into another with a few slight tweaks.  I also did the work on this machine on one of my typical workbenches – my office desk so you’ll see some other machines in the background as well as the subject machines of this post.

Reliant:  You Served Us Well:

So first off, what is Reliant?  Reliant is the name of a very dependable and regularly used old workstation in our office.  It was named after the USS Reliant from Star Trek 2 – The Wrath of Khan (easily one of my top 10 favorite movies of all time).  Reliant is an older machine, a Dell Optiplex 755 model with just 2GB of RAM and a core 2 duo e6600 (2.4GHz).  Over the years people repeatedly had issue with it due to the low RAM and poor integrated graphics.  This machine had some odd issue with the RAM slots, it seems that half of both the A&B channels had burned out.  How that can happen is beyond me, but I could only populate DIMM3 & DIMM4 (a2 & b2) on that machine and I either didn’t have any 2GB DDR2 memory or the ones I had didn’t work in that machine.

The machine was given to me by an ex-coworker so I didn’t have a dime in it.  I might have considered upgrading it before, but it was still working well enough.   In addition, being installed in a very tight spot didn’t make me eager to do any work on it.  But after 4 years, it is time for a change to something better.

The Awesome Find:

The replacement system I picked was a junkyard find, a Dell XPS 8300.  This machine is one of the newest pieces of hardware I’ve ever found at a yard.  When I found this XPS and saw the i7 tag, I could hardly believe what I saw.  I figured it must really be dead because it was only a few years old.  It had been kicked around the scrapyard for a while so it was pretty beat up.

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When I got it home I proceeded to see if it worked and it did turn on.  I immediately heard some beeps and after some quick checking found that the the beep code I heard was “real time clock failure”.   Seriously… real time clock failure, so the battery was just dead?  Really?  Sure enough after changing out the battery I was greeted with the post screen on the next power on.  Now in all fairness, I ended up finding that there was some memory incompatibility with one of the pairs of RAM that was installed causing some startup beeps once in a while and which also destabilized the system.   The memory was probably upgraded because it had a pair of two 2GB DIMMs installed and a pair of 4GB DIMMS installed – I never checked the service tag, but the 4GB DIMMs were probably the original equipment.  I’ll imagine the original user was fed up at that point, three problems with that computer that I could see (1, it was too low on RAM and needed an upgrade, 2, the machine was probably exhibiting the memory problems which forced 3, the machine to sit unplugged for a while and eventually killed the battery).   I suppose it is also possible that the battery died once the machine was sent to the scrapyard.  Either way, with those fixes the XPS was now stable and reliable.  This machine had no disk drives other than the optical disk when I found it.  At that time, I added a 128GB SSD as well as a standard 320GB SATA disk drive and installed openSUSE 13.2 on the SSD.

Finding the Right Case:

I picked the case shown below for the new system.  It was originally a Nobilis Pentium D system.  This was yet another junkyard rescue and is a little scratched and scuffed but nothing near as bad as the XPS.  I needed the height of the case to be less than 14.5″ tall.  You can see Reliant at the far right beneath the printer (there is not much room).

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The system in this case was filthy, not the worst I’ve seen, but it was pretty gross.  This case is a fairly standard mini-tower, two external 3.5″ bays, two external 5.25″ bays and 1 internal 3.5″ bay.  Basically it had everything I needed in a mini-tower case and the style was something I could live with.  I’m somewhat particular, I have around a dozen mini-tower cases but most of the others didn’t really stack up aesthetically.  The first case I picked was a Dell Vostro 220, unfortunately it didn’t have a removable I/O shield, it just had the ports punched out for the particular board it had installed by the factory.  I was actually pretty surprised by that.

Doing the System Swap:

Below is an image of the Dell before I removed the system.  I think it is interesting how dell oriented the internal 3.5″ drive bays sideways.  I’m not really a fan, it seems to me like there is limited room for upgrades (though most people wouldn’t need the space so I can understand the decision by the maker).

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The Dell has a standard micro-ATX motherboard standoff pattern as did the micro-ATX in the Nobilis system so no problems there.  I considered using the power supply from the Nobilis system but thought better of it for a few reasons.  First, the Nobilis is older and of lower power (380 watt vs 460 watt), second, the Dell power supply was specifically matched by Dell to that machine, and third, the Dell power supply was as clean as the rest of the Dell machines internals.

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Installation went fairly easily but one problem was the cable length of the SATA power connectors.  I have heard that Dell custom produces their hardware to their own specifications to save money.  As such, there was limited cable length beyond what comfortably fit the Dell case.  It really wasn’t much of a problem, I just needed to keep the main disk drive close to the secondary drive.  I was fortunate to have a spare 3.5″ to 2.5″ HDD converter I didn’t use from a Rosewill Challenger case to install the SSD.  This new system needed to have dual monitor support so I installed a Dell K192G NVIDIA GeForce9300 256MB video card.  These are decent cards for everyday home & office use and light gaming, they support two monitors via a DMS-59 port (fortunately I have numerous adapters).  At this point I was about finished.  I had transferred almost every part from the old Dell XPS 8300, even the case exhaust fan (because it was clean, worked well and was quiet).

A Fun Diversion:

With all the parts from the Dell XPS 8300 into the Nobilis case I thought I was about done.  But something was missing, some color, some flare…

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There is something about lights in a computer that is just plain awesome.  I wanted to have some red lights since my other machines in the area are pure blue.  I knew I had an old red LED fan, but IIRC it was in rough shape.  Yes indeed, after I dug out the clear plexiglass case it was installed in previously I found that though it still lit up bright as day the fan blade was wobbly and loose.  I thought I could just pull off the fan blade entirely, however the copper windings that remained got quite hot after running the fan for a few moments.  I tried to rip the remainder of the motor off from the plastic fan base.  Unfortunately, though I did get the motor piece off the circuit board, I ripped the contacts for all of the leds off the circuit board as well.  Next I found a blue led fan I had and started playing around with the salvaged LEDs from the red fan.  I found that they would light when connected to the leads coming off the blue LEDs, but that there was not enough power in the line to power both at the same time.  I ended up splicing two of the red LEDs into the fan.  I had to run out to the hardware store to get some heat shrink tubing.

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I used the red LEDs to point through the bottom two mounting holes of the fans frame.  Then, when installed, I taped the two blue LEDs where they could be seen shining nicely from the front of the case.  They give the front grille a cool symmetric colored glow as well as a nice color blending effect.  The ridiculous truth is I spent far too much time on the fan lights.

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Just one final step, get rid of that Pentium D sticker and replace it with the Core i7 badge from the XPS case.  Luckily that was easy enough and now the machine looks great!  I was able to squeeze it into the cabinet where the old Dell was, but it was a tight fit and it hangs out in both the front and the rear of the cabinet a little, though I knew it would.

Rambling Bits:

The system is performing as expected.  One thing that did surprise me was that my wife was excited about the new computer.  She had to deal with the issues on the old one so perhaps it should have come as no surprise.

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As with all my machines, I’m hoping for a long an uneventful life.  Since this hardware is newer, and has been previously tested as being stable I would think that chances are good we get many years of quality service from this machine.  But what about Reliant?  Well, I’m not sure yet.  It certainly still had good potential for a number of projects, so I guess we’ll see what happens.

Upgrades!! Part 2 Installing an Intel T9300 in my Dell Inspiron 1525 Laptop Computer

After literally weeks of waiting my Intel T9300 has finally arrived.  Honestly, my performance on this laptop has been adequate for my usage needs, so I’m not sure there was any real necessity to upgrade my CPU on this machine.  But an approximately 60% performance improvement (based on the Passmark website averages for the Intel T3200 & T9300 CPUs) for just $24 seemed too good to pass up.  When the CPU finally did arrive it came in the thinnest box I’ve ever received.  I was a bit worried that the CPU would have some bent pins.  Fortunately the CPU was not damaged.

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From the research I did before hand I found that the T9300 was the best value for performance increase available for the Dell Inspiron 1525.  In the past I have always found that CPUs that are a few steps down from the very best are usually the best value for money.  For example, the Intel T9500 is only about 8% better than the T9300, but the going price on these right now is $46!  Almost double the cost for a negligible performance increase.

My first step was to install the Passmark PerformanceTest 7.0 test suite to test the system.  I did a trial run of the CPU testing suite expecting to achieve results similar to the averages posted on the Passmark site.  In the past systems I have tested have been very close to the averages as shown on their site.  So when I saw the following results I wasn’t at all surprised.  The Passmark site average for the Intel T3200 is just 1046 – so a 1012 is pretty close to the average.  However, if you look at the CPU usage graph at the top of the screenshot below you’ll see the CPU at 59%.  After I noticed that I realized that one core was already running at 100% so I killed the process causing the issue and reran the test.

Screenshot from 2016-03-21 13-01-16

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To my surprise the cpumark score was in the high 1580s.  I was pretty shocked so I tested the system again twice and each time the score was within a few points.  This number was 50% better than the average.  I was only hoping to achieve a score of about 1680 with the new CPU and seeing how high the score was already I was a little worried that there wouldn’t be much benefit to the upgrade.  Regardless, I have the chip and I’m certainly going to install the thing.

Doing the work:

To replace the CPU on the Inspiron 1525 I needed to remove the large access panel on the bottom of the laptop.  Once removed there also is access to the RAM slots as well as the wlan, wwan & uwb slots.

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With the access cover off I then removed the CPU/GPU heatsink assembly.  There are five numbered screws on the assembly.  I would assume one is supposed to screw them in numerical order.  So with that in mind I unscrewed them in the reverse order.  Here is a view with the heatsink removed:

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The CPUs look pretty similar but the T9300 has a larger die.  Switching the chips out was pretty simple.  There is a lock on the CPU socket that needs to be turned with a flat screwdriver to release the CPU.  Then the installed chip can be easily lifted right out of the socket.

With the new chip in I was excited to boot the system.  Unfortunately the machine would only turn on for a few seconds, the screen didn’t even light up.  I was a little worried that the chip was bad, but then I realized I probably should have updated the BIOS.  Of course, I had to switch back to the original chip to get the computer to boot again.  What was worse was that there doesn’t appear to be a non-Windows BIOS update program for this particular machine.  So I was forced to boot an old laptop HDD that still had Windows 7 installed so I could run the Dell BIOS update.  I was on revision A16, and there was only one newer update, A17.  Luckily the BIOS flashed properly.  I rebooted the system to give a little test for stability and then proceeded to switch out the processor once again.  This time, success!  I hit the setup key to enter the BIOS and it seemed to freeze up the computer.  It turned out it was just doing something, very, very slowly.

Worth the 24 bucks?:

Now for the performance test.  Given the higher performance numbers that this machine generated on the old chip, I was at least hopeful of similarly better performance for the new chip.  But I didn’t rule out the possibility that I would only see the performance number that the Passmark site shows.  After a few minutes of waiting and wow!

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With the T9300 installed the machine pulled Cpumark score in the 2380s.  Which is a 50% performance increase over the T3200 chip.  I’m not sure what the discrepancy is for the superior performance of this particular Dell laptop.  I may have turned off any power saving features in the BIOS, however I don’t recall doing so.  It may also be because I have openSUSE linux installed.  My speculation here is that Linux may be able to use the system more efficiently.  Though that seems unlikely as well.  When I have used the Passmark software in the past I have achieved very similar results to the averages.  Usually a few percentage points above average but not too much.  I generally attribute that to the motherboard or performance features in the BIOS.

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The comparison between the chips is very interesting.  In some areas the T9300 is twice as fast as the T3200.  However in other areas the T9300 only out performs the T3200 by about 20%.

The upgrade worked great and I am very happy with the performance of the machine.  In my original article about this Dell Inspiron 1525 I figured that this laptop cost me about $91 including an estimated cost of parts I had on hand as well as parts I purchased including this Intel T9300 processor.  With this CPU upgrade my performance is still about 30% lower than the i5-460M in our other laptop.  But since my actual cost was only $40 out of pocket I really can’t complain.

The Next Day:

So after writing up this article I started to feel more and more like how could these numbers be so skewed compared to the averages on the Passmark test site.  The next thing I did was install the Passmark PerformanceTest 8.0.  When I ran the CPU again I came up with a result of approximately 2030 on each of 3 occasions.  This seems to be a rather large difference between versions.  Now I was curious how the old T3200 would perform.  So I ended up reinstalling the T3200 and rerunning the CPU tests.  On three tests I averaged out at 1360, which is 30% faster than the average.  The T9300 test results of 2030 are roughly 20% faster than the site average.

The interesting thing about both versions of PerformanceTest is that the T9300 outperforms the T3200 by about 50% overall in each version.  So, although the numbers were different between versions, they did effectively come up with the same results.

Though it was a pain to switch back and forth to the old CPU the information it provided was worth the effort.  I’m still very happy with the upgrade!

Small Budget 11TB openSUSE 42.1 Linux Raid 6 NFS/Samba File Server

Putting together a cheap Linux raid NFS/Samba server is a great way to centralize files & backups from everyone at home or the office.  For many users a NAS is a great way to go because they come pre-configured and do just the one job.  However the biggest drawback I see to those devices is the price, not to mention the lack of expansion potential.  When it comes to a NFS/Samba file sever any old dual core PC will work fine and you don’t even need much RAM.

The Preliminary Stuff – Finding/Picking the Parts:

This build was made entirely from used parts I had on hand aside from the 6x 3TB Hitachi hard disk drives.  To start I need to decide the rough specifications of the machine.  In this case I wanted at least a Core 2 Duo, preferably one with a passmark cpumark score of about 2000.  I was hoping to use an Intel E8400 or E8500 Core 2 Duo CPU.  I decided that 4GB of RAM was certainly sufficient and I picked the case, power supply & extra fan based on aesthetics.  However it didn’t hurt that the case had enough room, the power supply was decent and had enough power and even the fan was pleasantly quiet for a non-motherboard controlled molex type connection.

As for the motherboard, the main requirement was that it have 6 onboard SATA ports.  This is important as I wanted to run a 6 disk raid.  In the past I have built 8 drive raid arrays with twin PCI or PCIe controller cards.  Though I do not recommend that as a preferred practice.  Sure it works but the possibility for an entire controller to fallout is possible, thereby destroying the RAID array.  So, if at all possible I try to stick with a raid that can be run on one host controller.  I will admit I am a fan of Intel boards, they certainly do seem very reliable.  That being said, it is no surprise that I found the DQ965GF as a perfect fit for my project.  This board has 6 SATA ports and though it doesn’t support the E8400 or E8500 it does support many other similar CPUs.  I also selected a SIIG PCIe SATA controller card to control the boot drive.

Most of the decisions regarding parts on this machine were a small dilemma.  I don’t want to waste tech that would be better suited elsewhere.  On the other hand, I have lots of decent machines, shouldn’t my main file sever be nice?  Since this is one of my machines that will probably  fill a significant roll for a few years I figured I should make it look cool as well as function well.  So I picked a Core 2 Quad Q6600 for the main CPU along with 4 matched Crucial 1GB DDR2 667MHz memory modules.

Parts List:

Rosewill Challenger Case
Intel D945xx Motherboard
Intel Q6600 Core 2 Quad CPU
4x Micron 1GB DDR2 667MHz RAM
1x Hitachi 250GB SATA HDD
6x Hitachi 3TB SATA HDD
1x SIIG SATA Raid Controller (for added SATA ports only)
2x 3.5″ to 5.25″ Drive Bay Adapters
Extra Blue LED 120MM Case Fan
Raidmax RX 530SS – 530 Watt Modular Power Supply
Thermal Paste, Screws, Zip Ties etc…

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Moving Forward:

To begin assembly I installed the CPU and the RAM while the motherboard was still out of the case.  I had cleaned the CPU cooler and fan earlier in the day.  Fortunately this case had a similar Intel motherboard installed with the same standoff pattern so I was able to simply install this one into the case without changing the standoffs.  I did not find the I/O shield for this board, but really I don’t care.

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Next I started adding the disk drives.  I had originally planned to add 4 of the 3TB drives in the lower 3.5″ drive bays, and use two 5.25″ to 3.5″ drive bay converters to install the last two 3TB drives in the top bays.  I installed the 250GB boot drive in the bottom 3.5″ drive bay.

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After some test fitting and thought I decided it would be best to spread the hard drives out a bit more if possible.  I moved the 250GB boot disk into the lower external 3.5″ drive bay.  I then went and found a third 3.5″ to 5.25″ drive bay adapter and then rearranged the internal 3.5″ drive bays so there was an empty slot between the drives.  The machine now has a nice amount of open air between all of the disk drives.

After installing the disk drives I needed to install the 120mm fan to keep the upper drives cool.  This was pretty simple, I just zip tied it to the adapter rails of the uppermost hard disk drive.  Luckily the 5.25″ to 3.5″ adapter rails provided enough depth clearance for the fan to fit between the case bezel and end of the adapters.  In addition, because it is only connected at the top, the fan can swing up to allow removal of the lower drives.  Certainly this may not be the prescribed methodology for installing a second fan, but it has served me well in the past.

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In the image above I tried to route the front panel cables along the side of the case bezel.  I removed the audio connector wire, as well as the eSATA connector since I find it doubtful I will use either.  I have a few of two types of cable management “loops” with self adhesive bottoms that I use for situations like this.  I’m not really sure why the case manufacturer didn’t route the cables this way.  When new these cases just have the cables run through the 5.25″ drive bays but there is a convenient cable management hole next to the external 3.5″ drive bays.

The Raidmax 530SS power supply was used in a previous project and was in need of some cleaning.  I should have done a before and after though I am sure you can imagine.  The cleaning worked very well, the blades on the fan look great and the dust inside was easily blown/brushed out.

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With the power supply clean my next step was to get it installed.  It is often a project to get the cables routed just to my liking.  Ideally I’d like this rig to have nice looking well routed cables.  Things don’t always work out but in this case the cable routing worked alright – at least for the power cables.  Once installed I tested the machine to make sure the fans weren’t too loud and to check out the dual blue front fan.

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As you might notice, I installed the SATA controller card for the primary disk drive as well.  I also needed to rearrange the drives in the 5.25″ bays.  One of the adapters needed to be too far back to clear the fan.  However because it was too far back it was pressing up against the ATX power connector pretty hard.  In this lower position the drive is pretty close to a capacitor, I must have another drive adapter around here somewhere.  One thing I would like to do is to paint the drive adapter shown in the middle 5.25″ bay.  I only used that adapter because I don’t think I have any other of the gold anodized type.  It is nice because the drive placement matches the other adapter set I have but since I decided to move the third drive to the upper drive bays mid build I grabbed something quick I knew would work.

The final step was to install the SATA data cables.  I like to do the drives in order with the SATA ports.  For example, make the bottom drive connected to port SATA0, and move up in order so that the top drive is port SATA5.  That way if you do get a failed drive, say /dev/sdd, you can be pretty sure that is the drive connected to port SATA3.  I have noticed some boards or systems don’t always match the port names listed on the board to the port number in BIOS or maybe rather the OS does not report them in the same way, I don’t know for sure.

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With the SATA cables installed the machine looks a bit overrun with cabling.  I probably should have used shorter cables, but these were a known good set, and they were all bundled together.  I may go back and rework the data cables on this machine at some point, though it seems doubtful really.

Finishing things up:

It was late when I finished doing the hardware build.  I didn’t have it connected to a monitor or keyboard or anything but everything seemed to sound fine.  The following morning I attached the keyboard, monitor and mouse as well as a DVD drive so I could get the OS installed.  I had one issue, the recycled SATA controller card appeared faulty.  It would find the devices attached but would take forever, and had problems no matter which devices were connected.  As it happens, sometimes things are in the trash for a reason…  Fortunately I had a Startech card that I used to replace the SIIG card and my problem was solved.  Another small problem was the DVD drive I picked out didn’t want to boot.  I’m not sure why, but I swapped it out for another and I was on to install the OS.

I installed my standard operating system openSUSE on this machine.  I used the latest 42.1 release and installed the minimal command line only version.  Before the final boot to the installer I unplugged the power from all the 3TB SATA drives.  I’m always fearful that the boot loader will get installed on a drive other than the disk I want to install the OS on.  For the partition setup, I “short stroked” the hard drive using a partition of just 6GB for /.  The openSUSE installation used just 1.3GB.  System RAM usage is at just 101MB without buffers/cache.  It takes the system 12 seconds to go from grub to the login prompt.

Overall I’m quite happy with the system.  The performance seems adequate and all of the newly acquired drives appear fine – smartctl shows them all to pass.  The case fans look awesome and the final price was just $318 ($278 for the 3TB drives, $20 for the power supply & $20 for the case – everything else I had on hand).

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(Note: the featured image and the image shown directly above were taken before I installed the SATA cables.)

5 Days Later:

After a few days of testing I have found the machine and components fully competent.  The used hard drives all appear to be working well and the SMART data says they are all good.  The CPU motherboard and RAM are all apparently fine as well.  The system appears stable and has not crashed.  The server is able to fully saturate a gigabit network with 120/125 MB/s file transfer speeds.  I simply copied files from the server to a terminal to test the speed.  I did need to make two concurrent file copies as none of my receiving hard drives can write data at that speed.  Surprisingly a 500GB traditional disk was able to write at 95MB/s while a OCZ TRION 120GB SSD was only able to write about 70MB/s (same system/bus).

A friend of mine who read this article commented to me that most people might not have those other parts lying about.  Certainly that is true, the additional cost of purchasing the same parts on eBay that I had would be:

$30 – Intel DQ965GF Motherboard
$20 – Startech 2 Port SATA Controller
$15 – Intel Q6600 Core 2 Quad
$12 – 4x 1GB Crucial RAM
$10 – Hitachi 250GB HDD
$6 – 120MM LED Fan
$6 – 6x SATA Cables

This would add another $99 to the build for a grand total of $417.  Which is still less than many of those little NAS boxes – without any disks!  But let’s keep in mind that these are the prices on eBay, and also, that I only used those specific parts because I had them already.   The setup I have built is a little overkill.  While doing multiple concurrent backups as well as copying data from the server to a terminal I never saw the CPU usage go over 25%.  I believe the slowest of the Core 2 Duo chips is about a third as powerful as the Q6600 so any C2D system should work well.  Readers out there can easily purchase an old Core 2 Duo for next to nothing on craigslist, if not even acquire an old one from friends or family who have retired them.  Purchasing a prebuilt system or CPU/MB/RAM combo can be even cheaper than buying things separately.  Old Dells, Compaq and HPs can be had starting at $45-$50 (shipped) with Core 2 Duo CPUs and 4GB RAM on eBay.  This type of machine would be perfect to gut and reuse – and the old case (including the plastic parts) can be dropped off at your local metal recycling yard.

In the end I am still happy with the system.  The only negative is that is is a little loud.  It has 6 fans inside, which may be a few too many.  Maybe I’ll add some fans that are controlled via the motherboard – unfortunately there are only two headers on the motherboard for case fans.  Still a great machine and a bargain to boot!

My Recycling Rescue Dell Inspiron 1525 Laptop

Recently I rescued this Dell Inspiron 1525 laptop from the recycler.  I’m not sure how much I paid for this machine exactly as it came in a large group.  We can probably just say I paid about $5 for the laptop.  Though this isn’t a fancy or high performance system it is a great piece of hardware for everyday computer use.  I plan to use this system for web browsing, blogging and some light photo editing.  Of course I may also use it to watch some videos or listen to some music (on headphones of course) from time to time, and maybe even play some simple games.  System hardware as found:

CPU – Intel T3200 Dual Core 2.0GHz (Passmark 1047)
2GB DDR2 RAM
HDD – Faulty

I also happen to have another Dell Inspiron 1525 carcass from an unfortunate accident that has many spare parts.

When I found the machine it did not have a working hard drive.  There was no power adapter, and I cannot recall if the battery I have in the machine now was with it when found, or with the old 1525 I had.  Either way, I had one good battery and a charger.  With the charger plugged in the laptop sprung to life.  It appeared at first though that the battery did not charge.  I was under the impression that when the old 1525 was up and running the battery did not charge either.  This made me think the cheapo replacement charger was just junk.

I started using the 1525 with a 250GB 2.5″ HDD I had sitting around.  I installed openSUSE 42.1 and started using the machine lightly.  I had some system lockups and something made me think that it was hard drive related.  I then reinstalled openSUSE to a 16GB SSD to try and rule out the hard drive as an issue.  Unfortunately I continued to have sporadic system lockups.

As it turns out, once in a while the charger does work.  I did not notice this at first, because I did not know the battery was even charging at all.  When it does charge, sometimes the computer locks up.  I have noticed complaints about the video systems in the log files.  My guess is that the gpu or video card circuits are overheating when the battery is charging.  The entire machine tends to generate a good amount of heat, even though the fan radiator is clean and the fan itself is working fine (I pulled it off and cleaned it early on even though it wasn’t very dirty to start).  I am hopeful a CPU upgrade will alleviate some of the heat issue.  The battery that is installed is a higher capacity model and I can use the machine easily for 1.5-2 hours per charge.  This certainly may not sound too impressive, however, for an 8 year old laptop, I think that is pretty good.  I have taken to using it only when on battery power to avoid the lock-ups.  Since this is a secondary system I find the battery life quite suitable.  Another thought I had was, is it possible that the lockup problem is because of the generic power adapter?

The system came to me with 2GB of RAM, but can have 4GB maximum installed.  Some sources on the internet seem to imply that 8GB will work – but for my usage scenario I really don’t think I’ll need more than 4GB anyway.  Fortunately I was lucky enough to find a matched pair of 2GB DDR2 memory modules lying about between my spare parts and another parts donor machine.  With recycled computers, I take to testing the memory with memtest on every module.  No sense in chasing down issues caused by a bad module.  I also replaced the Wi-Fi card with an Intel one that supports wireless N networks.  In addition, I added a second Intel Wi-Fi card into the wwan slot.  I’m not sure why really, I have no need to connect to any second wireless network.  In addition, a second card running is probably draining the battery quicker, yikes!

I have tried to spend very little money on this machine.  Due to the age of the machine upgrades could cost as much as purchasing a newer “old” laptop.  Other than the primary machine cost of $5, I purchased an Intel T9300 CPU for $24 and a HDD adapter caddy for the DVD slot for $11.  All in all that’s just $40, which isn’t bad.  The performance of the new CPU should be about 60% faster, coupled with the SSD will let this machine remain viable.

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On the flip side I would note that we purchased a laptop for my wife for $95.  Her machine is an Intel Core i5 M460, it came with 4GB RAM, and the battery and charger were in working order, as was the hard drive (a conventional 160GB I believe) and everything else.  The passmark site rates the Core i5 M460 at 2353, and the T9300 that is en-route for my laptop has an average score of 1686.  Additionally, without the parts I had lying about I would have had to spend nearly or as much as purchasing the i5 laptop to build a comparable machine.

One sad note is that there may actually be some large problems with this laptop.  On occasion I have had an issue where the OS just goes to sleep as if the lid was shut.  I am hopeful that it is just an OS issue as I stopped the issue once by rebooting the machine.  The issue does not present often but is frustrating when it does happen because the system will go to sleep, and then I push the power and it comes out of hibernation fast, but will sometimes go right back to sleep.  My concern is that it is an issue with the hinge switch/wiring.  The right side hinge doesn’t open well and the case gets pried apart a little when the lid is opened and closed.  I try to be very careful with it, but perhaps a little lubricant on the hinge will solve the issue.  In addition the touchpad is in bad condition.  It touch clicks very easily and sometimes is unresponsive to touch at all.  Since it is integrated into the main body of the computer it can only be replaced by replacing the entire palmrest which is also the top half of the body piece.  It requires a lot of work to tear down of the computer to replace.  This is something I am very reluctant to do.  I do have one on the old Inspiron 1525, but I am uncertain whether it is in any better condition and it is also has a small piece cracked off  near one of the hinges (which could be fixed easily enough with some super glue I suppose).  One final issue is the charging of the battery.  It appears that the system BIOS does not recognize my charger as a Dell charger every time.  However after unplugging and plugging the power cord back in several times (usually 3) the charge light will come on.

I don’t suppose I needed any of the upgrades that were purchased specifically for the machine.  I would estimate the parts I had on hand and installed were worth about $41 ($15 SSD, $10 4GB DDR2 RAM, $11 Dell Charger, $5 Intel Wi-Fi card).  We can add another $10 for the 250GB secondary HDD I installed too.  If we add that $51 with the $40 that I actually spent we would come up with $91.  When you compare the two machines they are similar in specification.  Certainly the machine my wife owns is a newer generation but it is only about 25% faster than my upgraded Inspiron.  And in actual use with the SSD as the primary drive the Inspiron may in fact have the edge.  With the secondary disk drive installed the Inspiron also has 106GB more storage.

As I mentioned earlier I am using the openSUSE 42.1 Leap Linux distribution.  I am a fan and I install suse on all of my machines.  Since this machine only has 4GB of RAM I try to keep my number of tabs low in my web browser.  I also make sure to close any unused programs to free the memory.  Since this is one of the oldest and slowest machines on our network I was a little concerned that this latest version of suse would be too much for this machine.  Apparently I did not need to worry.  I was able to install and run suse normally with Gnome as my desktop.  I always install a number of extensions I find useful including a bottom bar and a favorites launcher.

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Ultimately I am happy with the computer.  Once I figured out the quirks of the machine it was simple to use effectively for my needs.  I like the fact that the laptop is still being useful and wasn’t needlessly destroyed.  And of course, I liked building it too.  Once in a while refer to it as my Frankenstein laptop since the parts came from so many sources – and was resurrected from the dead.  I’m hoping for a long trouble free life for this laptop though only time will tell!

 

Dell Inspiron 1525 Upgrades! – Adding a Second Hard Disk Drive

One of the few upgrades that can be done to the Inspiron 1525 is adding a second hard disk drive.  In some ways it is less of an upgrade and more of a feature swap as the DVD drive must be removed to add the second hard drive.  Personally I would far rather have the added storage of a second hard disk versus a DVD drive that is more than likely only used to install the OS.  This is probably why I consider this an upgrade.

My first step was to look on ebay and see if I could find a bay adapter that fits the Dell Inspiron 1525.  I found this no name adapter for just $10.99.  Unfortunately it came from China and apparently took the slow boat…  Well not really of course, but the seller waited nearly a week before they even shipped the item.

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Humorously enough this caddy doesn’t have any part numbers or compatibility listing on the packaging.  Ordinarily I would assume to see something that says fits such and such devices.  The adapter included a small screw driver and had some protective plastic that needed to be removed.

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This adapter supports all standard 2.5″ SATA drives.  I had a number of 2.5″ drives sitting around and picked the largest one I had – 250GB.  The drive is also only 5400 RPM, so I would hope that uses less electricity.

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The drive gets set down into the caddy and is then slid back to connect the drive.  The adapter has two screws to secure the front half (opposite of the connector end) of the drive.  The connection end is held in with the connector – which is a common drive retention method on both 2.5″ & 3.5″ drives.

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Removing the original DVD drive is very easy.  Just one screw holds the drive in place.  Once removed I was able to just pull the drive out of the slot.  However I did pop half of the drive face plate off while it was being removed.  This was no problem though as the face plate is easily popped on and off of the drive.

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With the drive already installed in the adapter and the DVD drive out I was ready to install the second hard disk into the computer.  Though the drive slid in easily, there is no tab for the single screw that retains the stock DVD drive.  I haven’t noticed this to be a problem, the drive adapter seems very securely installed.  Unfortunately the face plate that is installed on the drive adapter is not correct for the Dell Inspiron 1525.  No worries though, the stock face plate on the DVD easily installed onto the adapter and made the adapter look totally stock.  One question I have is, why is the face plate on the adapter printed up to look like a DVD drive?  I could understand if they reused actual Inspiron 1525 DVD drive face plates, but what is the point of printing DVD markings on a disk drive adapter bay.  I would think that a plain piece of plastic would have been ideal.

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After installing the part I booted the computer.  I was going to check the BIOS to see if the drive was found automatically.  I missed hitting the enter setup input key in time and because I have a SSD installed in this machine I was into the OS before I knew it.  When I brought up nautilus (file explorer) I immediately saw the drive in the left panel.

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Overall I am very happy with the end result.  The installation went very easily, and it is a very easy swap if I need to use the original drive in the future.  The next upgrade will be the installation of a Intel T9300 Core 2 Duo CPU – sadly, it too is on the slow boat from China.

My First Computer – Compudyne 3SXL/25 386 25MHz Notebook Laptop

The year was 1995, I was 15 years old and I loved computers.  I spoke about my history with computers in another post chris80502 The Early Computer Years.  This post will discuss the first machine I owned, the Compudyne 3SXL/25.

At the time of purchase it cost $684 and was already years out of date.  Especially when you consider the Intel Pentium processor was released in 1993.  However, for me, it was the best machine that I could reasonably acquire.

Specifications:

Intel 80386SX 25MHz CPU
4MB RAM (expandable to 6MB)
80MB Hard Drive
Integrated trackball
64 Shade Monochrome LCD Display
1.44 MB Floppy Disk Drive
Serial, Parallel, PS/2 & 15 pin DSub VGA Ports
100-pin Toshiba Compatible Expansion Slot Connector
24Watt/hr NiCad Battery
MS-DOS 5.00 with Windows 3.1

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The image of the laptop on the manual cover shown above is an actual and accurate representation of the real machine.  The Compudyne Microsoft WINDOWS 3.1 Concise Edition was just that, it is about 1/3 the thickness of the standard Windows manual of that era.  Unfortunately my books have “aged”, but I doubt many other copies remain today.  After a quick search on ebay there appears to be very little Compudyne related material floating around in the collector market.

A Brief but Enlightened Existence

As my first machine I was interested in experimenting with all sorts of different things that I had not had the opportunity to experiment with before.  Mostly software related, things like reinstalling the OS or doing some programming in qBasic.  I even installed Windows 95 on the machine, but it took something like 4 whole minutes to boot to the desktop.  Once booted with Win 95 the system was so slow it could hardly be used for anything.  I ended up settling back on DOS and Windows 3.1.

As you might imagine, I also played many games.  Those were the days of all sorts of fun shareware.  I would spend countless hours playing games like Wolfenstein in 3D, Doom, Packrat, Crystal Caves and Cosmos Cosmic Adventure amongst many others.  Indeed I owned some software of my own, most notably Lightspeed (a super cool early 3D RTS space sim with commerce, resource gathering, ship upgrades and combat!).

Primarily though I did a lot of programming on this machine.  I created a software program about Egypt and the pyramids for history class.  I created another program that did virtual frog dissection, and yet another that was about spider anatomy.  I was always working on some new bit of code or trying out some other fun idea.  One of my biggest projects was to create my own operating system, or rather like Windows as it was software that would run in DOS as Win 3.1 and earlier had always done.  I started work on a system which I called Isoworks.  I had created a basic user interface as well as some simple utilities, even a GUI icon creator for my new system.  When the system finally died, a lot of this code was lost, locked on a disk I couldn’t access.

Since this was a laptop I wasn’t able to upgrade much.  However I did add an external parallel port Addonics 2X CD-ROM drive.  In those days that device cost $300, if I had wanted to get the 4X, it would have been $600!

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I recently found the one shown above at a computer recycler I know.  I could hardly believe it when I saw this one, it looks very much like the one I had originally.  This one is marked 12x on the bottom and the installed CD-ROM appears to be different than the one I had in the past.  At any rate, the case is the same, as is the bold blue Addonics Portable CD sticker on the side of the drive.  Using the device was pretty straight forward.  Have the parallel port mode set correctly in BIOS, plug in the cable and use the included software in your autoexec.bat to start the driver.  With bulky cables and at a little over 5 lbs. you can imagine this CD-ROM was pretty cumbersome for portable use.

The battery on this Compudyne Notebook never worked.  I had looked into purchasing a new battery, but at the time they were quite expensive – maybe as much as $200.  Couple this with the portable CD-ROM and I practically had a desktop anyway.

The Beginning of the End

At some point not long into my ownership of the machine I started having trouble with the keyboard.  I found that the cable to the motherboard had started cracking in two.  I’m not sure if I caused the issue myself, or if it was just plain defective.  Regardless I had no warranty but I was brazen enough to attempt to fix the device myself.  Sadly though I only made problems worse.  I tried to do a soldering job to reattach the halves, that only melted the cable up.  At that point I was stuck and didn’t know what to do.  I ended up using the keyboard port with an external keyboard.  The days of this machine being a laptop were over.

It wasn’t long after having to use the external keyboard that I started looking into getting a new computer.  The truth is, I don’t remember what finally killed this machine.  All I know for sure is that it must have died, because I wasn’t able to retrieve my data (programs/code I had written) that were on that 80MB disk.  I had pulled the disk thinking I could use it with an adapter in a desktop machine, however I never found the right type.  I do still have the drive, maybe it works, who knows though after all these years.

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Regrettably this is all that remains of my Compudyne 3SXL/25.  I believe I got rid of the rest of the machine with some other computer waste in the mid-late 2000’s.

Rambling Bits…

Though it wasn’t much of a machine it allowed me to learn skills I later used and improved upon throughout my life.  I will always have a fond memory of this machine for that reason.  But it also reminds me of a time when I had dreamed of becoming a millionaire, having my own multi-national computer software company and creating my own user interface!

Budget openSUSE 13.2 Acer Aspire easyStore H340 NAS

A few months ago I picked up an interesting bit of technology, the Acer Aspire easy Store H340.  The price was right at just $50.  But of course it was craigslist and I offered $40, because you’ve just got to ask, and they accepted!

Quick Feature List:

CPU/Processor:  Intel Atom 230 Processor @ 1.60GHz (64bit)
RAM/Memory:  2GB DDR2 533 MHz (one slot only=single channel)
Chipset:  Intel 945GC Express
Video:  Intel GMA 950
Factory OS/Operating System: Windows Home Server
4x Tool less Hot Swap SATA 300 Drive Bays
1x Integrated 256MB USB Flash Drive
Size:  7.9″ Wide by 7.1″ Deep by 8.3″ Tall

81QUR1WRuuL._SL1500_cropThese are nice machines that feature a compact design with a cool modern look to them.  The drive bays are cooled by a large 120mm fan, however the unit is a little noisy, and the hard drives didn’t stay as cool as I might have expected.  Looking at the opposite side of the case the power supply is clearly blocking air flow, which is probably the reason for both the noise and heat.  I do like the look and feel of the power button, but as it is so large I have accidentally turned the machine off bumping it while opening the door.  I also appreciate the convenience of the front side USB port.

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This unit had a 2TB Western Digital HDD installed along with a 1TB Seagate HDD.  Unfortunately the 2TB had multiple S.M.A.R.T. issues including failure imminent on a number of checks.  The 1TB drive checked out fine, and I still feel I received a fair deal on the device.  I would at least hope that the original owner was unaware of the disk condition when they sold the machine to me.  Regardless, everything else about the machine was excellent.  Overall condition was clean and looked practically like new.  The original owner still had the accessory box and manuals that came with the unit.  And the OS was reset to factory (WHS).

Since this box had a license for Windows Home Server, I thought why not check it out.  After viewing numerous reviews & posts online I came to the conclusion that perhaps I should just install Linux (probably openSUSE, because that is what I know best).

This device has integrated graphics onboard, however there is no port on the back of the machine to connect a monitor.  The mother board contains a proprietary video/ps2 keyboard/mouse header but no cable was produced by the manufacturer for the general public.  This adapter cable can be purchased online, someone in Germany manufacturers them.  They are a little over $40 US for the VGA cable alone.  To me, this wasn’t worth the cost.  Computers are a fun hobby, but I don’t put much money into them.  Instead I looked for a 1x PCIe video card that would fit in the expansion slot.  At the time I thought it lucky the motherboard had that slot.  I got on eBay and found an ATI FireMV 2250 256MB for $14 bucks and used the best offer to offer the seller $10.  Again I was fortunate enough for the seller to accept my offer.  The ATI FireMV 2250 supports two monitors via a DMS-59 port which requires an adapter to use with any monitor.  Once again my luck was with me, I found a DMS-59 to dual VGA for just $4 with free shipping (not really sure how a seller on eBay can make any money with a price like that but I’m not complaining).  With those two parts I was ready to install the new OS.  As you can see in the images below, there is not much room to get any expansion card installed.  I had to detach the card bracket to get the card into position and then screw the bracket back onto the card once installed.

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My original idea was to install the OS onto the integrated 256MB USB flash memory.  First, I attempted to install openSUSE 13.2.  Unfortunately I could not get all the way through the installation program.  I tried multiple times, but seemingly random crashes would happen.  My first guess was some type of hardware failure.  I checked the RAM, and I tested the newly acquired video card in some other comparable hardware.  At the very least, those parts seemed to work fine.  I tried a number of other OSes, including Ubuntu 15.04 server and Windows XP to see if I could get any system running on the machine.  After many failed attempts I was starting to think that perhaps the motherboard had some undisclosed issue.  After a bit, it dawned on me that perhaps the new video card was the problem, like an incompatibility with other installed hardware.  My best guess is probably a conflict with the onboard video, which I don’t think could be  turned off in the bios (or jumpered off on the motherboard).  Ordinarily, I might have just installed the OS on a comparable machine, and then move the disk drive to the computer that won’t install.  Since I was so intent on using the integrated USB flash as the primary disk drive I hadn’t considered that option.  The machine only has 4 onboard SATA ports, so if I would use one for an OS, I would only have 3 left for my raid (or at the very least for single drive hot swap use).  Certainly you could probably add a 1x PCIe SATA controller, but the case configuration is pretty tight and there is hardly enough room to sneak in custom mounted 2.5″ HDD anywhere.  Finally, I did end up deciding to install openSUSE 13.2 (minimal CLI server) to a similar machine onto a 2GB USB stick.  I figured, at least maybe this way I could finally find out if the machine was damaged or there was just some funky issue with installation.  I added a small script at boot time to write to a file and say “worked”.  Sure enough, the installation on the USB stick started right up (after letting the H340 boot for about 2 minutes I just yanked the USB and plugged it into a different machine to see if it had written the file).  I had configured the network settings during the initial install.  However, I did not know what name the interface would get in openSUSE.  Once again, I modified the 2GB USB disk in a different computer to run the command “cat /proc/net/dev  >> /somefile.txt” at boot.  Then after the H340 was booted up, I pulled the USB stick and read somefile.txt on another machine to find the network interface name.  Next I modified “/etc/sysconfig/network/ifcfg-interface_name” on the flash drive, to replace “interface_name” with the interface that I found in somefile.txt, such as eth0.  With that last change, I booted the system one final time and was able to SSH into the machine soon thereafter.

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I was somewhat worried about adding a flash drive as a hard disk for a couple of reasons.  Mostly I was concerned it may be slow, but I was also concerned that it could get broken off.  Fortunately it is right below the ethernet cable and doesn’t appear to be in any particular danger of physical damage.  As for the speed, it seems fine.  I don’t use the device for much other than cleaning and checking hard drives, which isn’t disk intensive on the OS drive of course.

In the weeks that followed the build I found the H340 to be a competent and reliable performer.  Though a little doggy, the Intel Atom 230 did well enough for what it is.  When cleaning 4 hard drives at the same time the CPU usage was at consistent at about 60-65%.  The openSUSE 13.2 installation has never crashed, at boot time it uses just 120MB of RAM.  The hot swap drive bays work great, and I love how they are tool less.  I didn’t bother trying to get the drive bay lights to come on, or to stop the i from flashing on the front panel.  I know others have worked at this, and it may be fun, but I guess it isn’t really necessary.  I have considered using this machine with a raid array and nfs.  Sadly, I don’t have any other conveniently tool less hot swappable available setups like this.  So the ability to pop a hard drive into a machine to test/clean/recover is a better use for me.  Due to the machines small size I was able to install it on top of my main workstation, looks pretty cool!

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One of the great things about this setup is that the H340 really becomes almost an extension of my main workstation.  Since I control it remotely through ssh on my main rig, and since it is within arms reach while I’m at my desk, it is just as good as having an additional 4 hot swappable hard drive bays inside the main case.  Linux is perfect for this type of setup, and probably makes it seem a little more seamless.  I’ll do a post on my trash picked Intel Dual LGA1366 workstation sometime soon!

In conclusion, though this was a frustrating build it did turn out very well.  I ended up spending $54 on the build total, but of course, I didn’t really end up needing the video card and adapter cable ($14).  I’ve seen the H340 going on eBay for about $100 (depending on disk configuration), so my price to value ratio was pretty good.  I would definitely recommend this item to anyone considering one for a reasonable price.

Restoring a 1990 IBM Model M2 Keyboard

One of the first projects I did when I got back into playing with retro computers was to clean up this old IBM model M2 keyboard.  This keyboard is one of the few items that survived my ten year break in retro computing.  I’m not sure where this one came from,  and they weren’t especially common even back then, so I was reluctant to let it go when I cleaned out my original vintage computer collection.  I had always planned all those years ago to fix up this keyboard, so I figured this would be a fun project to undertake.  At the time I didn’t have a ton of other vintage computer projects yet.  I don’t think I had ever used this keyboard, simply acquired the thing.  As I remember, I had another that worked fine that I used frequently.  I’ll mention that specifically since I would have never let it get this dirty…

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The first step was to remove all of the keys.  Of course this makes cleaning easier and it has to be done to reinstall the back cover anyway.  I used a small hex wrench to pop each key off.

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I used some dish cleaning liquid in some warm water in a disposable container.  I had a second container nearby with some plain water to rinse the cleaned keys.  I had to change the water in the bowls once because they both became filthy.

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Although it looked bad to start, the keys all cleaned up very well and relatively easily.  I let them dry for a few hours on some paper towels.

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In the mean time I cleaned out the main body of the keyboard with a small dust broom (outdoors of course).  Then I used some running water and dish soap on some paper towels to clean the crevices.  Once that dried I started to reinstall the spring assemblies.  I thought that perhaps some had gotten lost over the years.  This keyboard had been dropped and one corner had come open many years ago.  Though I stored it in a box by itself those type of things have a habit of getting lost.  Fortunately it turns out they were all there!  I used two small glass blocks at either end of the keyboard body to keep it raised.  To verify the spring assemblies positions I laid out the long keys on the keyboard to see if I had filled in all of the correct spring assembly holes.

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Once all of the spring assemblies were in place I installed the back cover of the keyboard.  Now all that is left is to install all of the keys.  The long keys all have a bar that slides into a slot to help them glide smoothly, so I just use a little extra care installing those.  On the regular keys I am careful not to smash or bend the springs.  I test each key out by depressing in numerous times.  A properly installed key has just the right feel, and sometimes the keys don’t seat the spring properly.  In a case like that, I just pop the key off again and give it another try at installation.  Some of this may be due to the fact that some of the keys had slightly mangled springs.

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Once everything was put back together the keyboard looked great.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t tested the keyboard before hand, and when I did, I found it did not work…  I figured its a model M, I’m sure it works.  At the very least it is clean, and mechanically and cosmetically decent.  At some point I will probably find another that could donate any needed parts for this one.  For now though, back to the shelf you go.

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chris80502 – The Early Computer Years

This is a brief overview of my early years with computers.  I’ve been interested in computers as long as I can remember.  My first computer related memories are playing with the Logo program on Apple IIe machines when I was in first grade (I think 1st).  But it wasn’t until I turned 10 that I really first started learning about computers.  In 1990 my family moved to a different city where they had a much newer computer network comprised of IBM PS2 series machines.  One of those days, early after moving, I was talking to the network system admin and I believe I wanted to copy a disk.  He was kind enough to write down the DOS (v3.3 I believe) commands on a piece of blue ruled yellow paper, copy a>*.*, or something to that effect.  The more I think about it, the more I feel like that must have been some defining moment in my life’s development, almost as if the door had been opened or something.  I can remember that moment in time very vividly, in such clear detail- the admin, the paper, the look of his printing on the paper, the room, our position in the room, the 286 PS/2s in rows around the room.  Okay, anyway… that was the very beginning.

In 1993 my dad purchased a 486 Packard Bell 33MHz, 4MB RAM (IIRC).  I learned a little about Windows and DOS on that machine, however I never messed with things too much because I was nervous I would break things- and at that time I think he had paid about $1850 for the complete setup.  He used it for word processing and spread sheets, and we did go online as early as 1994 (I still have paint brush files that my siblings and I created).  My father is not technical so he also didn’t want me messing with things.  However, I was able to play with the school network a little throughout middle school.

I acquired my own computer in 1995.  It was a Compudyne 386sx 25MHz laptop with 4MB RAM, 80MB HDD 64 color monochrome screen, integrated trackball, and a dead battery.  It cost $684 and my dad bought it for me as an advance Christmas/birthday gift.  I started programming that year.  My high school offered a few qbasic programming classes so I joined and then proceeded to purchase the book Learned qBasic in 21 Days.  Within those 3 weeks I had learned far more than even the teacher knew about the language (what did she know anyway?  She was a math teacher, ugh…).  It was at that point that I became a nuisance to the school faculty.  While I wanted to learn more about computers I was far beyond everyone else in my classes – including the teachers.  So I ended up spending lots of time helping others.  Of course, that got old fast, I am a terrible teacher unfortunately.  Soon I was off to discover how the schools network worked and how I could get to DOS (or whatever the system at the time).  Though never on purpose, I did crash the entire network on at least one occasion.  Each year our high school attempted to rework their network software infrastructure.  After my first year there I guess they decided the network had too many holes, and indeed it did.  You could get to DOS from Microsoft Works somehow, lol!  Our network admin always suspected that I was to blame for some of the problems, however he could never prove that it was me, and quite probably, it wasn’t.  The big problem then was you could use a custom boot disk to circumvent the system startup and deliver you right to DOS.  From there you could do a ton of stuff, plus there were many other ways into DOS- and I was by no means the only person who knew these things.

At the end of my freshman year the admin told me they were going to upgrade the system to a new software that we wouldn’t be able to hack through.  He even offered to let me have a go at the system before the school year started.  Well, the software was installed but they never let me try to get into things.  As you might imagine this kind of made me upset, and I then made it my passion to find every hole in the system.  As an interesting aside, at the beginning of the year, there were new users for every student from the previous year, all without passwords.  So we (my friends and I) added passwords to every student we could think of that left school that last year, to gain extra accounts to use while we attempted to get into the system.  Once again, the admin had no way to track us.  Within the first quarter of the school year we had identified a numerous holes in the new system.   So many in fact that I wrote a small book and left a copy in the library computer lab where I was sure it would be found by an appropriate person.  I guess I just felt super burned by the whole situation.  Certainly, I never did anything to damage things, and by presenting the book, I was only doing what I had originally offered.

During the beginning of my junior year, I acquired my next computer.  To be clear, I did have a few other machines previously, but nothing I considered a real computer, lol.  An old science teacher had given me an old Apple IIe compatible (probably a Franklin).  I played some games on that one, but promptly ended up taking it apart and destroying it – I’ve never had much respect for Apple, then or now.  I also had an old IBM 8088 machine that was gutted and we used an oxy-acetalene torch to remove all the sockets from the motherboard.  I can’t for the life of me recall why we did these things.  Anyway, this new computer was the first I built myself.  I was so worried that I would damage the CPU and RAM that I purchased those parts with the motherboard and had them installed by the seller.  It seems funny to me now, you could can be entirely careless with those early socket 7 CPUs, bend a few pins, no worries, bend them right back.  Nothing like how easily motherboards of today can get a damaged pin, and they can be hard if not impossible to fix.  For this first build I spent some pretty big money for a 16 year old, about $3462!  I was lucky my father was willing to loan me this much via his credit card.  All of these purchases were through companies who advertised in Computer Shopper.  That was my favorite magazine of the 1990s.  I used to carry that huge book around all over, when I found an item I liked, I wrote the page number on the cover.  Back in the 90s it seemed like every part was about $200.  Need a sound card, okay $200, how about a video card – sure $200, RAM upgrade – no problem – $200.  Here is a quick list of the system specifications:

Intel Pentium 150MHz (was supposed to be a Pentium Pro 150MHz…)
32MB RAM
3GB Quantum Fireball HDD
Diamond Stealth64 2001 Video Card with 4MB Video Memory & TV Tuner
Sound Blaster AWE32
Cadet AM/FM Radio Tuner Card
Iomega 100MB Zip Drive
8x CD-ROM
6 Disc CD-ROM Changer

For the time, this was an impressive machine.  Kids I went to school with questioned the need for 32MB of RAM, which was certainly a valid point for me in particular, because I really didn’t use the machine to its full potential.  The TV tuner card was awesome, and the radio card was a neat novelty as well.  I also had an ISA fan card installed that was pretty unnecessary.

During those years I was sure of what I wanted to do in life.  Be a programmer.  It was something I thought was fun, and it was something I knew could make a good living.  By my junior year in high school I had moved on to the final programming class our school offered, which switched to the Pascal language.  For some reason I didn’t go after learning Pascal as I did qbasic.  I think I felt it was a bit archaic.  I probably also felt that it wasn’t worth learning another language that I wouldn’t use in a professional career.  Unfortunately, the teacher of the class and I did not get along.  This jerk-off was my math teacher too.  I have never been good at math, and this guy wasn’t a good teacher.  At the time I suppose I was a bit of smart mouth as well, which generally doesn’t bode well for most students.  Due to a combination of the aforementioned issues I did not do well in his class.  I also found myself wasting too much time playing around with things I shouldn’t have been, and not doing work.  I suppose that at the time, network computer time was a premium that you could only have access to so much of per day.  My plan at the time was to get into the advanced placement college courses for computer programming at a local technical school for my senior year in high school.  But as one might expect, that same teacher had to sign off on that, which he was not willing to do.  I was furious, I left the computer lab and about half way down the hall I punched a locker.  I had to trot down the hall quickly as I heard a different teacher came running out to see what caused such a commotion.  All this culminated in my first “walk away” from computers.