What to do with an old laptop?

Пост доступен на русском языке via Восстановление на Softdroid: Как вернуть к работе старый ноутбук.

After five long years using my trusted (and now extremely out of date) laptop, I’ve finally moved along to something better.

Old Laptop

Dell Latitude D610, Intel Pentium-M 750 (1.86GHz), 2GB RAM, 60GB HDD (using Truecrypt software FDE), 14.1″ 1400×1050 LCD, Windows XP Professional 32-bit SP3.

New Laptop

Dell Latitude E6510, Intel Core i7-820QM (1.73GHz, with Turbo Boost to 3.06GHz), 8GB RAM, 250GB HDD (using Seagate hardware-based FDE), 15.6″ 1920×1080 LCD, built in 3G HSPA modem for use when travelling, backlit keyboard, Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit.

Mini Review of Dell Latitude Series

I’m not one to replace my laptop hardware often, but it was time, as I had less than a month of my 5 year warranty remaining and I was out of hard disk space. Plus, the old laptop was breaking down a bit too often for my liking. Motherboard replaced 4 times, LCD replaced 3 times, keyboard replaced 2 times, and HDD replaced once. To Dell’s credit, they never made any fuss and always promptly sent out replacement parts without making me run irrelevant diagnostic tests, but it was all getting a bit too much. I think the main reason I had so many problems was the poor placement of the exhaust vent on the Latitude D-Series chassis, which was on the back and always blocked by the port replicator, causing constant overheating. I was happy to see that on the E-Series chassis, the exhaust vent has been moved to the side instead.

I have yet to try out all of the new features of my new laptop, but I will say that it’s Fast (with a capital F). Especially compared to what I was using before. The screen is amazing and the backlit keyboard is icing on the cake, because these days I use the computer with the lights off a lot, due to having small kids around. Not that I need to look at the keyboard whilst typing, but it’s still cool to have nonetheless.

A Dilemma

However, I now have an old laptop in working condition which is sitting idle, and I don’t know what to do with it. First, I considered repurposing it as a training computer for my 3 year old daughter and installing a netbook OS as those should in theory be pretty basic and easy to use.

First I tried Jolicloud (PreFinal release), a netbook OS that seems to be getting generally good reviews in the blogosphere. I tried the LiveCD and was disappointed to find that the Intel wifi card in my laptop did not work (nor was I able to find any information online about making it work). So I just gave it a look-through offline, enough to get a feel about what it offers.

Then I tried Ubuntu Netbook Edition (version 10.04), where the wifi did work on the LiveCD. Overall a pretty similar experience to Jolicloud, which was not a huge surprise given they share the same foundations. Jolicloud seemed to offer a better out of the box experience (rather it would have, had wifi been working), but Ubuntu’s UI polish was much better.

However, finally, both options seemed somewhat underwhelming and I kept on thinking to myself, “What if I just put XP back on this thing?” After all, XP is now almost a decade old, very stable due to years of bugfixes and patching, and pretty snappy too. Jolicloud and Ubuntu, as netbook-optimised OS’, stand out when dealing with real netbooks which have very limited vertical real estate. However, with 1050 pixels on the Y-axis, the appeal of screen real estate saving features was pretty minimal.

After all this, I also gave up on the idea about using my old laptop as a training machine for my daughter. Makes more sense just to use the home desktop with Windows 7 and a regular keyboard and mouse rather than using Windows XP with a relatively confusing trackpad.

I think most likely, I probably will install Windows XP on the old laptop. The alternatives are underwhelming. Though, I still have no idea what I’ll do with it.

ATI Mobility Radeon Drivers from Dell

A couple of days ago I wrote about some headaches upgrading to Windows XP SP3. This was related to my ability to rotate my screen being scuttled by the SP3 update. Microsoft said I needed a driver update to restore this functionality but Dell did not seem to provide one, so I tried to get some publicly available drivers from the ATI website which didn’t work for me, because they didn’t contain any definitions for the Mobility Radeon series, only the desktop versions. This meant that although my monitor rotation worked, I couldn’t get my LCD to display at the native 1400×1050 resolution that it usually displays at, which was a deal breaker and I had to revert to SP2 and install the Windows Service Pack Blocker Tool Kit to stop it from automatically upgrading again.

A couple of comments later, people pointed out that the problem is really Dell’s rather than Microsoft’s because Dell hadn’t bothered to release a driver update in years despite ATI continually updating their reference drivers. What’s worse, Dell has a deal with ATI where Dell users can’t download drivers directly from the ATI website. So users are supposedly stuck with the broken old Dell drivers that Dell couldn’t be bothered to update.

I did some researching on the Dell forums and found two entries that gave me the correct information so that I could find drivers that worked with SP3, even though they were unsupported by Dell. There is a “hidden” link on the ATI website that allows you to download the drivers for Mobility Radeon series bypassing the compatibility check that usually stops Dell users from accessing the drivers:


After I got the drivers from this site, everything worked like a charm and I was able to use my video card rotation function correctly with SP3. One small gotcha regarding the latest ATI drivers is that you must have the Microsoft .NET Framework Version 2.0 installed in order to use them.

All of this would have been a lot simpler if Dell just kept their drivers up to date! I have a Dell Latitude D610, which is widely deployed at enterprises worldwide. It’s surprising that their enterprise customers haven’t made a bigger fuss about this.

Windows XP SP3 Update Gotchas

I took the plunge and updated my machine to Windows XP SP3 today, a good month after general release. I don’t like to install Microsoft software when it’s first released, because more often than not, there are too many unknown bugs and I like my workhorse machine to work well.

After installing SP3, everything (so far) seemed to work fine except that the monitor rotation feature of my ATI Radeon X300 stopped working, so I could no longer orient my monitor in a vertical position rather than the standard horizontal. I like vertical because it’s better for the office as more email headers and text info can be viewed on a single screen.

After tinkering around and getting new drivers from the Dell website (I have a Latitude D610), it still doesn’t work. I then do a bit of Googling and find Microsoft KB 947309 (euphemistically titled Some third-party programs may experience a change in functionality after you install Windows XP Service Pack 3), which explains that this feature requires an updated driver to work with SP3.

Dell’s newest driver didn’t work (go figure), so I tried the one from ATI. When I tried to install it, it said that I didn’t have any cards that were supported by the driver (which cannot be true). In the end I had to use XP’s manual driver update interface and use the “Have disk” button to force it to install drivers that it warned me would not be compatible. I chose the ATI Radeon X300/X550/X1050 Series driver that came with version 8.5 of the ATI Catalyst software.

That seemed to do the trick after a reboot, but it did leave me wondering how any Joe Average computer user is supposed to figure this out and why this kind of stuff needs to break with a service pack upgrade in the first place.

This is also precisely why I never let any of my friends do OS upgrades with Windows, because it’s less headache to start fresh and reinstall apps then it is to try to troubleshoot the shortcomings of Microsoft’s upgrade paths.

UPDATE: I had to revert back to SP2 and the old Dell drivers. More details later (and a fix).