Don’t Burn The Bridge Back to Windows When Installing Ubuntu Linux

The good news is that my new budget laptop Dell Inspiron 11 3000 (3180) can run ROS inside Windows 10 WSL. The bad news is that, with only 32GB of storage, space is really tight for accommodating two operating systems. (OK… one and a half.) Since this computer was purchased to run ROS, the next step is to wipe the entire drive for a clean installation of Ubuntu. Before I do that, though, I wanted to make sure I don’t burn my bridge for a return to Windows.

It used to be that Microsoft makes it difficult to download Windows, and even when I have a copy of the software it’s a paper records keeping hassle to keep track of license codes. Nowadays Microsoft makes it easy to download Windows, and computers like this Dell now have the license embedded in hardware so it can never get lost. These advances make it much easier to install Windows from scratch.

Installing the version of Windows 10 direct from Microsoft avoids annoying add-on trial software, but it will also lack power management optimizations from Dell. These optimizations can make a tremendous difference in battery life. When my Lenovo Y480 received a clean install, battery life dropped from four hours to one. Perhaps in time all the power management tricks will be standard and supported by standard Windows, but until then, I need to keep the Dell version.

The best tool in this situation is the system image backup option built into Windows 7. It seems to have been pushed into the background behind newer data retention features, but it keeps a full copy of all partitions of my storage, which is what I wanted to record before it all gets erased to make room for Ubuntu.

Backup and Restore Windows 7I’m sure part of the reason this backup option is less favored is because it’s a hassle to restore from. Not only does the system image backup drive need to be available, the computer needs to recover by booting with something that can make use of system image, meaning the user needs to plug in two drives to perform a recovery. (I’ve tried several times to make the “recovery boot drive” and “system image drive” the same drive and have never succeeded.)

In times of Windows 7, the recovery disk would be a bootable CD-ROM. This can be created by clicking “Create a system repair disc” in the menu above, but this Dell laptop has no optical drive and hence the optical disc creation tool is useless. What I need to do is create a bootable recovery USB flash drive instead.

Strangely, the utility to create a bootable USB recovery drive has been cut off from any menu I’ve looked in. I’ve only been able to launch it by pressing the Start button, typing “Recovery”, and hope Windows search can find it. This tool is probably getting phased out since the Windows 10 installation USB (created by “Media Creation Tool” linked above) also has the ability to restore from system image. However, I’ve had problems with version mismatch errors trying to recover using Windows installation USB. So a recovery drive created with the same computer best guarantees this drive boots on this computer to restore this image.

Create a recovery drive

Creating a system image plus a bootable USB recovery drive preserves my option to return to Windows 10. Not just any version, the Dell tuned version with power consumption optimized for this specific hardware. Now I can erase this small 32GB eMMC for Ubuntu’s exclusive use.

Discount Dell Inspiron Laptop Lacks SATA Connector

Small Laptop TrioMy Dell Inspiron 11 3000 (3180), super-discounted as part of Dell’s Labor Day sales, has arrived. It is a compact little machine very comparable to the old Acer Aspire 10 and Latitude X1 I already had on hand. Upon powering it up, I was treated to the familiar Windows 10 setup routine which I had to complete before I could get into Windows and poke around.

The biggest performance limitation is, no surprise, the modest processor. While it is faster than either of its compact predecessors, it falls short of what I expect for lightweight everyday computing needs. Earlier I had praised the Acer Aspire 10 for running Windows 10 but that’s because it was a computer from 2014. A computer from 2018 faces higher expectations. The saving grace here is that this chip is a 64-bit CPU and Dell had installed the 64-bit edition of Windows 10. This makes Windows Subsystem for Linux possible here, whereas it was not available to the other two machines and their 32-bit only processors.

The next limitation was also as expected from the specifications: its 32GB of eMMC storage. It is faster than microSD cards, USB flash drives, or spinning platter hard drives, but those are low bars to clear for modern solid state storage. That didn’t matter, though, as space rather than speed turned out to be the limiting factor. Dell shipped this machine with Windows 10 Fall 2017 edition instead of the expected Spring 2018 version. When I tried to update to Windows 10 Spring 2018, the upgrade process failed due to lack of space.

Well, I bought this machine expecting to put a SATA SSD inside, after the Dell service manual indicated this chassis had space for such a drive. That’s the main reason I gambled on this purchase. (Enabled by the other big reason: Dell always provide excellent service manuals.)

Dell 3180 opened

As soon as I opened it up I saw I had been foiled by cost-cutting. Yes, this chassis has empty physical volume for a standard 2.5″ laptop SSD, but the connectors are absent. Not just the physical brackets on the chassis, but also the electronic SATA and power port connector. On the system board for this machine, we can clearly see where a SATA connector was designed to go, but on this low-end budget Dell (unlike a higher-end model) they’ve skipped over the cost of not just the connector but also several electronics components nearby to support that connector.

No SATA For You

If only the SATA connector was missing, I might boldly solder something together. But those un-populated component pads nearby tells me getting SATA online won’t be easy. Oh well, no SATA SSD for this guy! I knew it was a gamble, that’s why there were backup plans. Time to go back into Windows 10 and get ROS up and running in WSL. If that fails then I will contemplate erasing Windows 10 from the built-in 32GB eMMC storage in favor of Ubuntu.

Dell Inspiron 11 3000 (3180) As Robot Brain Candidate

Well, I should have seen this coming. Right after I wrote I wanted to be disciplined about buying hardware, that I wanted to wait until I know what I actually needed, a temptation rises to call for a change in plans. Now I have a Dell Inspiron 11 3000 (3180) on its way even though I don’t yet know if it’ll be a good ROS brain for Sawppy the Rover.

Dell Notebook Inspiron 11 3000 3180

The temptation was Dell’s Labor Day sale. This machine in its bare-bones configuration has a MSRP of $200 and can frequently be found on sale for $170-$180. To kick off their sale event, Dell made a number of them available for $130 and that was too much to resist.

This particular hardware chassis is also sold as a Dell Chromebook, so the hardware specs are roughly in line with the Chromebook comments in my previous post. We’ll start with the least exciting item: the heart is a low-end dual-core x86 CPU, an AMD E2-9000e that’s basically the bottom of the totem pole for Intel-compatible processors. But it is a relatively modern 64-bit chip enabling options (like WSL) not available on the 32-bit-only CPUs inside my Acer Aspire or Latitude X1.

The CPU is connected to 4GB of RAM, far more than the 1GB of a Raspberry Pi and hopefully a comfortable amount for sensor data processing. Main storage is listed as 32GB of eMMC flash memory which is better than a microSD card of a Pi, if only by a little. The more promising aspect of this chassis is the fact that it is also sometimes sold with a cheap spinning platter hard drive so the chassis can accommodate either type of storage as confirmed by the service manual. If I’m lucky (again), I might be able to swap it out with a standard solid state hard drive and put Ubuntu on it.

It has most of the peripherals expected of a modern laptop. Screen, keyboard, trackpad, and a webcam that might be repurposed for machine vision. The accessory that’s the most interesting for Sawppy is a USB 3 port necessary for a potential depth camera. As a 11″ laptop, it should easily fit within Sawppy’s equipment bay with its lid closed. The most annoying hardware tradeoff for its small size? This machine does not have a hard-wired Ethernet port, something even a Raspberry Pi has. I hope its on-board wireless networking is solid!

And lastly – while this computer has Chromebook-level hardware, this particular unit is sold with Windows 10 Home. Having the 64-bit edition installed from the factory should in theory allow Windows Subsystem for Linux. This way I have a backup option to run ROS even if I can’t replace the eMMC storage module with a SSD. (And not bold enough to outright destroy the Windows 10 installation on eMMC.)

Looking at the components in this package, this is a great deal: 4GB of DDR4 laptop memory is around $40 all on its own. A standalone license of Windows 10 Home has MSRP of $100. That puts us past the $130 price tag even before considering the rest of the laptop. If worse comes to worst, I could transfer the RAM module out to my Inspiron 15 for a memory boost.

But it shouldn’t come to that, I’m confident even if this machine proves to be insufficient as Sawppy’s ROS brain, the journey to that enlightenment will be instructive enough to be worth the cost.

Installing 2.5″ SSD in Dell Inspiron 15 7000 (7577)

When shopping for the Dell Inspiron 15 7000 (7577) I browsed the various configurations available. It was clear the chassis has provision for two storage devices: One M.2 slot (with NVMe support) that is home to a SSD, plus one 2.5″ drive bay that is sometimes populated by a spinning platter hard drive.

This was an attractive feature of the chassis. Having two drives would allow dual-boot  between Windows and Linux while keeping each operating system completely independent. This is how I typically set up my desktop (and luggable) computers, but historically laptops only had one drive bay so this is a new luxury.

Since I don’t intend to use a spinning platter drive, I ordered the configuration with only a M.2 SSD. And while the chassis has provision for a 2.5″ drive, buying with only a M.2 means I’m not guarantee to receive all the support hardware necessary to use that 2.5″ bay. I held my breath when I first opened up the computer and exhaled a sigh of relief when I saw that all the hardware was present.

Here are the 2.5″ bay hardware that Dell shipped in this chassis:

  • Drive installation bracket, featuring metal plates on either side, each with two shock-isolation grommets. The plates are joined by a thin sheet of plastic that I thought was a cosmetic cover, but is actually part of the structure. Don’t rip it out by its perforations like I almost did!
  • Four screws to fasten that bracket to the system chassis.
  • SATA adapter electrically connecting the 2.5″ drive to the system motherboard.

All of these parts are highly specific to this chassis and would have been a real pain to procure separately. I might have been able to fabricate a drive bracket, and maybe find some screws that worked to hold it to the chassis. But the SATA adapter is well beyond my skills to build my own.

Dell 7577 2.5 inch bay hardware

A special happy surprise were these four hard drive mounting screws. They are  standard M3 fasteners and easy to procure separately. (Some 2.5″ drives even come with a set in their package.) But Dell decided it made sense to keep a set on hand inside the computer ready to go. Sitting in a row here, they serve no structural purpose. They’re just waiting for a 2.5″ drive.

Dell 7577 2.5 inch drive screws

The 2.5″ bay accepts only slim 7mm drives, so full size 9mm drives would not fit. I installed an Intel 530 series SSD as it was the most convenient 7mm drive already available on hand.

Dell 7577 2.5 inch drive installed

Unfortunately this drive did not play well with the laptop. 530 Series were known to be finicky and has caused problems in a few of my other computer projects. (Which is partially why it’s sitting around gathering dust…) And the problems continued inside this Dell. It was so unhappy, in fact, that not only would it stop responding to the computer, it would also occasionally knock the M.2 drive offline. Whatever it was doing, it wasn’t good.

I had an Intel 320 series SSD also sitting around, whose metal case would also work in a 7mm bay but it had the plastic spacer to make it fit snugly in a 9mm bay. Removing the plastic spacer was as simple as removing four screws (though it would have voided the warranty if it hadn’t already expired) but it also meant the drive fell apart. I ended up pulling two screws out of the 350 Series drive. That was good enough to hold the drive together in the laptop’s 7mm bay.

The 320 series was much happier working inside the Dell laptop, so now I could proceed to install the latest Ubuntu LTS (18.04) on that drive. Though I ended up having to erase 18.04 and go back to the much older 16.04.4, that story is coming up next.

 

 

Two Notes of Happiness on New Dell Inspiron 15 7000 (7577)

After waiting for almost a year for GPU prices to return to sanity, I gave up waiting for a discrete card I can install in my Luggable PC. I’ve been waiting to get started playing with CUDA-accelerated TensorFlow training and the best way to get an NVIDIA GPU at the moment is to get it inside a laptop. Since it’s not terribly practical (or price effective) for cryptocurrency miners to build huge racks of laptops for mining, the laptop variants of those chips are easier to come by, and at less crazy prices.

The laptop arrived and everything worked as advertised. But two items are worth calling out because they were details not found on a Dell specification sheet. I had my hopes but there’s no way to know until I open it up!

Dell 7577 Happiness

Happiness #1: Memory

Visible in the upper right corner of the picture are the two memory slots on this laptop chassis. Dell only advertised that the machine will come with 8GB of RAM, they did not specify the arrangement. I had expected them to fill up both slots each with an 4GB memory module because that’s usually cheaper for them. The downside of having two 4GB modules is when it comes to upgrade: with only two memory slots, any upgrade means removing an existing module and losing that capacity.

Fortunately, Dell shipped this computer with a single 8GB module, leaving the other slot open for future upgrade. I don’t have to remove any capacity when I upgrade – just plop a new module into that second slot and I’m good to go. This is great news.

Happiness #2: Hardware for 2.5″ Storage Drive

Visible in the lower left corner of the picture is the 2.5″ drive bay. Some configurations of this laptop are sold with a combination of a 2.5″ spinning disk hard drive augmenting the capacity of a small M.2 SSD. This particular model comes with a 256GB M.2 SSD and no hard drive. I had expected the 2.5″ bay to exist in my chassis, but empty. With not just the 2.5″ drive absent but also missing all the support hardware necessary to install one after purchase.

Fortunately, Dell shipped this computer with all the support hardware in place. This includes the metal bracket along with four screws to secure it to the chassis. It also includes the electronic ribbon cable necessary to connect the drive to the motherboard. Both of these items are specific to this laptop chassis and expensive to obtain if they weren’t already included. It’s good to see them present so I don’t have to hunt.

Extra nice touch from Dell: The M3 screws to fasten a 2.5″ drive to the metal bracket is a standard item and easily obtained elsewhere. Given the absence of a 2.5″ drive, I expected I’d have to find standard fasteners on my own. But I don’t need to! The chassis actually has a place to hold these four screws when not in use, and the computer came with these screws, too. This is a feature I’ve only seen before in a premium engineering laptop from their Precision workstation line, never on their consumer Inspiron line.

With these two thoughtful touches, Dell has made me a happy customer. In the near term I’ll install one of my old 2.5″ SSDs for extra storage capacity (and/or Linux dual-boot) and I’ll keep my eyes on DDR4 memory prices for a future memory upgrade.

Battery: Dell 33YDH

Not exactly a note of happiness, but just one bit of trivia I couldn’t find online: the battery module has a designation 33YDH, useful when shopping for a replacement. All batteries have a cycle life – how many times they can be charged and discharged. Some battery types like lithium-ion also have a calendar life. They will degrade over time no matter how much they are (or aren’t) used. So, in a few years, if I like this laptop enough to want to keep using it, I will need to shop for a replacement 33YDH battery.

Dell 33YDH

 

In A Distorted Computer Component Market, Buying Is Better Than Building

The typical rule of thumb is that building your own computer from components is far cheaper than buying a prebuilt machine. Buying parts from Newegg.com, Amazon, Fry’s Electronics, etc. results in a better machine for less money than getting something from Dell. This was certainly true when I embarked on the Luggable PC project but a few notable events have since occurred to make an exception to the rule.

The blockchain fad is the biggest disruption. Cryptocurrency miners’ demand for graphics processors drove up their prices tremendously. At the beginning of my Luggable PC project, a NVIDIA 1060 card with 6 GB memory is considered a good mid-range GPU. (Or an entry-level unit for the more demanding world of virtual reality). A desktop 1060 video card was available for around $200 and I expected its price to drop as I designed and built my luggable PC. Instead, it spiked up to over $400 at times and is now hovering around $300.

The second disruption is in 3D-NAND flash memory. It is a big step change in price/performance so flash memory makers had no choice but to switch to 3D NAND technology or risk going out of business long-term. In the short-term, chip fabrication facilities have to be taken offline for this conversion, which meant a shortage of flash memory, 3D and otherwise, across the market. Driving up prices of solid state drives.

The third disruption is in DDR4 memory. There isn’t as clearly a single factor here but manufacturing capacity seems to be lagging market demand over the past year or so. Right now, DDR4 memory is nearly double the price of similar capacity DDR3 memory when historically they should be closer to price parity at this stage of technology maturity.

There are a few other factors at play, but the short-term trend is clear: many computer components have risen in price over the past year, counter to the long-term historical trend of ever-cheaper electronics.

Computer manufacturers like Dell deal in large quantities, and therefore they buy through supply contracts whose prices are independent of day-to-day market disruption. The upside of this approach is that, in times of supply shortages, Dell pays far less for their parts than market price.

download (1)
Dell Inspiron 15 7000

Today’s example: a particular configuration of Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming laptop is available for $750 after promotional discount codes. Let’s look at the components and the current (approximate) market price for their desktop counterparts.

  • NVIDIA GTX 1060 with 6GB: Admittedly the laptop variant of this GPU is slightly less capable than its desktop equivalent, but for the purposes of this comparison we’ll count it at the full $300.
  • Intel Core i5-7300HQ: Again this is a laptop-only part. It is similar to the desktop i5-7400 processor in that they both have a peak speed of 3.5 GHz, so $200.
  • 256GB NVMe M.2 SSD: Unlike the other parts, desktop machines are happy to use the exact same M.2 form factor solid state drives using the NVMe interface. 256 is a little cramped but on a laptop it should be fine. (I stuck with 256 until the flash memory crunch eased a bit for me to upgrade to 512.) Let’s call it $100.
  • 8GB DDR4 memory at 2400MHz: The smaller laptop-sized DDR4 modules are a little more expensive than their desktop counterparts, but we’ll round up to $100.

With these rough estimates, we’re already up to $700 and we’re still missing some major components necessary for a working computer.

  • Motherboard with M.2 SSD slot and built-in WiFi: Bottom of the line units are available for $70-80 but a reputable unit will be $100 and up. (It is the backbone of the system so not the best place to economize.)
  • Power supply: We can pinch a bit here, reliable though not super powerful units can be had for around $50.
  • Display: A 1920×1080 IPS monitor will be around $100.
  • Keyboard, Mouse, case (luggable or otherwise) and other miscellaneous parts: Round to $50 for a nice even tally.

That’s $1000 to build a desktop or luggable PC with similar specs as this $750 Dell laptop. And while the screen might be physically larger, the whole computer definitely won’t be as lightweight and portable. Such laptop-only traits – light weight, tight integration, ability to run on battery – usually demand a price premium over equivalent desktops.

But things are weird in a distorted market.

(Cross-posted to Hackaday.io)

Dell XPS M1330 Battery Pack Teardown

We had an earlier success tearing down a Dell laptop battery pack, where the six salvaged cells still have 70% of original capacity after ten years of service. However, that was from a laptop that could still boot and run from its battery pack. This XPS M1330 battery pack is in far worse shape. How much worse, we were about to find out.

The first critical detail was realizing the battery pack was not the original Dell battery pack. It is an aftermarket type of unknown manufacture. The earlier battery pack tear down yielded Samsung cells, we’re probably not going to get anything nearly as nice this time around.

Once the case was cracked open the suspicion was confirmed: These appear to be generic 18650-sized lithium cells with no manufacturer branding. The nine cells of the battery pack were divided into three modules in series, each module had three cells wired in parallel. The module in the worst shape exhibited severe corrosion and had no voltage across their terminals.

Corroded 18650

The other two modules were in slightly better shape, but they have self-discharged down to approximately 1 volt DC, well under the recommended voltage range. A web search found some details on what happens to overly discharged lithium cells. In short: the chemistry inside the cell starts dissolving itself. If recharged, the dissolved metals may reform in inconvenient ways. Trying to use these cells has three potential outcomes:

  1. Best case: The metals dissolved into the electrolyte will hamper chemical reaction, resulting in reduced capacity.
  2. Medium case: The dissolved metals will reform in a way that damages the cell, causing it to fail as an open-circuit. (As if no battery was present.)
  3. Worst case: The dissolved metals will reform in a way that damages the cell, but causing it to fail as a closed circuit. Short-circuiting the internals will release a lot of energy very quickly, resulting in high-pressure venting and/or fire.

The corroded cells that have discharged down to zero volts have the highest risk and will be discarded. The remaining cells will be slowly (and carefully) charged back up to gauge their behavior.

Dell XPS M1330 Power Port Salvaged Using Desoldering Tool

Recently a dead Dell XPS M1330 came across the workbench. The battery was dead and the machine fails to boot. After some effort at reviving the machine, it was declared hopeless and salvage operations began. Today’s effort focuses on the motherboard port for the AC power adapter.

Dell Octagonal PowerThe power plug on this Dell different from the typical Dell laptop AC adapter: octagonal in shape rather than round. The shape meant it could not be used on other Dell laptops designed for the round plug. However, the dimensions of the octagon are such that an AC power adapter with the typical round Dell plug fits and could be used to charge the laptop. So while the laptop could be charged with any existing Dell-compatible AC adapter, the AC adapter that came with this machine is specific to this Dell.

Once the XPS M1330 died, its octagonal plug power adapter is not useful for other Dell laptops. It still functions as a power supply transforming household AC to ~19V DC so it might be useful for future projects. To preserve this possibility, the octagonal power port will be recovered from the system board.

The solder used in Dell assembly was possibly one of the lead-free types and is definitely reluctant to melt and flow. Trying to desolder the power port using hand tools (desoldering wick and hand suction pump) had no luck. So this project was chosen as a practice run of using a dedicated desoldering tool, in this case a Hakko 808. The tip of this tool heats up to melt the solder, and with a press of the trigger an electric vacuum pump pulls the melted solder through center channel of the heated tip and into a chamber for later disposal.

The desoldering pump was able to remove more solder than hand tools could, but was still not quite enough to free the port. Using a soldering iron, some user-friendly leaded solder was worked back into the joints to mix with the remaining Dell factory solder. Upon second application of the electric desoldering tool, enough solder was removed to free the port from the system board with only minimal damage.

Desoldering Tool

A test with the voltage meter confirmed this port is now ready to be used to provide ~19V DC power to a future project.

Socket Extraction Success

 

Remove Camera From Acer Aspire Switch 10

When the Acer SW5-012 (Aspire Switch 10) was received in a non-functioning state, it had a sticker covering the webcam lens applied by the previous owner. This is a common modification from owners who are concerned about malicious hackers activating the camera at unauthorized times. Some computer makers are finally meeting customer demand by placing physical shutters over webcams, but until that becomes commonplace, we’ll continue to have stickers/tabs/post-it notes covering webcams.

Removing the camera module would be a far more secure solution if the webcam is not to be used anyway. While impractical for some difficult-to-disassemble devices like an Apple iPad, we’ve already cracked open this Acer and test the concept. It turned out to be a straightforward exercise. The camera module is a distinct unit, the ribbon cable detaches from the motherboard easily, and it was only held in place by what felt like double-sided tape.

Acer Aspire Switch 10 Blinded

With five minutes of removing the back panel of the machine, the camera module was removed. The only lettering on it said CIFDF31_A2_MB and a web search on that designation returned several vendors happy to sell a replacement module. Sadly no technical information was found in a cursory search, so we won’t be trying to drive it with a PIC micro controller or anything. It’ll just sit in a zip lock bag for now.

And this intentionally-blinded Acer tablet is now available for use by house guests who are wary of hackers getting into the camera: no hacker in the world can activate a camera that is sitting in a zip lock bag in another room.

Windows 10 Can Activate With Windows 8 Hardware Key

Our recent project with the Acer Aspire Switch 10 laptop had concluded with one mystery: how did it get the license key? Because we didn’t have the password for the installation of Windows 8 on the machine, the hard drive was wiped clean and Windows 10 installed from scratch. We expected we’d need to purchase a new license of Windows to activate on this computer. Fortunately, Windows 10 proclaimed itself activated without the need for a new license.

At the time we did not understand, but we were also not going to complain.

A second data point came in the form of a Dell laptop, which also shipped with Windows 8 but purchased by someone who decided they did not like it. A Windows 7 license was purchased and installed on this computer, which was then upgraded to Windows 10 during the free upgrade period. The original Windows 8 was lost. Recently a new SSD was installed on this computer and Windows 10 was installed from scratch. And like the Acer, Windows 10 proclaims itself to be activated even though no product license key has been entered.

Curiosity now demands a web search for answers, where we learn both of these computers participated in a new licensing scheme launched with Windows 8. Instead of a counterfeit-resistant license sticker attached to the bottom of the computer, their product license is embedded in the hardware instead. We will never have to worry about the license key becoming illegible, or getting lost and separated from the corresponding hardware.

Windows 8 could access this key and activate itself. Windows 7 installed on the Dell laptop could not. Windows 10 could access this key and, more importantly, are willing to activate on it even though the license was technically for Windows 8. The official free Windows 10 upgrade period has ended but we can still get a free step up under these circumstances.

Windows Key Sticker
The Windows Certificate of Authenticity is now a relic of the past.

Acer Aspire Switch Runs Windows 10 (Fall Creator’s Update)

After Secure Boot discouraged me from putting a Linux variant on the recently revived Acer SW5-012 (Aspire Switch 10) convertible laptop, I tried to replace the existing Windows 8 installation (locked with passwords I don’t have) with the latest Windows 10.

The first thing to check is to look in the BIOS and verify the CPU is not a member of the ill-fated Intel Clover Trail series, whose support was dropped. Fortunately, the machine uses a newer CPU so I can try installing Windows 10 Fall Creator’s Update. I had an installation USB flash drive built with Microsoft’s Media Creation Tool.

I needed an USB OTG cable to start the installation. Once in progress, I deleted the existing Windows 8 system partition (~20 GB) and the recovery image partition (~7 GB), leaving the remaining two system partitions intact before proceeding.

When Windows 10 initially came up, there were significant problems with hardware support. The touchscreen didn’t work, there was no sound, and the machine was ignorant of its own battery charge level. Fortunately all of these hardware issues were resolved by downloading and running the “Platform Drivers Installer” from Acer’s support site.

Acer Win10

After the driver situation was sorted out I started poking around elsewhere on the system and found a happy surprise on Windows licensing. Since I couldn’t get into the Windows 8 installation, I couldn’t perform a Windows upgrade. Because I performed a system wipe, I thought I lost the Windows license on this machine. But I was wrong! I don’t know exactly what happened, but when I went to look at the computer’s information, it claims “Windows is Activated.”

The sticker on the bottom of the machine says it came with Windows 8 Pro. The new Windows 10 installation activated itself as Windows 10 Home. It is technically a step down from Pro to Home but I am not going to complain at the unexpectedly functional Windows license.

The machine outperformed my expectations. It handily outperformed my other computers with Intel Atom processors. I think the key part is its 2GB of RAM, double the 1GB RAM of the other Atom machines. The machine is surprisingly usable relative to its Atom peers.

Some credit is due to Acer for building a low-end computer in 2014 that is still capable on the software of 2017 (almost 2018.)

Acer Aspire Switch is Linux Unfriendly

Now that the hardware of an Acer SW5-012 (Aspire Switch 10) is back up and running, the focus turns to software. Windows 8 is installed but locked with passwords I don’t have. I didn’t care much for Windows 8 anyway, and whatever data exists is not mine to recover. So – a clean wipe is in order.

As with the Latitude X1, my first thought was to turn this little old machine into an almost-Chromebook with Neverware CloudReady. And just like with the Latitude X1, the attempt was foiled. The Latitude X1 was too old and did not support some processor features required by CloudReady. The Acer problem is just the opposite – the hardware is too new and deliberately blocks the installation.

The blocking mechanism is Secure Boot, which according to its own web site is a “security standard developed by members of the PC industry to help make sure that a device boots using only software that is trusted by the Original Equipment Manufacturer.” I would describe it with different terms. Either way, trying to install CloudReady – or a Linux distribution – results in the error screen “Secure Boot Error”.

Intentional or not, this puts the Acer in a bad state. It gets stuck neither fully on nor off, the screen dark but burning battery power and making itself warm. I had to disassemble the computer again to pull the battery from the main circuit board in order to reboot the machine.

In theory Secure Boot can be disabled, but various efforts by other people on the internet indicated this isn’t straightforward. I certainly had no better luck when I tried it: I can see the menu option, and I could change it from black on white (disabled) to white on gray (enabled) by creating an admin password, but I couldn’t figure out how to actually change the Secure Boot mode out of “Standard”.

Acer Secure Boot Menu

And it might not even be worth the effort, as forum traffic indicates there is very poor Linux driver support for this class of hardware. Probably related to the secure boot barrier but either way I’m giving up. I’ll stay with Windows on this machine.

Dell Latitude X1: A 2005 Laptop Tries To Fit In 2017

I thought it might be fun to try to get the twelve-year-old Dell Latitude X1 laptop up and running. My expectations were not high, but when I looked over the hardware specs I found the out-of-date hardware surprisingly within reason to run current software.

The computer came with Windows XP, which is long out of service. The previous owner of this laptop switched to running Ubuntu 11. Since that’s far out of date as well and I had no login information anyway, a clean wipe is in order.

I thought I’d jump straight to the latest Ubuntu 17.10, but was unable to find a 32-bit installer. The lack of a 32-bit installer turns out to be an intentional omission, part of Ubuntu’s plans to phase out 32-bit support. So I installed an older version (16.04 LTS) which did have a 32-bit installer, and upgraded from there. The resulting system was quite sluggish. After using it a bit, I decided part of the problem was the spinning-platter hard drive but there’s also the old graphics chip struggling to handle the visual effects of a modern OS.

To isolate the latter, I installed Ubuntu MATE, a variant of Ubuntu with the MATE desktop. MATE is a simpler alternative which is supposed to run better on lower-end hardware. That part was true – after installing Ubuntu MATE, the Latitude X1 didn’t spend as much chugging through graphical transitions. But the overall experience was still slow – the spinning platter hard drive remains a significant influence on performance.

Switching to MATE would have made a larger difference if I had a larger screen (or multiple monitors) running multiple windows. But since the Latitude X1 screen was so small, I only have one window at a time running full-screen, reducing the influence of the desktop environment.

The Latitude X1’s performance on modern software is held back by the spinning-platter hard drive. Which led to the next idea: can we upgrade the hard drive to a SSD? I have a few old SSDs available for such a project.

Dell always publishes excellent manuals for working with their machines. They also keep them online and available, even for twelve-year old machines. So getting to the hard drive was no problem. As soon as the hard drive was visible, though, I knew I was in trouble. The drive is much smaller than the standard laptop hard drive.

HDD18HDD35

Even if the SSD could physically fit, it did not have the correct data interface. The interface connector is unlike anything I’ve seen in a laptop hard drive. The closest thing I can recall is a CompactFlash connector.

HDD18Plug

The label on the drive proclaims itself to be a Toshiba MK3006GAL. Sadly, unlike Dell, Toshiba does not keep documentation online for old hardware. I remain ignorant of the details and industry specification for this specific hard drive interface and form factor. Maybe it is rare enough that there would be no SSD upgrade possible at all. Since I was not planning to spend money on this project, though, the details are irrelevant. This old computer will stick with its old spinning platter hard drive.


If I had to make a prediction 12 years ago about how well the Latitude X1 would hold up to the years, I probably would have predicted the CPU speed as the largest bottleneck, followed by the quantity of RAM. I would not have guessed that the growth of cheap tablets would demand that operating systems continue to run on a 1 gigahertz processor and within 1 gigabyte of RAM.

I also would not have guessed that solid state drives would have dropped in price and become such a cost-effective boost to overall system performance. The hard drive turned out to be the most significant sign of age in this twelve-year-old laptop.

Dell Latitude X1 is Almost a Teenager

Today’s new toy is actually an old toy: a Dell Latitude X1 ultra-portable laptop that was originally released in early 2005. The fact that it is still running twelve years later is fairly impressive. I was once skeptical of the price premium Dell charged over their consumer product line, but I’ve seen enough consumer Dell die off while their business Dell counterparts kept trucking to change my mind. While I still might not choose to pay that premium, I now believe the price difference buys a more durable product.

Or perhaps the credit should go to Samsung? When I searched for reviews of this old laptop, I found this review which claimed the laptop is a rebadged Samsung Q30. The article even helpfully included a picture of the Q30 so we can see cosmetic similarities (and the differences.)

There are dings and dents from over a decade of service, but aside from the expected degradation in battery capacity, the machine seems to be running much as it did over a decade ago. I booted it up to verify that it could still do so (Looks like the previous owner installed Ubuntu 11) before I started digging into the hardware.

Looking into the BIOS, I find the processor is an Intel Pentium M ULV 733, a 32-bit single-core low-power processor running at a modest 1.1 GHz. It is definitely out of date in the current age of 64-bit multi-core multi-gigahertz CPUs but we might still be able to work with it.

There is 1.2 gigabytes of RAM, an unusual amount that I’m sure it was quite a luxurious amount in its day. Not so much today, but not as bad as it could have been. In the days of Windows Vista there was an expectation that computer memory baseline would keep moving up, 2 then 4 then 8 gigabytes and beyond, but it hasn’t panned out that way. Demand emerged to run on lower-end hardware so recent builds of Linux and Windows 10 both included provisions to run on inexpensive tablets with 1 gigabyte or less of RAM.

The same break in the capacity trend also applied to storage. This machine has only a 30 gigabyte hard drive, and hard drive capacity have grown to multiple terabytes within the past decade. But the advent of solid-state storage plus the desire for inexpensive tablets with modest storage meant operating systems had to stay slim.

All the remaining accessories follow the same trend – definitely out of date but surprisingly still within the realm of relevance. A screen with resolution of 1280×768, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, Ethernet and USB, SD card reader, all the trappings expected of a modern laptop.

There are a few amusing anachronisms: a CompactFlash reader in addition to the SD reader. There is no HDMI video out port – just VGA. And the best one of all – a telephone jack for dial-up modem connectivity.

LatitudeX1Modem

 

 

Tired PCI-Express Extension Cable Caused System Instability

I was ready for a break from working on the Luggable PC Mark II project and wanted to enjoy the results of my labor for a while. I started learning PIC programming but was frustrated by an unstable computer.

Revision A proved that the system works, and all components can happily run together reliably for a few weeks. But revision B was a problem child. It started off with occasional temporary recoverable system freezes. Then the system freezes would not recover and I had to power cycle the computer. Degrading further, the unpredictable failures would spontaneously reboot the computer.

The unpredictable nature of these events makes diagnosis difficult. Sometimes many hours would pass before an event, sometimes they would happen twice within the same minute. When one variable is changed, the system has to be left running to test if the change helped. Sometimes this meant running a system for hours before another reset occurred.

My initial suspicion was on overheating because a tremendous heat wave hit Los Angeles this week. But there was little correlation between temperature and stability. One of the “reboot itself multiple times within a minute” events occurred during the cool night.

The next suspicion was on power, as an under-voltage could cause these symptoms and the heat wave means a lot of air conditioners running in the neighborhood. But reboots continued after swapping in a different power supply and putting the system on an UPS.

The key insight was a system freeze during a work session where I had music playing in the background. The music continued but the screen is frozen, implying the video subsystem.

The PCI-Express extension cable was an unknown. I explicitly excluded one from Luggable Mark I just to eliminate that variable. As a test, the video card is inserted directly into the motherboard. The system is not luggable at all in this state but it proved informative because the system stayed stable for 24 hours.

NonLuggableState

Looking at the cable I removed from the system, I can see a lot of wrinkles from all the times I experimented with the layout and changed relative dimension of the components. Hypothesis: metal fatigue has started cracking some of the wires in this ribbon cable causing intermittent connections and general system chaos.

Wrinkly Cable

Normally a system installer would bend the ribbon cable into place once and leave it. I consider my usage pattern of performing many different bends over many weeks beyond normal expectation. Like bending a paperclip back and forth until it breaks.

In short: “My bad”.

I ordered another cable from the same vendor off Amazon, installed the replacement, and that restored system reliability. I plan to leave this second cable alone as much as possible. When I start working on revision C, I will use the old cable (now labelled “TEST”) to try out different layout ideas. Bend and flex and twist as I experiment. I won’t change the bends on the new cable until I settle on a layout.

Gigabyte Z270N-WiFi and its F1 Firmware

When I embarked on the Luggable PC project, the primary goal was to build a computer using components I already had on hand. This translated into the requirement to accommodate full-sized desktop PC components. Now that I’ve used it for a while and started to like carrying my full-time computer around, I’m building up for an upgrade. This time, instead of building a chassis around components I already had, I will buy smaller components with the intent of assembling a new luggable chassis.

First up: The motherboard. Out of all the commodity form factors, the best balance of small size, computation power, and reasonable price is the Mini-ITX form factor. I’ve already worked with a few boards of that form factor, but none with leading edge components. This changes with the purchase of a Gigabyte Z270N-WiFi.

GigabyteZ270N-WiFi
Image by Gigabyte

The specifications of the motherboard looked great on paper. In additional to the small Mini-ITX form factor, the features important to my project are:

  • Support for Intel’s latest Kaby Lake generation of processors
  • M.2 slot for SSD
  • PCIe x16 slot for full-power GPU
  • Wireless networking

Factors that were not critical, but used as tie-breakers against its competition:

  • Dual-port Intel gigabit wired Ethernet
  • 6 SATA ports
  • USB-C port
  • Bluetooth

Looks great on paper! Sadly in reality the motherboard made a very poor first impression due to the onboard firmware. It was heavy on flashy looks and light on usefulness. I ran into many problems with basic functionality.

Example 1: The USB mouse support was useless: I could move the cursor around with the mouse, but clicking has no effect.

Example 2: Upon startup, it shows a full-screen Gigabyte logo (basically an advertisement) that I find annoying. If I select the firmware option to disable the logo, the motherboard no longer boots: I have to reset the firmware settings via jumper to get back to square 1. This was such an unexpected thing that it took three resets before I determined it was the logo setting that caused the problem.

So the “F1” version of the motherboard firmware was a disaster. Fortunately by the time I bought the board, Gigabyte has released updates and is currently on “F4”. Upgrading allowed me to disable the Gigabyte advertisement and still have a functional computer, in addition to addressing other functional annoyances.

This motherboard was clearly pushed out the door with incomplete firmware and the expectation on users to upgrade. I now have a good motherboard, but there’s a sour taste in my mouth from the bad out-of-box experience.