Because life isn’t interesting enough, last week I pinned down a used computer and brought it home.
That is a plain-Jane Dell Latitude D600, with not a bell or whistle to brag about. Jane came into the house along with an assortment of leftover PCMCIA wireless cards, a docking station that may or may not work with this model, a power cord and an excellent lesson in the power of patiently bargaining over three or four days.
And in return, I parted with the rough equivalent of US$50.
This is 4dkln41 — a 400 MHz-bus Pentium M, 1.6Ghz, with a lowly 512Mb of memory, Intel Pro/Wireless 2100 and an ATI Mobility FireGL 9000 on a 1400×1050 LCD. This machine reminds me a lot of the Insprion 8000 I kept for many years, in that it’s roughly the same size and shape, same era, and similar hardware.
It’s a bit scratched, not too purty, but 100 percent working in all the places that matter — keyboard, screen, audio, optical drive, power train, etc.
It came with some disadvantages in life, most notably that this particular machine is one of the rare ones that can’t handle PAE.
Up until now, PAE was just another acronym I had to run to Wikipedia to figure out. I hadn’t ever seen a machine that spat out errors about PAE.
Those three little letters turned out to be very important though. Linux Mint outright refused to boot, as did a couple of other smaller distros — all because of PAE.
Arch, on the other hand, didn’t seem to care. But installing Arch on it came with its own set of headaches.
Most notably, absolutely hideous video performance. Some of the worst I’ve ever seen. Arch’s xf86 radeon driver was giving me redraws in IceWM that I could actually watch trace along the screen, and slowly fill with data.
It was painful. Honestly, I’ve seen K6-2′s with better redraw rates than that.
The vesa driver was about the same. I tried to build the catalyst driver, but my efforts were fruitless. The wiki instructions failed miserably. In desperation I even plugged in a few third-party repos and backdated versions of xorg-xserver. But things were either the same — or worse.
This couldn’t be the case, I thought. It can’t be that this machine is doomed to such lousy performance. Perhaps there is a mechanical issue, I thought.
As a troubleshooting measure (I swear) I installed Windows XP. Dell’s support site archives all the appropriate drivers, and the proprietary ATI Catalyst package for XP was marvelous.
Instantaneous performance. No wicked laggy redraws. Full 3D acceleration. Video modes from 1400×1050 to 800×600, no sweat. So at least I knew it wasn’t hardware-related.
Of course I have no love — or need — for Windows, but the future of the machine was bleak without some sort of proper distro on there. I briefly thought of running an XP system with only free applications on it. And quickly moved on from that idea.
I also contemplated just running a framebuffer system, but it was a bit disapppointing after watching Windows spin through Deus Ex (best game ever) at full detail and full resolution. And even Arch’s radeonfb environment was sluggish.
So for a short while it looked like Windows or nothing. A bad situation, to say the least.
On one last hunch, I decided to try Debian. If the main limiting factor was PAE, then possibly one of Debian’s versions would sidestep that issue.
And Debian’s always been the go-to distro in my times of direst need. Maybe this time it would be successful.
To make an already too long story short, Debian’s i386 version installed without harassing me about PAE. It put a picture-perfect graphical desktop in place, and best of all, performance was magnificent.
Almost as good, if not on par, with Windows. No draggy desktops, no slow filling of application windows. Full screen h264 video (no 1080p, of course). It was bewildering.
And Debian on that machine runs like a cat on fire. Insane start speed. Faster than Arch. Faster than the dual core. Faster than the dual core with Arch.
X pops into place like it’s jacked up on sugar. And as you can see in the screenshot, much of my same grotesque old pretend-Windows XP Classic theme translates directly to Debian.
True, I have to manhandle the fonts a little, but it works. And 3D acceleration is still a bit fuzzy. As in, I haven’t really tried yet.
Overall, this is more than just a bit of a shock. With so many failings — either hideous video performance under Arch, or refusing to even start because of PAE in three or four other distros — for Debian to punch a hole through and come out shining on the other side … well, it’s a Christmas miracle. Or something like that.
P.S.: The guts? Here you are. PDF alert.