• Stuffing Linux into an Old Banger

last modified September 8, 2011 by strypey


OK, so I've got this old Compaq Armada laptop from the Windows ME era. It ran XP fine for a few years, but after the PCMCIA wireless card I had in it got blown up by a power surge, I bought a new laptop, and loaned it out. A year or two later the borrower managed to delete some key system files, and the poor old thing bit the dust.

This is a machine that can run XP, so it should be salvageable, at least for basic functions like web surfing and word processing. But with the CD-ROM not working, and being too old to boot from USB using the BIOS, I was faced with the challenge of how to install a useful OS on it. Initially I thought about flashing the BIOS, to make it boot from USB. But since I would have to do that by installing the new BIOS from the 3 1/2" floppy drive, I started to wonder what else I could do with the floppy that would be less risky.

Initially I though about installing one of the tiny versions of GNU/Linux, like muLinux, that fit on a floppy disk, or even something like FreeDOS. However, this wouldn't help me much with getting a graphical desktop up and running. With a bit more searching though, I stumbled across the Plop bootloader, and installed it to a floppy disk using the instructions on the Plop site. I tested it on my desktop and voila! After spewing a line of .... onto the screen, It booted me into a boot menu from the floppy, giving me the option to boot from USB.

I made a USB installer for Ubuntu Netbook Remix 10.04 using the Universal USB Installer, and prepared to test the whole operation on the Armada. Unfortunately, after only a few ... Plop crashed and died. Unsure whether there was a compatibility problem between Plop and the Armada, whether the floppy drive was poked too, or whether something more fundamental was broken, I considered trying a few other boot floppy systems:

In the end I decided the learning curve was just a bit too steep, and gave the old banger away. It's a good example of a project that could be a great shared learning project for a Linux Play style group.