IT News and Insight

Breathing Life Into Older Laptops (Part 3)


This is the final part of my “portable” network saga. I am actually using the product of all I have written about. My network is easily transportable in two “wheelie” cases. Tear down and setup about as easy as I can get. Flexible and practical as I intended. For now I have met my objective. Read on for a description of the product.


The Brand Loyalty Issue.

As I have previously said in my writings since my retirement: I have almost abandoned brands as a guide. I do have brands I would prefer, largely because of favorable experience. However, like most retirees I must watch what I spend. As a result I find myself looking more for favorable prices rather than perceived quality.


As a consequence I often buy refurbished gear rather that the latest offering. I have found this approach to be quite successful. I do check what I am saving, evaluating the possibility of taking some other customers problems against that difference. I avoid buying “refurbished” when the price difference is too small or the device too risky. In addition, I look at whether a new or refurbished device is available through E-bay at a saving for a delivery wait.


Much of what I do is therefore done a the lowest cost I can achieve without risking scams. E-bay is good with their operating criteria. Most of the on-line suppliers I deal with offer unconditional returns, the few problems I have had have been well supported. My approach, used carefully has been very cost effective.


The Bits and Pieces.

In a long IT career I accumulated a number of useful accessories which I have put into use in handling my network. I will not be too specific but is makes the overall cost a lot less. I am finding use for things that almost got discarded. In fact, largely because I am a pack rat by nature, that retention has been a bonus. This has been particularly applicable to computer luggage.


I am not running a computer museum but still have useful leftovers from my business career: laptop cases, sleeves, including a couple of very capacious “wheelies”, cables (not much used now) and assorted spares including an assortment of IDE drives. Pretty much all of this is in use again.


In my final years in my house I also acquired an assortment of small folding tables. They are all collapsible and pretty much portable. Inexpensive but durable, they are the nucleus of making my network convenient. Lets face it, all these laptops are not going sit in one lap, as I age probably not even mine. I do have a larger table too, but only one is really essential. I keep that for the router and assorted other things needed on a daily basis.


The Network Today.

The equipment list is actually quite extensive. Each laptop has its own mouse. I have things like mouse pads and thumb drives and of course backups.


Communications is handled by a Netgear wireless router, one of the more expensive purchases I have made. After dubious experience with other lower cost units (short life) I decided to cut my losses and buy a better unit. It is more nearly at commercial business level. The router is connected to my ISPs modem. Also attached: a larger printer ( 8 year old wide Epsom Photo) and a 4 Tb backup drive. These attachments are about to move, I am not sure where or how!


The router has dual frequency ability and I have router to server running on the 5 Ghz band. The capability allows for support of devices workable at either 2.4 Ghz or 5 Ghz. This really gets the best out of the network and the Internet.


The computer “server” in all this is a refurbished HP Elitebook with a 14” display (yes we really are ALL laptop here). The price was very reasonable. It runs Window 10 Pro. Attached are two printers: a 10 years old Canon iP5000 and a Brother label printer connected through a USB hub/card reader. Also attached is a 5 Tb hard drive (spinning) which is my current network backup. This laptop is connected to the router on the 5 Ghz band.


My main personal workstation is my newest HP 17” Pavilion. It runs Linux Mint 18.0 (18.1 when I can find time) and has a full range of all the software that I use including Google Earth. Now installed is 500 Gb SSHD for operating system, application programs and e-mail. The second drive is 750 Gb spinning drive which is used solely for data. The swap area for the OS is also contained on the SSHD, in practice this is little used as the actual core is large enough to be effective for most situations. Connection to the network is at 2.4 Ghz using the internal adapter.


My portable photo lab is running on my Acer Aspire. Smaller and lighter than the HP Pavilion and therefore more easily portable. It has only capacity for a single drive and the 1 Tb SSHD is installed. In this case the operating system is Linux Mint 18.1. In effect it is a near duplicated of the main workstation except that the e-mail system is NOT duplicated, nor is Google Earth loaded. It is also communicating via its 2.4 Ghz internal adapter. For my two Linux workstations I am trying to upgrade the network via 5 Ghz dongles – drivers are holding that back.


My Windows workstation is a low level HP 15.6” Notebook with no optical drive. Installed is a 500 Gb hard drive (spinning) which only partially used other than to support Windows 10 Home. The software includes the preinstalled Windows adjuncts. Added are copies of Libre Office and Google Earth. Google earth is my primary reason for having this workstation. However, I also need a system to support my cameras with firmware updates. I have Sony cameras and I have not been able to provide support via a Linux system (Sony seems to ignore Linux). The laptop was acquired through the sales last Christmas at a very reasonable price to solve the Sony support and provide Google Earth in a fully functional way. Wireless communication is at 5 Ghz (an inexpensive dongle) which make Internet and hence Google Earth very good. The transfer speed achieved is very high to the Internet. Considerably better than that achieved over 2.4 Ghz.


That is the basically the current version of my resident network layout that I use all the time.


The Google Earth Problem.

I have run Google Earth on most laptops I have used in the last 10 years. That includes when I was using KDE 3 and KDE 4 on Slackware. There has always been some difficulty on 64 bit systems. I was always able to work around these problems by running a full suite of 32 bit libraries on the 64 bit OS. Unfortunately I have not been able to get full capability for Earth on Linux Mint, it can be run but it has some annoying problems with the embedded photos. At present there are two different protocols at play, Panaramio and 360cities.


Panaramio is undergoing a massive change, anyway. I have not fully researched where Google is going to end up. The installs I have done using MINT 18.0 and 18.1 have problems with displaying photos as Panaramio expects. A partial cure which generally seems to work for me: zoom in until groups mostly separate into individual shots ( some grouping do not separate). Single shots will then display. You will need to experiment to find how to exit from a photo display.


369cities are special zoom into pannable 360 photos. Displaying the access photo (single click) will not initiate the zoom. The cure for me: place your cursor on the 360 button until it display the description and the do a fast double-click, that generally seems to work. It also helps to zoom in so the button is clear of all other photos and featured buildings.


Mint provides a special Google Earth install program, for me it does not work easily and these two anomalies seem to persist. Neither is a game changer but are irritating. I have no idea why this happens. Current Mint and Kubuntu are both Debian derivatives and seem to have problems. (For the uninitiated Debian is a very good Linux distro) In earlier Kubuntu releases I had no problems, I have not had time to research the issue thoroughly. I suspect that Earth being basically a 32 bit program may be at play, I hope Google is moving it to a fully 64 bit Linux capability. The best results I have achieved are using the Google release for Debian.


The result of this is I do Google Earth work on my Window Workstation which has a 15.6” display. Occasionally I do it on a little HP Stream 11, which is really too small, unless you have better eyesight than I do.


Oddments and Extras.

I am truly over connected! I am not typical of my age group as I come from a long IT career history.  I have several devices which despite my age I use almost every day.


I attach to the network when using these devices as they are basically dependent on that connection.


Netbooks: a Samsung Netbook with only a 10” screen and the HP Stream 11 These are both too small for anything other than occasional use, too much eye strain. I use them as occasional test beds when I do not wish to configure a workstation. I also have refurbished small Chromebook 11 that I play with, cost me less than $100 for entertainment. When I get tired of Chrome maybe I’ll try Linux on that device..


Tablets: a Samsung Galaxy Note 8 (16 Gb) running Android 4.4 and a Sony Xperia 10 (32 Gb) running Android 5.0, both seem to have reached the limit of their OS upgrade from the manufacturer. I have have a 64 Gb micro SD card on each of them (I am a storage hog). The Galaxy is a nice tablet and is now five years old. I still use it and love it but serious work is done on the Sony because of the bigger screen Storage is also a difference favoring the Sony. I now do my reading on the Sony, better in both screen and speed over my reader. Both communicate over the 5 Ghz band.


Cameras: are all Sony now and can communicate at 2.4 Ghz except an older DSC-R1 (10 Mpxl) which has no wifi capability. All the laptops have SDHC readers built in and I use those more than wifi. The DHC-R1 uses compact flash rather than SD cards so I use the slots in a USB hub/card reader (now 8 years old). I have a replacement hub/card reader still in its box!


Reader: a Kobo Arc (32 Gb) is a nice reader but I rarely use it now. Purchased in 2012 it runs Android 2.2 and is abysmally slow even with 32 Gb storage. It is basically a 7” tablet


Ancient: my original HP 17” Pavilion is still working well. I use the “beast” as a testbed and it is destined for my next project. It still has a nice 750 Gb spinning drive even if the display means eye strain. With an external monitor it may yet do good things.

The old laptops that were the slippery slope into Linux, they had too few or no USB ports. IDE drives and the screens were fading to mud. They are gone to the last lap!



Happiness At Last!

I am happy that I have a fairly neat and clean (and portable) network. However, technology and age wait for no man, it probably will not be a long period of content.


I have used all my past experience and adapted as much as I could afford. Considering that I started on this project late in 2006, urged on by 2010 events and there has been much technical progress, I am amazed at how current the final product really is. Most of the credit for success is really attributable to the use of Linux. Because of Linux I have always had a current operating system. The cost of that has been keeping my knowledge current enough to do all this myself, I have never found that to be a strain. I cannot say the same for my vehicle which tests me every day.


Since 2011 I have spent about the equivalent of about 2 months rent on my network and computing. I have made two purchasing errors in that time to the tune of about $350 which, in hindsight, contributed to my education but not the network. On a pension that is not chump change!


At no extra financial cost, I am still looking for my perfect Linux distro. That alone will keep me from becoming bored. Maybe this article will prompt the perfect Linux distro for photography wonks and maybe I’ll live to see it. That 100 year old man in the corner loading Linux on an old Chromebook? That is probably me!

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 Please note; we are working on this article.






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