Those were fun times.
But they inevitably come to an end, and for this faithful laptop, which put up with many a long night of hard work, the end came rather suddenly.
After four and a half years and many linux distributions, one day it was just too much and as I was in the next room, the laptop just shut itself down. Maybe a protection against high temperature? Maybe defect RAM? Of course it looked bad, but it certainly didn't look fatal. When I tried to switch it back on, it complained about the amount of memory having changed, and then refused to boot. Not good.
So somehow I managed to get it to boot again, and figured I should boot it into safe mode to rescue the important files. It didn't help that this was the day before some files needed to be handed over and cleverly the only place these files existed was on the laptop. It also didn't help that from Mandriva's safe mode, it couldn't mount the USB thumbdrive any more because apparently some required service wasn't running, and it couldn't access the network either - so I could see the files but I couldn't copy them anywhere!
The answer, as it often is, is to use Knoppix. I had an old live CD so I booted Knoppix into safe mode, plugged in the USB stick and copied the files across. Bacon saved. It later turned out that Mandriva's safe mode could have handled the USB stick if it had been plugged in before booting, but I didn't know that. I didn't find a way in Mandriva's safe mode to detect and mount the USB stick after it was plugged in, maybe something vital wasn't running in safe mode. Anyway. Files rescued, panic over.
Figuring out that the problem might have something to do with the RAM (maybe it overheated and damaged the RAM? Maybe the RAM chips just got old?), I took out the 256 MB stick from the base of the laptop, and tried to reboot. Of course it complained about the size of memory having changed, but at least it now booted all the way into X again. Relief! So all I had to do was replace the RAM! Sounds easy.
I bought another 512 MB stick from Arlt and plugged it in, major relief as it recognised all 1 GB RAM and appeared to run fine again, if perhaps a little hotter than before? I'm not sure. Anyway, it appeared to run fine but after about 2 hours it gave up and without warning shut itself down again. Not good.
After trying various ways to bring it back to its former fitness, it settled into the following pattern. It could be persuaded to boot, and would run for a certain time (initially an hour or two, steadily reducing) until it shut itself down. Subsequent attempts to boot it would do absolutely nothing at all. Then I would disconnect the battery, disconnect power, open the RAM hatch, pop the lever and take out one of the two sticks of RAM. I'd wait a few seconds and then replace the RAM stick, close the cover and reconnect power, and press the on button. Then, it would boot to an error screen complaining about the system memory, and then freeze. Holding the power button would shut it off, and pressing it again would start it up again into a second error message, complaining about "Memory write/read failure at ...", and advising that it was "Decreasing available memory". At this point, pressing F1 to continue would lead to a normal boot process. But of course it would need to scan the drives because they hadn't been cleanly unmounted.
Sometimes it wouldn't shut itself down, but just freeze, and the only option was to remove the battery and the power. Sometimes the screen would acquire intermittent flashing dots (corruption of the shared graphics memory?) and this would usually mean it was about to crash again. Pressing on the top of the laptop case at the top or bottom of the keyboard could make those dots temporarily disappear (flexing motherboard?).
Anyway, the situation rapidly deteriorated until the flashing dots appeared almost immediately, and it sometimes didn't even make it through the BIOS load. I think I can rule out software, because it shut itself down while running from a live CD, and also when running XP, and even when still in the BIOS. So it must be hardware, connected to RAM but it had the same problems even when only running on a single, brand new RAM stick so it's perhaps a problem with the motherboard or the CPU, or connections or something.
Obviously I tried taking the laptop to repair shops, but each one suggested a motherboard problem and explained that for a four-year-old laptop, you can't fix the motherboard. Fixing it is too tricky, and replacing it (even if you could find such old parts) is more expensive than buying a new laptop, so it's just not worth it. So even though almost all of the machine still works, it's effectively a write-off and none of the shops here even want to look at it.
I also tried to contact Dell to see if they had any suggestions or local dealerships but I couldn't get any reply from their support staff.
So I've got a collection of high-tech electronics, which doesn't work at all, and the suggestion to throw it in the bin. Surely there must be some parts of it I or someone else could make use of?
My first thought was to somehow detach and reuse the screen, which is a nice 1400x1050 display and not widescreen like all the new laptops are (why?). But some forum searching quickly revealed that that's an impossible task, as you need a lot of the custom electronics on the (now dead) motherboard in order to drive that screen properly. So there seems to be practically no chance of doing anything useful with the screen, even though it works fine. So what's left?
The hard drive still works, and easily salvageable. I bought an external hard drive enclosure for it (around 12 EUR) which is a really tiny, slimline metal box with a tiny circuit board inside. Take the hard drive out of the laptop, remove the connectors, slap the enclosure's connector on it and put the box together - and hey presto, an external USB hard drive ready to conveniently copy all the contents onto the new computer! Bargain.
The only other possibly useful bits are the power supply (which works, but unlikely to be useful for anybody, certainly not worth much), one completely dead battery (worthless), a second battery with about an hour's charge on it (obviously laptop-specific, and probably not worth the postage), one DVD player/writer (again, works fine but only works with a small number of (old) Dell laptops as far as I can tell). I guess someone could extract the keyboard if they really wanted but this keyboard is pretty rubbish to be honest so again worthless. There's also a PCMCIA SD card reader which works fine, but again not many people want one of those.
Obviously I can reuse the peripherals, especially the Logitech trackball. And that is now being used in the new barebone computer which is the topic of the next section...