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Another Saturday morning where I should have been getting out and about, but it was spent mucking abound with computers, making mistakes and solving them.

I have my work notebook computer at home, a Tablet PC. This runs Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, of course, which is fine, except that it’s well over a year old, and is a bit gummed up with all kinds of stuff, meaning it takes forever to boot up. I’ll be giving it a fresh OS installation after Windows Vista is available, but I’m stuck with it for now.

I have a desktop PC at home, running Windows XP, that is mostly used for games, but my “everyday” PC is my old Compaq notebook, running Ubuntu Linux. I’ve settled on Ubuntu, after much trial and error, because I really like the modularity and its Debian “apt” package management system. For example, though it comes with the Gnome Desktop Manager installed, and it’s pretty quick, I was looking for something even lighter. The installation sources, on the Internet include “xubuntu”, a configuration based around the lightweight Xfce4 desktop manager, which I installed.

I didn’t have much confidence that it would support the applications I was using, but I was pleasantly surprised at how well everything worked. In effect, I have a 4-year-old notebook that is quicker to reboot, and more responsive, than a one-year-old notebook. (The desktop is quicker than either, running Windows Vista RC1, but that has more to do with fast disks, 2GB RAM in there, and the AMD64 CPU.)

A while ago I thought I ought to try Ubuntu on the Tablet PC: I was at work, so I removed the internal disk, and did the Ubuntu installation on my external 80GB USB drive. No major problems, but two hiccups: one fixed, the other unfixable. The first hiccup was the Tablet driver: it just wasn’t loaded, despite the system being recognised as having the tablet hardware, but that was resolved by manually loading it. The other is more annoying: the boot process from the USB disk is slow enough, but compounded by its insistence on running a lengthy disk check on the other partition on the same disk, every time.

This brings us up to today: looking for a quicker Linux bootup on the Tablet PC, I decided to try installing Linux on a 1GB flash device I have lying around: it’s actually a little MP3 player I wasted money on, with horrible buttons and a non-standard headphone socket. It’s even failied totally at one point, but I found instructions on booting it in to a maintenance mode, then (eventually) new firmware and a program to install it. It’s back, as good as it ever was, but I might get some use out of it.

My first attempt, this morning, was a bit of a disaster: not only did it not boot, the installation process installed a new boot sector: not on the flash drive, but on the local hard disk, the one running Windows XP Tablet PC edition. This had the effect of making it unbootable: it was the newfangled GRUB bootloader, that expects to read its settings from a configuration file on a Linux volume, which is not something you’re going to find on a Windows XP partition.

What to do about it? Well, I have a Windows XP SP2 installation CD, from which I can fix the Master Boot Record on the disk, if I boot in Recovery mode.The problem with that is the need to enter the Administrator password for the XP installation on the disk, and the Administrator account has been removed, for security reasons.

Did I have to reinstall XP? No, there are better ways. After a bit of reading, I was able to configure the GRUB boot loader, still working on the USB disk, to boot the Windows XP partition. (The required “map” commands are actually in the GRUB FAQ – a great timesaver.) However, is that drive always going to be available? What if I forget it somewhere? I had to fix the boot record on the internal drive, to be safe.

Before GRUB, there was LILO, the Linux Loader: nowhere near as flexible, and the cause of some aggravation in pastLinux installations. Since I could boot XP successfully, well enough mean the emergency was over, I decided to just install LILO on the internal disk and see what happened. It worked, first time: in the absence of any custom configuration, LILO just boots the first partition it finds – which is exactly what I needed it to do. Problem solved, for now

What did I learn? Well, I had wondered if I was being paranoid about the “friendly” install process, by removing the internal disk the first time I did this kind of installation. I guess not, eh? After this, I’m going to the flash disk installation again, with the paranoia in place and the internal disk removed. Then I’m going shopping.

Written by brian t

October 14, 2006 at 1:09 pm

Posted in linux, technology

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