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Linux on an AST Ascentia 200GXM-A

(NOTE: I'm not claiming any of this is rocket science; it's all very straightforward. I just thought the concept might be interesting to people, and if I make my config files available, other people can use them.)

The laptop hardware

Sometime in late 1999 or early 2000 I saw the AST Ascentia 200GXM-A laptop for sale in Circuit City for cheap. (I think it was being discontinued.) This was a really tiny laptop, and I had been in the market for something intermediate between a PDA and a full-fledged laptop to run Linux on, so when I saw the form factor, I decided it was so cute I had to get it.

It came with 32Mb of RAM (in the form of one SODIMM, which I understand is the kind of memory iMacs take) and an approximately 2Gb hard drive. The screen is small and only does 640x480, but it's clear and crisp. It has, alas, one of those icky touchpoint eraser-type pointers, and two mouse buttons. The CD-ROM drive and floppy drive are both external. The CD-ROM drive connects via a very compact IDE connector. The floppy drive connects to the parallel port, so I was expecting to have a lot of trouble using it under Linux, but as far as any Linux distribution I've tried to put on it can tell it's just an ordinary floppy drive - I guess they must be using unused pins on the parallel port for the floppy drive. It has only one type II PCMCIA slot. It has an internal WinModem, which of course is useless under Linux. Other connectors are an external VGA connector, a single PS/2 port, a DB-9 serial port, and the power connector. (The power supply is external, contributing to the small size and light weight, like the floppy and CD drives.) It has an IR port (evidently next to the PCMCIA slot), but I haven't yet gotten the internal IR port to work, although I've used IR on it with a dongle I bought. The IR software sees the IR port, though, and claims that it's a ``SIR'' port - I think I just haven't figured out how to configure it properly.

On the bottom there's a legend that calls it ``Personal Computer Model No. 280M'' (nowhere does it say Ascentia 200GXM-A on it).

Sound not working yet

The MediaGXm processor has sound and video integrated on the chip. Video works fine, but the kernel shipped with SuSE 6.4 appears not to support the audio. The current OSS/Free page at http://www.linux.org.uk/OSS/ says it's supported now, though, so I imagine I could get it working with a little work.

There are no jacks for speakers, a mic, or line-in/out. Volume (of the system beep, since that's all I can make it do :-) can be controlled from the keyboard.

YAST vs. YAST2 (SuSE-specific)

I was unable to run SuSE's graphical (X/Gtk-based) YAST2 installer, because it requires 48Mb and the laptop only has 32Mb. But the text-based YAST worked fine. I imagine memory might be a problem for a graphical RedHat installation, too (although if I remember right RedHat sets up a swap partition early on, so maybe not).

Memory once running

I found that 32Mb of RAM, with a 32Mb swapfile, was fine for running X, Netscape, and a few terminal windows. I have yet to run into memory problems on the box (although I do have a fantasy of loading it up with 256Mb or 512Mb and using most of that as a ramdisk so I can turn the hard drive off, and maybe the noisy fan won't start up as often).

Running LILO - you need `linear'

I found I needed the `linear' option in order to boot successfully via LILO. (I generally use `linear' just as a matter of course just to be safe; I tested this after the installation, though.) With SuSE 6.4, this meant I had to choose a custom/expert LILO installation and check the `linear' box.

The only problem: Kernel processor type

The distribution I have on the laptop at the moment is SuSE Linux 6.4. My first installation seemed to go very smoothly until I rebooted. I had chosen SuSE's `laptop' kernel, since I wanted APM support, and that way I wouldn't have to rebuild a kernel. However, that kernel died spectacularly, spewing interminable junk to the screen in hexadecimal. The laptop's processor is a Cyrix MediaGXm processor, and I figured a kernel problem might be due to processor type, so I reinstalled and chose SuSE's 386 kernel. That worked fine.

When I eventually rebuilt the kernel, I chose 386 as the processor type, and the resulting kernel worked. I also had to rebuild the kernel modules, of course, and I needed to rebuild the PCMCIA support, which is easy with RPM. That meant I had to install the source RPM for the pcmcia-cs package, and just type rpm -ba /usr/src/packages/SPECS/pcmcia.spec, after having built and installed the kernel and modules. And of course I needed to rerun lilo.

Trying to install Slackware

I've since switched from SuSE to Slackware on my home server. I wanted to do the same thing on the laptop, but I didn't figure out how to get a kernel onto it that worked. The installation process succeeded, but on rebooting I had the same problems with the standard Slackware IDE kernel that I had had with the standard (Pentium-optimised) SuSE kernel. The difference was that I didn't see an option to install a 386 kernel. I did try building a 386 kernel on another machine, writing it to a floppy, and booting that (with root=/dev/hda3 to use the installed system), but that also kernel-panicked, although very late in the boot process. My guess is that it was a kernel module that got loaded that caused the problem, but I gave up for the time being and went back to SuSE 6.4.

Laptop features under Linux

Suspend

The laptop supports two kinds of suspend.

One is suspend-to-disk; you create a partition of a certain size and type at the end of your hard drive, and when you suspend the system (with Fn-Esc), the current contents of RAM and the registers is written to that partition. When you restart, the system is restored. I was not able to get that working under Linux at all, although it worked fine while LILO or the BIOS config utility was running.

The second type shuts almost everything on the machine down, but leaves the contents of RAM intact. It still uses a small amount of battery power, but not much. With approprate settings in the BIOS and appropriate APM support in the kernel, this seems to work. Even if I'm using a PCMCIA card, things work fine when I resume the machine (by pressing any key). However, the fan doesn't seem to turn off if it's on when I suspend the machine (which it always is if I've been using it for more than a few minutes), and since the fan (a) is quite noisy and (b) uses a lot of power, that's a major issue. Also, sometimes the laptop has turned itself back on for no particular reason I know of, including once when it was sitting on a table with nobody around. So I don't use this feature much. I'd use it a lot more if I could figure out how to force the fan off.

Battery life

The battery seems to last about an hour and a half under fairly heavy use (with a PCMCIA Ethernet card running, but without the CD-ROM or floppy drive connected). Actually, that's only a guess, based on what /proc/apm and the apm command say over time as I use it. I don't think I've ever used it on battery for more than about an hour.

Comments

If you have comments or suggestions about this document, please let me know at <js@aq.org>.
Jay's home page Jay's Linux page
Jay Sekora <js@aq.org>
last modified 2002.03.31