Fixing a 20 year old laptop, part 1: We know what is working

Some of you may have noticed that I Tweeted a few weeks back about my trusted Pentium III laptop having some pretty massive failures.

I decided to drag it out last night and see how it was going. Maybe it could be better after a rest…?

Bug Check c0000218. Not better, but worse.

It had a new bug check, STOP 0xc0000218. The SOFTWARE registry hive, where Windows 2000 keeps its HKLM\Software keys, is now apparently corrupted. This is significantly worse than before, when it was randomly having Kmode exceptions during use.

I asked one of my retrocomputing buddies that knows a lot about older Windows versions — my mother — who suggested booting to Safe Mode and trying to defragment. Safe Mode runs only on the SYSTEM hive, so the SOFTWARE corruption isn’t an issue. Apparently sometimes Windows can get very angry if the SOFTWARE hive is fragmented, because it has to load entire sectors in the boot environment.

Safe Mode was not quite the joy I had hoped for.

Always a bug check in win32k.sys on this one.

I tried to boot the Windows 98 partition, wondering if perhaps it could at least serve as a sentinel of any hardware issues.

It claimed various system files were no longer present. It still seemed to work, other than some networking functions. I used ScanDisk, which found no errors in the FAT nor surface errors. Onward to the memory diagnostic. I used a Vista-era Windows Memory Diagnostics boot CD that I had laying around from 2008 and ran two passes of the basic test and a single pass of the extended test.


No errors were found. Unfortunately, this leaves me in an unenviable place: from all I can tell, the hardware is fine, but multiple operating systems are failing to boot properly. Additionally, the computer refused to boot Windows install media at all.

At some point, I will pull my Windows XP laptop out and try to use WinDbg to find out what I can from the bug check screen. Hopefully I can remember how to do that. Until then, Erin (the Armada) will unfortunately remain unusable.

The Pandemic Nightmare

Note: Typically, I don’t publish or discuss my dreams publicly. This one, however, I felt compelled to share.

I walk through the aisles of the Target store in Tulsa. (For those who live locally: 71st and highway 169.) It’s 11:35 AM, March 20, 2030 according to my iPhone. I push the cart down towards the pharmacy section. I put a bottle of Tylenol in the cart for my mother, who is at home. Then, I amble towards the counter.

The line is extremely long. There are about a dozen people in front of me. Some have carts, some do not. One is holding a basket with a vitamin bottle in it. The people filing out are repositioning their N95 masks. The line moves at a decent pace, about one person per minute.

Finally, it is my turn. A short Cherokee woman, about 5’4″ with long brown hair with blonde highlights, asks in a small voice, “what will it be for you today?”

She shows me a small printed menu. Chamomile, lavender, peppermint, honey, rainforest, spring blossom, … ah. There it is. Cinnamon bread.

“Cinnamon bread”, I politely respond.

“30 seconds for 4.00$, 60 seconds for 8.00$, or we can do the premium package for 10$.”

“Premium package?” I ask, being quite unfamiliar with more options than just duration.

“The scent will surround your whole body, instead of just being a scratch and sniff card,” she replied. “It’s an aerosol spray. You can turn around in the chamber for the entire duration, which will be 60 seconds.”

A full 60 seconds in the chamber… with the scent around my entire body, not just in a scratch and sniff card? How exciting!

“I would love the premium package. Can I still tap and pay with Apple Pay?”

“Yes, ma’am. Of course you can. Just tap, then follow me.”

I tap my iPhone against the reader, then walk behind the counter, leaving my cart in the waiting area. She leads me to a small chamber made of clear plexiglass. It’s just big enough for someone of my size. Next to it, there is a chamber that would be more suited for heavier set people.

She opens a small hatch and I stand inside. She closes the door. I take my N95 off. The smell rains down from the ceiling. I twirl around, closing my eyes and feeling warm and happy. I almost begin to dance, my arms flailing in slow, rhythmic movements as I breathe in deeply.

There is a slight ding. The scent stops. I walk out and take a quick gasp before putting the N95 back on. The inside of a Target store still smells how I remember it.

I look at the woman and quickly apologise. “I’m sorry, I know the mask has to go on as soon as the door is open, I just…”

“Don’t worry about it. Most of my customers enjoy the smell of the store, some more than the scent chamber itself.”

Just then, I see two uniformed Tulsa Police officers walking up the main aisle. I quickly run to my cart.

“Everyone hold it,” one of the two officers shouts. He’s a stern looking man in his 40s with visible stubble and a head suit covering his hair. His partner is younger, with thick glasses and a machine gun carried on his back.

The officer looks at the woman behind the counter. “Picking up a prescription, sir?” she asks, timidly.

“Ma’am, we have reason to believe you are running an illegal scent shop here. You know President Cornyn outlawed the sense of smell in 2029.”

“This is a pharmacy counter. That’s all!”

“Why is everyone fidgeting with their masks, then?”

I try to push my cart into the main aisle, towards the grocery section. The younger officer sees this, and immediately takes out his machine gun and points it at me. “HALT!”, he shouts.

“I just wanted to finish my grocery shopping,” I say in a breaking voice as I begin to cry. I reflexively put one hand to my head, desiring to survive this encounter. I use the other to hit the Emergency button on my iPhone, to clear all data from the past 10 minutes so they can’t use it to determine what I was doing.

“What were you doing at this counter?”

“I was… asking where the minerals and supplements were.”

“Then why were you going the opposite direction? Alright, hold it ma’am, you’re under arrest for suspicion of smelling!”

I awaken to my alarm. The sun is peeking out through the blinds of my window, and I can faintly hear Mum watching TV in her room.

This pandemic cannot end soon enough.

Compaq LTE 5150: Adventures in Tri-booting

My plans for setting up a Retro Lab are finally coming to fruition, and this article is being written live on my tablet as I set up the first computer as I want it to be!

The computer in question is a portable computer from the Compaq LTE 5000 series, the 5150. (No relation to the IBM PC.) Released in September 1995, it features a Pentium professor at 100 MHz, 40 MB RAM, a quad-speed TEAC CD drive, an 11.3″ CSTN panel, Infrared, and an upgraded 6 GB IBM TravelStar hard disk drive.

Additionally, I own the MultiBay ISA docking station. This adds a high-quality 2.1 channel speaker system, NE2000 Ethernet adaptor, and SVGA connector. I plan on using an external monitor for games. However, the portability of this machine means I can take the Retro Lab on the road!

The plan.

My plan for this computer is to tri-boot MS-DOS with Windows 3.1, Windows NT 3.51, and OS/2 Warp.

A 2 GB C: drive will have DOS and 3.1. A 2 GB D: drive will have OS/2. The remaining space will contain NT.

Implementing the plan.

My LTE 5150 does not have a working floppy disk drive, and it was released before the “El Torito” standard allowed for booting from CDs. This means it can only boot from the hard disk. How to install an OS, then, if it means the disk needs to be erased?

My solution: put the hard disk in another computer, set it up, then put it back in the LTE!

MS-DOS 6.22 set up running on an Athlon XP

I chose my Compaq Presario 2100 for installation tasks. It has a USB floppy disk drive that the BIOS is capable of emulating as a built-in one. DOS doesn’t even know the difference.

Windows for Workgroups 3.11 with standard VGA and EtherLink III drivers (the PCMCIA card I have) was simple to install from MSDN CD.

I have long read the NT should always be installed before OS/2, so that was next. Booting MS-DOS, I inserted the Windows NT Workstation CD-ROM and ran WINNT /B /X. This ensures that Windows NT copies boot files to the hard disk drive, removing the need for floppy disks. Once the file copy process was complete, I swapped the drive back in to the LTE 5150 so that Windows NT Setup would detect the proper hardware.

The plan goes awry.

I selected the E: partition and told Windows NT to format the drive. While formatting the drive, the display suddenly developed lines and streaks in it. This is disaster #1:

Display with black vertical lines.

It copied the files successfully though, so the computer restarted to load up NT and then… disaster #2:

Boot loader signature AA55 not found (DC23 found)

I removed the CPU cover from the laptop and ensured the display connections were tight. Turned on the system while open and it was still not working properly. I asked my Mum, an electronics expert in her own right, if she had any ideas. She suggested messing with the grounding wire which worked. The display is restored to normal working order!

Unfortunately, the boot loader signature error persisted. I decided to use the NT disk setup to remove the D: and E: partitions and recreate them. This made it worse – now setup reported that “Drive C: cannot be examined”, and the computer presented a boot loop, booting directly into NT setup when rebooting. This is because $LDR$ has replaced NTLDR. This meant putting the hard disk drive back in the Athlon XP for some work involving boot floppies and CDs…

A simple SYS A: C: from a DOS floppy was enough to repair it enough to be bootable.

1 of 3

With my holiday break having just hours remaining, I gave up on NT and OS/2. I likely won’t be able to have any time for deep dives again until the Memorial Day weekend in May, so I need to make my time count.

I still have plenty of things I want to do with Windows 3.1, so I am going to just be happy with that.

Installing the audio drivers proved the most difficult. The SoftPAQ (SP2307) really wants to be installed from floppy. Extracting the files to the hard drive didn’t work at first. It turns out that what is needed is to extract the files from disk one to \ESS_1 directory and disk two to \ESS_2. Then running CPQINST from \ESS_1 worked for me.

Lotus Organizer 2.1 running on the Compaq LTE 5150

I already have Lotus Organizer, Corel DRAW 5, and Quicken SE installed. There are some games I plan on installing, including some of my fav Sierra titles, a few Trails (Oregon Trail, Yukon Trail, Amazon Trail – all CD editions!), and perhaps a Carmen Sandiego or two.

Overall, this laptop has been a blast to play with, but I am disappointed that I couldn’t get NT going.

Et tu, OS/2?

As a footnote: It looks like it isn’t a good idea to install OS/2 on a donor computer (like the Athlon XP), and I don’t believe it can be installed without booting off the floppies. Therefore, it is likely to be physically impossible to install.

How I imaged a stack of old IDE / PATA hard drives quickly, and planning out retrocomputing storage

The Retro Lab needs a lot of storage for a lot of computers. Luckily, I have a cache of IDE drives that have been pulled from various systems over the years. However, I’ve never taken backups or images of any of them.

When I was acquiring parts for my Talos build, I ended up finding a combination PATA and SATA USB enclosure at Wholesale Computer Supply for a low price. I never ended up using it, until this weekend!

iMicro 3.5" USB HDD Enclosure

Inside the box, we find cabling that lets you choose which type of disk to connect.

PATA cabling attached to the inside of the enclosure.

I went ahead and skipped putting the cover back on the enclosure since it was safe on my desk. I connected the enclosure to my Talos. For each disk to image, I attached it, turned the enclosure on, and then imaged using the dd command. Once it was done, turn off the enclosure, disconnect, and repeat for the next.

Five of the disks I imaged, next to the (empty) enclosure.

Only one disk out of eight is exhibiting any sign of degradation; one of the Seagate Barracuda 20 GB disks is throwing I/O errors when reading the last few sectors. I recall that in September 2001, I had an identical model drive do the same thing. The 2001 drive lasted long enough to back up most of the data but within 3 days it was dead. I will not be using the disk I just imaged in the Retro Lab for fear it will do the same.

I found some interesting Power Mac data on one of the drives, and a nearly fresh copy of Windows 98 with a few personal files from 2000-2001 on another. It was pretty interesting to see that some of these drives haven’t even been powered up since the Bush administration yet they seem to work just fine.

To be safe, I will be implementing a sort of backup system for the Retro Lab. I’m going to have a network share on a Windows NT Server to save copies of important data, and then mirror the share to “modern” storage on a weekly basis. It will actually be pretty interesting to see what sort of backup solutions I can find to set this up for NT 4.