Debian on a Thinkpad 760ED

My trials with Debian on a 760ED


This was originally written in the autumn of 1999 and details my first experience with Debian on a Thinkpad. Since that time I upgraded the 760ED to Potato (2.2) and Woody (3.0). In early 2003 I aquired a Thinkpad 390E which is a very capable model and have retired the 760ED back to other uses. I am leaving this page for reference.

My latest foray into Linux has been the Debian 2.1 distribution (a.k.a. Slink) running on an IBM 760ED Laptop. This page details a few of the things I've run into. I must say that the distribution has worked very well on the 760 and the show stoppers have only amounted to one so far. I figure that is a very good track record considering just how proprietary laptops are.

At the end of a section I'll add any notes on Debian 2.2 as they apply.

One of the best resources for learning about getting a Linux distribution going on a laptop is the Linux on Laptops site where many have contributed their experiences. Another resource is the Debian-Laptop mailing list which is devoted to Debian specific questions on laptops. You can find subscription information on the Debian GNU/Linux -- Mailing List Subscription page.


Installing the Base System

Since the laptop had no CD-ROM drive I was left with the situation of having to install the base system from the floppy drive. Fortunately, I had my Linux desktop available to download the disk images on and copy them to the floppies. The procedure is straightforward and covered well in the Installing Debian GNU/Linux For Intel x86 manual (other architectures are covered and links can be found on the Debian GNU/Linux -- Debian 2.1 (slink) Release Information page).

Unfortunately, about the moment I tried to boot the '760 on the stock boot disk, Mr. Murphy snuck into the house to help me. The Thinkpad wouldn't boot at all from the resc1440.bin image and it would hang immediately after uncompressing the kernel. A quick look around uncovered the suggestion to try append="floppy=thinkpad" at the LILO prompt, but this only generated an unknown parameter error. A bit more digging into the install manual revealed a site with alternate boot disks. Success was found by using the resc1440.bin-only-aic7xxx boot disk image from ftp://kalle.csb.ki.se/pub/. With this boot image the install worked without problems.

Debian 2.2 update

I have performed one install from the 2.2 boot-disk series and I'm happy to report that the installation went smoothly with no kernel hangs or other issues. It appears that whatever plagued the 2.1 series has been resolved.

TP 760ED Issues

The first hardware I needed to get working to complete the install was the PCMCIA modem. In this unit I am using a Megahertz 28.8 modem which the PCMCIA services (I selected the suggested defaults during installation) recognized and configured without error. In fact I planned on spending half a day getting connected to my ISP and it would have worked on the first try had I gotten the plug fully seated into the XJack! 8-P My hat's off to the Debian team for making the ISP connection so easy. In no time I was using dselect and downloading the installation packages.

Update: Be aware a serial kernel bug was discovered in PCMCIA Card Services version 3.1.8. The following threads from the Debian Laptop Archives document what happened. First, I noticed the problem after having performed an update of the system packages. The next thread also covers this issue during which I discovered from the PCMCIA author, David Hinds, about the kernel bug. Finally, I reported that compiling PCMCIA 3.1.14 from Woody (unstable) fixed my problem with kernel 2.2.15. If you should suffer from the same problem, then this message should provide the work-around to get things going.

Since I was shoe-horning Debian onto a 810 Meg drive, I selected the standard install which uses about 125 Meg. After that was done I selected my favorite packages and have about 50% of the drive free.

Update: I am still using the 810 MB drive and did a re-install sometime back (it was a panic situation, read all the gory details in the threads linked above) and picked two of the pre-defined tasks--development and X. It you're tight on space, I'd recommend skipping that step and installing things manually through dselect.

The next big issue is installing XFree and getting it configured. The '760ED features a 1024x768 Pixel display driven by a Trident Cyber 9385 chipset with 2 MB of VRAM. This combination has the interesting property that edge-to-edge resolution is only available in 1024x768 mode. 800x600 and 640x480 modes are supported but are shrunken on the screen. The '760 does support a "screen expansion" mode that is fine for text, but graphics suffer horribly (only applicable if in 800x600 or 640.480 mode).

I tried configuring XFree with xf86config a couple of times. Thankfully someone who'd been down this path before put up their XF86Config on the Web. The Electronic Oasis maintains a Linux on Thinkpads page and it is the XF86Config posted by Simon Blainey for a 770XD that works on my machine and is also available here. The only difference between the files is that his has 760XD as its machine type and mine has 760ED.

OK, so I have X configured, what's next? The 760ED supports Advanced Power Management (APM), however, I haven't gotten around to doing the kernel compile and checking them out. The Thinkpad's utilize a set of Window's based utilities to set certain CMOS features such as screen expansion, battery life monitoring, CPU speed when on AC or battery, low battery alarms, and other useful features. A set of utilities written for Linux exist at the ThinkPad Configuration Tool for Linux homepage. Thus far I haven't given these a whirl as they require the 2.2.x kernel series.

As you might expect, the 760ED has even more hardware than PCMCIA and APM. Also included is an Infrared port which may be supported by the The Linux IrDA Project and a video output port that can be used at 640x480 resolution and outputs NTSC video. TBoult's IBM thinkpad 760ed/XD linux laptop page has more information on utilizing this feature. The 760ED also supports an internal CD-ROM drive, which I, unfortunately, do not have, which should be supported under Linux as I've read no reports to the contrary. The parallel port is /dev/lp0 and I've experienced no problems printing to either a Lexmark 4039-10R or an HP Deskjet 690C. I also have the IBM port replicator which allows using an external keyboard and mouse (although an external mouse can be installed in the side of the 760) and allows easy connection to a monitor and other desktop peripherals without fumbling with a bunch of cables. So far its support has been flawless under Linux, although I haven't tried a PCMCIA card in either of its slots.

Perhaps the most irksome bit of hardware that lacks real support under Linux is the Mwave audio hardware employed in the 760ED. Not only does Mwave function as the sound hardware for audio files, but it also is a programmable Digital Processing (DSP) unit that is capable of functioning as a 28.8 kbps modem (perhaps among the first of the infamous Winmodems?). Mwave has a lot of potential for some really neat things if only IBM could find its way to release the programming specifications to the Linux developers. The Flexion.org web site contains information on creation of drivers for the Mwave hardware. Whether this hardware ever be supported before it's obsolete is unknown. One thing is sure, without IBM's cooperation support is likely years in coming. To help persuade IBM the Petition to IBM for MWave support on Linux page currently (as of 17 December 1999) has 505 names on a petition to IBM. This page is just one of a collection supporting Linux on an IBM ThinkPad 770X. Unfortunately, I'll probably never experience playing MP3s on the 760ED. Such is the life of the laptop user...

Update 2003: I have discovered that the below no longer works. IBM's site has changed so that you need to navigate through the IBM Support page (note that the link here is to the USA pages). This is a useful site as all sorts of drivers are available for the various machines. I've made good use of these creating a dual-boot machine with FreeDOS.

Update February 2005: It seems that information for most of the older products has been removed from IBM's site. I've not been successful finding information on anything much over a few years old. It's too bad, really. :-(

By the way, if you want to look at the hardware specs for a Thinkpad model, they are on IBM's web site. It will take an enormous amount of digging to get the information, but I've discovered an easier way. Replace the XXXXXXX in the following URI:

http://www.pc.ibm.com/qtechinfo/wwcathc/XXXXXXX.html

with the model number of the Thinkpad. For example, to bring up my 760ED, I use http://www.pc.ibm.com/qtechinfo/wwcathc/9546U9A.html. To look up a 760EL, I used the 9547U6F model designation. I'm not sure what other hardware this will work for, though.


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