Dell Inspiron 4000 Retro Gaming and ‘How to’ on Internal Wifi

dell_inspiron_4000

 

Manufactured for Dell by Taiwan based Compal Electronics in early 2000, the Inspiron 4000 was a lightweight, business laptop offering a sturdy chassis and good performance, boasting a Pentium III or Celeron processor, 512mb of memory, dual PCMCIA ports, two modular bays and an internal mini PCI port for networking.

I acquired the Inspiron a couple of years ago, thinking it would make a good portable DOS gaming system. While DosBox is a handy piece of software, it doesn’t always work according to plan and some games simply require the real thing to run properly. I do have a Pentium 133mhz DOS machine, running Windows 98, but the thing is rather cumbersome and occupies a lot of room once it’s setup on my desk. Really, I was looking for something compact and easy to put away when I wasn’t in a gaming mood. The Dell ticked a lot of those boxes, not to mention having a PIII 700mhz processor, it could still manage a little light surfing if need be.

A Functional Operating System in 2015

There is only one problem with running modern-ish applications on a single core system, everything tends to run damn slow. Especially when compared to the dual and quad core systems we have today. Even the humble Raspberry Pi eventually branched out into multicore territory last year, with the Pi 2 model B. So where does that leave the old Intel Pentium III? Down the river without a canoe or a paddle? Not really, there are in fact many distributions of Linux that will still happily run on a single core computer, Puppy Linux and Mint to name but a few. Even the now deprecated Windows XP offers a reasonable performance and if you’re wanting to run old DOS or Windows software it’s probably the best route to take. Depending on where you go on the internet, XP is either one of the best OS that Microsoft ever made and a solid foundation for a retro system, or it’s an eyesore, with more holes then a rusty Ford Anglia, continuing to linger longer after the party ended. Either way, if like me, you want to run games from 1996 to 2005, XP is really the best that’s out there in terms of hardware support and performance. Backwards compatible with Windows 98 and 2000, it will run most things you throw at it. I could if I’d been so inclined, opted for Windows 2000, which actually came pre-installed on the Inspiron 4000. But Win2k hasn’t seen an update since 2005, where as XP was only dropped by Microsoft as recently as last year. People still like XP and as long as it remains popular, software will still come out supporting it. Don’t believe me? One only needs to check the OS market share;

https://www.netmarketshare.com/operating-system-market-share.aspx?qprid=10&qpcustomd=0

As of January 2016, XP is still holding a strong third place, ahead of Windows 8.1, Mac OS and Vista the XP’s intended replacement. Why this is, I’ll leave it to you to ponder. Personally I still think XP rocks! But don’t quote me on that!

Installed and Running

Up and running with XP service pack 3, the Inspiron is surprisingly nippy for a single core machine with only 512mb ram. The only time it does slow down to a crawl is online, visiting flash heavy websites which effectively kill it. With half a gigabyte of ram, Firefox and Google Chrome gobble up memory like there is no tomorrow. Not a problem if your computer has one or two gig of ram handy, but with 512mb the strain begins to show. Things weren’t helped much by the hard drive fitted inside the laptop, a 10gb, 4200rpm, 2.5” IDE Fujitsu. Over ten years old the drive was not only noisy and slow, but once I’d removed it. I discovered had an alarming habit of rattling if tipped on it’s side or gentle shaken. Hard drives shouldn’t rattle, not unless they’ve come out of a computer that took a trip down the stairs. Chucking it in the bin, it was quickly replaced with a younger 30Gb 7200rpm, Hitachi. Being significantly newer then the Fujitsu, the Hitachi was visibly quicker at booting up and performing in general. And now with 20 gig extra space, it gave me ample space to install all my old programs and games of course!

So what games will run on a Y2k laptop you ask? Well the large majority of games from 1996 onwards will run happily on a PIII with little or no protest. Equipped with an 8mb ATI Rage Mobility video card, it’s only when we get to about 2002 that games start to expect a little more from a graphical stand point and by 2004 we are all out of luck.

Here’s but a few games that do work:

Abe’s Oddworld

Star Trek: The Fallen

Star Trek: Generations (with some tweaking)

Dungeon Keeper

The Sims

Deus Ex

Baldurs Gate

Diablo II

Star Trek: Klingon Honour Guard

There are plenty more games I could add to the list but those are just a few of the ones I plan on playing on the Inspiron and maybe even doing a review or two for ByteMyVdu while I’m at it.

If your after a cheap knock about laptop for blogging, gaming then I wouldn’t be to hasty in dismissing these early 2000 machines. Ok they might not handle newest version of Windows, run Sims 3 or handle Facebook (is that a bad thing?) but if you’re after something you can throw about in a rucksack and not worry if it picks up a dint or a scratch, then perhaps it’s worth looking at.

Networking

Equipped with an internal mini PCI 56k Lucent modem and on board ethernet, when new, the Inspiron offered users all they needed to get jacked in. However times have changed and using a phone line is no longer the trendy way the kids get online in 2016. In fact, I think if I showed a teenage a modem from 16 years ago, they would wonder what the hell it was showing them. On most old laptops, the default answer to getting wifi is to plug a wireless card in an empty PCMCIA slot. Personally I find the wireless card hanging out the side a tad ugly and just asking to be caught or knocked. Now if you recall, I said earlier that the 4000 had a PCI modem which meant the Inspiron had an internal mini PCI port. This led me to wonder what would happen, if I replaced the Lucent card with a Broadcom wireless card. After finding one with XP drivers, from Dell no less, I popped open the panel on the underside of the laptop and swapped the cards. After some fiddling, I finally got the Broadcom working. Usually when you install a wifi card in a laptop, you’ll find one or two antenna wires that connect to the “Main” and “AUX” ports of the wireless card. Because the 4000 doesn’t come with wifi, the laptop didn’t have an internal antenna. How then does one hope to get a signal? Well you could buy an antenna if one is available specifically for your laptop. This would then involve stripping down your machine and installing the antenna loom around the screen. In other words a lot of faffing about, just to get a decent wireless signal. I decided there had to be a better way and it turned out I was right. A quick look  online and I discovered Pimoroni in the UK, sold a mini 2.4Ghz wireless antennas for putting inside electronic projects. Measuring in at just 100mm, I wasn’t sure whether the tiny aerial would get much of a signal from within the base of the laptop. But after installing it, I realised there wasn’t any cause for concern. Windows reported a modest two bar signal coming from the router, even carrying it to the furthest part of the house, I was still receiving one bar and a stable online connection.

While my solution might not work for everyone, it certainly breathed life in to the Inspiron 4000 which can now get online, without needed an ugly PCMCIA card sticking out the side.

The antenna I bought can be found on Pimoroni’s website here.

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