Thinking From the Box

How To Turn that 486 Into a Webpliance

- 2001.10.11

Many of us probably have an old Pentium or 486 sitting in a closet or a garage. Believe it or not, it can be turned into a no frills webpliance with a single floppy disk (provided you has the requisite hardware).

This project requires:

  • 386 or better Computer with 8 MB of RAM
  • A serial or internal modem, V90 compliant (cannot be a WinModem)
  • A serial or PS/2 mouse (cannot be USB)
  • An ISP other than AOL.
  • A 1.44 MB floppy disk.

In my efforts to make the jump from Microsoft, I have begun to investigate alternative OSes. In the March 2001 issue of Maximum PC, I read about the QNX operating system and how a demo of the OS (complete with dialup access and a browser) could be downloaded from

A single floppy disk could contain the core of an OS, boot my system, configure my hardware, and get me online? This I had to see!

Add to this the fact that I am not Unix-savvy at all. Could QNX really deliver the goods? I downloaded the demo with the goal of seeing if I could eventually get an old Compaq 486 laptop connected to the Web.

After making the QNX demo disk (fairly simple, thanks to the clear instructions on the QNX site), the next step is to call one's ISP and find out the primary and secondary DNS, as well as the login method (pap/chap, login script, or manual). Insert the demo disk and reboot the computer; QNX will load, create a RAM disk, and configure the hardware. It is also a good idea to write down the IRQs normally assigned to the mouse and modem before starting, in case it becomes necessary to configure them manually. The GUI is intuitive, and the menu choices are self explanatory.

Do not expect a full featured Web experience from the QNX demo disk. Hardware support is limited. Display drivers are limited to 256 colors, and the refresh at 1024x768 isn't as high as I would like. Flash, Shockwave, QuickTime, Real Player, and Windows Media are not supported by the browser, and one cannot open multiple windows or view source code. Java and Javascript intensive pages tend to cause the browser to crash. The browser does not allow downloads.

I have also suffered from several random bugs and general weirdness (for want of a better term). For example, when I attempted to get the aforementioned Compaq 486 laptop online this morning (after several days of booting the QNX demo on my desktop), I kept getting disconnected after 8 seconds. I checked my dial up settings several times, and my login script was blank; it remained blank for the next 8 attempted launches, until suddenly a script appeared in the box despite my changing no settings related to it. After the script appeared I was able to make a sustained Internet connection. Moving on, sometimes I must manually configure the modem and mouse despite the fact that both autodetected during the previous boot.

But what should one expect from a bit of free software and a floppy disk? The no frills nature of the QNX demo and the occasional bug are a fair price to pay for all the things that the QNX demo can do.

Simplicity. Imagine trying to track down and install all the drivers needed today to get a DOS or Windows 3.x box on line. Imagine all the menus to configure, not to mention the inconvenience of having to edit config.sys or autoexec.bat. One floppy disk gets my seven-year-old 486 laptop online and surfing within minutes. This is great for those times when my husband and I both want to be online at the same time. The demo also has great potential as a "Windows won't boot, and I need to get to online tech support now" disk

Safety. Terrified of letting the children or computer-unsavvy parents near the computer because they manage to royally screw things up every time? Granted, there's no installing Net Nanny or Safe Surf for the kiddies, but neither can they download chat software or visit any Java intensive pages, not to mention edit the registry, mess with preferences, or delete any files. The QNX demo has very few settings to change, and what's more, since it runs entirely off of a RAM disk, simply reboot the computer to wipe out any changes. It's perfect for letting curious children and nervous grandparents run around on the Web while keeping the main computer safe from devastating reconfigurations and unwanted viral downloads.

Stability. QNX is incredibly stable. If the browser locks up, close it and relaunch. In two weeks of regular surfing, I've only managed to completely crash the demo once.

Speed. The Photon browser is the fastest thing I've ever used. Nothing, not even Opera, beats it. And in terms of connecting to the Internet, the W98 dialup has me pulling my hair out. It takes nearly two minutes to get connected. The QNX dialup connects within seconds of pressing the "connect" button.

The QNX demo has become my favorite "it's the middle of the night and I want to surf" program. In the same amount of time it takes W98 to load and get to a useable desktop, QNX is up and connected. I'm so impressed with the QNX demo, that in a couple of months, when the next "upgrade cascade" kicks my brother's old P133 back over to me, I plan to download and install QNX on it. LEPC

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