Ramblin' Hamblin

School Dropout Gets Upgrades

Garry Hamblin - 2001.10.12

Obsolete hardware means obsolete and cheap [CHEAP!] peripherals.

At the end of the last article, I had purchased a school surplus NEC Versa V/50 laptop that had 8 MB RAM, a 9.5" dual scan LCD, and a 240 MB hard drive with an NEC branded fitted carry case for the princely total of $35. Without the right peripherals, though, it was just an expensive paperweight. To have a Web-worthy machine capable of running a decent browser, I needed a PCMCIA modem, more memory, and a CD-ROM drive.

The First Step

Using another computer, the first thing was to log onto NEC's support site and see if I could get the factory manual and any proprietary software that was bundled with the machine when it was new. I was pleasantly surprised to find not only the manual [in PDF format] and technical specs for this six year old machine, but also software. This included the power management program specific to this model, the PCMCIA drivers, and various utilities. This level of support is evidently not unusual, as I found similar information on Compaq's and Toshiba's sites for other laptops I had also considered.

Betcha Never Seen One of These Before!

While on NEC's site, I noticed that when a parallel to SCSI converter had originally been available. It looks like a SCSI cable that connects the SCSI device with the printer port. It has a printer pass through, so you don't have to sacrifice your printer capability. Since I wanted to add a CD-ROM drive to load software, and since I already owned an ancient Apple SCSI 2x external drive, I thought this would be an acceptable solution - if one could be found. I was not hopeful, as the converter (basically an NEC branded Trantor T 358) was not likely to be a common item.

You could have knocked me down (not really) when I found one complete in the original box on eBay the very same day. The total cost including shipping was $50. Not bad compared to its $189 original suggested list. When it arrived, I loaded the drivers, and it worked flawlessly. It even came with a music CD player program that I use regularly. It was the most expensive item I bought for this project.

More Memory!

Okay, this was easy. This laptop, as do a number of the other makes and models of this vintage, uses 3.3V "credit card" modules. The memory limit in my machine is 36 MB [4 MB on the logic board from the factory], so I figured at minimum I needed a 16 MB module. The 32 MB modules are pricey, but 16M modules are cheap. So am I. It was eBay to the rescue again: I purchased a Kingston 16 MB card for total cost including shipping of $25. I got it home and plugged it in. I consulted the manual to find out how to run the BIOS setup and presto - 20 MB memory!

Duh Modumb

After having such good luck with eBay, I turned there again for my modem purchase. Unlike the CD-ROM adapter, the choice of available modems was truly mind boggling. There were literally dozens available in my price range. I settled on a brand new Practical Peripherals EZ jack 33.6. EZ jack means there is no dongle to lose, the phone jack slides in and out the end of the modem - very cool. That Practical Peripherals is no longer in business means it was also very cheap. $35 all inclusive.

Anybody want to try to activate the "free" AOL trial floppy disk that came with it? Some things never change.

Cheque Please!

The total tab thus far then is $145 (Canadian) including the price of the machine. Bill Gates probably spends more on his luncheon appetizer! I was so far under budget that I couldn't resist a new NEC docking bar for $25. Whoops, I guess that makes the total $170, doesn't it?

In the next article, we bring the dropout to life with a mix of old and new, inexpensive and free software. We'll also consider what should you do differently if you attempt this. LEPC

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