Friday, October 10, 2008

Dell Inspiron 8600 near end of life refresh

Original Configuration:
- So I bought this laptop back in October 2004. Dang, I've had this thing for 4 years now. Here are the specs as they were when purchased:
Intel Pentium M Processor 725(1.60A GHz/400MHz FSB)
15.4 WSXGA+ (1680X1050)
Microsoft Windows XP Professional
512MB,333MHz 1 DIMM
30GB Hard Drive
Wireless Networking Cards Intel PRO/Wireless 2200 Internal Wireless (802.11 b/g, 54Mbps)
NEC CD ROM/DVD ROM 8x CD/DVD burner (DVD+RW/+R) with double-layer write capability
Network Card Integrated 10/100 Network Card and Modem

Initial Upgrades:
- I did some minor upgrades right away after purchasing the laptop.
- Added internal bluetooth (installation diagram). Part #2U381; cable - 5X617. I ordered directly from dell's parts department:
Dell Spare parts
Home/Home Office Accounts - 800-247-9252
- Dropped in another 512mb of ram for a total of 1gb.
- Swapped out the hard drive with a hitachi 7200rpm 60 gig HD with 8mb cache.

New Hardware Upgrades:
- So I used the laptop for many years in that configuration. In the past year the laptop was feeling slower and slower. Boot times were taking forever. Just launching firefox took forever. I was having S3 sleep and even occasional hibernation issues. It really is time to get a new laptop but I was thinking I could do some upgrades and maybe use it for a bit longer. Installing winxp sp3 didn't help much (I was still on the ORIGINAL factory winxp install....yeah I know I know). So I'll document all the things I did to basically give me what feels like an almost new laptop. All it takes is a little time and money and a jewelry screwdriver. I did all the following upgrades spread over the last year.
- Upgrade the bios to the latest version (A14).
- First up was upgrading the ram to the maximum of 2gb (2x1gb sodimm). When it comes to laptops I usually like to start at and use their memory advisor tool to confirm which memory is compatible since laptops can be a tad more picky than desktops. After that I just hoped over to newegg and picked up two sticks of:
Crucial 1GB 200-Pin DDR SO-DIMM DDR 333 (PC 2700) Laptop Memory - Retail
- Next, I swapped out the hard drive again. 60gb is just too tiny by today's standards. Unfortunately, 7200 rpm 2.5" PATA drives weren't being made in the larger sizes. Those were all sata. So I had to settle for:
Western Digital Scorpio WD1600BEVE 160GB 5400 RPM 8MB Cache ATA-6 Notebook Hard Drive - OEM
which was the largest PATA 2.5" drive at that time (250gb 2.5" pata drives are now available).

Speed isn't so bad on these newer higher capacity and therefore higher density platter 5400 rpm drives. In fact, the hdtach scores were pretty close to the old 60gb 7200prm drive.
If you want to copy your OS to the new hard drive I recommend VANTEC CB-ISATAU2 SATA/IDE to USB 2.0 Adapter - Retail (I picked up a bunch of these last year on black Friday at Fry's for $10 each) along with Acronis True Image. Just connect the new 2.5" drive up to the laptop using USB and run True Image. True Image has the option of creating a bootable cd with true image on there (boots up a version of linux) which is my preferred way of doing things. I took the old 60gb and bought another hard drive caddy from ebay for only a few dollars. This way you can use the old hard drive for experimentation, installing alternative os's, etc with the ability to swap drives by removing just one screw.
- I swapped out the optical drive with a samsung which is much faster and more reliable. You can read the complete details of this upgrade here:
Samsung Slim DVD Burner SN-S082H
- My optional battery that fit into the modular bay (part 4r084) died a year or so back. You can get used ones from ebay for around $20 shipped. My main battery still works ok. I get around 2hrs out of it. If you need a new one zbattery has one for $123 or you can try ebay for around $50. I've never bought a replacement laptop battery so I can't vouch on the quality of either product.
- I've also ordered a SDHC capable (plus memory stick) PCMCIA Cardbus card reader from ebay for around $15-20 shipped. It's just one of those convenient things that most modern laptops have. Since my pc card slot is sitting empty most of the time I might as well put a card reader into it. UPDATE: Be very careful about most of those ebay card adapters. Most of them are old 16 bit pcmcia cards. They work, even read sdhc, but really slowly (say around usb 1.1 speeds) and will use 100% cpu so you can't really do anything else. You can tell by the silver stripe near the connector end of the card. 32bit cards have a gold stripe (here is a pic). I'm still looking for a 32bit pcmcia sdhc card reader that sits flush. I'm not sure if one exists.

Operating System:
- After all the hardware upgrades I was still not happy with the performance. I figured it was time to install a clean copy of windows. I've subscribed to technet which gives me access to all the operating systems and office products. My subscription is only a year but the keys I get are good for life. Also, you get 10 keys for each product. So if you have a lot of pc's in the house this is the most economical way to go. The regular price is $349. If you dig around you can get that closer to $200ish after a coupon. Once in a while you can get an incredible deal for around $100 which is what I did. Yeah that's right. Every flavor of office, windows xp, vista, most of the server versions (except home server), and much more for $100. But even at the regular price Technet is still a pretty awesome deal if you own multiple pc's. Forget buying OEM copies from newegg. Technet is a much much better value in most cases.
- So now came the time to either reinstall xp or go for vista. Yes, I was one of those Vista haters earlier this year but in the last 6 months after building my two quad core desktop machines with Vista, I've gotten use to most of Vista's quirks. It's actually kind of grown on me. I like aero glass. So I decided to go with Vista Ultimate 32bit. I was a little wary since I would be installing Vista on some pretty old hardware. I do have experience with this. I even got vista working on a socket A - athlon xp pc. So I'm pretty good about finding old win xp drivers and shoehorning them into vista 32bit.
- So I backed up all my data and reformatted the drive doing a clean install of Vista Ultimate 32bit with sp1. Everything went suprisingly smooth. Almost all the hardware was automatically detected fine/installed drivers including audio, the built in ethernet, wireless networking, and bluetooth. There were only a few things I had to go hunt down.
- Obviously no new drivers have been released by dell for ages since this laptop way predates Vista's existence. For video drivers I used this:
which let me install the latest catalyst drivers which seemed to work fine with my mobility 9600 pro turbo. I tested guild wars, some source games over steam, gametap, and Knights of the Old Republic 2. They all ran fine though not with the greatest framerates. Considering the age of this laptop I was pretty satisfied. Running at 1280X800 works pretty well and maintains the 16:10 aspect ratio.

- For the touchpad I used the following drivers:
Alps GlidePoint/StickPointer, v., A00
- Broadcom BCM Internal Modem. I used Newest - V.92 Data/Fax/Voice version 3.5.25 for Windows 2000 & XP. Even though it says it's only for xp it seemed to install fine for vista.
- I use the TRENDnet TEG-PCBUSR 32-bit Gigabit CardBus PC Card for when I want to burn something over the local network at a full 8X. It works great in vista as long as you use these drivers:
Do NOT use the realtek reference drivers!

I have to say this little project was well worth the effort. Current prices as of this writing put the hardware upgrades around $200. It almost feels like I have a new laptop. Everything loads and runs faster. Vista is plenty snappy. All the hardware works just fine. Games work fine. I have a good amount of memory and plenty of free disk space. My DVD burns are quick and reliable. Sleep is working great now. I can just close the lid and it drops into S3 standby (killawatt shows only 4 watts being used in this state). Open the lid, and I can almost instantly start using the laptop. I'm happy, the wife's happy. This should let me put off buying a new laptop for at least another year (well...unless a cheap dual core atom netbook shows up then I might not be able to resist).

UPDATE: 8/30/09
- So I decided to install Windows 7 Ultimate x86 (MSDN) today. I backed up my data, reformatted the partition, and installed a clean copy.
- Things went pretty smoothly. There were just a few more driver issues. First, the wireless networking drivers didn't install (wired was working fine). Now, I also noticed later that I had the radios turned off (wifi/bluetooth with fn-f2) so that might have been part of the issue. But if you need to install the wireless networking drivers manually these worked fine for me (that is if you opted for the intel wireless instead of the dell brand):
Intel Pro/Wireless 2200BG
- I also had to install audio drivers:
Sigmatel STAC 9750 AC97
- The above glidepoint, broadcom internal modem, and trendnet gigabit drivers that I used for vista worked fine in windows 7.
- Finally, I ran into some video driver issues. First, I used the mobility modder along with the recommended ati catalyst 9.3 drivers. It installed fine and directx was working but I lost all ability to scale to full screen. The options were just missing from CCC. This is pretty critical for such an old laptop. I typically run games at lower resolutions (1280X800) and then have the video card scale the image to full screen. Instead everything was playing in a tiny box surrounded by a large black border. I ended up uninstall those drivers and installed these instead:
DNA ATI Modified drivers
These are based off of catalyst 8.9 and installed just fine. I got all my scaling options back, and it's working great with my games.
- Another option worth checking out is I noticed a lot of drivers have been moved into windows update. So make sure you check the optional recommended updates for any potential missing drivers.
- Everything else worked just fine in windows 7 including bluetooth. S3 sleep seems to be working fine too. No problems with fn + sound/brightness. Overall, well worth the upgrade. I really like windows 7 and the new taskbar. It performs quite well on old hardware too.

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