Linux
and the
Transmonde Vivanté XL

Dec. 12, 1998

Update: Transmonde went out of business a while ago. Warranty repairs were being carried out by ASI Inc.; now all the warranties have expired and they want nothing more to do with those laptops. Still, I'm leaving this page up as a kind of indicator as to how things were in re. Linux and laptops in the late 20th century.

Why Transmonde?

I know next to nothing about hardware, so I wanted something that would work, guaranteed. At the same time I didn't want to pay a premium for a name brand. But I have been using Linux since 0.99 pl12 and was willing to tinker with the software. After lots of Usenet reading, I settled on Transmonde for two reasons:
  • everyone who had one was really positive about it, and especially about the customer service; and
  • they used standard components that would work with Linux. (I would never buy Dell because they use Neomagic video.)
Happily I didn't have to do any software hacking; I installed RedHat 5.1 (because I happened to have a CD lying around) and everything went flawlessly.

Transmonde also has a 30-day money back guarantee and a 1-year regular guarantee.

As it turned out, right when I was ready to order a system, they were offering a 10% holiday discount. Usually I buy something the day before they drop the price!

This is what I got:

  • Vivanté XL
  • 233 MHz Pentium II
  • 96 MB RAM
  • 32K cache, 512K L2
  • intel 440BX
  • 5.1 GB disk
  • K56 modem (integral)
  • 20x CD-ROM
  • $2069
It really is an excellent machine. No dead pixels on the display, everything seems really solid. The biggest advantages of the XL over the SE are that:
  • you can use the floppy and CD-ROM drives at the same time (on the SE you need to connect the floppy drive with a cable); and
  • that the modem is integrated instead of being a PC card which frees up a slot. (Not that I plan to get more than one PC card!)

Installation

I read on the net that someone had trouble getting FIPS to work on a Win95 partition on a Transmonde SE so I decided to not even try. (Since then I've heard that there is no particular problem to it, FIPS works just fine.) I put in the RedHat 5.1 boot disk and CD, and fired it up. (On the XL, since you don't need to use the PCMCIA slots for installation, you don't need the supp.img disk, just the boot disk.)

Installation went like a charm: I wasn't sure I needed any swap space with 96M of RAM but I thought what the hell and made a 32M swap partition. I was very careful to not change the first partition which is used for the "Suspend to Disk" feature.

I installed everything except multimedia (the soundcard doesn't have a Linux driver yet but it is in progress). It took about 500M of disk space.

LILO

I created a boot disk because I knew I still had to install Win95, which would wipe out the MBR. After Win95 was installed, I booted from the floppy I'd made and re-ran lilo to put it on the MBR.

Older kernels didn't recognise RAM more than 64M because the BIOS didn't report it correctly. RedHat 5.1 installs kernel 2.0.34; kernels 2.0.36 and newer can handle this correctly. If you decide to stay with the 2.0.34 kernel and have more than 64M RAM, add the line
append="mem=96M"
(or however much RAM you have) to the Linux section(s) of /etc/lilo.conf.

X11

It autodetected a PS/2 mouse and I just accepted the defaults. It autoprobed and found the right video chipset (C&T 65555) but didn't recognise that it had 2M RAM. I edited the XF86Config and put in a line for VideoRam 2048. For the "monitor" I picked 1024x768 @ 70Hz and vsync 50-90 Hz. There might have been a selection for "LCD display" but I missed it. It is now running just fine, with 16 bits per pixel:
       $ xinit -- -bpp 16 
(or startx)
I'm running xdm now (edit /etc/inittab to make 5 the default runlevel), so I just put the bpp option into the xdm server setup file /etc/X11/xdm/Xservers.

Modem

I made a link to ttyS1:
	# cd /dev ln -s ttyS1 modem
	    
Works fine!

PPP

I ran netcfg and followed the prompts. Select "Interfaces" and "Add" to add a ppp interface; then on to the "Edit" window. Set the speed of the modem here, then select "Communication" for login and password information. Hit "ok" all the way back and then "Activate" - it worked! Since I want to be able to start a connection as a normal user I made pppd setuid and also wrote a couple of scripts. For more details you should read the PPP Tips.

PCMCIA

I bought an Adaptec APA-1460 SCSI adapter to use with my Zip drive. (Note: the APA-1460 doesn't come with a DB-25 cable, which is what you need for the SCSI Zip drive; you have to call them and ask them to send you one "free" i.e. they get you for $10 in shipping.)

I think I screwed up when I installed the system, and didn't ask it to install PCMCIA support. This is what worked for me:

	cd /lib/modules/preferred/pcmcia 
	insmod pcmcia_core.o insmod i82365.o
	insmod ds.o
	insmod aha152x_cs.o
	cardmgr
	    
It beeped (signifying it had recognised the PC card) and the drive whirred; I could now mount /dev/sda as desired. Thus emboldened, I rooted around and found that /etc/rc.d/init.d/pcmcia had all the right things in it, so I made links from rc3.d (multi-user runlevel) and rc5.d (xdm runlevel):
	cd /etc/rc.d/rc3.d
	ln -s ../init.d/pcmcia ./S96pcmcia
	cd ../rc5.d
	ln -s ../init.d/pcmcia ./S96pcmcia
	    
On the SCSI card I now have a Zip drive and a Umax 1200S flatbed scanner hooked up. (For scanner details, see the SANE page.)

Sound

The Vivanté has an ESS Maestro soundcard. There is no free driver for this card; Open Sound has a version available for $30. It works well enough for RealAudio except for a regular clicking sound. (The driver is in beta.) The speakers are above the keyboard, which is I think a better place than on the SE (which has them on the palm-rest).

Suspend

The kernel installed by RedHat 5.1 doesn't have APM support compiled in. I was getting intermittent lockups of the X server after resuming from a suspend. In any case I wanted to recompile the kernel to leave off the superfluous drivers; I turned on APM support at the same time. This fixed the lockup problems, and, of course, allowed me to use the apm client programs like xapm. (It takes about 40 seconds to suspend to or resume from the disk; about 10 seconds to suspend to or resume from RAM.)

Battery Life

So far, with `normal' use of the hard drive (lots of compilation and file browsing) and no PCMCIA cards plugged in, I'm getting a little over 3 hours per charge (APM reports 10 minutes left at the 3 hour mark). I have the standard battery; I plan to get the second battery for the modular bay at some point.

I heard about someone that was running a modified bdflush that would only perform flushes when there already was a disk read/write pending; this apparently reduced the number of disk accesses and greatly improved battery life. I can see that for something like editing a file it is conceivable that the system will not be writing much to the disk and battery life might be better. I will keep updating this page as I learn more.

Update: I am now running mobile-update, the update daemon that doesn't write to the disk when it doesn't need to; works just fine.

Addendum: Win95

Well, there are a couple of programs I need Win95 for. Installing Linux was actually easier than installing Win95! I finally figured out that the Win95 install program wants to create its partition itself, so I did have to delete the DOS partition I'd already made. Then I had to install the drivers for all the little hardware bits and set the screen size to 1024x768. All this is described very well in the Transmonde package - very explicit step-by-step instructions on all the drivers. Very tedious though - I had to reboot the machine after every new driver (sometimes twice, and in one case, three times!) and had to enter the same directory name into a stupid dialog box about fifteen bazillion times. And again, for some drivers I had to enter the same path twice! Why can't it all just be done by a script or something? Oh, I forgot - GUI's are so much friendlier!

6 months later

There's something wrong with the charging setup on the laptop now - when I plug the cord in, it recharges for a little time (enough for the meter to come up about 90% or so) and then it stops. While the adapter is plugged in, it slowly discharges... the net result is that over about two weeks or so the battery level gets down to the 20% range now and doesn't charge any higher. Obviously this is not a good thing to happen to a portable! I do have one hack: I reboot, and in the BIOS I run "Learn Battery Settings". This is supposed to "re-educate" the Li-ion battery and it does bring back the battery charge level to about 90%. However over the next couple of weeks it's the same story again....

I'm trying to send the thing back to Transmonde but they have been a little reticent about sending me instructions on returns. Do I need to make a little road-trip to Cerritos now?

Another update: I sent a message to help@transmonde.com and got a response the next day -- they suggested trying a new battery. They said to send them the old battery and they would test it and/or send me a replacement. I didn't want to lose the use of the battery so for a trans-ship charge of $25 they sent me the new battery immediately -- via FedEx.

Network support

I finally bought a network card - a LinkSys 200, which is a CardBus 10/100 auto-sensing card. Their website -- and the box packaging! -- actually mentions Linux. I did have to recompile pcmcia-cs to make sure cardbus support was enabled, and got the tulip driver to build as a loadable module. I also added a "large memory window" in the PCMCIA options--in /etc/pcmcia/config/opts, I made the first line
	include port 0x100-0x3ff, memory 0xc0000-0xfffff, memory 0xa0000000-0xa0ffffff
	    
This gets rid of the "could not allocate 260K memory for CardBus socket" error that showed up in /var/log/messages. However I still have a problem: unless I insert my SCSI PCMCIA card, the system doesn't recognise the ethernet card! The procedure now is:
  1. Insert SCSI card
  2. Insert ethernet card
At this point either card can be removed and it handles all insertions and ejections of both cards.

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Shamim Mohamed
spm@drones.com
(Last updated Jun. 20, 1999)

Transmonde RedHat