Retro box, part 2

Posted on Tue 28 July 2015 in Articles • 4 min read

In my last post, I put the cart before the horse. I started drafting the post earlier in the week, before I made my purchase on eBay and didn't get around to posting it until after the computer arrived on Friday. Also arriving on the same day was the second-hand Core 2 Quad processor I found on ebay for $30. It gave me the weekend to play around with the box and upgrade the CPU.

When the box arrived I discovered that it was a ThinkCentre M58p in perfect working order. It also had a copy of Windows XP installed, which I wasn't expecting based on the listing information that stated no operating system was installed. This was actually a good thing because the BIOS that shipped with it hadn't been updated since 2008 and having an installed copy of Windows made it easy to do the update. Updating the BIOS allowed me to boot from a USB stick so I didn't have to muck around with burning an Ubuntu installation DVD.

I decided to install Ubuntu Mate 15.04 first on the stock hardware to see how usable the experience was. The hardware included a Pentium dual core CPU, 2GB of ram, an 80GB sata drive and onboard Intel X4500 graphics (and eSata -- another pleasant surprise). Installation went off fine and just about every component on the motherboard is Intel and just worked with the stock Linux Kernel (3.19).

As expected, Ubuntu Mate booted in around 400MB of ram; the GPU siphoned off an additional 128MB, leaving me with just over a gigabyte for applications. I was pleasantly surprised by how usable it was for everyday tasks such as browsing, editing documents and watching movies. With the Intel video acceleration drivers loaded, I could play HD mpeg2 content, however the GPU was unable to play h264 content under Ubuntu with hardware acceleration (this seems to be a driver limitation).

Once the initial experience went well, I decided to start adding hardware upgrades. The first was the CPU upgrade, taking it from the stock dual core Pentium to the Core 2 Quad. Next I replaced the stock hard drive with a 500GB HDD from my old AMD Athlon box. The hard drive upgrade didn't do anything except give me more space and I'm looking forward to installing an SSD. The CPU upgrade though provided quite a boost in performance and I was able to play Bluray quality files (H.264) with VLC and MPV with software rendering with less than 15% utilisation on each core.

Next part to arrive is 4GB of ram, another cheap find on eBay. My phone pinged today telling me the ram is due to arrive today (Monday 27th) in the post. A total of 6GB DDR3 ram should give me quite a bit of headroom once I start multitasking more. The board will take 8GB, so I may upgrade in future when I find a couple of cheap sticks.

My total expense to date is still less than $100AUD and I have a working Linux workstation that's performing much better than I expected. After years of using locked down Apple products, it's nice to able to tinker, opening and upgrading the box as I see fit.

As noted, I plan on installing an SSD, which should boost performance notably even on the SATA2 protocol the motherboard uses. The board however only supports 2 sata connections so I will likely replace the optical drive with 5.25 inch bay adapter and install the drive there. If there's one thing that owning a MacBook Air, Chromebook and Mac Mini has taught me is that internal optical drives are a waste of space and IO.

I've also thought about installing a discreet PCIe graphics card. Nothing too beefy (the case is too small and the PSU is only 280 watts), just something that gives me back HDMI out, can drive two 1080p monitors and does hardware H.264 decoding. However, the ThinkCentres are known to be a little picky thanks to BIOS whitelisting and I've read widely differing reports on what is possible. I'll have to see how I go with the integrated GPU. In truth I don't plan on pushing it graphically and as long as it continues to render video, the desktop, gog.com games and apps without lag or tearing, I'm happy.

One thing I am planning on doing is adding extra storage via the ThinkCentre's eSata port and was thinking about an external RAID enclosure. We've got a chronic storage problem at home and I've been after a storage stack I can use for backups and periodically share content over DLNA that's not suitable for our kids. Firewire and Thunderbolt solutions are too expensive but only my Chromebook has USB3 so eSata seems like a pretty good compromise and typically features on most inexpensive USB3 hard drive enclosures. That will be a purchase for next month's payday.

In all, I'm very happy with the ThinkCentre. It's shown me what I've suspected for sometime that older hardware is still perfectly viable for getting work done and having a little fun on the side. By upgrading key components I can see very little difference in performance for everyday tasks when compared to newer hardware. The real heroes here are Ubuntu Mate and the Intel components that make up the box. Intel has a just-deserved reputation of being one of the most Linux-friendly hardware vendors; everything detected and is working flawlessly without a single proprietary driver. Ubuntu Mate, meanwhile shows us what the Linux desktop should be: fast, responsive, feature-rich and easy on the resources. The idea of buying more powerful (and expensive) hardware just to run a bloated operating system is quite frankly, stupid.

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