linux on the panasonic CF-41 Mk1
by daniel james
Panasonic CF-41 Mk1

If you've got the Pentium-powered CF-41 Mk 2 (or later) see instead for Linux installation details.

I was looking for a cheap laptop, mostly for email and writing documents. I've always liked antiques, so the Panasonic CF-41 appealed to me. The original Mk1 came out in 1994 and cost from US $8700 upwards. It had a 10 inch 640x480 colour screen and a built-in CD-ROM under the keyboard - impressive, eh? It has a 486DX50 processor, 8MB RAM and a 260MB hard disk. Unlike fine furniture, antique laptops do not hold their value, so you should be able to get one for less than the cost of a Palm Pilot.

The CF-41 Mk1 is just about the cheapest laptop you can get with a proper TFT colour display, and is therefore useful as a machine to learn about Linux on, or for the more experienced user as a portable tool for controlling or monitoring other computers without a local display of their own. You can use it on the move, but it's not lightweight. Having said that, it's a low theft risk, especially if you put a big '486' or Tux sticker on it. There's some evidence that thieves will abandon a Linux laptop once they find that they can't press 'cancel' at the password prompt...

Of course, it's an old machine, and the latest Windoze has no chance of running satisfactorily on it. It was designed for Win3.1, and while you can get Win95 running on it, that's hardly an advantage. Thankfully, Linux is very scaleable, so you can run the very latest free software on a CF-41.

If you've got access to an Ethernet network, then a Linux-supported PCMCIA network card such as a Xircom IIps 10 Mbit card only costs about twenty quid from Sterling XS, including dongle, and makes the machine much more usable. You won't need the manual or drivers for this particular card because it's supported automatically under Linux with the pcmcia_cs package. Of course you can use modem or parallel/serial cable networking if you're on a very tight budget.

If you want to run Xwindows, then the optional 16MB proprietary RAM module and a bigger hard disk takes the upgrade path as far as it will go with this particular machine. According to Panasonic, 32MB RAM in total is possible, but I haven't ever seen a 24MB module for sale. It is possible to run X in only 8 MB RAM with TinyX, but you're cutting it fine. It's worth noting before you spend money on the upgrade that most Xwindow applications aren't really designed for screen resolutions as low as 640x480. I find myself tending to use the console instead, as it runs much faster too.

The only particular disadvantages this laptop has are the usual lack of the optional floppy drive (Sterling XS charge half as much as the machine itself for one) and a proprietary CD-ROM controller of the old school, which is not supported by default under Linux, since it's totally obsolete. However, both of these problems are easily overcome when you know how.

How do I boot it without a floppy drive?

Floppy drives are obsolete anyway, so get a 2.5 to 3.5 inch HD convertor instead. They are essential gadgets for laptop owners, enabling you to put your skinny laptop hard drive on a desktop machine and use its floppy drive, CD-ROM and network connection for your Linux installation, or emergency data recovery. It should only cost about the same as a box of floppies, since it is only two sockets soldered back-to-back on a PCB.

The CD-ROM drive is not bootable. If you don't have the use of a desktop computer or the CF-41 floppy drive, you will need to retain a small bootable DOS partition with CDROM support to launch .bat files, such as those used in some Linux installers, even if you never intend to use DOS or Windoze. It's not a bad idea to retain a small DOS partition anyway, since the Panasonic BIOS and setup utilties are DOS based, not that I've found them to be much use. A bigger hard disk is recognised automatically, and that's the only setting you might need to change.

The contents of a Win95 emergency boot floppy will suffice for a bootable DOS partition, as long as you have ATAPICD.SYS and MSCDEX.EXE on there. You will probably have to edit AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS to reflect that it will now be booting from the C: drive.

Which Linux distribution should I use?

I recommend Slackware, or it's install-under-Windoze derivative Dragon Linux, as the easiest Linux distributions to set up which cater for old hardware. With the standard 260MB hard disk you have to be very minimal in your choice of software packages, but a usable console based system is perfectly possible.

How do I get the CD-ROM working?

The internal CD-ROM used with a standard Linux kernel will fill up the screen with error messages at boot time. The messages don't go away either - 'lost interupt' and 'the drive appears confused' keep appearing in the middle of documents. Needless to say, you cannot access files on a CDROM.

There are two ways around this problem. If you've got a network connection, the easiest way is to tell LILO (the Linux Loader) to ignore the internal drive at boot time with:

append="hdc=noprobe hdd=noprobe"

and then mount a CD on another machine on the network using NFS, or copy over files with FTP. This is no great loss since the internal drive is only 2x speed anyway.

To access the built-in CDROM drive, you have to load the isp16.o kernel module that supports the proprietary hardware. Unfortunately I haven't been able to get this to work consistently across different Linux distributions and kernel versions.

One bodge I have used successfully is to boot DOS with MSCDEX.EXE to initialise the drive, and then warm reboot into Linux (running the isp16.o kernel module) via LOADLIN.EXE.

This bodge is quite acceptable since the CF-41 running Linux doesn't ever need to be rebooted, unless you let the battery run completely flat. It suspends and resumes perfectly without having to write to a DOS or Windoze partition, thanks to a dedicated second battery which seems to keep the RAM alive.

If anyone knows of a better method that works on the CF-41 Mk1, like a recipe for sucessfully loading the isp16.o module that doesn't require a warm reboot from DOS, then please let me know! It has been suggested that compiling your kernel with the CONFIG_BLK_DEV_CMD640 and CONFIG_BLK_DEV_CMD640_ENHANCED bugfix options can make the CD-ROM work, although I still get the error messages and inconsistent results even with these options.

Other FAQ's

How do I access the BIOS at startup?

You can't - it's only accessible via a DOS application. Don't worry about it, though - it's not much use. There appears to be no limitation on hard disk size, and a new hard disk will work without reconfiguration of the BIOS.

How do I put it into suspend mode?

With the big power button - this doesn't actually turn the power off unless both batteries are dead.

Where's the reset button?

Next to the PC card slots on the left side. While the machine is running it causes a warm reboot. While suspended it causes a cold reboot, clearing the RAM - the same effect as if the resume battery is flat or missing.

Where's the extra RAM go?

In the socket underneath the PC Card slots.

Where are the support files and documents?

What are the graphics and sound chipsets?

The graphics controller is a Chips & Technologies 65548 and uses the generic SVGA Xwindows server. The sound controller is an ESS Audio Drive 1688 and uses the Sound Blaster compatible OSS driver.

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