Saturday, 25 May 2013

ThinkPad 600X: The Ice Drills of Europa

ThinkPads have gone into space; this one was left behind

Today we're going to take a trip back in time, to December 1999, and we're also going to return to the present and then journey into the far, far future, and then return to the present again. A while back I wrote a short history of the IBM ThinkPad. I like my laptops like I like my women; black, well-built, angular, and equipped with robust hinges, and as a consequence the ThinkPad range has always appealed to me.

But I've never owned a proper IBM-era ThinkPad. IBM sold the ThinkPad range to Lenovo in 2005, and since that time ThinkPads have been made in China. I have a couple of Lenovo-era machines, and although they're smashing fun I have always wondered what IBM's models were like.

The complicating factor is that ThinkPads from 2003-onwards-ish were Lenovo machines in all but name, and pre-2000 ThinkPads are so old-fashioned as to be very eccentric choices on a practical level today. I don't want a doorstop or monitor stand, I want something that might be of practical use, if only as an internet terminal. Older models, pre-1998 or so, had 800x600 LCD panels and no USB ports. They also tended to have stingy memory limits that were irrevocably imposed by the motherboard.

For example, the ThinkPad 600, which was launched in April 1998, can only work with a maximum of 288mb of memory, despite having a pair of memory slots that can, in theory, hold 1gb worth of memory sticks. The low memory limit means lots of swapping to the hard drive, and older hard drives are very slow. I remember those days, I was there, with my overclocked Celeron 300A and 10gb Quantum Bigfoot hard drive. Remember Quantum Bigfeet? They were built into 5.25" cases and were double-plus slow, but you got a lot of storage for the money.

I mention the ThinkPad 600. The 600-series was the best-selling business notebook of its day, and there were three models - the original Pentium and Pentium II-powered 600, the improved 600E, and the 600X, which used the new Pentium III. For the most part they had 13.3", 1024x768 displays. None of them had built-in wifi or indeed ethernet. Although the 600 is obsolete the 600X is a much more viable choice. It has a maximum memory capacity of 576mb, better than any pre-modern ThinkPad (the machine came with 64mb on the motherboard, and could take two 256mb PC-100 sticks, which would have been horrifically expensive when the 600X was new, but are now available on eBay for less than a tenner). So when a ThinkPad 600X popped up on eBay for £20 I snapped it up. 1024x768 and 576mb are sufficient for a frugal Linux installation or XP, at a pinch.

The 600X is built out of rubber-coated glass-and-carbon fibre-reinforced plastic with an aluminium-reinforced chassis. The December 1999 issue of PC Magazine lists a street price of $4,310. At the time the rule of thumb was that a usable desktop machine cost $1,000, a decent laptop was $2,000, anything cheaper was a false economy, and laptops were not *quite* ready to displace your desktop machine. Nonetheless the 600X made a very good stab at doing so.

The 600X was launched in December 1999. IBM's notebook-sized laptops had always been popular, and the 600-series combined the basic design of the earlier 560 with a larger screen and updated Pentiums. As a whole, the 600-series sold over two million units, making it the most popular ThinkPad model of all time. The range never attracted an emotional following - the majority of ThinkPad sales were to the corporate market - but, looking back, the 600-series has a certain melancholy appeal. Until that point laptops had always been inferior in some way to their desktop counterpoints; from that point onwards laptops gradually became commodity products, and $4,000 price tags a distant memory. It was a difficult climb to the summit, and when they looked back they saw a crowded mountainside coming up to meet them, an avalanche in reverse.

Apart from the slow processors, the slow hard drives, and the memory limits, the pre-2000 ThinkPads had a couple of other limitations. USB was introduced to the range in 1998, with USB 2.0 following in 2003, and so the 600X only has a single USB 1.1 port.

Which it can't boot from. This means that if you want to try out Linux distributions you have to burn compact discs rather than flash a USB stick, which means you have to find some recordable CDs. Not an easy task in 2013.

Compact disc was a predecessor of DVD, ask your dad. Yes, you could get movies on CD. Mostly Hong Kong action films, because Video CD was popular over there. DVD... you know DVD? People used to buy films on optical discs. You didn't need to have the player hooked up to the internet. You could lend films to other people! Happy times.

My 600X was made in IBM's plant in Greenock, Scotland, which had been making PCs for IBM since 1981, although there were constant worries that IBM would abandon the place in favour of cheaper continental labour (as the Christian Science Monitor reports, in an article from March 1983). The plant was kept alive in part by funding from the government, as a means of ensuring employment in an area that had lost its shipbuilding industry, but it didn't last. In 2003 IBM outsourced the PC business to Sanmina, a global electronics company that initially kept the plant open before moving the work to Hungary in 2006. Run-on sentences are bad form and should be avoided, although I prefer to think that I have developed a sing-song writing style that reflects my interest in music.

The plant lay mostly empty until 2009, at which point the contents were auctioned off and the site was demolished. A chap called Ben Cooper shot a fascinating photo essay inside the abandoned manufacturing facilities in 2008, here - it resembles one of the early levels from STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, the one where you have to find an underground base. There's a psychic monster hiding in the tunnels but I don't want to spoil things.
The impending visit of US mining company officials interested in learning about oil shale industries near Edinburgh may help to cement some tarnished Scottish-American business relations. The shale mines closed here a long time ago, but some mining companies in America's Midwest appear eager to learn how best to develop vast supplies of the oil in the US shale belt.
That was from the Christian Science Monitor's article. Shale gas mining was a non-issue in 1983. It entered the public consciousness roughly a quarter of a century later in the form of "fracking". Last year, the UK government approved its use in Scotland, and so presumably the US mining company officials who visited the place in 1983 didn't waste their trip, all those years ago.

Why do companies outsource? In part because wages are cheaper abroad, and wages are cheaper abroad because foreign governments keep themselves apart from the people they govern. Switzerland has not won a war for centuries, and its armed forces would not last long against a concerted attack from its neighbours, but wages are high in Switzerland because the government and the people are united. It's not corruption, per se, that keeps wages down, it's disunity. A state that is corrupt at all levels would have higher wages than a state of saints run by tyrants with machine guns, because machine guns determine working conditions, and bullets are cheap.

The 600X doesn't have built-in wifi, so you'll need a wi-fi dongle, in this case a teeny-tiny generic tiny something-or-other from Amazon. It's plugged into one of the PCMCIA slots with a USB 2.0 CardBus adapter, which gives the machine two USB 2.0 ports.

Google Books has a stash of old computer magazines, and it's fascinating to go back and read about the world into which the 600X was born. I was alive at the time and can just about remember the period. People were worried that computers would stop working when the date ticked round to 01/01/00, although this was not a problem for the ThinkPad 600X's hardware at least (the BIOS clock goes up to 31 December 2079). Apart from that, the world was going through a relatively happy time. Terrorism was something that happened abroad and Francis Fukuyama's The End of History was still very popular. The late 1990s was also the height of the dot-com boom. It doesn't seem so far away, but is the distant past in computer terms. A time when everybody was waiting for the next big thing; Intel was working on the Pentium IV, and Microsoft was having a hard time replacing the Windows 9X architecture. There was a magazine called Business 2.0, because everything was about to change and the old ways would be obliterated.

Back then, laptops were expensive and sold almost exclusively to businesses, and mobile internet was the next big thing, in the same way that fusion power and space tethers are currently the next big thing. The fact that mobile internet was impractical and expensive and essentially unworkable at the time was neither here nor there. No-one was interested in facts, which were hard and cruel and bad for business. It was an age in which a vague business plan could get you places, because everybody wanted to get in at the ground floor of this vast new development, and if that meant bluffing your way into the lobby with false credentials, so be it. An age of ill-advised construction projects that left behind unfinished housing estates and ghost skyscrapers stuffed with $1,100 Aeron chairs.

A few more years had to pass before it became feasible to surf the internet in coffee shop, a few more before it became normal outside San Francisco, Manhattan, and a small patch of land around London's Canary Wharf and Shoreditch. In 1999, laptops were meant to be carried in a shoulder bag from your desk at work to the meeting room and then to the hotel, and mobile internet meant connecting to the hotel's telephone line, or going out and paying £1 to surf the internet for an hour at a cybercafe. You used your laptop sparingly away from the mains because it conked out after two hours. If you had tried to use a laptop in a pub in Britain in 1999 people would have thought you were autistic.

During the years that followed a combination of 3G and wi-fi changed all that. The modern age didn't begin until students of limited means could go to the local Starbucks and knock back a couple of frothy coffees whilst blogging about, I dunno, Howard Dean or something, and eyeing digital SLR reviews. I'm trying to pick examples from 2005. What did people blog about in 2005? Howard Dean was a 2004 thing. Sex and the City finished in 2004. I can't remember what happened in 2005. And of course I'm simplifying things to the point of absurdity. The modern age didn't begin; there is no modern age, just as there is no sharp dividing line between blue and green on the spectrum of visible light.

When the 600X was new Google was tiny and MySpace didn't exist and neither did Reddit. NTK was still updated, it was that long ago. Grand Theft Auto was a top-down cartoon game. There was no way a 3D Grand Theft Auto was going to sell; it would be overshadowed by Driver and The Getaway, which was just about to come out. Rockstar Games had missed the boat, but you've gotta be fast in the computer games biz.

ThinkPad 600X (1999, left) vs ThinkPad X60 (2005, right) - the 600X has a 500mhz Pentium III and 576mb memory, the X60 a 1.83ghz Core Duo with 3gb. Mhz for mhz, the Core Duo does much, much more work than the Pentium III. The two machines were aimed at slightly different markets, in vastly different eras.

Also, price. The 600X launched in the UK at a price of £2,750, which was steep but not extravagantly so. And it sold well, albeit that it was bought in bulk by companies rather than by individual shoppers, and as a consequence the price was not subject to the same market forces as a consumer product. Still, even ignoring inflation that's more than the most expensive 17" MacBook Pro today. To be fair, the 600X doesn't really have a direct modern analogue. It was part of the first generation of genuinely portable laptops that were powerful enough to replace a desktop machine and could practically be used on battery power, at a pinch. About the only thing it couldn't do was play 3D games very well. Laptop graphics chips had a long way to go until they could match the dedicated 3D cards in desktop machines, although there was an optional, gigantic, docking station for the 600X that had PCI slots, so in theory you could have stuffed a Voodoo3 into it and played Half-Life with your 600X that way.

In comparison, modern laptops are... well, they're vastly more powerful, the engineering is often very clever, but they're no longer revolutionary. They've been done. Post-2000, the story of mobile computing in the PC market has been all about the crowded mountainside etc, with Apple as the solitary throwback to days gone by. A very successful throwback, although it has to be said that Apple's laptops are a minority taste, overshadowed now by the company's tablets.

Back in the early 2000s IBM could see this coming. Like John Doe from Se7en they saw a horrific sordid world of little people dancing and sinning, of ever-cheaper laptops improving to an extent that the ThinkPad's edge was no longer worth the price premium. And so IBM cut off Gwyneth Paltrow's head sold their computer range and then their ThinkPad line and just walked away.

The machines were built to last, and kept working long after they became obsolete. Business computers are usually replaced every two-three years, and so there was probably a glut of used ThinkPad 600Xes on the used market in 2002, 2003, with the hard drives taken out. A few still pop up on eBay, although they've reached the point where packaging and posting them is more bother than they're worth.

Lenovo still makes ThinkPads - good ones, too - and as I write these words the company is tussling for HP for the honour of being the #1 PC vendor, an honour that seems increasingly hollow as time goes on. IBM still exists, too, and is #57 on the Fortune Global 500. Two places below Apple, 313 above Lenovo.

The ThinkPad range died a little when IBM added the Windows key. The chassis is covered with rubbery soft-touch material that you can score with your fingernail, whereas the X60 is all hard black plastic. The lid has a pair of latches and feels rigid - if you open it by one corner it doesn't bend.

The 600X is flat, slightly wider and an inch deeper than A4, although the prominent IBM logo means that you can't use it as a writing pad without leaving an imprint in the paper. The 600X's battery is near the front of the case, underneath the keyboard, with LPT and COM ports around the back. It has a VGA port - it can only clone the internal display - one USB 1.1 port, custom floppy and docking station connectors, and a telephone socket for the built-in 56.6k modem.

Computer magazines. Let's have a look at the April 1999 issue of InfoWorld, which barely mentions the ThinkPad 600X but is an interesting glimpse into the past:

VA Linux was big news in late 1999. The company sold servers that had Linux on them and it was the future. 1999 was a year of IPO fever, sparked off in part by Red Hat Linux, another company that sold etc Linux etc the future. Red Hat went public in August 1999. The shares opened at $14 and closed at $52 on the first day, and kept going up in the months to come. When VA Linux floated in December 1999 everybody wanted a piece of that pie. The shares opened at roughly $30 and closed at $240, the highest jump in the NASDAQ's history. VA Linux had sales of $17.7 million that year, and had made a loss, but it was worth roughly $9.5 billion.

Of course, by the end of the six-month lock-in period the shares had crashed down to $38.50, which was no doubt disappointing for fans of the company, but at least they made some money, provided they sold those shares ASAP. I will always remember a piece by famously whiffy open source advocate Eric Raymond, in which he boasted of his inevitable wealth of thirty-six million dollars. "I will be wealthy in six months, unless VA or the U.S. economy craters before then. I'll bet on VA; I'm not so sure about the U.S. economy :-)", he said, and of course both VA Linux and the US economy did crater. To be fair, his 150,000 shares would have been worth $5.7m at the end of the lock-in period, more than enough for a comfortable life. This is assuming he sold the shares immediately. VA Linux spent the rest of the 2000s falling to bits, and the thing that it has become - Geeknet - traded at $14.61 yesterday (which would still leave Raymond a multi-millionaire). Geeknet is essentially the parent company of ThinkGeek, an online reseller of cheap rebranded trinkets aimed at the nerd market. It has a certain charm but it is not the future. Raymond was essentially hired by VA Linux to write about VA Linux, and in a way the whole thing was a giant pump-and-dump affair.

On the other hand Red Hat Linux still exists today. In fact its share price is currently $54.99, and it is a major player in the open source market; it essentially achieved all that was expected of it. There was a time, just after the crash, in December 2000, when Red Hat's shares were only $7. That was the time to buy, but of course you probably thought the company was about to evaporate back then. In December 2000 you probably never wanted to hear the words dot or com ever again. Fuck Apple and Amazon and this new Google shit; they were doomed. The other big Linux IPO of the period was Caldera Systems, which floated in March 2000 to a relatively tepid response. Shares began at $14 but only climbed to $29 at the close of play, which is better than Facebook but felt like a cold wind at the time. Here's a typical news story, which presents Caldera's float as a smashing success, because nobody wanted the money to stop. The story is illustrated with declining graphs that the text completely ignores, and there's some nonsense about "open source" software.

As far as I can tell Caldera was the last Linux IPO; the market was sick of them. Stacey Quandt was "one of the most respected analysts in the Linux industry" and to be fair she was probably selectively quoted. She seems to have vanished from Google some time in 2004.

"Rather than make money selling software or software-user licenses, open-source companies generate most of their revenue by selling documentation and related professional services that help businesses use Linux to maintain and improve their operations", it says. At the time this felt novel although IBM had essentially been doing it for years - the valuations of Red Hat and VA Linux seemed insane not so much because the idea was unsound, but simply because they were tiny companies that didn't have a special competitive advantage.

Back to InfoWorld. Scroll up a few pages and there's a feature on a rotund man called Ken Belanger, who founded a company called ImageLock, that apparently policed the internet and rooted out unauthorised copies of company logos. At least, that's what it did in February 1999, according to CNN. (I learn that "the Internet currently has 160 million images available", of which 10% were probably of Shae Marks or Petra Verkaik, or Chloe Jones). By December 1999 ImageLock seems to have mutated into a general... thing that could also provide some kind of... something for companies, for a fee. Word from the man himself, when asked what differentiated his company from the search engine giants of the day (Yahoo, Altavista, and of course HotBot):
We have more data. AltaVista, for example, is a second-generation search engine, and they are locked in to older technology. And the other thing is, we're different because we cover 99 percent of the Web, and they only cover about 20 percent of the Web. Secondly, we do analysis. Chanel, for instance, is one of our customers, and this is what we do for Chanel: we say, 'Here are all the Web sites in America and Europe that use the Chanel logo, that are not selling perfume, and that are selling Chanel products.' Then I can tell them all the [sites] that are using the Chanel name, that are not selling perfume, and that are not selling [Chanel] products. They can then figure out who's using the Chanel name without permission.
This is bullshit. It was bullshit in 1999. The reporter would have known it was bullshit. Ken Belanger knew it was bullshit. It remains bullshit. Belanger actually got his start selling novelty tat and seemingly had no technical background. In 1999 he didn't have a clever new image-based search engine. I doubt that he had any proprietary software at all. I would not be surprised if ImageLock was just a bunch of temps being paid a pittance to enter "chanel logo" into Altavista and click "next page" and take notes. Did any of his customers ask for a live demo of his system, or for solid technical information about it? Probably not. Even as late as 1999 there were businesses that knew almost nothing about The Internet, beyond the fact that it was new and they had to be on it somehow.

Some startups catered for this market, peddling the internet equivalent of those fake bomb detectors that were in the news recently. The bomb detectors didn't work, they didn't even seem plausible, but there were at least a few local government officials that wanted so hard to believe that they were willing to turn a blind eye to common sense. And some of them were being paid to turn a blind eye, and didn't care that the product was defective. The era was funded by businesses and venture capital firms that didn't understand what they were paying for, it was built on companies that were selling shoddy tosh, and everything was inflated by a spineless press that didn't want to rock the boat. They sold their souls.

The memory door cover is made out of metal. The 600X has 64mb soldered to the motherboard (pictured) plus two slots for PC-100 memory, up to 256mb per slot. All three banks are used at once, giving an unusual maximum limit of 576mb. Resting on the door is an original IBM 128mb memory stick, part number 20LO265. Also pictured is the bottom of the Toshiba CDROM, which sits in a hot-swappable bay. The bay also supported a DVDROM, a floppy drive, and a slim battery, a zip drive, etc.

InfoWorld's reporter was being paid to big up business heroes, not ask nasty questions that might destroy the economy. Belanger ended up jobless a year later, according to an article in SFGate dated December 2001:
Ken Belanger was the CTO for a company called ImageLock, which developed a technology that tracked where companies' logos were being used, helping prevent fraud. Back in 1999 and 2000, ImageLock was riding high, with a roster of big-name clients and an impending IPO that would clearly make its management zillionaires. Of course, you know what happened -- the bottom dropped out of the IPO, ImageLock died a nasty death and investors who'd pumped in millions lost their cash and their shirts.
An impending IPO. This man was a few weeks away from being a multi-billionaire, if only on paper. By 2001 his latest scheme was an FMV adventure game called PC187: Death of a Dot Commer, which appears to have never been given a full commercial release (although a German archive site has some screenshots). What happened to Ken after that? It looks as if he had a go at being a domain name squatter (viz the "novelty tat" link above), and then he vanished into the mass of K and Ken and Kenneth Belangers that Google throws up.

More amusing is Mike Mazzariello, who is on the cover of the magazine. In 1999 he was CTO of New York Life, an insurance company. He is featured in a typical puff piece:
At New York Life Insurance, CIO and senior vice president Judith E. Campbell selected Mike Mazzariello as the company's CTO and vice president of advanced technology group (reporting to her) to handle the company's Internet technology strategy [...]

As CTO, Mazzariello acts as the right-hand man to the CIO. "I am a technology advisor, a sounding board, a key supporter in communicating Judy's [Campbell's] vision, and someone she can rely on to get things done," Mazzariello says.
One of the things he did as the CIO's right-hand man was to bilk New York Life out of $370,000, by faking invoices, for which he pled guilty and was sentenced in 2005 to a remarkably light mixture of probation and restitution. It is not unwarranted to surmise that he might have avoided this by declaring himself bankrupt, in which case his punishment would have been essentially nothing. Curiously his current Linkedin profile doesn't mention his criminal past. He seems to have immediately stepped into another job, and I have to assume that his current employees are very forgiving.

X60 on the left, 600X on the right. The 600X's logo is a 3D piece, whereas the X60 uses a flat sticker. Lenovo was given the rights to the IBM name for a short while after buying the ThinkPad range, although they quickly dropped this (the X61, released a year after the X60, has THINKPAD / X series in the same spot).

On page six of the magazine I learn that Bernie Ebbers' Worldcom has reinvented itself from being a phone company into being a provider of web-enabling services. Ebbers next turned his attention to the company's accounts, which he reinvented to the tune of $11 billion. This was not enough to stave off what became the largest corporate bankruptcy in history. Ebbers was eventually sent to prison for 25 years, and is due to be released in 2028, coincidentally the same year as Enron's Jeffrey Skilling, although Skilling seems to have far better lawyers and might be released earlier. In the wake of Enron and Lehman brothers and every bank and several countries and Swissair and General Motors etc Worldcom is no longer the largest corporate bankruptcy, and has almost been forgotten unless you had your pension obliterated by its collapse. Mention Bernie Ebbers and people assume you're talking about the other famous Bernie, Bernie Madoff.

Why did I bother to Google all that? There comes a point when a little lightbulb lights up in your brain; if the people you worked with back then were doing all that back then, what about the people you're working with right now? Are they doing exactly the same stuff right now? This is how journalists think. When they interview a public figure, they see a person who has not yet been convicted of fraud or murder or child abuse; they see a man or woman who is hiding those things, and it's their job to dig it out. You don't get a Pulitzer prize for buttering people up, you get a Pulitzer prize for pissing people off. Ken Belanger's spiel up the page would not have sounded convincing in 1999; Michael Mazzariello did not act alone; Bernie Ebbers had a lot of help. During the dot-com boom the media presented them as heroes, and they carried themselves as such, even though their castle of sand was actually a house of cards. Made of sand.

PostScript: "Business 2.0 was unable to turn a profit"(ref)
As of 2013 the biggest businesses in the world are petrochemical companies, retailers, motor manufacturers, banks, and the kind of giant conglomerates like Berkshire Hathaway that make money by owning other businesses that make money turtles all the way down. People who dislike Berkshire Hathaway are called Hatha-haters because they're just jealous.

The most prominent internet businesses are far down the Fortune 500, with Amazon and Google in the 200-300s, although the two companies are very influential and have far more brand recognition than (say) Kroger (#75 in the Fortune 500) or AmeriSource Bergen (#94). And of course there are Apple and IBM far above them; older IT businesses that have successfully harnessed the internet, in one way or another. Amazon was founded just before the high era and seemed sure to fail. It was another one of those companies that was valued in the billions without actually making a profit. But it pulled through. How come? Dunno, I'm not going to think about that, it's late and I'm supposed to be writing about an old laptop.

Kiplinger's, September 1998. Google Books, 20th Century, Magazines, "Enron". In theory they were right - the share price peaked at $90 in mid-August 2000. One year later it had halved; three months later it fell below $1, and never recovered. The magazines back then were full of glowing profiles of Enron executives, because they had conquered money, and anyone who disagreed was pooh-poohed or dismissed from their job. Smiling crooks whose major export was fuckery, and they knew it. What about the people you're working with right now? How many of them are crooks, right now?

Google pupated during the boom but really flowered just afterwards; its modest homepage and simple hook were generally perceived as an antidote to, well, this. Look at it! It's gross. Put you in my oven. Google was given space to learn its craft before being unleashed on the world, and when it arrived it was able to learn from the mistakes of others. Flowers don't pupate, do they? "Google germinated during etc" would have made more sense. Or "but really took wing etc".

Netscape, you're ugly. The Nasdaq was 4,914 on 04 March 2000. Six days later it peaked, at 5,048; today it sits at 4,022 but there are fears that it is overvalued and will fall again.

Yeah, but the ThinkPad 600X, what's it like? Physically it feels like a machine costing over £2,500. I like to touch it, to rest my hands on it, run my fingers over it, open it, press it. After fourteen years the screen opens smoothly, without the hint of any wobble. You can hold the case upside down and the lid doesn't swing shut, it stays open. The keys are large and responsive, with a nice feel, although the keyboard has the odd ThinkPad quirk of a (mostly useless) FN key outboard of the left CTRL. The case was made out of something IBM called UltraCarbonTM, "a derivative of carbon fiber composites used in sporting goods equipment" apparently. Looks-wise the design has aged well, and from a distance it's essentially a generic black laptop, nothing wrong with that. I've always thought that the prominent IBM THINKPAD logo on the lid is a mistake; they should have just put a small red dot there instead, and perhaps used it as a power light.

The 600X could be ordered with Windows 98SE, NT4.0, and Windows 2000, and there was an option to have Windows 95 as a downgrade if the customer desired it. Back then this would have been for compatibility reasons; Windows 98 (and particularly 98SE) was generally seen as a good solid upgrade. 98SE and 2000 are both widely available on the internet as unofficial and legally dubious "abandonware". Windows 98SE installs but even with the special supplement files it had problems, and I couldn't get it to work properly with the Cardbus slot. Still, it was nostalgic to run Windows 98SE again. I ran it on my desktop PC for ages, and didn't upgrade to XP until 2004, just after Service Pack 2 had been released. The leap from 98SE's relatively sober interface to the child-friendly icons of XP was just as jarring as the jump to Windows 8's tiles, although fortunately XP's interface could be made to mimic that of 98SE.

IBM's part number for compatible 256mb PC-100 memory sticks is 33L3069, but any generic 144-pin PC-100 memory will do. I got these sticks for £6.70 (the pair). Beware auctions that use the official part number - they inflate the price to £20, but it's the same generic RAM. Presumably some buyers assume that the 600X's memory was unique to IBM. Supposedly the low-density memory, with eight chips per side, is more stable with the 600X. Also, PC-133 memory will apparently work, although it will only run at 100mhz.

Microsoft circa 1999 had to replace two fundamentally different operating systems - 9X and NT - with a single product that would be all things to all men. Apple was encountering the same problem at almost the same time; both companies floundered, and OS-wise their subsequent histories were very similar. XP and OS X were released in embryonic form, and didn't really become finished products until the mid-2000s, with Windows SP2 and OS X 10.4.

Before XP was launched, Microsoft decided to milk its older product line one last time, thus Windows ME and Windows 2000. Windows ME was essentially a tweaked 98SE with a big advertising campaign tying it in with the millennium (ME stood for "Millennium Edition"). It's an infamous example of a product that had more effort put into the marketing than the creation. Windows 2000, on the other hand, had a much more positive reception, although it was overshadowed to an extent by the rise of Linux. Think of it as a prototype of Windows XP without the child-friendly icons. It installs and works perfectly on my 600X and would have been a good choice back in 2000. Nowadays it suffers from a lack of support. No modern web browsers will run on it, leaving older versions of Firefox and Opera as your best bet if you want to surf the internet. Microsoft continued to support it until 2010, and there were four service packs; some enthusiasts have put together a fifth. EDIT: A few months later I managed to get modern versions of Firefox (with Adblock Plus and NoScript) working on Windows 2000 by following these instructions, although as with XP, Win2K is vulnerable to internet exploits.

XP SP3 installs and is responsive on my 600X. With 576mb the machine will open Firefox and do light web surfing - think of it as the PC laptop equivalent of a maxed-out old Apple PowerBook G3. The problems start when the bare install is upgraded. Silverlight and the .NET 4 framework - which take literally hours to install - seem to slow everything down, and Windows Defender introduces a delay on startup. As if Windows was mutating from the relatively svelte Windows 2000 into a bloated monster before your very eyes. The basic install of XP SP3 is about 1.5gb, but with updates it quadruples in size. Periodically the hard drive starts churning away, causing the system to grind to a crawl.

The startup screen. The BIOS uses a simple GUI - there are some photographs of it here. The 600X dates from a time when you turned your machine on and then got up to make a cup of tea before settling down to wait for the desktop to become responsive.

And there's the practical issue of getting hold of a copy of XP in 2013. Microsoft stopped selling it in 2008. Boxed, retail copies are very rare and sell for inflated prices on eBay, presumably to a small number of small businesses that absolutely have to have a legitimate copy that has to work, for some piece of crucial hardware. Alternatively there are bulk OEM copies available for £20 or so that are probably not legit but hey.

And of course there are illegitimate copies floating around. Would you trust a chap called LuxLOL on The Pirate Bay over Microsoft? I... to be honest, I probably would. I mention LuxLOL because he maintains a popular "black edition" of XP that includes a bunch of patches and strips out some things that are no longer necessary. Out of academic curiosity I tried this, but sadly it doesn't work properly on a ThinkPad 600X. It installs but fails to detect the video controller, and no amount of jiggery-pokery can make it install the necessary drivers (which is odd, because my legitimate copy of XP spots the graphics card just fine). The black edition therefore ends up with a generic VGA driver that makes the 600X seem even slower than it is.

Microsoft officially ends support for XP next year, which is less of an issue on the closed hardware of a vintage ThinkPad. There is potentially a higher risk of infection from viruses and other noxiousness, but a combination of Firefox, Noscript, Adblock Plus, vigilance, and a policy of slinging unsolicited mail straight in the bin will go a long way to fighting this. In theory a vulnerability that affects a fundamental component of XP - akin to the RPC buffer overflow exploit of 2003 - would be disastrous, but I suspect that after eleven years as a front-line operating system such a vulnerability would already have been found. Crackers will no doubt continue to hammer XP, but in lesser and lesser numbers. What glory will there be in owning an XP system in 2019? And in any case I'm talking about resurrecting an old ThinkPad as an intellectual game, not configuring something that will actually be used on the road. I could just wipe the hard drive. It's so slow that it would probably harm a botnet more than help it.

Overall the XP experience is like stepping back to the days of Internet Explorer 6. It's hard to remember now, but IE6 was current from 2001 right until 2006, five years, and it remained on corporate networks for a long time after that. Five years! Firefox is updated every other week. You know, as I write these words I have eleven tabs open. When I close Firefox it remembers the tabs I have open and some of them have been sitting there, waiting for me to read them, for weeks. Super-Eccentric Migrating Jupiters. The wreckage of an F-100 Super Sabre in the Mojave desert. An exhaustive guide to the locations used in The Ipcress File. An essay by Kevin Brownlow on the frame rates of old films. And that's just the stuff I can share with a family audience. Eleven tabs and Photoshop in the background and a couple of explorer windows and I'm tempted to play a little postage-stamped sized copy of an MST3K episode in the corner of the screen. And this is my primary monitor; I could also have a second monitor. My goal is nothing less than the total obliteration of the external world and of The Self, which I will achieve with an overdose of media, and that's not going to happen with a 500mhz Pentium III running XP3.

XP3 is the end of the line for the 600X in terms of Microsoft operating systems. Vista will theoretically run on a Pentium III but I wouldn't want to try it. Windows 7 doesn't support the Pentium III at all. Apparently it can be made to work, indeed this chap here got it working on a dual Pentium II system, but with the 600X's weak graphics card I would not expect anything usable. The message from Microsoft is clear; if you have an old computer, you're wrong. You're swimming against the tide of contemporary society. When the newspapers talk about make-do-and-mend, when they talk about living a frugal life, they don't actually mean it, for heaven's sake. You're not supposed to take that kind of talk seriously. If you don't buy a new computer every single year you're basically letting the Taliban win.

Now that I'm in a counter-cultural mood, let's try some of the lighter Linux distributions. Explore the grungy, dirty world of the underground. But first, I'll download DriveImage XML and make an image of my XP3 installation, because it took ages to set it up. The 600X has a 12gb hard drive, and XP3 eats up roughly half of that, but 16gb Compact Flash cards are cheap so it's easy to back everything up. Putting it back onto the hard drive is when things get tricky.

I had another reason for owning an old ThinkPad. Amongst my possessions I have an ancient Game Boy Camera. The software only works with Windows 95/98, and the cable needs an LPT port. So, if I'm going to use old hardware, why not buy something stylish?

But I already have a Toshiba 320CDT knocking about with Windows 95 on it that can do the job just as well, and it seems a shame to saddle the ThinkPad 600X with Windows 95 forevermore. It's too good for that.

Linux is a kind of religion, and just like a real-life religion it is bedevilled by nutty followers, who overshadow the sensible followers. Is it Leenooks or Lie-nucks? Holy wars ensue. The leading men tend to be reasonable people - it's worth pointing out that Linus Torvalds does not have a beard, and never has - and if you could travel back hundreds of years into the past it would probably be interesting to have a conversation with them. Of course, you don't have to travel hundreds of years into the past in order to have a conversation with Linus Torvalds or Richard Stallman. They are real people who exist today. And to be honest, you probably wouldn't want to have a conversation with them. Thinkers, writers, philosophers etc are valued for the concepts they develop, and conversation is not the ideal medium for expressing complex ideas. A conversation with Richard Stallman would be unfair, it wouldn't play to his strengths. Forget about this paragraph, it's too complex to revise but too good to just throw away. Contemplate it, take it for it is, an indulgence.

That is why, if I ever meet Richard Stallman, I will simply observe him. If he tries to speak to me I will hold up my hand and say "no, brother, sounds are small and shapes are massive and live forever, your mouth was not meant to sound - OK". He will understand. Conversation is just a lot of noise, which wafts away in the breeze. You can't carve words into stone by talking at the stones, you have to hit the rock with a chisel, which involves using your hands, not your tongue. Human beings achieve life after death with their hands. And their feet, in the case of explorers. The code that Linus Torvalds wrote will be his feet legacy, just as the recipes that Delia Smith invented will be her legacy. And thousands of years from now, when someone makes an ice cream sundae, or - what was it that Delia Smith was famous for? Eggs? - when someone makes an ice cream sundae, Delia Smith will rise from the grave, because people will always need food. And when someone uses a computer, they will be using a bit of Linus Torvalds when they do so.

Now that I've got my thinking cap on, what information does a footprint convey, hmm? A human being stood here, once, in the past; he never stood on this spot again. Because if he had stood on that spot again, or if other people had followed him, there wouldn't be a footprint, there would be churned-up soil. Beyond the forensics - the size of the footprint, the weight, the stance and motion of the man who left it, the tread of his shoes - we can further deduce that the footprint was observed, because otherwise how do we know it exists? And this information made its way to your mind via a medium that also existed. How much more information does a footprint on the moon convey? Not necessary any more; there is an implication that people rather than one single person put that footprint on the moon - the real-life Apollo project was the work of not just the thousands of people who participated directly in it, but also of the economic system that supported it and the political environment that nurtured it - but in theory there is no reason why one single gigantic super-intelligent, long-lived super-animal could not have crawled from the oceans, lived and grown, and built a rocket to the moon. It's absurd, but not impossible. There are fossilised footprints in long-desiccated riverbeds and footprints on the moon and they form a trail that can be followed from the soil to the stars, and beyond that the footprints became the tracks of metal wheels, bore holes made by the ice drills of Europa, and thinning clouds of ammonia left by the Voyager probes, slowly spreading into space.

As I write these words the top Linux distribution, at least in terms of brand recognition, is Ubuntu. Hipsters were ecstatic when it was a small thing; now that it has hit the big time, they don't like it any more, because it's not theirs. I didn't try Ubuntu on my 600X, the system requirements are just slightly too high and it would have been unfair. I say the big time. The Linux Desktop is still, objectively, a very small thing. It seems larger than it is for much the same reason that Ken Belanger above seemed larger than he was back in 1999. People try out Ubuntu and write about it when it works. A week later they change something on their machine. A new graphics card, or a different wi-fi stick, or they want to use a 3G dongle, or plug in a third monitor that has a different aspect ratio from the other two. Perhaps they're just fiddling around with the menus and they turn something off. And then something doesn't work, and there's no obvious way to make it work.

So they go on the internet and find some forum posts from 2007 for a similar problem that someone had with a previous version of Ubuntu. Nobody seemed to know the answer then, and there was no way to tell who was legit and who was just a blowhard. Apparently the solution involved downloading something that Ubuntu didn't have, or it was a result of a long-standing bug that couldn't be resolved because two Linux factions were no longer on speaking terms, and you had to download a .tar file made by a Belgian chap and then compile it, or something. Which involved popping upon a terminal window and typing sudo something or other and installing something else. But it still didn't work. Then the Ubuntu machine is put to one side and never used again. People don't write blog posts about that.

People don't blog about Ubuntu's failures, because they think it's them, not Ubuntu. After all, other people seem to be doing fine. Except that the other people aren't blogging about their failures either, and so ultimately the internet presents a distorted picture of Ubuntu. It benefits from the Snakes on the Plane syndrome, the Machete syndrome, the Japanese cartoon syndrome. The only people who care about it are fans, who rarely entertain countervailing viewpoints, and then only as deadly threats to be destroyed. It's not normal to spend hours learning information of no practical use outside the context of installing a certain distribution of Linux on a particular set of PC hardware. There's nothing positive about that. The information is useless outside that tiny tiny context.

The 600X doesn't boot from USB so I had to find some good-quality CDRs, I've said this already. The following roundup is not a slam of Linux or the free software movement, mind. If a distribution doesn't work on my 600X, that's irritating but I can't hold it against the distribution. The 600X is a very old machine. And I'm platform-agnostic. I have Xubuntu running on my old Asus Eee, and it feels a much better fit than XP (and for that matter the Eee's original OS). I'm willing to lie back and let Linux tie me up in a rubber sack, attach electrodes to my testicles, and stick a metal rod down my willy, but only if it feels good. So, Linux, tie me up, beat me, make me want you.

My only rule - if at any point I have to edit a text file or transcribe some long Unix command from my main desktop machine into a terminal window on the 600X, I take out the CD, reboot the machine, and try the next version of Linux. Victory equals a desktop running a web browser that can show the BBC's home page. Whilst you're reading this, have a listen to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's "Sea of Vapours", from the album Mustt Mustt, which came out in 1990 and has aged well:

Look at those scenes and listen to those sounds as you contemplate a man who sat in front of a desk putting compact discs into a dead old laptop, hitting the enter key periodically. He is very much like you, but he has seen behind the curtain. Seen beyond the end. And there's nothing there. For everyone living an adventure there is a man dying on a dusty road, his eyes gazing into the sky as flies start to eat his mouth. Sometimes the chains bind you; sometimes they protect you.

It was good while it lasted.

1. Debian
Debian is available in two versions, firstly as an eight-CD download (you only need the first) and secondly a slimmed-down installation that downloads files from the internet. Debian is used on the International Space Station. It's named after the man who invented it ("Ian") and his partner ("Debra"). Isn't that romantic? He must have thought that their relationship would last forever, just as Debian would last forever. Unfortunately they divorced in 2008, and now he must be sick of hearing Debian Debian Debian all the time. I bet he wishes he had just called it Ian. But you can't call a Linux distribution Ian, that would be ridiculous. Like calling a baby Rover.

You know, if he'd married a woman called Martha, Debian would have been called Martian.

Debian has been around for donkey's years and is apparently very staid and stable. Which gave me a glimmer of hope; Debian coexisted with the ThinkPad 600X, and on this page from 1999 a man writes about installing an early version onto his ThinkPad 600. Unfortunately it didn't work on my 600X in the present day. The graphical installer loads and starts up and does some stuff and then hangs when it tries to detect the CD-ROM. The text installer finds the CD without incident, but hangs when it tries to detect the network hardware. I have to pull out the power cord to continue. No doubt a different wi-fi adapter would fare better. Apparently, disabling the floppy drive in the BIOS might help, but the ThinkPad 600X doesn't seem to have that option (the BIOS setup utility is surprisingly rubbish - you can change the boot order, enable or disable the Pentium III's unique serial number, but not much else).

2. Puppy Linux
This isn't really fair on the other distributions. Puppy Linux works on everything, it even works on the 48mb Toshiba CDT mentioned in one of the captions above. I installed it on a teacup once, you had to move the spoon in order to configure the wi-fi connection, but it worked.

Unusually, it's meant to be run as a live CD by default, although that's not so much fun with a slow CDROM drive. Installation to the hard drive is trickier than it should be, but I'm willing to forgive it because once finished it works. Starts up, connects to my wifi network, opens Firefox, shuts down, turns off.

Puppy tries hard to be liked, although it would benefit from wearing less frumpy clothes and having the input of a good stylist. The helpful wizards tend to have huge blocks of text that are generally superfluous. One tip; once you've installed it, open up the package manager and update the package list:

A typically verbose wizard. Nice to know but... I just don't care.

The package manager becomes much more useful after that. Puppy is unusual in that it doesn't demand that you connect it to the internet and download the missing half after you've installed it.

Overall I feel a little sorry for Puppy. It always works, but it feels staid, and people get bored with it and dump it for younger, less potatoey models. And Puppy is always there, waiting to take them back when they've been dumped. It's like an abused partner who simply can't leave a destructive relationship. With a polish and some swagger Puppy Linux could be one of the dominant Linux distributions. But it's always mentioned in passing when websites about about Linux. As the novelty choice for elderly cranks, and poor people who have old laptops. Rule #25 of business: never associate yourself with poor people, never let people associate you with poor people.

Peppermint Three running Firefox. Oddly, the text screens during the boot process still call it Peppermint Two. Look at David Cameron there, putting on his concerned face. He learned well from Tony Blair.

3. Peppermint OS
A relatively new distribution that sets out to be hip. It's cloud-centric! That word, cloud. As far as I can tell, it tries to turn your machine into a kind of Chromebook, which is fine by me. I just want to open up a browser window and surf the internet. Laptop minus internet equals expensive Solitaire console. Peppermint is a lightweight distribution, and my expanded, half-gigabyte ThinkPad has more than enough memory to run it.

My experience was mixed. The live CD worked fine. The straight-from-boot installer was flaky, but the live CD installer was okay. Peppermint OS' cloud-centric nature is a load of rubbish, though. It's just a Ubuntu variation with the local applications replaced with links to their online equivalents:

The cloud, right there.

Here's a review from a man who was paid money to write about it:
"Since Peppermint Three just arrived today I haven't had much of a chance to play with it, but I like what I see of it so far. It's fast, it's simple to use, and it does a real nice job of marrying cloud and local functionality and letting you decide how much of either one you want on your desktop."
This is just as bullshitty as the bullshit from Ken Belanger up the page. The reviewer admits to not having time to use it and the rest of the review is a description of Peppermint's features copied from a press release. ZDNet wasted their cash. Nothing has changed in fourteen years, and writing like this just perpetuates the perception - yes, it perpetuates the perception - that Linux is a nutty little insular bubble of people who have a very narrow focus, and that's a euphemism. Still, Peppermint works and works well. Doesn't really stand out from the other Ubuntu derivatives. See also Landfill Linux below.


4. Crunchbang
This is based on Debian. Has the same problems as Debian. See "Debian" above. EDIT: Development of Crunchbang ceased in February 2015.

5. SliTaz
An ultra-lightweight distribution. On my ThinkPad 600X it boots to a command line. If I was quite literally immortal and had solved every other problem in my life I would have time to fix it. But I'm not and I haven't and I don't. NB on more modern hardware it's probably a tiger.

6. PCLinuxOS
PCLinuxOS is one of the smaller distributions, which is to say that it is not long for this world. I used the MiniMe edition, which fits onto a single CD and loads the desktop, with no extra applications. This is not a problem as I only plan to install and use Firefox. PCLinusOS isn't marketed as a lightweight distribution and the system requirements explicitly describe graphics hardware far in advance of the ThinkPad 600X's obscure Neomagic MagicGraph256ZX, so there's no shame if it doesn't work. On my ThinkPad 600X it has trouble:

After getting past that - type LiveCD - it starts up an installer that hangs before I can click on the "OK" button. NB on more modern etc tiger.

The bottom image is actually an animated GIF. That's GIF as in GIFT and GOD and GIMMICK and GADFLY, dammit.

7. Fuduntu
Acting on this article from I decided to have a go with Fuduntu. A chap called Dietrich Schmitz wrote about it in glowing terms back in March 2013, in a review which reads like the thoughts of a young child discovering ice cream for the first time. Hilariously, the development team pulled the plug on it just four weeks later, and you can't even download it any more. The homepage is a dead link. Can't have been that good, eh? You listening, SliTaz? PCLinuxOS? That's you, when your developers run out of free time.

6. Landfill Linux: The Ubuntus
I tried Xubuntu, Ubuntu, Lubuntu, and Linux Mint-untu in that order. I mentioned up the page that I wasn't going to try Ubuntu; I lied. When it was new Xubuntu was touted as a lightweight distribution, but over the last few years the homepage has de-emphasised this, and it has been overshadowed by Lubuntu. I used version 12.04, the current long term support version. It's the last edition that fits on a single CD, and it installs and works fine on a ThinkPad 600X:

Firefox running on Xubuntu. Why Firefox all the time? Because I want to run Firefox, that's why.

The only problem is that it doesn't shutdown properly. Or rather it shuts all the applications down and powers off the hard drive, but doesn't turn the computer off. I have to use the power control. I know for a fact that Xubuntu works like a charm in my Asus Eee 701, so this is more a problem with the 600X and perhaps ThinkPads in general. Next I installed Lubuntu 13.04, the most recent version, released only a few weeks ago. It's heartening that it still fits on CD (the other distributions are becoming DVD-only). It installs fine and feels snappy but on a 600X it has a couple of issues. Firstly, the fonts are blurry:

This can be alleviated with a quick menu tweak, although it never goes away completely:

In fact the whole screen suffers from the same problem, not just the fonts:

It has the same shutdown problem as Xubuntu. Needless to say the dedicated community of helpful Linux fans was utterly useless to the extent of being almost passively-aggressively hostile, so I decided to install Ubuntu, version 12.04.2. Unfortunately it dislikes the 600X's hardware even more, and the live CD is unusable:

Everything is squashed horizontally - the shutdown button is in the middle of the screen, and you have to click into a blank area of the top-right of the monitor to shut it down. Again, Ubuntu isn't marketed as a lightweight distribution, the 600X is old hardware, and I know for a fact that it works in more modern machines. Here's a picture of my very own Asus Eee from 2010, using the short-lived Ubuntu Netbook Edition:

EDIT: In 2017 - four years later! - I tried again, using the alternative version of Lubuntu 16.10. Installation from CD was slow, but it worked without a hitch. It installed, detected my nano USB dongle, connected to the internet, downloaded porn, and shut down the machine correctly. It felt too good to be true, and it was; after I ran the software updates, it stopped detecting my USB dongle. I tried another USB stick, but unplugging this from the machine caused Lubuntu to freeze up, necessitating the hardest of hard reboots (battery out, power cord out). Perhaps in another four years Lubuntu will work on my ThinkPad 600X, which will be 22 years old by then.

Linux Mint is based on Lubuntu as well, although it's not obvious from the name. Nonetheless, if you pour boiling water on it, it screams "aieee! mein handt ist Verbrennen!", which is how you can tell whether it's secretly one of them. A genuine English-speaking Englishman would say "steady on, old chap, the skin's peeling off my hand". I used the LXDE version of Linux Mint 12, which is the lightest version of the last release that comes on a single CD.

Just like Xubuntu it installs and works a-okay:

Not in Woolwich, wearing a Help for Heroes hoodie. Marlow, yes. Woolwich, no. The numbers are against you.

But it has the same problem whereby it doesn't shut down properly. At this point I ran out of Linux distributions and decided to solve the problem. "shutdown -P now" shuts the machine down cleanly, and so the next step is to make a button that can do that so I don't have to touch the keyboard. At this point I realised that the same Linux fans I lambasted a few paragraphs up the article actually helped me solve this problem, so obviously the problem is people rather than Linux fans as a whole. Screw you, individual people.

This was surprisingly involved. The LXDE version at least doesn't have the option to create a shortcut on the desktop to an executable, but after following these instructions I used LXShortCut to make one. Then it was a simple matter of creating a short text file with "shutdown -P now" in it, and after a bit of puzzling I realised I had to right-click, properties, permissions, and make it an executable. Now I have a shutdown button on the desktop.

On one level it's more elegant than using the start menu - two clicks and the machine shuts down - but on another level it's kludgy. Puppy Linux shuts down without a hitch, the Ubuntu people could learn something from it.

EDIT: But what about power? Speed? Raw computing heft? How does the ThinkPad 600X's Pentium III stack up against a modern CPU? A scientific comparison is very hard - how can I account for the difference in memory bandwidth, the influence of the operating system, the presence of multiple cores, hyperthreading etc? So I'll just run HyperPi and throw out some numbers.

My ThinkPad 600X uses a mobile version of the second-generation "Coppermine" 500mhz Pentium III, which in its day was hot stuff, although fundamentally the Pentium III was just a product-improved Pentium II. Not necessarily a bad thing, as the PII was a good solid chip. Nonetheless few people remember the Pentium III nowadays, because it wasn't really a conceptual leap from the PII. At the time I ignored the Pentium III entirely, and skipped from my Celeron 300A to an AMD Duron. The Pentium IV was, on the other hand, a major leap, but it was initially very expensive, and required an entirely new (and expensive) type of memory chip in addition to a brand new motherboard.

As it evolved the Pentium IV dropped in price and was always inarguably fast, but it was also hot and power-hungry, and required at least one high-power fan inside the case, with a decent PSU if you planned to use a good graphics card. Which led to an arms race whereby performance PC enthusiasts would overclock their Pentium IV machines, and install three or four fans to cool the CPU, plus a beefy power supply to power everything - including the overclocked graphics card, which also had at least one fan - and you ended up with a computer that sounded like a helicopter, and used as much power as a helicopter, but crucially it wasn't a helicopter. I mean, people put up with the noise and expense of helicopters because they're very useful. They can winch people out of the sea. If your navy can't afford fast jets, you can build little tiny assault carriers that only fly helicopters, and then you can tell foreign heads of state that you have (pause) carriers. And five years down the line you can fly drones off your assault carriers, thus avoiding the expense of fast jets entirely. Also, Anneka Rice might knock on your door, and ask to borrow your helicopter. God, that dates me. I digress. I was not alone in switching to AMD and sitting out the whole Pentium IV generation.

The Mobile Pentium III topped out at 1ghz, in the ThinkPad T22, at which point it was replaced by the confusingly-named Mobile Pentium III-M, a more capable part that reached 1.2ghz in the ThinkPad T23 of July 2001. The modern Intel Core range is very distantly related to the Pentium III, the IV turned out to be something of an evolutionary dead end.

I don't have any kind of formal test setup. Only HyperPi, a piece of software that calculates Pi to a certain number of digits and works out how long it took to do so. I set it to calculate Pi to two million digits, at HIGH priority, one core, with minimal background processes running. The machines don't have the same amount or even type of memory (576mb, 2gb, and 8gb respectively) and they're running different operating systems. I did however run this test at the same altitude (264ft), and the weather conditions were very similar - overcast.

From top to bottom, the 500mhz Intel Mobile Pentium III in my 600x, the 1.6ghz Intel Atom N270 in my elderly Asus Eee 1005HA (both running XP SP3), and the 3.3ghz Intel i5-2500K in my desktop machine (running on a single core, with 64-bit Windows 7). All bombing along at stock speeds:

Unsurprisingly the Pentium III system is trounced. They are very different chips. The Mobile Pentium III was a tweaked version of the mainstream desktop Pentium III, running at a lower voltage, with improved power management. Single core, no hyperthreading. A bread and butter CPU of the previous century. The Atom is a low-power chip that is not specifically aimed at the PC market, although it has been installed in plenty of netbooks and low-cost laptops. The N270 was one of the very first Atoms and has a single core. It uses a technology called hyperthreading which can mimic two cores, although despite this the early Atoms were never known for their speed. Later Atoms are 64-bit capable.

The i5, on the other hand, is a modern, 64-bit quad-core desktop chip. The 2500K was one of the best bang-for-the-buck processors available when I bought mine in 2011 - perhaps the best, pound for pound - and it's still decent nowadays.

Popping open my calculator I see that it took 532 seconds for the Pentium III to calculate two million digits of Pi. That's 2.66 seconds per ten thousand digits. If my sums are correct the i5-2500K spat out a quarter of a million digits in the time it took the PIII to calculate ten thousand.

In contrast, 19th Century mathematician William Shanks spent twenty years of his life calculating Pi by hand, and only managed 707 digits - but, famously, he made a mistake, and the last 180 digits were inaccurate. If we assume that people had fewer distractions in the 19th Century, and that Shanks was really good at maths, notwithstanding his error, I conclude that a ThinkPad 600X takes 0.18th of a second to match the best efforts of one human mind, and is presumably 100% accurate instead of being three-quarters accurate. So, when I open the lid of my 600X, I am gazing into the face of a mind immensely superior to my own. Do minds have faces?

Hey, imagine if I could send my laptop back in time to William Shanks, with a hand-powered generator and a Computers for Dummies book. It would take him almost no time to transcribe the digits by hand, leaving him free to spend twenty years carousing out on the town. Or maybe he was a ladies' man - he seems to have surrounded himself with women. They had big fluffy beds in Victorian times, and Shanks seems to have had access to no less than five serving wenches - including a pair of sisters! - and his 75-year-old mother-in-law exclamation mark. He could prop up a dummy in his study, with a "do not disturb" sign, and a gramophone playing scribbling noises in the background. Or alternatively he could use VLC media player on the ThinkPad to play the scribbling noises, if he didn't have access to a gramophone. Just click "loop all".

EDIT: After running the above I decided to throw in the 2ghz Intel Core II Duo in my ThinkPad X61, which is running Windows 8 32-bit with an SSD. It took 1m 02.083s to churn through the same sums.

EDIT: The two millionth digit of Pi is 9.