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A history of Dell Laptops

Reliability or luck?

That’s a good question to ask.  I’ve been buying Dell laptops almost exclusively for over a decade, and this is why. 

As of September, 2015 I own four working Dell laptops which span over a decade and a half in age, i.e. 1999-2015.  Only one has a dead battery, requiring the A/C adapter to run.  I think that’s pretty amazing, to be honest. To be clear, none of these laptops have enjoyed an easy ride.  They’ve all been workhorses during their prime, and 3/4 laptops have all been in regular use right up until today. 

The big surprise for me was that the Dell XPS (Gen 1) still runs fine off battery.  It is a beast of a machine, one of the early “huge power pack” laptops – also known as a Desktop Replacement – and can run for up to an hour on a battery manufactured sometime around 2004 when it was originally purchased.

IMG_4950 IMG_4954

Constantly in use

Two of the four laptops have travelled with me or been purchased overseas.  The XPS (Gen 1) was purchased in Canada, and the XPS Studio was my main machine when in China.  As a consultant, I’m always lugging ma1chines around, and these machines have done their fair share of work.

What helps keeping these machines in working order?

Without exception, I’ve heavily upgraded each laptop with aftermarket parts.  Even my brand spanking new Dell XPS 15 received a hard drive update within 24 hours of being received.  There’s not a single laptop there which hasn’t had hard disks and memory tweaked with better, improved components.  Extra batteries seem to help too – the XPS Studio has 4 of them, it will be interesting to see what happens with the XPS 15 on that front (built in battery).

A step back in time, today – Windows 2000

IMG_3651 IMG_3650

Over the weekend I discovered a power pack which had gone missing to an old Dell Latitude CPt notebook which dates to the pre-Y2K era. 

Back then, I used to work for an anti-virus start up called vCIS which operated out of the basement of the Software Spectrum building in Brookevale in Sydney.  Software Spectrum offered to sell to vCIS staff their second hand (“pre loved”) Dell laptops for a small sum (I think about $200-ish) and so I picked up a particularly plucky Latitude (pictured).

So having found the long lost power pack, I decided it might be interesting to surf the Net on a platform from a bygone era.  The Latitude was heavily customized by myself back in the day, and managed to stay useful well into the late 00s.  I’d managed to mount a very old RPC-1 DVD drive into the docking tray, and since the screen was quite nice, used it as a makeshift DVD player with wireless networking to boot.

How’s this for specs?  It still has a working HDD, and a tidy 6 GB of total capacity, most of which is free.  On top of that, about 128mb of system RAM, and believe it or not – a PCMCIA slot-based WiFi card which bypasses the need to use a wired LAN port to get onto the network.  Yes, back in the day this laptop was no slouch.

Booting an antique

So I sat down and fired her up.  The old fans groaned, but the BIOS passed although it did complain bitterly about the fact that the CMOS battery died a decade ago and wanted to know what date/time it was.  After the full screen boot loader, we were into the Operating System.


That old start menu looks dangerously dated compared to the nice shiny one in Windows 10 – old verses new:

start-2k  start-10

Kicking the tyres

Anyhow, before we get to the good stuff (browsing the web), I thought it would be interesting to poke around the old Operating System.  Here’s the System Properties, Administrative Tools and the Control Panel:

comp admin


Quite a contrast to the new age icons we now have with Windows 10:


Some of the oldest files on the system date back to before the millennia:


Tools of the trade

Back in the day, we had to live with Internet Explorer 6 and the free bundled Outlook Express, with its fancy MFC MDI frames:

ie6  outlook

You know something’s old when it references NCSA’s Mosaic (one of the world’s first popular web browsers).

Browsing the Internet, Y2K-style

So I joined the PCMCIA WiFi card to my home WLAN without any drama.  I felt a pang of guilt that my modern equipment would be so backwards compatible, but carried ahead anyway.  The next step was to run up Internet Explorer and then see what I could resolve.  My first challenge was obvious – legacy protocol support.  Most modern sites have abandoned the protocols and cyphers used by such an old browser, yet there was hope.


I could not resolve to the world’s most popular search engine.  My suspicion is they might have dropped support for legacy protocols, even enabling TLS 1.0 failed to produce results.


I had to enable TLS 1.0 in the advanced options in order to resolve and render the Facebook site:

facebook  fb

..and it took a while given the number of security warnings I had to click “Yes” to, in order to just hit the login page.  I did not authenticate, but instead moved on.


No protocol issues resolving MSN or the main Microsoft site, but of the two, only MSN held up in the confines of this clunky old browser:

msn  ms bing

Bing managed to render slightly better, probably because no one was using it at the time.


How about the fashionistas of the technology world?  Could they live rendering a sub-optimal visual even on such an old platform?


Unsurprisingly, Apple’s crisp minimalist look fared “OK” under Internet Explorer 6.  Still some UI artefacts not playing ball, but the site was still useable.  How about journeying to something from the same era as the laptop?  Given my strike-out with Google, why not an old Internet search engine?  So I tried..


From the Lycos era, this site is still surprisingly operating – and renders beautifully.  Search results weren’t helpful, but what can one expect from such an old site?


Now you might be wondering which commercial, big business site loaded and rendered the best out of the dozen I tested?  You may or may not be surprised that the award goes to………


The IT behemoth’s main site loaded perfectly in Internet Explorer 6, which is worth praising and also mocking in the same breath.


Look, I’m not above reproach myself.  Whilst this site (Sanders Technology) did a fairly dismal job of rendering, my companion site Aussie Travel Guy did a surprisingly good job of rendering.

st  atg


Whilst it’s a bumpy and often slow ride, it’s still somewhat possible to drive the Internet in a 15-year old operating system, on 16 year old hardware.  Some might find that surprising.  I know I did.  I bid you farewell, from this war horse of a laptop.


Introducing a Gigabyte BRIX solution

Last week I had a disk corruption which proved to be somewhat catastrophic.  My main server had an apparent corruption of the Directory database, and even after I’d run a system restore, still could not bring Active Directory back up.  To cut a long story short, my journey would have ben far shorter if I’d had a backup directory sitting on some cheap hardware.  This brings me to my new solution..


Are you looking for a low cost computing option, but feel constrained by the hobby nature of the smaller options like the Raspberry Pi?  What if you could pay a bit extra and get something with a genuine Intel 64bit processor and support for mobile architecture hardware?  If this sounds like you, you might want to try the Gigabyte BRIX.


I’d read about these little “workstations in a box” last year, they blazed the trail for small footprint machines.  For a reasonably low price, these tiny boxes which almost fit in the palm of your hand (your hand size may vary) pack a powerful punch. 

CPU Intel® Celeron J1900 4 Core Up to 2.4GHz (1.99GHz realised)
Memory Patriot 1333GHz 8GB SO-DIMM
Disk SanDisk SSD Plus 128 GB SSD


Check out the detailed specs (note that the CPU range scales from i-series Intel to Celeron) – my version is the GB-BXBT-1900 [1] which features a dual core Celeron:

  • Features 22nm Intel® Celeron J1900 [2]
  • Ultra compact PC design – 0.69L(56.1x 107.6 x 114.4mm)
  • Supports 2.5” thickness 7.0/9.5mm Hard Drives (1 x 3Gbps)
  • 1x SO-DIMM DDR3L 1.35V Slots (1333 MHz)
  • Preinstall IEEE 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi / Bluetooth 4.0 Mini-PCIe card
  • Supports dual displays via a VGA and a HDMI port
  • Gigabit LAN (1 GBps) Ethernet
  • Audio jack (Headphone/MIC)
  • 1x USB 3.0, 2x USB 2.0 ports
  • ssd-plus-product  SoDimm-packaging-web

    The BIOS supports UEFI secure boot for Windows 7 and Windows 8.1, but you can disable secure boot and install via IDE configuration to get other OSes onto it.  Apparently you can run Windows 10 on one, but I have not attempted this just yet.


    When you purchase a new BRIX, it comes without a hard drive and memory, i.e. buy these separately.  Once you’ve unboxed your shiny new BRIX, you’ll need a small screwdriver to undo the base of the box to access the internals.  Installing the HDD and memory is trivial if you have only the slightest modicum of experience with electronics or laptops.

    Once you’ve got your HDD and memory seated and connected, screw the base back on (making sure that the “This Side Up” instruction is pointing the right way!).  All you need to do now is plug the BIRX into a monitor, and perhaps a keyboard and mouse. 

    I’ll cover the BIOS and OS installation in a separate article.  Here’s a nice link to a PowerShell script you can use to dump OS and hardware info.


    Once you are happy with the OS configuration, it’s entirely possible to run the BRIX “headless” (sans monitor, keyboard and mouse).  My intention was always to sit it near the network switch, and courtesy of the VESA mounting plate, it was trivial to wall mount:

    IMG_3165  IMG_3166  IMG_3164

    You can see the BRIX relative to the Router (bottom) and the HP switch (bottom left).  All that’s required is the ethernet cable and power.  It is now my little DMZ environment!