IBM PalmTop Running Modern (Modified) Linux

The handheld computing market might seem dominated by smartphones today, but before their mass adoption there were other offerings for those who needed some computing power on-the-go. If a 90s laptop was too bulky, there was always the IBM PalmTop which packed punch for its size-to-weight ratio, and for the era it was created in. [Mingcong Bai] still has one of these antiques and decided to see if it was still usable by loading a customized Linux distribution on it.

The PalmTop sported modest hardware even for its time with an Intel 486SL running at 33 MHz with 20 MiB of RAM. This one also makes use of a 1 GB CompactFlash card for storage and while [Mingcong Bai] notes that it is possible to run Windows 95 on it, it’s not a particularly great user experience. A Linux distribution customized for antique hardware, AOSC/Retro, helps solve some of these usability issues. With this it’s possible to boot into a command line and even do some limited text-based web browsing as long as the Ethernet adapter is included.

While the computer is running at its maximum capacity just to boot and perform basic system functions, it’s admirable that an antique computer such as this still works, especially given its small size and limited hardware functionality. If you’re curious about more PalmTop-style computers, take a look at the first one ever produced: the HP-200LX.

19 thoughts on “IBM PalmTop Running Modern (Modified) Linux

  1. I would say, if someone like to enjoy a vintage linux experience in his pocket he should look at one of the old Sharp Zaurus. I had them as PDA in the 2000er and it was possible to do almost everything than the kids started to do with there smartphone 10years later. (with WLAN)

    And there also exist some more small and cute laptop from japanese company. (for example from Panasonic or Sony) I used them at there time without any problem with Linux.


    1. I had a Zaurus SL-C3100. It was a beautiful little machine.

      There were even a couple of decent novels featuring the Zaurus (Z4CK and Digital Force) by Kevin Milne. If I recall correctly, he wrote the books on his Zaurus too!

    2. I loved my old Zaurus too. There’s one important thing a crusty old laptop can do that the Zaurus couldn’t though. Build. I tried so hard to either get a working build environment on my Zaurus or to get the cross-compiling toolchain working but just couldn’t get there.

      I think that would be important for trying to get anything modern working on such old hardware because there’s probably a lot of stuff you would need to compile from source.

      I’d probably still have my Z running acting as the control of some sort of embedded project or something like that if they hadn’t made it so hard.

  2. Cool that Linux works on such old things, still!
    Who had expected this?! 😃
    I remember when Linux kernal 2.6 stopped supporting all the good stuff like popular ISA devices.
    Back then, kernal 2.4 was still held in high regards.
    In these days, the fleamarkets and dumpsters had all the “good” hardware (non-USB)..

    As for the specs as such.. They aren’t exactly great by 90s standards, either, -except for the amount of RAM-, but fairly enough get Windows for Workgroups 3.11+Win32s+TCPIP32 running. Maybe Opera, too.
    OS/2 Warp might also be a good choice.

    I just hope that the CF cards isn’t fully used.
    Overprovisioning (fresh cards) or a flash friendly filesystem are recommended, I suppose.
    Back in the early 2000s, car pc enthusiasts used XP Embedded with the EWF filter to extend the lifetime of CF cards.
    If the system ran on NTFS, it also helped to disable “Last Access Time stamp” in registry..

    That being said, I’m speaking under correction here. 😅

        1. Yeah, I’ve spent a considerable time in the last few weeks trying to find a genuine (of used) 9-cell pack for my T430 and come up empty. I don’t think I’ll ever live to see a 9-cell slice.

          There’s obviously a market here, but nobody is making batteries other than some skeevy outfits in china. I bugged ifixit but they mostly supply internal batteries.

          I have heard of people trying to re-cell packs, but it’s not for the faint of heart. In addition to the requirement of a battery tab welder and the usual fun of trying to disassemble a battery, they had to wire up the new cells in parallel one by one (making sure to balance them!) and keep the security chip/monitoring board powered the entire time. So you’re also playing with live lithium battery circuitry and potential shorts. If you screw up, there’s a fuse that’s blown by the battery management chip that cannot ever be reset. It sounds like a real nightmare, especially in absence of a guide.

    1. You could get any old distro and run it fine (in theory). But the case was to run some modern Linux (whatever this means). Other than that you could use (in theory):
      “The minimal configuration for a NetBSD/i386 system requires 4M of RAM and about 40M of disk space. For a full installation (including source and X11), at least 8M of RAM and 200M of disk space are recommended.”
      “The minimal configuration to install the system is 32MB of RAM and at least 250MB of disk space to accommodate the `base’ set.”

      1. True, good point. I’m not sure if there’s a good reason for needing a “modern” distro on this (apart from the fun of it of course). It’s not like the newer hardware support is critical. I wonder what the blocker would be for running modern tasks. Dependencies on a newer glibc maybe, or libssl?

      2. It was tight when I tried Slackware 7.0 on a 486slc with 8 meg of ram i early 2001. Once I saved space for swap, there wasn’t much room on the 240 meg hard drive.

        But it served its purpose. I almost immediately saw I couldn’t run Linux in such a limited system.

        1. I remember that up to 2005 there were a lot linux distros on a floppy that could run on such machines. MuLinux, Pocket Linux, Linux in a pill etc. But I was not into linux on that time so don’t know how well they worked. On the other hand few local networks were running on such machines.

      1. Came here to say this – how could 200LX be “first” when 100LX is almost identical (assuming 95LX dismissed based on graphics). Pretty embarrassing demonstration of ignorance while posing as a credible source on the topic. :(

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