An Old Netbook Spills Its Secrets

For a brief moment in the late ’00s, netbooks dominated the low-cost mobile computing market. These were small, low-cost, low-power laptops, some tiny enough to only have a seven-inch display, and usually with extremely limiting hardware even for the time. There aren’t very many reasons to own a machine of this era today, since even the cheapest of tablets or Chromebooks are typically far more capable than the Atom-based devices from over a decade ago. There is one set of these netbooks from that time with a secret up its sleeve, though: Phoenix Hyperspace.

Hyperspace was envisioned as a way for these slow, low-power computers to instantly boot or switch between operating systems. [cathoderaydude] wanted to figure out what made this piece of software tick, so he grabbed one of the only netbooks that it was ever installed on, a Samsung N210. The machine has both Windows 7 and a custom Linux distribution installed on it, and with Hyperspace it’s possible to switch almost seamlessly between them in about six seconds; effectively instantly for the time.

[cathoderaydude]’s investigation into how bargain-basement hardware from 15 years ago is able to do this revealed more mysteries than it seemed to solve at the time. At first it looked like Hyperspace was acting as a hypervisor, essentially supervising the virtualization of both operating systems and switching between the two. But that’s not exactly what was going on here. Both operating systems seemed to share a partition and filesystem, certainly impossible, and it eventually he found a master boot record and file system hidden away at the end of the drive. From there he was able to piece together that a few different instances of GRUB were allowing all kinds of unusual things to happen, effectively mounting both operating systems at the same time to the hard drive and mapping them both into memory in ways that are still not entirely transparent.

From an outside perspective, this seems relatively similar to the discovery of the fast inverse square root algorithm within Quake, or this other similar (yet fictional) scenario. [cathoderaydude] admits during the analysis of these tools that it seems like Phoenix created what is effectively a miracle, by software standards, that no one ended up wanting or using, which was eventually forgotten to time. And, if you missed this era in computing history, head over here to see some of the other things that were lost from these days.

35 thoughts on “An Old Netbook Spills Its Secrets

  1. I recall a customer who bought a computer (without asking me first) that was a dual-operating system all-in-one. It had WinXP (or it might have been Vista), and Android, and used a mechanical switch to choose which one you wanted to use.

    It was a neat concept, but poorly executed. The Android “side” was constantly freezing up, so you had to switch to WinXP to reboot the machine.

    After a couple of service calls to verify that the OS was intact, and updating drivers, I told her that it was never likely to stop freezing up. She ghosted me, as if it was my fault!

    1. “She ghosted me, as if it was my fault!” that’s why i was never satisfied doing tech support of any kind. i actually longed for the kind of client who would consider something my fault…i always would get people who were overflowing with gratitude after i just delivered a big poop sandwich to them. i couldn’t handle it, people thanking me for such great insights as “yeah it has to be rebooted a couple times a day” or “so the solution here is to click ten different icons to achieve something that it shoulda been doing anyways…i conveniently wrote down the list of clicks on this piece of paper which, once lost, your office will never get work done again.”

        1. The original is very difficult because of the tiny size. There are not many devices with this form factor. The GPD P2 Max seems to fit best. It is a bit smaller, but the display sizes are actually the same because of the reduced bezel.

          1. I know. I’ve looked. The closest thing that I’d probably enjoy owning is the Dell XPS13. I’d like the Developer Edition (Linux) but it’s not available in my country.

          2. There were also a range running on ARM and MIPS hardware… I recall coming across a MIPS version my friend was using a while back (from Eken, maybe?) and finding that the Debian release for it was still available.

    1. This may be for you then. It has the exact weird resolution (1024 x 600).

      US $260.82 10%OFF | 2023 Portable Mini Laptops Metal Small Notebooks Windows 11 7 Inch Touch Screen office J4105 12GB+1TB IPS Netbook Micro Computer
      https://a. aliexpress.Com /_mNt9OaE
      And yes, I also loved my aspire one
      (but not the first one, 7 inches) the second model was better (10inch)

    2. The closest thing I found to my eeepc701 (but with all the modern niceties) is the Panasonic Lets Note CF-RZ4, which is a Japan only 10.1 in convertible from 2015. I happened to snag one while in Japan for about $100 and it is fantastic.

      1. The Lets Note line of computers is fantastic.
        Panasonic computers makes great hardware (we use a lot of the toughbook hardware at work) and their service and support is literally another world compared to the rest of the industry.

        I had a problem with GPS and spent probably a week talking back and forth with an engineer to get it resolved.

  2. My company gave everyone a heavy dell luggable, and the main use case is hooking it up to the docking station and starting the citrix app. Nothing you need ram, large display nor cpu for. The thin clients they took away served fine and never required me to go to service desk to type in an admin password for chrome updater.
    Meanwhile, this thing doesn’t fit in my bag so I leave it at the office.

  3. Still using an EeePC 1018P for times when I need something I can just stuff in a small bag, hand luggage etc. RAM is maxed at 2Gb, and it has an SSD now. Batteries are becoming a real problem, but I got one recently so should be good for another couple of years. It runs Manjaro nowadays, and the performance is pretty decent… Such a shame there’s nothing similar for when it just gets too long in the tooth.

  4. I still have a convertible Asus Eee PC T91MT.
    It used to run an ADSB receiver station, on Linux.
    It’s severely under-powered but I may find a new use for it some day. I just cant’ dump it :)

  5. The owner of the Windows OS was quite heavy handed with any company which also wanted to ship Linux pre-loaded. Netbook originally were a Linux-only low end(cost and hardware) device and they worked well and constantly sold out. Enter MicroSuck MiBs requiring Windows to be installed and now the hardware CPU and RAM had to be doubled along with hard disk size. No longer are they $249 devices and getting the Linux-only version is nearly impossible.

    I’m not surprised the magical Hyperspace software never made it outside of the Samsung N210.

  6. I loved My HP Mini, First i did, i removed Windows and installed Debian. Now i have HP x360 ryzen 7 installed Arch Linux, My all computers have Linux at main OS. Windows running in kvm

  7. I recently was trying out a Samsung S8 (without cell svc) connected to a portable monitor via usb-c – This combination allows the use of “Dex”. I connected a bluetooth keyboard and mouse and was impressed with the usability of the combination. I’ve not tested too much on this, but it has some potential.

  8. Back in 2009, I had a refurbed Dell Mini 9 that had the OEM windows OS for all of 30 minutes on (and painfully, too); I put some flavor of ubuntu on it, and it ran rather well until it ate it’s SSD (which was an IDE interface electrically, using a mini-PCI interface intended for wireless cards physically!) and it’s replacement never did work the same afterwards. The USB ports on it were all 1.0 ports, so booting off a thumb drive was… painful.

    But when it was working, it was the cutest thing ever, had just enough horsepower for simple tasks, and fit into some non-obvious bags.

    I’d like to see an iteration of it running using more modern (and standardized!) hardware, but I have enough laptops already. (an off-lease Thinkpad running a fisrt gen i3, and my old old work T460s, buth running mint, IIRC.)

  9. Perhaps a modern equivalent can be had after all.
    Consider if you will, a Steam Deck and bluetooth keyboard combo.

    After all, behind the Steam OS screen lies Arch Linux.

  10. Well dang, I thought I was going to find a new use for this Samsung NC10 that just sits here on perpetual charge. Oh well. It looks nice, but painfully slow for todays typical uses.

  11. One thing I think the writeup may get wrong is that I think the journaling could prevent corruption in most cases. Once Windows resumes, the journal could respect any locks before replaying file changes. Obviously there are still going to be some concerns, but this should be mostly limited by the very limited UI and list of files one could reasonably edit. All in all this was a pretty clever hack. I’m impressed… disgusted, but impressed.

  12. I had to retire my old Emachines netbook last year because the screen was really dim. Apart from that it was still usable and indeed used on a daily basis. 12 years service for a couple of hundred dollars is pretty good value.

    I replaced it with a StarLite from Starlabs Systems last year and now have a modern machine with only a slightly larger form factor. It’s very good.

  13. In those old days of single core, single thread, low power CPUs and super slow cheap HDDs, there were many serious requests in the industry for things like this. “Please design me a PC that quick boots Linux into a browser so the user can do something in the 5 minutes it takes Vista to simultaneously boot”. Didn’t realize some actually happened.

  14. Before reading the description I was expecting it to hibernate one OS and then booth the other, although that would be slower. Their approach is pretty interesting, but it seems like the performance penalty from reduced memory would not have been worth it… plus, how much power was spent keeping all of the unused RAM refreshed for no benefit?

    P.S. CRD: RealPlayer is a media player, and the icon is right their in your screenshot.

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