Linux on a laptop - the Sony Vaio Z505

Installing Linux on a Sony Vaio Z505.

Having managed to break the screen of my HP Omnibook 800 when I was out launching rockets one day, I had a problem. I needed a laptop to interface to the rocket onboard flight computers both before launch, and after recovery, but the Omnibook without a screen was not particularly useful. I needed a new laptop anyway, so I thought that this time, I'd get a Sony Vaio, since I had always been impressed by their design. The Omnibook 800 could then be used as a monitorless Linux Server.

I wasn't actually intending on getting a Z505, but wandering down Tottenham Court Road in London, I saw one, and fell in love with it.

The Sony Vaio came equipped with Windows 98. Obviously, the first thing that needed doing was upgrading it to a real operating system. Given that the latest version of the Red Hat Linux distribution, version 6.1 was available for download, this seemed an ideal choice.

What is the Sony Vaio Z505 ?

The Sony Vaio Z505 is a sub-laptop running with an Intel Celeron 333MHz CPU and 64Mb of RAM and a 6.4 Gb hard disk drive. It has a 12.1 inch active matrix (TFT) colour LCD screen with a resolution of up to 1024 x 768 (XGA). It is fitted with an accelerated 128-bit PCI controller with 1 Mb of Video RAM (NeoMagic. 2093). It weighs 1.77 kg, and comes equipped with the following connections on the laptop itself:

Table 1: Sony Vaio Z505 I/O
Port/Connector Configuration Gender Comments
Network Port RJ-45 socket Female 10Base-T/100Base-T Ethernet interface
Modem Port RJ-11 socket Female V.90 WinModem
2 x USB Ports USB sockets Female
IEEE-1394 (Firewire) Firewire socket Female
Memory Stick Port Memory Stick socket Female
1 x PCMCIA Card
Cardbus ready
1 x Type II Male
IRDA-2 Transmitter/receiver Standard IR Transceiver NA Up to 4 Mbps data transfer rate
3.5 inch Floppy Disk port USB Female
Headphones out
Stereo out
jack socket Female
Microphone in
Stereo out
jack socket Female
Power connector socket jack socket Female 19.5 volts input supply at 1.1 Amps
Kensington security slot Slot Female Allows tethering of the laptop for security
Hard Disk Drive connector IDE Female Connector to standard IDE 2.5" Internal Hard disk drive
External Port Replicator 68-pin, micro-centronics Female Output ports for:
Serial (DB9 9 way connector)
Parallel (DB25 25 way connector)
Monitor (VGA 15 way connector)

External Port Replicator

The port replicator does not seem to contain any active circuitry. It is merely a way of fitting the outputs of the 3 ports into the densest possibly connector (68-pin micro-centronics), and then separating the wires out to the various connectors inside the External Port Replicator box.

This is very good news for anyone who wants to control the ports in the replicator via Linux, since it makes the whole business of talking to the various ports, fairly straightforward.

Why install Linux ?

There are several good reasons as to why I wanted to install Linux on the Sony Vaio Z505, these being as follows:

  1. Being a regular user of Windows XP and FreeBSD, and to a lesser extent older Operating Systems such as Windows 2000, 95/98, NT, and SunOS 4.1.3, I prefer Linux to the other options when it comes to running on less powerful hardware. Simple as that.
  2. I needed a portable computer for use in the field for data aqcuisition from ground based sensors, and sensor data telemetered in real time from rockets and for launch operations of rockets. Since this was going to entail programming of the parallel port in C, C++ and eventually Java, the simplest options were to use DOS or Linux. Let's face it, with that choice, how could anyone possibly fail to choose Linux ?
  3. Having Apache Web Server running on a portable is a godsend if you need to develop any cgi code on the road.
  4. Vast amount of useful tools.

The Installation Hardware.

Originally, the 6.4 Gigabyte hard disk that was fitted internally within the Sony Vaio Z505 was used with Red Hat Linux, but more recently, I needed to use the Sony Vaio Z505 for some fairly intensive data logging, which required a larger hard disk. I had a spare 80 Gigabyte, 2.5" IDE hard disk (Seagate Momentus), so I decided to remove the existing hard disk, and fit the 80 Gigabyte hard disk into the laptop instead, and at the same time, use the opportunity to upgrade the operating system.

Installing Linux.

The new version of Linux that I decided to install was Ubuntu Linux 6.10, Edgy Eft. I run the Xfce 4.4 window manager using the Xfce-dusk theme, the Tango icon theme and the Agua style. Xfce was chosen over KDE or Gnome because the Sony Vaio Z505 struggles running Gnome or KDE (yes, I have tried running both!). Xfce runs considerably faster than either Gnome or KDE, although it is still slow, it must be said.

I installed Ubuntu Linux 6.10 onto the hard disk via an IDE cable in another Linux computer I have, and using the DVD installation media. I then removed the hard disk and opened the Sony Vaio Z505 to fit the new 80 Gigabyte hard disk. The only change required was to xconfig, since the LCD screen I used when installing Linux in my other Linux PC had different screen settings, so these needed to be changed for Xwindows to work on the Sony Vaio Z505 with the new hard disk.

The Sony Vaio Z505 runs slow with Ubuntu Linux 6.10, it must be said. It also takes a very long time to boot up. Something is miscommunicating before it even gets as far as starting the GRUB bootloader. However, for the data logging applications it is used for, this is not a big issue, since once the Sony Vaio Z505 boots up, it just sits there and logs data.