Adventures in Ruggedized Laptops

Unxmaal

Administrator
Feb 8, 2019
68
28
18
Let's be honest. I don't need much of an excuse for buying some weird old shit.

This time, though, I put the blame squarely on Docker.

The new job has provided me a very fancy new Macbook Pro. It has 4 USB-C ports and a lousy keyboard.

The first strike against the MBP happened last weekend. I needed to help a friend of a friend set up some networking gear. I grabbed my one functional laptop... and realized it has no ethernet ports. I have a large USB-C hub but I wasn't about to drag that thing along. At some point later I needed a RS232 connection. Denied! I have a crappy RS232 to USB-B adapter but it was at home, and would've required the hub as well.


The second strike came later in the week. For $work_reasons, I need to find a method for our developer teams to work on Docker containers that use IPv6. Many of our devs use Macs. After much research, and to my great dismay, I confirmed that Docker Desktop for Mac does not support IPv6.

The issue has been open on Github for nearly 3 years:
https://github.com/docker/for-mac/issues/1432

There was some initial work done in 2017 but it appears Docker, as a company, has stopped work to support IPv6 on their Mac product.

I did a bit more research and it seems possible to run Docker within a VirtualBox VM with IPv6 enabled but I didn’t play around further with that.

This got me thinking about laptops. Specifically, a cheap, possibly old, laptop with lots of ports. Maybe something tough enough to withstand falling off a shelf in a server closet. This took me way down the rabbit hole of ruggedized laptops.

The (likely first) laptop I bought is the Panasonic Toughbook CF-31. There’s at least 5 revisions, and in my haste I bought the oldest, a MK1. The main difference between it and the new models is it is a 32-bit only system and the others are 64-bit. If the 32-bitness becomes an issue, I’ll likely sell it locally and buy a MK4 or MK5 for about $100 more.

Here’s the specs for my Toughbook:
* Touchscreen
* Intel Core i5-M520 @ 2.4GHz
* 8GB DDR3 RAM (which is the max for this laptop)
* 128GB SSD
* HDMI
* RS-232 serial port
* SD card slot
* Stylus
* WWAN
* WiFi
* GPS
* BlueTooth

These specs don’t really tell the whole story. Here’s Panasonic’s sales page for the Toughbook. And more info here.

This is a laptop that
* has a full magnesium alloy case with a built-in handle
* is water-resistant rated at IP 65, which means it’ll stay running and internally dry while being hosed down with water, but not submerged
* has a screen that’s bright enough to be seen in bright sunlight, but can dim for night mode
* backlit keyboard
* can be dropped from 3 feet while running
* and 6 feet while off
* can withstand over 300 pounds of pressure on its lid

I paid $250 for this, shipped, which is still a rip-off because I’m an idiot and didn’t buy a MK4 for the same price.



Installation

The first recommended step for setting up a Toughbook is to update the firmware. This nearly always requires Windows.

Since my TB is old, I’ll install Windows 7 32-bit on it first. I’m using Rufus to create a bootable USB drive.

Next, I’ll get the One-click Bundles from Panasonic. These should contain the firmwares and drivers I’ll need.

After installation, I’ll have to decide: could the Toughbook be good enough to be my daily driver? Obviously it’ll have to run Linux, so I’ll need to test how well Linux works on it. (I also have a rule to never run Linux as a workstation. I tend to fix Linux workstations until they’re broken.) If I decide a Toughbook can be a daily driver for me, I’ll flip this one and upgrade to a newer model. Otherwise, I’ll keep this one and use it as a bench/diagnostics system.

Next up: results of installing Windows, installing Linux, and decisions!
 

Elf

Storybook
Feb 4, 2019
252
57
28
I was always after a ruggedized laptop. The one I wanted was a General Dynamics though; not a name you'd expect to see manufacturing laptops! For example, the General Dynamics / Itronix GD8200.

I should see if there are any around for cheap now that it has been so long... They certainly went for a premium when new!
 

Unxmaal

Administrator
Feb 8, 2019
68
28
18

Thanks! I was basing my assumptions off a forum post I found that had some bad info. This would've changed my mind about getting rid of this laptop, but I'll be returning it, as you'll see below.

=====================

Windows Installation

Right off, this system failed to boot either Win7 or 10 from SD directly. It got farther with 7 via USB, but rebooted in a loop at “Starting Windows”.

I disabled some things in the BIOS:
* Execute-Disable bit capability
* Intel Virtualization Technology

and Windows 7 installed properly.

I installed the One-click bundles next. After some struggles I remembered I’m dealing with Windows and right-clicked “Run as Administrator”.

For some reason, Windows 7 didn’t or couldn’t install its own update to IE, so I had to do that manually using the Offline Installer.

I spent more time trying to get the system to run Windows Updates, and kept running into failures. After seeing @LarBob's reply, I shifted gears to try to boot a 64-bit OS.

===================

Linux Attempts

I tried 64-bit Lubuntu first from a DVD. This failed immediately after ISOLINUX, rebooting the laptop. I tried a few more times, then tried 32-bit Lubuntu. This failed the same way.

After this, I tried:
* 64 and 32 bit Ubuntu from DVD and USB
* 64 and 32 bit Windows 10 from DVD and USB
* 64 bit Windows 7
* Ubuntu via WUBI

Each of these would show an early splash screen then reboot the laptop.

By this point it was late, so I went to bed. At some point before I went to sleep, I started thinking about how to test the RAM, then remembered Memtest86.

====================

Memtest

Memtest86 via DVD started a test, then rebooted. I went through a few options and saw Memtest has an option to step through individual tests per keystroke. After a few tries, I was able to pinpoint the exact step (after pass 1) that causes the system to reboot.

I've made a video of this sequence, and sent it to the seller.

A bit later I discovered the BIOS includes onboard diagnostics. The first test was for the CPU and it passed quickly. The second was for RAM. After 20 minutes or so, the system rebooted.

I'm waiting on the seller's response. Right now I'm leaning towards requesting a full refund, which I'll put towards a MK4 version.

The main difference between the MK1 and MK4 is the MK4 has a newer CPU, supports 16gb RAM, and has USB 3.0 ports. Since it'll only be $50 more, it's worth it.

More news as I get it!
 

Unxmaal

Administrator
Feb 8, 2019
68
28
18

Thanks! I was basing my assumptions off a forum post I found that had some bad info. This would've changed my mind about getting rid of this laptop, but I'll be returning it, as you'll see below.

=====================

Windows Installation

Right off, this system failed to boot either Win7 or 10 from SD directly. It got farther with 7 via USB, but rebooted in a loop at “Starting Windows”.

I disabled some things in the BIOS:
* Execute-Disable bit capability
* Intel Virtualization Technology

and Windows 7 installed properly.

I installed the One-click bundles next. After some struggles I remembered I’m dealing with Windows and right-clicked “Run as Administrator”.

For some reason, Windows 7 didn’t or couldn’t install its own update to IE, so I had to do that manually using the Offline Installer.

I spent more time trying to get the system to run Windows Updates, and kept running into failures. After seeing @LarBob's reply, I shifted gears to try to boot a 64-bit OS.

===================

Linux Attempts

I tried 64-bit Lubuntu first from a DVD. This failed immediately after ISOLINUX, rebooting the laptop. I tried a few more times, then tried 32-bit Lubuntu. This failed the same way.

After this, I tried:
* 64 and 32 bit Ubuntu from DVD and USB
* 64 and 32 bit Windows 10 from DVD and USB
* 64 bit Windows 7
* Ubuntu via WUBI

Each of these would show an early splash screen then reboot the laptop.

By this point it was late, so I went to bed. At some point before I went to sleep, I started thinking about how to test the RAM, then remembered Memtest86.

====================

Memtest

Memtest86 via DVD started a test, then rebooted. I went through a few options and saw Memtest has an option to step through individual tests per keystroke. After a few tries, I was able to pinpoint the exact step (after pass 1) that causes the system to reboot.

I've made a video of this sequence, and sent it to the seller.

A bit later I discovered the BIOS includes onboard diagnostics. The first test was for the CPU and it passed quickly. The second was for RAM. After 20 minutes or so, the system rebooted.

I'm waiting on the seller's response. Right now I'm leaning towards requesting a full refund, which I'll put towards a MK4 version.

The main difference between the MK1 and MK4 is the MK4 has a newer CPU, supports 16gb RAM, and has USB 3.0 ports. Since it'll only be $50 more, it's worth it.

More news as I get it!
 

Unxmaal

Administrator
Feb 8, 2019
68
28
18
The first seller tested new RAM in several of his MK1s and was unable to complete a diagnostic. He refunded my money and I shipped the MK1 back to him.

I ordered a MK4 from another seller. It cost a bit more but can handle at least twice the RAM as the MK1, and has USB 3.0.

The MK4 was filthy when I unpacked it. I did a full wipe-down with various cleaning products. I ran a full diagnostics on it and it passed with no issues.

I've installed Ubuntu 18.04 on it, and I'm running i3-gaps as the Window Manager.

Worked out of the box:
  • touchscreen
  • bluetooth
  • wifi
Worked with a bit of tweaking:
  • fingerprint reader - I installed a ppa for fingerprint-gui
  • screen brightness - added `acpi_backlight=video` to /etc/default/grub
  • audio - had to run some audio config from cli. Main audio is listed as 'headphones', for some reason
 
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Unxmaal

Administrator
Feb 8, 2019
68
28
18
A week later, and I have the ToughBook configured for regular use.

I'm running i3 Gaps as my window manager, because I hate fun. If you hate fun too, get the configs from my dotfiles repo.

I also got the onboard GPS to work! Huzzah! Here's how:

apt install gpsd gpsd-clients foxtrotgps

Configure /etc/default/gpsd as follows:
START_DAEMON="true"
GPSD_OPTIONS="-n"
DEVICES="/dev/ttyS2"
USBAUTO="true"


If you're not configuring gpsd on a ToughBook, you might have to change these settings.

systemctl enable gpsd
systemctl start gpsd

Next step is the hardest: go outside. Yep, GPS on the ToughBook doesn't work so well inside your basement. (The neighbors have learned to ignore when I do things like walk around my driveway holding a laptop at 10PM.) Run gpsmon and watch it pick up satellites.

Pictures and screenshots coming later!
 
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