Linux on the NEC Versa 550D

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The good news first: it works pretty well. Everything is supported, even suspend-to-RAM and suspend-to-disk. It's a bit hard to find software that works well with the limited amount of RAM the Versa 550D has, but otherwise everything is fine. In this document, I give an overview over the specs of the Versa 550D (in case you consider buying one), then I explain what you need to know to install Linux on it. Finally, I briefly describe the software I use on mine and give some hints as to what you might do with such a rather old system.

Table of contents

System specs and general remarks

(This part is not Linux-specific.) The NEC Versa 550D is (in my opinion) quite a rugged and reliable system, but nowadays (2001) it is somewhat dated. A brief overview of the technical data:
ProcessorCyrix 5x86 100 MHz
RAM on-board8 MB
RAM extension4, 8 or 16 MB (only one slot available)
Screen10.4 in. DSTN color LCD
Display resolution640 × 480 × 256 colors (1024 × 768 on external monitor)
Video RAM1 MB
HDD540 MB (upgradeable)
Floppystandard 3.5 in. 1.44 MB (builtin)
PCMCIAtwo Type-II cards or one Type-III
Trackballtwo buttons
Interfacesserial, parallel, VGA, PS/2
PowerNiMH accumulator, 9.6 V, 2800 mAh
Suspend modessuspend to RAM, suspend to disk
Size287 × 227 × 52 mm
Weightapprox. 2.8 kg / 6.1 lb (with accumulator)

As you can see, the processor power (a fast 486) is quite acceptable for most simple applications (such as word processing or web surfing), but memory is quite tight.

The size is quite acceptable, even modern systems are not much smaller (only thinner). The laptop is quite heavy, however; almost 3 kg (over 6 lb for our non-metric friends) is a lot if you have to carry it for more than a few minutes. Still the laptop will fit nicely into a backpack or anything bigger than a handbag, and is useful when traveling.

Battery life, unfortunately, is not so good. On my (rather used) laptop, I get about 70-90 minutes maximum, which is not so great for a 4-hour train ride. The manual claims about two hours running time, but I could never check that with a new accumulator (I bought the system used). Still, you definitely want to take along the power brick (which is not big) and use it whenever possible. The ability to suspend to RAM (or better: to disk) somewhat mitigates this; you can suspend and resume in about 20 seconds, so you can save power whenever you don't use the system for a few minutes.

The display is not perfect, either. It is a DSTN (not a modern TFT) LCD display. This means it reacts slowly (blurs fast movements), so it is not suitable for e.g. fast moving games (event though the processor is quite powerful enough for e.g. DOOM). More importantly, the display also copes badly with bright light. Indoors, without direct sunshine, it is fine, but outdoors, unless on a very cloudy day, it is difficult to impossible to see anything on it due to poor contrast.

The accumulator can be exchanged easily (even while in suspend to disk), but it is (of course) proprietary, quite expensive (? approx. $100?) and may no longer be available. Inside, it seems to use ordinary NiMh cells. You could try to crack the pack open and exchange the cells to repair it, but that is mechanically quite tricky (plus may or may not mess up the integrated electronics). I have not done that.

Installing Linux on the Versa 550D

The installation is pretty painless, so I'll just describe the things which are special about the Versa 550D. I assume you know how to do a standard Linux installation.

First of all, you need to choose a Linux distribution the requirements of which the laptop can satisfy, as it only has 540 MB of drive space and 8 - 24 MB RAM. There also is no CD-ROM drive, so the distro will need to support alternative ways of installation (most do). I use Debian GNU/Linux 2.2 (potato), which works fine. For the rest of these instructions, I will assume you use Debian; other distributions should work similarly, adjust accordingly.

Before installing, you should set up the disk for suspend to disk. This needs a special partition. It can be created using a small utility called phdisk.exe which comes with the laptop. Just make a MS-DOS boot floppy, put phdisk.exe on it, boot it and run phdisk.exe . This will erase the hard disk, so it should be done first. If you don't have phdisk.exe, you may be able to find it on the web site of NEC or of Phoenix (the BIOS' manufacturer), or mail me and I'll send it to you. Alternatively, there is a Linux replacement for phdisk.exe called lphdisk by Patrick D. Ashmore. It is available at I have never used it myself, though.

Now for the actual installation: First, boot the laptop with the Linux installation floppy (enable floppy booting in the BIOS first), then partition the hard drive according to your needs (and make a swap partition). The suspend-to-disk partition will appear as type a0, "IBM Thinkpad Hibernation". Do not touch it.

As there is no CD-ROM drive on the laptop, you will need a different means of installation. The easiest is via a network. The physical connection can be made using a PCMCIA ethernet card (easiest, fastest, if you have a PCMCIA ethernet card), via parallel port (PLIP) networking (slow) or via serial port (even slower). The ethernet option is best, if you have the hardware. Otherwise, you can use parallel line IP (PLIP, see the PLIP Mini HOWTO from the Linux Documentation Project) or serial line IP (SLIP) via a 'nullmodem cable'. These options are significantly slower, but require no special hardware except from the cable. Once the hardware is in place, follow your distribution's instructions for installing via network.

The basic installation should work without problems. Here are a few technical details you might need:

Finally, make sure you don't install more than the hard disk will hold. It is not very big...

Problems / things to know when running Linux

Here I list a few small problems I had using Linux and what I did about them.

Software to run

Obviously, using KDE and StarOffice is not a terribly good idea :-). I spent some time finding software that works well with limited ressources, yet is powerful and usable. Here's my list of what you could do with the system and what software to use (additions welcome). Where no link is given, the software is standard with most distributions. I run X with 12 MB of RAM, and it works fine. 8 MB might be cutting it very close though.

Extra: The Versa 550D as an ebook

One nifty thing you can do with the Versa 550D is to use it as an ebook. Ever wished you could read a downloaded Sherlock Holmes story in bed instead of in front of your computer? Now you can do it! I hacked up a script to convert the kind of texts which Project Gutenberg offers, so I could comfortably read them on my laptop. Project Gutenberg offers electronic versions of texts whose copyright has expired; almost all major classics (and more) are covered. Unfortunately, these texts come as plain ASCII, which is very platform-independent, but also a pain to read. I reformat them using the power of Perl and LaTeX.

To read a text on the laptop, do the following: get your text from Project Gutenberg and run it through my script:

gutb2latex <input.txt >output.tex
This will do basic formatting; you should now mark up the chapter headings in output.tex like this:


and insert the command \tableofcontents where you want - guess what - to appear. Run the latex command on the resulting file twice, then dvips with Option -o. The resulting Postscript file, when viewed with gv at 1.414 magnification in orientation landscape, will exactly fill the screen. You may have to fiddle a bit to make gv's window so big that the borders and toolbar are invisible (use e.g. icewm's keyboard commands for that), then the text will fill the whole screen. Enable anti-aliasing (Key a), turn the laptop on its side and enjoy reading.

Remark: The gutb2latex script assumes paragraphs in the input document are delimited by empty lines. If your input document indents the first line of a new paragraph instead (some Gutenberg texts do that), adjust the relevant line in my script for paragraphs to be recognized.

Here's the code of the gutb2latex script I made:

#! /bin/bash
# gubt2latex
# convert a Project Gutenberg document into a LaTeX document
# (with some manual assistance)

if  [ "$1" == "-h" -o "$1" == "--help" ]; then
  cat <<EOF
Usage: gutb2latex >etext.txt<

Convert a Project Gutenberg document into a LaTeX document
(with some manual assistance).

gutb2latex v1.0, Mai 2000
(C) 2000 Sebastian Leske
May be used, modified and distributed freely as long as this notice is preserved.

# get rid of CR/LFs
flip -b -u $1

# LaTeX-preamble
cat <<EOF

# treat characters with a special meaning in LaTeX
# first save backslashes

sed -e 's/\\/!-ssr-!/g' $1 | 
sed -e 's/\^/\\^/g'    | 
sed -e 's/\$/\\$/g'    | 
sed -e 's/&/\\&/g'     | 
sed -e 's/%/\\%/g'     | 
sed -e 's/~/\\~/g'     | 
sed -e 's/_/\\_/g'     | 
sed -e 's/#/\\#/g'     | 
sed -e 's/}/\\}/g'     |
sed -e 's/{/\\{/g'     |
sed -e 's/!-ssr-!/\\\\/g'

# Make emtpy lines for paragraphs (if necessary)
# must be adjusted and uncommented if needed
# Count the number of spaces used for indenting the first line of 
# a new paragraph, and  make sure that number of spaces appears
# after the '^' in the next line (then uncomment it)
# perl -pe 'if ($_=~"^    [a-z,A-Z,\"]" ) {print "\n"}' <rein >raus

echo '\end{document}'

# Ende

Have fun, and I'd love to hear about your experiences with this laptop!

Created on Oct. 14, 2001
Last changed on Jan. 2, 2007
Sebastian Leske

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