A ThinkPad Collection
I often get strange looks whenever I mention that I collect ThinkPads. Over twenty five specimens so far, I tell them. A few stare blankly and ask “What’s a ThinkPad?” Some respond by asking my wife how she puts up with my rather unusual hobby. Others think back through their memories and recite recollections of those “black boxes with the red dot in the middle of the keyboard”.
Sure enough, twenty seven ThinkPads. A few examples of mid-90s mobile PC technology at its finest, with various examples showcasing unique designs or the technological (or brand-name) firsts of the day. Other, newer models demonstrating the cosmetic and technical innovations through the turn of the 21st century, and samples of what most consider today to be the last of the “classic” ThinkPads. There are a few kept for sentimental value, such as a first laptop or one that I used for a period of time while growing up. I could go on about each and every one, but I’m not here today to ramble about the individual pieces of a collection so much as I am to tell a slightly different story – a story of the often unspoken companion to each little black box on the shelves: the software.
Immediately upon stealing a glance at any one of my ThinkPads, I feel drawn into a different era simply from the design cues; the thick bezels around the LCD screens, the tiny palm rest under the keyboard, and the unforgettable bento box designs of the 90s.
Finding an old ThinkPad is relatively easy. Hop onto your favorite resale website and search for Vintage ThinkPad and results will be displayed before you. Numerous models with various processors appear, most ancient by today’s standards: a Pentium II or III, the original Pentium, or perhaps even a 486. Pico-sized hard drives with capacity put to shame by a lowly compact disk. System memory so limited you wouldn’t be able to load a photo from a modern DSLR into it.
True enough, modern uses for such vintage hardware are limited. What can 25 year old hardware do well, aside from run 25 year old software? The answer lies within the question. With the right outfitting of period software, these gems of yesteryear excel like they once did.
A perfect match: old software on old hardware
I often see stories of intrepid individuals looking to push the limits of old hardware and new software by forcing the two to interact. Some aficionados prefer to find new ways to make old software work through virtualization. I find this intriguing, but prefer a nearly opposite approach. Make old software run on old hardware. My collection of ThinkPads is one means to this end.
So, with a collection of old ThinkPads, one would think setting each up with period software would be relatively easy. Normally it is, but sometimes what I’m looking for isn’t a platform to run old programs in a practical sense.
I enjoy reminiscing about my younger days mostly by reliving old games. It’s easy enough to make an old game run on a [more] modern system in most cases. The performance benefits are often phenomenal. To me, however, a large part of the experience of playing an old game comes from the system you play it on. If the system is from the same era as the title, the overall experience is more authentic.
For the ultimate true-to-period experience, there’s the factory software preload for each individual system. A set of disks with the software to allow a factory software image to be rebuilt on-demand. All conveniently packaged, the recovery media sets up the all the software the machine came from the factory with. The right flavor of Windows, all drivers, utilities and often a selection of basic software. The feeling I get after booting from the freshly restored image is one I liken to that experienced by the first owner of the ThinkPad in my hands many years ago.
A ThinkPad software collection
Recovery disks were not always included with the systems they were intended for. As such, some can be difficult to find. Fortunately, software for a particular generation will often work on different system of the same generation. This gives good flexibility when trying to set up a preload on a system without the required recovery media set. Yet, I find this flexibility to be both a blessing and a bit of a curse. It allows many to “get away with” a software preload using whatever recovery media they have or can obtain. But, it may also be leading a to a diminished interest in unearthing the less common sets.
As time goes by, I’ve managed to build a fairly sizeable collection of recovery disk sets to complement my ThinkPads. The search started after I attempted to use a recovery disk set I found with a unit on a shelf – then discovered that one of the recovery CDs was damaged. Many I’ve acquired through various sale or trade deals with members of the ThinkPads forum. A few I’ve ordered from Lenovo or IBM. In a pinch I’ve even made a few with the ‘Create Recovery Media” utility on a new factory imaged system.
My goal has primarily been to amass a library with a recovery set for each of the models I own. As I’ve neared this goal, I’ve started to collect software for machines I have yet to acquire. I tend to store my recovery sets as ISO images on my main PC. This makes it easy for me to digitally transfer them, and it’s easier for me to make sure I don’t lose a set due to disk damage.
More Recovery Sets
When I acquire a recovery set for a ThinkPad I don’t possess, sometimes I’ll keep a special eye out for its companion model. This most recently happened just a few months ago, when I unearthed a Windows ME recovery disk set for an i series model, which to my knowledge was the only example of Windows ME on a ThinkPad. It took over a year to eventually locate the right model for the CDs.
Perhaps my desire to amass a larger library of recovery sets is to hold on to something less tangible for posterity. Maybe it comes from a sense of warm satisfaction when I can provide a set to someone else in need. Either way, my software library is growing. Who knows what gems I’ll find as the search to find recovery sets for all my models goes on.