More Fun with Technology and Goodwill: Welcome GLaDOS

Some of you are aware that I like to troll the electronics aisle at my local Goodwill. Between that and the tie section, I manage to keep myself amused for not very much money.

So, after finding no decent ties on Thursday, I went back for a last scan of the electronics section, and sitting there was this HP IQ770 “all in one”:

Well, sort of. It didn’t have a keyboard, and it was dirty and covered with $30 stickers. This machine is now 8 years old, was one of the first Windows Vista-based desktops* and comes complete with touch screen.

*As numerous articles have pointed out, it’s not really a desktop. Aside from the fact that it weighs a ton (about 40 pounds, actually—more than my sheet-metal Kaypro!) it is built largely of laptop-category components and has no room for expansion cards.

The thing that grabbed me was that it looked so much like a 1970s interpretation of what a 21st-Century home would have. All the nice rounded edges and so many controls and ports! Beyond the usual, it has:

Six external USB 2.0 ports, one of which is paired with a power port for the accessory printer that could be integrated with this unit, Ethernet, TV and FM antenna ports and an on-board TV tuner (I haven’t yet found drivers for this) S-video, 1394, lots of audio in and out connectors, including 1/8” (3.5mm) headphone jacks and RCA connectors, Mini-VGA, slot-loading DVD writer with push-button controls (no driver for the controls yet), external volume and channel controls (likewise) very nice built-in speakers, a port for a “pocket” hard drive, a more than decent screen (especially for the era) that can be adjusted up and down and canted at any angle, and did I mention the touchscreen?

Here’s a note. Alan Turing conceived of the computer as a general-purpose device. That is, something that was not dedicated to solving a particular mathematical problem. Though it’s possible, it’s unlikely that he foresaw modern general-purpose PCs. But I am convinced that if he saw all of the highly-specific hardware hanging off this thing, he would spinning in his grave. The extras on this not only go well beyond gilding the lily, they get into gilding the silly. It reminds me of a $400 Toshiba monitor I once owned.  But I digress.

So I plugged it in and turned it on, and of course, it didn’t boot. It kept complaining about a disk error. So far, so bad. I looked around for a keyboard so I could take a look at the ROM BIOS, but for the first time in recent memory, the only keyboards I could find were PS/2, and the stack of USB keyboards from last week was missing in its entirety.

I decided it was worth the risk and hauled it out to my car, $30 poorer, but calm in the assurance that that was $30 Goodwill would otherwise never have seen.

When I got it home, I borrowed my youngest child’s keyboard and found that I could, indeed, access the BIOS (and better, that the BIOS wasn’t passworded). It didn’t seem to have a hard drive installed, but I had to be sure, so after a couple of days, I looked up how to open it (hint: the hard drive lives on the back of the monitor support, not in the “pizza box” section on the bottom) and started poking around.  Nope, no drive.  This is a smart thing to do when you donate something to Goodwill, but many people forget.

I discovered that it needed a 3.5” SATA drive, and that it wasn’t set up to boot from USB. Also, with the help of my youngest, that there was no working facility to eject the CD we’d poked into the slot-loading drive in hopes of seeing whether it worked or not.

Eventually, with the aid of a dinner knife and some tape, I got the audio CD out of the drive.   Some poking about in my desk uncovered a Win7 installation disk, and once I had modified the BIOS, I found that I was able to boot from that disk. Still left me without a hard drive, though.

Inspiration struck! I had been using an old WD “book”-type external drive to test the USB connection. There was lots of free space on that 320GB drive. Hmmm. A little poking around showed that inside the housing was a 7200 RPM SATA 3.5” drive. A little work, and the drive was naked, and then plugged into the SATA and power connectors in the computer. I didn’t have the right brackets, but some careful insulation cut out of foam and a little duct tape held the drive in place perfectly.

The Win7 CD recognized the newly-installed Barracuda 7200 SATA drive, and went ahead and installed on it, and—lo and behold—let me boot from it!

Windows installed all the requisite generic drivers, I adjusted the screen resolution (turns out 1024×768 works OK), and it was working. Of course, there was no network cable downstairs (we run wireless) and this thing did not support WiFi. But with a spare Ethernet-over-AC adaptor, soon it was talking to the ‘net.

My kid spent most of last evening tweaking it. It’s a nice home entertainment center between its touchscreen, bright, wide display and good audio system. It now has icons for Amazon video, Netflix, Hulu, and a couple of other things in place. I’m going to buy a wireless keyboard to use as a remote, and Bob’s yer uncle.

I hope to find drivers/software to support some of the more esoteric components of this beastie, but if not, not. It works.

It sits on a rolling cart in the three-season porch that serves as family/exercise room, and can be rolled into the living room if we want it there.

And its name?

GLaDOS. And the cake?  Is a lie.

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