This is a complete step-by-step "How To" guide to modifying a
Compaq IA-1 a.k.a. MSN Companion device so that it runs GNU/Linux with
a full GUI [screenshot
Since I wrote this I've left the US and am in the midst of a relocation.
My IA-1 is packed up & in transit and I haven't had a chance to play
with it since. If this info in here isn't enough for you my best advice
is Google and the site of another IA-1 hacker, http://www.php.net/~rasmus/
Is it worth it?
I'm assuming at this point you already own the device or are trying to
decide if you want to take the plunge and get one for this kind of hack.
The short answer to this question is, it: only costs only $99; has an AMD
K6-2 266MHz CPU i.e. a PC architecture thus life is made much
simpler; has an external CompactFlash slot so booting a new OS is
remarkably easy. Not only that, pretty much all the software is ready
for download so there is relatively little work for the end-user at this
point. Go for it!
If you want to learn about the Compaq IA-1, see the links section below.
What do I need?
You will need:
- Compaq IA-1 ($99, e.g. Tiger
- 16MB or bigger CompactFlash card (~$6)
- Some means of writing to said card, for example with a PCMCIA
CompactFlash adapter in a laptop or a straight CompactFlash reader/writer (e.g. SanDisk USB reader/writer) (~$25 max)
- USB-to-Ethernet adapter (~$25)
- To be reasonably comfortable with Linux, including building kernels
(priceless :-). Actually I'm joking, this isn't required -- this is
honestly very straightforward!
That's it! You will not lose the IA-1's original MSN functionality up
until you overwrite the IA-1's internal
Flash, which is not
required. In other words, you can enjoy X, networking, etc and
still have the unit function as before, just by removing your
CompactFlash card and re-enabling booting from the internal Flash
(a.k.a. Primary IDE).
What do I do?
The steps involved are:
- Obtaining a disk image of a bootable system: ia-linux-16mb.img (this is on an external site). This is a modified JAILBAIT image. JAILBAIT is the core of this effort, a Linux distro that fits on a 16MB Flash ROM.
- Writing that image to the CompactFlash card:
if=ia-linux-16mb.img of=/dev/sda. Note:
/dev/sda is my USB CompactFlash card reader which appears
as a SCSI drive -- use the appropriate device for your card reader. I
used a 20MB card and it worked fine. (There is a way to do this from
DOS; I'll write that up too if anyone asks.)
- Insert the CompactFlash card into your IA-1. Make sure it's snuggly in.
- Making the IA-1 boot from the CompactFlash card:
- Try step 2. first, but on some units you have to reset the
BIOS memory in order to be able to get access to the BIOS setup
utility. This involves a slightly fiddly disassembly which I have
put on its own page: disassembly and
BIOS reset (contains about 600K of images).
- Hold the Compaq key down during the boot phase to bring up the BIOS setup.
- Using the left & right arrows at the far
bottom-right of the keyboard (not the two intended for
browser-back/forward under the comma and period), select the
Storage menu, and set Primary IDE Controller to Disable [screenshot, showing it prior to
- Accept this change with F10. No F10 key? Oops! Hint: it's
the Compaq key.
- If you're curious, the F1 key (help) is the Instant Messenger
key, the iconic person below the butterfly (whatever that does..).
- Back under Main select Save Changes and Exit.
- After POST (Power-On Self Test) There should be a message that (only) Drive 3 is enabled and it should match the size of your CompactFlash card, perhaps a megabyte less.
- At this point the machine will reset and, with any luck, you'll see
a LILO boot sequence. Catch it when it prompts for
hdb single to boot to single user.
hdb is the LILO label for which kernel to boot, and is
nothing to do with which drive it's coming from). I noticed I had to do
this a couple of times and occasionally got some random errors or hangs.
Removing power and replugging the Flash card seemed to help. Apparently
this may be to do with USB devices being plugged in during boot (I had a
USB-to-Ethernet adapter and a MS Natural keyboard).
- The boot sequence will end with a bash prompt. Remount root
mount -o remount,rw / and then
passwd to set root's password.
continue with the rest of the full boot in runlevel 2.
- Login as root and
- Start apps by right-clicking on the desktop. Marvel at X and grin broadly.
The following steps are optional, and depend on your hardware choice:
- Lament a non-working USB-to-Ethernet adapter. JAILBAIT includes the
kaweth driver whereas many of the USB-to-Ethernet adapters require the
pegasus driver (this is where I'm at, and am looking into it; I can
insmod the pegasus driver but usb.c is complaining it doesn't recognize
- [This is as far as I've got!]
I'll write about:
- Some more on JAILBAIT.
- Device support, including getting my D-Link USB-to-Ethernet
adapter to work.
- Discuss overwriting the internal Flash.
- Investigate installing a full distro like Debian using a bigger
CompactFlash card (which are really cheap these days).
- Maybe get it to work with NFS.
- Try a spare K6-2 chip that I have lying around that is faster
than the shipped 266 MHz.
Please feel free to mail me: ia1(at)paulm.com
Most of the work was done by Jeff Baitis with his JAILBAIT distro, and
Michael Rothwell for getting it to work with the IA-1. I hope to be able
to add to this with a more recent kernel and driver support. Watch this
- This IA-1
review by PC Magazine is a good overview. It was written
Oct 2000 and documents the onerous pricing scheme when it was locked
into MSN's hideous subscription contract. Ah, for today's freedom and
- Tiger Direct are selling the Compaq IA-1 as a recertified (not refurbished; this is quite different, essentially brand new) product for $99. For what it's worth, Tiger Direct's ordering and shipping process went smoothly without hitch for me.
- Price Watch the essential
PC-oriented bargain hunters' guide. CompactFlash cards and readers are under the
Memory -> Flash Cards section on the front page.
discussion about the IA-1. As usual with Slashdot, set your threshold
high (>= 3 at least) for the useful stuff.
- JAILBAIT Linux distro
original written for another Internet appliance, the iOpener. This
device has some important differences like its drive mapping so the
image has been conveniently modified by...
- Michael Rothwell who provides downloadable images for the
IA-1. The initial boot comes from the ia-linux-16mb.img