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Compaq Hardware

20-Yr-Old Compaq Laptop Is Still Crucial to Maintaining McLaren's Multi-Million Dollar Cars (jalopnik.com) 165

An anonymous reader writes: It may come as a surprise to many, but the 20-year-old Compaq LTE 5280 still plays a vital role in maintaining multi-million dollar McLaren F1s. Jalopnik recently visited McLaren's Special Operations workshop where it found several of Compaq's old laptops serving their masters. Why do they rely on these dated computers, you ask? A McLaren Special Operations staff explains, "The reason we need those specific Compaq laptops is that they run a bespoke CA card which is installed into them. The CA card is an interface between the laptop software (which is DOS based) and the car. We are currently working on a new interface which will be compatible with modern laptops as the old Compaqs are getting less and less reliable and harder to find." For those wondering, the Compaq LTE 5280 comes with a 120MHz Intel Pentium processor, up to "80MB" of RAM, and up to 1.2GB of HDD.
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20-Yr-Old Compaq Laptop Is Still Crucial to Maintaining McLaren's Multi-Million Dollar Cars

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 02, 2016 @05:15PM (#52030911)

    Yes, an old fashioned dongle that makes them require a 20-year-old laptop.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Try those specs again..
    Up to a 1.35GB hard drive. Per Compaq's own site.

    • Re:Uhhh nope.... (Score:5, Informative)

      by Michalson ( 638911 ) on Monday May 02, 2016 @06:59PM (#52031661)

      As an owner of a 5280 (including the insane for the time 80mb ram configuration) I know exactly how a lazy reading could lead to a 16MB "harddrive". Like most laptops of the time the 5280 didn't have a SO-DIMM like standardized slots and so the ram was soldered right on the motherboard. The biggest configuration was the 16MB model, hence "up to" 16MB. But there was a way to get more ram after purchase - a proprietary 5280 daughterboard screwed in behind the rear port cover could add additional ram (largest daughterboard had 64MB) for a total of 80MB when combined with the top range model.

      Also the 1.3GB HD configuration was only at release. Larger harddrives where available later on (I've got a 2.1GB) since the HD was the only thing not proprietary to the 5280 and so it could be easily updated without engineering new parts (HD is right between the two multibays and can be exposed without tools).

  • When did they go, "Oh hey maybe we should replace this" - a month ago? And really, what could be in that card but some TTL?
    • by Megol ( 3135005 )

      TTL? While that is very unlikely (low power CMOS is more likely given the platform) the logic family doesn't enter into it - it's the functionality that matter.

      And according to the article they started to prepare for replacement as "[the old machines] are getting less and less reliable and harder to find"...

    • by Anonymous Coward

      When did they go, "Oh hey maybe we should replace this" - a month ago?

      And really, what could be in that card but some TTL?

      This happens in business all the time. As long as it works and does what they need, there is never any thought about replacing it. The vast majority of businesses consider replacing something that still works as a waste of money.

      And, as someone else mentioned, it's not like a new computer will make the car run any better/faster. So, it isn't until something breaks and they can't get a replacement that they suddenly say "Oh shit! What do we do now?"

    • In a laptop from the Pentium 1 period, a heck of a lot other than just TTL could be in it. It could have a FPGA. Or many other types of electronics. It's pretty unlikely there would be any plain 74xx TTL.

  • Faster Laptop (Score:5, Insightful)

    by OrangeTide ( 124937 ) on Monday May 02, 2016 @05:19PM (#52030947) Homepage Journal

    It's not like a faster laptop would make the car run faster. In the end it only becomes an issue when there is a need to replace diagnostics equipment and there aren't enough spares.

    I suspect a bit of hardware and software effort could port the interface and stack to an Arduino and then you could access it from a phone or tablet for another 20 years. But the pragmatic part of me wouldn't want to why something unless it's broken.

    • by tlhIngan ( 30335 )

      It's not like a faster laptop would make the car run faster. In the end it only becomes an issue when there is a need to replace diagnostics equipment and there aren't enough spares.

      I suspect a bit of hardware and software effort could port the interface and stack to an Arduino and then you could access it from a phone or tablet for another 20 years. But the pragmatic part of me wouldn't want to why something unless it's broken.

      Well, that is the problem - the Compaq is the only laptop with a special slot th

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Usually the main problem with stuff from that era isn't the electrical interface (if it's on x86, good chance it's ISA or ISA-timings-but-with-CMOS-levels) - it's that the software is proprietary and/or the source has been lost a decade ago, expects the adapter(s) at fixed I/O / memory ranges and on top has a bunch of timing loops that overflow on anything > a few 100 MIPS...

        • Maybe the software is tied to the processor speed. Some old DOS games I played back in the day worked that way. When you upgraded your computer to a faster processor, the characters in the game moved so fast you couldn't even keep up. If they moved it to a faster machine, the car would idle at 3000 rpm!
  • by MobileTatsu-NJG ( 946591 ) on Monday May 02, 2016 @05:24PM (#52030977)

    For those wondering, the Compaq LTE 5280 comes with a 120MHz Intel Pentium processor, up to "80MB" of RAM, and up to 16MB of HDD.

    Remember back in the Pentium days when RAM was cheaper than hard-disc space?

    • Remember back in the Pentium days when RAM was cheaper than hard-disc space?

      No, I don't. I've never had more RAM than hard disk space, and I've definitely never seen it any cheaper. I would have loved that back in the day, we talked about setting up ram drives all the time to speed up disk access, which was really slow. This is just a case of a very large company paying a premium for ram because they needed it, and they didn't need the extra hard drive space.

      In fact, it's pretty weird to have a Pentium 120 MHz with a 16MB HDD. When I upgraded from my 486, I got a Pentium 133 MHz (w

      • I686 was the first to enable MMX, so the funny thing is that you probably weren't taking advantage of it until about 2010 if you were running Ubuntu. Just in time to switch over to amd64

        • MMX debuted with the Pentium MMX. The slowest desktop processor came clocked in at 166Mhz, though they made mobile chips down to 120Mhz (I think) with MMX. For the 6th generation, MMX came in with the Pentium 2. The Pentium Pro didn't have it.

          The biggest benefit of the MMX processors was the doubling of the L1 cache from 8k to 16k. The MMX instructions didn't help much, because the software had to be compiled for them, and most people wouldn't compile for them until they could be reasonably sure that ev

        • I686 was the first to enable MMX, so the funny thing is that you probably weren't taking advantage of it until about 2010 if you were running Ubuntu. Just in time to switch over to amd64

          Hah. Yeah, I wasn't running Linux at all in those days, but I still doubt I benefited from it in any way. I remember my computer included an intel disk with sample software to demonstrate how great the processor was, that I'm sure was compiled with their own compiler with MMX support. It also came with a racing game that had MMX printed on the cover (really, go Intel marketing), so I'm sure they compiled it with support for those instructions. I can't be certain I remember the name of the game but I thin

    • by sootman ( 158191 )

      > Remember back in the Pentium days when
      > RAM was cheaper than hard-disc space?

      No I don't... because that has never happened. Disk has ALWAYS been cheaper than RAM, usually by an order of magnitude or so.

      I had this exact laptop. (And a couple other Compaqs of similar vintage.) The 80 MB RAM (no idea why it's in quotes in the original) was 16 MB built-in and two 32s, I think. The disk would have been in the 1.2 GB neighborhood. MAYBE a low-spec model might have had a 540 or 250 or so.

      Caldera Linux 2.2

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      I think they must have missed a zero off the HDD size. 160MB sounds not unreasonable for a laptop of that era.

      • Hmm ... I dunno... when I had a 486 I bought a 300+ meg drive. When i got my first Pentium (120) I had a 1.2 gig drive.

        I'm not trying to be pedantic, I just remember Windows 95 coming on a CD, I can't picture it installing on a 160 meg drive.

  • by theGhostPony ( 1631407 ) on Monday May 02, 2016 @05:28PM (#52031003)
    If it aint broke, don't fix it.
  • DeLorean (Score:5, Funny)

    by Tablizer ( 95088 ) on Monday May 02, 2016 @05:32PM (#52031039) Journal

    Not as bad as DeLorean: it requires Mr. Fusion, which hasn't even been invented yet.

  • by Dusthead Jr. ( 937949 ) on Monday May 02, 2016 @05:35PM (#52031061)
    Those specs seem backwards. Perhaps it had 16MB of ram and an 80MB hard drive?
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      came with 8 or 16 MB of ram, expandable to 72 or 80 MB. Where the summary is wrong is that it came with an 810MB HD (or a 1.35GB HD)

    • Those specs seem backwards. Perhaps it had 16MB of ram and an 80MB hard drive?

      Extremely unlikely... My 486/33 laptop came with an 80GB HDD and maxed-out at 40MB of RAM if you had the money.

      More likely somebody dropped a zero on the storage, and the included HDD was 160MB.

      A quick search finds that refurb units came with 1.2GB HDDs:

      http://www.overstock.com/Elect... [overstock.com]

      First hit on eBay says the original HDD was 1.35GB. Others say different, so storage was likely upgraded over the years that model was sold.

  • Old chemicals (Score:5, Interesting)

    by EmperorOfCanada ( 1332175 ) on Monday May 02, 2016 @05:47PM (#52031145)
    I have worked with organizations that used similarly old stuff and would buy stacks of replacements. The problem was that nearly all the replacements were failing in the same way before any use. Some glue that was fine for 10 years would suddenly start to run and dissolve other important bits. Certain bits would just corrode even thought they had been kept in a pretty damn good environment. LCD screens looked like something like bacteria were growing inside as some strange chemical process crept along.

    One other magical thing is that it seems that if you don't use a hard drive for years that it will spin up, work fine for a very short while and then fail very rapidly. Probably some lubricant just dried up or mutated.

    I feel their pain.
    • by Ichijo ( 607641 )

      I have worked with organizations that used similarly old stuff and would buy stacks of replacements. The problem was that nearly all the replacements were failing in the same way before any use.

      "You're weak on logic, that's the trouble with you. You're like the guy in the story [multivax.com] who was caught in a sudden shower and who ran to a grove of trees and got under one. He wasn't worried, you see, because he figured when one tree got wet through, he would just get under another one."

      • Over the decades, I have seen a huge number of products where chemistry put a time limit on a product's lifespan. Plastics that were supple for the first few years become brittle. Other coatings or seals that just dry up. But one that I have certainly seen a number of times is where the rubber feet seem to be dissolved by the glue used to affix them.

        Then corrosion. In many electronics they have left some critical part uncoated so that it corrodes over time. Often to the point of failure. I remember one e
      • Or the proper car analogy, where you go to the junkyard to get a part for your car, only to find that every car in the junkyard like yours either has the same busted part, or the part has already been removed.

        Same reason I hear that guys who have parts cars around prefer ones that were wrecked (though not badly), because if the parts car is a high miles, end-of-its-useful-life vehicle, chances are the parts you would need from it are already worn out.

    • "...Probably some lubricant just dried up or mutated."

      Dammit! You made me spill my coffee! :-D
      • I bought one brand of Burnable CDs that claimed a 100 year storage life. Within about 2 years they looked like Petri dishes in the dye layer.
  • by mythosaz ( 572040 ) on Monday May 02, 2016 @05:48PM (#52031151)

    In a previous life, I did the end-user computing environment for a large healthcare company. At one facility we had a PC running a pneumatic tube system. The tube system controller card was full-length ISA. That machine was getting upgraded....never.

    I'm sure a dozens of us have have similar stories -- old fax cards come to mind.

    • by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Monday May 02, 2016 @09:15PM (#52032565)
      My uncle's print shop has an old transparency film printer from the early 1990s. Its manufacturer went bankrupt shortly after its release, and the only drivers available for it are for Mac OS 6 and Windows 3.1, and when I tried to pull the drivers off the floppies I found that the first floppy was no longer readable. So the only backkup they have is an image of the working HDD.

      It's a small shop - he handles the client contacts, one employee does the graphics prep work, and another employee does the physical silkscreen printing from the film onto the final medium (poster, t-shirt, banner, whatever). He says he can't afford the ~$15k a new film printer would cost. So he has two 1990-era Mac Quadras with the print drivers installed. (One is a replacement they bought off eBay in a panic when the original failed. It turned out the failure was due to bad RAM, so after I moved the RAM from the eBay computer to the original, it worked again. They keep the eBay one as insurance against future hardware failures.) They're connected to his ethernet network, and a modern Mac (where they do the layout and prep work) sends the print job to the Quadra, which sends it to the printer.

      They things are so old one of the support calls I got was to fix a broken power button. It turned out the Quadra's power button is mounted at the end of a piece of plastic, and the plastic acts like a spring. Well, after 20 years, the plastic had turned brittle with age and snapped off, and the power button had fallen inside the case. I had to jerry rig a replacement spring with some new plastic and epoxy to get it working again. Another call was that the printer had suddenly stopped working. I opened it up and... you don't want to know what 20 years of dust buildup looks like. Fortunately there was a filter keeping the dust out of the film's print path. But the fan was completely clogged and the thing was overheating.
      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

        Years ago I had a client with an ancient 286 DOS box running V3.3 IIRC. He had a bespoke QBasic application to manage stock and sales in his tyre shop. Being a tyre shop, the machine was black. Originally it was beige, but over the decades road dust from used tyres had accumulated and made it black, on the outside and the inside.

        He also had a dot matrix printer with a stack of spare ribbons that he refurbished multiple times himself before tossing. That broke, and fortunately we managed to find an identical

    • by jabuzz ( 182671 )

      Just buy a brand new modern motherboard with ISA slot then. Just because they are not for sale at NewEgg does not mean they are not being produced. Yes they are more expensive than a standard motherboard but they exist.

      The other option is a PCI to ISA bridge card which will do the job just as well. I imagined that PCIe to ISA bridge cards will appear in the not too distant future as well.

      If you have a $ million+ piece of equipment that uses an ISA slot for the computer control you don't just replace the equ

    • I'm sure a dozens of us have have similar stories -- old fax cards come to mind.

      We had an old SCSI film scanner that had been moved to an XP computer when XP was new. The corp IT department was really trying to upgrade everything to Win7 and I'd get a call every couple of months for about a year about it asking to upgrade. I'd have to explain that we'd need a Centronics 50 pin SCSI card for the new computer and even then, we're not sure if there are even drivers for Win7 for the scanner. It was working fine, we weren't using film, and all our current film will be scanned in by the end

  • ...and... (Score:5, Funny)

    by JustNiz ( 692889 ) on Monday May 02, 2016 @06:01PM (#52031261)

    >> For those wondering, the Compaq LTE 5280 comes with a 120MHz Intel Pentium processor, up to "80MB" of RAM, and up to 16MB of HDD.

    I bet it still runs faster than a modern PC running Windows 10 and Office 365.

  • by istartedi ( 132515 ) on Monday May 02, 2016 @06:25PM (#52031449) Journal

    Just because it would be funny to see: Windows has detected the following new device: McLaren 675LT. Would you like to install a driver for this device?

  • The laptops will be automatically upgraded to Windows 10 shortly.

  • by dpbsmith ( 263124 ) on Monday May 02, 2016 @07:00PM (#52031665) Homepage

    Because it is beneficial to almost everyone in the industry to believe that "everybody" uses only the newest gear, there is a systematic distortion of the facts of what might be called "product demography." I've seen this everywhere I've worked, including several years at a (long-gone) Fortune 500 computer company.

    It seems that almost everyone relies on 15 and 20-year old equipment. Everyone scratches their head in amazement at what's in the back of the server room and the unbelievable story of why it is still in service--but it is there.

    I've had several conversations with people at the computer company that went about like this.
    "We don't need to support that model, it's too old, nobody is using it."
    "I think a lot of people are still using it."
    "Why do you think that?"
    "For one reason, because we still use it ourselves."
    "WHAAAAT?"
    "Sure. Check with Lewis on the 4th floor of building III. They have three of them."
    "What on earth for?"
    "Because of [reasons X, Y, and Z]. And they can't get rid of them because the new models [have problems Q, R, and S].
    "Oh, well, that's a completely unique situation. Nobody else in the world is using them."
    "Trust me, if we're using them our customers are using them. Unless you believe that everyone else in the world is better managed and more up-to-date than we are."

    • It seems that almost everyone relies on 15 and 20-year old equipment.

      Not anywhere I've worked. I know they exist, but I tend to gravitate to new, start-up type businesses as the work is a lot more fun. No rules, make stuff up as you go, leave when thing get too routine and process driven. And you never ever have to deal with archaic legacy shit that drags you down.

  • Insane thing. The laptop, of course.

    I remember, yes. It must be 20 years already. My first "real" job (an internship).

  • Not that unusual (Score:4, Informative)

    by Webmoth ( 75878 ) on Monday May 02, 2016 @07:50PM (#52032057) Homepage

    There are many industrial processes and machines running ancient hardware. Also common in the medical field.

    A local radio station I service (IT) finally replaced an audio editing computer last year. This computer was running Windows 95. Why? A 'bespoke' audio editing card, which required an EISA bus. So why not some other software solution? Because this software did EXACTLY what they wanted to do, was very easy to use, and very easy to train new users on. We maintained an inventory of spare parts -- including a spare motherboard -- to keep the system running.

    So why did they replace it? The audio editing card (which was a dedicated computer on a daughter card) began to fail, and that's the part they didn't have a spare for. The replacement product they are using is Adobe Audition.

    I know of many other industrial and medical machines that are running old versions of windows on old hardware because they have proprietary software or hardware that is not cost-effective to upgrade (and is working perfectly fine). Some of the software and hardware would be tens of thousands (in some cases hundreds of thousands) of dollars to upgrade -- just to run a more modern OS. If a return on investment cannot be identified, the hardware will not be upgraded.

    • by havana9 ( 101033 )

      There are many industrial processes and machines running ancient hardware. Also common in the medical field.

      A local radio station I service (IT) finally replaced an audio editing computer last year. This computer was running Windows 95. Why? A 'bespoke' audio editing card, which required an EISA bus. So why not some other software solution? Because this software did EXACTLY what they wanted to do, was very easy to use, and very easy to train new users on.

      I think also that the fast pace of hardware innovations and ditching older interface in the IT industry in respect other field of technology and manufacturing makes different vision of what ancient is. Add to this that the older equipment still in use today after 20 or 30 years of use self demonstrates its reliability and fitting for the job in most cases. Unfortunately in the nineties the most cost effective and flexible option at the time was to use an off-the-shelf PC running a DOS-based software instead

  • Pretty misleading (Score:4, Insightful)

    by wicka_wicka ( 679279 ) on Monday May 02, 2016 @08:51PM (#52032445)
    It's a 20-year-old laptop being used to service a 20-year-old car. I don't find this very strange. It's not like any current McLarens still require the same laptop.
    • Finally...someone gets it. These guys have legit super computers and a large budget, but they made a limited number of the F1 road car and it was decades ago, why waste money for an occasional task that you can already do just fine? They have no obligation to service these cars but they do anyway. Seems good enough to me.

  • Mother moto wrote the code for the infrastructure of the times, and many older radios require a 286/386 dos environment to allow suitable speeds of data transfer. USB / high speed processor cache / Pentiums / 16550s need not apply.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    1. Comb electronics surplus stores, swap meets, and hamventions for the best existing Compaq LTE 5280.
    2. Purchase it for next to nothing.
    3. Sell it to McLaren, for a McLaren :).... Profit!

  • I know a company that uses a 30 year old wang to run 40 year old software. They trade parts with a special obsolete equipment unit of the military that seems to be the only other place that still has one.

  • No, it does not come as a surprise that they run their software on a 20 year old laptop. Have anybody noticed their current standing in the Formula 1 Championship? They have made what - 4-5 points in total this season. In other words - they are at the absolute bottom of the field, so it can hardly be a surprise they are not really up-to-date from an engineering perspective.

    • They have made what - 4-5 points in total this season. In other words - they are at the absolute bottom of the field

      They have 10 points. Force India, Renault, Sauber and MRT have less points. They are decidedly middle-of-the-field.

  • Ok, I know it's really silly to draw analogies between using ancient laptops and the team performance. I just want to mention here that since 2013 season McLaren has been been a shadow of its former self.

    McLaren finished the 2012 season arguably with the fastest car on the grid, but for the 2013 season they abandoned the 2012 design and started with something entirely new. The 2013 performance was so bad, that there were voices calling for McLaren to go back to its 2012 design. Then 2014 season was even wor

    • Ok, I know it's really silly to draw analogies between using ancient laptops and the team performance. I just want to mention here that since 2013 season McLaren has been been a shadow of its former self.

      McLaren finished the 2012 season arguably with the fastest car on the grid, but for the 2013 season they abandoned the 2012 design and started with something entirely new. The 2013 performance was so bad, that there were voices calling for McLaren to go back to its 2012 design. Then 2014 season was even worse. McLaren was basically a mid-field team. They switched to Honda engines in 2015, and amazingly finished a season without scoring a point. In 2016, based on their performance, I'd say McLaren is barely a mid-field team.

      They don't use the Compaq laptops for their Formula 1 program, they use them to service McLaren F1s...you know, the supercars from the 90s.

  • I know...I actually clicked on the article and read it instead of just jumping to conclusions like everybody else commenting. The McLaren F1 is from 1996, and they do not make them anymore. It would make sense that these cars, state of the art at the time, require legacy computing hardware to keep running.

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