Notes on connecting older computers to the Internet.

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Notes on connecting older computers to the Internet

I refurbish and sell a fair number of older laptops to students and those requiring a second machine.

Typically these are mainly, Dell and Toshiba, ranging in speeds from 133mhz to 500mhz.

A common question is "how do I connect this machine to the internet? Closely followed by "can I connect by wireless?"

This note is intended to address those questions and outline how these machines may be connected to the Internet and describe the methods, which I have found from experience to be the easiest and most stable. If however you have any relevant suggestions or comments I would be pleased to receive them.

There are two basic types of connection, dial-up, otherwise known as narrowband and broadband.  Some people connect to broadband through a cable television system, for the purpose of this note I am afraid I am going to ignore them, and only concern myself with broadband connected through the telephone system.  After all every one that has ever bought a computer from me has bought it through the Internet, they obviously therefore have a connection. The purpose of these notes therefore is simply to discuss the easiest way to connect these machines to an existing system.

There are basically three ways to connect these machines, 1, through a modem. 2, through a wired router, which is connected in, turn to a modem. 3, through a wireless router connected to a modem.

To make life simple most broadband providers these days supply a combined unit, which enables wired or wireless connections through an integral modem.

How you connect therefore mainly depends on what ports are available on your machine.

Firstly connecting to dial-up, whilst the usual method only two or three years ago, largely superseded these days by broadband. Rather slow for modern needs, many web pages are very slow to load, still useful for accessing email as can be connected to any phone line in the land with no problems. Therefore useful to access the Internet when on holiday in the Scottish Highlands or some such. A dial-up modem is built into many machines, otherwise a pc card, or cardbus modem may be inserted in the pcmcia slot on the side of the laptop. Alternatively older standard modems connect to the serial or comm. port, or some dial-up modems connect to the usb port. In many instances the required drivers will already be included in the operating system, otherwise drivers will be supplied with the modems.

Two points here.  If you are still using Windows 95, you are probably stuck with dial-up, I have never had any success in attempting to connect any such machine to broadband, so whilst it is probably not impossible I do not recommend trying, after all we are looking for the simple life.

Secondly, a note about pcmcia sockets.  Up until 1995 all sockets were 16bit. In 1995 a revised 32-bit standard was issued called Cardbus.  Cardbus cards can be recognised by the copper grounding strip with eight bumps on the top side directly behind the plug interface. Most machines, but not all, built from about 1997 onwards will have cardbus sockets.  The cardbus standard uses a lower operating voltage than the older cards so whilst the old 16 bit cards will work in the newer cardbus socket, try it the other way round and you will probably fry the cardbus card, in theory they are keyed so that this cannot happen, in practice it is very easy to insert the wrong card. How can you tell what type of sockets you have?  Access device manager, expand the line which reads PCMCIA socket, or PCMCIA adaptor, if the string contains the term Cardbus Controller then you can use cardbus, otherwise it is 16 bit. As an example on a Toshiba machine you will probably see a line "Toshiba ToPIC97 Cardbus controller, or Toshiba ToPIC100 Cardbus controller.

Fortunately PC card modems appear to work forever so you should have no problem in picking up a pre owned 16-bit modem for around a fiver.  Make sure however that it comes with the cable as the line connectors on 16bit cards are far from standardised and you will have very little chance of finding a cable to match.
A lot, but not all, cardbus cards have a standard RJ11 telephone socket.  The cardbus is a current standard so you will have no problem obtaining a new card, certainly for under a tenner, and you will usually also find the appropriate drivers disc included.

So on to broadband. The simplest way to connect is using an usb modem and until about eighteen months ago when signing up with an ISP this is what they provided. Most usb modems require Win98se or later. Installation is easy, but the instructions supplied need to be followed, generally the most important is do not plug in the modem until the software tells you to do so. Sometimes the o/s disc is required for additional files, so have it handy before you start. This arrangement works with any machine with usb.  My old 133mhz Toshiba is quite happy with this arrangement. The only downside to a usb modem is that only one machine can be connected at any one time

Next, wired through a router.  Most ISPs now supply a router/modem when you sign up, as most households now have more than one machine to connect. If you need to purchase a router they are not hugely expensive, most now offer both wired and wireless connections.  If you have a cardbus slot you simply obtain a Lan cardbus adaptor, which is readily available, new, for about £7.00, together with a network cable, rj45 plugs both ends, around £2, and plug it in, again the card will come with a driver disc that may or not be required, as I said earlier the drivers for some of these are included in the o/s, and once again the installation might ask for the o/s disc.  But what if your pcmcia slot is pre cardbus? Unfortunately 16 bit Pc LAN cards have not been manufactured for many years, so it is a matter of finding a second hand card complete with cable adapter.  These have, for some reason, not survived nearly as well as the old dial up modems, so in this instance you will have a bit of a search to find one, but they do appear from time to time, at the time of writing more than half a dozen are listed on eBay, again around the £7 mark.

It is worth mentioning that there now appear to be Lan adaptors to connect to the usb port.  I have never owned one of these so have no idea how easy it is to set up, perhaps someone out there that has used one could let me know.

My favourite method of connecting is wired through a router, a painless solid reliable connection, and since the modem/router generally has a built in firewall, resources can be saved on the computer.  Not to mention that there are very few software firewalls that work with Windows 98.  I generally use Sygate, but it has not been supported by the developers for years and is prone to crashing and locking up the machine. A relief therefore to entrust the firewall protection to the router.

And now to wireless. Cardbus cards are available for around a tenner, sometimes the cheaper cards are a bit short on software, they come with drivers but no utility, not a problem with XP a it has a built in wireless interface, but definitely a problem with 98 and 2000. I have however found that very often the utilities supplied with the more expensive branded cards work with the cheap cards. Do not however go down this route unless you are happy experimenting with such software.  It is worth mentioning that whilst I have never failed to get one of these cards to work, the slowest machine in this instance being a 233mhz, I have tired of the fact that it is often necessary to restart the machine three or four times during the installation.  On reflection whilst I have used these on slower machines I would not recommend them on ones below 500mhz. Wireless connectivity was not around in the days of 16bit PC cards, so these simply do not exist.

Now the USB wireless dongle, again available for under a tenner.  I have had no problems installing these, and I have a 133mhz Toshiba that is quite happy connected to the Internet through one of these.  Generally the software supplied appears to be easier to use than that supplied with the cheaper cardbus connectors. You run the software, plug in the dongle and restart the computer when instructed and that appears to be it. Insert your ssid and security codes in the fields provided, find and click the button, which says join network and you're away. Once again the same comments about firewalls apply to wireless connections through a router.

All the equipment I have listed in this note comes in versions that will work with Windows 98 se and newer. But please check before you buy that the seller lists it as being suitable for your o/s. In particular, some wireless cards and dongles are not suitable for windows 98se, and whilst I have no doubt that drivers could be found that would work, who needs the hassle? It has to said, even that some ISPs issued modems that would not work with 98se, using the software that they supplied and this a year or so ago when 98se was still a supported o/s.

The prices quoted are those currently found on eBay. I have bought both wireless dongles and cardbus cards from Xcessories, a Jersey based company that lists on eBay. I recently ordered a dongle from them on a Thursday evening and it was with me by Saturday morning.

This is not an exhaustive list of ways to connect but merely a note on what I have found to be easiest.



John Temple-Shurety
John's Computer Supplies
November 2008

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