Looking for a DVD player? I’ll build it with Linux, it’s very easy!

A friend wants an easy way to entertain his son or show him some DVDs. He is 2-3 years old so expectations are low. According to him the best option is to buy this portable DVD player with NES emulation support.

What? That screen is so bad! This to your kid eyes! I’m on it! I have an unused IBM ThinkPad in the basement, I’ll convert it into a Linux-based children’s video player/console in no time! Piece of cake!

First of all, I clean up after years of use: ew. The used masks are great and take away all the accumulated dirt with a few passes.

Then I update the BIOS to the latest version. The new bootlogo that appears at power up is aesthetically uglier, before there was the “vintage” Intel Pentium logo, now it’s modern.

The logo that appeared before (on the left) was very retro and I liked it better.

Well, anyway to see from the changelog a lot of things have changed so I leave it alone. I should have taken some pictures to document it.

Time to choose the operating system. Ten years ago I put Windows 7 but with a Windows XP skin because without Aero support it was aesthetically horrendous. But it was already a problem at the time: it refused to install because the PAE instructions were missing. To install it was quite complex. I absolutely don’t remember which processor it has. I bought it in 2009 in Japan, used, already 5 years old. I remember “Pentium 1.4 Ghz” of maybe 1.6. So it’s probably a Pentium M “Banias”, because the next ones have a numerical name. It doesn’t have 64-bit support. Ubuntu no longer exists at 32 bits. Oops!

Debian still has a 32 bit distribution! I take a 32 gb USB stick and flash on it the offline debian installation dvd, 4 gb. It won’t start. After 30 minutes or so, what if 32gb is too big? It’s too big. At the time, a 32 GB pendrive was pure science fiction. I flash the CD version of Debian in an old 1GB pen.

But you need the Internet to install properly. This computer does not have Wi-Fi. I have to get an Ethernet cable and connect it directly to the router.

In the meantime I try to see the status of the battery. According to Windows it is 255% charged, a sign that something is wrong (I should have taken a picture…). The battery of the internal clock is already gone and will have to be replaced, who knows the status of main one. I want to measure how long it lasts. I load the Debian setup, unplug it and start the stopwatch. Incredibly, it lasts over 40 minutes… and my phone memory is full! I stop the recording, I’ll try later on to see how long the gameplay lasts.

After finding the Ethernet cable, it’s time to start the installation. I’m really curious to see how the games above will run. At the time I bought this computer based solely on one parameter: price. I had assumed that this was a Pentium 4 Mobile, instead it is a “Pentium M”. The Pentium M, we read on Wikipedia, is not a low-power version of Pentium 4, but an evolution of Pentium 3, almost a Pentium 2. I’m a little demoralized. I thought I had a bomb, but I have a wreck. At this point I don’t even know if he’s got a DVD player instead of a CD! Anyway, it’s extremely quiet. Doubtful. Isn’t the fan probably broken?

The fan’s broken. Now it doesn’t turn on anymore, it says “Fan error” when it turns on. But it only takes a couple of knocks to start it up again. I’ll have to take it all apart and clean it up.

I do the basic installation, without including anything, just command-line tools. Once finished, I login, and type the first command:

sudo apt install xorg mednafen retroarch

I’m being offered an avalanche of packages, the installation will be long.

I type startx and then retroarch

The sadness. Just the user interface of Retroarch runs at 5 FPS, really in slow motion…

I’ll try installing Firefox and VLC to see how YouTube goes:

sudo apt install firefox-esr vlc

After a startx and then firefox the result is that even at 360p it’s too slow.

The audio is not installed, the guides are not clear and contradict each other. I go with a (definitely not correct)

sudo apt install pulseaudio alsa-tools alsa-utils alsaplayer-text alsaplayer-daemon alsaplayer-oss

After a reboot (faster to figure out how to restart the pulseaudio or alsa server) the audio works!

I’ll try a DVD, it looks like I have a DVD reader, thank goodness! Pirated DVDs work, but original ones don’t. You have to load the css libraries to read them.

While I’m trying to find out how to remove copy protection from the DVDs I’ve regularly purchased, I install Dosbox, SCUMMVM, Gcompris (great opensource preschool game).

I can’t install libcss, the library to read the original DVDs. I give up, anyway the child who will use this system will not be given them (for fear that it will ruin them, being too young)

I enable automatic login on the basis of this guide.

sudo nano /etc/systemd/logind.conf

change #NAutoVTs=6 to NAutoVTs=1, then:

sudo systemctl edit [email protected]

(which creates a file in /etc/systemd/system/[email protected]/ called override.conf )

Then you paste this:

[Service]
ExecStart=
ExecStart=-/sbin/agetty --autologin root --noclear %I 38400 linux

enable and restart:

systemctl enable [email protected]
reboot

I install thunar (a kind of “file explorer”) to have the possibility to manage files with a graphical interface

sudo apt install thunar

Retroarch is so slow even with the rgui interface (the raw, DOS-style one) that it is totally unusable. It’s time to download some milestones of emulation.

sudo apt install zsnes pcsxr gngb nestopia

PCSX can’t decently emulate even Ridge Racer, even at the lowest resolution.

Mednafen sees the joypad inside Mednaffe (the configuration utility) and allows you to assign buttons, but then during the game it doesn’t see it. And then it doesn’t support Super Game Boy emulation.

Nestopia emulates Super Mario Bros. in slow motion as well.

GNgb works fine…. after losing half an hour for configuration exclusively via command line, it has glitches that make many games unplayable.

ZSNES works perfectly! Exactly as I remembered when 20 years ago I used it on a PC much less powerful than this one. Even in full screen and with filters!

Regarding video playback.

VLC is choppy with any kind of video, whether it’s a HD h264 or a 20-year-old crappy quality DiVX.

Mplayer (a version abandoned years ago) instead can play any video, even HD and h264, very smoothly.

So, I think this is the cause: the updated versions of emulators and media players use too many resources, I need obsolete versions to use this PC. Stuff like Visual Boy Advance, Bleem, Media Player Classic 6.4.

For Windows these ancient versions are easily found, for Linux it’s too hard. I lost an afternoon for nothing: it’s time to format everything and put Windows XP. I will then find a way to make it childproof

In the meantime, however, my friend is leaning more and more towards the 65 euro DVD player, there you just have to put the disc and press play…. but it’s less versatile! 😉

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