Gábor Samu
Gábor Samu
Creator of this blog.
Feb 16, 2015 2 min read

IBM Workpad z50 & NetBSD - an interesting combination

This week we look at another RISC powered notebook, this time from IBM.
Although IBM did produce a line of PowerPC based Thinkpad systems, this blog is focused on a little known system called the IBM Workpad z50. This Microsoft Handheld PC form factor system was launched in March 1999 and ran Windows CE at the time. As we’ll see below, with some ingenuity it is also able to run NetBSD, which makes it a much more interesting proposition (at least for me). Ironically, although this is a high performance computing (HPC) focused blog, the “HPC” in this case stands for “Handheld PC”.

The Workpad z50 has a form factor smaller than a notebook, but has what I consider to be an excellent keyboard and of course the trademark Thinkpad trackpoint! Looking more closely at the specifications:

  • NEC VR4121 MIPS R4100 CPU @ 131 MHz
  • 16 MB System RAM (expandable)
  • 16 MB System ROM
  • 8.4” LCD Display 640x480 (16-bit)
  • External Monitor connector (SVGA)
  • Serial port
  • Infrared port
  • CF slot
  • PCMCIA slot

What prevents me from taking my pristine Workpad z50 to the local electronics recycling facility is NetBSD. With a little effort it is possible to install recent versions of NetBSD on the Workpad z50 and even run XWindows. There are a number of sources of information on this topic including some videos on YouTube which helped me a great deal:

I won’t run through the install procedure here as that’s been well covered already in the above series of videos. Rather, let’s look at the boot-up sequence and of course in keeping with the high performance computing theme, run a simple benchmark. Links to the videos follow below:

The requisite system bootup

Starting XWindows and running Linpack

Using NetBSD pkgsrc, I have setup NetBSD on a x86 based system and have taken advantage of distcc to cross compile binaries. This helps greatly to get packages quickly compiled for the system. Note that I ran into a log of local compiles failing due to lack of RAM. So cross compiling is almost a must.

Equipped with PCMCIA, I’m able to easily add to the Workpad z50 such capabilities as Ethernet, Wireless networking and even SCSI. Below is my collection of PCMCIA adaptors.

Next steps? I’ll be looking to move to NetBSD 6.x series and compile a more compact kernel (with drivers removed that I don’t require). And unlike the system in my previous blog, this one is silent :)