My attempts at electronic banking on older computers

(As the title suggests, said attempts were unsuccessful, but writing them up may spare someone else two days of fruitless fiddling with software.)

The Acer Aspire laptop having gone to the computer repair shop for cleaning, and life, with its financial responsibilities, continuing in its absence, I found myself needing to transfer some money using electronic banking. No problem: I had a number of partially functional older laptops lying around, the most functional being my little netbook, the Asus eee PC. The last time I'd paid attention to it was round 2008, when the eeeuser community was still actively hacking and torquing this model; after that, it had mostly lain neglected in its dustproof cover. Now, five years later, it had the job of temporarily standing in for a laptop that was larger, newer and faster. And as placing simple orders online had gone well with its ancient Firefox 2, I didn't anticipate problems paying for them.

A hint that trouble lay ahead came in the form of an order placed with, which couldn't be finalized because drop-down boxes needed to choose destination and payment form, refused to drop down. My old iMac, with a slightly cleverer version of Firefox 2, that did do drop-down boxes, still couldn't finish all the steps needed, so I decided that Firefox 2 was dead, and the eee PC needed a more modern browser. Like Opera. So I downloaded what seemed to be the right .deb file, which was tricky considering the eee's crippled OS, and it refused to install, and although some surfing turned up both the explanation and a solution, I decided it was easier to wait until the regular laptop returned from the shop.

The bill that needed to be paid couldn't wait that long, though. And it seemed so simple: logging into my account was easy (if slow, because Firefox was simply slow) and entering the data on the bank transfer page worked, even if I was bounced back to the login screen after every new transfer. And at the end of my hard work, I saw, on the entered transaction page, my planned transactions, ready and waiting to be approved. The way to do this was to click on the "next" button and enter a code.

Only, there was no "next" button. No, really, there wasn't. I looked.

So I logged out and revisited what I'd learned about installing Opera on the Asus eee PC 701. Chiefly, it wouldn't install. This was because the installation file for Opera 12, which is what I thought would suffice, failed because, some surfing told me, the old Xandros on this netbook didn't have a sufficiently modern "lzm" to decompress it. Even if I'd update lzm or somehow decompress it myself, I would run into other broken dependencies. Trying to install Chrome (which I hated, but promised myself I'd scrub after this vital payment) ended the same. Finally, I booted the iMac and installed the latest possible Opera that would work in it: version 9.64. And still, no luck with ING's site.

More surfing taught me that these efforts had been for nothing - although it was good to know that the Mac now had at least one browser that wasn't totally decrepit - because the banking site would have accepted nothing less than Opera 18, although the current version is 12.16. This discrepancy deserves an explanation: just as, in the Netscape days, users were reluctant to make the jump from Netscape 4.x to Netscape 6 because the latter had been rewritten from the ground up to render strictly according to the official HTML standards and, as such, couldn't do any of the special tricks that Netscape-friendly websites were coded for, so, in the Chrome era, Opera has exchanged its own engine for Chrome's "blink" engine, which may be faster, but supports hardly any of the nifty functionality Opera is known and loved for. Version 12.x is the last one with the old engine, which is why the banking site's advice to "just upgrade to the latest version" displays great ignorance, as does its biased decision to make features (like the critical "next" button) unavailable to what is still a solid browser with a good record for both speed and security. Apparently, if it isn't Internet Explorer, it isn't welcome, and has to proffer the absolute latest features and version numbers, or it gets booted.

As an aside, the way business and banking sites use ever more complicated HTML that needs newer browsers that need newer OSes that need newer hardware to run, reminds me of certain software companies (coughMicrosoftcough) that bloat up their software with each new version so consumers will keep buying new hardware, chucking out perfectly good computers in the process. That this isn't really necessary is proved by Windows 7 and 8's continuing tendency to trim off the bloat in order to run smoothly on the tablets so popular these days. So, if consumers hadn't let themselves be tricked into buying more and more powerful desktop PCs, Windows would have become a slimmer OS decades ago, and environmental pollution stemming from the dumping of "obsolete" hardware would have been reduced.

Okay, enough bitterness, time is ticking. Given that the eee PC's OS and therefore browser can't be updated, the only way to use its hardware would be to circumvent the software with a modern OS and browser on a different medium, like a Linux live CD in the spirit of Knoppix. Knoppix is long dead, succeeded by many distributions that do the same with various specializations, like concentrating on internet applications or catering to older hardware. Given how slow the eee PC is precisely when it comes to websurfing, I'd long considered trying a minimal distro that runs completely from RAM, notably Puppeee, a Puppy Linux version built specifically for this hardware, but as it, like the original Xandros, was now outdated and unupdatable, and since Puppy Linux itself wants to be burned to CD first no matter what and a USB CDROM for the eee PC wasn't readily available (like so many other possessions, it was in a box somewhere), I instead chose two likely distros from, namely WebConverger and MiniNo GalpOn (in English, Spanish and Galician!), particularly the first as its ISO was designed to be "burned" directly to USB drive, presenting instant bootable Linux on a stick for the sole purpose of safe surfing from any location with the latest browsing technology - with a 7-day free trial, which was more than enough for an urgent bit of electronic banking. Maybe now that elusive "next" button would finally appear on my screen.

As the files to download were a bit big, I fired up my old, slightly battered, but trusty Packard Bell Easynote for the purpose of preparing the USB drive. According to the instructions for Windows on WebConverger's site, I should download "webc-22.0.iso" and write it to USB using Disk Imager ( I extracted the latter under Windows ME, clicked on "Win32DiskImager.exe" and was told:

Het bestand QTCORE4.DLL is gekoppeld aan ontbrekende uitvoer

Okay, that wasn't in English, but if there's a problem with KERNEL32.DLL then the Windows version isn't modern enough, so Disk Imager was deleted. The PB also had a partition with Knoppix 5 which I hadn't used in ages, and for which I'd completely forgotten the root password. Back to the site's instructions for Linux:

dmesg or fdisk -l will list your inserted USB drive - usually /dev/sdx ("x"
representing letter like sdb, sdc etc.).

sudo dd if=webc-VERSION.iso of=/dev/sdx

You might find specifying the additional argument bs=1M makes it faster.

First, the chosen USB disk wouldn't mount under Knoppix with its current fstab settings (did I mention Knoppix is dead?) so I entered at the prompt:

mount -t auto /dev/sdb1 /media/disk

(It's "sdb1" because the PB's own harddrive is "sda1".)

Root password needed! Which was something really clever like "buttons" (because "knoppix" sounds vaguely like the German word for button), only, I couldn't remember the exact password, and all of my approximations were rejected. And I couldn't make an LAN internet connection under Knoppix (in the distant time when I'd still used it, internet access was through modem) which is why I tried via Windows ME in the first place... But Windows ME has no dd utility. Okay, there is a set of Linux tools ported to Windows, I'd heard of it some twenty years ago, but what and where and how... Aah, screw it, I have a fairly recent live CD: Linux Mint 9, "Elyssa". Yes, I realize that Linux Mint is now at version 12, hence fairly recent. It recognized the stick and accepted a LAN connection. It was, however, sllloooowww, and automounted the USB stick and FAT/Windows partitions, but not the Knoppix partition on which I'd been typing up my progress so far. So one more reboot into Knoppix was needed to update the text, and another boot into Windows where I used Explore2fs (a read-only ext2 file browser for Windows, select file, export as text) to transfer it to a FAT partition and from there, to a second USB stick. And under Elyssa,

sudo dd if=webc-22.0.iso of=/dev/sda1
worked. It simply worked. Tears welled up in my eyes.

I HAVE A BOOTABLE WEBCONVERGER USB STICK. HURRAH. (And after all this switching between partitions, I decided not to bother with MiniNo GalpOn just now, as that bill needed paying, fast.)

That the Packard Bell's BIOS had no setting for booting off USB was something I knew; it would have booted fine off a live CD, but given the time it took Elyssa to accomplish anything, and the extra time involved in finding a live distro with the latest browsers, that would also be compatible with the PB's older hardware, I preferred to go the USB way. The eee PC's bios booted from, in this order, an external CDROM (which was somewhere under a pile of junk, and there was no time to unearth it), a removable device (like a USB stick, or the permanently inserted SDHC card), and its own slow-as-molasses SSD. So inserting the painstakingly prepared USB disk and booting the netbook should do the trick. Except, it didn't. It constantly booted into its lesser version of Xandros, ignoring the stick entirely. And I remembered why: booting from USB or SDHC would require hacking of the boot menu. And I had started to hack that boot menu, five years ago, and stopped as soon as it started doing most of what I wanted it to. So, I'd never got round to adding the option to boot from external media.


But I wasn't defeated yet - I still had other pieces of junk lying around! My hope was pinned on the Junkario, which, if I held it very still to prevent blackouts from a jack malfunction, might download and burn and run from a CD swiftly enough to finish this business, on which I had now been working for all of one day and halfway into the next. That was a no-go since it appeared I'd misplaced its power cord. But what was... could that be... the equally junky Toshiba Portegee with its hiccuping keyboard and treacherous power cord, lying in a tangle by its side? Since it ran a special Windows XP for tablets, and lacked a CDROM drive, surely it would boot off whatever I stuck in its ports. I grabbed the USB keyboard used as a workaround for its own malfunctioning keyboard, plugged in the stick and turned on the - wait, where is the On button on this thing?

Seriously, where is the On button?

Rediscovering the On button on the Toshiba laptop is a feast every time, as is remembering how to make this laptop boot properly rather than cycling madly through all the icons of boot media options. First, the USB keyboard has to be plugged in before turning the laptop on. Second, a key has to be pressed (on the USB keyboard, or the icon caroussel starts) just before booting the main OS, and I've already forgotten what key it was since the USB stick didn't boot - because, as I found out later, despite being supposedly created bootable, it's not.

The end to this story is humiliating, both in view of the efforts I'd gone to and my dislike of Microsoft. Once the Toshiba booted properly, with a well-seated power cord jack and the USB keyboard plugged in well ahead of time, it started its native Windows XP without further ado, complained only of an incorrect system time (easily corrected in the Configuration screen's Date and Time settings) and began to download four years' worth of updates. One of these updates upgraded Internet Explorer 7 to 8. I hate IE, but had to wonder: would it work...? It did. Due to the banking site's bias, a not-so-modern IE succeeded where Opera failed: the "next" button appeared, I clicked it, and two days of agonized researching ended in a sigh of relief. WebConverger was ditched. I would still have to whack the eee PC into shape some day, but the urgency had gone.

And now I know why people chuck out perfectly good computers, just because the software on them is outdated. For standalone use, the exact version of a piece of software doesn't matter, but for internet business, it's critical.

Postscript: I later found out that the eee PC won't normally boot off USB sticks because, due to a BIOS setting called Quick Boot, it skips some tests, like "is there a USB stick in any of the ports?". If I enter the BIOS on boot by pressing F2, I can disable both Quick Boot and Quiet Boot under the Boot tab's setting "Boot Settings Configuration"; the latter hides boot messages under a startup logo. The setting to boot first from external USB device, then external CDROM, finally from harddisk, is under "Boot Device Priority", while under "Hard Disk Drives" just below it, I can specify which of the two "harddisks", the netbook's own SSD or the permanently inserted SDHC memory card, is the boot medium. The boot device priority and hard disk drive order had already been set, but once the BIOS also tested for inserted USB sticks on boot, it included the inserted Webconverger USB stick as a possible "harddisk" to boot from. So, the eee PC now had two opportunities - "external USB device" and third "harddisk" - to boot into WebConverger. And it failed both options. Testing the stick on the Acer laptop later showed that it had been unbootable from the start.

Postscript 2: I haven't been keeping up with distros. Mere months after this how-i was written, Mint announces its latest version, 17. And Knoppix is not dead: its latest version, 7.4.0, has been bundled with the German computer magazine CHIP this August. To quote:

Die CHIP-Edition von Knoppix 7.4.0 ist ab 27.8.2014 im "CHIP Linux Special 2014/05" als Heftbeilage verfügbar. Mehr zum neuen Release auf den Webseiten von CHIP Kiosk und in den Knoppix 7.4.0 Release Notes.

My humblest apologies.