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Background to Buying a Linux System

My family switched to all-Linux in 2002. Mid-2004 was the last time I purchased a Windows license for personal use; though I have a copy of XP that I still occasionally load in a VM. 2004 was the year I bought an HP laptop that came with Windows, and I put Linux on it during its first boot. Since then I have purchased a Lenovo Thinkpad and four Dells with Linux pre-installed. It is infuriatingly difficult to avoid the Microsoft Tax, but it is possible. A lot of vendors offer FreeDOS systems these days. More important than not paying Microsoft (and more difficult) is finding a machine with Linux pre-installed.

This is not as difficult as it was. Not long ago, the only way to obtain a machine pre-installed with Linux was to purchase from a reseller like Emperor Linux. These resellers don’t have the resources of the manufacturer, and they likely paid the Microsoft Tax for you before they put Linux on the device. However, options are gradually improving. The manufacturers have experimented with Linux systems and HP, Lenovo, and Dell all sold consumer equipment pre-installed with Linux in the recent past. (I hear Sony does too, but I refuse to buy Sony products given their history of proprietary technologies, root kits, etc.) Unfortunately, all these manufacturers stopped selling the systems after a short time. After a couple of failed experiments, Dell seems to have figured things out and turned into a reliable Linux distributor with a decent selection of systems. Here is the secret to buying a Linux system from Dell: many of the best Linux configurations are only available when using the “Small and Medium Business” section of their site; the open source offerings page does not list all of their Linux offerings. The rest of this blog post details the other sad secret: Linux systems from Dell don’t necessarily play nicely with Linux.

Before we proceed, I should point out three reasons why it is worth putting in the effort to get a system with Linux pre-installed:

  • Since the manufacturer is willing to support Linux running on the hardware, it is reasonable to expect that it should be easier to configure with Linux than other equipment.
  • Being officially counted as a Linux user sends a direct message to the market that manufacturers should support Linux.
  • Buying a machine with Linux pre-installed confers moral superiority.

Okay, so the second and third reasons are probably imaginary. I am sorry to report that the first reason is largely a fiction as well. It would be more accurate to say: since the manufacturer is willing to support Linux running on the hardware, I know that someone, somewhere got Linux to at least sort-of run.

Notice that saving money is not on the list. I am not sure what back-room deals make it as expensive to buy a machine installed with Redmond’s proprietary OS as it is to purchase a freely available OS like FreeDOS or Linux, but that is how Dell’s pricing model currently works. In other words, at the current time paying the Windows Tax, and then putting Linux on yourself is just as economical a decision as purchasing Linux pre-installed. This is good for Emperor Linux.

Buying a Dell

Dell has been shipping systems pre-installed with Ubuntu for over two years now. The ten minutes I spent playing with the stock OS were impressive. However, I choose to reinstall with the latest stock Kubuntu release for a few reasons:

  • I am a control freak and want to know exactly what is on the system.
  • I am a KDE fan, and Dell ships Gnome by default.
  • The Dell releases are pretty old (they are still shipping 8.04).
  • I don’t see much value in having an officially licensed DVD and MP3 player, though others might.

I bought an Inspiron 530 with Ubuntu over eighteen months ago. It took stock Kubuntu flawlessly and has run great the entire time. It has been the perfect Linux desktop for my kids’ machine. I highly recommend this product.

I have purchased two Inspiron Mini 10v netbooks with Ubuntu since last September. I really like these machines. They took stock Kubuntu okay—you have to install a binary blob for the wireless card (you can get the details in the Mini 10 section below), but everything else worked out-of-the-box. They are reliable machines, though I hated the touchpad for a long time. After three months I am starting to get used to it. These machines are so great that I can’t seem to keep them—family members keep buying them from me and then I have to order myself another.

I was so happy with my previous experiences that I decided to buy the top-of-the-line Linux netbook: the Inspiron Mini 10. This model must be purchased through the “Small and Medium Business” website. It has a much nicer screen, a multi-touch touchpad, faster processor, and more memory. However, getting stock Kubuntu to work on it was not as easy as I expected. Here are the details.

Kubuntu on a Dell Inspiron Mini 10

[Update: This all applies to Lucid Lynx as well, except for the video section where I added updated instructions.]

Proprietary drivers: bringing the pains of Windows to Linux!

Though I don’t know the exact reason Dell ships their Linux netbooks with a lot of binary-only proprietary drivers, I suspect that it has to do with their desire to pack in as much power per battery mWh as possible. The Mini 10 series does have impressive battery life—I am constantly surprised at how long I can go without plugging in (I plug it in most nights and haven’t run out of juice yet). I guess that Dell feels like the only way to achieve that is to use the Intel Poulsbo Chipset that requires a proprietary graphics driver. I suspect similar logic is behind the awful Broadcom wireless card as well.

Broadcom wireless driver

These Dell netbooks are not very useful until you get wireless networking setup. I had to install using a wired connection for both the Mini 10 and the Mini 10v. It is then necessary to setup the binary Broadcom driver. My understanding is that the new Jocky hardware tool will take care of this once all the correct packages are pulled down, but I am more comfortable with the command line.

aptitude install dkms patch bcmwl-kernel-source b43-fwcutter

That command is all it takes, but I’ll offer a little bit of explanation:

  • dkms: This is the Dynamic Kernel Module Support framework. It is a really nice way of making sure that picky kernel modules are always correctly built against the currently running kernel. Not only does this make binary drivers easier to manage, it also solved my constant problems with updates breaking VirtualBox (on my development box—I would not recommend running VirtualBox on these netbooks).
  • patch: This is required for the script to edit the bcmwl package before compilation. It should really be a dependency. It took me a while to realize the error I was getting was due to patch not being installed.
  • bcmwl-kernel-source: This is the proprietary driver for Broadcom wireless cards.
  • b43-fwcutter: This is a tool to install the binary blob into the Broadcom 43XX firmware. I’m not certain that it is necessary. I installed this before I realized that the DKMS driver was failing to build because of the missing patch dependency. I suspect that I would have eventually had problems if I hadn’t installed this tool.

As part of the install, dpkg correctly compiled the kernel module, inserted the binary blob, and got everything setup. KNetworkManager appeared to see the wireless at that point, but KNetworkManager hates my WPA2 setup, so I always use wicd. Don’t forget to manually tell wicd that eth1 is the wireless interface, or wicd will report that no networks are found even though iwconfig will work and wlist scan will show networks.

Sound

Remember to turn up the volume of the PCM channel.

Multi-touch touchpad

Works great:

  • 1 finger tap: left click
  • 2 finger tap: middle click
  • 3 finger tap: right click
  • place 1 finger, drag one finger: scroll (vertical only)

I don’t currently have horizontal scroll or pinch zoom working.

Video

The biggest let down with the Dell Mini 10 is the Intel Poulsbo chipset. The larger resolution of the 10 is the most appealing feature to justify the upgrade from the 10v. Unfortunately, Intel didn’t open source the driver like they have with their other GPUs because the Poulsbo is based on third party technologies. If you think the Intel name will guarantee good Linux support, you are mistaken. Ars Technica has a good rundown on the problem.

The summary is that the binary driver is only supported by Dell on the versions of Ubuntu that they are shipping. Getting packages for other versions and distributions is challenging and not very reliable. However, I was able to get the driver to work on Kubuntu Karmic Koala (9.10).

Here are the basic steps, distilled from a Launchpad Bug Report:

[Updates are from May, 2010]

  1. Add this PPA to “/etc/apt/sources.list”:
    deb http://ppa.launchpad.net/lucazade/gma500/ubuntu/ karmic main
    deb-src http://ppa.launchpad.net/lucazade/gma500/ubuntu/ karmic main

    [Update: That PPA is gone, but this one appears to work:]
    deb http://ppa.launchpad.net/ubuntu-mobile/ubuntu karmic main
  2. Get this missing package: `wget xorg-video-psb.deb`. Install it with `dpkg -i`.
    [Edit: The package is included in the PPA now. The next command should automatically pull in the package xserver-xorg-video-psb.]
  3. Run this command:
    aptitude update; aptitude install psb-kernel-headers psb-kernel-source psb-modules psb-firmware libdrm-poulsbo1 poulsbo-driver-2d poulsbo-driver-3d xpsb-glx
  4. Create this file: “/etc/X11/xorg.conf” with these contents:
            Section "Device"
                    Identifier "Configured Video Device"
                    Option "IgnoreACPI"
                    Option "AccelMethod" "exa"
                    Option "MigrationHeuristic" "greedy"
                    Option "NoDDC"
                    Driver "psb"
            EndSection
    
            Section "DRI"
                Mode 0666
            EndSection
    
            Section "Monitor"
                    Identifier "Configured Monitor"
            EndSection
    
            Section "Screen"
                    Identifier "Default Screen"
                    Monitor "Configured Monitor"
                    Device "Configured Video Device"
            EndSection
    
            #Added for mouse pad
            Section "InputDevice"
                    Identifier "Mouse0"
                    Driver "synaptics"
                    Option "Protocol" "auto"
                    Option "Device" "/dev/input/mouse0"
                    Option "ZAxisMapping" "4 5 6 7"
                    Option "CorePointer"
                    Option "HorizEdgeScroll" "1"
            EndSection
    
    [Update: rumor has it that adding DefaultDepth 16 to the Screen section will smooth the jittery HD playback I experienced.]
  5. Reboot

Once it all works, you are rewarded with a very nice display which makes the netbook significantly more usable.

[Edit: Added section for Lucid Lynx.]

Lucid Lynx

Running this script as root set everything up:

    wget http://dl.dropbox.com/u/1338581/Gma500/scripts/poulsbo_lucid.sh  && sh ./poulsbo_lucid.sh

Two pages that provide some background:

  • https://wiki.ubuntu.com/HardwareSupportComponentsVideoCardsPoulsbo/
  • http://code.google.com/p/gma500/wiki/InstallScript

HDMI out

Video worked fine after enabling the external display with xrandr.

I couldn’t get audio working. Here is what I tried:

  • Unmuted the IEC958 channel in alsa-mixer (and enabled it in KMix to be sure.
  • Changed the device order in System Settings -> Multimedia.

Remaining problems

  • Enabling desktop effects completely broke KDE. I had to revert to a backup.
  • The driver cannot keep up with a full screen Hulu video, even when the video was fully buffered and at a non-HD resolution.
  • The panel that is the top menu for Kubuntu Netbook Remix cannot be resized. On the high resolution screen the lock / logout buttons are very tiny and cannot be configured to be any bigger.
  • I am getting lots of these errors: hda-intel: spurious response 0x0:0x0, last cmd=0x . . . but I don’t see any negative effects.

Conclusion

I am undecided whether the Dell Mini 10 is worth the hassle. I really like the multi-touch touchpad, the additional RAM, and the bigger memory. On the other hand, the significantly cheaper Mini 10v just works. If Intel and Dell could get the video driver problems ironed out, this netbook would be great.

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Comments

  1. ribx

    ribx on #

    hi,

    what you have to add:

    the touchpad does all in hardware. this means, you dont need the synaptics driver and you cannot configure anything (like right click is with 2 fingers, as i would like to have it). you can also not tell the syndaemon to make the touchpad stop working while typing.

    i find the surfaces all around this netbook (also where you put your hands) very bad. i get scratches everywhere and have no clue what i do wrong. i have the netbook always prevented by a hull in my backpack.

    now, one question i have: did you do something special to get audio working? is it working always, also when you return from a suspend/hibernate? i cannot make it.

    btw: if you are such a linux fan you should try gentoo (on a fast desktop mashine). i fight with myself to install it even on this netbook (its a source code disrti, i am quite sure you heard about it)

    [EDIT]got it: add model=dell to the hda-intel line in /etc/modprobe.d/alsa-base.conf. these strange 0x0:0x0 errors in dmesg are also gone.

    and for backlight you need acpi_backlight=vendor in your kernel commandline[/EDIT]

  2. Richard

    Richard on #

    I appreciate you taking the time to share your experiences. Some responses:

    * Where did you get the information about the touchpad?

    * This is a "sit-around-the-house" laptop, so I haven't had any problems with scratches. It certainly smudges easy though.

    * I didn't do anything special to get non-HDMI sound working, but I have noticed that it sometimes refuses to play and I have to reboot. I suspect that two processes are competing for the soundcard. I have noticed that it usually happens when I am not very patient after login and launch Firefox before the login sound has played. If I wait for the sound to complete playing before doing anything, it appears to be more reliable. My siblings have noticed similar intermittent sound problems on their Dell netbooks too. Sound seems to work fine the majority of the time it comes back from sleep or hibernate.

    * I tried the model=dell fix, but I am still getting the errors.

    * I'm not having any backlight problems. What were you trying to fix?

    * I used Gentoo for a couple of years back in college. I've also used Debian, RedHat, and SuSE. They have all been valuable.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Richard

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