Sunday, March 23, 2008

Linux on my laptop

I mentioned in a previous post that I'd put Linux on my laptop because it ran so much faster than Windows XP did. The distro (DreamLinux 2.2 MMGL) I'd installed, however, is no longer going to be updated nor supported. Because the developers built version 3 from the ground up with a new architecture it is unlikely (if not impossible) for there to be an upgrade path from 2.2 to 3.0. So I downloaded DreamLinux 3.0 RC1 ("release candidate" - so basically beta software). As one might expect with a beta it's buggy, it didn't work with some of my hardware, and ultimately the GDM crashed and couldn't be restored. Hopefully the final release (due out this week if they're on schedule) will be a lot more stable, and I certainly don't envy the developers who have to tackle it.

I had only ended up installing DreamLinux in the first place because it was the ONLY distro I'd tried that actually WORKED with my D-Link DWL-G630 wireless card. Yeah, I'm sure some people are rolling their eyes and asking why I'd even WANT to use that in Linux (Google the model and Linux, you'll see what I'm talking about), but that's what came with my laptop, it works fine in Windows XP, and I don't have money right now for another card. Plus I don't think I *should* need a different one just for Linux, since I know it IS possible to get this one to work.

Actually, I've read if all you want is unsecured access or WEP you don't even necessarily need to use "ndiswrapper," but can use "madwifi" instead. But that depends on the chip set used in the card (there are different revisions with the same model number). For me, however, I not only use WPA-PSK security on my home network, I also couldn't get Linux to "see" the card unless I used the Windows XP drivers and ndiswrapper.

It also doesn't help that my laptop (an HP Pavilion ZE4315US which I got for an excellent price in an eBay auction) has the dreaded ATI Radeon 320M IGP (also known as the U1) integrated video. Well, dreaded by many Linux users, that is. ATI has disowned the darned thing, even though they sold it to numerous laptop manufacturers. In theory the open ATI or Radeon driver work, but apparently only with certain Linux kernels or X-Server versions - and before you know it you're looking at pages talking about editing source modules and compiling custom kernels. Is it worth it? For most people I'd wager not. Which was why I just lived with the fact I wasn't going to have 3D desktop effects, direct rendering, or any of the other stuff the video is actually capable of doing. The most common problem appears to be that many Linux distros "see" the video chip as ATI Radeon and attempt to either use the "ati" or "radeon" drivers, but if some mysterious other components are missing from the kernel and/or X Server, you'll just get a blank screen when X starts. In which case you have to tell it to use the VESA driver, but then you just get 2D graphics.

If you also have that particular laptop (or any of the 43xx series), and were considering a Linux installation here were the ones I tried out, and what didn't work:

Ubuntu 6.04: Booted up fine, actually DID recognize the video card and 3D desktop effects could be enabled (though they were unstable). Nothing I did could get the wireless card to function with WPA security. WEP did work, however. The installation eventually stopped booting after a "security" software update (no idea which one caused it).

Ubuntu 7.04: Needed to be booted from "recovery mode" in order to select the VESA drivers for video, which meant no more 3D effects or direct rendering. I could get it to recognize my wireless card was there with ndiswrapper and the WPA supplicant installed, but it refused to actually connect.

Xubuntu 7.10: Boots up, but randomly crashed soon after getting to the desktop.

Ubuntu 8.04 Beta: Booted up, but once the X server started the screen went black, but would gradually build with brownish spots that would "bloom" to white, with these "flares" flickering like some kind of crap-colored aurora. I frankly thought it had toasted my LCD screen, but it seems fine. I decided not to tempt fate and didn't boot "Hardy Heron" again.

PCLinux 2007: Boots up to the point where it says it is starting the desktop (Gnome) and crashes.

SAMlinux 2007: Boots up to the point where it's starting the X-server and the screen goes blank, even when started in "safe graphics" mode with the VESA driver.

OpenSUSE 10.3: Hangs during the boot process.

DreamLinux 2.2 MMGL: Boots in "safe graphics" mode using the VESA driver. Configured my wireless card for WPA with no problems. I ended up using this distro on my laptop for several months because it had an attractive, clean interface; the wireless connection worked; and since it used Xfce (which is light-weight) it was pretty snappy even BEFORE extra memory was added to the laptop.

DreamLinux 3.0 RC1: Booted, installed, ran for about a day until the instability took it down for good. But, if they get this thing stable and get it to work with the ATI 320M I'll definitely be looking at it again.

Mandriva 2008: boots, recognizes the video card and runs Compiz Fuzion effects flawlessly. Had really easy configuration of the wireless card drivers, except that I couldn't get it to connect at first. Eventually I found that, if I turned on the "Interactive Firewall" it would connect properly, but over WAN it wouldn't actually let me go use my web browser, so I just disabled all the filters - so it's "on" but isn't set to actually do anything (which isn't really necessary on my home network, which has another firewall between the laptop and the cable modem). I have had intermittent issues with various windows losing their title bars and borders or (specifically the system control panels) becoming non-responsive and sometimes impossible to terminate. Though that might be because of Compiz, I don't know. Sound was also not working correctly, but once I tried the alternative "Trident" driver that seems to have solved it (go to the Hardware control panel, find the "Sound" section and click the "Configure" button, it will be in a drop-down menu of driver choices). Getting the volume buttons on the side to work is more tricky. Have to select the only "Pavilion" keyboard in the config panel, then use the Kmix "Global Settings" to bind the buttons to volume up/down. Mute button doesn't do anything. Oh, and presently they only work for earphones, not the PC speakers/Master slider. Still looking for some better solutions to these issues.

Presently Mandriva 2008 lives on my laptop because, thus far, it is the ONLY Linux distro I've found that will both utilize my wireless card AND let me have 3D rendering enabled. It's noticeably less responsive than DreamLinux (with Xfce) was on the same hardware, but still faster than Windows XP is, so I'm going to leave well enough alone now that I've got it all working.

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