Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Linux On My Laptop Reprise

Back in 2008 I wrote a post about putting Linux on my old HP Pavilion ZE4315US laptop.  Well, I still have the darned thing and it was time to revisit the idea of putting Linux on it.

This laptop came with Windows XP SP1 on it.  That ran ok, but by the time I updated it to SP3 the hardware starts showing its limitations (or the software starts showing its bloat, take your pick).  Windows Vista or Windows 7 are non-starters because of the low/outdated specs of the hardware, and despite Microsoft's claims that Windows 8 would support lower-spec hardware it won't even install.  So for Windows I'm absolutely stuck with XP, which is close to its end of support.

If you read my post from five years ago you'll recall I had problems finding a Linux distribution that would work with both the ATI Mobile graphics and my D-Link wireless card.  Both those pieces of hardware were effectively disowned and disavowed by their respective manufacturers, so getting drivers was an exercise in futility.  Ultimately, after trying several Linux distros I'd settled on Mandriva 2008 because at least everything worked.

Fast forward to 2012 and the tiny 30GB hard drive in the laptop dies.  I suppose most people would've just chucked it at that point, but as luck would have it I had a very old MP3 player that had an identical laptop hard drive in it.  So I swapped the drive out and loaded up the "system restore" CDs.  But, of course, I lost my Mandriva 2008 partition in the process, it's a badly outdated distro, and current versions didn't work.  So I end up doing the "which distro dance" again.  A couple thing that helped this time around is that the ATI (now AMD) open-source drivers better support the orphaned video chip and someone gave me a Netgear USB wireless stick, so I didn't have to worry about that D-Link card anymore.

Nonetheless a number of distros I tried out didn't work.  Ubuntu still caused the LCD panel to have that scary "bloom" effect and only the most recent ones would recognize the Netgear wireless.  I tend to like Linux Mint, particularly with the MATE desktop environment (I really, seriously, dislike Ubuntu's "Unity" and Gnome 3).  I've got Linux Mint on my home theater system, I put it on my brother's desktop system for him, so I was hoping it would work on my laptop too.  Well the good news is that it DOES.  The latest Linux Mint 14 gave me OpenGL graphics that work and recognized the wireless USB stick.  The only hiccup was the actual installation process!

There is a bug in the Ubiquity Installer that causes it to crash when it gets to the "copying file" phase and wants to show you a "slide show" of cool Minty features.  Something about the slideshow causes the installer to crash and the install to fail.  Thankfully it's an easy fix!  While running the installer in the Linux Live session pop open a Terminal and enter:

sudo apt-get remove ubiquity-slideshow-mint

Then it will succeed in the installation.  So far the only problem I've had is Linux Mint can't seem to actually shut down the computer.  It gets to the last "going down" screen and hangs, requiring me to long-press the power button to force the shutdown.  But I can live with that.

The main point is I have a CURRENT operating system on it, that's getting updates, and actually works about as well as Windows XP SP1 did on this hardware.  So if you happen to have one of these old laptops in the back of a closet, or found one for a song on eBay, or unearthed one in an archeological dig, partition the drive and drop Linux Mint 14 on it. :-)