Fedora 7 on my Dell Laptop

I updated my Dell Inspiron 8600 to Fedora 7. I debated about switching to Ubuntu this time around but a number of developments made me stick with Fedora. One particular issue for me is my laptop’s nVidia card. Ubuntu appears to be using proprietary nVidia drivers while Fedora is strongly supporting free drivers like nv and nouveau. Unfortunately nv was rather buggy and very slow on Fedora Core 5. It frequently crashed. It didn’t support any 3D acceleration. The best glxgears rate I ever got with it was 130 fps. The good news is that with the new version of nv and X.Org on Fedora 7, nv is completely stable so far. Even though there is still no 3D acceleration support, performance is twice what it was on Fedora Core 5. Glxgears reports over 300 fps and everything seems significantly faster. I don’t know if this is due to nv or X.Org improvements. Better still, the Fedora folks are working to get the nouveau driver in as soon as possible, which will bring free, 3D acceleration for nVidia hardware.

The install went smoothly and everything worked right out of the box; even things that required a lot of custom setup in the previous version like sound, 1920×1200 LCD resolution, and WiFi. Even suspend works. The only customization I needed was to turn on NetworkManager.

Which leads me to my one gripe so far. With both WiFi and Ethernet, odds are good that only one will be able to connect at startup. For some reason Fedora considers this a startup error and switches out of the nice GUI startup mode into the old-timey text-mode startup about half through the bootup. If it’s plugged into Ethernet, the WiFi usually isn’t needed and doesn’t connect. Fedora thinks this is an error. If I’m using WiFi, the Ethernet cable usually isn’t plugged in. Fedora sees this as an error too. Why not just assume that neither is an error condtion, stay in GUI mode, and let NetworkManager sort out which network connection to use after everything is loaded?

Anyway, I’m very happy with Fedora 7 on my laptop overall.

Unexploded Laptop Battery

With the increasing number of stories about exploding Li-Ion batteries in laptops and other devices, I got a little spooked when I noticed my Dell Inspiron 8600 getting unusually hot last week. I shut down Fedora, unplugged the power adapter, and removed the battery. It was really, really hot. But it wasn’t hot enough to deform the plastic casing and there was no sign of smoke. Just to be on the safe side, I called Dell’s tech support line. And here’s where the story gets weird. I got a quick, helpful response. From Dell. Granted this used to be the norm years ago when Dell was a rapidly growing company but not since they outsourced all their tech support to random groups of non-English speaking people who’d never even seen Dell computers.

Anyway, after I got over the astonishment of reaching an actual English-speaking human on the phone, I presented the symptoms exhibited by my battery. They quickly confirmed that my battery was NOT one of the recalled defective batteries. They also determined that my laptop was just over one year old. It has a two year warranty on everything but, you guessed it, the battery, which has only a one year warranty. So the battery wasn’t covered anymore. However, they then asked me a curious question, “was the battery too hot to touch when you removed it?”

Obviously, there could be only one correct answer to this. “Yes”, I said, “it was too hot to touch”. (technically I did touch it but I’m sure they really meant was the battery very, very hot). “Okay”, the tech support person said, “if the battery was too hot to touch, then I’ll have to classify this as a safety issue and not a warranty issue, so your expired warranty doesn’t matter. We’ll have a replacement shipped immediately.” This was last Friday afternoon. On Tuesday a DHL box arrived with a new battery and a return postage sticker for sending back the old one. I popped in the new one and everything is as good as new. Since I’ve posted numerous complaints in my blog about how awful Dell’s tech support has become, I thought it was only fair that I should post some good news for a change. I hope this is indicative of overall improvements and not just a happy aberration.

Linux on the Dell Inspiron 8600

Since I last posted about this, I’ve received my new hard drive and now have Fedora Linux installed on the notebook. A suprising number of things actually worked right out of the box. I’ve been slowly getting the other bits and pieces of hardware working as I have time. This process has been made easier by others who have already documented the process. One of the best sources of info is the Fedora on a Dell website.

As it turned out, the driver for the NVidia GeForce is included with Fedora and the display worked at least in a low resolution mode immediately. With some minor tweaking, it is now working at the full 1920 x 1200 resolution. The missing piece of the puzzle was the lack of a monitor type for the Dell LCD 1920 x 1200 display. This looks like it would be trivial to patch but I can’t tell yet if the thing needing the patch is X or the display configuration program in Gnome. If anyone knows, please email me, I’d happily submit a patch so this worked for the next person who tries it. There is apparently also a non-free, binary-only driver for the NVidia that is a bit faster but I don’t plan on using the video for anything important enough to make it worth switching to a proprietary driver. I’m quite happy with the nv driver.

The sound hardware and ethernet hardware worked with no changes needed at all. The battery monitor and CPU speed controls also worked without needing to do anything special. The CD/DVD hardware worked as well, though I needed to download some extra packages in order to view movies on DVD. Intel offers a GPL’d 2200 BG WiFi driver (though the firmware itself is still proprietary). It seems to work fine with the exception of monitor mode which apparently isn’t quite functional yet. I also added the latest version of Network Manager so I can switch seamlessly between wired and wireless connections. It’s working very well too so far.

So what’s left to tinker with? I’d like to get gi8k set up so I can monitor fan speed and CPU temperature. Also, I haven’t had time to get the suspend to RAM or disk functions working yet, so I have to manually shut down before closing the notebook. And finally I picked up a little USB to serial adapter at Frys, the BAFO BF-810, because I frequently have to interface with microcontrollers that use a serial port (the 8600 doesn’t have any old-style serial ports). I’m hoping it will work without any special tweaking but you never know. Overall, I’m quite happy so far with how well my Dell Inspiron 8600 is working with Linux.

Dell Laptop Saga: Part 2

My Dell Inspiron 8600 finally arrived, no thanks to Dell customer service. When it failed to show up on time and UPS couldn’t find any record of it, Dell concluded that it had been lost internally prior to the handoff to UPS. Customer service claimed they would have to cancel my order and create a replacement order. But a few days later the package showed up. It turned out UPS had it all along but, for some reason, it wasn’t showing up in their online tracking system. Despite promising to call me back several times, Dell customer service hasn’t called to let me know what’s up with the alleged replacement order. Will I end up with a second Inspiron? I doubt it. Dell’s online status doesn’t show any sign that customer service ever did anything.

I also picked up one of those really fast Hitachi/IBM Travelstar 7200RPM drives on eBay to replace the slow one in the Inspiron. I’ll keep Windows XP on the Dell drive and swap it back into the notebook if it needs to be serviced. But the real drive will have Linux on it. Anyway, the brilliant eBay seller put the fragile little notebook hardrive into a USPS priority envelope with no packing, no anti-static bag, nothing; just the bare drive in a paper envelope. Guess what? The drive was DOA. Hmmm… I wonder why that could be? The good news is that it was a new drive and still under a 3 year warranty. Hitachi agreed to replace it at no charge and I shipped it off to the factory (in an antistatic bag and several layers of bubble wrap).

It’ll be worth all the trouble to have a fast laptop running Linux. And the widescreen on the Inspiron looks great.

Dell Laptop Saga: Part 1

My ancient IBM Thinkpad 750C (a 486 CPU and tiny little 10″ LCD) is finally going to be retired. I wanted something reasonably fast with a widescreen that would run Linux. If money were no object I would’ve opted for one of the G4 PowerBooks with 15.4″ screen. Unfortunately, they cost way too much. So I ended up ordering a Dell Inspiron 8600. It’s not as cool looking as the PowerBook but was about half the price and has a higher resolution 15.4″ screen (WUXGA 1920 x 1200, at 13.56″ x 8.76″ that’s 140 dpi). After doing some research, I was able to spec a combination of parts that others have reported to work pretty well with Linux.

What I’ve found so far is that Dell’s service has continued to deteriorate. They used to have first class tech support until they outsourced it all to sweatshops in India. We’ve bought servers from them for years and they were always high-quality products. So I thought I’d take a chance on them for a notebook. But, looking around on the web, there seems to be general agreement that Dell customer service sucks. I’m hoping I’ll never need their customer service but things aren’t off to a promising start.

After placing an order, Dell’s website reports order status. In my case it said my notebook had been shipped on Jan 10 and provided a UPS tracking number. The UPS status webpage showed they had recieved paperwork for the package but not the package itself. After three days with no change in status, I called Dell customer service and spoke at length with someone for whom English seemed to be a second language. Dell said they handed the package off to UPS but UPS claims they never got it. I’m not entirely sure what happened after that but as best I could understand from the broken English of the customer support person, Dell has cancelled the lost order and issued a second order for a replacement notebook to be built and shipped. Who knows – maybe in another week or so I’ll have my new notebook.

Anyway, I’m still hopeful everything will work out alright. I’ll probably install either Ubuntu or Fedora when it arrives. I wasn’t able to order a notebook with no OS (which is odd because we do it all the time when we order servers from Dell). I may investigate getting a refund for the Windows XP Home license but I don’t hold out a lot of hope for that. I think I may remove and store the hard drive shipped in the notebook and install a new one to put Linux on. That way, I can swap back in the factory installed OS if I ever need to get it serviced by Dell.

A New VA Linux 2130

Our new VA Linux 2130 server arrived yesterday (ya gotta love that extra-bright blue LED!). This box is a colo for an existing client who is upgrading. I’ve decided my favorite servers are the VA Linux 1U and 2U servers for web servers and the Dell 2450 2U box with RAID 5 for database servers. I’d go with VA Linux for everything if they came out with something supporting RAID 5 and hot-swap drives in a 2U format like the Dell 2450 series.