Ubuntu Linux on my Dell Inspiron 1501
Since I’ve retired from IT work, I don’t have much chance to keep my Unix skills fresh so when it came time for a new laptop, I decided I’d devote it primarily to Linux, with a dual-boot option to Windows. I didn’t want to spend a lot on one so I priced out various models for a few weeks and checked out reviews. Then I searched out newsgroup and forum experiences on their usability with Linux. One laptop I’d been looking at, an Acer, got a major thumbs down from Linux users who ran into serious problems with drivers.
Most of my computers in the past few years have been Dell, not because they’re necessarily better than anyone else’s but because they’re easy for me to buy and the extended warranty on them is worthwhile. They’ve come to my house a couple of times, one time swapping machines on a laptop that had developed a bad system board. That’s service!
One of Dell Canada’s least expensive laptops at the beginning of 2008 was the Inspiron 1501. It was spec’d at 2GB RAM, an AMD Sempron processor, and the usual CD/DVD burner. I upgraded to a 250GB HD on principle, and raised RAM to 3GB. That brought the price to around $700. A background check on Linux showed the 1501 to be a good Linux laptop, with a few caveats. More on this later.
On the 1501 I didn’t even purchase extended care. I figured I’d ship to depot if something comes up after the initial warranty period. The price was in my range and what sealed the deal was that the Inspiron 1501 was offered with a Windows XP option, rather than Vista. We had recently got Marion an upscale laptop that came with Vista and after both of us tried it for a few days, we ‘downgraded’ the machine to XP. Vista is rather like a bad dream turned into an OS.
Repartitioning and Re-installing XP
Of course when the laptop arrived, the entire disk was set up as a single C: drive for Windows XP. Even in a Windows-only setup, I don’t like this configuration. I prefer a smaller, 30GB, C: drive for the OS and programs, and a separate partition for user files. This makes things a lot easier if you need to later reinstall or upgrade the OS.
So after taking an inventory of the devices in the 1501 I rebooted the system from the Windows XP reinstall CD and repartitioned the disk into a 30GB drive for C: and left the rest unpartitioned. Then I reinstalled XP.
The base OS installed well enough, but the screen looked grotty, there was no sound, and the built-in wireless card didn’t work. That’s typical of a fresh install: the specialty device drivers need installing. I hooked up the laptop to an live Internet cable on my router and once on the Internet I visited the Dell site where they keep drivers for every machine they’ve ever sold. For the Inspiron 1501 I downloaded a bunch of drivers I needed, starting with video. Once that was installed, the screen looked excellent. Sound was next, then a bit of fumbling around trying to figure out which driver of the many available I needed for my wireless. Eventually I got it sorted out.
Installing Ubuntu 7.10
After I had Windows XP working — and it’s always best to install Windows first on a dual-boot Linux computer — I turned to Linux. I’ve grown to like Ubuntu Linux and downloaded the latest ISO file and burned a boot CD. I’ve installed Ubuntu onto a few machines now with no problem, but when I attempted to boot it on the 1501 the video disappeared and the system hung. I had to remove the battery before I could get control of the system back.
Next I tried “Safe Install” and that worked fine. I used the manual partitioner in Ubuntu to partition a swap drive, a 30GB EXT3 file system, and the rest of the disk as a shared FAT-32 file system. Everything seemed to go fine — the drives were formatted, the OS and programs installed fine and I was prompted to remove the CD to reboot. I rebooted, and lost the video again. Back to removing the battery to shut down the system.
I wasn’t too worried because before purchasing the Inspiron 1501 I’d discovered a fantastic Linux resource for it, in blog format, called Ubuntu on Dell Inspiron 1501: Ubuntu Guides, Tweaks, and Hacks. It turns out that the boot line in /boot/grub/menu.lst needs to have “splash” removed. I also removed the “quiet” attribute from the line because I like to watch the progress as my system boots.
With this fix, Ubuntu booted up quite well, but looked like crap. The open-source video drivers for the video didn’t do it justice. Perusing through the Ubuntu 1501 site indicated that it was possible to get a proprietary, non-open-source video driver. I’m no purist and I like a good video display, so I hooked my 1501 up to the router cable and got the driver and followed the instructions on getting it active. Bingo. Just like that I had a display that looked as good to my eyes as Windows XP provided.
I still didn’t have wireless working though, and these days a laptop without wireless doesn’t cut it. Even in my own home I like to use my laptop in an easy chair in our music room, one floor down from our wireless router. There were several entries on getting wireless to work on the 1501 but the one that sounded the cleanest was one involving ndiswrapper running the XP driver within Linux. I followed the instructions for getting it to work and on my next bootup it popped right into action, prompting me to join our home network. Once I entered the 128-bit encryption passphrase, it sailed out to the Internet. In contrast, I was unable to get Microsoft’s native wireless support to connect to my home network with either XP or Vista. I had to install Boingo to get proper connection. I don’t enjoy being a Microsoft basher, but why do they always have to be so clueless?
At this point Linux was ahead of Windows, because I could get all my desired software through apt-get. I use Firefox on both sides, synchronizing my bookmarks with Foxmarks. In contrast, it took hours to get all my necessary Windows programs installed, including all the little free or paid-for shareware programs I use.
To be honest, I haven’t explored Ubuntu very deeply yet. I don’t currently have any programming projects, and I’m not setting up any special services. Mainly I’m doing email, surfing the web, and writing. But since getting Linux installed I don’t think I’ve booted into Windows once in the last two months except to install software, just in case I need it.