Ubuntu on Dell Inspiron 6400

Crappy title I know, but it’s two-twentyfive a.m. indulge me…

So four days ago my girlfriend informed me that her laptop totally b0rked. Blue Screen of Death on boot.

Not having much chance to help from the phone, I instructed her to bring her laptop over to me to see what I could do. Now, this was a system that has been running WinXP for a while now and lately it had started giving some alarming problems, like Winamp crashing randomly or slowness on explorer etc. Now, the (cracked) AV had not reported anything and spyware scanning had not shown anything specific so I did not think to check in depth other than fix or workaround the issues as they cropped up.

I have no idea why the laptop BSODed but I put it down to either a slow AV update that allowed something nasty to pass through or just a random hdd fart that lost a system file or whatnot. Seeing as the windows installation was in Deutsch, there was not much I could see from the BSOD error other that it informed to run a chekdisk. Well, I did that and although it recovered some stuff, it did not really fix anything.

Unfortunately, as she didn’t have the recovery CDs for the laptop with her and I didn’t have any Windoze XP installation handy (well, to tell the truth, I did but it was not a good version) I considered installing Ubuntu. I was already preparing her that there was a high chance her OS would not be recovered so it wasn’t a complete surprise. Since I was always explaining her the virtues of the OS, I though that this might be the perfect chance to have her try it. Especially since she is neither a gamer nor uses the laptop for anything requiring professional apps. Fortunately she was not opposed to the idea. She just sighed and trusted in my capabilities to do what is best for her 😉

So I started the installation with Ubuntu 7.10. I chose that over Kubuntu mostly because I wanted to enjoy the 3D effects that come automatically with Ubuntu and because the support for it is more solid (just in case I’m not around to help). The initial installation went through perfectly, I created a 20G bpartition for the OS, 2 Gb swap (she has 1Gb of RAM) and the rest 70Gb as a /home separate partition which will preserve her settings in case a reinstallation is needed (a wise choice as it happened).

Once the system booted after the installation, I was greeted by a 1024×768 resolution which did not look right on the laptops LCD. I decided that the best thing to do would be to install the restricted drivers for the ATI card. That meant that I would have to connect to the net through my DSL connection and that meant a pppoe setup. Unfortunately, this is still something that lacks an easy user-friendly setup for the less technical users which I guess would not know how to deal with this at this point. Fortunately I knew the correct command to run on the terminal: pppoeconf
This took care of the internet connection so it allowed me to install the restricted drivers.

Their installation went through flawlessly and I was quite glad on that regard. A reboot however showed me that the resolution stayed the same and changing the display resolution from the System options was not possible. There was only the singe 1024×768 choice, which meant that I would have to edit /etc/X11/xorg.conf and enter the right resolution to use (1280×800) and then restart the X-Server to activate it. This is still something that really bothers me with Ubuntu. There is no easy way to change or add a resolution option for the system. If the setup fails to autodetect your monitor then you are only left with the option to edit the configuration file and this is something that a normal user will find intimidating to say the least.

Anyway, that settled, I wanted to activate the compiz eye-candy to impress her. Unfortunately, even though the System -> Preferences -> Appearance -> Visual Effects option is a major improvement over running terminal commands, the system just refused to activate them. I just received a generic error message that “The Composite extension is not available”. Not very helpful because even though I installed compiz with synaptic(I had the impression that it came with the basic setup but apparently I was wrong) this still kept popping up. An Ubuntu Forum search did not provide with much results but fortunately a google search did (in the Ubuntu forums no less). All I had to do was to install the xserver-xgl package and reboot. Compiz presto.

I then started setting up various other useful apps that I knew she would need. Amarok (yes, I’m planning to convert her), Azureus, Pidgin (Finally an excuse to quit the horrible, add-riddled ICQ client), Picard and K3b. The first problems I run to were when I tried to play videos with Totem. Although it is much better now that it automatically suggests and can download the appropriate packages, it is still annoying a bit and I am guessing a bit perplexing for a non-technical user who is certain to run into problems of missing repositories and open apt sessions. Same problem exists for mp3 which need to be installed for various programs like amarok, k3b and picard. In the last case especially, because it does not give any indication on what is missing (it just does not accept mp3s dragged) you have to install a package that is not even easy to find for me. It is named libpimp-mp3 (or something) and is needed for picard to handle them. Fortunately. once again the Ubuntu forums were to the rescue.

Finally, after all software was installed, I updated the installed stuff and started testing what worked and what not.

I used this page to see what I should be aware of. Unfortunately however it is quite outdated (I am planning to update it at some point) and I was not sure if various issues were fixed in later versions. Most importantly it notified me that sleep/hibernate does not work because of driver issues. The workaround did not seem to work as the system would just not startup again after the sleep mode was activated and only a cold boot worked. At this time I left this to be fixed later as it was getting quite late.

The last thing I did was to install the German language support and I was surprised on how easily it was done. System -> Administration -> Language support and install the German. Then set it up as the default and you’re done. I also set up a new user for me which would use the English language. I especially hated WinXP on that issue actually; without giving you an option to switch the language of the system it made it pretty much impossible to perform system administration.
Fortunately in Ubuntu, to switch the system language was as easy as changing an option at the login prompt (although it did take me a few seconds to find the correct one 😉 )

Next day, I visited my girlfriend at her place to check out how it was working. She informed me that picard would not work but other than that it seemed to be working OK. I started looking around to find how to make the hibernation work which eventually led me here. I followed the instruction to install the newest ATI driver and everything seemed to go through fine. I tested Sleep and hibernation and they were finally working.

Then I started looking on how to make the laptop media buttons work with Amarok’s global keys. Unfortunately, through the Gnome DE it always creates problems. My first idea was to disable any keyboard shortcuts for play/pause, next and forward from gnome’s “keyboard shortcuts” application but this was not enough. I tried verious combinations on amarok but for some reason nothing worked solidly. Fortunately my search eventually led me to use the “Keytouch” application which seemed to be perfect for this use.
I configured it and it seemed to work fine on my account but for some reason when I switched users and used the media handling buttons, instead of manipulating Amarok it opened a new Amarok process which lacked any window decorators and stayed always on top…strange.

Later in the afternoon, we decided to watch a movie and then I discovered that my 2D acceleration was absolutely horrid. Watching a movie fullscreen was pretty much impossible. After we watched the movie in window-mode I set out to find the solution. Unfortunately from me, the issue was related to the new ATI drivers as I found more than a few people complaining about the same issue. Some managed to solve it by inserting

Option		"XaaNoOffscreenPixmaps"

in their xorg.conf file and while it did help a bit, fullscreen videos were still unwatchable. The most unfortunate fact however was that there was nothing I could do about this. I couldn’t find a way to rollback the new ATI driver, and I couldn’t make it have a sufficient 2D acceleration. Finally after a few hours of searching I threw my hands up and just decided to reinstall the whole system and use Ubuntu’s restricted driver and leave the PC without hibernation function.

Since I didn’t have the CD at my girlfriend’s place I downloaded a new one (fortunately she did have a spare RW CD to use) and started the installation. Everything went through normally once again and the new environment was ready. I went through pretty much the same steps and a few more hours later it was done, eye candy and all.

So currently she’s been running the system for a whole week and it seems to be stable enough, although it does seem to lose some stability when a second user is logged in. Current issues I still have with the system are these:

  • When a second user is logged in, the stability of the system seems to drop. More than once time I had the system b0rk when I used the Alt-Ctrl-F# combination to switch between the users. No idea what is causing it.
  • The external HDD which was formatted as VFAT, seems to only work for the first user who logs into the system. Ubuntu’s automounter will then mount the drive and give only that user full rights while the rest won’t be able to even see the mount point. The odd thing is that my personal external HDD which is formatted as ext3 is mounted normally for all users so I assume this is something to do with the limited security of VFAT. Perhaps the developes felt that mounting these drives only for the current user (since the FS does not support rights) is the correct way to do it. Unfortunately I could not find a way to modify the automount options so I was forced to modify the fstab and add it there. I have not booted since I tried that so I’m hoping it will work.
  • Nautilus seems to freeze at random times. My girlfriend informed me of this while I was at my home and to her it seemed as if her HDD stopped working. The nautilus windows would not respond and new windows did not open. Fortunately I managed to guide her through the necessary steps to install kfrb (i.e. copy/paste the apt command in my IM windows 🙂 )and then I could use krdc to remote in. I noticed that nautilus was frozen with about 10 processes in the system sleeping so I killed everything and lo and behold, the file manager started responding again. No idea why this happened but since then this has happened again. She now knows how to resolve it by herself but it is still annoying. I am thinking of installing another file manager but I am not certain which. Doplhin seems like a good choice but I would rather have something that can be integrated with Gnome. Any ideas?
  • Amarok kept crashing after I set it up to handle the collection on the external drive. I managed to resolve it by having it manage only the stuff that is musicbrainz tagged and disabling the Replaygain script. I am not certain which was the issue (collection size or script) but I plan to activate it and see if the problem persists.
  • I still have not managed to make Keytouch work normally with two users connected. Currently it only works (I think) for the first user that activated it.
  • No Sleep & Hybernation functions. I am still waiting for newer ATI drivers.

This for now. Hopefully, another GNU/LINUX convert is in the making 🙂

4 thoughts on “Ubuntu on Dell Inspiron 6400”

  1. Laptops… laptops… almost always give us a hard time. Those little problems are the ones that keep people away from GNU/Linux. Well… things are a lot easier with nvidia or Intel graphics.

  2. I know but unfortunately I can’t do anything about the VGA she has on her laptop, or her choice of laptop for that matter. However I hope this little story will help people who wish to install in this model in the future

  3. hey! thanks for your clear explanations… i thought i hav the same laptop, but you seem to have a diferent video… mine has intel , but i cant seem to use apt get to download beryl…..

    thanks , any way. your article was very usefull to me

  4. I am glad it was bruno. Unfortunately the laptop comes with two different cards and the intel has some extra problems of it’s own from what I’ve seen. If you cannot download beryl with apt-get you probably have not activated the repositories. Open synaptic and check which repositories are working

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