Path of Least Resistance


I splurged recently and purchased a new laptop. I’ve been eyeing them for well over a year, comparing models, features, and prices. My budget was limited, so as much as I might’ve liked a full desktop replacement, I knew I was going to end up with a desktop supplement.

My old laptop, a Compaq Armada 7370DMT is about six years old. It’s a Pentium 233Mhz, 96 megs of RAM and a 4GB hard drive. No USB; no built-in wireless; the built-in pointing device is non-functional; and the battery holds about 40 minutes of charge, if I’m lucky. I spend about five minutes unpacking all the necesary junk just to use this old clunker: power cord, Orinoco wireless card, serial mouse.

I looked long and hard at several Winbook laptops with AMD64 processors. I thought a 64 bit CPU might be a nice thing to have; but I ultimately decided that I didn’t need that kind of power right now. Moreover, Debian GNU/Linux, my preferred Linux distribution, does not have a full AMD64 port just yet. Ordinarily this wouldn’t bother me too much, but several missing components from the experimental AMD64 port are rather important to me: the Flash plugin for Mozilla Firefox and OpenOffice. It’s possible to run both of these, by use of a 32 bit chroot environment, but that’s way too much hassle for me right now.

I purchased an Averatec AV4270-EH1. After charging the battery, I set to installing Debian. I began this process around 9:30 PM. I’ve installed Debian many times, and felt confident that I could work through any hiccups that might occur along the way. The first hiccup was that the Debian installer’s 2.6 kernel does not support Serial ATA drives. This lapotp has serial ATA drives. So I was unable to use the installer’s 2.6 kernel. The installer’s 2.4 kernel worked just fine for installing the base system. After install, I pointed /etc/apt/sources.list at the Unstable repository for Debian, executed apt-get -u dist-upgrade, and finally tried to install the latest 2.6 kernel. It would never install for me. The 2.6.14 kernel installation complained that there was no suitable mkinitrd tool. Searching for the error message led me to this post which in turn pointed me toward this post which states that this is a known problem with Debian Unstable.

I’m really tired of compiling my own kernels. I did not want to download and compile a kernel. I just wanted to use my new laptop. Looking ahead, I saw that I’d also need to compile the Intel PRO/2200 wireless drivers for the built-in WiFi. And who knows what sort of struggle I might have had with

So I gave in, and around midnight downloaded a copy of Ubuntu 5.10 (Breezy Badger). I burned the CD, and booted the laptop. The installer asked me which network card (wired or wireless) I’d like to use for the installation. The entire install process went by without a hitch. I rebooted, the system configured a bit more stuff, and then I was presented with the Ubuntu login screen (in all it’s wretched brown).

I logged in. It played a little song for me. The fonts looked nice. The trackpad worked. In the panel was an applet telling me that my power cord was plugged in. The wireless network worked without any fiddling on my part. A small window appeared in the upper right corner to tell me that new updates were available for some of my packages. I clicked the flashing icon, it downloaded and installed the updates, and then the icon politely went away.

It would have taken me a long time to install, configure, and tweak a Debian system to work as well as Ubuntu has worked. I used the laptop all day yesterday, and experienced no trouble at all. Today I realized that the laptop display was only 1024x768, instead of the 1280x800 that it was supposed to be (and which was defined in /etc/X11/xorg.conf). I found several suggested work-arounds, including compiling’s xorg server from scratch, along with the appropriate driver for the i915GM video card in the laptop. No thanks. The reason I use a distribution like Debian (or Ubuntu) is because I want to rely on the expertise of other people who have the time and talent to do those compilations for me.

Thankfully I found 915resolution, a little utility to dynamically remap segments of your video BIOS to support additional resolutions. I downloaded that, and executed ./915resolution -l to see a listing of the available video modes. I selected one from the list that I would not be using (a higher resolution than my laptop supports), noted it’s mode number, and then used that mode number for my selected resolution: ./915resolution 58 1280 800

I restarted my X server, and enjoyed my new widescreen desktop. Since 915resolution is a dynamic process, the trick is lost upon reboot. I placed 915resolution in /usr/local/sbin, created the following script and saved it as /etc/init.d/915resolution:

#! /bin/sh

PATH=/sbin:/bin/:/usr/sbin:/usr/bin PROGRAM=/usr/local/sbin/915resolution NAME=915resolution REPLACE=58 HORIZ=1280 VERTI=800

test -x $DAEMON || exit 0

. /lib/lsb/init-functions

set -e

case “$1” in start) log_begin_msg “Setting i915 BIOS resolution…” $PROGRAM $REPLACE $HORIZ $VERTI log_end_msg 0 ;; stop) ;; *) log_success_msg “Usage: $0 {start|stop}” >&2 ;; esac

exit 0

Next I executed sudo /usr/sbin/update-rc.d 915resolution start 6 2 3 4 5 . to ensure that the BIOS would get twiddled early in every runlevel, to ensure that X would always present me with the widescreen desktop. It works. I am happy. One modest tweak for a fully configured, ready-to-use desktop system.

I followed the instructions for Ubuntu Restricted Formats to get MP3 playback working. It works just fine – I can enjoy all of DrBacchus’ podcasts on my laptop. I followed the instructions for DVD support, but have had less success. Totem recognizes that a DVD is available, but doesn’t play it. Mplayer does play a DVD, but it lacks DVD menu support (I think I need to install one of the Mplayer front-ends).

In the past I’ve expressed some reservations about Ubuntu. It’s not clear to me what will happen should Canonical run out of money. Nor is it clear what might happen should Mark Shuttleworth become fickle. And I’m not entirely thrilled with how Ubuntu submits patches back to Debian. So it’s possible that Ubuntu will be replaced by Debian on my laptop; but for now, I’m quite glad to have a fully operational GNU/Linux system.

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