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Installing and Configuring Ubuntu on a Laptop

by Jeremy Jones

I recently decided to buy myself a laptop. This is the first laptop I have ever purchased, and the first computer I've bought in about five years. I shopped around and tried to get an idea of what options are available, the average price for the feature set I wanted, and (most importantly) which models have successfully seen Linux installed on them.

The topic of Linux on the desktop has captured much media attention lately. While running Linux specifically on a laptop has attracted less attention, everything that applies to Linux on a desktop also applies to laptops. Why Linux, and why Linux on a laptop? Linux, because:

  • I want an operating system I can use to get real work done.
  • Linux supports a broad range of hardware.
  • The Linux community is large, diverse, and technically savvy, and therefore is helpful in troubleshooting problems.

And on a laptop, because I need to not be bound to a computer in one location, be it my home in general or my bedroom specifically. (Yes, my computers live in my bedroom.)

I spent a fair amount of time on the Linux on Laptops and TuxMobil pages investigating manufacturers and specific laptop models. After a bit of research, I decided that the features I really wanted were:

  • A 17-inch display--What could possibly be better than running gvim all the way maximized across a 17-inch display? Maybe running gvim halfway across a 17-inch display and having plenty of room for a terminal window! I started to settle for the 15.4" wide screen, but my heart just wasn't in it.
  • FireWire--I have a digital camcorder, and I have been really negligent about transferring video from it onto DVDs. I hope to use the laptop to help that process along.
  • A wireless network--What is the point of having a laptop at home if I can't cart it to the kitchen table and surf the Web while I'm brewing a couple of shots of espresso?
  • A decent video card--I really didn't have a brand in mind, although nVidia seems to have better Linux support than ATI. I really just preferred a real video card without shared RAM that would perform reasonably well for a nongamer.

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The Dell Inspiron 9300 met all of my "needs," but the $1,500 starting price tag for the entry model kept me looking for a different laptop. When my boss pointed me to an online coupon that dropped the price another $300, I jumped on it. My $1,200 bought me:

  • A 1.6GHz Intel Centrino processor
  • 512MB of RAM
  • A 40GB hard drive. Yes, it is small, but if I get crunched for space, I can replace it with a bigger one. I can even put this 40GB one in an external enclosure and have 40GB of hard disk in my pocket.
  • A 17-inch, 1,920-by-1,200 display. It is big and beautiful.
  • An Intel PRO Wireless 2200 network card
  • A Broadcom BCM4401 wired network card
  • Some kind of modem, which I can't find in my Device Manager and for which Dell doesn't mention any specs other than "integrated v.92 56K capable modem"
  • An ATI Mobility Radeon X300 with 64MB of RAM
  • 6 USB 2.0 ports
  • 1 4-pin FireWire (IEEE 1394) port
  • 1 PCMCIA slot
  • A Secure Digital card slot
  • S-Video, VGA, and DVI out connectors
  • A DVD burner
  • Some kind of a printer, which I have not even taken out of the box yet. If I could have opted to trade the printer for another 64MB of video RAM, I would have.
  • How can I forget Windows XP Home Edition?

Let me first say that while I am thoroughly enjoying the new laptop, I am not terribly pleased with Dell due to:

  • Windows only--When purchasing the laptop, I could find nowhere to opt out of paying the Microsoft tax. The only option regarding Microsoft was how much additional money I wanted to give the company for a "better" OS that does absolutely nothing for me.
  • No Linux driver support--At least I couldn't find any for my laptop. The general download search section requires a specific OS, and the only options are Microsoft OSes and BIOS.
  • Poor technical documentation--Dell fails to specify some of the manufacturers, models, or chipsets of components such as the sound card, wired network interface, DVD burner, and display.
  • Lack of shipped documentation--My laptop came only with an almost totally useless "Dell Portable Computers Product Information Guide" and an even more useless (but pretty!) large color glossy "Setting Up Your Computer" sheet that looked more like a feel-good marketing brochure than a useful piece of documentation. After wiping Windows off the laptop, I found out that there had been soft copies of documentation installed. Oops.

Installing Ubuntu

I decided to install Ubuntu because it builds on the mature foundation of Debian and has a large (and growing) user base and strong community support through web forums and IRC. I have been running it at work for a few months now and thoroughly enjoy it.

When I received the laptop, Hoary was the current version of Ubuntu. I have since upgraded to Breezy. I popped in the Ubuntu Hoary install CD (disk 1 of 1) and powered on the machine. Of course, I had to set the BIOS to boot from CD. The installer came up and started asking me questions.

Note that the Ubuntu installer is a non-GUI, text-based installer. It's not pretty, but it is very functional. Because it asks so few questions in order to install, I'm not sure how much benefit a GUI installer would provide other than eye candy.

The first questions were about region and language; English was the natural choice. Then came hardware detection (not a question--just an install action). Next, I had to select which of my two network devices to use as the primary. This was good news that it seemed to see both network interfaces. I chose the wired one as the primary ... well ... just because.

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