Linux on a Dell Inspiron 1501

Ubuntu Linux on my Dell Inspiron 1501

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.

Pinhole Camera Adventures

For some time I’ve been wanting a change of pace with my photography. It’s not that I don’t have a variety of equipment, but I wanted to experiment with a different kind of image — something less sharp and modern. I considered getting a Holga, and may still do so. The Holga with its less than sharp lens and unpredictable optical quirks and vignetting with almost no controls over exposure has the charm of being simple yet different. Many of my photography contacts use them as a kind of therapy when they need to freshen their outlook on the craft.I was in this contemplative frame of mind when I saw a haunting photo by Ian Phillip, a Scottish photographer known as mr_phillip on Flickr:

Tarbet Tree, Loch Lomond
Photo by Ian Phillip

There was something ethereal and romantic about this that attracted my attention. It wasn’t sharp but it was beautiful. Ian’s tech information indicated this was taken with a Zero 6×9. Zero 6X9? That was a camera I’d not heard of, so I did a Google search and discovered the Zero 6×9 Multi-Format, a 120-film hand-crafted teak pinhole camera that has inner wooden baffles or masks that can be adjusted for 6×4.5, 6×6, 6×7, and 6×9 format. The cameras are created by Zernike Au in China and sold through his Zero Image web store. One look and I was hooked.

But first I wanted to see more images, not just Ian’s. Mr Phillip is an exceptionally good photographer who can make great looking images with any camera so I was concerned that his lovely Loch Lomond shots might not be typical of what the camera produces. Ian had a link to a Flickr group called Zero Image and a look through the images there convinced me that this was the change of pace I was looking for. I was flush with a little extra cash, having recently sold some redundant gear, so I decided to buy the 6×9 (though the 35mm and 4×5 versions were tempting) with cable-release adapter and bubble level. It arrived within a week.

Zero Image 6x9 Pinhole Camera Zero Image 6x9 Pinhole Camera

Marion and Trevor loved it. I thought it looked like something from the movie set of H.G. Wells’s Time Machine.

The arrival of the camera coincided with a series of snowstorms. Unable to get out easily for a walk to the harbour and environs, I decided to shoot my first roll at home — in the yard and in the house. Calculating exposure with pinholes is an inexact science. I used my Sekonic hand meter in incident mode and took readings at ISO100 for the Plus-X film I’d loaded into the Zero. The Zero has a handy calculator dial on the back for getting you into the approximately correct exposure range. You dial in the reading from your meter, say 1/30 at f/16, then follow the dial to the 1/250 f-stop to get an exposure approximation. For my outdoor shots, on an overcast day with a bit of wan sunlight peeking through occasionally, the dial at f/250 read between 7-8 seconds.

However, most films exhibit reciprocity failure1 — becoming less sensitive to light — during longer exposures so you have to factor that into the exposure. The guide that came with the camera suggested a 2x factor for reciprocity failure for any exposures over 1 second so I used that to adjust my exposure to 15 seconds. I’m not all that good at counting seconds in my head so I used the digital stopwatch I use for my cardio walks.

It was a new and foreign experience, taking those first shots. There’s no viewfinder on the camera so I pointed the front of the box towards what I wanted to photograph and levelled the camera on my tripod. I used a cable release and 15-sec exposures outdoors. The first time you try something like this, you have no idea what to expect, but I liked the experience. It felt uncommonly retro. This photo of the front of our house (along with our neighour’s) was my first-ever pinhole photograph:

First-ever Pinhole Shot

On this one I corrected some of the typical vignetting to get more of a soft but typical medium-format wide-angle shot. I was on my way! One more from the outdoor shots: the accumulation of snow on our birdbath and back deck bench:

Back Yard

I didn’t correct the vignetting in this one, liking the way it looked as is. Next I went indoors. This shot of the top of my bureau took 30 minutes:

Dresser Top, Sharpened

A pinhole camera makes interesting ‘people pictures’. Because of its long exposure times, people are blurred while the surroundings are not. I sat for a self portrait — four minutes in this case — and worked on a sudoku while keeping an eye on the timer. Due to the length of exposure, my image is blurry, and my getting into the frame, then out of it, was too quick to be recorded. Despite being underexposed (eight minutes would have been better) this is my favourite image from the first roll:

Self Portrait

I hope to take more pinhole portraits. And when the wintry weather is better for walking (it’s been brutally cold for the past two days), I want to experiment with pinhole shots of the Port Credit harbour.

1Reciprocity (photography) – Wikipedia

PMA Announcements

Fujica 6x7 Folder

PMA is the big photo event of the year, similar to COMDEX for computing products. This year’s PMA is being held in Las Vegas and it is attended by nearly all the major camera manufacturers. It’s a place for announcing new products, most of which are the latest digital wonders from digicams to high-end digital backs. Tucked away in corners, here and there, are a few items related to film photography.

This year’s sleeper is a prototype medium-format film camera on display in the Fujifilm booth. It’s a modern folder: a folding camera that takes 6x7cm images on 120 film. It has an 80mm Fujinon f/3.5 lens, rangefinder, hot shoe, and what looks to be aperture-priority electronic shutter. There is no red ruby window on the back in the pictures that have been shown so presumably it has a frame counter as well.

Fuji has said very little about this camera in its press release, other than that it’s a prototype and if it gets built may only be sold in Japan.

I took one look at this camera and wanted it. When the information was posted on Rangefinder Forum and Nelsonfoto, the response was similar: gimme! To a film photographer, this is retro done modern, like an Ikonta built to modern specs with a modern lens and built-in metering.

Should Fujifilm manufacture this camera, and offer it in Europe and the Americas, I suspect it would fly off the shelves. Depending on price, of course. So far price has not been mentioned.

Sony CMOS Sensor

On a major note, Sony made a surprise announcement that it had developed a 24 megapixel full-frame (35mm) CMOS sensor and expected to be in production with it by mid-2008. They also pre-announced a Sony Alpha model that would be using this chip.

What I find most interesting in this development is that Sony is a major OEM supplier of sensors to other camera manufacturers, such as Pentax. So far Canon and Nikon have been the only players in the FF market, each developing its own proprietary sensors. The Sony sensor could level the playing field.

I wouldn’t be surprised if, within three years, full-frame DSLRs become the norm, at the prices of today’s APS-sized DSLRs. It’ll be 35mm all over again!