Ubuntu Linux 12.04.1 on a Dell Inspiron 1520 Laptop

Ubuntu

We finally retired wife’s Dell Inspiron 1520 15″ laptop with built in DVD drive from Windows duty and that, as always, provided me with an opportunity to press it into service as a Linux computer. Linux laptops with WiFi are a special treat because I can relocate them to spots where I can access them directly when needed, or ssh into them from my Macbook Air.

I normally use Ubuntu Canonical as my go-to distribution because I’ve found it stable, easy to install, and helpful in terms of third-party drivers, but in this case I thought perhaps I’d experiment with Debian. I burned the latest Debian stable release to CD, inserted it into the Dell, and installed. The installation was straightforward but, as I feared, the WiFi adapter was not attended to and, worse, I realized that the software base was so old it was still using OpenOffice rather than LibreOffice. It was only then that I recalled that the Debian stable release is very conservative. You use the beta release if you want the latest versions.

I might have downloaded the beta and reinstalled, but I thought about the driver I needed for the Dell’s Broadcom Wi-Fi adapter. I was in unfamiliar territory. I wasn’t certain where to find the necessary driver or how to get it installed and working even if I did. I knew I could spend hours searching for the info with Google searches, working up the driver by hand, but I’ve been spoiled by Ubuntu. It makes the job so much easier.

So instead of downloading the Debian Beta release, I downloaded the current LTS version of Ubuntu: 12.04.1. I remembered using Ubuntu once before on an earlier model Dell laptop and being able to pick up the driver during updates when I jacked it into an RJ45 hardwired port. I decided since it was comfortable to do the installation in my dining room that I’d install unconnected to the Net and pick up the BroadCom driver after the fact.

Ubuntu installs are a piece of cake, especially since I was able to allow it to use the entire hard disk for its own use with no sharing or dual booting. The only surprise I got was a good one. When it arrived at the point of wanting to know if I wanted the installation to update software at the same time, via the Internet, it provided me with the necessary Broadcom Wi-Fi adapter. I chose it, typed in the network password, and Ubuntu did the rest. That’s plain classy.

When I booted up for business, after the installation, I was pleased with the selection of software Ubuntu had chosen, including LibreOffice and Firefox. I planned to add my specialized preferences, such as LyX and LaTeX, myself.

The new Unity interface was interesting — a kind of cross between Windows and Mac. It was easy to navigate and use, but it took me awhile to find my way to a terminal. You’d think that any version of Linux would set up an obvious terminal emulator by default. Worse, though was the performance. Rather than being better than Windows, I felt I was clicking through treacle. What was going on?

I did some Googling and discovered that, by default, Unity tries to use 3D graphics and works best with a graphics accelerator. I don’t know if the old Dell has an accelerated graphics chip or not, but if it does, it wasn’t working very well. So I logged off and on logging back on chose Unity 2D. After that everything speeded up to normal. All was almost well.

Except. I don’t know quite how to put this without offending the fine people at Ubuntu, whom I respect tremendously, but I really don’t like Unity. It’s a grandma’s interface. Something for the novice who never has plans to be anything else. Surely there must be a better way.

Here’s where my memory fails me. I can’t recall if Gnome Shell was an option on the relog screen or whether I went to the command line and typed $ sudo apt-get install gnome-shell. It was certainly an option after that.

So finally I rebooted into the traditional Gnome Shell and found an interface I could live with. I’ve used it before and found it plenty serviceable. The first program I stuck onto the top bar was Gnome Terminal. Now I was back in the Linux business. Next came Firefox and GEdit. TeX and LaTeX loaded up nicely, and I installed Handbrake because I have a DVD ripping project on the go.

Although I intend to do some modest development work on the Dell 1520, I’m first using it to rip the many Teaching Company “Great Courses” we own to MP4 format. As a friend remarked, I’m digitizing my university. Nowadays I purchase Teaching Company courses in download format from the get-go, but I have years of DVD courses I’d like to be able to study and review on my iPad or put on a memory stick to plug into my Blu Ray player.

All in all, it’s been another fine exercise in installing and using Linux. So far I haven’t found any trouble spots with the Dell 1520. I might, after finishing my ripping project, reinstall with Linux Mint, just to have a first look at it, but for now I’m happy with Ubuntu.

Back to Mac

Mac OS X Screenshot

The life history of Ubuntu Linux 10.10 netbook edition on my Dell Mini 10v netbook was short.

I like Linux (a lot), but I hit a major snag and the most unusual problem I’ve ever seen: when I tried to use LyX, a genial front-end program to LaTeX, it had no top menu. No File, Edit, Help, etc. De nada. The lower menus were in place and I could open existing documents or start a new one, but missing were all the critical Import/Export features from the File tab, because there was no File tab.

Every other program on my system was normal, indicating a one-off anomaly. I did the usual: I removed LyX and re-fetched and installed it. It still came up without the top menu.

Well, thought I, I’ll simply download the source code and compile it. When I ran ./configure one of the error messages I received was to the effect that it couldn’t find an X Window system. I could have dogged it out, trying to feed in new parameters to the config script, or I could have contacted the packagers for LyX, asking what gives, but I knew that in one hour’s time I could reinstall Mac OS X.

So, that’s what I did. I needed LyX for a project and knew it ran perfectly on Mac OS X so I proceeded with the reinstall. Because I’d done it before I still had all the install files on USB drives. Within an hour I was once again running Snow Leopard.

I fetched MacTex then LyX (as well as installing X) and all was well. The top menu is there and I’m once again ready to proceed to package my year’s journals into a beautifully typeset PDF file.

The only reason I left the Mac OS X install behind was that it doesn’t take well to updates. As in, I can’t boot afterward and I’m not dedicated enough to dig out the why and fix it.

So, I use it without updates. Not a problem really because the machine’s only on when I’m writing.

Still, LyX without a top menu tops my list of strange problems and I enjoyed seeing it for myself. I wouldn’t have credited it if someone had told me this had happened to them. Now I’ll keep an open mind.

Ubuntu 10.10, Netbook Edition

Unity Interface, Ubuntu 10 Netbook Edition

I heard about Ubuntu 10.10 and the new Unity interface for netbooks on the NY Times Tech Talk podcast. It had been awhile since I last put Ubuntu on my netbook so I decided to reintroduce my Dell 10v Mini to the world of Linux.

One of the things I like about Ubuntu Linux is the way the packagers have always tried to make Linux as easy to install and use as possible, making it a good Linux for beginners. It’s also an educational Linux, with plenty of help pages and how-to’s. The website gives clear instructions for putting the Netbook Edition installer on a USB drive and using that to either try out Linux or to install Linux.

My Dell 10v is a reliable netbook that has served me as a “sandbox” for trying out various releases of Ubuntu and a Hackintosh installation. It was currently running Windows XP, an OS that is beginning to show its age, so I had no problem blowing it away to make room for Ubuntu.

As usual, the installation was smooth and easy. This particular model of Dell is on the “A” list of compatible netbooks and Linux is able to figure out most of the hardware and install drivers that work. With one exception. The unit has a Broadcom wireless component inside that doesn’t work with standard Linux drivers, so the distribution downloads a proprietary Broadcom driver from the Internet.

Normally that’s not a problem and when the driver is in place, I have Wi-Fi connectivity. I’ve done so on two previous versions of Ubuntu Netbook Remix. This time around, however, the installation of the driver failed with a library error message, meaning, as near as I can guess, that the install script made a call that’s missing from the library, or a call to the wrong library for this release.

As a consequence I don’t yet have wireless, which is one of the main features on a netbook. I know it’s not a driver issue due to previous successes with the same driver. It’s a script issue. I’ve not yet researched the bug to find out if there’s a manual workaround.

In the meantime I’m using the Dell Mini as a Net disabled machine. I hadn’t realized how Net dependent I’ve become. I feel like I’m handcuffed when I use it off the grid. For writing, which is my main use of the machine, I’ll have to use USB drives to move files until the wireless driver issue gets fixed.

I’ve had a brief time to study the Unity interface and it’s a slick refinement of the previous evolutionary steps to create a simplified netbook interface that is designed for the netbook’s smaller-than-standard screen, so that things like dialog boxes don’t scroll off the page at the bottom.

Without studying any Help files, I attempted to reorganize Unity. I was able to delete icons from programs I don’t use, like Instant Messaging, but adding new icons to the panel from programs I use frequently, like Gedit and OO Word Processor still eludes me. The procedure is not an intuitive drag and drop so I’ll have to read up on it before I can customize the environment.

As soon as I get wireless working I’ll start furnishing the Linux apartment with some of my favourite furniture, like LyX and LaTeX. I could do this by hooking the machine into my network with a 10Base-T connector, but it’s awkward getting to my router right now. Cleaning my office is an ongoing goal that hasn’t yet been reached.

So far I like what I see. The wireless glitch is annoying, but I expect it will be fixed soon. I’ll study how to customize the interface to my needs.

Everything seems new and fresh. It feels right for a new start with Linux.

Postscript: Searching the forums resulted in a simple one-line command that installed the wireless driver:

sudo apt-get --reinstall install bcmwl-kernel-source

I now have wireless.

An OS Love Triangle and a Butterfly’s Wing

Butterfly-effect

Small changes can lead to amplified consequences — one of the common-sense tenets encapsulated in Chaos Theory by the metaphor of the Butterfly Effect. What I’m about to relate is a messy tale. Stop reading now if you like things smooth and uncomplicated.

It starts with an innocent netbook, my Dell Mini 10v, which, by the way, I can recommend highly as an excellent netbook with great battery life (six-cell model).

After I’d switched over to a Macbook Pro as my main computer, I thought it would be cool if my Dell Mini could also run Mac OS X. I found a good recipe and Hackintoshed the 10v into a pretty decent Mac netbook. It wasn’t 100% stable, but most of the time it worked okay.

But I was nagged, in the way that a geek gets nagged, by the requirement to downgrade the Mini 10v BIOS from A06 to A04. BIOSes get upgraded for a good reason, and it’s seldom advisable to go backward. The BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) is the firmware that mediates between the operating system and the unit’s hardware components. I suspected some of the minor glitches of OS X Snow Leopard on the 10v could be attributed to BIOS glitches in the earlier BIOS release.

My friend Steve alerted me that the Hackintosh recipe had been updated and no longer required a BIOS downgrade. The new package could be installed on A06. With a little time on my hands I decided that I really didn’t mind reinstalling Mac OS X again, so I decided to make the system “clean.”

When I performed the BIOS downgrade, I had to create a DOS (not Windows) bootable memory stick and put the Dell BIOS exe file on it and manually run it from the command line with a couple of flags. Easy enough, though the computer beeped like a demon at full moon during the procedure. I downloaded the exe file for A06 and put it on the same memory stick and booted from it. At the DOS prompt I dutifully put in the flags and hit Enter. It just as dutifully replied with an error message saying that this executable had to be run in a Windows environment.

Catch-22. Well, I’d come this far so I hooked the 10v to an external HP USB DVD player and performed a minimal Windows XP install. When I was able to log in, I ran the Dell BIOS executable, which ran fine, and upgraded the BIOS to A06 perfectly, without the annoying beeps and screeches of the downgrade.

At last. A clean starting point. With confidence I inserted the 8GB memory stick that had Snow Leopard on it along with utilities to allow it to boot. Following the procedure of the recipe exactly, I booted from the stick, and began installing Mac OS X. I’d done it before and it’s quite easy. Partition the drive for Mac, and set the boot sector to GUID. It started purring along. Home free.

Not quite. With under 10 minutes left, the installation aborted with a -1 and the message “Mac OS X cannot be installed on this computer.” Huh? I rebooted with the stick, erased the partition, and started over, double checking I had everything right. Once more it started installing perfectly. Once again it aborted, with the same message when the installation was nearly finished.

I googled back to the recipe and all the user comments I could find. Everyone said it had worked a treat on their 10v with A06 BIOS. Perfect. No glitches. So what gives? I thought. I’d done this install before, a couple of times, on A04 BIOS with no problems.

So now what? Support for the Hackintosh procedure is thin, and so was my patience. I decided to go back to my previous setup: a dual boot Windows XP and Ubuntu Netbook Remix combo.

I’m not a Windows lover, but I’m not a Windows hater either. I just find it inelegant and kludgy. And terribly annoying. It’s the most annoying operating system I’ve ever used.

But. It works, and its hardware support is great. And, despite reports to the contrary, if you treat it right, it’s stable. Besides, I thought if I make a Windows partition, others in my family can use it if they need a small netbook to take along somewhere. They’re Windows users.

Windows installed as usual, and the Dell resources CD added all the necessary drivers to get things up at a base level. Then the dreaded Windows Update procedure. On the first pass it had 60 updates. After that was done, and it rebooted, it had another dozen or so updates.

All of that to get to square one. No apps yet installed.

Next I downloaded the latest ISO for Ubuntu Remix. It’s a later version than I had running last year, prior to Mac OS X. I put it on a memory stick and it booted fine and installed cleanly. I’m very impressed with how easy Ubuntu has made installing the Debian flavour of Linux, my favourite.

Unlike the previous release, however, it had no wi-fi support out of the gate. That was annoying. I googled the issue and saw that for whatever reason the packagers have removed the proprietary network driver for the internal wireless device. One user reported that after updating by RJ45 cable, the missing driver suddenly appeared.

I took my Dell Mini to a different location, one with direct connection, and updated Linux. Sure enough, the necessary driver was there after updating, and I was able to connect wirelessly after, one of the main points of using a netbook. Given that the same driver is needed by both the Dell and the HP minis, this seems like a major gaffe on the part of the packagers, especially when the previous release included it in the initial build.

So, all I wanted was a clean BIOS. I got it.

Moral of the story: be careful what you wish for.

Self-publishing a Book with LyX

Screenshot-LyX

I write 1000 words in my journal nearly every day. Some days I miss, and other days I write up to 2500 words or more.  The result is that I produce between 25,000-30,00 words a month of personal observations, notes, story ideas, rants, and records of what’s going on with the family — a hodgepodge of private material where I feel free to write anything I want. Material never intended for anyone else to read. My writing compost heap, as it were.

A year’s worth of this journalling produces the equivalent of a novel in terms of length. It recently occurred to me that there was nothing to prevent me from turning this into a privately printed paperback, through a self-publishing site such as Lulu.com. I can think of a few reasons for doing this: it’s easier for me to dig out material I’ve written if I can see it on the printed page, it can become part of my family legacy after my demise, and it’s a good exercise in book creation. Above all, it’s a reward for my efforts. I can have three or four copies printed so I can mark up one of them and keep the others from getting dog-eared.

Once I’d decided to proceed, the next decision was what software to use. I’m not a fan of Microsoft Word for long documents. It’s feature rich, but sometimes unstable. Open Office Writer is a better choice. But better than either is LyX, a graphical front end to the LaTeX publishing system. The typeset ouput from LaTeX is superb, with exceptionally fine font kerning, and there are several well-defined book classes to select from. I’m working with Book (Memoir), a newer class that’s highly adjustable.

My Dell Mini 10V netbook is a dual-boot Windows/Linux computer and I prefer to work with LyX in Linux because it’s easy to set up all the LaTeX components. In Ubuntu you simply select and install LyX from a menu of installable programs, and everything else you need gets installed along with it.

LyX uses several LaTeX utilities in the background to create final output, including excellent PDF, the format preferred by Lulu. I’ve set my book size at 6×9″ and have re-learned how to create master-child documents so I can work on each month in a separate LyX file. LaTeX has a strong indexing module, so I intend to index my journal fairly extensively. Things like family events, camera equipment notes, writing ideas, health notes — things I want to locate easily.

So far I’ve set and edited January and February 2009 but I’ve not yet started the indexing. Is all this effort worth it? For me, yes, though I can understand how others might prefer to access their journals electronically. I like having a physical book in hand. I’ll post updates on this project as it progresses.

Addendum, 5 Oct 2009

I realized that my journal might make too fat a book for the binding at 6×9″, especially after indexing, so I’m beginning to think 8.5×11″ and double-columned.

Linux Onna Stick

Linux Netbook (by StarbuckGuy)

As part of my “Fresh Start” I thought about the way I use my Acer Aspire One netbook and realized that I didn’t have many Windows-specific programs that were critical. I don’t use it for photo editing, so I don’t need Photoshop and all my plugins. For word processing I normally use Open Office Writer and I’m committed to Firefox for browsing, and there’s nothing Windows-specific about them. I don’t use iTunes on the Acer either. I use it almost exclusively for writing and web access.

So, last night I downloaded the latest Ubuntu Linux 9.04 (Jaunty Jackalope) Netbook Remix image and tried burning it to a DVD so I could install Linux from my portable DVD reader. After trashing two discs it occurred to me to RTFM1, at which point I learned that the IMG file was for “burning” to a memory stick (USB flash drive, thumb drive). I’d never installed “Linux onna stick”2 before and it was almost spooky to watch the fast, silent install with no optical disc drive whirring.

I’ve installed Ubuntu Linux before so there were no surprises. I opted to blow away Windows XP entirely and reformat the entire 160GB hard disk with the Linux EXT3 file system.

The surprise came after I installed the OS and saw the new netbook-specific interface. Wow! Very iPod Touch-like. I elected to stick with it, despite a usual preference for the spare conventional Gnome interface. It caught my fancy.

This morning I downloaded LyX and the accompanying LaTeX packages. I love the easy LyX interface to the complex LaTeX typesetting markup language. It produces beautifully typeset output.

Connecting to my home Laserjet printer via Samba was simple, and all I needed to do to configure my wireless LAN connection was enter the correct passphrase.

One of my secret pleasures is installing operating systems — even Windows in a pinch. Every time I install a recent Linux distribution I marvel at how far Linux has come as a desktop alternative to Windows and MacOS. And free, natch. It feels like a homecoming.

Notes:

1 Read the F*ing Manual (or Instructions)

2 Thank you to Terry Pratchett for the “onna stick” phrase.

Acer Aspire One — Reprise

Acer Aspire One (by StarbuckGuy)

Now that I’ve used my Acer Aspire One (named Sibyl, from an ancient Greek word meaning prophetess) for a couple of months, I can look back on my original thoughts on how I planned to use it and see what worked and what didn’t.

Portable Internet Device

There’s no question that Sibyl has worked out wonderfully as a lightweight device to take to coffee shops, libraries, and other venues that offer wireless services. It’s better than a pocket device, such as iPhone or iPod Touch, because it offers a bigger screen and a real keyboard. My Aspire One is a Windows XP model with 160GB HD, six-cell battery, two SD slots, and three USB ports, among other interfaces, so I’m able to browse the Web with the same Firefox browser I use on my home machines and the FoxMarks add-on keep my bookmarks sync’d.

For a full-service netbook, Sibyl has a small form factor and light weight. It slips easily into a small backpack, and even with a book or two in the pack, the weight is easy to bear. My usual gear lately is Sibyl in my backpack, at least one book I’m reading, a notebook for longhand notes, a collection of pens, some fountain, some gel,  and a small digital camera. I feel like a journalistic road warrior.

Writing Companion

As an aid to writing, Sibyl gets high marks, but not full marks. The small keyboard took me some time to adjust to, and I still can’t type as fast on it as I can on my AlphaSmart Neo or Palm BT folding keyboard. I have to watch what I’m typing because the keyboard still causes me to make typos I don’t normally make on larger keyboards. It is usable though, and I get by with it well enough.

I find Sibyl excellent for blog writing and magazine writing, both of which require Internet-based research or verification. When I’m on a magazine assignment, I add a USB wireless mouse to my kit because Sibyl’s touchpad is awkward to use for copying, cutting, and pasting references or text. The same is true for my larger Dell portable. It’s a generic issue for touchpads, not an Aspire One issue.

One great advantage to Sibyl being an XP netbook is that I can run WhizFolders on it — my favourite writing/organizing software for complex writing that requires research or interviews. I don’t much like WhizFolders’ busy, garish toolbars, but in full-screen mode, I have enough editor visible to make writing practical.

There’s a downside to being connected to the Net when writing an essay or thought piece. If the writing is difficult or demanding, it’s too easy to switch over to email and check out forum discussions instead of concentrating on the writing. What has helped with this is the marvellously simple Q10 text editor, that masks out the distractions.

For other kinds of writing, such as journalling, non-blog essays, and occasional forays into fiction, I prefer using the Neo with its superb keyboard, or the ultra-portable Palm TX with BT folding keyboard. I write faster and with fewer distractions on them.

Dictation

One of the uses I intended for Sibyl was to be my computer for Dragon Naturally Speaking 10, a voice-recognition package that allows you to speak into a mic and translate your words into text. It hasn’t happened. I tend to use Sibyl in noisy environments where dictation is impractical, and when at home, I prefer my larger notebook. The Aspire One also has a weak mic input which I discovered when I ran some Skype tests on it. The weak signal makes DNS work too hard to be trained. I’m going to remove DNS from Sibyl and put it on my Dell laptop instead.

Music and Podcasts

I originally envisioned Sibyl as an alternative iPod Classic, with enough HD to hold most of my music and podcast library. I loaded gigabytes of MP3 files on it, and have never listened to a one. It’s an idea that sounded good but didn’t work out. I realize now how much I prefer my little iPod Nano to being tethered to a computer, no matter how small. I’ll be removing all the music, which occupies an enormous amount of my HD storage.

Other

Once I take off the MP3’s and DNS binaries, I’ll have a lot of free space left on Sibyl’s HD.  Whenever I see a HD with free space, I think Linux, and I might investigate installing Ubuntu Linux if there are enough drivers around to support the built-in devices. I’ve been a Linux user for years and like working in an open-source environment. If I install Linux, I might even be tempted to study the Python programming language.

There are accounts of folk installing Mac OS on the Aspire One, and it would be fun to turn Sibyl into a Mac-alike, but the complex installation procedures give me the fantods. I could do it, but I’m not as technically inclined as I was prior to retirement. I’d rather spend my time writing than trying to wrap my head around the challenges of Mac OS on a non-Apple computer.

Bottom Line

Overall I can say I have no regrets about my purchase. For an inexpensive, tiny laptop with an amazing set of features, it’s been a bargain, and, even better, fun to use. Netbooks, no matter the brand, make good travel companions, and I know netbooks will continue to get better. There are already models with slightly larger screens and slightly larger keyboards that raise the weight only slightly. I’d love to see a Mac netbook, but so far there’s no sign of one — only rumours.

With six-hours of battery life, Sibyl is about as good as it gets with the current generation of netbooks. A few cautions aside, I say ‘no complaints.’

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.

Welcome to 2008

To the tune of Howdy Doody, “It’s res-o-LU-tion time, it’s resolution time …”

1. Shoot more film, especially medium-format B&W. My first photoshoot of the year is first thing New Year’s Day and I have my Minolta Autocord TLR ready to go, if the weather’s not inclement. If it is, I’ll switch to my Nikon FM10 with ‘E’ lenses.

2. Write more. During PicoWriMo in November I averaged nearly 1000 words a day in my journal and I wrote one short story and started another. The pace fell off in December and I want to increase it.

3. Explore more Linux programs. I have a new entry-level Dell laptop on order specifically to turn into a Linux portable so I can further explore open-source software while sitting in a comfortable chair or couch.

4. Trim the waistline. During December I shed ten pounds. I grew up as a thin, skinny guy and for cardio reasons, if for no other, I need to return to being that guy. Marion and I are following a Weight Watcher’s regimen of calorie counting. It works.

5. Laugh more. 2007 was a hard, serious year. Too hard, too serious. Life’s a dance.

Internet-centric Computing

The more I think about it, the less I would need to have a beefed up computer these days as long as I used the resources on the Internet for most of my work. For me, the exception to this would be Photoshop CS3 which I use frequently, but even that could be dispensed with in a pinch.

Already I use Google Docs & Spreadsheets to store my text files and spreadsheets. I update them online, or squirt them up from one of my tiny electronic writing devices. I keep a cardio exercise log there that I update and use to fill out for the sheets I hand in at class for my cardio rehab program.

Blog entries, such as this one, are written directly into WordPress from the keyboard. The online editor is fine for this kind of writing and it offers interactive spell check to help me catch typos and misspelled words.

Most of my good photos go up on Flickr, which now offers an online photo editor for making corrections to colour, sharpness, contrast, sizing. A casual hobbyist could take shots with a digicam, look at them on the LCD, and select the best ones to load up to Flickr, fixing them up once they’re online.

With this in mind, those sub-compact notebook computers, or Internet devices if you prefer, such as the Asus eeePC, could be all the computer you’d need. It runs a variant of Linux that is invisible to the casual user. It offers wireless connectivity and a few basic programs, including a browser.

I’m even tempted to say you could almost do without owning a computer at all. Just book time on an Internet computer at the local library or rent some connection time at an Internet café. Talk about travelling light!

Of course, most of us would be unable to live without checking email several times a day or, if you use IRC or IM, being in constant contact with friends.

But a time is coming, and it could be soon, when the only computing device you might need is an iPhone-like cellular phone with embedded camera, MP3 and video player, browser, and an accessory Blue-Tooth folding keyboard to use for any serious typing.

Forget hard-disk failures and nasty Microsoft upgrades. Soon we’ll be nomadic, Internet-centric computerists doing our hunting and gathering via wireless hotspots.