Monday, August 20, 2007

Fedora 7 on the IBM X30 versus Mint on the Dell C400

In my last post over at TalkBMC, called "Minty Dell(icious)", I talked about a new Linux Mint 3.0 install on an old Dell C400 I had in the trashpile. At the end of it all I wondered just how long Dell had been getting ready for Linux, since the C400 is, like the D620 of my previous TalkBMC post, positively Linux compatible to the point of seeming like it was designed for it.

The trades have also recently noted that Lenovo, the owner of the laptops that used to be called "IBM Thinkpads" has started shipping Novell Linux pre-installed on some models. I decided it was probably worth noting again here my IBM X30 Thinkpad running Fedora 7. I posted about this unit a few back here in "On Being Open", so I won't re-cover that ground.

What I found interesting this time around was the similarities between the Dell C400 and the IBM X30. Both were meant as expensive, lightweight, extremely portable laptops (actually, I think the category was called the "Sub-Notebook"). My two copies were both circa 2002. They both have nice bright 1024x768 panels, and cramped keyboards. Both have 1GB of RAM, and 1.2 Ghz Pentium Mobile processors. Both spec out at the same 2393 bogomips. Of course, they both run Linux extremely well. Both enable and run Beryl for 3D desktop without issue. Both laptops even have cracked cases, although the X30's is cracked on the lower left where the plastic is extremely thin due to the way the PCMCIA card slot, firewire, and IRDA module intersects that corner, and the stress that the feet that lift the back of the unit focuses into that area. In fact, when I was building the X30 with parts off ebay, all the X30's I bought were cracked in this location. Clearly a design flaw. The Dell C400 looks like its cracks, near the inverted T of the cursor keys, may be impact damage from being dropped.

Each unit has things about it I really like, and things that make me wish of the other unit. The Dell has the lovely TrueMobile 1150 Wifi card inside, in the MiniPCI slot. It's embedded-in-the-case antenna pulls in WiFi points from across the city! Easily the best laptop I have in this regard, and I include the Apples in this. The chipset on the TrueMobile is Orinoco, which Linux supports extremely well. This would be a good Fedora system, because unlike most Wifi cards, Fedora deals correctly with the Orinoco chipset "out of the box".

The X30 has the fabulous Thinkpad keyboard. The best laptop keyboard I know of short of the Apple MacBook Pro. Even downsized to sub-notebook size, it is pretty usable, and it far more usable than the Dell C400's. There is also a keyboard light, an LED at the top of the screen that shines down on the keyboard, making it usable in totally dark rooms. My copy of the X30 does not have a MiniPCI Wifi card though. And here is where IBM really gets up my nose: they will not accept any Wifi cards other than those they have sourced (short of some major hacking). I may get around to doing this someday because I am getting tired of the Atheros based PCMCIA card hanging out of the side of the X30. There is an in-case antenna in there: I looked. I just have to burn one of my BroadCom cards that came out of my old eMachines 5312's to have a device ID that IBM will accept with their stupid BIOS whitelist.

A moment to rail about BIOS Whitelists

I have complained at length over at TalkBMC about the laptop BIOS whitelists of IBM and HP. I mentioned the issue in my current article about picking Linux Laptops in the 3/2007 issue of Linux+ Magazine. For all that, this is an easy issue to miss, and it is somewhat subtle.

Short version: IBM and HP place into their BIOS a list of device ids that they will accept in the Mini-PCI slot. If you put something they did not re-label (and internally re-address. Neither of them really make Wifi cards) the laptop will not boot. Finito. End of story. Dead solid stopped till you take it out. Really annoying since I have four Broadcom, supported by Linux, B/G Wifi cards that fit perfectly.

There are two ways to deal with this other than giving in and buying a card the vendor supplies at their price (or getting it off eBay):

  1. Flash the cards device ID to something that the laptop has on the whitelist.

  2. Hack the BIOS Whitelist to have the cards deviceID

Option two above opens the chance that a typo will brick the whole laptop. I love that term: Brick. So descriptive.

This is another point in the Dells favor by the way: I have never read of Dell having a BIOS whitelist. Humm... you know... I may try on of those Broadcom cards and see if that is true! I'll get back on that....

Other experiments...

What is clear from messing around with these two systems is that, from a personal-use-of-Linux point of view, Mint 3.0 is a far better option than Fedora 7. This last weekend I decided I wanted to update Fedora 7. Fastest way to turn a weekend to a Geekend. In Mint that is almost always painless: Click update manager, load updates. Done. In Fedora it was hours of pain and hacking, and again, almost all of it revolved around the Atheros chipped Wifi card. I do hope next time it will not hurt this bad though. Here is why.

A while back on TalkBMC I was chattering about Fedora 7 as an office Linux, and I mentioned there some of the issues I was having with the Atheros card and Fedora. Fred Finster wrote in to that post with a nice, complete tutorial about getting Atheros cards going under Fedora, and I was flipping through some of his links and I came across a reference to something in the Livna tutorial. It said I should only ever use Livna, and not mix the repositories, or my mileage would vary, or words to that effect.

I pondered that for a bit, and lights started to go on. I had ATrpms, FreshRPMS, and Livna all enabled in Yum. The problems I was having all looked exactly like pre-req and co-reqs of things I have on not being correctly processed: it would try to put on a new Kernel, then cough up a hairball because that would wreck some package or another, including MadWifi and Ndiswrapper. I very carefully unwound the config and used RPM -e to do point-assassinations on various package sets. I pulled out the Atheros chipped Dlink and inserted the Orinoco chipped Linksys V3. Updates and deletions continued until everyone cheered up, including one point where I had deleted *all* the Linux kernels installed so I could load up a different one from Livna that matched their MadWifi package set. After that, a reboot, and I was up on the new 2.6.22 kernel with MadWifi and the Atheros Dlink!

Now I have a new problem. my IBM BIOS stuff is broken. IBM-ACPI is included in the kernel, and drives things like access by LM-Sensors to temperature and fan speed info. That was all working pre-upgrade, but is now broke. Even the Gnome panel brightness applet quit working. But I am not sure I will chase this further because...

It is clear that the Dell C400 has more Fedora-compatible hardware, if for no other reason than having the TrueMobile 1150 Wifi card in it. Mint works on both, but I want to have at least one Fedora system around for other reasons. I may switch the hard drives between the C400 and the X30. That would make the X30 Mint 3.0, and the C400 would become Fedora 7. I think they would both benefit. Or ... at the very least, break like crazy and give me new things to think about. :)

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1 comment:

Akshun J said...

The BIOS whitelist is pure evil. Obviously, I had a similar experience with trying an unsupported minipci wifi card.

Mint is definitely the slickest new distro out there. I started using it for my Acer laptop 4 months ago, and I haven't looked back. I just installed the KDE version on my desktop. Some quirks, but still the best show in town right now. I blogged about it very recently.