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The xorg log file is in /etc/X11R6, and I don't know what errors to look for either. From the description nothing is breaking or crashing, it's just not producing the desired result. Correct?
What I did, using Slackware, for multiple displays is make a copy of my xorg.conf for each. One for the laptop and one for the external (tv). When I use the tv, which is very rare, I copy my xorg.conf-tv to xorg.conf before starting x. It's a little extra work but it works.
Some Google searching leads me to think you need to adjust the horizontal and vertical rates for the external monitor. Perhaps since you're using the same rates for both you're getting the same results. Also here's a related LQ thread:
I understand you want to "force" a certain resolution. And, as far as i know, the only way is to have it as the only option on a "modes" line, but you already have it as that. My research has shown that other people who use resolutions of 1280x1024 or higher have higher HorizSync and VertRefresh rates in their .conf. That was my previous suggestion. Specifically this portion from the link I gave:
Check if you have something like this in the Monitor section of your /etc/X11/xorg.conf:
Once you correct that and restart your x server it should automagically adjust to the correct resolution.
Xorg only probes for the devices listed in the xorg.conf file. Meaning if the current xorg.conf doesn't contain anything about the laptop screen, Xorg doesn't know that the laptop screen exists at all.