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New Computer -- Inspiron 1521

Posted 08-01-2008 at 11:48 AM by radiodee1
Updated 11-26-2008 at 05:29 AM by radiodee1

This post was written previously. I include it here so that maybe other people can benefit from this long story of how I got my laptop to finally work, and because I like posting to blogs.

--New Computer--
Well, I've got a new computer. It's a Dell Laptop Inspiron 1521. It's great, but now I'm trying to put linux on it. I'm using debian linux, and my goal is to run 'lenny', or what they also call 'testing'. I still have dial-up at home, but the computer has a wireless card, so if I can get that to work I can use the computer at friend's houses and at the school library. That would be how I would keep the computer up to date with new software.

Don't pay too much attention to the date at the top of these posts. My writing and posting are not happening at the same time. This is my 'to-do' list.

Basic Installation
What Works and What Doesn't
First Modifications

--Basic Installation--
Well, the computer has alot of features, some of which I'll list here. It's an amd64 processor, and it's got a 160 GB hard drive, 1 GB ram, and a wifi card. It's also got a built in Network Interface Card and a built in modem. It's got a built in web cam, which I never thought I'd get to work. It's also got built in speakers and ports for camera memory cards. It's got a DVD-R/W drive, and four USB ports. It has a video output connector for an external monitor, and a touchpad in place of a mouse. The screen can display 1280 x 800. The computer came with Windows Vista pre-installed, but without the actual vista disks. Instead the operating system software was saved on one of the partitions that the computer came with, in what must be almost pristine form.

My first move was to divide up the hard drive so I could put linux on it. I wanted to give Windows Vista 30 or 40 GB of space and keep the rest for linux. That wasn't to be. Vista wouldn't let me cut it's size down to less than half, because of restrictions placed on the system by the backup software. This way I only had 80 GB to work with.

I divided the remaining space into smaller partitions, about 10 GB for my first linux operating system, and about 35 GB for my home directory, and I installed the current stable distribution of debian, called 'etch'. I had this software from when I installed etch on my desktop computer almost a year previously, and it's the same software I mention in the post below.

--What Works and What Doesn't--
Nothing works. I got the graphics to work in a way. They show up in 1024x768. This allows me to do things like browse files, and view web pages, but when I started the modem didn't work either, so I could only view pages I had saved previously. I start moving things back and forth between my old computer and the new one with an USB data key. I also use the key to move files between my Vista installation and my linux installation... on the same machine, the laptop.

I find out that the modem in my laptop uses the conexent hsf modem, which is ironic because that's the same driver I used on my desktop. I didn't think you would be able to use that driver on a laptop. The driver worked great and I could check my email and surf a little from the laptop.

The sound doesn't work, and I don't know how to get the wifi card working. From googleing I find that some people have gotten the sound to work by plugging external speakers into the headphone jack. This works. I find later that I have to wait for a later version of alsa to get more functionality out of the speakers.

--First Modifications:--
Originally, I would go to school and use their wifi connection, and download software using vista. Then I'd put it on the data key and install it at home or rarely, on the spot. This is how I planned to get the wifi to work. The next step I felt was to go to someone else's home and do a massive download, and thereby update my computer to software that was more recent and possibly that would allow me to get more of my hardware running. That was the plan, but I really didn't know that alot of this software was going to be that helpful. I didn't know if it would really solve my problems. I wanted to update to 'lenny' and I was hoping that the software in the lenny distribution would be advanced enough to fix my problems, but I wasn't sure.

So my first priority after the modem was the sound and the video. Neither of those was addressable, so I went on to the wifi. I had two (or so) good html pages describing how to set up wireless using ndiswrapper and bcm43xx.

I started with ndiswrapper but it just wouldn't work. I did alot of posting on the internet forums. I also tried both the normal version of ndiswrapper that comes with etch as well as downloading the latest sources from the ndiswrapper site. Nothing worked for me. I blame the failure on the drivers. I don't feel the exactly correct driver exists for my card... or maybe for this computer. I got the drivers that I could get ahold of installed correctly, but ultimately could not get the software to perform simple tasks like changing the essid. Ndiswrapper never worked out for me.

My other option was to get bcm43xx to work. First I tried it with the kernel I had, a 2.6.18 kernel. I even built my own version of the same kernel, making sure that bcm43xx was turned on. That didn't work. Then I tried stock kernels from backports and testing. These were 2.6.21 and 2.6.22 kernels. I had big problems, though, as the two were taking a long time to boot up. Then the computer would act strangely after they finally did boot up. I found out later that this was due to the interrupts, and that I had to add 'noapic nolapic' to the kernel lines in grub, but I didn't know this at first. The 2.6.18 kernel was booting fine, and the higher versions were booting terribly and acting strangely. I would get bcm43xx to work with these kernels, but they were too unstable to really use all the time. Plus the use of them was really inconvenient. It would take up to 10 minutes to boot. I'd have to have alot of free time on my hands when I wanted to use wireless anywhere.

Around this time I decided to try the amd64 distribution. This wasn't easy, as I had to download a early version of the operating system and upgrade as I had been doing by using the vista operating system on my laptop. When I finally got a 2.6.21 kernel on there it worked well without special parameters. I was using amd64 and i386 operating systems at once -- dual booting. I actually did a dist-upgrade at someone's house on both operating systems, the i386 acting buggy throughout when it was it's turn. Later I would learn about turning off 'apic' and since then I use the i386 most of the time, but at that time if I wanted to use i386 I'd boot up with the 2.6.18 kernel. I updated a couple of times like this at the same friend's house.

It was a real option just to stick with amd64, but I couldn't get the java settup to work right, especially eclipse, which I expected to use for a class, so in the end I had to keep both operating systems. Now I use the 2.6.22 i386 kernel mostly. It boots up fine, and the only shortcoming is that it uses only one of the two processors in the cpu. I don't notice the difference, and the laptop in general is faster than my old desktop. With the release of a newer kernel I was able to stop using the 'noapic nolapic' option, and I believe that my system runs faster for it.

More to follow regarding sound and video.
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