New Dell Laptop – And Troubles Installing Linux on it

I bought a new Dell laptop, Dell Studio 14, yesterday. My intention was to have a personal laptop that I could use for both work and fun. After having a Macbook Pro (from Yahoo!) for more than half a year now, I would have loved a Mac. But it was too costly for me to afford in India, and Hadoop works really well only on Linux. Hence, I decided to go in for a ‘pure’ Linux laptop. Since my wife had a Dell Studio 15 that worked satisfactorily, even with Windows Vista ;-), I decided to continue with Dell.

Some advertisements in local newspapers pointed me to the Dell Vostro laptop series that seemed to come pre-installed with Ubuntu from Dell. A few calls with a Dell representative about this series confused me more than helped. Apparently, this series was only sold directly from Dell authorized shops and cannot be ordered from the usual online Dell site. The representative also said that even the authorized shops did not have a stock of the laptop with Linux installed, though the advertisements clearly indicated their availability. Instead of running around finding Dell authorized shops and validating this claim, I decided to buy a Dell laptop without an OS and install Ubuntu myself.

My main concern with this approach was the compatibility question. In particular, I was worried about wireless support. I have become so used to wireless since the past 4 months, when we bought a wireless router, that life without wireless connectivity at home seems unimaginable to me. I had an Ubuntu 8.10 desktop edition CD with me, and I used its LiveCD option on my wife’s laptop. Ubuntu worked just fine here, including the wireless option.

Armed with the positive results of this experiment, I placed an order with a nearby computer equipment store who happened to be a channel partner for Dell. I went with the channel option instead of going through Dell directly, because I was in a hurry to get a laptop, and Dell takes a couple of weeks for delivery, while the channel will get it in a matter of hours. I had to pay a couple of thousand bucks more for this, but then I really was in a hurry :-). The final cost came to about Rs. 37,500.

Then, with some impatience, I started installing Ubuntu. I was mentally prepared to face problems, but not that prepared to see basic install hanging. Ubuntu install would go upto a very small percentage in the splash screen and then just hang. There would be no CPU or disk activity and no indication of progress any more. Thankfully, I had my wife’s laptop to help, and using that, I was soon reading query after query by desperate users who had faced these same issues with other models of Dell laptops or other versions of Ubuntu.

The first helpful suggestion was to disable the options ‘quiet‘ and ‘splash‘ in the boot options. There were helpful menus in the install screens that tell us how to do this. I suppose the rationale for disabling ‘splash’ was to prevent screen resolution problems. But in my case, while that might not have been the exact issue, disabling these options helped me to get transparency into what the installer was doing. I started seeing that the installer kept going to various stages and getting stuck. By now, I was beginning to feel like I rushed into a bad decision. Going back to Google, I started desperately looking for some clue that might salvage the situation. Since I started seeing ACPI related errors during the installation process, I searched specifically for that, and found many posts claiming that disabling ACPI, by using the option acpi=off, would tide over these problems. I tried that by inserting that option into the installer’s boot menu and successfully got Ubuntu installed.

Shutting down was a problem – Ubuntu did not halt gracefully and spewed lots of error messages indicating I/O errors. I had to forcefully power off, and reboot. Reboot again had the same problems as install – in that it would hang after some progress. But since I had read enough about ACPI problems by now, I tried booting by inserting the acpi=off option into GRUB’s boot menu as well. That allowed me to boot into Linux, though it claimed it could not configure the GUI, and particularly, the screen resolution, correctly. It was true that the screen resolution was incorrect, but it was still functional. As if to reward me for tiding over all the troubles, wireless worked like a charm (despite some web posts claiming that turning off ACPI would interfere with wireless functionality). Also, when I rebooted, the screen resolution auto-corrected itself and things started looking good.

Now, I have a functional system that is online and working quite nicely. There are still some issues I am seeing. For example, hibernate doesn’t seem to be working smoothly. From the application side, I am not able to get the battery monitor or power indicator applets to work. Still, from where I was less than a day ago, I have made good progress. My faith in Linux came close to getting lost, but the barrage of information by helpful, competent volunteers on the public forums saved the day. I am confident that, over time, I will be able to resolve other issues as well. What is required is another working computer that is connected to the internet, some skill in searching and finding the right answers, and a little luck along the way. Life with Linux can never be boring.

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