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Installing and Configuring Ubuntu on a Laptop
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Even though I had the wired interface plugged into my router, it failed to get an IP address via DHCP the first time. I told it to try again, and it magically worked. As I'll mention later, I've installed Ubuntu numerous times on this laptop since that first time. DHCP has always (to my recollection) failed the first time, but magically works the second time. I haven't bothered to search the Ubuntu community documentation to see if this is a known issue, because it's self-resolving.

Next, it was time to pick a name for the machine. My recent computer naming convention has been to choose characters from sci-fi novels. I already have ender and valentine (both from Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card) and pham (from A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge), so I chose to name this laptop qiwi after Qiwi Lin Lisolet, also from A Deepness in the Sky.

Next up was partitioning. Here is how I setup my filesystems:

  • sda1, 100MB ext3 mounted as /boot
  • sda2, ~10GB reiserfs mounted as /
  • sda3, ~30GB reiserfs mounted as /home
  • sda4, 1GB swap

For some reason, I am paranoid about my /boot partition. If something goes really wrong with /boot, I want to be able to boot up with something comparable to a Tom's Root boot disk and fix the problem. Last time I checked, Tom's didn't support reiserfs. This paranoia is probably unwarranted, given the number of really good CD-bootable Linuxen such as Damn Small Linux, Ubuntu Live, and Knoppix, all of which can mount reiserfs (I think), but old habits die hard. Setting up a separate /home partition saved me a tremendous amount of time, given the number of times I've installed Ubuntu on this machine. More on that later.

After setting up the partitions, the installer installed the base system and started copying packages to the hard drive. Because I figured it was going to be a late night with my new toy, I took this lull as my cue to make a couple of shots of espresso. By the time I tamped down the grounds and filled the reservoir with water, the files were 71 percent copied. Nice. By the time I had frothed some milk and combined the milk and espresso, the copy had finished.

The next question was the time zone. I've never set up a machine to use Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), so I decided to not start now; instead I selected U.S. Eastern time.

Next, I added a user account. Unless I'm just missing something, the installer allows adding only one account during the install. While you can add users afterward, it would be nice to be able to add a few while you were adding the main account. Something that often confuses people new to Ubuntu is that Ubuntu doesn't activate the root account initially and doesn't ask for a root account during install. After installing and booting into the new system, you have to do a sudo passwd root to set the root password.

The New System

The only steps left were for the installer to test its ability to connect to the package repositories, install grub, reboot, and install the packages it had copied over. These remaining steps progressed pretty quickly. Now it was time to explore my new system!


After rebooting and installing the remainder of its packages, Gnome came right up. The first thing I checked was the screen resolution. The installer automatically configured it to 1,920 by 1,200 at 60Hz, and it is beautiful. While Ubuntu automatically configured the ATI Radeon X300 Mobility card at install time, it didn't use hardware acceleration. This hasn't been a big problem, as I am not much of a gamer. However, I feel the necessity of trying to get the video card fully functional just for the sake of doing so. With the Ubuntu installation configuration of the video card, TuxRacer was nonplayable and BZFlag was jerky.

Some posts that I read mentioned using the fglrx driver, so I fired up the Synaptic package manager, searched for fglrx, found xorg-driver-fglrx, and installed it. I then changed the line in my xorg.conf file from Driver "ati" (the open source ATI driver) to Driver "fglrx" (the closed source ATI proprietary driver), added Option "MonitorLayout" "LVDS, AUTO" directly above the previously mentioned line, and restarted X. This caused glxinfo to show direct rendering: Yes rather than direct rendering: No.

After this modification, TuxRacer worked. I even downloaded the Unreal Tournament 2004 Demo for Linux and it worked ... for about 2 minutes of game play before locking up my laptop. Oh, and the fglrx drivers killed DVD play. I can still play them, but they are unwatchably choppy in full screen.

The ATI web site has drivers for Linux. For the Mobility cards, though, it referred me to my laptop manufacturer, so I checked Dell's site for drivers. Earlier, I mentioned that I could not find Linux drivers on Dell's site. Video drivers were no exception. Being adventuresome, I decided to install version 8.14.13 of the drivers from ATI's web site, the current version at the time of my Hoary installation. Unreal Tournament is fairly playable at a limited 1,024-by-640 resolution. It doesn't lock up any more, but it can get a bit sluggish. DVD playback is much better, but still not as good as with the open source ati driver. DVDs are a bit blocky using the fglrx driver compared with the ati driver. Also, X and xine consume about three times as much CPU while playing DVDs using the fglrx driver than they do with the ati driver.

I tried to contact ATI multiple times about the poor performance and quality of DVD playback relative to the open source driver and the future of its Linux support, but I received no response.

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