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Randall Hopkins

Linux on Laptops


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Linux On Laptops Choose from the following:

HP Compaq nc8230 running Fedora Core4

M-Tech 8500V (Prostar 8593)

HP Compaq nc8230 with docking station

Hardware

HP Compaq nc8230 with 512MB RAM (upgraded to 1024MB) and 40GB hard drive (upgraded to 80GB); docking station (if you do not have a docking station, read this first); LCD flatscreen HP L1702 monitor; ATI RADEON X600; Intell Pro Wireless 2200BG; Broadcom NetXtreme Gigabit Ethernet; USB mouse. Computer had Windows XP installed and was already connected to an ethernet network.

Before installing Linux, we upgraded some of the components: (1) memory upgrade from 512MB to 1024MB, and (2) replace the original 40GB hard drive with a Western Digital 80GB drive (WES-WD800UE). The reason was that this laptop will have to run both Windows and Linux, and the 40GB drive was insufficient.

Here are the steps:

  1. Paritition the new 80GB hard drive. We chose two 30GB paritions for Windows (primary 30GB partition for C, and the remainder of the drive being a 50GB extended partition, with D being a 30GB portion of that), leaving about 20GB for Linux. The paritioning was done by our computer support people, probably by using the parition software that comes with the XP load, so I do not have all the details.
  2. Install Windows XP. This was also done by our computer support folks.
  3. Connect to the network, boot Windows and check everything out.
  4. Open up a command window in XP and run the
    ipconfig /all
    command to gather all the network connection address information.
  5. Put the linux install CD in the drive and reboot. I had to modify the BIOS so that the system would boot from the CD first.
  6. Install Linux. Here is where the fun begins. Our chosen flavor was Fedora Core4. All Linux installation was done with the laptop in the docking station. I have no idea if problems would arise otherwise. Our first problem came when it was time to format the linux partitions, which included a small 1GB swap partition and a 20GB ext3 partition. The installer issued the following error messages:
    Assertion (sectors <= 63) at disk_dos.c:490 in function proble_parition_for_geom() failed.
    We ignored that message the first time. Next, we saw
    Assertion ((c * heads + h) * sectors + s = a) at disk_dos.c:494 in function probe_partiion_for_geom() failed.
    We also ignored that one. The installer kept issuing these messages, and others, and we continued to ignore them until the installer finally informed us that it could NOT format the partitions. Not to worry -- the fix was fairly simple.
  7. I decided to repartition the drive. My initial thought was to allow linux to have the first partition (I did NOT actually do this, as I found it unnecessary). What I needed was a partitioning program that would not destroy the data on the Windows partitions. Along came qtparted, a Partition Magic clone. From www.sysresccd.org, we downloaded a rescue CD (version 0.2.15) which included gtparted. Booting this CD actually loads gentoo linux (www.gentoo.org). To run the partitioning software, we ran the command
    run_qtparted
    at the prompt. Quickly we saw the problem: the partition table had many gaps in it, dead space not being used, and other places where one partiion ended and another began at the same location.
  8. Repartitioning with qtparted allowed us to fix the problems that, while may not have posed any difficulties for Windows, were causing all sorts of problems for the linux installer. Just to check qtparted, I shrank both ntfs (Windows) paritions and rebooted the computer with no problems. Then I expanded them to fill the entire drive and rebooted again. WE HAVE SEEN NO DATA LOSS OR CORRUPTION OR BOOTING PROBLEMS AFTER USING QTPARTED. (Please note that we had a complete system backup just in case. Before running qtparted, you should also backup your system.) Once we had gained confidence in the program, we repartitioned the drive to include a small (1GB) swap partition and a ~20GB linux partition, formatted as ext3 and mounted as the root paritition, /. Note that the swap and ext3 paritions were made to be part of the same extended partition that contains the ntfs D parition. (As a side note, I shrank the extended partition once so that linux would not have to be a part of it, but after installing linux, it would not boot. Afterwards, I went back to the original layout and repeated the install, and everything worked fine.)
  9. At this point, all was ready for the linux install. I put the linux boot disk into the cd drive and rebooted the computer. The installer correctly detected the external monitor (HP L1702), USB mouse, etc. We chose a custom installation and selected the desired packages. The networking was easy: we selected DHCP. (I also succeeded at manually entering in all the IP addresses, so either way seems to work.) I am not going to list all the packages and options that we selected, but we did select the security enhanced linux option (SELinux), which actually caused a problem with the MATLAB installation later
  10. GRUB: we let the grub bootloader land on the master boot record.
  11. Reboot: we rebooted the computer into Windows first and then rebooted into Linux. Both worked fine.
There were a few little post-installation items to complete the first time we rebooted the system using the linux OS, such as screen resolution (we chose 1280x1024 for the L1702 external monitor), etc. These items start automatically and were simple to complete.

Problems

In addition to the partitioning problem mentioned above, we had a few other problems. They are listed here:
  1. Unable to mount the ntfs file system. Copying files from the Windows NTFS partition requires that linux be able to mount the ntfs parititions, which Fedore Core4 cannot do out of the box. The trick here is to go to www.fedorafaq.org and search for ntfs. The instructions, which will not be repeated here, are simple, which include downloading a new yum configuration file, using yum to download a new ntfs kernel module, and inserting it.
  2. Unable to get screensavers to work. This fix is also easy, and is accomplished with yum.
    yum install xscreensaver-extras
    yum install xscreensaver-gl-extras
    Now, we were able to select screen savers.
  3. Octave not part of the installation. Once again, yum to the rescue:
    yum install octave
    For those interested, octave is simular to Matlab. For more information, visit www.octave.org and sourceforge.net.
  4. Unable to get the wireless networking going. I really have not spent any time working on this one yet.
  5. I have not yet put the laptop into hibernation mode when undocked from the docking station, so I do not know how this will work.
  6. Undocking the laptop and rebooting is no problem except for the fact that, since the screen resolution of the laptop is 1280x800, the desktop appears slightly crushed. I have not tried to fix this yet.

Summary

So, the only unpleasant part of the installation process was having to repartition the drives. Thanks to www.sysresccd.org and qtparted, that task was not too terrible either. The actual linux installation went very smoothly, and problems that we have found after the installation seem to be minor, although we have not yet fixed all of them. I have not yet tried to burn a CD, although reading them works fine, including copying them over to the hard drive and creating a loopback file system. The system also has no problem reading from and writing to USB flash disks.

Extra

Once, I did try to boot the linux installation media with the laptop undocked. After the initial menu, all that I ever saw was a blank screen. Apparently, there are some arguments that need to be passed to the boot loader regarding the screen resolution, which is 1280x800 for this laptop. Once I figure this out, I will post it here.

Well, I have been informed that, after booting the install media, you can get the display to work by closing the laptop and then opening it back up (thanks Leif!). This info led me to experiment some more with the installation process, and I have found that if you boot the install media with the command line argument nofb:

linux nofb
the display works fine, both the text mode and the graphics mode. I did not, of course, do a complete install this way, but at least the display WILL work.


M-Tech 8500V (ProStar 8593)

Please note that this section was written back in the late 90's, and is considerably out of date. However, it remains just in case someone is interested.

We purchased an M-Tech 8500V (ProStar 8593) with two 20GB drives (both primary so that Windows and Linux could be separate); 512MB RAM; CDRW.

LINUX

Our chosen flavor of Linux was RedHat 7.1 (recently upgraded to 7.2).

INSTALL

To install, insert the CD into the drive and start the installation. We chose the laptop installation, which worked perfectly. Because we were going to use IDL, we were stuck with either 1400x1050@24bit color or 640x480@8bit color. However, both of these modes work fine.

We have not had any trouble with the function of Linux, except for the unwillingness of the cooling fan to come back on after coming out of sleep mode. (This does not happen with Windows, so I believe that it is a Linux problem.)

Again, there were no tricks to installing or setting up Linux. Even the ethernet networking is easy for anyone familiar with networks. I can recommend this laptop for Linux users.

IDL

IDL functions fine. I installed from the CD, started the license manager, and have never looked back. Occasionally, a 3-D shaded surface plot will have some lines crossing the surface, but I can live with that.

PROBLEMS

Life is not without disappointments, however, and I do have two here. One is that this laptop does not work with the X-server that comes with Mandrake 8.0. I tried and tried, but the X-server would not work. The other problem is with the modem, which is a bloody WinModem. (You know that that means: it depends on Windows software support!) I have been informed that the solution to the graphics problem with Mandrake is to select the Dell 1400x display (thanks Gonzalo!). I have not tried this yet, but hope to soon. Also, you can get the modem driver for Linux from www.smlink.com. I hope to try this soon as well.

HELP!

If anyone has gotten the Mandrake 9.1 X-server to work, drop me an email and let me know how you did it.



Copyright © 2000-2006 by Randall Hopkins. All rights reserved.