Colin.Guthr.ie Illegitimi non carborundum

24Feb/131

Dances with Laps

I've been searching for a new laptop for a very long time. My old Dell Inspiron 6400 has served me very well for over four years, but about a year ago I decided I needed a refresh. I finally decided upon the Dell XPS but it was a hard journey coming to that decision! Read on for a little bit more background about why I picked this laptop on how Mageia runs on it!

Laptops: Father and Son

Laptops: Father and Son

Background

I use my laptop a fair bit. It's my primary computer and I use it both for work and various computer related hobbies etc. My previous laptop, a Dell Inspiron 6400 has served me well for a number of years. I've treated it fairly

well too though, spoiling it with extra RAM, better wireless card, an SSD drive (best update ever!) and two new batteries over the years. Dell have also been good, with the warranty providing a new screen (due to

several dead areas that were not so bad as to make it unusable, but certainly annoying) and a new power supply when the old one died. But in recent times the graphics have somewhat let me down with the aging Intel GMA945 not really coping too well with recent advances. It was unable to provide an accelerate

d graphics space over 2048 pixels square and even when you just used very high resolutions, it often bailed out frequently crashing the compositor (which thankfully restarted most of the time) several times a day. So this meant no dual head setup for me and, even worse, a pretty bad experience when using just one head on an external monitor with a nice and large resolution.

Finding the Right Laptop

So for the above reasons and to get something a little bit more portable and with a wee bit more oomph, a new laptop was needed. My main requirements were a) high resolution, b) powerful and c) portable, d) Intel graphics. The new ultrabooks that were coming out last year looked like a good fit. Sadly most of them provided really shitty resolutions. I didn't necessary need crazy resolutions, but I didn't want to go backwards (my old laptop having 1050 on the vertical). This was the main stumbling block. Eventually I found some nice ASUS models in the ZenBook range. These looked good on paper but had fixed RAM (soldered to the main board) and were not overly upgradable. When a model came out that offered both high resolution and upgradability, I jumped on it! I was very happy, but sadly the model never came to the UK. I'm sorry, but I don't want a stupid American (or "Apple") keyboard layout and remapping keys on my new laptop would just seem wrong. So after waiting ages, it eventually transpired it would never make it to the UK and that order was sadly cancelled. Then I found the new HP TouchSmart. It also looked really good, but yet again the i7 model wasn't available in the UK. Despite repeated calls to HP and lots of posts online, I couldn't get a date from them as to when (if ever) it would be available. Then along came the Dell. I'd like the XPS 13 when it was first released, but it was sadly ruled out due to crappy resolution. Then I read about newer models that boosted this bit of the spec. Happy bunny!!

Unwanted Addons

As per usual, the only model easily available in the UK was bundled with Windows. That's pretty standard and I mostly live with this these days - although I always do try to get a refund. What annoyed me more however was that the Dell website insisted on bundling some McAfee product. If they had included this in the base price I'd have been none the wiser, but it was itemised separately as a £25 item on the checkout - with no ability to remove it!! As a linux developer, this is clearly infuriating. Why should I pay for some software I cannot use?? As the website had a chat option, i spoke to a Dell sales operative and complained both about the built in Windows and the McAfee "forceware". While he said he couldn't unbundle either option, he did appear to genuinely understand my complaint. He said he would see what he could do and offer me a deal. The next day I received an offer of £125 off the official price. This was more than I was expecting and, at least by my reasoning, offset the costs of the bundled software nicely. I committed to buy.

Delivery

I expected a week or so lead time on the purchase, but was happy when I was told it would be delivered the following Monday. Sadly the email from Dell must have meant the "ship" date as opposed to the delivery date, as the UPS tracker showed it still in China. UPS's delivery tracker instead predicted Wednesday and it was more accurate!

When I got the laptop I was very happy. It was small and lightweight and looked and felt great!

Install / Transfer

Of course the first thing to do was to install Mageia!! As this is a new laptop, the default partition layout was using GPT and had Secure Boot enabled. Thankfully, the BIOS (well not the BIOS - the UEFI configuration screens!) had an option to disable Secure Boot. This is good as it's a stupid thing generally and doesn't really add any real security IMO. As I did want to utiise UEFI boot but didn't want to use any grub2 stuff (I don't generally approve of grub2's "reimplement all filesystems and raid setups in a bootloader" take on things - why have an OS before you load your OS??), I was very much in favour of using Gummiboot instead. This isn't yet shipped on Mageia, but I knocked up a quick package from the Fedora one. In order to install things I simply transferred my existing install.

A quick live-USB boot allowed me to use gparted to nuke the Windows partitions and I was left simply with the ESP partition used to keep the OS loaders. I created a partition for / and another for /home and that was it - didn't bother with swap as I never hibernate and didn't fancy keeping 8GB reserved for that!  Next I plugged my existing drive into a USB adapter and rsync'ed (-avHAX) my / partition to the new disk. This didn't take too long (about 5 mins). After it was done, I mounted the ESP partition as /boot and copied the kernel images and ramdisk over. I then chrooted in and ran dracut to create a new, generic initrd (large but copes with lots of different h/w). A quick edit of the fstab to insert the new UUIDs of the / and /home partitions and then I installed gummiboot into the ESP. This went very smoothly but due to running an old live image, I wasn't able to access EFI variables and thus it couldn't install a boot entry for itself.

Upon reboot, it obviously failed initially, but after adding a manual entry for Gummiboot in the UEFI configuration screens, it kicked in, found my kernel and all was well! First boot worked really smoothly! I regenerated a new initrd (a smaller hostonly one this time) and rebooted. Again a flawless boot and this time a bit faster due to the tailored initrd. So far so good, but I didn't really have my user account. So again I plugged in my old disk to USB and rsync'ed my /home partition. Due to the amount of data, this took a lot longer, but it completed within an hour or two. My first login as my user again worked flawlessly!

Hardware

I proceeded to test all the hardware. The touchpad had side scrolling enabled but the edge of the pad was indistinct and hard to find with your finger for scrolling, so I switched to two-finger scrolling instead. Will take time to get used to but solves the problem nicely. I found that I managed to hit the touchpad a lot while typing, so,  I tested sound, both built in mic and speakers worked great and plugging in a headset into the multi-purpose jack worked great, switching over automatically to both the speaker and mic it provided thanks to PulseAudio! My various USB devices worked great (unsurprising) and even the multi-monitor setup worked great in GNOME. I just plugged it in and it worked first time. Tweaked the default display and everything was great. Only issue I had was when I unplugged the display, it didn't automatically change back to the laptop only screen and I had the panel "lost" for a while. I'm sure that's not a difficult thing to fix though. Not tested that bit on KDE yet.

The camera also worked great on Google Hangouts. And WIFI was no problem either. So far nothing I've tried has caused me any problems at all. The only exception to that was with an external USB 3 ethernet dongle I bought. It's drivers have not yet been merged into the kernel but there are drivers available. I compiled them up and it worked great - with the exception that just unplugging it caused a few issues and I couldn't rmmod the module to kill off the eth0 device. I suspect this will be solved eventually though, so not too worried about that.

Conclusion

All in all I'm a happy bunny right now and would recommend this laptop to anyone who wants a good resolution with Free drivers without any Nvidia or AMD proprietary rubbish!

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Comments (1) Trackbacks (0)
  1. OK, so as I use it a bit more, there are a couple niggles. Both quite small.

    Occasionally I see:
    [ 3649.022539] psmouse serio1: Trackpad at isa0060/serio1/input0 lost sync at byte 1
    [ 3649.024148] psmouse serio1: Trackpad at isa0060/serio1/input0 – driver resynced.

    Google suggests:
    https://bugzilla.redhat.com/show_bug.cgi?id=813587 and
    https://bugs.launchpad.net/ubuntu/+source/linux/+bug/717970 and
    https://bugs.launchpad.net/ubuntu/+source/xserver-xorg-input-synaptics/+bug/896922

    none of which offer any solid solutions, but there are at least recent comments on the latter two and if it’s going to be part of the whole sputnik thing, then perhaps it’ll be addressed?

    It doesn’t seem to have too much of a negative impact tho’ – it is all over very quickly and things go back to normal.

    The other thing is even more minor. As I’m hacking away and generally breaking things, I sometimes fine need to resort to
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_SysRq_key but as the keyboard has no dedicated key (quite sensibly I suppose), I have to do the following:
    1. Hold down CTRL+Fn+ALT+Insert(PrtScr)
    2. Release Fn
    3. Press the appropriate key

    Bit fiddly but not impossible :)


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