Monday, October 1, 2007

Linux on a Dell Vostro 1700 laptop

At my company, Cedar Creek Software, we recently purchased a new laptop:

Dell Vostro 1700 laptop
Model # PP22X
17" wide aspect-ratio screen

We use SuSE Linux on our workstations, because it "just works" to a greater degree than any other distro I've tried in the last 9 years - at least of all the distros that are still ticking (and I've tried quite a few).

lspci -nn gives the following specs for the monitor:

01:00.0 VGA compatible controller [Class 0300]: nVidia Corporation GeForce 8600M GT [10de:0407] (rev a1)

And the following for the 4965AGN wireless network adapter:

0c:00.0 Network controller [Class 0280]: Intel Corporation PRO/Wireless 4965 AG or AGN Network Connection [8086:4229] (rev 61)

At first I tried SuSE 10.2 and was able to get the monitor working with the usual pre-built nVidia kernel modules from nVidia's repository, but I could not get the wireless adapter to work. Everything else worked fine.

For the wireless, I tried installing the official Intel drivers but I couldn't make it happy with the SUSE-supplied kernel and kernel sources. It kept complaining about the mac80211 subsystem, and many other things. I tried a lot of stuff, including a vanilla kernel, which the Intel drives were unable to patch and use properly (I have not idea what I did wrong). I tried NDISWrapper. Contrary to what it says on the wiki, I did get NDISwrapper to work with the Windows XP driver, but it made the laptop unstable - it would just freeze up randomly and I'd have to cycle the power.

Finally I upgraded to a kernel & sources from the SuSE kernel-of-the-day repository (which now seem to have a good set of mac80211 modules sources and all the other things that are needed to support the drive from the Intel wireless project), but then when I'd try to run iwlist and iwconfig it would complain that the module (or something) was complied with support for a higher version of something (I forget exactly what) than the wireless tools.

One of the things I love about SuSE is their hardware support. New hardware is often supported by the very next release of SuSE, however the next version of SuSE - 10.3 - isn't out yet. But it's getting to the final stages of beta testing (thank you, Novell / openSuSE, for the new open development model that gives us access to betas!), so I downloaded the latest LiveCD made from the 10.3 beta tree and discovered that the 4965AGN wireless card worked in the LiveCD environment just fine.

So I've downloaded and installed the RC1 release of SuSE 10.3 on the Vostro 1700. They've made some small improvements to the installer and and distro and I really like it. SuSE is such a fine distro, I strongly recommend it for workstations, laptops, and personal computers.

The troublesome 4965AGN was immediately detected by the installer - Yay! - and works great with no trouble.

The nVidia GeForce 8600M GT graphics card was correctly detected and configured at the optimum size by the 10.3 installer/config tools, unlike 10.2 which left the config set to a low resolution by default. That's with the xorg open source drivers that came with SuSE, of course.

However I did have some trouble configuring the dualhead setup. I needed to be able to use a secondary monitor on the laptop's VGA out as a second screen. I usually use Xinerama, configured with SaX2, for this kind of setup.

I downloaded the latest source driver from nVidia (it's not really all source, but it's the package nVidia provides that allows you to build your own kernel module) and it compiled quickly with no trouble. The documentation on the wiki then says to then use "sax2 -r -m -0=nvidia" to configure the monitor. That works fine for the laptop's own monitor, at 1440x900, but when I tried to use SaX2 to configure Xinerama for the second monitor, it wouldn't work at all. The resulting X config left the laptop's screen turned off and put the laptop screen's setting on the external monitor - which of course were the wrong size, shape and resolution. I spent a good amount of time trying to make this work, then read about using "TwinView" without Xinerma in the nVidia documentation. I tried it out and it works. I tried using the nVidia-supplied config tool, nvidia-xconfig for both the laptop-only config and the dual monitor config and it produced perfect, working configs for both. I highly recommend it.

For the dual-head config just plug in the external monitor and run (as root):

    nvidia-xconfig --twinview


Adam W said...

I appreciate you posting your experience in upgrading your Vostro to Linux. I am on the verge of doing the same, and it is good to hear that you were able to do so without too much difficulty.

I don't ever use the built in camera on mine, but I was curious if you were able to make it work as well?

JW said...


I asked the person who uses the laptop about the camera today, and they said it works in Skype. I don't think they had to do anything to get it working, so I guess it worked in SuSE 10.3 out of the box. I found some information about it on Google searching for vostro 1700 webcam, it seems to be the same camera used in the 15" model. It's a UVC compliant USB camera, which is good for Linux.

Ed said...

Thanks for the info. I was wondering which distro would work best, and after reading about all the hoops you have to jump through with others, I think I'll go with Suse.

gpolit said...

JW, I'm the owner of the same notebook. From the first month of ownership, I installed Ubuntu as a parallel OS in order to have a backup OS to work with, plus the benefits of having a backup system when Vista won't work anymore! No problem with drivers. Every device works just fine!!

JW said...

I should point out the SuSE 10.3, 11.0, and 11.1 work great with this laptop - no need to fiddle with drivers.

none said...

could you help me out....
trying to install wireless on puppy linux with dell vostro 1700

JW said...

I'm not familiar with Puppy Linux. I would recommend you join the Puppy Linux community mailing list or forum, if they have one.
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