Saturday, April 11, 2009

Ordering Ubuntu on a Dell Laptop

It was time to replace the old Latitude 110L that had been my main blogging device, and since I've been running Ubuntu for a couple of years, I thought, "Why not order a Dell with Ubuntu pre-installed?" I'm so naive.

Now I'm an Microsoft engineer, and formerly a Microsoft Certified Trainer, but I've been doing the Linux thing since around 2003. I don't want to get into the whole Microsoft vs. Linux geek war - each platform has its place depending on your needs, budget, and technical acumen of your user base and IT staff.

I've loaded Ubuntu on a number of machines and have had to tweak and hack things together before to get them working, especially wireless, but I've adapted and learned to do things like look for wireless cards with Linux-friendly chip-sets.

What could be easier than ordering a machine directly from Dell with Ubuntu pre-installed? Everything will work out of the box, and I should be able to unwrap it, plug it in, and off I'd go. So I plunked down my cash for a sweet XPS 1530 with 4GB of RAM, a monster hard drive, integrated wireless, webcam, fingerprint reader, the whole enchilada.

About a week later, the FedEx truck drove up, and I was in possession of my XPS. And no geek can wait more than ten minutes after delivery before opening the box. It's in the geek union rules. You can look it up.

So I fired up the XPS and watched Ubuntu 8.04 boot up - pretty quickly, too. Much more quickly than my clunky 110L, or the 5150 workstation I have that also runs Ubuntu. A quick check of the system revealed that everything seemed to work except two things...the fingerprint reader, and the damned wireless. Arrrggghhhhh!

So I plugged some Cat5 into the port and decided to run the system update, and there was something like 1021 updates to install. Wow. When was this system built? 1964?

I grabbed something to eat as the update chugged along, did the recommended system reboot, updated Firefox with all my themes and extensions, and unplugged for the triumphant moment of truth!

The wireless did not work.

I restarted networking...sudo /etc/init.d/networking restart....nothing. Ifconfig and iwconfig showed the wlan0 device as present, but unresponsive. I tried everything I knew, to no avail. I hit Google and Dell support websites, and discovered that many people had issues with the various system drivers on 1530 boxes with Ubuntu. Some recommended BIOS updates, additions and changes to conf files, and all sorts of tweaks to get things running, often without success. I tried a couple of things, but no joy.

It was two days later before I had the time to get Dell on the phone, and they listened dutifully and then gave me the Ubuntu support phone number at Canonical. I thought that was strange, since there was no hardware troubleshooting done at all, but ok.

I called Ubuntu, and was promptly informed that if I didn't have a Canonical support agreement, they couldn't talk to me. Even when told that Dell told me to call them, they politely declined to help, but were kind enough to give me the phone number to Dell's Linux support line.

I called Dell's Linux support and spent the next hour on the phone with an understanding gentleman in Delhi, who asked all sorts of questions over and over. Questions like, "Is the button on the side turned toward the 1 or the 0?" After repeatedly determining that I knew how to make sure the wireless/Bluetooth switch was set to the "on" position, we went into Network Manager several times, manually added settings, rebooted, turned the wireless switch off and on repeatedly....essentially went through the same process and questions, over and over and over.

Delhi guy didn't seem to want to consider the possibility that it was a hardware problem, even though physical layer is one of the first things that normally gets checked in a troubleshooting exercise, right after, "Is the system plugged in and is the power light on?" We soon arrived at the nuclear option - he wanted me to reinstall using the CD that came with the machine. Sighs.

It was just a Ubuntu 8.04 CD - no Dell branding, nothing to signify that it contained Dell hardware-specific configurations or device drivers. So I popped it into the tray, rebooted, and started the reinstall. Since I was already killing Delhi guy's average handle time and MTTR numbers, he said that someone would call me back in a half hour.

30 minutes later, a different guy called, and the install was just finishing up. It seemed to take longer than a typical Ubuntu install, but what the heck, I was just hoping for the best. As soon as the system came up, wireless was recognized, and I was able to connect. This time, I only needed 720 updates, so it made me wonder what the difference was between the Dell install image and a Ubuntu 8.04 CD, but I was just happy to be up and running, and off the phone will Dell.

The track pad was going nutty, so I had to switch to a USB mouse as I ran the updates, got Firefox back to where it was before the reinstall, and then changed my repositories and options and ran the forced update to 8.10. As soon as the upgrade was complete, the track pad was back to normal, albeit sticky, and I could begin to set the system up to my specifications.

The webcam and fingerprint reader still didn't work, so it went to this Ubuntu Wiki link and followed quite a few of the instructions to improve install of Ubuntu on an XPS 1530. I heartily recommend it if you're having system issues.

My question for Dell is this: if you're going to sell a top-end machine with Linux pre-installed, don't you think it makes sense to ensure that every single component of the system works properly before it ships? I know there are occasional glitches and that screws sometimes fall out, but good golly, Miss Molly. A quick Google search of Ubuntu+XPS+problems gives so many hits that this is obviously a widespread occurrence.

Here's a hint to hardware vendors. It's time to branch out and make systems that are compatible for varied platforms and configs. It's not going to be a Microsoft-centered world in the future, and the folks that get out in front of this early will be the ones that survive.

Adapt or perish. It's your choice.


  1. This is why (even if it comes with a Windows variant) I reinstall the OS...not matter what...

    But you are right...what if this happened to a "non" geek?


  2. I had a different experience with my dell xps m1330 in my case the pre-installed ubuntu worked out of the box everything including wifi,finger print reader,webcam sound, everything. although i still formated it and switched to a vanilla ubuntu. it was becasue i wanted greater control and input on the partitioning process of my system than anything else. I wont be surprised if some of the problems u encountered was caused by a faulty OS install from dell. anyway am happy u had it resolved in the end.

  3. Yep, my father had ordered one of the first Dell desktops offered with Ubuntu (7.x) series... It worked more or less O.K. except that it wouldn't sleep or hibernate and they had some wacky partitioning - a separate partition for an .iso image of Ubuntu they had installed, one for some DOS/Windows(?) based system utilities - yet no separate partition for /home....

    Needless to say, a reinstall was in order...

  4. I bought a Dell Inspiron 530N last July with the Dell factory Ubuntu and have not had any problems except for a monitor that went bad. I wrote a review which you can see here:

  5. It's sounding more and more like I had a corrupted install from the factory, based on the comments and emails I'm receiving.

    That sort of thing happens, and I don't get bent out of shape over it. I do think that Dell needs to take a closer look at their Linux support channel. It seems that once you take away the ability of the call center advisor to remote into your machine or run Dell diagnostics because you're not on a Windows machine, they get sort of lost.

    Again, non-Wintel devices are the future. I run Linux. My wife just bought a Mac Air. Vendors need to broaden their support base accordingly.

  6. My 1525n wouldn't boot upon arrival. I guess I was lucky, Dell support lined me up with their maillist, their known problems wiki pages and had my new machine up and booting properly over phone support in 15 minutes. The support gave me the PROPER support number for Dell Linux installs which seems not to arrive with the new Linux installed machines. Since then I bought three more of the 1525n machines and am looking at an XPS. Running 8.04 as KDE is not fully operational on the later distos and Gnome is way to hard to work with.


Please tell me what you think.