Dell Inspiron Mini 9-inch Netbook with Ubuntu 8.04 – personal experiences wanted

Warning: pretty geeky stuff in this post.

Our aging-when-we-bought-it-new laptop teetered another step toward the abyss while at the airport in Mexico City between flights on our way to Puerto Vallarta. It was there that the flakiness Sarah and I’d seen revealed itself to be due, at least in part, to a failing hard drive.

“OK, I can work around that…when we get back to Germany…” I thought to myself. I picked out an SATA hard disk drive from Amazon.de — a Toshiba MK2552GSX (250GB, for about 50 €) and downloaded a fresh ISO image of Kubuntu 9.04 (and burnt the ISO image to a CD on our Mac mini), removed the old Fujitsu 40GB SATA drive and connected the fresh new Toshiba one. The installation appeared to be going OK, until we got to the point in the process where the drive needs to be partitioned.

No dice. The BIOS wouldn’t recognnize the new drive.

“Hmm, maybe Scott‘s right and I should reflash the BIOS.” So I burnt an ISO image of that file onto CD, flashed the BIOS to the latest update for our lappy, a Fujitsu Siemens Amilo Pro V2035, and tried the whole thing again, just to make sure.

Still no dice.

We’d previously tried out an Asus Eee PC purchased from amazon.de and were pretty satisfied with that little thing, except that the battery in it refused to hold a charge whatsoever. Reading up on that particular product online after-the-fact (uh…should have done that BEFORE-the-fact) I discovered that those Eee PC things are particularly prone to significant battery drain — even when the thing is completely off, even when the battery is completely disconnected from the machine. Which kinda works against the concept of keeping a netbook charged and ready to go with you out the door on your adventures. So we opted to send it back and ask for a refund rather than a replacement. Amazon.de was prompt about that, but it still annoyed me that they sent a defective product in the first place.

So now I’m looking at turning that Toshiba drive, which despite a BIOS flash is still unrecognizable to my old lappy, into an external hard drive for use with a different netbook. Looking around online, I noticed that Dell is offering 9″ netbooks with Ubuntu 8.04 installed and an SSD, upgradable RAM, and a few other upgradable or customizable features. Sounds great, right? Still maybe not optimal for what I want. Check out this little chat session I had with a CSR from them if you can read Dorktsch.

Specifically, I’m not sure how I feel about

  • installing Kubuntu voiding the warranty (I guess for Dell that counts as a different operating system, even though I strongly suspect no one else would consider “Kubuntu” a different operating system from “Ubuntu”).
  • having no recovery DVD supplied with purchase (even though Dell sales to/from other countries apparently got recovery DVDs with them).
  • having to call tech support if I want to reset my machine back to its factory configuration.

Those things make me a little nervous. Still we are talking about a purchase of “only” 269€ (the way I configured my Wunschmaschine). I suppose Ubuntu (i.e. GNOME) might be just fine for our intended purposes (read email, do some light surfing, move photos from my camera onto an external HDD while traveling). Any advice to offer me? I’m particularly anyone who has bought one of these Dells or installed a flavor of Linux on another brand of netbook.

take your computers apart once in a while and blow the dust out of ’em

We bought a cheapo laptop a couple years ago that has been…well…pretty good to us, I guess. We mostly use it around the house — it’s particularly handy in our test kitchen, given how many recipes we find online, and having our conversion tables hosted there, etc. Also, that’s the computer we take with us when traveling.

So anyway, over the last year or so, it’s gotten noticeably slower, and I had been hard-pressed to figure out why. We don’t make it work very hard:

  • There’s rarely more than one person logged into it at a time.
  • Although we could, there are no web or database servers running on it.
  • I do a little light-weight photo editing via the GIMP from time to time
  • We mostly use to connect to the web via WLAN, for the purpose of
    • general surfing
    • checking our mail
    • uploading pictures to flickr
    • plain text editing and uploading of web page files (like when I’m tinkering with the blog)

Nothing too taxing. This is a laptop running Kubuntu, a Linux distribution, which by reputation is great for older (cheaper!) hardware. So I was flummoxed by symptoms of dreadful slow-downs in performance after about 20-30 minutes of having the machine on. I could tell when it was going to happen because it would get pretty hot near the exhaust ports, and I could just hear the fan make a certain high-pitched noise at the top of my hearing range — sort of like how I can tell when the TV is on but muted without looking at it. When it starts making that sound, everything grinds to a halt.

I thought it was related to Firefox (which had/has a reputation for being a memory hog) and noticed that the slow-downs seem to come quicker when using Gmail — especially after leaving that page open for a long time. Using our Gmail accounts via IMAP/Thunderbird instead of through http://mail.google.com seemed like it helped, but didn’t completely relieve the symptoms. I’d even beefed up the RAM awhile ago and more recently taken the back off of the laptop to look for obvious problems or dust I could clean out…no dice.

So, I was just about to junk it and purchase a newer cheapo laptop from the little second-hand computer store in the Pustet Passage, next to the Ex-Faßl Döner shop. I armed myself with about 500 Euros (planning to spend between 350 and 450) I walked into the tiny shop early Saturday morning and described the problems I was having to Stash Komputerski (he seemed Eastern European). His first guess:

“Sie sind Raucher, oder?” Taken a bit aback, I told him no, we don’t smoke. Then he put his nose right up against the lappy’s exhaust port and took a big sniff.

“Hmm, tatsächlich.” (As if my word wasn’t good enough.)

“Prozessor? Celeron, 1.5GHz.

“Schauen wir mal…” So we fired it up and he whipped out a little digital keychain thermometer — 35°C right off the bat.

“30 Minuten. Das wird 30 Euro kosten. Gehen Sie einen Kaffee trinken.” I shrugged and headed home (we live around the corner; Sarah’s coffee’s the best.). When I came back exactly thirty minutes later, he looked up as I walked in and shouted “Fertig!”. He popped up from around his tiny workbench and whipped out his iPhone. I wasn’t really impressed; I’ve seen those before, and why was he encroaching on my personal space? I was sure I smelled bad, and he looked like he did too.

Then I clued in. He was showing me pictures he took of the work he did during those thirty minutes (I’ll post them here if he emails them to me — he seemed reluctant). He applied a heat paste and pulled a metric buttload of dust and hair out of the nooks and crannies of the heat sink, none of which was visible to me upon my cursory inspection. I asked why there was no heat paste on the processor to begin with and he told me Siemens Fujitsu expected me to throw that computer away after a few years, so they didn’t bother with that stuff. He also told me that the reason he asked whether we smoke was that tar gums up the heat sinks, reducing their effectiveness. We fired up the computer again and the thermometer showed 28° — a marked improvement.

I took it home, excited at the prospects of using that lappy for longer than a few minutes at a time, but was disappointed to find that Firefox was still pretty sluggish — with or without Gmail open. Bummer. Last ditch effort: complete, fresh, re-install. You should only have to do with that Windows, right? Apparently not, because it seems to working like a champ now. A few hurdles with the re-install:

  • The proprietary drivers for the Broadcom 43xx series of WLAN chips still have to be downloaded separately (albeit more easily than before), so you’ll need a cable connection to get that working if your machine has that brand of WLAN chip.
  • The X server couldn’t start for some weirdo reason. I remember how much trouble I had with that, getting it to work originally…there were many hours of tweaking involved (I suspect it has something to do with the lappy’s 1200×800 resolution). Fortunately I’d made a backup of my xorg.conf file as the absolute last thing before staring the reinstall and could fall back to that.

The lessons here:

  1. Take it in before giving up hope. There may be something Stash can see that you can’t.
  2. You might have to reinstall, even if that’s something only Windows users are supposed to have to do.
  3. If you do have to reinstall, think about the hours you invested in tweaks (your network settings, your video settings, etc.) and back those files up for safekeeping!

transferring files from a nokia mobile phone to Kubuntu Hardy Heron (8.04)

I had high hopes for Kubuntu 8.04 (the Hardy Heron) with regard to bluetooth transfers from our mobile phones to our computers. Apparently it got better for most of the world from 7.10 (the Gutsy Gibbon) to the current version, but not for users of Symbian-based phones like our Nokia E50 and E61i models.

Then I noticed apparently receiving bluetooth file transfers from our Mac mini to our Kubuntu Linux machine running 8.04 worked just fine — so why not from our phones? Was it related to our phones or to the software on our Linux machine?

It’s apparently related to the bluez-utils package in the Ubuntu repositories. A user posted on launchpad.net (original post here) that using the bluez-utils package from the Debian “sid” (unstable) repositories worked for him.

So, get the unstable bluez-utils package from here, install it with

sudo dpkg -i bluez-utils_3.30-3_i386.deb

reboot, and that’s it…at least, that’s how I did it. I hope I’ve saved someone some self-hair-pulling and googling.

geeky updates

Mac stuff

Today something weird happened on our Mac mini (running OS 10.5, known as Leopard). It “forgot” that it had a built-in sound card. How weird is that?

I quickly found all kinds of suggestions online for how to remind it. Checking permissions on the disk with the Disk Utility application, zapping PRAM (whatever that means), tweaking MIDI settings, and a lot more.

You know what worked? Rebooting with the Shift key held down so the Mac would boot in Safe Mode.

What kind of Wintel crap is that?

Linux stuff

I upgraded both our Linux machines to Kubuntu Hardy Heron (8.04) this weekend…I mean, starting Wednesday evening. Things seem to work pretty well, but the b43 driver thingies that are supposedly included by default in the version of the 2.6.24 series kernel still had to be downloaded and installed and configured through the Hardware Drivers Manager…requiring a network connection. I guess it’s not a big deal for our lappy, since I can walk it over to our router and connect an ethernet cable, but it was a pain for our desktop machine, given that it’s on another floor of our house. How do you go out into the series of tubes to get stuff you need to make teh intarwebs work on your computer if you don’t already have that stuff?

using my Microsoft trackball on linux

I have a very cluttered desk. In addition to the two monitors, two keyboards, two pointing devices (that’s what you call your mice if at least one of them is a trackball or trackpad), two webcams, two microphones, and two iPods, there is a ton of garbage, loose cables, photo paper, a CD spindle or two, post cards we bought and never sent, CDs awaiting import into iTunes, etc.

I don’t have a lot of room for all my stuff. For that reason I like my trackball. I got The Man™ to pay for my Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard and also Trackball back in the day in Troy, but the stipulation was that I couldn’t take them with me when I left (why the hell not? I can’t imagine anyone else being happy to inherit them) for Regensburg four years ago.

No matter, I asked Den Mann™ replace my keyboard here in Germany with the Microsoft Ergonomic keyboard after a couple years, but I was still missing my trackball. I coughed up for a used one on eBay and am pretty happy with it, but until today, I hadn’t been able to get the little midget buttons to the left and right of the main buttons to work. I mostly wanted them to work as surrogate browser Back and Forward buttons like I remember from MSIE 4 or 5 back in the day.

Some quick googling revealed that I am not alone! Turns out it’s not a fix that has to happen in Firefox at all, but rather an X11 tweak. I found it on launchpad.net:

Don’t forget to save a copy of your xorg.conf file first, in case you have to revert to it later!

Currently this can only be made to work in firefox and not in nautlis, yelp, ... with the following workaround:
1. Open a terminal and enter the following command:
$ sudo nano /etc/X11/xorg.conf
2. Change the "Configured Mouse" protocol to:
Option "Protocol" "Auto"
3. Add the following following line (this maps horizontal scrolling to your back and forward mouse button, horizontal scrolling by default has back and forward actions in firefox):
Option "ButtonMapping" "1 2 3 6 7"
It should look like this:
Section "InputDevice"
Identifier "Configured Mouse"
Driver "mouse"
Option "CorePointer"
Option "Device" "/dev/input/mice"
Option "Protocol" "Auto"
Option "ZAxisMapping" "4 5"
Option "ButtonMapping" "1 2 3 6 7"
Option "Emulate3Buttons" "true"
EndSection
4. Restart X (Ctrl-Alt-Backspace).

Skype 2.7 for Mac OS X, 2.0 Beta for Linux

Good news and bad news!

You want the bad news first? OK, here it comes.

I couldn’t get Skype 2.7.0.257 for Mac OS X to work. I used the built-in uploader thing to look for a new version and download and install itself. Then, when trying to log in afterwards, it never worked. The “Signing in…” rotating graphic thing just kept spinning. I tried a couple different approaches:

  • rebooting (sorry — reflex holdover from my Windows days)
  • dragging the Skype application icon from the Applications folder out onto the desktop, and then dragging it back into the Applications folder (this helped, amazingly, with the iSync application after upgrading to Mac OS X 10.5.2 — it was just a shot in the dark)
  • Doing a fresh download of Skype 2.7.0.257 for Mac OS X from www.skype.com and overwriting the previous installation

None of that stuff worked. In the end, I found a copy of version 2.6.0.184 for Mac OS X that I downloaded from www.netzwelt.de which I installed. It appears to work better, since I can log in properly, but I must confess, I haven’t actually tested it yet.

Now for the good news!

I was poking around for an updated version of Skype for use on Linux, and I noticed they’d released a beta version of 2.0 for Linux — including video support! I’ve been waiting for this for a long time. Downloaded the Ubuntu package and with sudo dpkg -i skype-debian_2.0.0.43-1_i386.deb on the command line it was all installed and ready to go. Even better (or actually worse, financially) news: I didn’t need to buy those USB microphone and camera for use with the Mac after all — audio works great on Linux (like it always has) and even my ancient Intel Create & Share CS330 webcam (I remember paying like $50 for it at Costco back in the day) seems like it will work. Haven’t tested it yet directly. Those who know how to reach me on Skype, please do so to take the 2.0 beta on Linux for a spin with me.

Computer dead? Time to switch to platforms? What about my music?

Ugh. Our desktop PC running windows won’t turn on. I turned it off normally last night, and this morning, it just won’t come on. I suspect a blown fuse or something in the power supply. I really don’t want to have to deal with that loud Aldi-branded hunk. But I *do* really want to make further use of at least some of its components; not the least of which are its twin 250GB SATA hard disks. I found a nifty-looking housing for taking two SATA drives and making them into one big or two separate external USB drives.

Is this what Linus really looks like?  No of course not.  But it would be cute if he did.If it weren’t for our iTunes investments over the past few years, I would probably have finally been able to completely forgo licensed operating systems (except at work, where I don’t have that option). We’ve already got a Linux-based laptop and desktop here (the desktop box serves as a…uh, server). But iTunes, our dealer of habit-forming audio narcotics, doesn’t offer to hawk its wares to those would turn their noses up at paying for software (note well: I’m not advocating piracy!).

So, I’m thinking really hard about how to proceed here. The cheapest way to go (especially if that hunk is still under warranty) is to get the PC fixed. But it’s big and clunky and especially loud. Hate that. Also hate all the dust its multiple fans collect (uh, perhaps that had something to do with its untimely demise?). I can’t just build a new computer, cannibalizing the old one, and downloading an open source OS like Linux or one of the BSDs and expect it to play the music we bought through iTunes. So we’re still going to have to rely on Windows or Mac OS X (row row, row!)…at least until I slowly and painfully record each track purchased from iTunes into Audacity and re-code it back into plain-old-MP3 or some other non-DRM’d format. And that’s not going to happen any time soon.

Any opinions out there on the Mac Mini, particularly as a home desktop system in use mostly for multi-media applications (iTunes, Skype, general surfiness)? I’m looking at one for 700€. And then getting far away from iTunes.