Breaking in a New Laptop

Buying a laptop can be quite an adventure. Buying a laptop that you intend on running Linux on is guaranteed to be an adventure! I have been running Linux on laptops for about 8 years now with mixed results. I was very pleased with my previous laptop, but it was time to replace it. It had been used to the point that the it was literally falling apart. So it was time to start hitting the forums and the shopping websites.

What did I get?
I purchased an MSI GX630-028US from Amazon. AMD Turion Dual-Core Processor; NVIDIA GeForce9600MGT; 4GB RAM; 320GB HD

Why did I get it?
The primary reason I went with this laptop was the AMD64 processor and the nVidia graphics card. My previous laptop was AMD64 but with an ATI graphics card—the graphics card gave me the most installation and maintenance problems. The fact that Cedega supports only nVidia cards also had a lot to do with the decision.

I did take a gamble on the Wifi chipset. Since I am not new to Linux Wifi issues thanks to Broadcom cards, I was confident that I could get the details worked out. I also knew that I could pop in a Wifi card into the expansion slot if I had to give up on it.

Linux Installation
I installed Ubuntu 8.10 onto the laptop. I used the alternative AMD64 install disk to set up whole disk encryption along with several LVM snapshot partitions.

What Worked?
Almost everything! More importantly, all of the hardware worked in the native AMD64 environment—which means you get to use all of the 4GB of RAM! The webcam and bluetooth buttons worked like a charm. Even the touchpad was recognized and had the scrolling gestures enabled.

What Didn’t Work?
The only thing I have managed to find that doesn’t work are the some of the special keys. The laptop has “Eco” and “Turbo” buttons that can be used to over- and under-clock the laptop that do not work in Linux. The brightness buttons also were not recognized. Because everything that isn’t working can be adjusted via gnome applets, I haven’t missed them.

Resources For Others
Because of my overwhelmingly positive experience with this laptop, it is one that I would recommend to people interested in purchasing a new laptop to run Linux. If you have this laptop or wish to get one in the future, you need to know of a couple of issues.

The wireless drivers are not yet included with the Linux kernel. According to the development blogs, it should be there soon. The card is used in quite a few netbooks, so there is a very high demand for it to be included. In the meantime, you can find more information here. You can also Google “linux ralink 0781”. The card is an Ralink RT2860, it’s PCI ID is 0781. Also not that the Wifi special button turns off the radio, but does not otherwise notify the OS. Don’t make the mistake I made of installing everything and then not enabling the radio before I tested to make sure it worked.

The nVidia drivers have a redraw issue when Compiz is enabled. I encountered this when I enabled compiz and all my terminals started acting up. Editing a file with VIM really brought the issue to the forefront. The current fix for this is to manually set the powermizer settings on the card. The best explanation I was able to find of this issue was here.

The laptop does not ship with Vista installation media. When you turn the laptop on for the first time, it proceeds to install Windows Vista. You then have the ability to create a pair of rescue disks that can be used to reset the laptop back to the factory state. You cannot use these rescue disks to create a virtual machine image to run Vista. You are provided with a working Vista key that can be used with the standard Vista install disk. This means you can grab an ISO, burn an install disk, and use your key to legitimately install Vista into a virtual machine image.

January 22nd, 2009