Linux on Laptops: Red Hat Linux 9 Review

I’ve been using laptops for a long time now. Not exclusively, but I’ve got plenty of experience with them. When it comes to hardware, laptops are nothing like any other systems. They use different motherboards, different graphics cards. Sometimes they use desktop components for things like memory, processors and network cards, but often those are specialized too. Laptops can be broken down into two major catagories: ultra-portable systems, designed for minimal weight and maximum battery life, and “desknotes”, often using desktop components, large screens, and powerful graphics systems. I personally prefer desknotes because I like having a lot of power under the hood.

Test System 1 (Primary system):
Dell Inspiron 5150 laptop
3.06GHz Mobile P4 w/ HyperThreading
256MB DDR SDRAM
30GB hard drive
64MB NVidia GeForce Go FX5200 graphics card
15″ SXGA screen
Broadcom 440x Ethernet card


Test System 2 (Secondary system):
HP Pavilion N3478 laptop
550MHz AMD K6-2 w/ 3dNow!
64MB SDRAM
6GB hard drive
4MB Trident CyberBlade chipset (shared memory)
12″ SVGA screen


In the past, I’ve had next to no success installing Linux on portable systems. In the past couple weeks, however, I decided to take another shot at it. I picked a bunch of Linux distributions to test, and here’s the first report. I just want to say this before I start: One of the most useful tools you can get is PartitionMagic 8. It lets you resize and play with partitions, non-destructively, from within Windows. Most people will be coming from Windows, and it’s nice to be able to work with partitions without losing data.


There are things you need to do before you start. Of course, make an accurate list of your hardware. “I have an ATI graphics card” isn’t going to cut it. You have to determine whether your laptop supports APM or ACPI power management. Finally, you *must* know what your monitor’s native resolution is. Before you start, disconnect all external mice and keyboards. If you’re going to use a network, modem, or anything else PC card, stick it in. On to the first review.


Red Hat Linux 9


To newcomers to Linux, Red Hat is possibly the most recognizable distribution. As such, new users are likely to gravitate towards Red Hat at some point.


I started off by downloading the three Red Hat 9 (Shrike) ISOs from various servers, and burning them to CD. Simple enough. Pop the first CD into your drive, reboot, and you’re off to the races. (Note: If you’re using something like BootMagic, disable it before you begin the install.


You’re greeted by a boot screen that offers a bit more information. You can start in graphical mode just by hitting enter. If you have problems with the default resolution, (doesn’t load properly, too big, etc.), you can change the resolution by restarting, and at “boot:”, type “linux resolution=AxB”, where A and B are your monitor’s native resolution. (Eg, “linux resolution=1024×768”). Also, try “linux lowres”. If things still won’t work, boot into the text-only installer by typing “linux text”. On my main system, I started the installation in graphical mode on my main system. On the older system, however, I couldn’t get it to run the graphical installer, so I ran it in text mode.


Past here, I won’t waste time with an over-descriptive walkthrough on the installation process. I’ll just highlight anyting in particular you should do to make things easier.


The installer offers the option to perform a media test. Unless you’ve had problems installing in the past, and had to restart, you can skip this step. It takes a lot of time. After this, you jump into a graphical installer. You have to enter what language you want to perform your installation in, and your type or keyboard. Next is mouse stuff. If your touchpad/eraserhead is already working, great. Take the default selection offered. In case it can’t autodetect your mouse/touchpad/eraserhead, however, you should try “Generic – 3 Button Mouse (PS/2)”. If that doesn’t work, try both the 2 button and the serial variants. If that still doesn’t work, experiment.


Once you’ve got that out of the way, you can move to the part where you can do really neat things, like installing stuff. ๐Ÿ™‚


The installer will search for existing Red Hat installations. (Pardon the redundancy.) If there are any, it will ask you if you want to upgrade or perform a clean install. For our purposes, we will assume a full new installation. You will now be asked what type of system you would like to install. Pick “Personal Desktop”. Next, you get to partition your hard drive! What fun!

I won’t give details on the partitioning process. Suffice it to say that you need about a 50MB /boot partition, a swap partition equal to twice the size of your RAM, or 512MB. You can pick your own size for a root partition, but an average install will run between 1.5 and 2 GB. You then are forced to select a bootloader. You have your choice between LILO, GRUB, and not installing a bootloader at all. If you intend to use something like BootMagic, I’d suggest selecting GRUB and installing it on the first sector of your boot partition, NOT on your MBR.


When it comes to software, you have a fairly good selection. You can pick between KDE and Gnome for window managers. OpenOffice.org is included, as well as enough packages to make anyone short of a Debian user happy. In the package selection, however, there seems to be no laptop-specific software. After you pick your packages, it’ll take at least half an hour to install everything. For me, it took just over 40 minutes on my primary system, and about an hour and a half on my secondary system. Next is a quick network setup screen. If things go well, and your network card is detected, you’ll get an incomprehensible list of options. Pick through them and go ahead to the next screen. You’ll get the option to create a boot disk. Might as well.


Finally, there’s X configuration. You’ll get a suggestion for a video card driver, and also for a monitor. There’s a good chance you’ll get the generic vesa driver recommended. Red Hat doesn’t have a way to test your configuration before testing it, so it’s probably a good idea to take the default for now. Red Hat does a decent job of detecting your monitor. If you get a generic or unprobed monitor, however, scroll through the list and find your monitor. Red Hat’s done a good job here: every system I’ve tested has had their monitor listed somewhere in there. I was forced to use the vesa driver for both my systems, the “nv” driver doesn’t work with my graphics card on my main system, and there was no driver for my weird chipset on the secondary system. I used the probed values for my secondary system, but I was able to find my screen for my Inspiron.


After that, reboot and you can jump into your new Red Hat installation.


Assuming things went well, you should boot up to a graphical post-installer. You’re now prompted to make users, set up network stuff, et cetera. You finally get to a login screen once you’ve completed that final segment of installation.


Post-installation, I’m not all that happy. Red Hat doesn’t support the ethernet card on my Inspiron. I got drivers from the Broadcom website, but I never could get them installed. I ended up digging out an Intel Pro/100 ethernet PC card. Still no drivers for that, either. I remembered vaguely that Intel bought out Xircom or something, tried the Xircom PCMCIA drivers, and it worked fine. Go figure. On my secondary system, the PCMCIA 3Com network card I use worked fine. Finally, there seems to be no support for power management at all. Not APM, not ACPI. I looked on Red Hat’s website, and I still couldn’t find any information. A lot of modern laptops handle things like battery through the BIOS, but I would have liked to at least have a battery monitor.


Ratings:


Ease of Installation: 8/10
It’s hard to screw up. The availability of release notes during installation is a nice touch.


Partitioning: 6.5/10
Not only on my laptops, but even on other systems, I was never able to use the automatic partitioning. Personally, I didn’t mind, but in other cases, forcing a new user to deal with disk partitioning isn’t the best idea.


Software: 9/10
There’s a ton of software here. Pretty much everything you’ll need to be productive, except for things like battery monitors.


Hardware compatibility: 7/10
Major incompatibilities include my Broadcom 440x network card, as well as my NVidia Go FX5200 graphics card. I don’t like having to use generic drivers for a fairly mainstream card. Red Hat’s selection of drivers doesn’t seem to cover many mobile chipets, with the exception of ATI stuff. I’m extremely annoyed with its inability to get my network card running. Most other distributions I’ve tried have been able to, why can’t RH9? Good job on screens, though.


Power management: 1/10
No apparent support for power management features at all. At least it didn’t interfere with my BIOS running the show.


Personal feel: 7/10
I don’t like distributions that make me work just to get an internet connection going. I especially don’t like them when they refuse to work with my built-in ethernet card at all. I’m not surprised that I had to use generic drivers for my video cards, but that doesn’t make me a happy person. I am impressed, however, by how many screens and monitors are supported. It saves you from having to look up things like horizontal scan rate. Speed feels slightly slower than Windows XP on my main machine, but faster than Windows Me on my secondary.


Overall rating: 6.4/10
Red Hat’s lack of support for simple things like power management and network cards hurt it here. An excellent software package helps redeem it, but in the end, it’s not really suitable for a portable system. What good is an OS if you can’t even check your battery status?


About the Author:
Tyler Bancroft is a student from London, Ontario, Canada. Although he has no free time, if he did, he’d spend it playing with vintage computers, reading, and playing rugby.

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