Last updated: 1 August 2003 -- addendum March 2005

My trials with Linux on the Latitude X200

I bought a Latitude because it was really really light, and because Dell have a great reputation for service, and used to install linux for you, so are slightly less evil than all the people who wouldn't dream of it (I think!)  I also bought a media slice with a floppy & a CD RW  -- I thought about the DVD, but figured I could buy a writable USB one for the amount they were asking, and CDs might still be useful.

I should say that Dell's service reputation seems well deserved.  Even in Bath, England, when my backplane failed in May or so they came out and fixed it within 24 hours!  No data loss.

RedHat 9 Executive Summary (July 2003)

I currently have absolutely everything working as far as I can tell -- yes, including X, wireless, the media slice, power management, the works.  You can get the vast majority of the scoop from HvR's page.

Here are the quick steps:
  1. To get linux on a dual-boot with XP, I installed linux (wiping windows), partitioned the drive, installed windows (which wiped linux), then re-installed linux.  I don't recommend doing this, it just sort of happened (see below.)  Also note you can't do this with the XP disk Dell gives you, that disk fully "restores" your hard disk.  You need a proper Windows distribution disk.
  2. I installed RedHat 9.  Everything worked except for sound, DHCP for DNS, and wireless.
  3. Lucky me:  a friend installed alsa (here are some instructions by him) dhcp-3.0, kernel-source-2.4.20-19.9, and xmms-mp3-1.2.7-21 for me.
  4. I found HvR's page and did the sound thing twice & it worked.  To get wireless working, I had to set the channel & ESSID right (duh!)
For a little more gory detail see Trial 5 below.

SuSE Executive Summary (March 2003)

I currently have X, USB, wireless, conventional ethernet, and most but not all sound working.  I am using SuSE 8.1.  I've got access to the floppy on my media slice now (just 'cause SuSE got better!), but I still haven't got access to my media slice cdrom, nor do I have power management working.  I do have Windows XP running in a small partition as an alternative boot, but I did this by reinstalling both windows and then linux.

Here's how to get as far along as I am:

Here's the SuSE download page and their FTP ReadMe.
  1. Download & burn the SuSE ftp CD.
  2. Put it in your CD drive & boot the laptop somewhere where you are plugged into an ethernet.
  3. Pick the 1024x780 option on the very first screen, before you really boot: otherwise X will never work!
  4. SuSE will find almost all your devices, except for the networking one.  So before choosing install, choose kernel modules (hardware drivers), then load network card modules, then 3Com 3C59x.  Then exit back to the top menu and start installing.
  5. You will need an IP address for whatever mirror you are going to use.  Pick one from the SuSE FTP mirror page, then click through it until you find the directory "current" under your architecture.  You will need that full path (ending in "current") for the next question.  Having picked a server, use a real computer (unix, linux, OSX) to "ping" the ftp server, this will print out the IP address.  (There may be a way to do this from MS, but I don't know it.)
  6. Being a little bit of a hacker, I haven't tried automatic partitioning yet, so I don't know if there are any gotchas there to look out for.  Doing it by hand is very easy.  In general, the SuSE install system is a dream. Also, I am using Gnome, not KDE, because I think it's prettier.  I am using grub as the boot loader, that is default.
  7. Go ahead and enable 3D for your video.  Accept the graphics configuration (if you paid attention to point 3 above!)
  8. Exiting X conventionally will crash your computer.  So if you want to exit it, do Ctrl-Alt-F3 , which normally in linux gives you another console, but on your SuSE latitude will soon crash X and send you back to your original console.  How's that for a hack?  This works best if you first change grub to initialize "safe" (that is, old-fashioned non-X) linux login mode by default, rather than having it start up X prior to login.  On an 8.1 install with my configuration this means changing default to 3 (from 0) in /boot/grub/menu.lst.  To figure out the number you need to count down from the top of the list of boot options starting with 0 until you get to safe mode.
  9. Getting Wireless to Work takes a little bit of doing, but it's getting easier. Yast will do most but not all of the work. Go in to Network/Basic -> Network card configuration.  If it hasn't detected your card (it didn't mine in March 2003) click the configure button under "other (not detected)" and tell it you have a wireless pcmia card.  Exit Yast, and then edit the first three fields of  /etc/sysconfig/network/wireless Make sure it has the "wireless" variable set to "yes".  Then just reboot your machine and it should all work.
Below is far more information than you probably want, including why I'm not using Red Hat or Debian, links to other related pages, why I can't recommend buying SuSE (at least, not to get them to give you support, though I don't mind supporting them!) and other silly things.  

Trial 1:  Red Hat 8.0

  1. Don't buy the Wiley book, thinking it's a Red Hat distribution.  You get no support and only 2 of 5 disks.  In particular, you don't get FIPS, so you can't partition your disk (if you want to keep XP...)
  2. Don't buy / burn CDs anyway.  Although RedHat boots off the first CD, it then can't find the CD drive to do the rest of the install!  However, getting booted is a good start, so burn the first CD (buying from Red Hat turned out to be a bad idea because either I paid $40 extra for import & shipping (from RH USA), or $40 extra for living in Europe (buying from RH Ireland).
  3. Anyway, FIPS won't work!  Argh, may as well have kept the Wiley book -- except of course for the lack of tech support or being able to read the CDs.  Anyway, if some `nice' person has preinstalled HPFS/NTFS instead of FAT partitions, then you are hosed & have to either buy a commercial partitioner or just blow MS away (you can reinstall it later --- probably).  Anyway,  I did the latter with relish, not realizing how the trial would progress.  I thought linux was getting easy to install???  (Note:  Apparently HPFS/NTFS is smaller & more secure than FAT, so this is why my sysadmin favours it.  But I think Linux not only can't partition it but can't read it.  Further, Dell no longer sends you the Microsoft disks!  They just send some lame recovery disk that wipes EVERYTHING & returns it to how you got it from the factory!!!  So you can't easily reinstall MS on a partition you leave for it (unless you happen to work for an institution with a site license & disks lying around.)  Is this legal???  Grrrr!!!)
  4. So I did an install off FTP.  All seemed to go fairly swimmingly, (although it couldn't probe the screen so used the old pseudo-graphics GUI with no mouse)  -- except it couldn't load!  Yes, I tried rescue mode & running grub-install & LILO &various things.  The most annoying thing is that if you try to upgrade (rather than reinstall) it figures out the loader is screwed up & says it will fix it, but then afterwards says "no kernel modules updated, loader not reinstalled" or some such.  Even if you ask for more packages!   It's like the only screen with only button, you have to say "OK".  Grrr...
  5.  Reading around a bit, I found:
    1. someone else on either the Dell `community forum' or google's usenet archive that he only got this to work after a complete reinstall -- which takes ages by FTP.  But worse...
    2. if you write to the MBR on the `old' latitude C400 (which is apparently much like the X200) then apparently you can't get some saving thing to work.  So I tried to install grub or lilo on some other partition for a bit, but then I noticed that...
    3. in fact, in general, redhat has all kinds of `issues' with latitude hard ware.  But...
    4.  this page,  seems to solve them, especially the special notes at the end essentially said to me "Go SuSE"

Trial 2: SuSe 8.1

Here's the SuSE download page and their FTP ReadMe.
  1. Again, I couldn't find SuSE for sale around me.  And SuSE won't give away CD iso's!  Most annoying, since RedHat will, but can't find the CD player.  SuSE can find the CD player, but won't give you the disks... (yes, I know they need to make money -- I'm happy to buy support, but not to pay shipping charges for the privelage of waiting around for the post office!  Especially since it's christmastime...)
  2. So to FTP again.  SuSE does let you burn an install disk, which it then has no trouble finding.  It's install program is much better than the (old, to be fair, but all I could get) one I was using on RedHat.
  3. Be sure on the first screen to pick the 1024x780 monitor setting!  Otherwise you'll get crap X much later!
  4. SuSE find almost all of the devices (accept what it suggests).  Except you have to install the network device before doing the install.  Fortunately you can go back back back when you realize you need this, and SuSE actually remembers all the previous values you typed in (unlike RedHat!)  Choose kernel modules (hardware drivers) and then load network card modules.
  5. The network card you need is currently the first one listed, for the 3Com 3C920 chipset.  (SuSE lists this as `3Com 3C59x', with no parameters.  Anyway, I only found that information later on the euro dell latitude page.  I found out which one to use by randomly trying the various 3Com entries after having read the USA dell latitude page, which says someting about `3Com 10/100', which other brands do have that make as an option, but not 3Com.
  6. The first time I tried to install it, SuSE crashed -- it couldn't find any program packages to give me!  It was also going to give me LILO then.  So I had to bail & start over.  
  7. From here on in I asked for the FTP site as [whatever]/current, not [whatever]/8.1 .  I read this somewhere online & since the second time worked better, never looked back  
  8. The next time it gave me the options (but now the booter was grub & I couldn't change it!)  But then -- 100 packages returned errors, which all seemed to be around some library that wasn't installed.  Great!  I tried to reinstall, and my laptop hung!  SuSE takes control of the on/off switch, so I had to unplug my laptop & remove it's battery to get control back...
  9. So I tried to install again this time using Safe Settings, while it was FTPing I wrote this page... now you are in real time!
  10. I also gave up on not letting grub / the bootloader install on MBR.  So I wound up accepting the booter defaults.
  11. Oh my gosh -- it just rebooted itself!  It's up!  It never asked me for a login or anything -- but if you type "root" it just puts you in with no password.  And at a bash prompt, not in X.  Obviously the OS for an old hacker like me (or any security hacker, hmmm...)
  12. If you try to run startx, it tells you a program to run (SaX2 or somesuch) which makes a kind of crappy X run.  Apparently SuSE also can't probe the monitor, so if you want to configure it, you have to do it by hand... LCD->1024x780 looks like it should work, but craps out!  I saw it briefly doing the right thing, but then it started crapping out  This is addressed by doing #3 above --yep, you guessed it, another install!  Anyway, KDE looked too shiny to me, & I wanted my Gnome back...
  13. There doesn't seem to be a way to do an upgrade.  Despite how it says "Install/Upgrade" at some choicepoints,  I couldn't just change packages & screen size, I had to reinstall everything.  Maybe if there is a new version, SuSE would detect it & offer an upgrade, but what if I want to downgrade?  (I've often wanted that!)  The only options reinstall or just boot up your old system.
  14. For some reason, this time it's giving me a lot more stuff in the startup!  Like root password, addusers, configuring X.  Maybe it's the 1024x780 thing -- it for some reason triggers a better startup program.
  15. Way!  It works & it's pretty!  It still doesn't suspend when I shut it, but I've shut it down & I'm going home.  Good luck!
  16. Err... no it doesn't REALLY work... booting itself it can't see the media slice!  and indeed the suspend doesn't work.  Next guesses are firewire modules for the kernel &/or Debian...  Similar problems solved on SuSE for the power PC.
  17. Getting Wireless to Work Takes a little doing. NB: much of this was better when I tried again in March 03 -  read the executive summary above for the current instructions.  Yast will do most but not all of the work. In the end, you need to make sure /etc/sysconfig/network/wireless has the "wireless" variable set to "yes" (duh!) and /etc/sysconfig/network/ifcfg-eth1 set up right for your system. Yast will set up most of the variables for dhcp, but To get wireless working on boot you have to edit /etc/sysconfig/network/ifcfg-eth1 so STARTMODE='hotplug'. This is because the wireless card is pcmcia, which hasn't started when the laptop tries to boot the network, but this command makes it wait before starting eth1. YaST will overwrite this and break it! So you have to reset this variable by hand every time you edit eth1 stuff in YaST.
  18. Because X crashes the machine whenever you logout of it (apparently because the monitor isn't really supported) I changed grub to initialize "safe" (that is, old-fashioned non X) linux mode by default. Then I can check wireless etc is working before going into X. On an 8.1 install this means changing default to 3 (as of March, last January it was 2...) in /boot/grub/menu.lst
  19. Don't buy SuSE for the support!  (Maybe it's better if you are fluent in German...) I took a chance & bought it (even though I'd already downloaded the OS), and, true to what people say on usenet, they got back two weeks later & said they didn't cover my questions -- even though I read their pages carefully to see if they would.  They did include a link to this page about what they do and don't cover (which doesn't mention either sleeping of firewire either way, but does say they cover laptops.  Isn't docking & power management part of a laptop?) and two hints about firewire "for developers" (ieee 1394 for linux and some documentation), and for the sleep / power management problem, a suggestion that I read this german mailing list.   They also told me the link in number 17 above only applies to PowerPCs and not to try it.  Anyway, SuSE is very pretty & has cool games & I'm fairly happy with it, but next time I get a week off I may try Debian...
  20. ACPI (the current trend in power management) is supposed to just work.  Apparently you can shut it off & try APM instead.  This guy has APM running under Debian.  And Firewire "sort of".  I may try to do what he's done under SuSE before wiping my disk again...

Trial 3: Windows XP and Debian

When last we left our heroine, she had been forced to wipe the evil empire entirely off her hard disk.  Unfortunately, one day she decided to reinstall Windows XP on the partition she'd left for the purpose, (so she could demo something to her students on a machine like theirs).  I thought all I'd have to do was reinstall grub.  Ha!  The evil empire managed to screw up my partition table in such a way that linux thought it was severely damaged.  I decided to take advantage of this opportunity to install Debian, because that's the only thing (other than free BSD) that I've heard of anyone getting the power management and CD working on.  Friends and neighbors, this too is a long story, but in the end I have given up and reinstalled SuSE.  At least this let me doublecheck my instructions here.  Also, the SuSE installer is even nicer than it was before, I must say it's incredibly impressive.  But I still want Debian, because of their package management & the fact that they and Apple seem to be the only ones who have noticed that you tend to carry laptops around, so switching network configs should be trivial.

Not so Trialsome 4: SuSE 8.1 (again)

SuSE has now somewhat fixed the media slice problem, but not really.  They did got sound working well enough that real player worked sometime a couple months ago -- I picked that up on an upgrade.  One dumb thing -- the more media you find, the further down "safe" mode is in grub, so you have to keep changing what number default is in grub if you want safe mode... (yes, X still crashes!)  I wonder if my buying support actually did do something, or if they would have fixed it anyway?  Hey, they also fixed wireless a bit so you don't have to hack it yourself to get the hotplug to work.

I eventually switched to LILO though because I couldn't get Grub to start Microsoft.

Trial 5:  Debian fails again, and RedHat 9

Well, I still wanted Debian because I still wanted:
...and I still have my x200.  If someone steals it, maybe I'll just buy a Mac since OSX does all of the above out of the box.  Anyway, someone nameless told me that she could install Debian on my laptop, but she hit the same problems I had (see Trial 3.)  Then I asked Owen Cliffe for any suggestions (knowing he was a keen hacker) and he said it looked like it would be too much trouble to get Debian working. He himself uses something even cooler but that takes a day's hacking to get up so I didn't get that -- TIME is my biggest issue.  So then he just handed me the RedHat 9 CDs and I did that.  See the executive summary above for the few tweaks it takes to finish the job.  

I miss SuSE -- it was prettier & had cooler stuff on it.  If someone had handed me the SuSE 8.2 disks I would have tried that, but no one did.  But it is nice to have my laptop actually working. Still, RedHat does feel sadly like a compromise -- after all, XP had everything working too...

No More (Linux) Trials  (March 2005)

I had email about this page: 

I read your page:

Knoppix Linux works fine on my X200, and it's a Debian derivative.  Have
you tried it?

Brian Mork

Sounds interesting, but as for me, I have (as threatened) bought Mac OS X.  To see my excitement & issues over there, see my OS X page.

Joanna Bryson