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Installing Linux on a laptop still tricky

Better know the BIOS before you buy a laptop. If it wants a plug-and-play OS, keep shopping.

(LinuxWorld) -- I bought my first laptop two years ago in preparation for my first (and the event's second) Linux World Conference and Expo (LWCE). It was a used ChemBook I purchased from a friend in the local Linux User Group. It had two easily removable hard drives, one of which contained a working installation of Red Hat. Back in 1999, it was still a bit unusual to run Linux on a laptop.

A couple of weeks ago, after four LWCEs, one USENIX, and an ALS, my trusty traveling companion gave up the ghost while I tried to install a new distribution of Linux. I bought a new laptop that I'll break in at the LWCE in San Francisco this week. To be completely accurate, I bought two new laptops; an HP Pavilion and a Sony Vaio. But I had to return the HP due to BIOS problems.

The HP was my first choice, primarily because it promised to deliver more computer for the buck. It offers a fast Athlon processor, 256 megabytes of RAM, built-in modem and Ethernet, and a 20-gigabyte hard drive. I was confident I could install Linux without a hassle.

Unbeknownst to me, it also came with a BIOS that does not offer an option for specifying a non-plug-and-play OS. If you run Linux this means that the onboard PCI devices are not initialized at boot time, because the BIOS expects the operating system to handle that on its own. Linux plugs-and-plays on some ISA cards, but it's problematic on PCI. When I discovered the BIOS limitation, I sent the Pavilion packing. The Sony Vaio was my second choice.

On to the Sony

The Vaio sports a 750-MHz Pentium III, 128 megabytes of RAM, and a 20-gigabyte drive. What it lacks in speed and RAM, however, it makes up for with a removable CD-RW drive and handy docking station. Both came with Windows; the HP with Windows ME and the Sony with Windows 2000.

The first step was to install some decent software. I inserted the first CD from the Red Hat 7.1 install set and powered up. The Vaio booted from the CD without having to first be told in BIOS to look there first. I was halfway through the installation before I remembered the reason I had returned the HP. I rebooted, and as soon as the Sony screen appeared, I pressed the Escape key. That took me into the BIOS setup where I found the needed option. I changed the default "Yes, it is a plug-and-play OS" to "No, it's not." I saved the configuration and restarted the installation.

Red Hat detected its laptop environs and offered me a default laptop installation, which I accepted. I selected Gnome for the desktop environment (KDE purists, please withhold your flames) and the games package for whiling away the hours in airplanes and airports. The Windows 2000 installation conveniently came with C: and D: partitions of roughly equal size. I used DiskDruid to free up what had been drive D: and made it into Linux swap, boot, and root partitions. Then I just let the installation run. It took less than 20 minutes to complete.

Even the X Window System installation was painless. Red Hat identified the video card and suggested 1028 x 768 resolution, which worked the first time. With the HP Pavilion, I had been forced to resort to a post-install frame buffer configuration. Not a horrible thing in and of itself, but a pain nonetheless.

A quick boot in Windows 2000 to make sure it was still there and functional. (I love how Red Hat refers to it as DOS when it built the LILO configuration for dual boot.) Windows 2000 worked fine, so I rebooted again and returned to the now-default Linux.

Now to the goodies. I ran sndconfig and it told me that I had a Yamaha YMF-744B DS-1S Audio Controller. I listened to Linus Torvalds demonstrate how he pronounces Linux ("LYNN-ux"). Bingo. The next time I restarted the GNOME desktop I had all the standard bells and whistles.

The modem, unfortunately, is of that genre known as "Win modems." They require the OS to provide all or part of the driver. Besides taxing the OS with an additional workload, these strange beasts also have the odd effect of making the device OS dependent. While Linux supports many Win modems, I don't like them. I scavenged the PCMCIA Zoom 56kb modem from the old ChemBook. It works perfectly.

So now, like me, the laptop is good to go as far as LWCE in San Francisco is concerned. I've got a modem, Internet access, and a full-sized keyboard to use once I'm there. My fat little fingers are just not comfortable on a notebook keyboard.

More Stories By Joe Barr

Joe Barr is a freelance journalist covering Linux, open source and network security. His 'Version Control' column has been a regular feature of Linux.SYS-CON.com since its inception. As far as we know, he is the only living journalist whose works have appeared both in phrack, the legendary underground zine, and IBM Personal Systems Magazine.

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