What works, executive summary:
3D graphics (Nvidia GeForce 8600M GT) – yes (minor config required)
Sound output (Intel 82801H HDA controller, ICH8 chipset) – yes (more serious config required)
Sound input (mic, line-in) –untested
Wired network –yes
Wireless network –yes
Firewire (IEEE1394) –yes (more serious config required for MiniDV video camera usage)
SD card slot –yes
Integrated webcam (optional) –yes (but seems unsupported by some older software)
Touchpad pointing device –yes
External CRT video port –
only in ‘text’ modeyes, enable with ‘nvidia-settings’ command
PCI Express slot –untested
Here’s the output of lspci so everyone can see exactly what hardware I have, since sometimes Dell changes components within models: Dell Vostro 1500 lspci output
What follows is a review of the hardware features of the laptop that worked out-of-the-box with Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon 7.10, and what I did to fix the few problems that I encountered. Overall, I’m extremely happy with the performance and hardware support of Ubuntu Linux on this notebook, and apart from a fix required for sound support, there were no show-stoppers that would prevent any computer user capable of installing Microsoft Windows or Apple OSX from installing and using Ubuntu happily on this machine.
Initially I was unsure about taking the plunge an getting a Vostro 1500 to run Ubuntu Linux. The Vostro is a fairly new design in Dell’s range, and there appeared to be a few hardware issues still unresolved in the Ubuntu forums. After a quick email to Nathan Ricci to clarify a few details of his experiences I decided that there were no real show-stoppers or things I couldn’t fix myself if required. I ordered a customized Vostro 1500 from Dell Australia, it arrived 7 days later.
I had already read that there could be issues (although probably not in Gutsy) during the installation with the DVD drive on this machine. Since I’ve always wanted to try a USB key based install, I took the opportunity to make a bootable Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon USB key. This worked a treat, and I was able to boot Ubuntu directly from my 2 Gb USB flash drive (just remember to press F12 during bootup to access the boot device menu … the boot order defined in the BIOS seemed to be ignored despite putting the USB boot device at the top of the list). I assume that Gusty would install fine from CD or DVD too, I just haven’t tried it.
This system shipped with pre-installed Windows Vista Business (32-bit), and contained a bunch of strange Dell restore and utility partitions at both the start and the end of the hard disk, in addition to the large Vista NTFS partition. When I told the Ubuntu installer to do Guided Partitioning by using the existing free space, it was smart enough to choose the largest NTFS partition and shrink it to the size I told it to, and then install Ubuntu in the re-claimed space previously taken up by the Vista NTFS partition. It was quick (I didn’t time it, maybe 10 – 20 mins tops ?) and installed without a hitch, even creating a nice Grub boot menu containing Windows Vista and the Dell Utility, in the unlikely event that I should want to boot into them in the future.
Little features and nice little touches that worked perfectly out-of-the-box:
LCD screen dimming on battery power, and “Fn”-key brightness controls work just fine.
Volume control buttons work, including a nice heads-up-display overlay when pressed.
“Home” button (next to power button) launches Rhythmbox Music Player by default (I reconfigured this using Preferences-Keyboard Shortcuts to lock the screen instead). The Play/Stop/Forward/Back buttons control Rhythmbox … I installed this “gnome multimedia keys” Amarok plugin to allow them to control Amarok instead. Pressing the power button briefly brings up the little logout/shutdown/hibernate/suspend dialog.
“Corner click” on the top-right of the touchpad does a middle click, horizontal (if enabled) and vertical scrolling using the touchpad edges works nicely.
Ubuntu automatically mounts and displays the contents of an SD card when it is inserted into the in-built SD card slot. Yes, obvious behavior for a Desktop machine, I know, but old-skool Linux users from the past will know that things weren’t always that seemless and easy. It’s not worth getting to excited about, but it’s nice to see that things are working just the way they should.
Enabling accelerated 3D graphics support was trivial. I enabled the propreitory Nvidia graphics drivers by going to System- Administration-Restricted Drivers Manager. (Excuse me for a moment while I take time-out from blogging to play some Planet Penguin Racer … okay got my fix, I’m back now).
A few things that required fixing:
The biggest problem was that sound didn’t work immediately after the install, nor did it work after the first updates were applied, nor did recompiling the alsa drivers with the module-assistant fix it as described here. Also, adding the line “options snd-hda-intel model=5stack” to /etc/modprobe.d/alsa-base and rebooting didn’t have any immediate effect. Ultimately, I got sound working by running “apt-get install linux-backports-modules-generic”, as described here (update: as Dino notes in the comments, only this last apt-get step is required). Annoying, but at least solvable. It may be that a combination of these changes was required … I’m not sure, but it’s stably working now.
Others had reported a bug where the sound comes out of the speakers and attached headphones simulaneously, but I found this wasn’t the case. On my Vostro 1500, if headphones are plugged in, sound only comes out of the headphones, which is the most desirable and expected behavior.
After the first 12 – 24 hours using this laptop, I became concerned about the constant hard disk ‘clicking’ sound. From past experience this is an indication of a drive which is about to fail. After a bit of digging (and a timely post on Slashdot), I found an explanation and a solution. It appears that the power management is causing the hard drive head to ‘load/unload’ it’s heads far too often, and as I suspected when I first noticed the noise, this will drastically reduce the life of the drive. The solution is described in Ubuntu launchpad Bug #59695 with more at the Thinkwiki. I implemented the fix from the comments here, here and here, and so far the clicking hasn’t returned. For the record, this is a Hitachi HTS722016K9A300 model drive with firmware DCDOC54P. It is still unclear whether this bug is the fault of Ubuntu, Hitachi or someone else; I’m just happy that this workaround seems to have fixed the problem.
The Vostro 1500 comes with an (optional) intergrated webcam; for the record the model reported by Preferences-Hardware Information is “OmniVision Technologies, Inc. -2640-07.07.20” (ID 05a9:2640). The appropriate uvcvideo drivers are automatically loaded by Gutsy, but only certain webcam programs seem to work with the camera. kdetv works fine, but camstream, gqview and camgrab all fail with various error messages. I suspect this is just an issue of older software not supporting more modern and featureful webcams and drivers.
Firewire (IEEE1394) works with my Canon ZR500 MiniDV video camera, allowing me to capture video for editing with Kino. It’s not entirely painless to set up. You’ll need to “modprobe raw1394” (and add raw1394 to /etc/modules) to load the appropriate driver and either run Kino as root (an extremely bad idea security-wise) or edit /etc/udev/rules.d/40-permissions.rules to change the line KERNEL==”raw1394″, GROUP=”disk” to KERNEL==”raw1394″, GROUP=”video“ (again, unfortunately a security risk). Still, the bottom line is, firewire works on the Vostro 1500 with Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon.
Fixed, see below:
The external CRT video port works in Windows Vista, but when running Ubuntu Linux I could only get it to display on an external screen in text mode, not when running the Xorg server. I tried several resolutions, to no avail. The fact the some video is getting out that port suggests that I is generally working under Linux, but there is some configuration preventing it from working when displaying the Xorg server graphical output. Then again, my external Phillips LCD can be a little fussy about resolutions, etc. The lack of this feature was disappointing, but it’s a problem that I expect I’ll be able to solve in the future.
The external video port can be enabled using the ‘nvidia-settings’ program. I ran it from the command line using ‘sudo nvidia-settings’, and used the GUI to configure the desired behavior, before saving the new xorg.conf file. You may need to reboot with the external monitor plugged in for it to be detected. I’ve read that the eminent Hardy 8.04 release handles dual screens more gracefully … we’ll see sometime soon 🙂
Battery life is decent, from the 9-cell battery I get around 3 hours of typical desktop usage. Unfortunately, the 9-cell battery sticks out about an inch, and is not flush with the back of the laptop. I wish Dell had made this fact clearer on their order page … I may decide to exchange the battery for the 6-cell one which doesn’t stick out, or get an additional 6-cell for everyday use and keep the 9-cell for on the road where I may want lots of extra battery life.
If you are looking for a competatively priced mid-range notebook to run Ubuntu Linux, a Vostro 1500 is a very good choice (particularly in places like Australia where Dell do not offer their pre-installed Ubuntu Inspiron notebooks). In fact, the hardware support is good enough that with a few minor patches to Ubuntu, I can’t see any good reason why Dell couldn’t offer Vostro 1500’s with Ubuntu Gusty Gibbon (“Dell Edition”) pre-installed, just like they already do with other select models.