Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ubuntu 10.04 (Lucid) on Dell Mini 12

After a recent system update, my Dell Mini 12 went on the fritz: wireless networking stopped working reliably. Obviously, that's completely unacceptable in a device like this. I guess I could have tried messing around with the configuration files and drivers, but Dell's oddball Ubuntu 8.04 (Hardy) lpia distribution has been feeling long in the tooth lately anyway. So, following my mostly satisfactory Lucid workstation experience, I decided to try upgrading my Mini 12 to Lucid.

And, once again, almost everything worked just fine.

I prepared a USB drive with the installer (actually just a memory card reader plus the card from my camera) according to Ubuntu's instructions. Then I rebooted (using F12 to bring up Dell's boot menu, and then selecting USB), and selected installation.

The installer was exceptionally sluggish — for which I blame the Mini 12's underpowered hardware — but otherwise the installation went through without a hitch.

If you try the same with your Dell Mini 12, you'll want to look at these notes before you run the installation. Two post-install tweaks are necessary:

  • To get acceptable graphics performance, you'll need to enable the Poulsbo GMA500 proprietary driver.
  • For the wireless networking you'll have to enable the Broadcom STA wireless driver from the System -> Administration -> Hardware Drivers menu.

Overall I'm mostly satisfied. Lucid both looks and feels much slicker than Hardy, from the fonts to the windows. The desktop distribution's UI works fine on the 12 inch screen. And once you perform the tweaks above, most everything in the hardware works fine, including wireless, bluetooth, trackpad, sound, and the webcam.

The fly in the ointment this time? Suspend and resume are sometimes flaky. In particular, sometimes resume either fails completely or requires that I switch virtual terminals a couple of times (Ctrl-Alt-F2, Ctrl-Alt-F7) to jog it out of its slumber. Given the way I use this device, it's actually less of a big deal than you might expect (basically, when suspend fails, I just hard-reboot and restart my web browsers and emacs), but if this matters to you a lot then you might want to hold off. I guess I could try debugging the problem, but like I said it hasn't been that important to me.

So, OK, I have to admit that owning this computer overall hasn't been a seamless experience. (But then nothing is these days, not even my Macbook Pro from work; I've had many travails with MacPorts and Fink and X11.app and...). When I bought the Mini 12, my goal was to see whether a sub-$700 computer could keep me satisfied for more than one year, which would make it more cost-effective than a $2k computer which typically lasts me 3 years. In that sense, the experiment succeeded: it's lasted over a year, and I've gotten good mileage out of it. Meanwhile, I have not cursed at my Mini especially more than I've cursed at any other computing device I've ever owned. And the biggest positive qualities — compactness, light weight, near-silent operation — remain salient even today.

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