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Running Linux Live on a Dell Inspiron 8200

My wife's WinXP box died, again. I've been running the box for two years and that is just too long for windows. It really needs a full reformat and reinstall. But I don't have the time to deal with it now so I decided to instead to put Linux on my wife's machine. 98% of her time is spent in FireFox so she doesn't really care what the OS is. Wanting something easy I decided to try out several 'live Linux' distributions. These are distributions that run completely off a CD, no hard disk installation required. The one I found worked best on my wife's Dell was Mepis but even that will never stay up more than two days.
The 'live Linux' distributions I tried out are:

  • Knoppix 3.4 – I couldn't get it to complete boot.
  • Mandrake Move – It took a substantial amount of time to get going and didn't detect my screen correctly but it was possible to get everything configured correctly using some Mandrake magic. It has a ton of software and Mandrake's great wizards. But eventually the system became unstable, losing networking and slowing down to a glacial pace.
  • Mepis 2003.10 – It takes it a good ten minutes to get into X and then another 10 or so to get X going. But it detected the screen just fine and set up sound correctly.
  • Mepis 2004.b05.en-fr.cd1 – This is my pick for the Dell. Yeah, it takes forever to load up and I couldn't get the 2.6 kernel to run correctly but 2.4 runs very nicely and it auto-detected everything but the printer properly. Oh and it crashes after two days.
  • Suse Live CD-9.1-01 – It took well over 30 minutes from starting the machine to getting into X. In between I had to guess that I should log in as root and then guess I should type in startx. It did automatically detect my screen size and it is very pretty but it is dog slow with my cursor freezing a lot as it tries to do various things. It's really pretty and if I ever want to do a permanent install I'll consider it but for running of a CD it is just too slow on the Dell to be usable.
  • Slax 4.1.2 – Started up very quickly and seems very stable. It was my original choice but I replaced it with Mepis which didn't have the problems Slax had. I discuss how to use Slax and issues I had in an Appendix below.
  • Stux 0.7 – It took eternity for it to finally get running. It's very powerful with lots of switches but unfortunately it is very easy to screw things up. I want something a bit more 'Yaron proof'.

My choice for the Dell is the Mepis 2004.05 Beta running the 2.4 kernel. I tried the 2.6 kernel but I got a "The Process for the File Protocol Died Unexpectedly" error and noticed that I had lost the scroll wheel on my mouse. So I switched back to 2.4. When I boot up Mepis I have to select the 2.4 kernel and then select 1600×1200 resolution. After getting into X I tried to install firefox using the demo account but I get a segmentation fault. However if I install and run as root then everything is fine. Normally I wouldn't run as root but given how this machine is used I'm not too worried. Sound, USB and scroll wheel all were set up correctly. Run time performance was just fine. Sure, if I load up a new program it's kinda slow but as I said, 98% of the time my wife is just running firefox which runs just fine. Mepis 2003.10 had a nifty feature that let you back up directories to a USB key disk which is nice if I have to reboot (to play with another Live CD) but that feature seems to be gone in the beta which is fine since I could never get it to work right anyway. Instead I just record FireFox and Flash tar.gz files along with my wife's profile on the local hard disk. It takes me about 2 minutes to restore everything when the machine crashes, like clockwork, every two days.

Besides the "run two days and crash" problem my other complaint about Mepis is that it's printer support doesn't seem to properly support my Epson Stylus Photo 820. This is a very widely supported printer in the Linux world. Mepis has the right drivers but for some reason when I plug in the printer Mepis mis-identifies it as an Epson Color 900 and can't print. When I fix the driver, it still can't print. I tried to print though my Mac but that failed as well. For now my wife just e-mails me any URLs she wants to print but that sucks. I also managed to get firewire support working.

I suspect I'll eventually just buy my wife a Mac. I'm so deeply sick and tired of all the configuration problems and reliability issues with Windows. While it's true that Linux is much better than Windows for my wife (could you imagine booting and running Windows from a CD?) it's still not as good as a Mac. In fact, since my wife wakes up earlier than I do, often to find Mepis dead, I gave her an account on my Mac so she can get to the Internet.

I'd still like to find a really solid 'boot from CD' Linux distribution, Mepis is as close as I've gotten but the crash every two days thing is really annoying. But, for all of that, at least I can get my wife access to the Internet, something Windows is currently refusing to do.

Appendix – Slax

Before I found Mepis I ran Slax. It's a pretty good distro and my #2 choice after Mepis. Here is how I set things up.

Boot Time – I enter 'slax "wheelmouse"' to put in wheel support.

Login Time – After I have logged in as root I type 'gui "1280×1024"'. The laptop's screen is actually 1600×1200 but typing in that value doesn't work. So I have to run at a lower resolution. I have mail out to the Slax forum about this problem.

Run Time – Slax is able to zip up and store the user directory. This is very useful if you have, as I did, installed Linux programs that you want available on the next reboot (in my case FireFox and Acrobat). To make this work I just needed to stick in a USB key (the hard disk is mostly NTFS which Slax can't write to, there is a small FAT partition but the home directory quickly fills it up) and run configsave with the location /mnt/disc1part1 (the name of my USB key's location). This generates a confsave.tgz file that is stored on the key. Whenever I reboot slax automatically searches the root of all attached files for files named 'confsave.tgz' and loads up their contents. So all the settings get restored. The end result is that before I shut the system down I have to remember to run configsave. This kinda sucks, I'm surprised Slax doesn't just handle this itself.
Another strange problem is that when the screen saver (which is set to just blank the screen) activates and is exited the result is that the screen looks like someone turned the 'horizontal' setting down by 50%. In other words, the 'top' of full screen windows are drawn half way down the screen and then wrap. The way I found to get out of this is to press ctrl-alt-f8 to switch out of X and then ctrl-alt-f7 to switch back in. Then the screen is fine.
Finally, I never did get sound working but I didn't try very hard either.

My other big complaint is that I can't figure out how to get Flash support working with FireFox. I even tried Konqueror which Slax ships with Flash support but it had problems with some Flash sites. I have mail out on this issue as well.

4 Responses to Running Linux Live on a Dell Inspiron 8200

  1. Yaron says:

    Remember, the article is about a Linux Live distribution, that is – it runs off a CD not off the hard disk. The ability to run off a CD is something Microsoft is currently developing but still hasn't delivered. For several years I ran a normal Linux (Mandrake) install. The install was rock solid and caused me much less grief than Windows. The irony is that the only reason I had to learn about Linux Live distributions is because my wife's XP box keeps dying in a variety of bizarre ways and so I needed the Linux Live distribution so she can get to the Internet. If I hadn't finally bough a Mac I would have stayed with Linux. Windows has caused me (and my wife) more grief than it's worth. That having been said I don't think I would want to give an average user a Linux box as I still believe it has too many jagged edges. Anyone who isn't an uber geek and values their time and money should, in my opinion, just buy a Mac.

  2. anonymous says:

    I don't understand why you think Linux is better than Windows when your wife's Windows machine runs for two years while you (a super smart, super technical guy) can't keep the Linux box running for two days.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Dude, that is because he was running it off a cd…cd’s werent really built for having an os run off of them. They arent really that stable themselves anyways. Dont dog linux. It’s a great operating system…much much much much MUCH better than Windows. Too many bugs.

  4. Psyborg says:

    Slax is my favorite bootable linux.It is clean,attracrive and agile.I suggest it to Linux buffs and windows refugees alike.

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