Mad, Beautiful Ideas
Ubuntu on Dell Inspiron 1420N

Quite a while back, Dell decided to begin offering Ubuntu on some of their home-user systems. Catherine was needing a new laptop that she could use as a research laptop, so I talked her into the Dell Inspiron 1420N.

This worked out nicely because most of the software used in Statistical Phylogenetic research today was written for Unix-based systems. Because of this, we knew that Windows was going to be too much of a hassle, and the price of the Macbook Pros was just too much money. In short, we were able to buy a Inspiron 1420, configured similarly to the current low-end Macbook Pro, for about $700 less than we’d have paid to Apple.

Overall, we’ve been happy with the system. Ubuntu loaded right up, and lacked any “Dell-isms” that you have to deal with on their Windows-based laptops. It was a clean Ubuntu 7.04 install. I did attempt when we got the system to upgrade it to Ubuntu 7.10, but that turned out to be a huge failure (to be fair, this was pointed out by Dell’s Linux Labs).

The only thing that was really advertised was the lack of Compiz support, which wouldn’t have been that big of a deal, if Ubuntu would have failed over to metacity without throwing a fit about the fact that Compiz wasn’t working. We could have told Ubuntu to stop complaining, but unfortunately, that would have prevented Compiz from automatically working in the event that a future update fixed the Intel 3d support.

Since 7.10 was causing so many problems, we decided we needed to downgrade back to 7.04. Dell packages their Ubuntu laptops with a small partition which contains the base system which can be easily reinstalled. Unfortunately, there isn’t a separate /home partition, so you have to be sure to backup your home before reinstalling. As a big fan of a special /home partition, I found that inconvenient, but I do understand why Dell did it with a system intended for non-Technical users.

We were having major, major issues with the laptop on our network at home. It would connect cleanly, but didn’t work very well. After some research, I noticed that ip-based traffic was lightning fast, but DNS lookups were painful, even thought the default Gateway was the DNS server. This took me a few weeks to figure out. A bit of research suggested it might be related to ipv6 support. I hadn’t taken that into account because I’ve never had problems with it being enabled on any other system, but it appears that blacklisting the ipv6 modules has fixed the problems we were having. It’s working great right now, but we haven’t tested it on Campus yet, and I’m not sure the problem was completely resolved at home, but I suspect now it would be a router issue.

All in all, we’ve been happy with the purchase. The built-in SD Card reader is working fantastically, and we’ve already used it a few times to load pictures from digital cameras. Haven’t had the opportunity to try the PCMCIA support, or the Firewire support, but everything else has been a fantastic user experience. Apparently, it’s attracted some attention from some of the other Grad Students in Biology, so it might be interesting to see if it catches on a bit more here at WSU.