Dell E6420 with Ubuntu 10.10 (Maverick Meerkat) 32 bit

Having hacked away with Natty Narwahl for a few weeks I’m regressing to the 10.10 distribution provided by Dell here. Installation took 20 minutes, it allowed me to use the previous ext4 partition (I had to edit it using the advanced configuration and set the ext4 partition’s mount point from blank to ‘/’). I formatted the partition too for good measure. I made sure to reload the package list (via Synaptics) and let it fetch updates.

Running ‘uname -a’ reports that this is 32 bit: “Linux ian-Latitude-E6420 2.6.35-30-generic-pae #54-Ubuntu SMP Tue Jun 7 20:28:33 UTC 2011 i686 GNU/Linux”

Next I followed the instructions here to get access to sound and the touchpad (on the fresh install the ‘pad worked but had no side-scroll, now it has side-scroll). I used my previous instructions to get the edgers version of the NVIDIA drivers (not the ones on the Dell site), Optimus was already disabled and the NVIDIA drivers ‘just worked’. I had to install the Dell sound driver but then it also ‘just worked’. Flash with sound seems to have worked out of the box too.

Wifi was a pain – the Dell links didn’t work but downloading this (in Synaptic – the pae version) via this for my Broadcom BCM 5800 (ID: 0a5c:5800) gave me wifi on a reboot. I’ve also upgraded Firefox 3 to 5 via this.

Suspend and hibernate seem to be stable (unlike before with the 11.04 install – it randomly got stuck and lost my desktop). Rather pleasingly although I was getting a gig of Dropbox over Wifi and compiling new sources the battery tool reported 6 hours of battery life (which seemed true-ish, maybe 4 hours would have  been right, though I did have the screen on darkest as it was very late in the night). This beats the max 2 hours I got before with 11.04.

Overall regressing to the 10.10 build from Dell seems to be the right move. Update two weeks later – using the Dell image is definitely the right thing to do, everything ‘just works’ like it is supposed to. I get 4-6 hours battery life using the NVIDIA graphics card as my primary display.

Update – I’ve uploaded a modified script that disables the touchpad for a fraction of a second when you’re typing. This is necessary as the ALPS touchpad identifies itself as a PS/2 mouse rather than a trackpad due to proprietary drivers. The script is in my github repo as Dell_E6420_Touchpad_AutoDisabler. It contains minor fixes from Philip Aston’s excellent version here.

Update (Nov 2011) – Having used 10.10 for 2 months I’ve got some problems that I’ll list.

  1. About 1 in 20 lid closes do not cause the suspend behaviour to start. The result is that the laptop stays ‘on’ with the lid shut. After an hour it tries to go into (I guess) hibernate, for some reason it gets stuck. Next it gets hot, the fans run on full and after a while it is cooking at 80 degrees in my laptop bag, merrily eating the battery. If I get it in time I can open the screen – the backlight is on but nothing responds and I have to force power-off (holding the power button for 5 seconds). If I don’t get it in time it just kills the battery. Upon a reboot it boots a fresh session and everything is fine, sans all the previous session info (this hasn’t yet led to corruption)
  2. About once a month the machine freezes during use. It has happened just after a clean boot (after logging in, before doing anything). It has happened after days of use and many suspends. The behaviour is a total system lock, the screen doesn’t update, no mouse etc. A force power off is required.
  3. The in-built camera normally works with Skype, sometimes it fails to start and a reboot is required. The picture is grainy and doesn’t cope with low lighting conditions (I haven’t tried this on Windows). Using an older Logitech QuickCam Pro 9000 I get a bright, clear picture even in low light conditions for Skype.
  4. Power usage with the NVIDIA card on (Optimus off), using VirtualBox, with wifi and a bright screen is about 3 hours.

It is hard to know if this is a hardware fault (the BIOS-based self diagnostics which run for 30 mins report no problems) or a software fault. I’m inclined to think it is 10.10 and/or the Dell changes. I’m planning on trying 11.10 next in the hope that the SandyBridge chipset is better supported.

My take-home message so far is that if the manufacturer doesn’t support your OS (Dell only partially support Ubuntu), don’t buy from them. I believe HP might have been a better purchase.

Ian is a Chief Interim Data Scientist via his Mor Consulting. Sign-up for Data Science tutorials in London and to hear about his data science thoughts and jobs. He lives in London, is walked by his high energy Springer Spaniel and is a consumer of fine coffees.