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Binner in the Dell

November 8, 2013

Henry reflects on the Dell booting Ubuntu 12.04.3 off the USB stick. We used plain 12.04 to install though.

My friend Henry is one of the worst things that can happen to a laptop. He can’t explain it. They all break. The Acer Aspire One he spent an entire welfare cheque on — broken. The enormous Toshiba he found beside a dumpster — broken. And what about his latest dumpster find, the HP dv6000? Guess.

When he dove the dumpster that yielded the HP dv6000, he also fished out a Dell Inspiron 1525, with AC adapter. We got the HP up and working because, well, we could. The Dell had a password, and I didn’t know the F-key to change the boot order on the Dell.

Well, Henry would rather have access to the Internet than not, so over breakfast two days ago at McDonald’s I installed Ubuntu 12.04 on the Dell. After one little bobble, it went without a hitch. For the first time, Henry the binner and dumpster diver, and Windows user, would get to dive into Linux.

dell-1525-pry-pointThe Dell Inspiron 1525 was a 2007 budget model: 160 GB hard drive, 15.4″ screen, Web camera, SD slot, and wireless. 2 GB of RAM, and a 1.6 GHz Centrino processor. It displayed good build quality, with smart little touches like a pry-point on a facing piece above the keyboard. And it looked fine: silver metallic-finish plastic, with a red rubber finish on the outside lid.

Months ago Henry binned a Windows 7 install disk with activation code — he used it on the dv6000 — but he couldn’t lay his hands on it right away, so he was willing, and interested, to try Ubuntu. By this time I knew the F-key to change the boot order on this Inspiron, if not all Dell laptops, was F12. I easily booted a live image of Ubuntu 12.04 from a 16 GB flash drive I’ve set up to multi-boot a variety of live Linux operating systems.

Booting the Dell was one thing. I also made sure Ubuntu could properly drive the hardware, which it could. Everything important worked: the Wi-Fi, the Webcam, the trackpad, and the audio. I chose Ubuntu version 12.04 because it is a so-called Long Term Support (LTS) version, which will be updated well into 2017. Ubuntu releases an LTS version every two years.

What good’s a laptop without Wi-Fi?


For the actual installation, there was a slight complication. I first booted the Dell with Ubuntu 12.04, which worked fine, except no Wi-Fi, but after a moment I was given the option to install the necessary proprietary Broadcom STA wireless driver, and bingo, I was able to connect to the McDonald’s Wi-Fi. But when I tried the slightly newer Ubuntu 12.04.3, it tried — and failed — to install the same Broadcom driver. So I did the actual install using the original 12.04 version.

What Ubuntu 12.04 thinks of Henry’s Dell.

What I was trying to avoid was having to install three version points of updates, but we did that the next morning, at McDonald’s — all 166 MBs, without a problem. And, unlike Windows. Ubuntu downloads, installs, and configures updates in the background, while you, the user continue using the computer.

Henry isn’t a very demanding computer user. Almost all he does is on the Web, and the Firefox browser he knows and loves comes with Ubuntu by default. I briefly showed him how to navigate Ubuntu’s Unity desktop interface, and walked him through installing the Webcam program Cheese using the Ubuntu Software Center. He’s yet to say a word of complaint.

Henry getting in some Facebook face time for the first time in a while.

497x2-rule-greenWe interrupt this post for a live report

So-called Live disk images are a way to package a complete computing environment, including applications, in a portable computer file. Disk image files usually end in a “.iso” file extention. They can be downloaded off the Internet and copied onto physical media — burned onto a CD or DVD, or copied onto a flash drive using special software. You can then use the resulting disk, or flash drive to boot a computer. The principal is the same on a Mac, PC, or Linux, computer, but each platform handles the details differently.

The thing about a live disk image is that it doesn’t get copied onto the computer’s hard drive. it runs completely in Random Access Memory (RAM) — the computer doesn’t write it down, it just remembers it. Armed with a bootable live CD, DVD, or flash drive, you can boot and use a computer whether it has a hard drive or not. Stick in another flash drive and you can use that as storage space you can save files to. That means you can boot a computer when it has no hard drive, or a damaged hard drive, or the operating system on the hard drive won’t boot. And then you can check the hardware specs, and condition, or perform repairs on a hard drive or installed operating system, or — in the last resort — rescue your files before the ship sinks.

And you can install the operating system from the live disk image onto the hard drive, which brings us back to Henry’s Dell and Ubuntu 12.04.

Towards a kinder kind of Linux

Ubuntu is a kind of Linux — a free computer operating system developed in the last 20 years cooperatively on the Internet. Linux was inspired by UNIX, a powerful operating system rooted in the era when computers were controlled by commands typed on a keyboard. Linux is the opposite of commercial software in that it’s source code is openly available for anyone to see, and edit. Thousands of people, and companies contribute new code to Linux every day. The process, and the code, is tightly quality-controlled, but open, hence the term “open source.”

Linux is a set of software building blocks that can be used to build a complete computer operating system many different ways. Linux became a lot easier to use, or at least get started with, when groups of developers began pre-assembling the blocks into so-called distributions. Today a small number of distributions, each with a particular guiding philosophy, lie at the heart of the Linux world. One is called Debian, which has a strong reputation both for it’s commitment to the open source software movement, and for creating some of the best features of modern Linux.

Ubuntu: the South African Swiss army knife

Ubuntu is a version of Debian Linux developed by a South African group called Canonical. Ubuntu candy coats all that geeky Debian goodness with a very friendly looking graphical user interface, with the clear hope of making Ubuntu an attractive alternative to Windows and Macintosh.

Ubuntu’s use of live desktop CDs, has helped it become the most popular version of Linux, by allowing people to easily try Ubuntu risk-free, without having to install it first. The Ubuntu live CD has also became a common tool in a computer technician’s bag of tricks.

I already had my bootable Ubuntu flash drives, but it’s easy to start from scratch:

  • Download the appropriate disk image of Ubuntu 12.04 LTS from the Download Ubuntu Desktop page
  • Use the disk image to make a bootable USB flash drive using UNetbootin (Windows, Mac, or Linux)

The Dell I was installing Ubuntu on was an older 32-bit machine. All new computers are 64-bit, and you should download the 64-bit Ubuntu live image. The newest Windows 8 computers further complicate things by incorporating something called Secure Boot. Ubuntu supports Secure Boot apparently beginning with version 12.04.2, but definitely by 12.10 (Ubuntu only does xx.04, and xx.10 versions).

The key, or rather F-key, to booting from a flash drive

Booting from the USB flash drive you formatted with UNetbootin is easy, as long as you know how to change the boot order to tell the computer to look for an operating system on a USB drive, before looking on the hard drive. This is a function of the firmware which launches when you press the power key. In fact, in the moments just after you press the power key, almost all Windows computers list the F-keys you press to change the boot order or access the firmware menu — you just need to watch carefully, or you can consult this handy USB Flash Drive Boot Reference List. Mac OS X does it differently. Apple explains.

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