Linux IS NOT ready for the laptop

When is Linux ready for the desktop? Or more likely, the laptop? Walt Mossberg recently has echoed that while Linux is easier to use, its still not for everyone (permanently archived at his blog, Linux’s Free System Is Now Easier to Use, But Not for Everyone).

I have to applaud Dell for having the balls to sell Ubuntu on their laptops. In fact, now, Lenovo/IBM are thinking that they might do this as well, and the polls seem to suggest that Ubuntu is the favourite.

However, I should caution all these companies from even going near Linux with a ten-foot pole. Quite simply, this is because Linux doesn’t work. If their product doesn’t work as advertised, what are the chances of a customer possibly suing them, for a product that isn’t fit for purpose?

Before buying a laptop, I was told that if I went with an Intel video card, I would be safe, and everything would just work. I was lied to.

  • Suspend and resume work sometimes, but its so unreliable, that saying random prayers are handy, but don’t always work.
  • Turning off the wireless on a plane and turning it back on, will somehow ensure that I need to reboot my machine to get it working again.
  • Attempting to drive the external display, could lead my machine to stop functioning, requiring a hard reset.

There are so many known bugs that Dell had to create a special Wiki page to list the known issues with the systems they sell. And if there are bug reports attached, these don’t look like they’re getting fixed anytime soon. Keeping in mind these are Intel video cards, and Intel tells you that they’ve got such a big commitment to open source. Last I checked, my Linux/PowerPC laptop with an ATI card (last generation PowerBook G4’s) did suspend/resume, external display driving and working wireless much better than I currently get on my newer Dell.

00:02.0 VGA compatible controller: Intel Corporation Mobile 945GM/GMS/940GML Express Integrated Graphics Controller (rev 03)
00:02.1 Display controller: Intel Corporation Mobile 945GM/GMS/940GML Express Integrated Graphics Controller (rev 03)

Frankly, most of the time, my laptop sits at my desk. But there are times in a year I travel, a lot, changing wireless networks, turning it off and on from time to time, having to make presentations, putting it thru many suspends and resumes, and so on. That is, using it like how a laptop is meant to be used.

I’m so unhappy to say that after over a decade of using Linux on my desktop, I still find Linux inadequate for basic laptop functionality.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Ubuntu. I like their release policy, the fact that I have a working machine most of the time, and during the past release cycle I might have only seen two new kernels. I like that I can run some restricted/commercial software with no issue – VMWare, Java, Flash, etc. Sure I’ve had to have random hacks to get some things working, but for the most part Ubuntu has struck a chord for a good balance between freedoms and usability (when I want to futz around, Fedora is still the best for that). I just wish they would go the extra mile to ensure that basic laptop functionality works better.

Do I give up some of my freedoms and move to using OS X, like most people seem to do now? With pervasive Internet connectivity available, and IPv6 address spaces to rid me of NAT, maybe I should harness screen + ssh and get work done remotely, via a Mac.

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  1. Thomas says:

    Sorry that you are having a bad time with your laptop. You may not want to hear it, but:

    I just bought a Dell Vostro 1400 and, like you, heeded the all-Intel advice. In the post above, you don’t mention which laptop you have. The Vostro is sold only with Windows (yuck!), but that OS has never run on this particular machine. I booted off of the then-current Ubuntu Gusty pre-release LiveCD, dd’d off the drive over the net, wiped the hard drive and installed Ubuntu. This model has the same components as the Inspiron 1420N that Dell sells pre-loaded with Ubuntu.

    Everything works.

    Sleep, WiFi, the whole nine yards. Even the optional Bluetooth and webcam modules that Dell doesn’t offer on that Inspiron. Sleep (suspend to RAM in my case) seems to have no problem after multiple cycles of sleeping and waking up.

    I’m happy enough that I’m selling my Macbook. Seriously.

  2. byte says:

    What Ubuntu did you load? I’m on the 7.04 release

    This is an Inspiron 640m, 1440×900. FFS, intel are still making you use the 915resolution tool – trust me, their support isn’t “kosher”

    OK, sleep /mostly/ works. Wifi works as long as its always enabled. Disable it, put the machine to sleep, wake it up, and use it, put it to sleep again, wake it up, reenable wifi, and cry bloody murder. Of course, sleep might’ve failed anyways, and then you don’t have this problem.

    What wifi driver are you using? I have a feeling that the “Restricted” wifi driver for ipw3945d might be the cause of waking up.

    Does your external display get driven without any problems?

  3. Thomas says:

    The laptop isn’t with me, so I don’t have the information to answer some of your questions now.

    I installed the Tribe 5 release of Gusty from a Live CD and then have used the built-in Update Manager (saying yes to “Partial Upgrades”) to get current.

    I’ve played with 915resolution tool in the past, on other laptops, but that wasn’t necessary with the current -intel (as opposed to the old -i810) driver.

    I haven’t seen the Restricted Drivers pop-up window on this laptop, so I don’t think that I’m using a problematic driver for my WiFi card.

  4. byte says:

    Of course, its the *next* release you’re talking about. Well, I do certainly hope that the next release is a lot better…

    I have the *latest* intel. unless the drivers have been fixed in gutsy, all the better.

    I’ll give Gutsy a try when its actually you know released, but till then…

    ipw3945 is probably standard with laptops these days, unless you’re getting a different chipset. I don’t think mine’s problematic either, since its standardised – the only restricted bit, really, is the fact that the firmware is not “free” (its binary blobbed)

  5. Thomas says:

    Well, what you use is certainly up to you…

    Me, I’d rather use something that works rather than quibble about what “released” means. If I can download it and use it, that means the developer had to put the code in a place that I could get it.


    Seriously, though, Gusty (even though in testing) will drive modern Intel laptop hardware better than Feisty does. The bits that make up Gusty are (mostly) available in other distros / releases which are themselves in various stages of testing. See Rawhide, Debian’s Testing version, et al.

    If I wanted to be truly bleeding edge, I’d be grabbing the latest since it has better support for hotpluging external monitors than the version that comes with Gusty — but I’d rather have it all packaged up nicely by a distro.

  6. Thomas says:

    Oooh! Your blog software edited my post:

    I’d included

    &gt snark &lt


    &gt / snark &lt

    around the paragraph just above the *grin*.

  7. Marco@Dell says:

    Colin: Thanks for applauding Dell for having the…ehemm…lets just say guts to offer Ubuntu for our customers :) I wanted to add some insight to your comments about the known issues on the Dell Ubuntu machines.

    The issues will only present themselves to those installing/re-installing Ubuntu from the standard Fiesty 7.04 CD’s. The issues have been resolved in our factory process which means that customers who buy one of the Dell systems will not be affected. Customers can also download the Dell re-mastered Ubuntu images which already include fixes for the known issues. We’re currently working on the Gutsy Gibbon release which will also include the fixes.

    I personally have not seen any of these, or your issues, on my Latitude D600 with ATI and Broadcom wireless or a Dell Inspiron 300m with Intel graphics and pro wireless, but they are older machines.

    So is Ubuntu ready for the laptop? I would argue that it’s ready enough for more mature hardware, and for certified systems but there is still some work ahead.

  8. David says:

    You said:
    However, I should caution all these companies from even going near Linux with a ten-foot pole. Quite simply, this is because Linux doesn’t work. If their product doesn’t work as advertised, what are the chances of a customer possibly suing them, for a product that isn’t fit for purpose?

    Have you ever heard of anyone successfully suing Microsoft? Have you read their EULA? Have you considered your chances of a successful claim against Microsoft after reading the EULA? How did you come to the above conclusion after considering these questions?

  9. colin says:

    @Thomas: No, using something that works for *end users* should be the aim of the Linux desktop. Not expect to try out beta software, tribe releases, and so on.

    I understand that Gutsy will be better than Feisty, similar to how Rawhide will be better than the current Fedora release, but why would I also risk random failures, especially when I need a machine that works, rather than randomly futzing with things?

    Take a step back, and think of it from a *user* perspective. Not from a developer perspective. Sometimes, its nice to be a user.

    @Marco@Dell: Thanks for your comments. Its interesting to note that you guys are remastering images, and I’m wondering if you’re pushing all these known issues upstream? I’ll be sure to give Gutsy Gibbon a go, the moment it is obviously released.

    And you did mention that the D600 and 300m work, but they are older. I have no problems running Linux on older machines. I only have problems running them on relatively new/recent machines (this one I’m using is from February I think).

    And I’m glad you guys have certified systems. I just wish it was available for more countries…

    So thanks again, for responding, and I can hope that Gutsy serves me better :)

    @David: Why would I sue Microsoft, when the software I get from Dell with Microsoft Windows drives all the features that the laptop ships? It is on the onus of the hardware manufacturer to ensure that all their hardware works as advertised. If you sell a laptop that cannot drive an external display (irrespective of software/hardware reasons), you are not selling a laptop that is “fit for purpose”.

    Dell is now selling laptops with Ubuntu. And they have a known issues page. A lot of the laptop hardware itself, isn’t fit for purpose. When shipped with Microsoft Windows (which arguably, is software in itself that isn’t fit for purpose), at least all portions of the laptop hardware works.

    Apple is another good example. Their laptops come with hardware and software that is fit for purpose. Surely, if you install Linux on it and something doesn’t work, its not Apple’s fault. And neither is it Dell’s fault for selling me this laptop (because it came with Windows XP pre-installed). However, their new “certified” systems, are where I worry, someone may realise that it isn’t fit for purpose, and get annoyed.

  10. […] ensure, because it seems some people don’t understand English, but I never said people would sue Dell or IBM for non-functional software (arguably, the crap that comes from Microsoft, isn’t […]

  11. Marco@Dell says:

    Colin: Issues are definitely getting pushed upstream just as the newest releases are coming downstream from Canonical. It’s very much a two way relationship that I think will benifit both sides.

    Stay tuned for new laptop model additions and countries in the future. It’s a work in progress, but we’ll get there.

  12. drizad says:

    I agree with Colin that Linux should aim to be an “end user” when they deal with the issues like this. Dell should ensure that Ubuntu Linux that is installed in their machine should work “out of the box”. If issues like this still hovering around Dell-Ubuntu partnership, getting more “end user” to be exposed to Windows alternative will be very, very slow, as most of the time, the “end user” will find it “difficult” to use their notebook/laptop?

    On answering the question “Is Linux ready for the laptop?”: I don’t think they are – at this moment I wrote this comments – but close enough. User friendliness and hardware compatibility issues should be dealt seriously, and maybe improvise the “after-sales services” for Dell-Ubuntu notebook users.

    Well, on the positive note, Ubuntu have done a very good job on breaking the monopoly of Windows in laptop environment – considering its “free”. Still a lot of hurdles to go.

    p/s: Working to get more funds to get one Dell-Ubuntu notebook.


  13. Steve says:

    You are so wrong. For me, the operating system is just a platform: I’m not interested in bashing micros**t; I don’t have linux religion. After years and years and years of SO wanting to use linux (I first loaded it on a 25MHz 386 with 8MB of memory and 200MB HD …). Each time, I found I was having to crawl around underneath, fixing drivers and tweaking configuration files. The diversion in time, energy and focus was simply unacceptable. So, with a sigh, I would rip the thing off and reinstall some version of windows. Then I loaded xubuntu on my Dell C600 laptop, after wrestling with Fedora. I have a particularly nasty version of a Linksys wireless card which has a different chip which doesn’t work with the regular drivers (even under Windows – the workaround is to send the card back to Linksys and demand a different version). After all sorts of nonsense with Fedora (recompile kernel with patches, try to load under wine blah blah) which never got it working, I tossed Fedora and went with Xubuntu. I loaded it on and everything, including the wretched wireless card, worked. Adding and removing applications is a breeze and I can concentrate on writing code. With Ubuntu and it’s variants we are now in the 21st century. Maybe Dell hasn’t got its sh*t together, but it’s certainly not linux’ fault.