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Finding the right distro for my Thinkpad T61 – Part2 November 23, 2007

Posted by rm42 in Computers, Linux.

This is an important update to this review:

A standard feature of mainstream multimedia PCs and laptops has been the ability of being able to record digital sound… if you think that this feature is important to you or someone you know you may want to read this before purchasing a Lenovo Thinkpad.


Preliminary installation steps:

I ordered my ThinkPad with Windows XP rather than Vista. I decided to keep Windows for a while on the hard drive for the rare occasion that I may need to use it, but in the end I am going to move it into a Virtual Machine. So, to make room for Linux I had to shrink the Windows partition. To do so, I downloaded an ISO image of GParted, burned it into a CD, and after defragmenting the hardrive, I used it to shrink the partition down from about 155 to 40 GB. It went very well, and XP booted fine after that. I left the empty space alone since each Linux installation allows one to create partitions for itself.


Installing PCLinuxOS 2007:

PCLinuxOS on my ThinkPad T61


I was not sure if my 6 months old PCLinuxOS 2007 CD would even work at all on my new laptop. Nevertheless, the Live CD looked and worked just fine. I configured my DSL connection using the Ethernet option and connection through DHCP, and it connected just fine. So, I decided to go ahead and try the install. I knew that if I could get it installed I would be able to access all the current updates on the repositories, including the latest kernel. Fortunately, the installation went well with absolutely no problems. After rebooting, I opened up Synaptic (the package manager that PCLinuxOS uses), reloaded the sources list, marked all upgrades, and pressed the apply button. My connection speed was excellent, about 150 kB/s, which is a good thing considering I was downloading several hundred megabytes worth of updates. I assume the excellent connection speed is probably due to the fact that I do have a pass account which gives access to some very high bandwidth servers. A pass account is given to those that give a small voluntary contribution to the distro. At this point, I was very glad I had it. Still, the update took about 1 hour and 15 minutes to complete.


As soon as it completed, I selected the kernel and installed it. When finished, I rebooted the system. Oddly, the new kernel was installed with its own separate entry on the GRUB menu instead of replacing the main one. So, after selecting that option, the machine booted just fine. I was very relieved to hear the sound of my laptop’s speakers play the little PCLOS intro sound. Curious to see if I could install the Intel driver and get 3D working, I went into the control panel to check my graphical server settings. It was using the generic VESA driver. I clicked on the Graphics Card driver option and it automatically went to the correct Intel driver labeled as “810 and later”. I then configured my Monitor as a 1680×1050 and changed the resolution to the same. I decided to go ahead and test it. It was a good thing I did, because it failed with the following error:


(EE)GARTInit: Unable to open /dev/agpgart (No such file or directory)

(EE) intel(0): Failed to allocate framebuffer. Is your VideoRAM set too low?


I tried it again reducing the number of colors from 24 bit to 16 bit, but it failed as well. Oh well, I guess Tex and his gang are not there yet on this particular hardware, although it looks like they are close. Fortunately, the VESA driver did allow me to configure my display to use the 1680×1050 resolution and 24 bit color. So, it looked truly stunning, just no 3D.

PCLinuxOS Wireless Network Tool

To test the wireless functionality, I opened the “Control Center” and under the “Network & Internet” tab I selected “Wireless connection”. It immediately detected my wireless network, told me the strength of the signal, and allowed me to connect without any problems. Not too bad! Everything else worked as great as always.


Installing Mandriva 2008:

The next distribution to test on my list was Mandriva. I had no problems installing it, other than the fact that it wiped out my Grub entries for PCLinuxOS. But, PCLinuxOS does no better in that regard either. In any case, at this point I wasn’t too concerned about this. One thing that Mandriva could do better on is their art work. Frankly, I found myself feeling a little self conscious when booting the default circus like boot splash theme, hoping none of the Vista fans in the office saw it. The little twinkle stars make it look like a theme for a 4 year old. Please, offer something a little more sober looking. The default theme on PCLinuxOS is a good example of a good looking one. Fortunately, the Control Center allows one to turn off the boot splash and use a text only boot style. While not as elegant, at least I am not embarrassed about it.

Mandriva Booting PCLinuxOS Booting


Nevertheless, after login in, I was happy to see that KDE was the default desktop. The first thing I did after installing was configure the graphical server for 1680×1050. I noticed that it was using an Intel driver referred to as “intel 810 and later”. It worked just fine, and after restarting X I was looking at a beautiful 1680×1050 display with 24 bit color, and hardware acceleration! I next went to the Control Panel to see if I could run Compiz-Fusion. It was simply a matter of selecting it. It told me that I needed to log out and log back in. After doing so, Compiz-Fusion was working just fine, as far as I could see, cube and all.

Mandriva Compiz-Fusion

Firefox was only at version so I decided to see if there was an update as a good way to test Mandriva’s package manager. Clicking on the KMenu showed an option to “Install & Remove Software”. After clicking it, a confusing option is presented to choose between “Official updates” or “Distribution sources”. The little help blurb said the following:

“This step enables you to add sources from a Mandriva Linux web or FTP mirror. There are two kinds of official mirrors. You can choose to add sources that contain the complete set of packages of your distribution (usually a superset of what comes on the standard installation CDs), or sources that provide the official updates for your distribution. (You can add both, but you’ll have to do this in two steps.)”

Now, how is a new Mandriva user supposed to know what they mean by that? Let me see, if I select the updates, does that mean I won’t be able to install certain packages for which there have been no updates released? Why not offer to install both and be done with it? Definitely a negative for Mandriva in relation to PCLOS. Well, since I wanted an “update” for Firefox I decided to choose “Official updates”. It then offered me a choice of two sources for the United States. After picking one, it went ahead and added the repos and populated the “Software Management” tool. I did a search for “Firefox” and it correctly found an entry for the version, and marked it as installed. There was also a newer version, available (PCLinuxOS has currently). After selecting it, it told me what dependencies would need to be updated. I accepted it and clicked the apply button. The download speed was very slow compared to the PCLOS’ repositories. It took several minutes to update just this one application. One more negative point against Mandriva. Nevertheless, it all went well and my Firefox installation was updated. I am told that even if one opts to upgrade to the powerpack version, the download speed will be the same. That is too bad because some large software packages are frequently updated in Linux. This is part of what makes Linux such a pleasure to use in relation with other operating systems. But I can see that with such slow download speeds some of this fun is definitely taken away.

Overall, however, I was very pleased with Mandriva’s treatment of my hardware. Sound worked right out of the box with the built in speakers. Plugging in a set of headphones worked just fine too. And, wireless networking had no problems either. Nice job Mandriva!


Installing Frugalware 0.7:

Frugalware installation media for a 32 bit OS consists of two sets of CD image files. (I wonder if my ISP is going to send me a complaint for all this bandwidth I have been using up lately.) 😉 The installation process is curses based (old “DOS style” so that Windows users understand). But it is really not hard to understand, as long as you know more or less what partitions are and how they work. After selecting my newly created partition for mounting / (that is the root of the Frugalware system), the installation program offered to distribute other parts of the system into other partitions. I can see new users panicking at this point not knowing what to do. Unless you know what you are doing, just skip this offer by selecting “Continue”. That way the whole system will be installed on the one partition you created for Frugalware.

After this, one is able to select what packages to install. I chose to stay with all the defaults (which included KDE, GNOME and XFCE) to see how it works that way. Although I must admit that I was tempted and curious about the extra multimedia options. But, I figured I could always install them latter. So, with all the preliminaries done, Frugalware began installing. Personally, I enjoy watching what packages are being installed as the installer goes through them. I wish more distros would offer an option to remove the graphical eye candy and thus be able to see what packages are being installed, as Frugalware does.

When it finished installing packages it asked me how I wanted Grub installed. I chose to install Grub on the root partition (which is the root of the Frugalware partition). It then asked for a root password and for the creation of a non-root account. I made a mistake and entered my login name starting with a capital letter. I think that threw off the installer which simply froze after asking for a password for that user. So, I decided to start the installation again, from scratch. I was not sure what to enter for the mouse option, so I accepted the default PS2. I entered the resolution I wanted for the screen, 1680×1050 and accepted 24 as the bit level of color. Unfortunately, it did not accept the choice and reverted to the resolution prompt. So, I gave in and accepted the default resolution of 1024×768. However, not even then did it accept it. I tried several resolution combinations, but nothing worked. So, I canceled out of that option. It then said that it was finished and that I could reboot the system.

So, I booted into PCLinuxOS to add Frugalware to the Grub menu list. To do this, I opened the /boot/grub/menu.lst file that Frugalware created to see what the entry it created for itself looked like. I then copied it and pasted it into the PCLinuxOS one. By the way, while looking at the menu.lst file that Frugalware created I could see that it had created entries for all the other Windows and Linux installations I have on the machine. I wish all other distributions did this as well.

Unfortunately, after booting into Frugalware, I was presented with a simple command line login. X was not configured properly. I tried running xconfig as root, but not even then did it accept any resolution combinations, including 800×600 and 8 bit color. Sure, I could have gone into the Frugalware forums and try to resolve this. But, that was not the purpose of this test. I am looking for the most trouble free Linux distribution for my specific hardware. Going into forums for solutions and manual configurations do not qualify. Frugalware is intriguing. It seems to have good support for several languages. So, maybe it is a good option for some non English speaking users with different hardware than me. I don’t know, but I hope it keeps improving.

Please follow along with me to part 3 to see how the other distros I tried fared on my ThinkPad.

Part 1 is here.

Part 3 is here.

The follow-up is here.


1. Erno Csatlos - November 29, 2007

Great comparison of distros; I liked the diversity of all the flavors tested. (FYI: the black background with white letters became a bit too hard on the eyes by the end. :-))

2. rm42 - November 29, 2007


Thanks. You know, I find that there is almost a 50/50 division between those than prefer black over white and those that like white over black. The latter often complain about pages with black letters over white background as being too bright and they have to resort to using tricks, like selecting the paragraph they are currently reading, to make it less irritating. Since I am in that camp, I favored that group. But, I wonder if using the Ctrl+ key combination on your browser, to make the text larger, would help you.

PS: Alright, I chose a different theme. I hope this one is better.

3. goom - December 7, 2007

Isn’t the mirror chosen for Mandriva that was slow rather than Mandriva itself ? When configurating media sources you choose a mirror, you do not directly download anything from a site owned by Mandriva.

4. rm42 - December 7, 2007


Yes, that is correct. The point is that Mandriva would do well by offering the option of accessing high bandwidth servers, like PCLinuxOS does, even if it meant having to pay for them. For example, making that part of the Powerpack would make it a lot more attractive.

5. DALE - January 5, 2008

I installed Suse Linux Entriprise 10, SP1 on T61, with GMAX 3100 video card. This card was not recognized by Suse. It choose the VESA Framegrabber generic card, with 800×600 resolution, that could ot be changed. The 3D functionality does not work. I have not found a Suse driver for this card, so my plans are to remove Suse.

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