Laptop installation has traditionally been one of the biggest challenges
faced by Linux users. These systems come with no end of special-purpose
hardware, and they bring particular needs of their own. More recently,
getting a laptop into a basic, working state has become less of a challenge
- at least, for carefully-chosen systems. Life has gotten much easier in
But a contemporary laptop user is not content with "it boots Linux." A
well-provisioned laptop in 2008 should be able to make full use of all the
hardware, suspend and resume reliably, avoid turning presentations into
extended projector-related hassles, and get the most out of the battery.
Your editor has, in the past, proved that he could get a laptop to suspend
through a sufficient investment of his life into building kernels and
tweaking configurations. Your editor, in the present, has little patience
for that kind of messing around. The manual creation of power management
should really, at this point, go the way of hand-crafting XFree86
modelines. Both were once ways of showing one's advanced Linux skills, but
both are now just unnecessary pain.
A period of relatively little travel recently made it possible to follow
through on an old suggestion from Arjan van de Ven: install a number of
distributions on a laptop and compare how they perform. To this end, your editor's
aging Thinkpad X31 was pressed into service with offerings from several
distributors. In each case, a recent stable (or occasionally beta)
distribution was installed while doing a minimum of work beyond clicking
"next": no "expert" installations were done. All available updates were
applied. Then, a number of things were checked:
- Powertop was installed (if not
already present) and run to measure the steady-state power usage of the
machine. The laptop was as idle as your editor could get it to be,
with the backlight at minimum brightness; the system was left long
enough for the power usage numbers to stabilize. The idea was to get
the lowest possible value for each distribution.
- Suspend (to RAM) and hibernate (suspend to disk) were tested.
- Various laptop-specific buttons were tested. The X31, for example,
has a button combination which controls a small light which
illuminates the keyboard.
- The wireless network adapter was tested. The X31 presents an
interesting complication in that it has an Atheros-based adapter,
which, until recently, has not been supportable with free software.
- An external monitor was connected to determine how much work is
required to drive an external projector.
During the process, any other events of note were recorded as well.
Late in the process of writing this article, your editor was lucky enough
to receive a shiny new HP 2510p laptop, thanks to the generosity of the
folks at HP (and Bdale Garbee in particular). This machine, being based on
Intel chipsets, is fully supported by free software. It promises to make
future travels much more pleasant; having a toy like this show up in the
mail makes it hard to maintain a grumpy
attitude. The above tests were run on the new machine, but only for a
subset of the distributions.
Debian Lenny (
Your editor chose to perform this experiment with a mid-May Debian Lenny
testing release, rather than the aging stable distribution. That installed
a system with a 2.6.22 kernel which, of course, has no ath5k driver. So no
wireless on the X31 for Debian users - at least, not without installing the
proprietary MadWifi module. Unsurprisingly, the Debian installer did not
offer MadWifi as an option.
Suspend works, as long as the user does not mind a corrupted display on
resume; it's possible to see enough to perform an orderly reboot, but not
much more. It is strange that Debian would have this problem; suspend has
worked on this laptop with kernels significantly older than 2.6.22.
Hibernate was not accessible via its usual place on F12, but, when
invoked from the menus, worked properly. Other laptop keys worked without
The external display port did not work under Debian. The only way to get
video out of that port is to have the monitor plugged in when the system
Power consumption on an idle system was 10.7 watts, with the system waking
up an average of 67 times every second. This is far from the worst power
performance your editor saw over the course of this exercise, but also far
from the best.
All told, Debian Lenny in its current form is not one of the better
systems for laptops - at least, for this particular laptop. Some of the
other distributors have made much more progress in this area in recent
The installation from the Fedora 9 DVD went without any significant
problems. One of the nicest things about this particular distribution was
its inclusion of the ath5k driver as part of its 2.6.25 kernel. It seems
that ath5k does not work well for all chipsets, but the X31 wireless
adapter works quite well with it. So, with Fedora 9, the X31 laptop
works with 100% free software.
Another thing worthy of note: Fedora 9 was the only distribution tested
which offered to install the system on an encrypted disk. Given the
frequency with which laptops are lost, encrypting the data on them seems
like something a lot of users would want to have.
Suspend and hibernate worked on this system, with one little glitch: the
backlight remained on after the system was suspended. Your editor ran into
the same problem with Ubuntu Hardy during its development cycle; after some
conversation in Launchpad,
the problem was quickly fixed. So a bug has been filed in the Fedora
tracker pointing to that resolution, but no activity has been seen so far.
The power consumption for Fedora was 8.9 watts, with the processor waking
up an average of 45 times per second. The NetworkManager applet offers a
"disable wireless" operation which, indeed, will disable the wireless
interface. It does not power it down, though, so power consumption is
unchanged. Actually uninstalling the ath5k
module dropped power consumption to 8.2 watts.
Plugging into an external display worked, though it was necessary to bring
up the "screen resolution" dialog to bring up the external port.
On the 2510p, the display was run in a strange, non-native resolution
during the installation, making the text harder to read. The installed
system, however, did not have this problem. This system ran at 11.0 watts,
with a surprising 145 wakeups per second. Following Powertop's advice,
your editor shut down the Bluetooth interface and the HAL CD polling
daemon, bringing power usage down to 10.1 watts. Once again,
NetworkManager was unable to save any power by disabling the wireless. The
hardware's wireless button did power down the interface, bringing power
usage down to 8.6 watts. But (and this is true for all
distributions tested), NetworkManager was never able to make use of that
interface again until the system was rebooted.
All told, Fedora 9 works quite nicely for laptop installations; this
distribution has made quite a bit of progress over the last few releases.
Some grumpiness about the GNOME setup is appropriate, though. Fedora's
hackers seem especially enamored of those dialog notifier windows which pop
up from the panel icons. The experience is rather like trying to work
while being heckled by a sizable crowd of unhelpful bystanders.
One window, in particular, announced that closing the lid would no longer
suspend the system because some (unnamed) program was blocking that
action. That might be useful information, but knowing which program was
getting in the way would have been more helpful. But even more helpful
would be to not have to dismiss little notifier windows all the time.
There's also something in the GNOME system on Fedora which feels entitled
to adjust the backlight brightness anytime it thinks that the user has
screwed it up again. This happens even after the "dim display on idle"
options have been disabled, and often results in making the display
brighter on an idle system. If the user has set the backlight brightness,
the system should not presume to readjust it. One should not have to
wrestle with one's computer over the brightness of the display.
Some whim or other inspired your editor to install the OpenSolaris 200805
release. It has been almost ten years since the last encounter with
Solaris, so, perhaps, it was time for a brief reunion. Brief it was.
The installation procedure for this operating system is textual; it seems
rather primitive next to the effort Linux distributors have been putting
into making their installers attractive. There is a license acceptance
stage, where the poor user gets to scroll through all of the licenses
applicable to the software in this distribution - 244 licenses in all.
There's no requirement to indicate acceptance, though.
The installed system worked with the Atheros wireless by virtue of a
binary-only driver. Initially it only worked so well, though; this system,
from Sun "the network is the computer" Microsystems, installs itself configured to
use a local hosts file (only) for hostname lookups. Your editor had to
manually tweak nsswitch.conf to get it to use DNS. Sun's equivalent to
NetworkManager is the "network automagic daemon," which is obscure in spots
but seems to work. There is no power savings to be had from turning off
the wireless interface.
On the power front, once your editor tracked down a Powertop port, the
system was seen to be drawing 11.5 watts. Unlike with any Linux
distribution, Solaris runs the processor at its fastest speed at all times;
there does not appear to be any concept of CPU frequency control. The
laptop fan runs constantly under Solaris.
There is no suspend capability, no hibernate. In general, it would appear
that the Solaris developers have not put a whole lot of effort into the
power management problem so far - at least, not on x86; the OpenSolaris power
management page says that life is better with the Sparc port and that
all this goodness is coming to x86 Real Soon Now.
The external video port did not work at all under OpenSolaris. Your editor
was charmed to notice that the Solaris folks have retained the classic "log
off now or risk your files being damaged" message in the shutdown
On the 2510p, the OpenSolaris CD brought up GRUB, but did not succeed in
booting into the installer.
All told, OpenSolaris has some catching-up to do. Laptops were almost
certainly not at the top of the priority list for Project Indiana, but it
is still a little discouraging to see how far behind things are.
openSUSE 11.0 Beta 3
The openSUSE development cycle is heading toward its close, so your editor
decided to go with the beta 3 release. It must be said that this
distribution got off on rather the wrong foot; it puts up an end-user license agreement which prohibits
redistribution for compensation, bundling openSUSE with any other "offering,"
reverse engineering, transfer of the software, use in a production
environment, or publishing benchmark results (but only if you're a software
vendor). Users are required to stop using the software upon termination of
the license, which happens after 90 days, after the next release, or
whenever Novell says so. And, just in case one was considering the crime
of using the release for too long:
The Software may contain an automatic disabling mechanism that
prevents its use after a certain period of time, so You should back
up Your system and take other measures to prevent any loss of files
There's a certain amount of weasel-wording to the effect that Novell is not
trying to take away any rights conferred by the real licenses on the
software it ships. So the EULA has little force. But it is not consistent
with the mores of the community from which Novell took this software, and
it leaves a bad taste in one's mouth.
Installation is relatively straightforward, though a bit more
mouse-intensive than some other distributions. But one has to watch carefully:
openSUSE, by default, configures the system to automatically log in
the user account created at installation time. An amusing addition is
that, after suspending and resuming the system (which works), a password
prompt will be presented, even though none is required on a cold boot.
openSUSE, like Fedora, thinks that it's smarter than the user and is
entitled to readjust the backlight at any time.
As mentioned, suspending the system worked without trouble. Hibernation,
however, failed; it goes straight to resume without halting the system.
openSUSE ships the ath5k driver, so the wireless interface worked
flawlessly with free software. The external monitor port is always on
under openSUSE; the dialogs offered to create a Xinerama setup, but that
Power consumption was 11.2 watts, with 106 wakeups happening per second.
Your editor noticed that beagled was running; something which was not
observed on other systems. Powertop noticed too, and politely offered to kill it
off; that brought the system down to 78 wakeups with slightly less power
used. Removing the ath5k driver brought consumption down to 10.8 watts.
Experience with the 2510p was quite similar. Hibernate still fails. Power
usage is a low 9.0 watts; 8.8 when the "kill beagled" option is selected.
Unfortunately, this lower usage is likely to be a result of the wireless
working. NetworkManager is able to present a list of access points, but
does not succeed in associating with any of them. This is a device with a
free driver, well supported in the 2.6.25 kernel shipped by openSUSE; its
failure to work is discouraging.
Many of the glitches encountered in this distribution are easily explained
by pointing out that it is a beta release. One can only assume that many
of them will be fixed up before the final version. With that done,
openSUSE has the potential to be a solid system for laptops; many of the
right pieces are there. Your editor, though, will have a hard time
considering an openSUSE installation; that unpleasant EULA has left a
Ubuntu made its name partially through its attention to laptop
installations, so your editor had reasonably high expectations from the
"Hardy Heron" long-term-support release. Those expectations were met, for
the most part.
The installation CD did its job, and the resulting system worked well. The
Ubuntu time zone selector deserves special mention, though: it tries to pan
the world map under the mouse, with the effect that the target one is
aiming for moves away as one gets close. It's a video game of sorts, but
it can be a little frustrating, especially with a laptop-style mouse
Wireless works, but Ubuntu silently installs the MadWifi driver to bring
that about. Suspend and hibernate work, as do the various Thinkpad
buttons. Ubuntu demonstrates some of the same backlight obnoxiousness as
the other GNOME-based distributions - but quite a bit less of it.
This system drew 9.5 watts of power, with 47 wakeups per second. With this
configuration, disabling the wireless in NetworkManager did reduce power
usage considerably - down to 8.1 watts. It would seem that the MadWifi
driver still knows something about powering down the hardware that ath5k
doesn't. Even so, removing MadWifi entirely dropped consumption still
further, to 7.8 watts.
On the 2510p, things generally worked well. Power consumption was 10.1
watts, with an amazing 217 wakeups per second, though. Part of the problem
here appears to be a bug in the i915 driver which causes it to generate a
steady stream of interrupts if the 3D engine is engaged. Ubuntu turns on
Compiz by default, causing the video processor to pound on the CPU.
Turning off "visual effects" cut the wakeup rate considerably. Following
Powertop's advice and disabling the Bluetooth interface as well dropped the
system down to 9.7 watts and 50 wakeups per second.
Here's a table summarizing some of the results reported above:
||Y||Encrypted install option|
||N||No external video|
The second power number, when present, indicates what is achievable with
minimal tweaking: turning off wireless or letting Powertop shut things
down. More invasive techniques (unloading modules, for example, or
changing kernel boot parameters) are not
For the 2510p, the results are:
Two other distributions were tried, but did not make it all the through the
- Gentoo. Playing with Gentoo has been on the list for years. So an
install disk was downloaded and your editor launched into the "quick
install guide." It is clear that Gentoo employs a rather long
value of "quick." This guide prints over many pages, includes 39
"code listings," requires creating each filesystem by hand, etc. Your
editor would still like to play with Gentoo, but there was no time for
such an exercise now. Life has gotten too short to go through that
kind of obstacle course just to get Linux installed on a computer.
- Slackware. In this case, your editor was able to get through the
somewhat rustic Slackware 12.1 installation procedure. It was kind of
nostalgic to see LILO again. The system ran, and even brought up the
window system, but the system would lock hard as soon as your editor
tried to bring up a terminal window. That, too, was not the sort of
experience which had been sought.
What comes out of all this work is that the Linux community now has a few
good options for laptop-friendly distributions. Getting Linux running well
on a laptop need no longer be an act of advanced wizardry.
That said, there's clearly still room for improvement. Even well-supported
hardware does not always cooperate well. For a laptop system, in
particular, it is important to be able to power down unneeded hardware
without having to dig into the system configuration or unload kernel
modules. If the wireless interface, FireWire port, modem, BlueTooth
interface, etc. are not being used, they should not be drawing power.
After all, if the laptop's user is going to have something to actually
do through a long series of LinuxWorld keynotes, it's important to
stretch that battery as far as possible. Progress has been made, but there
is more to do.
Your editor must now make a choice as to which distribution will remain on
these laptops. For the X31, the choice makes itself: Fedora. It works the
best while installing only free software. One could retrofit a 2.6.25
kernel into an Ubuntu installation to get the ath5k driver, but it's nicer
to not have to do that. For the 2510p, the choice is not quite so clear.
It might, in the end, be Ubuntu for the slightly lower power consumption
and fewer backlight hassles. The potential (not always realized) for
online upgrades might also tip things a little more in the Ubuntu
direction. All of that will have to be traded off against Fedora's
out-of-the-box encrypted installation, though.
But either Ubuntu or Fedora is a fine choice for this machine;
it is nice to be in a position where there are a couple of high-quality
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