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Linux on the Alienware Sentia, Asus M5N, or Uniwill 223II0

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22 November 04.

There are a few types of people who read this (which I will probably discuss in more detail next time); this entry is primarily aimed at the ones who find me via random search terms in Google. Now, besides the ones searching for things like ``young teen girls liking another girls boobies'' and ``Tom Sawyer spanking fantasy'', there are many that are sincerely looking for information. I always feel a little bad when I know I didn't have what they're looking for, and perk up a bit when I know that I did. And that, dear reader, is where the terrible title comes in. `Cause if you've come here because you're trying to put Linux on a Uniwill 223II0, this is your lucky day.

Buying a laptop for Linux See, when you use Linux, Google is your tech support. Manufacturers and vendors have no clue, but their tech support is low quality on its best days anyway. Meanwhile, Google tech support can be top-notch, depending on the number of geeks using your laptop. IBM, Sony, and Dell all have an advantage here.

But I figured: I'm not buying Windows, so why bother paying for it. This is a bit of a rub, because you can not purchase a new IBM, Dell, or Sony laptop without Microsoft Windows. An industrious reader is going to point out that if you go to Dell's UK web site and click three times in the middle of the e in Dell and then blindly type teac0zy then after four seconds you'll get a product listing for a no-OS laptop, but within my meager abilities, I couldn't find a major vendor selling no-Windows laptops.

7 October 2005: You now _can_ buy a no-OS desktop from Dell. Here's how:1. Go to 2. Click on the "Home and Home Office" or "Gaming" 3. When that page loads, hover your mouse over the "Desktops" section of the navigation bar across the top of the page. 4. About the eighth option down you will see "Open Source Desktops." Click on that to take you to the page.

That said, option one was to buy a used box on ebay, but after a confirmed fraud (which I'm happy to say I sent no money to) and one guy who seemed darn close to a fraud, I gave up on that. There are linux-dedicated places, which buy new laptops and install Linux, but the markups are rather large, so I gave up on that too. The next option was to buy a generic no-OS laptop. There are many places that will sell you a custom notebook, and while you're specifying how much memory you want and how big the hard drive should be, you also get to pick your OS or lack thereof.

As noted below, these guys are selling the laptops the pricey guys sell, but without the brand sticker. Uniwill 223ii0 from MyPCGoodies: $1,200. Alienware Sentia: $2,050. The machines are identical, except Alienware provides a logo and a license and support for Windows; that's what you pay over $800 for. They are very vehement about forcing you to buy Windows, and are very vehement about not supporting anything but the software they installed.

I bought from MyPCGoodies, linked from the word `places' above, and it arrived in the usual foam-in-a-box-in-a-box-in-foam-in-a-box pretty quickly. The logo came in the box, so I could decide whether I wanted to paste it on to the laptop or not. Most power cables need a little blob of magnet material on them to comply with FCC regulations; that too came in the box so I could decide whether I wanted to be a radio-interfering outlaw or not. Mandrake Linux's e-z graphic install went OK, with only a glitch or two as discussed below.

I called the vendor's tech support. They called me back, and the dialogue was predictable: he asks me to use a Windows diagnostic something; I tell him I don't have Windows; he tells me to reformat my hard drive, install Windows, and then run diagnostic tool; I tell him I don't have a copy; he tells me I can mail the laptop in so they can install Windows and then run diagnostic and then send it back to me with the drive wiped clean; I say thanks but no; and just before I hang up, he suggests that I flash my BIOS, and that he'll email me a file to do that. I get the email within two minutes; there's a Windows executable attached.

So yeah, it's all up to Google (or maybe Clusty) to provide the tech support, even at the places that expect you to install Linux. Fortunately, the manufacturers of the 223ii0 gave it a name so hideous that nothing in the history of man has ever been called this ever. So when I copied this pseudonumber off the bottom of the laptop into Google, I found out pretty quickly that my machine is manufactured by Uniwill (the vendor wouldn't tell me this), and it was a pretty quick trip from that point to complete laptop bliss.

And, let me clarify for the skeptics, this really is laptop bliss. No point proselytizing Linux here, but the effort was more than worth it. Will probably have more on this two entries from now.

A brief review of the Uniwill 223ii0 I like this laptop. Keyboard's a bit cheap. The sound is excellent, but the processor fan is very loud. The screen is great, but the widescreen format is better for movies or pictures than for text, which wants to be 72 columns wide. It's the size of a single page, sideways; reading papers is thus very pleasant if you don't mind turning the laptop on its side. It runs my simulations faster than anything I've used to date. It weighs less than an iBook. It has more USB 2.0 ports than I know what to do with, including one which is sort of on the bottom. The interior is clean and neat and aesthetically pleasing; The logoless cover scratched up quickly, but I'm not sure what stickers or decor to put on that (a) won't make me look like a tool and (b) won't look dumb when I'm presenting my work at The Bank.

Configuration But enough about retail. You're here for modelines. [To my regular readers: one reader commented that my tech entries read like a soothing, nonsensical poem. Dunno about the poetry part, but if you don't own one of these computers, the nonsensical part will definitely hold here on in. Thanks for coming along this far.]

Distribution: The below is mostly about Mandrake 10.0. I switched to Ubuntu a while ago and had a _much_ easier time of it. The screen was autodetected, as was the wireless card. The external monitor thing is also a bit easier: once it's all set up I can switch from one screen to another without hibernating in between. Mandrake may have improved in the half-year since I last used it as well, but I'm currently recommending Ubuntu for this laptop.

X: I have the 1200 x 800 wide screen, which Alienware also has; Asus evidently uses the cheaper 1024 x 768. Here's the modeline I use for the wide screen:
ModeLine "1200x800" 83.91 1280 1312 1624 1656 800 816 824 841
Add this to your /etc/X11/XF86Config-4 in the section with the other mode lines, and add

Subsection "Display"
Depth 24
Modes "1200x800"

to the Screen1 section. [28 March: A reader suggests a change to this modeline below if it doesn't work for you.]

The external montior is a bit of a hassle. First, the following trick only works if "acpi=ht" is in your line of boot parameters (see below). That translates to `stripped-down power management', and it has its own set of bugs which don't appear without the option: notably, if you close the lid, the mouse doesn't come back up. Grrr. With this, I need to do the <fn>+<f4> switching while in the lilo screen; touching <fn>+<f4> after that brings the machine to a halt. [Notice that you can have two versions of X running at once, so you can work around this. <ctrl>+<alt>+<f2> to go back to a console, hibernate, unplug monitor, boot at the coffee shop, startx -- :1 to bring up a second X session (notice the space between -- and :1). The first version will be at <ctrl>+<alt>+<f7> and the second at <ctrl>+<alt>+<f8>, and if you switch to the wrong one for the screen you're using, it'll crash. A workaround, I know.] This box allegedly supports the Xinerama-style two monitors side-by-side thing, but I sure haven't gotten it to work.

Wireless: The wireless you'd get built in is probably the Intel ipw2200. Get the drivers here. Up-to-date linux distros support this now, but if not, you'll have to recompile your kernel, which is really painless; there are lots of hand-holding guides out there to walk you through it. See below about one more item you may want to compile in. Once this is compiled, you just need to do modprobe ipw2200 as root to get the wireless up.

Power management: ACPI would not work for me until I flashed the BIOS [I now have ver 1.03, which seems OK, except it blinks the power light obnoxiously. 1.06 fixes this]. No, there is absosmurfley no way to do this without a Microsoft product, so you'll need to go to a computer lab or a pal's house to do this. Go here and follow the `How to flash' instructions---closely, because if you screw up, your beautiful laptop is a paperweight. Flashing the BIOS is sort of exhilirating that way. Bart's recovery CD (linked from Uniwill's howto page) worked just fine for me.

Once that works, power management works to a limited extent. The screen blanks when the lid closes but it keeps playing music, so you can use your laptop as a walkperson.

To sleep, get software suspend [Again, Ubuntu and other cutting-edge distros do this out of the box; try hibernate as root and see if it works for you before continuing with this paragraph]. It will write the contents of memory to your hard drive and entirely shut the machine off. It uses the swap space, so when you set up the machine, you'll want swap to be abundant (certainly larger than physical memory, plus a healthy margin). I suggest leaving X (with <ctrl>-<alt>-<F1>; return with <alt>-<F7>) and unplugging your USB devices before sending the suspend command, which is echo 1 > /proc/software_suspend/activate . When the hard drive light turns off, you can hold down the power button `till it's dead. There's a hibernate script at the above site, which may or may not work for you.

The thermal management still doesn't work: it's stuck reading 11C and won't let me control the fan. One person suggested that if the fan bothers me, I should turn off high performance mode in the BIOS. This works, so I have the choice between a quiet but pokey laptop or a faster, loud one.

The PowerCinema program: It comes with this cute program called Linux Power Cinema, which wants to be in a 500 MB /dev/hda4 partition (one more constraint for when you partition; it installs 275MB worth of stuff, so I bet you could get away with 300MB). I installed it, and observed how cute it is, and haven't bothered with it since. It installs Lilo, but you probably already installed Lilo for your primary Linux; I'm delighted to say that it's nice enough to not overwrite your boot sector, but then you'll need to manually modify your main lilo.conf. Copy the image and initrd listed below from /dev/hda4 to your main /boot, add these lines to /etc/lilo.conf, then run the program lilo.

append="console=/dev/console splash=silent"

Once this is up, the little P button will boot to Lilo, just like the main power button would, but with a lot of non-multimedia things disabled. I guess that'll save power, but it's silly if you're not watching movies on an airplane. I say, just ask Google for `xine d5d' and download the appropriate plugin for the xine movie player, which you can use without rebooting.

Anyway, with software suspend, your main setup will boot pretty quickly. Give the PowerCinema CD to a linux-impaired friend.

Another option: chroot. Let the root for the PowerCinema distro be /mnt/pc. This can be a mount of the above partition or just another directory. To start up the media viewer:
> sudo -s
> chroot /mnt/pc
> mount /proc
> startx -- :2
> cd /root/PCMX/PCM4/
> python startup.pyc

I found this to be not-incredibly-stable but I've watched DVDs with it. I added the modeline above to the /etc/X11R6/XF86Config in this little partition too, which helped.

The touchpad: Oh, and while you're in lilo, you may also want to add psmouse.proto=imps to your append line in the appropriate part of /etc/lilo.conf, which will let you mouse-click by tapping the touchpad. At this point, here's what my append line looks like:
append= "devfs=mount acpi=on resume2=/dev/hda3 resume=/dev/hda3 psmouse.proto=imps" .
Not sure if that second resume= is necessary, but I'm not in the mood to experiment with removing it right now.

Audio: ALSA works fine. Since getting ACPI up, the <f5> and <f6> volume buttons don't work with "acpi=on" (they do with "acpi=ht"), but it's no big deal; use alsamixer.

CD burning: Try cdrecord dev=ATA:1,0,0 (instead of the default dev=1,0,0).

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Replies: 4 comments

on Sunday, December 12th, mike said

working on getting everything set up with the same system.. your info helped a bunch! thanks

on Wednesday, January 5th, Lloyd said

Hya, just wanted to thank you for your writeup. I had wanted to buy a similar system - and your review helped make up my mind.

A note that I had to rewrite your modeline to begin with "1280x800", as XOrg (in slack) rejected 1200x800 as it's not a standard vesa resolution. I dunno if it was just a typo, but perhaps this might help others. Heh, it took me ages to realise as I kept reading the 1200 as 1280.

on Wednesday, July 5th, SPC Burrows said

OMG!!! you rock. i have tried and tryed to get the screen to work for my alienware laptop sentia. thanks again. :)

on Thursday, May 3rd, pat said

hi thanks. I was doing a search for systemax 223II0. My laptop looks just like a Uniwill 223II0. I wonder who the original makers of this baby is. Seems to have several names. Maybe mine is the americal version.

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