Section 5.3. Making That Laptop Sing with Linux

5.3. Making That Laptop Sing with Linux

The sales of laptop computers are rapidly approaching those of desktops. According to the NPD Group (, the dollar sales of laptops exceeded those of desktops for the first time in 2003. Computer users want mobility. Linux geeks want to be in the forefront of this trend.

Weight, form, and function are critical on laptop computers. Many manufacturers rely on unique proprietary systems to reduce even a few grams from each system. Fortunately, a lot of hackers have shared their Linux experiences on a wide variety of laptops. A lot of this information has been collected on two web sites, and The same principles apply when you install Linux on Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) and even mobile phones.

Laptops provide additional hardware challenges. Components such as PCMCIA cards, LCD displays, infrared ports, and more were first commonly used on laptops. They normally require drivers that you won't find for desktop computers.

Laptop computers include more specialty hardware than desktops. For example, laptops have PCMCIA adapters. They may have mini-PCI cards. They may not even include CD/DVD drives, which makes network cards more important for installation. Their graphics systems often include customized chipsets.

5.3.1. Laptops That Just Work

There are a few manufacturers who sell laptops with Linux preinstalled. Besides HP's nx5000, there are a number of smaller companies who sell laptops with Linux preloaded. The skill sets of these manufacturers, and thus the levels of support, vary.

Most laptops still come with Microsoft Windows preinstalled. If you overwrite the Microsoft operating system, you may partially or completely void the warranty for your computer. Nevertheless, many Linux geeks appreciate the challenge of installing Linux on a laptop designed for Microsoft Windows. However, that can lead to a number of annoyances, including the dreaded winmodem (a modem designed to work with Microsoft drivers; see the previous annoyance) as well as proprietary hardware without Linux drivers. If you see your laptop (or a similar model) at or, read through people's experiences with it. For example, I had trouble installing Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3 on an HP laptop until I read the experience of another Linux geek on how Anaconda (Red Hat's installer) has trouble detecting the HP keyboard. All I had to do was tap on the keyboard at the right time, and Anaconda recognized the keyboard.

Many Linux geeks believe that the preloading of Microsoft Windows on most personal computers is essentially a tax. There have been several efforts in recent years to get refunds on preloaded Microsoft operating systems. Unfortunately, these efforts have been less than successful.

As a Linux geek, one more annoyance (for some) is a responsibility to share with the community. If you've installed Linux on a laptop that you don't see on the list, post your experience online. Submit your experience to one of the aforementioned Linux laptop sites. Once you've done so, you can cite your contribution and increase your credibility in the Linux community.

5.3.2. Laptop Hardware Challenges

When you're planning a Linux installation on a laptop computer, you'll generally want to pay particular attention to the hardware components noted in Table 5-2. Focus on the details you need for installation.

Table 5-2. Laptop hardware annoyances


Key information

Additional data


Boot order

Some BIOS settingssuch as legacy USB, Plug and Play, and hibernationcan prevent installation.


Resolution, refresh rates

Find the maximum refresh rates to avoid overloading the monitor.

Graphics card

Memory, chipset, options

If there is no Linux driver available, be prepared to accept a minimal SVGA configuration.

No CD/DVD drive

Is there room for a portable drive?

A portable drive requires PCMCIA (Cardbus) / USB / IEEE 1394 (FireWire) drivers during the installation process.

Wireless card

PCMCIA, USB, or mini-PCI

Check the availability of the driver for your wireless card. More information is available in a related annoyance, "My Wireless Card Works on Another Operating System, but Not Linux," later in this chapter.

Power management


Linux drivers depend on power-management scheme; better managed in Kernel 2.6.

5.3.3. Finessing a Laptop Installation

If you have a 1.44" boot floppy and CD/DVD drive integrated into the laptop, you're set. You should be able to install Linux on your laptop even if your BIOS doesn't detect the Linux installation CD. But what if your laptop doesn't meet these requirements? While I can't cover all possible scenarios, I have some basic suggestions:

  • If you're having problems booting from a CD despite the right BIOS configuration, check it on another CD drive. Make sure the md5sum or sha1sum value matches that of the download or the associated text file listed on the CD. If you're still having problems, re-create the CD, preferably on the same drive. Also, some laptops can't handle the more common compressed bzImage kernels.

  • If you're having problems booting from a DVD, try booting from a CD. Some drives that won't boot from a DVD will boot from a CD. This is one reason why both SUSE and Fedora provide bootable CDs and DVDs.

  • If you can't boot from a CD/DVD or floppy, there are other options. If your network card supports the Pre-boot eXecution Environment (PXE), you can boot and install Linux via a TFTP network installation server. For more information on a PXE-based Red Hat installation, see

  • If your laptop BIOS supports booting from a USB key drive, you can set up a network boot from that device. Generally, you can write boot disks to a USB key drive almost in the same way as you would to a CD. This is important for Fedora/Red Hat distributions, where the alternative boot image is now designed for a USB key drive.

  • Alternatively, you can set up installation files on a different laptop partition. For details, see the documentation for your distribution.

5.3.4. Display Issues

Display issues are common when installing Linux on a laptop. Key to managing a display on Linux is the frame buffer, where your current screen image is stored, pixel by pixel. You can manage how the frame buffer functions during the Linux installation process. Help screens are often available when you press a function keysuch as F1, F2, etc.from the installation boot screen. There are two basic problems you may have with the display.

  • The installation screens may not be readable. No instructions are visible. You are forced to restart the process. In this case, you can disable frame buffer acceleration. Some distributions allow you to do so by adding linux nofb to the installation prompt.

  • The display may be out of proportion. For example, I've seen a 320 x 200 display that shows a useless fraction of a graphical installation screen. In this case, you can restart the installation process, with the frame-buffer video modes shown in Table 5-3. For example, if you add vga=791 to the installation boot prompt, you're setting 16-bit color with 1024 x 768 resolution. This is a translation of the hex code, which is described in the Framebuffer HOWTO at

Table 5-3. VESA video modes


640 x 480

800 x 600

1024 x 768

1280 x 1024

1600 x 1200



















Here's another tip: if you can't get the built-in screen to display properly, plug an external monitor into the laptop.

5.3.5. Post-Installation Laptop Configuration

Just because you've installed Linux on a laptop doesn't mean that it's useful, at least to someone who is experienced with Linux. Installation routines install software and drivers only for detected hardware. Linux can't install software for what it doesn't see. A better Linux kernel?

The Linux 2.6 kernel is generally superior in the way it handles laptop hardware. Unlike the Linux 2.4 kernel, it incorporates the code required to handle different PCMCIA adapters. The extra steps in older books to make sure that PCMCIA drivers are loaded during the installation process no longer apply. But there are problems. For example, some of the earlier 2.6 kernels have power issues with respect to PCMCIA cards. A number of these issues have been collected at

Cardbus is the 32-bit version of the PCMCIA bus. Current laptops should have Cardbus controllers. If you see such a listing in the output of the lspci command, Linux has detected your PCMCIA controller.

If you have problems with PCMCIA cards, the first place to start is the controller. Generally, you can identify the associated PCMCIA/Cardbus controllers (and installed cards) with the lspci command. Kernel modules associated with the controller should show up in the output to the lsmod command. Typical PCMCIA controllers are associated with the yenta_socket and i82365 modules.

If you're having trouble with the PCMCIA controller, make sure you have the appropriate PCMCIA package installed. For Debian and Red Hat, it's pcmcia-cs (naturally, in their native DEB and RPM package formats). For Fedora, it's now pcmciautils. For SUSE, it's pcmcia. Make sure the pcmcia service script (which is normally started from /etc/init.d) is running and that it starts in the appropriate runlevels. It should also load the appropriate modules; you need not include them in /etc/modules.conf, /etc/modprobe.conf, or related files.

Once you have your PCMCIA controller working, you can now run the aforementioned commands to check for the card. In addition, you can use various cardctl or pccardctl commands to check whether cards have been properly detected by your laptop PCMCIA controller. If your kernel recognizes your card, you should see it listed in the output of the cardctl ident command. I show you how this process works in the next annoyance, which discusses wireless network cards Laptop CPUs

There are a number of different CPUs designed to save power on laptop computers, controlled on modern Intel-style systems through the Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI). Power management allows ACPI to adjust the CPU to lower speeds. Throttling allows ACPI to lower the CPU clock speed when the temperatures are too high. The limit interface option allows ACPI to regulate both power management and throttling. They generally works as follows: the bus master allows ACPI to tell your RAM to stop accessing the CPU, which allows the CPU to enter a sleep or suspend state. This in turn lowers the power consumption of the CPU and lets the battery run longer.

If ACPI does not save battery power or otherwise help you regulate power on your laptop (, disable ACPI through your bootloader. Linux interfaces work well with the older Advanced Power Management (APM) service. It's normally part of the apmd package, which is available on most distributions. To disable ACPI, add the following command to the kernel command line in your bootloader configuration file (such as /boot/grub/grub.conf, /boot/grub/menu.1st, or /etc/lilo.conf):


You may already have optimal power-management settings. If you've activated the Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI) daemon for Linux, check your kernel processor settings. For the first CPU, it's located in the /proc/acpi/processor/CPU0 directory. Check the info file in this directory. If you have full ACPI power management configured, you should see:

 bus mastering control:  yes power management:       yes throttling control:     yes limit interface:        yes 

For power management, ACPI also may use the SpeedStep or PowerNow! modules. Both are normally compiled into the kernel:

  • SpeedStep is associated with the Intel Centrino CPU. It's configured as a module on most Linux distribution 2.6 kernels. To check, run the following command:

     grep CENTRINO /boot/config-`uname -r` 

  • PowerNow is associated with the AMD K6, K7, and K8 CPUs. It's configured as a module on most Linux distribution 2.6 kernels. To check, run the following command:

     grep POWERNOW /boot/config-`uname -r` 

If the associated kernel settings are not set to m or y (modular or included in the kernel), you may need to make changes. I guide you through the annoyance of recompiling the kernel in "Recompiling the Kernel" in Chapter 7.

To manage these systems, Debian supports the cpufreqd or cpudyn DEB packages, which you can add with the apt-get install command. Alternatively, you can install the cpufreq package from a SUSE installation CD. If you have a Red Hat/Fedora distribution, you can get the cpudyn RPM from Dag Wieers's repository at Laptop batteries

If your laptop battery is not performing as it should, check the battery state. It's available in the /proc/acpi/battery directory. Each battery, BAT1 and BAT2, includes an info file. When fully charged, the design capacity should equal the last full capacity. The first few lines of my HP laptop's state file show a problem:

 present:                 yes design capacity:         4400 mAh last full capacity:      3840 mAh 

This suggests I may not have followed good battery-management practices, which include discharging and recharging the battery completely during the first few uses. Most Linux desktop GUIs include a battery-management applet, which you can use to monitor your system. I describe how you can configure desktop GUI applets in Chapter 1.

Linux Annoyances for Geeks
Linux Annoyances for Geeks: Getting the Most Flexible System in the World Just the Way You Want It
ISBN: 0596008015
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2004
Pages: 144
Authors: Michael Jang © 2008-2017.
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