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Dell was a definite mistake, and an expensive one

This week, my newly-bought laptop arrived; as I noted I was looking for a computer that had a Trackpoint device, to avoid touching the touchpad while I’m writing. This brought me to exactly two viable alternatives:

  • Lenovo, with their Thinkpad, had a good track record with Linux; they also have usually a decent price (doesn’t mean they are cheap but that they are worth their pricetag) and in general they were my first choice;
  • Dell and the Latitude E65xx series was the second choice; they didn’t have such a good track record, but most people didn’t complain much about them, beside for minor annoyances.

Again, as I said above, Lenovo doesn’t sell directly in Italy, who knows why; unfortunately this is also the cause for their price to be quite higher in Italy in general. Also, I don’t have many options for Lenovo resellers in my area; the nearest one (50Km from here) sent me the price for “the model I asked for” after a week I asked for it: after VAT it was €300 more than the same from Lenovo UK. I also quoted this being the model I asked for because it really wasn’t!

Not only they still forced me to pick up a Windows license (okay, not too nice but I can live with it), but they also forgot to upgrade the RAM to 4GiB as I asked and, quite a bad one, they didn’t provide me with an integrated smartcard reader. Indeed, the first time around the guy at the sales department of the reseller asked me if I was sure to ask for a BTO about that, given that all T510 already had (translated, but literal) “reader of smartcards of SD type, those for photo cameras”. When the price came, they actually were proposing me to buy a T510 and a smartcard reader, from GemAlto and Lenovo branded. Not a ExpressCard reader though, an USB reader. I guess you can tell what the problem is with that; if not, the problem was that I already have an USB card reader, it’s just difficult to use on, say, a train.

So I surveyed the Dell options; they didn’t allow me to forgo on Windows 7 from the website, so I called the hotline and asked for a sales person to help me out; they refused right away to switch my keyboard for an US one, which was unfortunate but bearable, then they told me that they’d let me know if it was possible to avoid Windows; in two days they came back with an offer… for the E6510 with Ubuntu Linux rather than Windows 7, base options (no 4GiB memory, which I asked for, and no webcam, fingerprint reader, RFID reader, which I didn’t ask for and I didn’t/don’t need)… but at a €500 premium over the same laptop from the website with Windows 7. For the same price, I could get the highest-level option, with Core i7, all the extras and so on.

So the Dell arrived, and I started installing Gentoo on it; beside a series of quirks, which I googled up, such as the smartcard reader needing patching of OpenSC/OpenCT to work, or the fact that the RFID and fingerprint readers not working under Linux (with Daniel confirming that there is realistically no hope of getting the new ones to work on Linux any time soon), everything seemed to go fine. The network card is definitely stable and fast; the wireless card required me to create a new firmware ebuild because of the many ucode ebuilds we have in portage, mine was missing, but it was a matter of minutes.

The problem started when it came down to run Xorg. The nVidia card works quite fine with the drivers, so that’s not a problem, but the touchpad, oh the touchpad. For apparently no reason first, the touchpad was being recognised as a simple mouse; and contrarily to what most people told me about the Thinkpad laptops, the touchpad and the trackpoint in Dell’s hardware are not separate (hardware) devices; they appear as separate devices in Linux because the ALPS driver in the kernel splits them after parsing their different protocols. Unfortunately, both the E6400 and the E6500 Latitude models have a new Alps Electric combined GlidePoint device with a protocol that is, as of now, unsupported by the Linux kernel; Ubuntu submitted some patches for it to the kernel but none that works yet. Right now the device is seen as a standard PS/2 mouse and entirely handled in BIOS, without special features or settings.

The second problem came when it was time to turn off the laptop: halting the system causes it to reboot instead; I thought the problem was related to ACPI, so I looked up if there were BIOS updates, and lo and behold, two were around. Unfortunately, applying them is not the usual matter of running flashrom, on a laptop. Dell used to develop Linux tools for their laptops, including firmware update software; as far as I know they were the first vendor doing so. Unfortunately, they either stopped, or this model is not covered, and the only BIOS updates are provided bundled within the Windows-based flasher (which most likely is not the real flasher at all, given that the system reboots itself before flashing both BIOS and the firmware of the Embedded Controller.

Now, not everything goes bad, luckily for me. I mailed Matthew Garrett, to ask him for pointers on what I could try to get it at least to halt properly, and he’s suggested me a git tree to try which I’m now building. He also pointed out that there is at least some work going on to solve the Alps touchpad problem (which makes me hopeful that this will be properly solved before end of the year). And of course he didn’t have to tell me why the external monitor button prints a ‘p’ since I knew the unfortunate reasons already.

On the bright side, the hardware looks, by itself, tremendously nice: the keyboard, while not as good as the Apple Aluminiums is quite solid and nice to write on, the touchpad is not as invasive as on the MacBook Pro, the monitor is gorgeous and it has all kind of expansion ports including eSATA. The battery lasts a lot even on Linux and even without setting up the governors properly, and so on so forth. I just hope the few problems will smooth themselves out soon.

Comments 10
  1. ThinkPads are the only true laptop. Everything else looks like it belongs in the toy store.

  2. If only Lenovo actually worked decently in Italy ;)By the way, thanks to the help of Matthew Garrett, I was able to track down a bit further the can’t-power-off problem. He suggested that the problem is with GPE (“General Purpose Events”:… ) his post on the matter explains what they are exactly.Their handling has been changed lately to make it possible to properly implement PCI PM (power management), but if not all of them are turned off properly before shutdown, they might trigger an “insta-reboot”.And now, by pure and sheer luck, I was able to track it down even further: the problem is on the AC connector! If it’s still connected by the time I shut down the laptop, it’ll automatically turn on again after shutting down. Workaround for now is to detach it from AC power before shutting down, which is not, anyway, such a bad idea.I’ll keep my readers posted!

  3. My wireless firmware required a manual install to /lib/firmware/ it’s p54pci but supports a bunch of wireless cards. I’ll check out the ebuild.I’d like to ask about your powerline adaptors if you have higher throughput with them than wireless and does it seem to work faster if it is on the same branch circuit or fuse with the networked device. In other words is there a loss if the signal goes to the power panel and and out another set of wires. 😉 If you don’ know no biggie.

  4. Hi Flameeyes! Have you considered this one:…They let you ditch that bloody windows license and choose the us layout.Personally I never bought from them (btw, I also own a dell and having a not idyllic experience with it). I think I will try with them next time…

  5. They don’t provide trackpoint devices, which is what I was looking for in the first place.

  6. The hdr extraction was the problem for me as well; I just couldn’t be arsed to install wine when I could install Windows and make sure the smartcard reader could _also_ get flashed. The biosdisk-like image for grub works fine, for smaller stuff, but when you need more than 1.38MiB of space on the DOS device it gets you quite bad :/Maybe there’s something new nowadays, I’d have to check that out.

  7. Hi! I’ve just bought the same laptop. But without smartcard reader, fingerprint reader … as I don’t need them. And I don’t regret buying it.As for updating the firwmare. It’s really easy. Just create FreeDOS boot USB and run the update from it. I think the easiest way is downloading the FD floppy image and createing the boot disk using qemu. It takes 10 minutes to create the boot disk, and another 10 minutes to update your firmware.1) qemu -curses -boot a -fda floppy.bin -hda /dev/sdb # sdb is your flash drive2) run fdisk, delete all partitions, create new primary, set it active3) restart qemu4) run format c: /q /s5) stop qemu6) mount the drive and copy the firmware update files onto it7) reboot into freedos8) run the firmware updatesAciddental freezes disappeared and network card is working properly with new kernels (currently 2.6.34).However, I didn’t solved the touchpad, SD card reader and shutdown issues yet.As for the shutdown: The system shutdowns properly with Debian testing kernel. Maybe it is a problem of kernel configuration.

  8. So, the last company I worked for… they asked me “so what kind of laptop do you want?” I said I wanted a T61p. I started work to find… a shiny new Inspiron. After I wiped the Vista install, dual-installed Linux and XP (I need both for work), and then spent three days finding XP drivers for it, I got home, went to turn it on, and accidentally pushed the “self-destruct button”:…“self-destruct”+button… well, suffice it to say that I got my ThinkPad a couple of months later (and I still have it, as part of my severance package).My previous Dell was quite a number of years ago, a PIII-600 or some such – it was their absolute top of the line, something like a $7,000 machine when it was purchased. I got it for free from a friend of mine when its warranty expired, since at that point it had something like *forty* service calls – basically, the entire machine had been replaced, a piece at a time. I got it because the casing was literally unable to support its own structure.I gave it to a terminally ill friend not too long after: it worked beautifully, if you pretended it was a “pizza-box” desktop – small, but not really mobile.If I have the money for a laptop, I won’t take a Dell for *free* at this point.

  9. Hi I just want to let you know I managed to get the rfid reader working under linux. I folowed this (… to switch it to legacy mode and then it shows as usb pcsc device even in linux. I tested it using pcscd and pcsc_scan and it read card id ok, don’t know about the internal data storage.

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