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Installing and Configuring Ubuntu on a Laptop
Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4

Wireless

The next thing I checked was the wireless interface. For a while, I wasn't sure if Ubuntu saw my wireless card correctly. When I checked the network in the Gnome network configuration applet, it showed the network interface, but activating it didn't do anything. It didn't see any networks. I modified my router to disable WEP and enable ESSID broadcast in order to try to diagnose the problem I was having. Nothing. It turns out that at some point, I had hit Fn-F2 and turned off my wireless card. Hitting Fn-F2 again turned it on and allowed me to configure the wireless network (which included turning WEP back on and broadcast ESSID back off).



After recovering from a little bit of embarrassing user error, wireless worked beautifully. I was able to configure WEP at home and work and switch between wired and wireless. However, the network configuration applet that comes installed with Ubuntu (from Gnome, I think) doesn't work too well. The biggest problem is with the Location feature. The applet appears to support multiple locations, presumably for the purpose of configuring your network for different places that you happen to go. On boot-up, no specific location comes up, which is fine. However, the ESSID (and presumably the WEP key) get swapped around among different locations. I wound up pasting in the WEP key whenever I changed locations--not exactly ideal behavior.

To alleviate this problem, I downloaded gtkwifi. It does a fabulous job of storing WEP keys for various access points and automatically connecting to what it refers to as "preferred networks" as it finds them. The only problems I have with it are:

  • It constantly searches for wireless networks and connects to preferred networks when it finds them. When I want to use the wired network rather than wireless, I have to press Fn-F2 to disable the wireless card so that gtkwifi doesn't cause wireless to take over; this isn't a huge deal. Actually, I'm certain this is the desired behavior. It's just that gtkwifi needs a little more work on its ESP so it knows what I intend without having to be told.
  • It doesn't appear to like my nonbroadcast ESSID. I had to reenable broadcasting ESSID in order to get this to work right. gtkwifi is all Python, and I've glanced through the source file, but I'll have to dig in one day and see if I can tweak it a bit. (Isn't open source great?)

A problem I experienced with my wireless connection is that it kept on disconnecting and failed to reconnect unless I rebooted the laptop. I did some Googling and found some references to Ubuntu Hoary packaging outdated ipw2200 drivers. I downloaded the latest drivers, compiled them, and installed them. I first had to remove all trace of the old drivers:

root@qiwi:/root # find /lib/modules/2.6.10-5-686 -name "*ipw*" -exec rm {} \;
root@qiwi:/root # find /lib/modules/2.6.10-5-686 -name "*80211*" -exec rm {} \;

before installing the new drivers from source. After installing the ipw2200 driver (which was at version 1.0.4 at the time of my Hoary installation), I haven't had a single problem with wireless connectivity--not with Hoary, anyway, but more on that later. I really don't like installing different versions of applications and drivers for which there are Ubuntu packages, but I make exceptions when they are broken (as was the case with the fglrx driver and the ipw2200 driver). I'm sure this will be a headache when Ubuntu packages newer versions of fglrx and ipw2200.

Gnome

Gnome itself has been the source of my biggest problems. First of all, I never used to like Gnome. It always looked like a toy to me. It always seemed bloated. It never "felt" like a usable desktop. I actually intended to install Kubuntu on the laptop so I would get KDE out of the box. The main reason I didn't was that my Kubuntu CD was a bad burn. After tinkering with Gnome for a bit and seeing the simple (but thorough) configuration utilities, the consistent look and feel, the apparent ease of creating applications for it, and the fact that it just "feels" right, I've come to appreciate it more and actually enjoy it.

That doesn't mean that Gnome is without problems. I had the infamous "Gnome locking up at startup" problem. I Googled and found various solutions, but nothing worked. For about two weeks, I reinstalled Ubuntu every two or three days. Because none of the suggestions were helping, I was convinced that I had a library conflict and that something I had installed overwrote something that Gnome needed to work properly. I kept reinstalling in order to track down what I had installed that could have caused this particular problem. (At least I had a /home filesystem separate from the other filesystems and didn't lose any user data.) I could not consistently produce the freeze-up, nor could I track down what I had installed to cause the problem.

One day when the freeze-up occurred again, I decided to follow a piece of advice to start gnome-control-center from a fail-safe xterm and disable sound on startup. When I brought up a fail-safe xterm and tried to start gnome-control-center, the command I issued just sat there, and gnome-control-center didn't start and wouldn't return me to a shell prompt. I tried it several times and it just wasn't working. I either went to get some coffee or worked on something else, and noticed that after a while, gnome-control-center had started. That gave me a hypothesis and an idea. Maybe Gnome was trying something that wasn't working and "freezing" until it timed out. I tried to start Gnome (which didn't come up) and just let it sit. I didn't time it, but after five or ten minutes, Gnome finally came up. I haven't had a freeze-up since, so it probably was something that just needed to time out once.

Multimedia

With a 1,920-by-1,200 17-inch display, I just had to try to get some of the multimedia capabilities of this laptop working. The laptop wouldn't play a typical DVD (say, from Blockbuster) with out-of-the-box Ubuntu, so I had to install the libdvdcss package to allow Xine to decode it. It wouldn't play QuickTime files either, so I had to install the w32codecs package. After that, I haven't had a problem playing any multimedia file format.

One thing I wasn't sure I would like when I got the laptop was the presence of seven multimedia keys on the front of the laptop. I really thought those keys were just tacky fluff, like some keyboards' web browser button or email button. But I've actually come to enjoy them. I configured my system keyboard shortcuts to recognize them all. The only thing the systemwide keyboard shortcuts appear to do is control the volume. In order to get individual media applications to become "multimedia key aware," I had to configure the keyboard shortcuts for each specific application. So far, I have configured both Xine and XMMS, and they work beautifully.

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