Your Linux Data Center Experts

I recently ordered a Dell latitude D820. It arrived last week. Now that I have had a few days to play with it, he's my lengthy review of the laptop with Linux.

I ordered the laptop via a friend of a friend who orders tons of Dell products, so I didn't interact directly with the Dell order people. The web site was a bit annoying, in that you had to select the lowest D820 base model to get the Intel 950 graphics as an option. Otherwise the web site was fine. I was a bit confused that the FreeDOS version of the laptop cost $19 more than the XP version. I ordered mine with XP, as I needed that to unfortunately activate the EVDO card. (see below for the saga there).

The laptop order was placed on a Saturday. On Monday the Dell order status page said that the ETA was shipping Friday and arriving the following Monday. Pretty fast. It turned out that they shipped the laptop wed and it arrived (late) Thursday afternoon. Pretty speedy order service.

The laptop arrived in a pretty small box. The shipping weight was only 11 pounds for the laptop, extended battery, 2 ac adapters, some cd's, one printed small booklet, and a card explaining how to activate the EVDO card. The packaging was good and the laptop was undamaged.

Some first impressions of the physical setup of the laptop:

  • The machine is somewhat larger than my old Thinkpad T42p, both in thickness and in width/length.
  • Despite it's slightly larger size it feels like it's a bit lighter than the thinkpad
  • I like the placement of the speakers on either side of the keyboard. On the thinkpad the speakers were on the underside in the front, making it hard to hear if the laptop was in your lap.
  • Overall the feel is pretty solid. The hinges are nice and stiff on the screen
  • The wifi-finder feature seems to work. You slide a switch and a light indicates if there are wireless networks available. The laptop does NOT need to be on for this to work (in fact it doesn't work when the machine is on booted under Linux at least).
  • The battery has a nice little button to get a power level readout. Also handy when you want to see if you have enough battery to power up and work somewhere for a while.
  • There is only a up/down/mute media buttons. This is fine with me, but some people seem to like having cd play/pause there or the like.
  • The bluetooth light is kinda bright, but I suppose good to know it's on
  • The keyboard is different from the thinkpad, but seems very serviceable. Its more springy, which I like
  • The Dell logo on the lid looks a bit dull (forgive the pun). I guess it is a business laptop and they don't want too many bright colors, but still it's very muted.

Some stats of the model I got. Latitude D820:

  • 2.33GHz core 2 duo (64 bit)
  • 2 GB memory (nice for doing virtual stuff)
  • 100GB drive (also nice for virtual images)
  • fingerprint reader
  • EVDO mini-pci card for Sprint
  • Intel 950 GMA graphics card
  • Intel 3945 802.11 a/b/g card
  • 15.4 inch Wide Screen WUXGA LCD Panel
  • 9 cell battery

I knew that I would need Windows around long enough to activate the EVDO card, so I went and did that first thing. I called and got an activation number and ran the Sprint card application and thought that I was done. It turns out that either I didn't do something right this first time, or I needed to re-run the app after Sprint had activated the card. (more on this below).

Since the laptop arrived late afternoon on a Thursday, I was out at hackingsociety that evening. I managed to forget my Fedora DVD, so I thought I was going to be out of luck. However, since there were a number of Linux geeks around I managed to grab a Ubuntu live CD to play with, then someone else had a fc6 DVD (which was i386, but still good to test out). Both Linux distros ran fine. Once I got home I installed from a Fedora Unity fc6 / x86_64 DVD. The installer detected the panel as 1600x1200, but it worked. The install was pretty painless and I got Xfce (My preferred Desktop) installed. I also used Seans instructions to once again have a encrypted /home partition. (See Here and Here)

Some issues with running Linux on the laptop:

  • The Touchpad turns out to be a ALPS brand. This means apparently that it doesn't have any support for multi-tap. I use multi-tap all the time on my thinkpad, so thats going to take some getting used to. Please Dell consider switching to Synaptics touchpads?
  • A big problem is that when you close the lid, the screen blanks, and then never comes back without a reboot. This is a major problem. I finally managed to find a workaround, but it would be good if Dell would fix this in a BIOS update soon. To fix: Edit /etc/acpi/events/video.conf and comment in the vebtool line. Then edit your /etc/X11/xorg.conf file and add to it:

Section “ServerFlags” Option “NoPM” “true” EndSection

  • X drives the display to 1600x1200 by default. To get the 1920x1200 you must install the 915resolution package. Then do: echo “RESOLUTION="3c 1920 1200”“ >> /etc/sysconfig/915resolution
  • To get the ipw3945 working with Fedora Core 6, I used the packages available at Freshrpms. This is the old version that has a daemon that needs to run. Less than ideal, but hopefully soon the new ipw3945 will work and be in f7.

On the plus side:

  • It's very very very fast.
  • The 1920x1200 screen gives you tons of area to play with. Lots of terminals!
  • The intel 950 GMA seems zippy enough for anything I do.
  • The hardware virt stuff seems to work great. kvm isn't available in FC6, but I did play with vmware, xen, and run rawhide long enough to run kvm and install a Linux guest
  • Having the wireless and EVDO all built in makes it very easy to stay connected without having to remember to carry other junk around.
  • The battery life is fantastic. The 9 cell battery doesn't stick out like the extended batteries do on the thinkpads. I haven't drained the battery, but acpi says the Estimated time is around 5.5 hours.
  • Suspend and Resume works fine out of the box. It's nice and quick and has worked everytime I have tried it.
  • The laptop has a serial port instead of a parallel. I don't know that I have much need for either anymore, but serial is more useful than parallel, IMHO
  • The fingerprint reader works fine out of the box with the thinkfinger package
  • Once you activate the card, the EVDO seems to work fine as a ppp/modem device
  • The built in bluetooth seems to work fine for my headset

Haven't tried out yet, but I expect will work:

  • The smartcard reader. I need to find a source for blank smartcards, anyone have one?
  • The pcexpress and pccard slots. Since everything is built in I don't have much need right now to try them
  • IR. I haven't got any device that talks to IR, so no idea if that works or not.

The saga of the EVDO: So, after installing Linux and getting everything setup the way I wanted it, I determined that I needed to re-run the windows utility to activate the EVDO card. I really didn't want to re-install Linux again, so I tried various things to get around that, including:

  • Trying to run the utility in wine. Result: You don't have an EVDO card, go away
  • Trying to run the utility in a XP guest in vmware. Result: You don't have a EVDO card, go away
  • Installing XP to an external USB drive. The Crappy XP installer will happily let you do this, but then the resulting install on the USB drive doesn't have the USB drivers, and blows up on boot. Result: no booting, can't run app
  • Changing my Linux swap partition to NTFS and trying to get XP to install there. Result: XP installer crashes when it sees the Linux partitions. Result: no boot, can't run app
  • Finally, I set my swap partition as NTFS, then used fdisk to delete all my Linux partitions. Then installed XP, ran the activation app. Then went back in a Fedora rescue CD, re-added my partitions exactly as they were before and re-installed grub. Result: finally success

To wrap up, this is a pretty nice laptop for Linux use. It could still use some improvement from Dell, namely: Ship a real Synaptics touchpad, Fix the BIOS to not cause the screen to blank and never come back, Fix the BIOS so that X will run 1920x1200 without using the 915resolution hack, and finally publish the AT commands to setup the EVDO cards, so we don't need to run a windows app to activate the card.

What will I miss from the thinkpad? Well, the thinklight was nice. The 2 arrows on either side of the arrow keys were handy. The better touchpad for sure. Other than that, I think everything is in pretty good shape.

comments powered by Disqus

Join our other satisfied clients. Contact us today.