Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Installing Linux on a HP Pavilion DM1-4108AU

HP Pavilion dm1-4210us

The screen broke on my trusty Kogan Agora and it was not feasible to repair. So I looked around for a similar unit: a low cost laptop with a screen between 11 and 12 inches, which is suitable for running Linux. I chose the HP Pavilion DM1-4108AU from JB HI-FI for $368. This has only 2GB of RAM and a 320 GB hard disk, the disk is upgradable but the RAM is not (there is a HP Pavilion dm1-4210us with 4GM RAM and a 500 GB disk). It has Windows 7 and so was selling a bit cheaper than the newer Windows 8 models. Linux can be installed, with WiFi needing an extra driver and the laptop is good apart from the shiny screen.

The HP Pavilion DM1-4108AU looks a lot more expensive than it costs, with a black and silver case (the silver highlights look like aluminum, but are painted plastic). My Kogan Agora looks down-market in comparison with a lot of plastic and screws, but has survived a fall onto a stone floor and is much easier to upgrade the hardware due to all the screws.

The case over the LCD screen on the HP is a little too flexible for my liking but the biggest problem is the shiny LCD screen and surround, making it more subject to reflections than the Kogan (but most small laptops now seem to have this problem). The HP's keypad is very good and it has a good range of ports (three USB, HDMI and VGA video), which is one reason I did not buy a Chromebook.

After reviewing J.A. Watson's excellent article about installing Linux on a similar HP model ("HP Pavilion dm1-4310e: Swapping Windows 8 for Linux"), I decided to try Mint Linux. This worked well, apart from the problem with WiFi, which Watson had noted. I also tried OpenSuSe Linux, which was equally impressive. To remove Linux and install another version I found the video "How to Safely Uninstall Linux with Windows Dual Boot" by Britecto be useful.

Ubuntu, came with a proprietary driver for the Broadcom WFi hardware BCM43103. I had been avoiding Ubuntu as I don't like the Unity interface (but you can install Gnome in ubuntu). Unfortunately even with the driver I still could not get WiFi to work.

Then I tried Puppy Linux. This was because of a comment on the Puppy Linux Discussion Forum saying that WiFi was slow on the HP DM1-4108 au, but at least it worked ("Wireless hp dm1-4108au Slow"). Normally I would not try such an unusual Linux version, but I was getting desperate. Puppy Linux is designed for running on old hardware and has been criticised for lack of security and applications. It runs fast but the installation process is not as polished as Mint, Ubuntu and OpenSuse.

The "Precise" version of Puppy is designed to be compatible with Ubuntu packages, to address the application issue. The Puppy ISO file downloaded very slowly (70kbps) and was not available from a local mirror site as it is so new (17 December 2012). This reminded me of the old days of dial-up modems, where software downloads could take much of a day. Unfortunately the Precise version did not work and so I tried "Slacko Puppy 5.4 final".

One curious problem I had was that I could not get the usual utility to write the Puppy ISO file to a USB drive. So I ended up using "Linux Live" on Windows 7. The WiFi worked, but was so slow as to be unusable. This showed me the WiFi could work, if I could get a suitable driver, so I went back to Mint Linux, as looked at how to load the correct driver for the Broadcom. The posting " Possible fix for wireless: BCM4313 (14e4:4727) on hp dm1 laptop with Ubuntu 11.10" suggested the wl driver not "brcmsmac":
Then save the file. Reboot, and then go into Ubuntu Software Centre again - search "bcm" and reinstall bcmwl-kernel-source and then broadcom-sta-source and broadcom-sta-common. ...
I then had Mint Linux working with the WiFi. While all this involved downloading many Linux distribution files, it had to be kept in perspective. I did spend a lot of time waiting for various Linuxes to boot. But I spent even more time waiting for Windows 7 to download updates and install them.

The Mint Linux ISO installation file is about 1 GB compares to about 300 MB for most others. But Mint comes with many extra packages which you have to download separately with other Linux distributions. It is still not without problems. It is odd that I still have to search the web to find out how to make the text large enough to read on a small screen for Linux and various packages. Given that there will be more people with poor eyesight as the population gets older, this is something open source developers need to address. Here I am not talking about special magnifier applications, just one place I can set the font size larger and have each application adjust accordingly.

I doubled the Resolution Dots Per Inch  in Appearance > Fonts > Details (making the text twice as large). But this did not make the text large enough to read in received email in Thunderbird, or on web pages in Firefox.

One catch with the HP DM1 computers is that they come with one of two different processors: Intel or AMD. The DM1-4108AU has the AMD processor and according to the "HP Pavilion dm1 Entertainment PC: Maintenance and Service Guide" (page 2) and has two RAM slots, whereas the Intel has only one. See "How to upgrade a dm1-4108au memory to 4Gig?" along with the showing how to get the back off the computer to install more RAM.

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