Summary: Almost everything on the machine works under Linux, and I like this machine.
A common question is, if I buy this machine is Linux going to work on it? Yes, of course! But with Linux the question is a little more subtle than with the (currently) market-leading operating system, for which, if the vendor (Dell) does a standard installation with limited tweaks for their special hardware and with limited third-party software added, then you can expect the machine to give you a market-leading experience out of the box (including virus infection unless you immediately patch it from behind an effective firewall). The Linux experience tends to not be so slick.
In Linux or any other operating system, the user's experience depends on quite a number of factors, many of which are the user's responsibility:
How well the user has planned what he is going to do with the new machine. For example, is it going to be just for general web surfing and e-mail? Is there a requirement to play encrypted and/or localized entertainment DVDs? Is geographic mapping and navigation required? Does the user do graphic arts or computer-aided design? If the machine is not ordered and set up with the intended tasks in mind, then likely the user will be disappointed.
Whether the user has picked software that can do the tasks he has planned, and of course whether that software is in the distro or has to be obtained from outside.
How well the distro provides infrastructure supporting the selected software. For example, a personal information manager component needs a data storage backend and an inter-process communication bus accessible not just to the PIM suite but to related software such as the mail reader.
Whether the chosen hardware supports the activities and software. For example, a graphic artist needs more pixels on a physically bigger screen than a general web surfer. A software developer will need disc space to put the numerous software packages he works on.
And then the key question for this review: how well the particular Linux distro supports the provided hardware.
This is a Dell Inspiron 6400 with the ATI Radeon X1400 graphics chip. It is available on the Small Business section of Dell's website. It is almost the same as the Inspiron E1505 which is on the Home and Home Office section.
I am using the OpenSuSE 10.2 distro,
with kernel 2.6.18. In addition, I am using a somewhat uncommon Desktop
Environment: neither KDE nor Gnome, with a lot of infrastructure provided by
Yours Truly. Thus the question always will come up: if the user puts Debian
Etch and KDE on the machine, with a custom compilation of
kernel 2.6.21, will items I found troublesome magically start working? Or vice
versa with some other distro? But that will have to be answered elsewhere than
The following table summarizes the status of the features on the Inspiron 6400, and rates how much work it took to get them functioning, both in Linux and in Microsoft Windows XP, which was installed at the factory. The descriptions include cross-references to more detailed sections in this file, which has these additional sections:
out of the box, i.e. after a clean installation.
|Conf||It needed editing a configuration file or running a setup GUI.|
|Add-On||Needed additional or patched software: download it; follow instructions to compile and install it; it works.|
|Fiddle||As with |
Add-On, but it required some workarounds in the procedure, which might seem minor to an experienced user but which might prevent a newbie from making it work.
|Hack||So you call yourself a guru? This one will challenge your skills. But this guru eventually got it working.|
|Fail||I wasn't able to get this one to work, at least so far.|
|*||A prerequisite did not qualify for the |
Confrating, but once that was set up, the listed component worked with no further hassle.
|%||On Linux I didn't catch a version skew in the configuration
for resmgr until after quite a bit of testing was done. This daemon
gives the console user permission to use various devices, which
therefore failed to work |
out of the box. Items marked '%' would have worked
out of the boxif it weren't for that error, which is my responsibility and should not reflect on either the distro or the hardware.
|Does it boot at all?||Box||Box|
|On Linux the installer boots right away. (On the Dell Optiplex GX-745 it has a 30 sec timeout on each of 3 unused SATA channels, hiss, boo.)|
|Operating system installation||Box||Box|
|Windows XP was preinstalled at the factory. Here are some notes on installing SuSE 10.2.|
|Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo T5600 |
Conroe, 1.83 GHz
|Several CPUs are offered and this one seemed to me to
give the best balance of performance and price. On Linux (and likely also
on Windows) both cores are used: on my |
wastetimebenchmark, which mainly tests integer arithmetic (making checksums), one or two instances do 3.07 work units/sec each, not interfering with each other, where a Pentium-III
Coppermineat 1.0 GHz would do 1.0 WU/sec, one instance only.
|Memory: 2 DIMMs, 512Mb each, 533MHz||Box||Box|
|I never did get Windows to tell me how much memory it was using. BIOS setup (and /proc/meminfo and memtest86) confirmed that 1Gb was installed. Memory tester said the speed of the memory was 667MHz (matching FSB speed; I didn't pay extra for this; is it really just reporting the FSB speed, or did Dell have an uncharacteristic spasm of generosity?) The motherboard has 2 memory slots, both occupied, with dual channel access.|
|Video: ATI Radeon X1400 128Mb||Fiddle||Box|
|Spec page in the manual says video
RAM is 128Mb; Windows
device manager and Linux fglrx driver confirm this. But Dell's order form
said 256Mb, hiss, boo! The Linux installer installs the VESA framebuffer
driver by default, which works out of the box within its limitations. For
accelerated graphics you need to either install the xorg-x11-driver-video
package for the generic radeon driver, or to get all the features you need
to compile and install the fglrx proprietary
driver (details here). There were definitely details that needed to be
Here is jimc's complete xorg.conf file, warts and all. Particularly, the parameters for the touchpad are not in an exemplary state.
Offerings vary, and at one time an nVidia chip was offered. In web postings some people say they prefer it. However, if you have 3D graphics turned on the driver cannot wake it after suspend-to-RAM or to disc; you end up with a black screen, and none of the usual maneuvers will bring it back. Apparently this bug has been present for a long time. Since suspending is important to me, I did not consider the nVidia graphics.
|OpenGL direct rendering||Box*||Box|
|Frame rate was 212 frames/sec on my
favorite mesademo/fire benchmark, using 100% of one CPU and up to 14% of the other. Compare 158
fr/sec for a Radeon X300 and 1.6GHz Pentium-M in the old Inspiron 6000d.
1541 fr/sec on glxgears (not as demanding). "Box*" means that I had OpenGL
(DRI) running on
my old machine, and once I had the video driver installed I could copy the
sections from the old to the new /etc/X11/xorg.conf file and they worked
without changes. This is with ATI's proprietary fglrx driver.
On Windows XP it's hard to tell, without installing a 3D game, whether
3D graphics is working. (On Vista you would look for the
|I think this screen has excellent
color rendition, and the viewing angle is rated at ±65º
horizontally and similar vertically, and I'd say that rating is
conservative. The screen can be ordered with a matte or gloss surface; my
old machine had matte while this one has gloss. I'm not sure which one I
like better. You can see things reflected in the gloss screen,
particularly outdoors (in shade under trees), which can be distracting,
whereas with the matte screen the reflection takes the form of haze
over the screen, which is also annoying.
In direct sunlight the screen is readable, but just barely. I don't know of any self-luminous screen that is satisfactory in direct sunlight. Reflective screens are at their best in sunlight, but lack color. Unfortunately you can't have everything. (Yet.)
During installation and in the default X-Windows configuration, Linux used the default 800x600px screen resolution. The installer could have done 1400x1050px (wrong aspect ratio), but not the correct 1680x1050px. This was straightened out together with the video driver. It would have been more pleasant to pick 1400x1050px on the installer's boot screen.
|SynPS/2 Synaptics TouchPad||Box||Box|
|At first I copied my pad parameters
in /etc/X11/xorg.conf from the old machine, which had an Alps Glidepoint
pad, but these parameters rendered the touchpad completely inoperative.
When I substituted a completely default
mouse stanza (details here), which is what SuSE
setup would have done if I hadn't overwritten the default xorg.conf, the
pad worked with nearly all the features I wanted, so I'm scoring this one
Box. Since then I've been tweaking parameters, but I still haven't gotten it in perfect shape.
|Keyboard: 87 keys||Box||Box|
|The same keyboard is used as
on other Dell Inspirons and Latitudes. I think the keys feel good. As
you press them down there is negative resistance, that is, at a certain
point they drop all the way down, like on a |
realkeyboard, compared to some keys' pure springy feel, or worse, membrane keyboards where you need to give it a good poke at the bottom of the stroke. The keys are standard size except the function keys are half height. For European layouts there is space for two additional keys. Special functions, such as wireless kill and brightness adjust, plus a simulated numeric keypad, are reached by a
|Disc: 80Gb SATA 5400rpm, Samsung HM080HI (disc specs here)||Box||Box|
|As delivered, the C: partition had
4.9Gb used for Windows and 64.5Gb free; the extended area (4.9Gb total)
held restore and Direct Media partitions. I reformatted it, preserving the
Dell diagnosics (0.055 Gb). The detailed
partition list is here..
Under Linux, the speed of reading the disc was 8.61e7 byte/sec. See the complete comparison here.
|Optical disc: 24x CD-RW/DVD-RO, TSST Corp. TSL462D|
|Read double layer data DVD||Box%||N.T.|
|Play entertainment DVD||Add-On||Conf|
In Windows it wanted me to confirm setting the region, but after that Windows Media Player actually played the DVD (unlike Dell/Windows Media Center which gave me so much trouble).
|Play music CD||Box||Box|
Works in both systems, including auto-play upon insertion. On Linux I configured gnome-volume-manager on my old machine, and I copied the configuration file to the new one. The default configuration uses a player that I don't install, soConfwould probably be a more honest rating.
|Read data CD||Box%||Box|
|Write data CD||Conf%||Box|
k3b got an error: /usr/bin/cdrecord cannot lock memory, can't open /dev/sg0 etc. etc. Does /usr/bin/wodim (replaces cdrecord) need to be setUID? With this set, it can burn.Optimumwrite speed was 4x, empirically 6.2e5 byte/sec.
|Read CD that was burned||Box%||Box|
On Linux, there were no errors in a bit-by-bit comparison of the original data with what was burned (220 Mb). File handling tools are not as well developed on Windows, but comparison of the larger individual files revealed no errors.
|Wired Ethernet: Broadcom 440x, 10/100baseT||Conf||Conf|
|Wireless (802.11 family): Intel 3945ABG||Hack||Conf|
|Should have been |
Add-Onbecause the ipw3945 driver is not (yet) mainline in the 2.6.18 kernel and must be downloaded from Intel's site. However, it requires a userspace non-open-source daemon (ipw3945d) to enforce regulatory policy, and the provided instructions were ineffective in getting it to start during coldplug. The
curewas to create a new boot script that separately starts this daemon. This is a gross kludge.
For Linux use, don't order either the 802.11ab card (Dell 1390, really Broadcom 18xx) or the 802.11n (Intel 4965AGN) card until you've seen reports on the web that other people have gotten them working natively under Linux. The 18xx has no kernel support at all in 2.6.18, and will require the ndiswrapper middleware for the Windows driver, which cannot handle suspend-to-RAM or disc, which is important for me. The Intel 4965AGN has a Linux driver but it is kind of at an alpha level, not for use except by developers and testers.
|Bluetooth: Dell 355, supports v2.0||Hack||Conf|
On WinXP, the Bluetooth drivers are on the machine but not actually installed. When you click on the Bluetooth icon for the first time, it has to go through quite a long automated process to install them.
Linux: The internal NIC (Dell 355, Broadcom BCM2045 chipset) is recognized, drivers loaded, and daemons started (using config imported from the old machine). But it only looks like it's working. With some serious hacking, Bluetooth was brought to life.
|Wireless keyboard (Bluetooth HID)||Conf*||Conf|
|Linux: With the correct incantations, documented only in mysterious forums, it can be paired, encrypted, and connected, and data typed at the keyboard has its proper effect.|
|Wireless headphones (Bluetooth A2DP)||Hack*||Fail|
|On WinXP, evidently the hardware was
paired, and I convinced Windows Media Player to use other than the
internal speaker and/or wired phones, but I couldn't hear anything on
the Bluetooth phones. I've made this work on Vista, sort of, but I
didn't put much time into figuring out the right magic incantation for
WinXP since I'm going to wipe this installation in a few hours anyway.
On Linux the a2dpd daemon for the stereo sound profile (A2DP) is not
part of the standard bluez-utils package (as of version 3.7) and has to
be obtained from CVS. Follow these
instructions to download. There's been an upgrade in libdbus-1 and
I had to recompile my copy of a2dpd. Also the procedure for pairing
devices has changed in this release. Once that was figured out (
However, I'm disappointed by the results. First, the SBC codec produces sound quality that is quite noticeably worse than the same headphones (Motorola HT820) connected by the provided wire. Second, there are some timing issues, and while a simple setup (feeding ogg123 into aplay) usually delivers unbroken sound, the xmms player has trouble to connect directly to the ALSA device, and if you use a sound proxy (esd or pulseaudio) then sometimes, but not always, you get gaps at 15 to 20 Hz. The developers are working on it . . .
|Modem: Conexant, PCI ID 14f1:2bfa, subsystem 14f1:00c3||Add-On||N.T.|
|I have not actually
installed the Linuxant driver for this modem, but on my old machine (with
an AC97-type Conexant softmodem) the same driver installed with no hassle,
so here I'm giving it an |
honoraryAdd-On rating. See this link for more details about the modem, plus a link to get the driver from Dell for free (this one gets a rating of Fiddle).
|Sound: Sigma Tel STAC9200||Box%||Box|
|As with all ALSA devices, the card is muted initially. You need to preset the mixer with muting off; SuSE takes care of this.|
An audiophile would not consider a laptop's internal speakers to befunctioningand would use wired headphones instead. However, compared with other laptops' speakers these aren't too bad.
On the Inspiron 6000 when you plug in the wired headphones it gates the audio (by a physical switch?) to them. With the Inspiron 6400 this does not happen, and the mixer controls are very limited. Various web postings suggest that the Intel High Definition Audio Controller can be arranged various ways on different motherboards, and I need a version that knows about Dell's arrangement. I downloaded the latest ALSA driver set (currently 1.0.14) from ftp://ftp.alsa-project.org/pub/driver and compiled it. snd_hda_intel.ko from that set brought the headphones to life. The driver update directory is described here.
|Random number generator||Fail||N.T.|
|The ICH7M chipset does not have one, hiss, boo.|
|Memory card slot||Box%||N.T.|
|Physically supported formats: SD/SDIO, MMC, Memory Stick, MS PRO, xD. Does not take CF. My test was on a xD card.|
|PCMCIA expansion cards||N.T.||N.T.|
| The machine takes
Express Cards. These are not your old-fashioned PCMCIA cards; the connector is over on the side so it looks like a CF (Compact Flash) card on steroids. There is one slot which can take either 34mm or 54mm width cards. Since I only have one old-style PCMCIA card I could not test this card slot.
|USB hotplug: Flash memory||Box%||Box|
|USB hotplug: External mouse||Box||N.T.|
|"Box" means that xorg.conf copied from the old machine was already set up to look for an external USB mouse, and when one was provided, it was used. The xorg.conf stanza for the mouse is here.|
|USB hotplug: Joystick||N.T.||Box|
|USB hotplug: External hard disc||Box||N.T.|
|Speed 1.40e8 byte/sec vs. 4.80e8 byte/sec theoretical maximum. See the complete comparison here.|
|Firewire: External hard disc||Box||N.T.|
|Speed 1.70e8 byte/sec vs. 4.00e8 byte/sec theoretical maximum. See the complete comparison here.|
|Windows claims 6hr 12min battery life, ROTFL. On Linux, in an informal test in daylight (brightness at max) but otherwise just editing text, it looks like it's going to give me about 2hr 45min. Remember that LiIon batteries lose capacity as the months pass; the rate depends on manufacturing details.|
|CPU speed modulation||Box||N.T.|
|The CPU runs at full speed under load, but slower, and with reduced voltage, hence reduced heat and battery drain, when the load is under 100%. The low speed is 1.0 GHz. When either processor is doing nothing it halts and uses very low power; comparing one versus two benchmark instances, the total power differs by 9 watts. Linux uses the speedstep_centrino and cpufreq_ondemand drivers. The latter adjusts the speed within the kernel; a userspace daemon is not required.|
|Suspend to RAM||Box||Box|
|On Linux it takes about 10 secs to suspend, seems like 2 secs to resume (not counting typing in my password). Some of that 10 secs was my special security stuff; I estimate 4 secs without it. This is almost, but not quite, as fast as a MacBook. I've been using suspend to RAM fairly frequently for the last two weeks and it's always worked, except once when I did some rather funky stuff with User Mode Linux (involving crashing), it got stuck while suspending.|
|Suspend to disc||Box||Box|
|It takes about 40 secs to suspend and 45 secs to resume (counting grub). I've used the feature only a few times, but reliability issues are similar to suspending to RAM although a bit less demanding. The advantage of suspending to disc is that no power is used and you can even remove the battery. The disadvantage is that it takes longer than suspending to RAM. If your battery is very low you might not survive for the needed 40 seconds -- but you won't get much time in suspend-to-RAM state either.|
|Wireless: Kill switch works?||Box||Box|
|Both 802.11 and Bluetooth respond to it. It appears to cause the USB bus to be rescanned, hiss, boo!|
|Using the standard interface in /proc you can find out the AC vs. battery status, battery current and charge level, and CPU temperature. You can't read out the graphics temperature, nor can you detect or control fan activity, nor adjust the thermal trip points. (Same as Inspiron 6000.)|
The experiences of other Inspiron 6400 owners, and other types of laptops, can be found through links on Kenneth Harker's page, http://www.linux-laptop.net/ (now redirected to http://www.linux-on-laptops.com/ sponsored by LinuxCertified Inc.)