Saturday, August 04, 2007

Older Gateway M680 notebook upgrades flawlessly to openSuse 10.2

I've spent some pretty intensive work time on my M685 notebook over the last months. My first Gateway, the M680 has been wrapped up in storage since October of last year. The M680 is the Pentium M-based Gateway on which I installed Suse Linux 10.0 (before it became openSuse). In the past few weeks, tucked in between my primary job on OneTESS and proposal work with SPARTA, I slowly began to investigate if the M680 was worth the effort of upgrading the Linux partition beyond Suse 10. The answer is absolutely yes.

After installing and tweaking Suse 10, I had a pretty solid development system. I still had to add additional libraries and upgrade some of the default tools (such as gcc) to more current versions, but overall Suse 10 on the notebook was very satisfying and effective. Rather than automatically upgrade from Suse Linux 10 to openSuse 10,2, I decided to check out three distributions to see if I should upgrade to openSuse, or pick another distribution.

For testing purposes I chose Ubuntu 7.10 "Gutsy Gibbon" Tribe 3, Ubuntu 7.04, Fedora 7, and openSuse 10.2. All four of these have live CDs or DVDs into which you can boot and test before installation.

The first distribution I tested was Gutsy Gibbon. And it failed. It booted up into a black screen, and I was unable to access any of the text screens (Ctrl Alt F1, F2, etc). In spite of the fact that Gutsy Gibbon is an alpha release and this was to be expected, I was still a bit disappointed in that failure as I had really gotten on my feet with with Ubuntu 7.04 alphas on an older home desktop machine. I was hoping for similar success on the notebook, but that was not to be. The next distribution I tested was Fedora 7, and it exhibited the same failure. This was very surprising, since I was able to boot Fedora 7 on the more current Gateway M685. The only conclusion I can reach about this failure is that neither Ubuntu 7.10 Tribe 3 nor Fedora 7's version of Xorg supports the M680's ATI Mobility X700 graphic chip set.

The third distribution I tried was Ubuntu 7.04. This was far more successful. Everything worked, from video to hard drive to USB to sound, even the wireless network. It Just Worked. Well, almost. This notebook has 1680 x 1050 resolution screen. Ubuntu 7.04 would only support 1024 x 768. I wanted Ubuntu to support the video systems full resolution without any additional tweaks. It did on europa and on rhea, but not here.

The forth and final distribution was openSuse 10.2. I was able to download a Live-DVD of 10.2 and burn a DVD for testing. When the Live-DVD booted the M680 came up with everything working just as it had with Gutsy Gibbon, including the proper screen resolution. I was suitably impressed. The openSuse Live-DVD does not provide installation directly from it, but that wasn't a problem. I grabbed my 10.2 boxed set and installed 10,2 from its DVD.

Note that my idea of upgrade is a little different than most folks. I have three partitions dedicated to Suse; root (/), home (/home), and swap. When I 'upgrade' I perform a completely new installation over root. If there are any specific and special changes to files, I copy them off to a small save area in my home directory, and then merge or move them back as needed when finished. I have very few so it takes little time for meto do this. I've noticed that the need to do this grows less and less with each successive release of openSuse.

After installation I was further, pleasantly, surprised. Not only did I have full screen resolution of 1680 x 1050, but I was able to enable hardware acceleration. Even though openSuse 10.2 was released last December, its open driver's support of ATI hardware (at least on the various cards I've been able to check) is superior to other distributions, even those such as Fedora 7 that have been released later. All the distributions seem happy with the M685 which runs with nVidia video hardware, but only openSuse 10.2 seems capable of properly handling everything from the ATI X700 on back. And this is with the free ATI driver in Xorg 7.2 RC2 (which is what shipped with openSuse 10.2 in December 2006).

And because the wireless chip set was supported, even during installation, I was able to download the openSuse updates that have accumulated since 10.2's December release. The installation of 10.2 on the M680 was flawless and totally uneventful. It Just Worked.

In spite of the resounding success of the base installation, I still tweaked the system further. In particular
  • I upgraded the screen drivers to the ATI "non-free" versions according to these directions,
  • I upgraded Xorg to 7.2 final release according to the same directions,
  • I added the Videolan (VLC) repository to YaST, and
  • I added in order to pick up other video codecs as well as the ability to play DVDs with Kaffeine.
The next few screen shots show the M680 at 'play'. openSuse 10.2 shows considerable polish over Suse Linux 10.0. I look forward to the final release of openSuse 10.3, and hope to upgrade all my openSuse boxes to this latest release.

In the screen capture above I'm playing back a DVD and running fgl_glxgears at the same time. This is a test of both the ATI driver installation as well as VLC's ability to play back DVDs. Note in the movie scene how the great director Peter Jackson (on the left) is expressing his intense displeasure with Simon Pegg's acting ability.

In the screen capture above, the same movie is still playing, but this time Google Earth has been started. As good as this version of the open ATI driver is, the primary reason for me to install the ATI video driver in place of the free version is that Google Earth runs horribly slow with the free version. With the ATI driver, certain applications that are key to me seem to run smoother, some considerably so. I've also noted how multiple graphics-intense applications appear to execute more smoothly together under the ATI video driver.

And finally, Trolltech's Qt 4.3.0. In an earlier test I conducted comparing Qt's execution on Windows XP and openSuse 10.2 on europa, I noted that not everything worked on europa. In particular the fancy visual effect with the flowing balls on the Qt demo's main screen. In the example above you can see it that at least the visual effect on the main screen is identical to the Window's execution. I was unable to find any differences between Qt running on openSuse 10.2 and the M680 and Qt running on Windows XP SP2 on the M685. I believe the reason for the limitations on europa is that europa is running with a much older ATI 9700 Pro, and there are graphic hardware features needed by Qt 4.3.0 that the 9700 can't provide.

The openSuse upgrade has breathed new life into the M680. I now use both machines for development and business work flow, with openSuse on the M680 and Windows XP on the M685. Both machines still dual boot between openSuse and Windows XP. And now that the M680 upgrade is finished, I intend to upgrade the M685 to openSuse 10.2 as well.

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