Saturday, July 10, 2010

Unboxing and Tinkering Dell Latitude 2110 with Ubuntu 9.10

This entry includes a few photos of my Dell Latitude 2110 which shipped with Ubuntu 9.10 Netbook Remix. Mostly it's however a critical view on the software shipped. Critical simply because I investigate it quite closely to see how it could be improved especially when sold to end users in non-English countries in the future. The device itself is great, as is the Ubuntu shipped with it. The laptop has the 1.83GHz Atom N470 which is quite nice together with its integrated and battery saving graphics. I also chose 1366x768 resolution for the screen and 16GB SSD for storage. But anyway, this is not a review of any sort.

Currently Dell Latitude 2110 netbook is the only laptop available with Ubuntu in the Dell Finland's web store. A few others have specifications that list Ubuntu as a choice, but in the actual customization view there is no Ubuntu to be selected. So this is the only one, and also only for corporate customers - the web site even says "big companies". In reality though this is reflected in one and only place - there is a mandatory "Company" field in the order form. However, not even the company ID ("Y-tunnus") is required. I did use a company name there, but I wonder if they would care if one would just put "-" or "Ubuntu Finland" or anything there...

Software Observations

I boot it up, and was greeted first with a Dell EULA. Next up was familiar (Ubuntu 9.10 era) Ubuntu logo, white on black. Some churning and a set up wizard was presented:

It worked nicely otherwise, but even though I selected Finnish as the language, it first suggested US keyboard by default. This is in contrast to what normal Ubuntu installer does - offers Finnish keyboard as well.

After that the Ubuntu Netbook interface appeared, and I checked around a bit. Ubuntu 9.10 Netbook Remix shipped with Latitude 2110 seems quite default. No extra repositories. Extra software however is installed, noticed by simply looking through Ubuntu menus: they include Dell Recovery Media creation tool, Citrix Receiver and Vmware View Client.

Digging a bit deeper, I checked the package selection with Synaptic. The reason there are no extra repositories is that packages are installed without repositories. The following packages were "local or obsolete" after refreshing the normal Ubuntu repositories:

- alsa-driver-hda-intel-dkms (git.20100301)
- dell-recovery
- realtek-rts-pstor-card-driver-dkms
- vmware-view-client

UPDATE Sep 01, 2010: Added link to dell-recovery (in Ubuntu repositories) and especially the SD card reader (GPLv2). Patched ALSA shouldn't be needed for anything in Ubuntu 10.04 LTS anymore, and vmware-view-client is available elsewhere. The non-free stuff below are a) not that interesting and b) non-free, potentially non-distributable.

- ctxusb
- icaclient
- libmotif4
- libmrm4
- libuil4
- libxm4

The great thing is that seemingly most of the customization is indeed done via packages. Great job with both that and correctly separating archive entries depending on whether the software is free or not. The packages themselves are located in the recovery partition of the hard drive.

Some more package observations:
- adobe-flashplugin is installed by default from Canonical partner repository (and the repository is enabled by default)
- besides it, no extra non-free software is installed, that is nothing from multiverse and only bcmwl-kernel-source from restricted
- also, nothing from universe

Language Problems

I didn't expect a fully Finnish laptop since the language of Ubuntu couldn't be selected when customizing the order, and I didn't get one. It's clear there is no effort yet put to actual localized offerings, but still it was possible to choose (any) language with the first boot of Latitude 2110.

Language problems are quite ok at this point since the device is not being sold as a localized home user product yet. Nevertheless, it's good to list issues that need to be fixed before localized devices can be sold. At least in Finnish, dunno how's the state of for example Inspiron 10 devices shipped in Germany and elsewhere to also end users via web.

Number two problem regarding languages software was (number one being the wrong suggested keyboard) that full Finnish support was not offered to be installed (and it wasn't installed by default). Since the selection of language was possible during first run, suggesting download of or automatically downloading language support should be done. Normal Ubuntu does it also in Ubuntu 9.10 just nicely also in the cases that installation is done without Internet connection / full language support, so somehow Dell has unfortunately disabled that feature or not allowing it to run. The hook that checks the language support and shows a message is included in language-selector, the message itself in file /usr/share/language-support/incomplete-language-support-gnome.note.

I ran Language Selector manually, which fixed the problem and indeed works fine nowadays in Ubuntu. However, I also noticed that in Language Selector "For my menus and windows, use" had "English (United States)" selected, so only the second item had Finnish selected. It seems therefore that the setting up of the language during setup wizard doesn't do a complete job anyway for the new user created at least. Only after selecting it manually did the language tool correctly download and enable all the needed support for my language.

The Only Big Problem (...that was fixed)

Now for the only big WTF during my tinkering:

/etc/apt/apt.conf.d/00secure containing lines:

APT::Get::AllowUnauthenticated "true";
Aptitude::CmdLine::Ignore-Trust-Violations "true";

This simply leads to eg. synaptic package manager complaining about all upgrades being unauthenticated, and elsewhere possible well needed warnings are simply not shown. I have no idea what's the basis for shipping this kind of security hindering settings with the laptop.

UPDATE: This was later fixed in Ubuntu as a security issue, see CVE-2010-0834.

What Next

After these observations and being quite happy with a laptop that has Ubuntu straight out-of-the-box (which also saved 80€ of money + taxes compared to default OS), I created a recovery ISO image with Dell's tools and then I let Update Manager upgrade Ubuntu to 10.04.

Ubuntu 10.04 LTS was smooth enough already, but I also upgraded latest Intel graphics drivers from xorg-edgers. My only irritation is the Broadcom WLAN driver 'wl'. It works just fine in 10.04 LTS. The irritation is the amount of battery eating wakeups it generates even when there is no traffic going on. AFAIK it's a non-free driver from the vendor, and once again it's one of those that works in principle but is miles from being a well behaving kernel driver. It seems the free b43 driver does not support the BCM43224 chipset (14e4:4353) yet, so unfortunately I'm currently stuck with this driver. Luckily the laptop (and Ubuntu) is otherwise so great on using power, that I still get 5+ hours of battery usage at least (haven't measured much yet).

I'm very happy with what Dell is doing. I do hope the consumer sales would soar (and become available in Finland in the first place via the consumer retail channels there already exist). I also hope the language support bugs would be fixed - it's not tremendously hard, I could probably fix and test all the problems myself if I'd be given the task. Maybe the new Ubuntu 10.04 LTS offerings will already have some of it working better. All in all the Dell Latitude 2110 with Ubuntu 9.10 Netbook Remix was a problem-free ride, and had I simply used it in English it would have worked out-of-the-box smooth as butter.