Saturday, April 4, 2009

Ubuntu 9.04 on Dell Mini 910

This post outlines a cheap and reasonably fast procedure for upgrading the stock Ubuntu installation on a Dell mini 910. The method does not require an external CD drive. Instead, it uses things that you're likely to have around, if you like messing with computers.

As always, I go through the actual procedure first, and leave the motivation for last. If you're here, it's likely that you have already decided you want to upgrade, and want to get the job done. If you're uncertain, skip to the Motivation section to find out why you might care.

  • Dell mini 910 (the Ubuntu model); you can probably get away with the Windows XP model, but it is unclear whether all your hardware will be supported by drivers
  • 1Gb+ USB stick (cheap, you're likely to have one around already)
  • another computer running Ubuntu 8.10 or newer

First, we have to load Ubuntu on a USB stick, and make it bootable. We'll use the Ubuntu 8.10+ computer for that.
  1. Download the latest reasonably stable 9.04 CD image (I recommend avoiding daily CD images, you can use Update Manager to get the latest updates). This google query should point you in the right direction.
  2. While waiting for the download, backup anything you need off your USB drive. It will get erased in the next step.
  3. Go to System > Administration > USB Startup Disk Creator and go through the instructions to end up with a bootable USB stick.
  4. If the USB stick is automatically mounted, eject it and take it out.
Second, we need to get Ubuntu onto the Dell mini.
  1. Power off the computer, insert the USB stick.
  2. Power the computer back on, press and hold the 0 (zero) key until you see a menu. The mini will be annoying and beep at you, ignore that.
  3. Select your language (I recommend English even if it's not your primary language, especially for beta software) and choose to install Ubuntu (as opposed to running the live image).
  4. Breeze through the easy choices in setup. Stop at the disk partitioning phase, as you might want to give that a thought.
  5. For my configuration (1Gb RAM, 8Gb disk) I recommend choosing manual partitioning, and creating a 1Gb swap partition. I did run out of RAM while running my development scripts on the machine, so I decided I need the swap. I also recommend ext3 over ext4, because you won't store too much data on your mini's disk, so ext4's benefits are not worth the risk in this case. For the default configuration (512Mb RAM, 4Gb disk), I'd spend 512Mb or at least 256Mb on swap.
  6. Defaults are fine for everything else until the installation reboots.
  7. Enjoy the improvements in 9.04, and the lack of Dell branding.
    I'm using the Dell mini as a demo machine that I can easily carry around. Its low cost also means that, if necessary, I can leave it with the people I'm demoing to, and I won't feel too bad about that. For that reason, I want the Dell branding removed, I want the latest and greatest from my linux distribution, and I want regular the x86 architecture, not LPIA (low-power intel architecture).
    My wishes aside, I think that the UI improvements in 9.04 and getting rid of Dell's stuff is sufficient reason to upgrade.

    If you want to use the Dell mini as your portable computer, you might prefer the LPIA architecture to plain vanilla x86. The 9.04 download pages offer both netbook-optimized builds, and LPIA builds. Disclaimer: YMMV (your mileage may vary), I haven't tried this because I want don't want extra hassles during my development cycle.

    If you don't have an Ubuntu 8.10 computer and/or a USB drive, you can try Unetbootin. Google searches indicate that it gives mixed results, I haven't tried it because I had another Ubuntu machine. The procedure in might work, and it only requires your mini and internet access.

    If you have a lot of time on your hands and want to play, you can explore setting up a PXE server. Requires lots of software and access to the network hardware (easy if that's your home router, more difficult if you're in a school or company).

    I hope you found this post useful. Please comment if you know better method, or you found some tweaks that everyone should know about.

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