RedHat Linux 9 on a Dell Latitude C400

This page documents my experiences getting RedHat Linux 9 (Shrike) working on my Dell Latitude C400 laptop. If you're interested in doing this, you may also want to take a look at these other pages about this machine: You should note however that these all refer to older versions of RedHat, all of which had severe problems with the C400 (with X and with suspend-to-RAM), which RH9 does not. So much of the tricky stuff you read about there is no longer necessary. (My own old page about running RedHat 8.0 on this machine is here in case you're still running that for some reason.)

Some other pages I found useful are the following:

Linux works very well on this machine -- I haven't found any problems, although there are a few things that require some setup to make them work. (See the "Tricks" section below.) It's a vast relief after attempting to use the bewildering Windows XP for a few hours. Windows is mighty pretty, but I can't work out how to make it do anything. Like, for example, where is the editor? Every operating system has to have an editor of some sort, right? Wrong.

As usual, these notes are merely a document of things that worked for me. There's no guarantee they will work for you, and there are some things you could do while installing Linux that would really mess up your computer bad. I'm not aware of anything that will do that other than flashing your BIOS, which I don't recommend, but hey, you never know. You have been warned. All opinions expressed here are those of the author and have nothing to do with the University of Michigan. Obviously.

Installation

Installation was smooth, but it's a little complicated if you want to use suspend-to-disk. Many people may find that they don't need suspend-to-disk, since suspend-to-RAM works fine. If that's the case with you, you can skip the next paragraph and go straight to the bit about booting from the CD. Suspend-to-disk is useful however since the BIOS is rigged to do it automatically when the battery runs out. If you don't have it set up right, the machine will just crash when the battery runs out, which could be a bad thing. (Important update for people with lots of RAM: This guy sent me an email saying that apparently suspend-to-disk doesn't work if you have more than 768MB of RAM on your machine. I can't confirm this, as I don't have that much RAM, but apparently that's how it is. He didn't know of any current fix for the problem.)

To use suspend-to-disk with this machine you need to create a special partition that will store the contents of the system memory when you suspend. To do this Dell provides a DOS utility called mks2d, which you can download from their support website here. Here's what you do. First use a utility like DOS fdisk (which comes on the RedHat CDs) to delete any existing partitions on the hard drive (thereby, usefully, getting rid of Windows in the process; if you want to keep Windows, you can always reinstall it from the CD afterwards). Then boot from floppy and run mks2d. The program can recommend a size for the suspend partition, or you can set it yourself. I had read that the automatic calculation was not entirely reliable, so I set it myself to 550MB, which should be plenty on my 512MB machine -- the recommended value was about 540MB. You do this by typing mks2d -p550M at the DOS prompt. This creates a suspend partition that will appear as /dev/hda1 in Linux-world.

Now plug in the external CD-ROM drive that comes with the machine, put the first RedHat CD in it, and reboot. While the system is rebooting press F12 which will pull up the boot menu. Select "CD/DVD/CD-RW Drive" to boot from the CD. Then RedHat will boot and go into the standard installation routine. It is safe to select the default graphical install. (In fact, on my machine the text install did something weird to the video hardware that made the screen flicker, so the graphical install, which is flicker-free, is definitely much better.)

Things all proceed as normal. Select "2-button PS/2 mouse" for the pointing device. Click on the "Emulate 3 buttons" box if you want pressing both buttons to be like the middle button on a 3-button mouse.

When you get to the part about partitioning the disk, you can accept the default partitioning, which works just fine, or you may want to do a manual partitioning yourself, which I did as follows. If you made a suspend partition as described above, then that will take up the first partition on the disk. The second one should be your /boot partition, for which 100MB is ample. Then I made a swap partition of 1GB, and two filesystem partitions together in an extended partition, one for / and one for /home. I used ext3 for the file partitions, which is the RedHat default. I made / generously large -- about 10GB. I did a full install of all packages which is about 5GB in this version of RedHat, but the OS gets bigger with each version, so it pays to allow plenty of room for later upgrades.

The installer will also ask you where you want to put the boot loader. As far as I know you can use either Grub or Lilo (I used Grub), but if you made a suspend-to-disk partition as described above then it must be installed on the boot record of your /boot partition (which is probably /dev/hda2). The default behavior is to put the boot loader on the Master Boot Record (MBR) at the beginning of the disk, and it's fine to go with this if you are not doing the suspend-to-disk thing. But if you are, putting the boot loader on the MBR will break suspend-to-disk. So don't. Hit the button for advanced options and select the option to put it on the /boot partition. The installer will automatically set the bootable flag for the /boot partition, so that the computer will know to boot from that partition and not from the Master Boot Record. (You can make it work if you install the loader on the MBR, but it requires you to set up extra boot options in the loader to allow you to choose whether to boot from the suspend partition or the /boot partition, and you also have to remember for yourself how you last shut the machine down -- see here. This sounds like a real pain. If you just install the loader on /boot then everything will be automatic.)

Select the packages you want (or if you're like me, just hit the "everything" button) and watch it go. It takes about an hour to install everything. Note that the CD-ROM drive and the floppy both use the same port on the side of the Dell, and you can't unplug the CD-ROM and plug in the floppy in mid-install. So you'll have to skip making a boot floppy. If you want to make one, then wait until you have the install complete and the machine's up and running, then su root and run mkbootdisk.

When it's done installing stuff it'll ask you about X configuration. It detects the video hardware (Intel 830) correctly, but for some reason not the display. Select the Dell 1024x768 laptop panel from the Dell submenu. Then it will configure X for you and you're all done. Reboot the machine and the first time it boots it will run through some setup stuff, like asking you to create a new username for yourself. When that's done it'll present you with the login screen, and you're ready to go. Congratulations!

Tricks


That's about it. Overall, I definitely recommend this machine. If you want a small-but-powerful laptop with every feature imaginable that runs Linux cleanly, I think it's down to this machine or the Toshiba Portege 2000. I chose the Dell because it has twice the disk space, twice the CPU speed, and twice the battery life, all of which are important to me. The Tosh however is lighter and thinner and sure looks cool. A friend of mine has one, and I have to admit it's pretty nice. She has a page about her experiences running Gentoo on it here. You might also want to look at the Compaq N410c. This is a very nice looking machine, but I didn't get it because previous Compaq machines were rumored to have some issues with Linux.


Last modified: April 27, 2003

Mark Newman