This post is a bit more technical than what I usually write for this blog, but I spent a lot of time and trouble trying to fix an issue with my Dell mini 12 laptop. I wanted to I document it to help make it easier for others.

A couple of years ago I bought an Inspiron 1210 laptop (also known as “Inspiron mini 12″) from Dell. It’s a nice, lightweight laptop with a 12-inch screen. Interestingly, it has an Intel Atom processor, which is a 32-bit dual-core chip. It’s probably the last 32-bit general-purpose computer I will ever buy; all processors are 64-bit these days except for embedded processors on phones, toasters, set-top boxes, and the like.

At the time I bought it, Dell was shipping that model with Ubuntu Linux installed. I was looking for an inexpensive laptop for use at the gaming table, mostly to keep my notes and to run RPTools. My little Dell seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Initially, I was very happy with it.

Fast forward to late 2010, when I was assigned to give a presentation to my cloud computing class (I was a student, not the instructor). Like any good free software enthusiast, I made my presentation using OpenOffice (now LibreOffice) on my desktop PC at home. When I loaded the presentation onto my Dell mini, it wouldn’t open because it was created with a newer version of OpenOffice than I had used to create the presentation. “No problem!” I thought. “I’ll just update my version of OpenOffice.” That’s where the trouble began.

Linux Version on the Dell Mini

The Dell Inspiron mini shipped with a Linux variant called the “Dell remix” based on Ubuntu 8.04. (This is not to be confused with the current Linux remix Dell is using for netbooks and handhelds, called Moblin.) The main problem with the Dell remix is that it had a specially-modified version of the normal Update Manager that could only talk to Dell’s servers. That is excusable in a way, since the Inspiron needs an oodle of proprietary device drivers and the users needed some way to get those. What’s inexcusable is that Dell quietly withdrew support for the Dell (Ubuntu) remix some time in 2010; I can’t be sure because they never announced they were dropping support, and most of the documentation seems to have gone down the memory hole.

What this means is that I had a Linux computer that could only get updates from Dell’s servers, and Dell’s servers were permanently offline. So, no new versions of applications like OpenOffice for me. No security updates, either. Thanks a lot, Dell.

Needless to say, this treatment from Dell has irrevocably altered my perception of the company and its service. “Don’t buy from Dell” is my new mantra. And I didn’t; the new desktop I bought last year was from PCs for Everyone. It works great, and best of all, PCs for Everyone has never screwed me over. Thanks again, Dell.

Installing Linux 10.10

Since Dell left me with no upgrade path, the only thing for it was to wipe the hard drive and install a real version of Linux. This is not as easy as it sounds because the Inspiron mini 12 doesn’t have a built-in DVD or CD drive.

There are a couple of ways to get past this. For me it was easy; I had bought an external DVD drive that connects via a USB cable. When connected, that drive is bootable, so I could just pop in a DVD and boot and install from that. If you don’t have a DVD drive, you might want to look into trying to boot from a USB thumb drive. Since I haven’t tried that myself, I won’t try to explain how to do that.

Be sure the Linux version you install is for 32-bit machines. All the Inspiron minis were 32-bit when I bought mine, though this may have changed by now. Dell is still making machines with the “mini” label.

Drivers

Installation went smoothly enough but right away I noticed the machine was locking up within a few minutes of starting. This is due to the fact that Dell builds their laptops using a lot of proprietary hardware, for which free (as in freedom) drivers are not available, at least not from the main Ubuntu download site.

Graphics Driver

The problem was the GPU, which is an Intel GMA 500. It took quite a bit of digging to find a solution to this: finally I tracked down this excellent forum post that explains everything. Essentially you need to install some firmware packages and manually edit your /etc/X11/xorg.conf file. See the post for details; I don’t want to reiterate it here for fear of losing some important detail in the transcription.

Once I followed those instructions, my lock-up problem went away.

Wireless Driver

Which brings me to the wireless driver. I’ve heard it said that Dell is quite inconsistent with what wireless hardware it ships with each computer, and even two computers with the same model number might have very different wireless chip sets. I can kind of understand that; Dell’s supply chain is large and complex and the component vendors’ upgrade cycle is not necessarily synchronized to theirs. I understand it; I don’t have to like it.

What this means is the fix for me may not necessarily work for you.

The model number of the wireless card is listed on a label on the underside of the laptop, like this:

Picture showing where the label with wireless specifications is

The wireless networking card's specifications are on the lower-left label on the underside of the Dell mini laptop.

The model number should be at the very top of this label. For me, it’s “Broadcom BCM94312MCG”. Wire that down, because you’re going to need it.

Next, see whether Ubuntu has a proprietary driver for your wireless card. This is a bit of a catch-22 because you need an Internet connection to download the driver, and you need the driver to connect to a wireless access point. So, you’ll have to connect to the Internet the old-fashioned way, with a Ethernet cable (more properly known as a Category 5 or CAT-5 cable, though technically CAT-6 should work too).

Once you’re online, go the main menu on the desktop and select System -> Administration -> Additional Drivers. This will take a moment to scan your hardware and search online for a driver that fits. You should see one or two drivers available. Choose the one that best fits your driver’s model number, select it, and click “Activate.”

If you don’t see an exact match, you can perhaps make an educated guess based on the model number. For me, there was no exact match for my model number, but the description of the “Broadcom STA wireless driver” listed a bunch of model numbers so I figured it might be close enough. Seems to work fine.

Danger! Look before you download!

CAUTION: if you just Google for keywords like “Linux driver {your model number}” you are very likely to come upon a malware site! There are shady characters who set up fake “freeware” sites to trick people into installing Bad Things on their computers. I found a bunch of ’em, the first time I ran a quick search looking for an exact driver. I recommend you first use trial and error to see if a driver from the Ubuntu “Additional Drivers” installer will work, and if that fails, try asking in a reputable discussion forum such as Ubuntu Forums.