Linux Installation & Compatibility

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Booting the Red Hat Linux 7.3 installer from CD-ROM worked fine, but the text mode fonts are noticably uglier than any normal desktop or the Sony Vaio laptop. Once it reaches 640×480 graphics mode the fonts within there are terrible too. This is a minor irritating problem of this particular integrated S3 graphics controller, correcting itself when using a native video driver within the actual operating system.

When Red Hat came to the partitioning step, it unfortunately shows the entire drive as shipped with one large NTFS partition. I have noticed that several Windows XP Home edition desktops and laptops from both Sony and Dell ship with FAT32, making it easy to install Linux in a dual boot configuration because either FIPS or Mandrake can natively resize FAT32 without extra cost of Partition Magic. This Compaq machine shipped with NTFS rather than FAT32 by default. For simplicity I erased the entire disk for the Linux portion of this review.

XFree86 Compatibility

The installer was unable to detect the video card, but video worked great after manually selecting “S3 Savage4 Pro+” with “Generic 1024×768 laptop display” for the monitor. I sent in a bug report to Red Hat with PCI information from “lspci –vv”, with which they should be able to auto-detect this video chipset in future releases of their Linux distribution. After it booted into the actual operating system the ugliness of generic Vesa video went away, replaced with crisp 2D graphics within X. I reported the auto-detection problem in Red Hat Bugzilla report #67743.

While XFree86 4.2 works great in 2D graphics, DRI and 3D acceleration are completely unsupported by this video card with no development projects underway to correct this situation. DRI does not work for the ATI Rage Mobility (8MB Mach64 controller) within the Sony Vaio either, but a beta quality driver is in development. This lack of 3D acceleration is perhaps the only drawback of this Compaq laptop in Linux, with all other devices within it reported to be working by several people on Linux-Laptop.net.

Sound

Sound did not work in the default 2.4.18-3 kernel shipped in Red Hat 7.3, but after downloading all package updates with up2date and rebooting, sound worked almost perfectly with 2.4.18-5. Using lsmod, we can see that it loaded via82cxxx_audio among other drivers for the audio device. This is the same audio controller the Sony Vaio FXA36, but the Vaio did not have non-functional sound with 2.4.18-3. While this Linux audio driver works on both laptops, both exhibit a slight bug of intermittent static in sound playback and error messages showing up in thedmesg kernel messages like:

via_audio: ignoring drain playback_error -11
Assertion failed! chan->is_active == sg_active(chan->iobase),via82cxxx_audio.c,via_chan_maybe_start,line=1196

These slight sound problems seem to be corrected by switching to the ALSA audio drivers. The ALSA audio drivers are not a part of Red Hat, but available from a 3rdparty download and distributed by default within Mandrake, SuSE and the alpha testing 2.5.x kernel. Hopefully within a year or two all Linux brands will switch from the current OSS/Free audio drivers to higher quality and compatibility ALSA audio drivers. I have also read some reports that a bug fix went into kernel 2.4.19-preX that fixed this, but I have not had a chance to test it.

Ethernet

The RealTek 8139 ethernet chipset is the same within the Sony Vaio FXA36. It is auto-detected and works with zero observed problems with the 8139tookernel module driver of Red Hat 7.3. Red Hat 7.3’s neat network configuration tool shows this as the SMC EZ Connect 10/100 Ethernet controller. This seems to be correct too, because I have seen this exact chipset and kernel module being used within that low-budget 10/100 ethernet PCI card for desktops. Several people in my local LUG seem to like this particular Ethernet chipset.

Power

The Compaq laptop seems to have the same strange problem as my Sony Vaio FXA36 with the machine locking up with the IDE light stuck on after rebooting from the default Red Hat athlon optimized kernel, but the i686 optimized kernel reboots without any problems. You can read more about this slight problem in Red Hat Bugzilla report #62295. I have also found that custom athlon optimized kernels that use ACPI instead of APM also avoid this rebooting problem, although be careful to use the ACPI4Linux patch to the official kernel because the current vanilla ACPI is very non-functional with this chipset.

The Compaq also had one additional strange power related problem that did not affect my Sony Vaio. When you shut down the Linux operating system, it fails to power off the machine when it reaches the “Power down.” message. The i686 kernel did not seem to fix this problem, though I suspect that some tweaking with custom kernels may. I plan on doing more experimentation and collect more information before submitting this bug report to Red Hat.

CD Burning

The Red Hat installer detected the ATAPI IDE CD writer within both the Sony and Compaq laptops and configured the boot loader with “hdc=ide-scsi” as a kernel boot parameter. This means that it will use the ide-scsi kernel module driver making the CD device into an emulated SCSI burner. The cdrecord tool of Unix needs a SCSI device. Test burns in Linux worked fine with both laptops, although the Sony burner is 8x and Compaq is 4x.

Win-Modem

The 56k built-in win-modem of these two laptops appears to be the same “Conextant-Ambit” chip supposedly supported by a binary-only Linux driver, but the ability of getting it to work in Linux is different. In the many reports on linux-laptop.net for both Sony and Compaq lines, nobody has been able to get the Sony Athlon laptop 56k modem to work, while the Compaq users got it working properly within Linux. UPDATE: The Contexant supplied Linux drivers seems to have a problem with the kernel in Red Hat 7.3. I am contacting the manufacturer with a bug fix report, hopefully this can be fixed quickly.

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