Switching to Dell Latitude e7240 from Lenovo x220, trying out Ubuntu 15.04

I’ve been using a Lenovo x220 for the last few years as work laptop and I was pretty satisfied with it, it was a nice piece of hardware.

At some point 2 years ago I had a quite bad bike accident(out of which I was lucky to escape with just an elbow fracture and a few bruises, it could have been much worse…) and the laptop had to absorb a lot of the shock since I basically fell on the back while it was in my backpack. One of the corners was a bit bent and it got some cracks but it was alive and kicking, until last week I finally decided that I would like to have an upgrade.

I’ve had a few Ubuntu issues lately(unity’s lock screen would often fail to allow me to enter a password, random error messages about program crashes, repeated password prompts, random unity panel disappearances) which I blamed on my aged installation, but the last straw was that I got out of disk space on my btrfs partition and the system got unusually slow. I soon saw kernel oops messages in dmesg and soon after MCE errors as well, which to my knowledge is a sign that the hardware is dying.

So I just went to our awesome IT support guys(yeah, I’m not doing that at HERE, we have a dedicated team for it) and after a few minutes of chatter in which I explained what happened, they quickly gave me the latest from our offering in the similar range, a Dell Latitude e7240. I almost took a Lenovo X1 Carbon, but I ended up choosing the Dell because it has support for a real docking station, unlike the Carbon, which is a must if you have a dual-screen setup like I do.

In general, the hardware looks much more polished, the screen is really much better and I could feel it’s slightly faster than the X220. The only things I miss, and quite badly, are the classic Lenovo keyboard and the trackpoint, especially since the Dell trackpad sucks so badly.

I didn’t feel like reinstalling the OS from scratch, especially since I have a quite exotic setup (btrfs on LVM, on top of a full-disk LUKS volume) which took me a while to figure out manually a while back, and restoring from a backup would be slightly slower, so I quickly copied my entire disk on it using dd and netcat, which only took about 45min to complete.

I immediately connected it to my screens using the docking station and tried to configure it so I can resume my actual work, only to notice that both the external monitors are showing the same content and there was no way to separate them.

I did some research and ended up on some forums that claimed this is a known driver bug on my graphics chip on kernels older than 3.17(and the darn Ubuntu 14.10 comes with 3.16). After using the X220 for 3 years with no major driver issues, I really had better expectations from Intel drivers, especially for a year old laptop running the latest available version of Ubuntu. The proposed solution was to update the kernel to at least 3.17, which I did immediately, only to notice that the new kernel fails to even boot, getting stuck while asking me the passphrase to decrypt my LUKS volume.

Since I pretty much had no choice, I then reverted to the previous kernel and decided to try to update Ubuntu to the next development release, which will be launched next month as 15.05, which already comes with the version 3.19 of the Linux kernel and should have the display problem solved.

I then had to free up some space, making room for the upgrade and let it do its thing for a few hours.

Once it was ready, I connected the screens, and it all worked like a charm.

I then thought to give Gnome3 another chance after a few weeks since I tried it last, hoping it would improve, but I was quickly disappointed by its brainless behavior on a triple-screen setup, where having a fixed primary monitor set to the right-most laptop screen really makes no sense(I personally think the primary should follow the mouse, just like in Unity).

I might give KDE another try at some point and I will give my impressions about it, but I will stick with Unity for now, especially since I really love the way they reuse the topbars as menubars on non-maximized windows, and that in generally it feels more polished than in 14.10.

As a bonus, I was pleasantly surprised that Evolution now has a smart push-notification-like update mechanism when used with Exchange, that makes it much more resource efficient than before at checking for new emails.

I’m using it for a few days now and things seem decent, actually surprisingly stable for a development version, but I still see the unity issues with the missing password field in the lock screen and the panel still disappears from time to time, so the issues are still there and not fixed yet.

I’ll do a bit more research and hopefully I’ll get to the bottom of them soon and report the findings in another post.

Nokia N900 community software update fixes desktop annoyances

I love my N900 ever since I bought it, it’s a great device for a nerd like me. Still, as nothing is perfect in this world, I has some things that I don’t like that much about it.

Today I will address two of them, more exactly the fact that the items on the desktop could be placed everywhere, and  the other is the fact that the desktop is forced to landscape mode, when there were many applications that also work in portrait mode.

I am glad to report that today I finally got both of these annoyances fixed on my beloved device, and here’s how I did it.

This morning I applied the latest Community SSU update, which I soon found out that it introduced the support for portrait mode on the desktop. This is very nice stuff, and very easy to use. After applying the update, just rotate the device to portrait mode (when the keyboard is hidden) and you will see all of the content switch to portrait mode. This is not so nice at first, because everything is messed up, but you only need to move the items around and after you switch back and forth between portrait and landscape modes, they will remember where you put them in both orientations. Problem solved!

Besides this issue, as I said, I never liked the fact that moving items was not constrained by anything on the N900 desktop. This looked especially bad after moving all my items to more or less acceptable positions when in portrait mode so that they won’t overlap. After this process, the desktop looked like hell having all those icons unaligned. I shortly got this problem fixed, after applying a suggestion I got from one of the people in the #maemo-ssu IRC channel. The solution was to edit /usr/share/hildon-desktop/transitions.ini and set the following options:

snap_grid_size = 20
snap_to_grid_while_move = 20

There’s currently no UI for these settings from what I know so far, but I would really appreciate if these were included in the cssufeatures application if someone cares enough to do it.

Feel free to use any values  you might see fit, but in my case it worked just fine with 20. After rebooting the device, moving the items on the desktop would align them into a grid, so my desktops look much better now, as you can see in the screenshots below.

The vertical screenshot could only be taken while the desktop was in edit mode, because otherwise the screen would switch to landscape when the keyboard is visible, and I needed keyboard in order to get the screenshot. I know it can be done from the command line, but I was just too lazy.

I hope this is useful to someone. Feel free to post comments to this post containing additional fixes to annoyances you might encounter on this device.

Thank you for reading this and thanks to all the CSSU developers who made this possible.

Cristi

Update: It seems there was yet another minor CSSU release a few hours after the one I was talking about.

Update2: I now discovered that the cssufeatures application is incompatible with the manual changes I did to transitions.ini.

 

Preparing and Ubuntu image for serial console, on a hard-disk connected over USB

It’s been almost a year since my last post, hopefully I will be able to post more often from now on.

This time I’m making a howto on how to install Ubuntu on a SATA disk-drive while having it connected over USB through an USB2SATA adapter, then how to customize Ubuntu so that all the boot messages and the console are directed to a serial port console.

What Am I trying to do?

You might ask yourselves why would you want to do that… Well, I don’t know about you, but I needed this in order to prepare my coreboot development environment on a motherboard that I will only access over Serial port or SSH. Now a bit of history… I’ve been in Berlin for the last three months as part of a business trip, sent by the notorious Finnish mobile phone company that I am working for. While I was at LinuxTag back in May, I finally met the coreboot developers that I’ve been chatting with on IRC ever since 3 years ago and bought myself a coreboot-supported motherboard (Asrock E350M1) from one of the coreboot developers living in Berlin, Peter ‘CareBear\’ Stuge. I bought it because I’ve been planing for quite a while now to build myself a home computer or set-top-box for my TV back at home, and this board seems to be perfect for the job. As a bonus, it is off course running coreboot and quite hacker-friendly.

The coreboot support for this board is still work in progress and although there are a few rough edges, the motherboard is running pretty well, and booting up very fast (under 1 second to the Grub menu). Still, there are a few problems here and there and as a coreboot developer that I like to say I am, although my contributions to coreboot were minor so far, I would like to help getting this board better supported.

The prefered debugging mecanism of coreboot is the serial console because it’s relatively easy to initialize and pretty common. Unfortunately this board doesn’t provide a console port on the back panel, but it has a header with the required pins somewhere on the PCB.

Yesterday me and Peter spent a lot of time working on this board, trying to build a serial header for it and getting it up to speed for coreboot development. We bought some components and then Peter built a nice serial-to-header adapter that also works ad a NULL-modem serial cable since I didn’t have a proper NULL-modem cable.

Then we tried to get an OS running on the board from a SSD drive, but unfortunately the image we had was not properly set up, so we decided to build a new OS installation.

Hardware Setup

As I said so far, I have the Asrock motherboard, a serial-to USB adapter and the custom serial header adapter made by Peter. Besides these, I also have a laptop and a portable laptop SATA hard-drive with an USB-to-SATA adapter.

Software setup

I chose to do it with Ubuntu because it’s easy to set up, quick to install, and pretty nice for development. The hard-disk was connected over USB and I slready had it partitioned, so I only reused the first partition already created there.

I reformatted the first partition to EXT4.

sudo mkfs.ext4 -L rootfs /dev/sdb1

Ubuntu then mounted the first partition to /media/rootfs after double clicking on it.

Installing the base Ubuntu packaged in there. You can replace the architecture to i386 for a 32bit OS, natty with another Ubuntu release, and choose a mirror closer to you.

sudo debootstrap –arch amd64 natty /media/rootfs http://de.archive.ubuntu.com/ubuntu/

After this is done, we can bind-mount some filesystems from the host, preparing for our chroot into the new Ubuntu install.

sudo mount -o bind /dev /media/rootfs/dev

sudo mount -o bind /proc /media/rootfs/proc

sudo mount -o bind /sys /media/rootfs/sys

And finally, chroot

sudo chroot /media/rootfs /bin/bash

Create some config files in the new system

cat << EOF >  /etc/fstab
# device mount type options freq passno
LABEL=root / ext3 defaults,errors=remount-ro 0 1
LABEL=swap none swap sw 0 0
EOF

echo coreboot > /etc/hostname

Set up networking for DHCP

echo -e “auto eth0 \n iface eth0 inet dhcp” >/etc/network/interfaces

Add “restricted universe multiverse” to the line you should have in /etc/apt/sources.list

Install some vital packages

apt-get install linux-image grub-pc

Serial port configuration for Grub

Open /etc/default/grub with an editor.

Comment out

#GRUB_HIDDEN_TIMEOUT=0

Set

GRUB_CMDLINE_LINUX_DEFAULT=”console=ttyS0,115200″

Add these two lines

GRUB_TERMINAL=serial
GRUB_SERIAL_COMMAND=”serial –speed=115200 –unit=0 –word=8 –parity=no –stop=1″

Then you can update the grub configuration.

update-grub

Install grub on the hard-disk

grub-install /dev/sdb

Configure Linux console on the serial port

cat << EOF >  /etc/init/ttyS0.conf
# ttyS0 – getty
#
# This service maintains a getty on ttyS0 from the point the system is
# started until it is shut down again.

start on stopped rc RUNLEVEL=[2345]
stop on runlevel [!2345]

respawn
exec /sbin/getty -L 115200 ttyS0 vt102
EOF

Set a root pasword

passwd

Exit the chroot, unmount all the directories mounted there, connect the hard-disk and the serial cable to the motherboard and enjoy the new OS over the serial console.

~Cristi

Master of Puppets

Hi,

It’s been a long time since my previous post and many good things happened to me ever since. A few months ago I changed my job, moved to a new home, bought a bike, adopted a lovely little cat and today I finally graduated my MSc studies.

Lately I’ve been working on the thesis project, and I’m very glad it’s over. The project implemented a netinstall and configuration management system for a gLite cluster, all written in Puppet and available on my github page

Now that I finished this I can finally spend more time watching Star Trek or hacking on coreboot :), I just got an old RTL8029AS NIC from an ex-colleague (Thanks Serban Cordis!) that I’ll try to get working as a remote debug console in Coreboot and SerialICE just like Rudolf Marek did a while ago.

Cristi

25’th birthday

Hi,
Today I had my 25’th birthday (and Christmas), and we all had a great time together.
I’ve been away for quite a while now, it’s been almost a week with no Internet connection but it seems I was able to survive…
Me and my wife were gone to Berlin for a Rammstein concert, and after driving more than 3000Km in 4 full days, we finally got home. The concert was great, even better than we expected, but the whole trip was very long and tiresome so we had to rest quite a lot after the arrival. Thanks Paula, this was my best birthday present ever!

Merry Christmas to everyone!
Cristi

coreboot @ Budapest meetup

Yesterday I had a presentation in Budapest, at their New Technology Meetup.

It was a short introduction to the coreboot project. I saw some cool projects made by the other presenters and participants, like a Z80-based hand-made computer able to run Basic and a very spectacular DJ application full of graphic and sound effects.

I had a lot of fun, and I can say that it did worth all the effort of driving there and back in a single day for 15 hours or so (never trust a GPS device blindly, you can get into trouble!). I only wish they didn’t talk in Hungarian while presenting so that we could understand the discussions *hint*.

Thanks to the organizers, especially Balazs Fejes and Tamas Terray for inviting me.

Here you can see the recording.

Cristi

Just married

Hello,

Finally, we managed to wake up.. This weekend I celebrated my wedding with Paula, the woman I chose to spend the rest of my life with. These were the happiest and the more exciting days of my life to date. It was a very busy weekend, with lots of things to prepare and bear (the hardest was the Orthodox religious service that took more than an hour), but over all we had a lot of fun in the process.

Sure, there were some glitches, like anytime you have to satisfy a crowd of 120 people with totally incompatible musical tastes (and not only!), but we did our best and over all it all was great and most of them were delighted from what we could tell.

The ring was hardly bearable at first, just like a tooth filling :) but I’m starting to get used to it. The priest made a mistake at first and in the middle of the service I had to insert/extract twice Paula’s ring off both my annular fingers with great effort and help from my godfathers. I’ll try to avoid churches as much as possible from now on, and only enter again in a church if really necessary :)

We’re now eagerly preparing for the honey moon^H^H^H^Hweek, and we hope to get some pictures by the time we return.

See you soon,
Cristi&Paula