Debian 8 on Dell Studio 1535 (Updated)

Busted! See the update at the bottom.

This was a used laptop found cheaply on eBay. Some of the specs:

  • 2.1 Ghz dual-core Intel CPU
  • 4GB RAM
  • 250GB drive and slot-style DVD-RW
  • Radeon HD 3450 video
  • Matching AMD 3400 series audio
  • Broadcom BCM5784M Gigabit Ethernet (“tigon”)
  • Broadcom BCM4322 802.11a/b/g/ wifi (not fully supported, but functional with b43 firmware)
  • Bluetooth, Ricoh SD card reader, Firewire, fingeprint scanner, etc.

What Didn’t Work

Dell still offers all the working drivers for Vista 32-bit and 64-bit, but the fingerprint scanner software (“DigitalPersona”) is no longer offered so far as I can tell. I found an installer from HP (use your favorite search engine) for the same OS works just fine, giving me all the goodies with a finger-swipe login for the machine and just about anything else. But it’s Vista, with all the drive thrashing, dog slow, obtrusive unknown background processes, multi-day updates and day-long defragging, etc. At least it doesn’t get the forced Win10 upgrade crap.

I won’t take the time and space to explain why I didn’t test your preferred Linux distro. I use what I use, same as everyone else.

CentOS 7 installs and works, but you’ll never get the wifi to work. The source code from Broadcom for the STA driver will not compile and no one offers current patches because the good folks associated with the Red Hat/Fedora community just can’t be bothered to help with that.

Xubuntu, as a branch of Ubuntu, has begun following a bad pattern. While you can get the previous LTS to install, quite a few big items (like WINE) aren’t updated to match without the risk of adding yet another PPA where you can never be sure the lead developer will keep it current with your particular flavor. So you can install the most recent release (15.10 as of this writing) but it’s buggy. If you want to submit a bug report, you had better be a coder because the folks running the bug reporting system are unlikely to bother with helping you triage this stuff; you are supposed to know how to do all that for them when you submit the bug. At any rate, the current release of *buntu has a buggy keyboard driver, as reported in several places, with random events generated spontaneously and keypress events sticking, etc. but everyone denies it’s a bug.

KDE is no longer worth my time, either. I used to recommend it to newbies, but not any more. Unless you are running a high-end nVidia card with proprietary drivers, you will run into all sorts of display issues. I’ve had repaints fail on Intel and Radeon chipsets, along with ghost artifacts and sometimes an app simply refuses to close and buggers up the display until you have to reset the X server.

Oh, and GNOME 3 is of interest only to sysadmins and serious geeks. Cinnamon is just a slightly tamer face on the same anti-user design of GNOME. MATE is not yet ready for prime time, with too many configuration options missing. It is not yet where GNOME 2 was when it ended.

What Does Work Well Enough

Debian 32-bit with XFCE: You will need a good .fonts.conf no matter what you use, but Debian can be partially tamed without it (see my previous post on this for a sample that works for most current distros). Otherwise, it’s just a matter of learning how to find your way around XFCE. I suppose LXDE is okay if that’s your cup of tea.

It won’t talk directly to my Nikon Coolpix S2600, and the card-reader works only with root permissions. Linux never found the integrated webcam, but I had no plans to use it in the first place. And I’ve yet to see any implementation of the Alps Glidepoint that didn’t suffer hesitations, where it periodically stops responding for a second or two. It’s rare that I’m happy with a touchpad in the first place.

Immediately after installing you’ll get an ugly display because it requires the Radeon firmware included in the package “firmware-linux-nonfree.” The get the wifi, you’ll need both “firmware-b43-installer” and “b43-fwcutter” — upon installation a script will download the proper files, slice and dice and put them where the kernel can load them. Linux also cannot find the WAPS, cellphone chips, and other stuff I have no intention of using. Whenever you add firmware like that, you usually have to reboot for it to work.

I suggest that in the BIOS settings you allow the radio switch to control everything (left side of the laptop chassis near the hinge). To the degree you use any of the various items attached, it needs to stay turned on, and each item controlled individually from the desktop. There is a catch for the Bluetooth, because it isn’t recognized out of the box. You’ll need to make sure you’ve installed the “blueman” package, then follow the instructions here. Make sure the numbers match when you run lsusb; you are looking for the number that follows the ID column. At any rate, on this laptop I issued this command as root:

echo 0x0a5c 0x4500 > /sys/bus/usb/drivers/btusb/new_id

Suddenly the Bluetooth indicator appeared in the notification widget on the Panel. Bluetooth is one of the easiest ways to copy files between devices. The Bluetooth Manager will allow you to discover other devices and setup a file transfer.

This is not a great laptop for Linux, but for less than $100 (US) it’s quite usable.

Update: Argh! That sticky keyboard thing affects Debian, as well. It was not present under any version of Windows nor under CentOS, so I doubt if it’s a hardware issue. Either it’s how Debian and friends configure their kernels or it’s something in those more recent than what CentOS uses. At any rate, a writer can’t have sticky keys, so I’ve installed Win7.

While there is a very good guide for this project here, chances are you won’t need all of the downloads. From a clean install, Win7 discovers most of the hardware without issue. You’ll need to get the drivers for the Ricoh card readers and the Authentec fingerprint reader. You might need a few others items depending on your hardware configuration, but I’m pretty sure the only way you’ll get the fingerprint reader software package (“DigitalPersona”) is, as previously noted in the Vista experience, from HP. Everything else seems to be just fine except for the Win10 upgrade crap. This is still the best guide on what to block from Windows Update.

About Ed Hurst

Disabled Veteran, prophet of God's Laws, Bible History teacher, wannabe writer, volunteer computer technician, cyclist, Social Science researcher
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