The move to Linux, stymied by hardware

With news today of Windows 7 being made available in no less than six different versions, it is getting harder and harder to not move lock, stock, and PGP key to Linux on a full time basis. Except…

For decades, I have listened to my father gripe about the computer industry and their inability to standardize on hardware. This has bitten me on occasion, especially when playing RAM bingo in the late 90s, but currently the hardware issue is affecting my ability to move to Linux. I have a laptop. It is my primary desktop, terminal server, packet platform, entertainment centre and core of my electronic world. It is commodity hardware. It has a wireless card that is not Linux friendly. It is a Marvell Topdog 802.11 a/g/n.

I originally tried to load Fedora Core 8 on this machine and it failed miserably because of the lack of wireless support. Turns out there were a couple of other chips in there that came out of the Marvell plant as well that just made using Linux a non-starter. All the components have to work, not 80% of them, so I loaded Vista and was content do run my Linux in a VM when I needed to use it, sure in the knowledge that someone would crack the code. That was two years ago and I really never got around to looking up a solution.

A little searching this morning shows that there have been advances. There are hacks using the NDIS driver under Ubuntu to make the card work, but I have not seen any articles on a native driver in the Linux distributions for it. There is a driver on the Marvell site for Yukon devices that is listed as running under Linux 2.6-Fedora but I have not had the time to try it, so I cannot affirm that it works. If you have tried it, please let me know your results.

Moving to Linux should not be a difficult task. I should be able to walk into any big box store, slap down my $300 for a laptop or desktop and walk out. I should not be stymied by hardware. But the sad news is that it is getting harder, instead of easier. I should not have to look up the chipset of every component in the box and compare it to a list of approved hardware. I should not have to keep a list of approved Linux hardware vendor websites book marked. A Personal Computer should run whatever operating system I need. We are getting close to that point, but we are not quite there yet.

Maybe this weekend I will get around to moving to Linux on this machine, but, more likely, I will wait for my next PC.

______________________

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack

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It's the end users fault.

Anonymous's picture

People blame hardware manufacturers but at the end of the day a corporation will only support a market that they see as viable. Until the end users (us), start voting with our wallets and purchasing hardware that is specifically Linux certified, they will not change their ways.

The only thing to do is research compatible hardware, write to and query any company that doesn't appear to have Linux drivers (make noise, tell them how to get drivers written for their device for free!), and then only purchase supported hardware. When enough people do this compatibility will follow, or the incompatible vendors will disappear, both are good outcomes.

Complaining that a 2 year old laptop doesn't have driver support for a little used and obscure wireless chip does nothing to help Linux. Be pro-active and don't expect the generosity of the FOSS coders to compete against the close mindedness of proprietary hardware vendors.

Linux is a fantastic concept. Don't fall into the trap of blaming it for what are essentially your problems. Sell the laptop, buy a supported one, and then post about how great it combined with Linux is. Then more people will go buy the same laptop and low and behold that manufacturer will see just what a market they have in Linux technologies. It's really quite simple.

Be positive and you will attract and generate positive outcomes.

I agree - customer can be a King

Heikki's picture

"Until the end users (us), start voting with our wallets and purchasing hardware that is specifically Linux certified, they will not change their ways."

I installed and used couple of weeks Red Hat Linux in late 1999 (education period) and comparing these "scary days" todays Linux world things looks totally different. No need to tell it, you know what it was all about.

Since i installed Hardy to my desktop i've allways expressed at hardware/device shops that i'm not gonna buy any of there products with no sure Linux support. I've said it clearly to those who try to sell some Canon printers, scanners (Canon S100 works fine in Ubuntu, like many other simple Canon devices). Also i've said to them that devices with some installation cd's are OUT. I require devices which one just connect to USB - and that's it. All in all i've said to these shopkeepers that if there computers and devices don't have Linux support i'm not gonna purchase them, coz i'm not gonna go back to Windows. Why? Coz first time in my internet history i've great, stabile and safe OS.

Working wifi the simple way

Matt hartley's picture

Sad truth of the matter is most people make this waaaaay more complicated than it actually is. While there are Intel wifi options that are 802.11n ready, on the USB dongle side of things, you will do best with the following dongle - Zyxel Zyair 802.11g G-220. Froogle.com will take you to purchase options. As for Marvel and Broadcom, thank your hardware vendor. I personally, vote with my wallet - I do not support these vendors.

Most hardware works great out of the box. I own external DVD burners, new Logtitech webcams, external hard drives, an HP all-in-one, and honestly the only thing you have to watch is wifi thanks to the butthead vendors mentioned previously.

So really, if wifi is the only problem, stop complaining and make the commitment. The model of dongle above has worked out of the box with ZERO config for as long as I can remember with Ubuntu. Tested just great using WPA2/Personal on Ubuntu 8.10 back to 7.10. The other piece of advice I would warn you against is the NDISWrapper fanatics that frankly keep shelling money into the pockets of hardware vendors that do not support Linux. Seems really counter productive to me. Well that and just Google ndiswrapper forums sometime. Enjoy the list of mislead and frustrated users believing that a band aid solution is going to solve all of their woes.

This said, if you want a 802.11n experience along with complete Linux OEM support, go with System76.com

Unlike Dell junk, they will support you through thick and thin. That and they also provide a driver for whatever Ubuntu happens to be missing. So now, you have both an immediate ability to switch now in addition to a future option with the vendor I have recommended. ;)

Had good luck at Frys

caerbanog's picture

When I was looking for a Linux-compatible laptop, I burned a couple of "live-CD" iso's and took them to a Frys Electronics outlet near me.

The sales-critters were totally clued-in about Linux and let me test-boot the laptops they had on display. Found a nice cheap HP where everything "just worked". Took it home, shrunk down the Vista partition to the smallest size possible and installed Linux. Can't remember the last time I booted into Vista.

Live CD's are a godsend if you are looking for Linux-compatible hardware (provided that you can "test-drive" the hardware before you buy, of course).

I've had more problem with

Anonymous's picture

I've had more problem with Vista drivers than Linux drivers. It's very easy to find out which hardware works with Linux - just google it. Most good hardware does support Linux, D-Link, Linksys (heck Linksys makes devices that run on Linux). What are you talking about? More device are supported natively with a generic Linux kernel than Windows where you are forced to download the driver and install it. With Linux you can even write your own device driver with no problem.

Have you ever written "your

Anonymous's picture

Have you ever written "your own device driver with no problem"? As a Computer Science student working on my 6th year, I definitely haven't.

I have been using Marvell

Slacker's picture

I have been using Marvell Yukon with Mandriva since Mandriva 2006 and Slackware 12.1 with zero pain.

Truth is the WORST hardware compatability / driver problems I ever had was with Window$ 2000 - my last M$ version - and I have had very lillte problem getting anything to work with Linux since then. And for all that I have read about it, I have never had to resort to using NDIS, I have always been able to find or adapt drivers for everything with just a little research - really not difficult at all.

Lesson learned.

Anonymous's picture

In the future you may wish to do two things before buying new hardware:

1. Research the available chipsets and the state of linux drivers for those chipsets. WHen I bought my last laptop, I found intel-based systems were the most "open" in support. As a result, I have been extremely pleased with my selection. Everything "just works" with standard distributions (I've used both Fedora and Ubuntu).

2. Buy a PC from a vendor that will sell it to you with Linux pre-installed. Dell comes to mind.

NDISWrapper

Anonymous's picture

Just to clarify, NDISWrapper is not only for ubuntu. It is a generic piece of software and you can use it on any distro. I used it on Slackware back in the early '00s and it worked like a charm.

Correct

David Lane's picture

The fixes I have seen are on the Ubuntu mailing lists that do use the NDIS wrapper. You are correct in that it might work in other distros but I have not seen any posts to that effect.

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack

FYI the ndiswrapper project

Anonymous's picture

FYI the ndiswrapper project predates the existence of ubuntu. Ndiswrapper is available on all major and most minor distros and has been for many years. Anyone who has run linux in the past five years would know that. I am shocked that a member of the "Advisory Board" would not know that.

er, google?

Anonymous's picture

Um, you know about google, right? Where you can type in terms like "ndiswrapper" and quickly learn more about them? ndiswrapper has been around for years and has been written about a lot in Linux wireless articles.

And yes, in some far off fantasy world you could purchase any and all products blindly and be perfectly happy with them. Unfortunately it's never been that way, and never will be. Even your gold standard of operating systems, Windows, has supported hardware lists, and wise shoppers consult them before making a purchase. Running Linux inside a VM on Windows is insane, unless you really need Windows itself, when all kinds of good $20 PCMCIA or USB wireless adapters have good native Linux support. This whole piece comes off like a rant against being an informed shopper.

A Personal Computer should run whatever operating system I need

Steen's picture

> A Personal Computer should run whatever operating system I need.

* Should you not complain about this with the manufacturer of your burnt-in wireless card?

* Or with your government which apparently allows firms to sell such crap?

* And with yourself, since you bought this laptop. This encourages firms to sell even more crap like this.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda....

David Lane's picture

- Should you not complain about this with the manufacturer of your burnt-in wireless card?

I did, for what it's worth. Sent an email and everything.

- Or with your government which apparently allows firms to sell such crap?

I don't understand? The card works. It just does not have Linux drivers. This is hardly an issue for the government to get involved with.

- And with yourself, since you bought this laptop. This encourages firms to sell even more crap like this.

I will certainly pay more attention in the future, no doubt.

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack

Big Business

Caitlyn's picture

-- Or with your government which apparently allows firms to sell such crap?

- I don't understand? The card works. It just does not have Linux drivers. This is hardly an issue for the government to get involved with.

GP was probably referring to the fact since a wireless NIC is a radio broadcaster, it is subject to FCC regulations. Back-in-the-day when 802.11a had just come out, WNICs where all hardware and linux users were happy. Now, since companies are out for their bottom line only, they switched to a more of a firmware based chip (cheaper to make). Now, anyone with the know-how can make their own firmware and start broadcasting on un-authorized frequencies (that's illegal in the U.S.). Fortunately for the manufacturers, the people with the know-how are under NDAs because those are trade secrets. This is also the source of the dreaded firmware loader controversy in +2.6.26(?) kernels.

Yes, it's a shame that you have to watch out for stuff like this when buying new (laptop) hardware. I researched for months before I bought my Inspiron 1525.

agree - but

john.mckown's picture

I agree that all the hardware should "just work". But, in reality, who is to blame? Personally, I blame the hardware manufacturers. Most consider their interfaces to be "proprietary" and so do not want to disclose how to talk to their device. That means that they need to supply the binary drivers for every possible OS that they want to support. So, of course, they just support Windows as that gets them the majority of the market (at present). The MAC has it as bad as Linux. Maybe even worse.

Clearly...

David Lane's picture

This is not a case of blaming Linux. I put these problems squarely at the feet of the hardware manufacturers, no question.

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack

Did you try another distro?

Chad's picture

Did you try another distro? I found that my wireless card (albeit the more common Broadcom) was able to function without much configuration in Ubuntu and Mepis, while not in Fedora or many others. Ubuntu's not as "open source or else" as other distro's, and realizes the need most people have for some sort of proprietary driver or codec.

Distros

David Lane's picture

Changing distros is a little like changing operating systems, especially if you are used to one version of *NIX over the other. Yes, you can work in a Solaris environment if you are used to HP-UX and vice versa but you have to look for things in different places and get used to commands doing things a little differently etc. Same with Linux distros. We are comfortable with our distro of choice, especially if we have been with it a while (I started with RH 3, not RHEL 3).

The fixes for this card set I am finding to be in the Ubuntu distro so I have learn a new way of doing things. It will take some time and at this point, it means a complete reinstall of my primary system. Not something that is done lightly or without concern for data loss or lost productivity.

Hence my statement that it might be a bit before I get around to it.

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack

Is moving to Windows any better?

fischia's picture

I've had the exact opposite experience. Going to the store, buying a new desktop (with Vista preinstalled) going home just to find out that half of the devices were very poorly supported. Wired network failing, problems with graphics card acceleration, very poor performance (on a 4 cores and 4 GB memory) and permanent crashes. Applied MS patches and everything on my power with no luck.
Installed Fedora and had no one single issue. Never again I saw a crash, the network worked right away, the 3D acceleration for NVidia just perfect.
I've installed Fedora, Mepis and Ubuntu on that machine and never had any problems. On the opposite side, Win$ just doesn't work on any version of Vista or XP.

Is Windows any better?

David Lane's picture

Better than what, I guess?

The wireless settings in Vista are flaky with the card - I find I have to move my "active" wireless network around to get it picked up sometimes. Video and Audio seem to work as does the SD card slot (Marvell). I have had problems getting PCIx cards to work in the external slot, but I am not sure if that is a Vista issue or a card issue.

I prefer Core as my distro since I came up the Red Hat distribution limb of the Linux tree and I am finding more and more than I can dump Windows or run it virtually for the one or two apps that I need (my Palm software and Visio along with SEQUEL 2, a DAW, and some proprietary Amateur Radio software). But since the fixes for this card are in Ubuntu and several of the Amateur Radio software I need is also there, I am forcing myself to learn it on a scrap machine I put together, but it is lacking some of this hardware so testing is not yet possible.

So, I am not disappointed with Vista as an operating system. I have philosophical issues with it (like why do I essentially need a file server to run a desktop operating system efficiently) and with the Microsoft model in general, but I really am tired of all the bugs, registry issues and backup problems that have already been resolved in Linux and work. Plus there are number of tools that I use and host on a remote server that I would rather have on this machine. So the time to migrate is upon me...just as soon as I get time to figure out the network card issue...or scrape up the money for a new machine.

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack

Replace the wireless card

FredR's picture

Is the card one of the mini-pci style you can replace? Why not find a suitable replacement and put the old non-linux working one on ebay? This would put more demand on linux-friendly hardware and perhaps vendors would get the point.

The laptop you bought wasn't fruit picked from a tree. There was some engineering dude (or team of dudes) sitting in a room somewhere and designed it that way. They probably never had Linux compatibility in mind. I have the unique situation of running Linux fulltime on my desktop, which I handpicked all the hardware because I knew it would run Linux. The laptop is typically provided to me by my employer. Right now that happens to be a Dell D820. Not a bad machine, had to max out the ram recently. Those are the guys we need to influence. We need them to design "made to run linux" laptops.

But I hear you on wireless issues.

A recent bios upgrade and switch from Hardy to Intrepid (in the form of WUBI) seems to have stemmed my wireless issues...

-- FLR or flrichar is a superfan of Linux Journal, and goofs around in the LJ IRC Channel

Nope

David Lane's picture

It is hard wired to the mother board.

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack

Doh!

FredR's picture

I stand corrected! Yea, that is a bummer.

-- FLR or flrichar is a superfan of Linux Journal, and goofs around in the LJ IRC Channel

USB adapter instead?

Anonymous's picture

Couldn't you just buy a $20 wireless USB dongle and use that with Linux instead?

The Belkin wireless G is plug and play in Ubuntu: http://tinyurl.com/bopaeg

Yeah...

David Lane's picture

There are of course workarounds, like external devices and such, but that kind of defeats the purpose and reduces my available USB slots.

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack

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