Buying an HP Pavilion laptop for GNU/Linux
A corporation is not the person the legal fiction makes it so much as a collection of different interests. I was reminded of this fact a couple of weeks ago when I went shopping for a laptop. Remembering that Hewlett-Packard almost singlehandedly solved the basic problem of laser printer support for GNU/Linux, I ended up buying one of the company's laptops. Consumer reports, price, and HP's listing as one of the greener hardware manufacturers according to Greenpeace also affected my decision, but my impression of HP as a free software friendly company was a large criteria.
Unfortunately, the impression was skewed. In contrast to HP's printer division, the laptop division has almost no awareness whatsoever of non-Windows operating systems. Partly, this impression comes from my interaction with Sheridian the human auto-responder in HP technical support, who during our chat session, could only repeat such comments as "HP will support only for the preinstalled operating system" and "HP does not recommend to change the preinstalled operating system" and could only suggest that I call something he called "Liux support" but couldn't specify what he meant. However, I didn't really expect better. Mostly, the impression comes from the laptop itself, which supports basic functionality for GNU/Linux, but includes a number of peripherals and extras that major distros do not support straight off the DVD and some of which can't be enabled even with tinkering.
My philosophy about laptops is that they are so fragile and so easily stolen that buying a high-end one is a waste of money. Instead, I was looking for a lower end laptop with some reliability. Coming to the store armed with an Ubuntu Live CD, I eventually settled on an HP Pavilion dv2410ca, whose only difference from a dv2410us, so far as I can tell, is that it is sold in Canada and comes with both French and English instructions.
A quick investigation showed that the laptop could boot Live CDs for the latest versions of Debian and Ubuntu. But I wanted an RPM installation for testing purposes, so I ended up installing Fedora 7, whose recent innovations have impressed me. Installation, including the wired ethernet connection, was uneventful, and, for most purposes, the laptop gives me all that I need. Having too many deadlines to sit around Starbucks with the wannabe writers, I don't really need more than a functional computer whose DHCP connection I can occasionally plug in. If I'm not at my workstation, I don't want to be connected to the rest of the world.
Moreover, after I stripped all the brand stickers from the front of the keyboard, functionally the laptop is a joy to use. The extended screen width is a vast improvement over my old laptop's, and gives the HP Pavilion room for an almost full-sized keyboard with rubberized keys. I note that laptops still haven't solved the problem of a really efficient built-in mouse pad, but with the addition of a USB optical mouse, I've found that I could do serious work on my purchase for several hours at a time -- something that I couldn't say about my previous laptop.
Yet, at the same time, I couldn't help noticing how many peripherals didn't work immediately. Although I like to say that I'm an anthropologist to geeks rather than a geek myself, I've been around GNU/Linux long enough to have absorbed many of the attitudes. Getting the peripherals to work soon became a challenge, and never mind that I had no need of them.
The easiest peripheral to get working was the wireless card -- although at a risk of the loss of my free software credentials. The card was one of the infamous Broadcom models, so I quickly found that I could get it functioning using either ndiswrapper or bcm43xx-fwcutter, both of which are free software in themselves, but adapt proprietary Windows drivers or firmware for use on GNU/Linux. The biggest obstacle was navigating through incomplete or quirky instructions in user support forums.
My next effort was finding software for the LightScribe drive, which allows you to etch labels directly on to the face of CDs and DVDs designed to work with the technology. Both HP's LightScribe division and LaCie now have GNU/Linux versions of their software for the technology that are free for the download, but are not released under a free license. However, neither could find the optical drive, although K3B has no trouble, and the Windows versions of the same software have no trouble under Vista. Salvation only arrived when HP's technical support told me to open /etc/lightscribe.rc in a text editor and add the following lines to the end of the file:
Currently, I am working on the built-in webcam. A preliminary Web search suggests that I can enable it at the cost of a download or two and some compiling, since it apparently works with the latest Ubuntu beta. Now all I have to do is find someone who wants to stare at me hunched over the keyboard while we chat.
Still remaining is the modem. All I know so far is that Fedora doesn't detect it, which probably makes it a Winmodem. I may be able to enable it, but, if I don't, I have other alternatives. If I want faxing, I can use my HP all-in-one, which connects via USB. Should I need telephony -- which I doubt -- I should be able to buy a card.
Working through these problems is an interesting challenge. And since my efforts have produced several articles, I can't really complain. After all, I knew when I bought that the HP Pavilion is a Windows-oriented machine, and that buying a custom machine -- my invariable habit for a workstation -- is next to impossible with a laptop. Still, at times during the last couple of weeks, I've felt as though I was back in the bad old days of 1999, when getting GNU/Linux to work on the average workstation was still a major effort.
I wonder, too, how many other users would be content to hack away at these problems. In these days of instant gratification, not many, I would think. For many, doing additional tinkering would probably destroy the pleasure of having a new machine.
Despite HP's record with printers, I consider my experiences more typical than unique -- partly a consumer report on the HP dv2410ca, but, more generally, a data point on just where GNU/Linux support on laptops stands in 2007. Judging from the specs, I suspect that my experiences would be almost identical if I had bought another model in the HP dv2000 line. And, from the support forums I've been haunting, if I had bought from another company, odds are that only the specs would differ. While basic functionality should be painlessly obtained, you still need to invest some sweat if you want some of the extras.
Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for Datamation, Linux.com, and Linux Journal.