Installing Lubuntu on a Dell Mini 9

My six year old daughter has shown interest in computers. In 2016, we bought a Kano for her and she loves it. So I decided she might like to have her own laptop. We happened to have a Dell Mini 9 from 2011 or so that we’re not using anymore. I figured that would be a good Christmas present for her.

Selecting the OS

The laptop still had the Ubuntu install that shipped with it. I could have kept using that, but I wanted to start with a clean install. I use Fedora on our other machines, so I wanted to try that. Unfortunately, Fedora decided to drop 32-bit support since the community effort was not enough to sustain it.

I tried installing Kubuntu, a KDE version of Ubuntu. However, the “continue” button in the installer’s prepare step would not switch to active. Some posts on AskUbuntu suggested annoying it into submission or not pre-downloading updates. Neither of these options worked.

After a time, I gave up on Kubuntu. Given the relatively low power of the laptop, I figured KDE Plasma might be too heavy anyway. So I decided to try Lubuntu, an Ubuntu variant that uses LXDE.

Installing Lubuntu

With Lubuntu, I was able to proceed all the way through the installer. I still had the “continue” button issue, but so long as I didn’t select the download updates option, it worked. Great success! But when it rebooted after the install, the display was very, very wrong. It was not properly scaled and the text was impossible to read. Fortunately, I was not the first person to have this problem, and someone else had a solution: setting the resolution in the GRUB configuration.

I had not edited GRUB configuration in a long time. In fact, GRUB2 was still in the future, so I had to find instructions. Once again, AskUbuntu had the answer. I already knew what I needed to add, I just forgot how to update the configuration appropriately.

Up until this point, I had been using the wired Ethernet connection, but I wanted my daughter to be able to use the Wi-Fi network. So I had to install the Wi-Fi drivers for the card. Lastly, I disabled IPv6 (which I have since done at the router). Happily, the webcam and audio worked with no effort.

What I didn’t do

Because I hate myself, I still haven’t set up Ansible to manage the basics of the configuration across the four Linux machines we use at home. I had to manually create the users. Since my daughter is just beginning to explore computers, I didn’t have a lot of software I needed to install. The web browser and office suite are already there, and that’s all she needs at the moment. This summer we’ll get into programming.

All done

I really enjoyed doing this installation, despite the frustrations I had with the Kubuntu installer. When I got my new ASUS laptop a few months ago, everything worked out of the box. There was no challenge. This at least provided a little bit of an adventure.

I’m pleasantly surprised how well it runs, too. My also-very-old HP laptop, which has much better specs on paper, is much more sluggish. Even switching from KDE to LXDE on it doesn’t help much. But the Mini 9 works like a charm, and it’s a good size for a six year old’s hands.

After only a few weeks, the Wi-Fi card suddenly failed. I bought a working system on eBay for about $35 and pulled the Wi-Fi card out of that. I figure as old as the laptop is, I’ll want replacement parts again at some point. But so far, it is serving her very well.

Trouble with Dell support

I love Dell’s higher ed support. Their consumer-grade support, though, leaves something to be desired. A few years ago, we bought an Inspiron Mini 9 for my wife and it’s recently been having a few problems. First, the AC power adapter wouldn’t stay plugged in, so we had it replaced. Then the battery wasn’t holding a charge, so we had that replaced, too. Most recently, the laptop would shut off if the AC adapter was wiggled, even though the battery (according to the OS) showed a full charge.

I tried the easy fixes first. All software packages were already up-to-date, so I thought I’d try the newest BIOS. Except that Dell no longer provides the DOS-based BIOS packages, only the weird Windows installation program. The community provides some Linux support that Dell refuses to, but there’s no BIOS repository for the lpia architecture. I was able to update the BIOS by extracting the package in a Windows VM and then finding a few utilities to throw onto a USB stick. Sadly, it was all for naught, so I surrendered and contacted Dell support.

They sent a new motherboard and a technician. When the technician saw the motherboard, he was dismayed. On the Inspiron Mini 9, the motherboard does not contain the AC adapter port. So he sent the part back and asked for the correct part to be sent. The new part was again a motherboard. He called and spoke to a support rep who insisted the right part had been sent. Finally, he gave up and said I should just send it to the repair depot. He was clearly frustrated, but he wasn’t making any progress.

I was tired and cranky by that point, so I decided to get on the Dell support chat. Over the course of the next hour, I very patiently tried to explain to the person I was chatting with that the motherboard is not the correct part. Apparently, it got escalated up a rung or two and resulted in a conference call between the service rep, the technician, and several managers. On this call, they came to the conclusion that the motherboard was not the part I needed. There’s a small cable that connects the AC adapter to the motherboard that isn’t listed in any service manual or parts list. As it turns out, that’s shipped with the plastic base. So a few days later, the technician was again at the house with a new power cable…and also another motherboard.

In the two months since, the laptop has worked well, but I’m really put off by the whole experience. Why sell a product that you have no intention of actually supporting (see also: Nokia)? But if you have a Mini 9 and you have power problems and it doesn’t take three trips to get it fixed…you’re welcome.


What a day! Also, the Dell Mini 9

March 14th is quite a day.  It’s Albert Einstein’s birthday, it’s Pi Day, it’s another holiday that perhaps you should just search Urban Dictionary for, and it’s the 15th anniversary of the 1.0 release of the Linux kernel.

Speaking of Linux, it’s been months since we basically got rid of Windows in my  house.  We still have a Windows XP computer, but it hasn’t been booted in months.  On Wednesday, we added another Linux machine to the mix.  We bought a Dell Mini 9 for my wife.  The Mini was on sale one-day for $200 base, so we decided to snap one up.  The cheapest model ships with Ubuntu 8.04.  I’m used to RedHat/Fedora, so I was a little concerned that the setup would be a bit of a curve, but other than configuring the wireless network, Angie was able to get it as set up as she needed by the time I got home.

So what do I think of the Mini?  It seems to be a pretty solid little netbook.  I don’t feel like I’m going to break it every time I touch it, which I was a bit concerned about.  The keyboard is, understandably, really tiny.  I’m a clumsy typist anyway, so I had some problems, but it seems like Angie has gotten used to it.

The Mini uses a custom repository, probably to keep the disk footprint to a minimum (the base hard drive is a 8GB solid-state drive), but also because the processor isn’t an i386.  uname identifies the Intel Atom processor as ‘lpia’.  This means that pre-built binary packages won’t work by default.  If you use the “–force-architecture” argument to dpkg, it should install.  That worked for Skype, at least, although I’m told that you won’t be able to do an automated uninstall later.  The built-in webcam, speakers, and microphone all worked well.

So after 4 days, the Mini has been a worthy investment so far.  I just wish we had purchased a second one for me to play with. 🙂