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2017: the year of configuring Linux (or Windows, or OS X, or…) on the desktop

I’m going to FOSDEM next month, maybe I’ll see some of you there. This gives me motivation to solve one of the outstanding problems on my laptop: I currently, as has been mentioned here multiple times, use Windows 10 as a bootloader for my GNU/Linux installation. I would rather boot straight into Linux. So I can set myself a milestone: I would prefer, by the time I get to St. Pancras International train station on Friday 3rd Feb, not to have Windows on this laptop any more.

The laptop is a Alienware 15 R3, although weirdly the processor my laptop contains (Core i7-6820HK) is not one of the CPU options listed on the Dell website, so maybe they changed the configuration without updating the model, or had a spare old CPU knocking around when they built my laptop and decided to use that. Anyway, this is computering, so this is fine. You’re not expected to know or care that you don’t have the correct bits in the computer, just that it’s “Late 2016” (even though they still sold the R2 in late 2016, too).

The problems I have seem to fit into one of two categories: either the wi-fi (a Qualcomm Atheros chipset) doesn’t work, or the CPU/motherboard chipset (see above) isn’t supported and all hell breaks loose.

The wireless situation is that the wireless should be fully supported: Qualcomm Atheros integrated the driver into the Linux kernel back in version 3.11-rc1, in July 2013, and supply the firmware binaries. And so it doesn’t work in modern Linux kernels (or doesn’t reliably work, or fails for different reasons).

The chipset situation is that Intel integrated the driver into the Linux kernel back in version 4.3, in November 2015. So it doesn’t reliably work in modern Linux kernels.

I could go into the specific problems I’ve seen and the specific things I’ve tried to work around them, but I won’t. I won’t because well-meaning but unengaged people will ask me infuriatingly basic and irrelevant questions (yes, I have already turned Secure Boot off; no, it doesn’t change the fact that the ath10k module hasn’t loaded), or suggest unjustifiable solutions. The most common is the Distro Pimp: you should try [Debian/Debian testing/Arch/Ubuntu/openSuSE/Fedora/Mint/wait, which one did you say you’d already tried?]. Well that’s nice, but the distribution I tried (that didn’t work) is made of GNU and Linux 4.8, and the distribution you’re suggesting is made of GNU and Linux 4.8, so what specifically is it about your distribution that makes you think it works where this other one doesn’t? Oh, they focus on [stability/cutting edge/purple desktops/compiz effects/bible-reading software] do they? And how does that solve my problem where the kernel doesn’t work, despite being newer than all of the bits I need to have a working kernel?

This is the reality of Linux on the Desktop, the one that computerists say the world is ready for. Of course, it’s also the reality of everything else on the desktop. Something that occasionally happens in my Windows 10 bootloader is that it reboots while I’m using it to install some updates, because I stopped moving the mouse for a couple of minutes between 6pm and 9am (you know, the time when I’m at home, using my home computer). Some colleagues at work use Windows as an actual operating environment, and have things like Skype (made by Microsoft) popping up a notification when they’re presenting in PowerPoint (made by Microsoft). Something that apparently happens to people that have Macs is that the built-in PDF software doesn’t work well and they have to buy somebody else’s PDF software, except that they have to check whether that other PDF software is based on the built-in stuff or is something written by somebody else only they can’t because without the Four Freedoms they don’t have the freedom to study how the program works, and even if they could fix the problem they’re not allowed because they lack the freedom to redistribute and make copies to help their neighbours, or to improve the program so the whole community benefits.

This is fine.

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