A Linux laptop was inevitable

Posted on 13 February 2011 by jose

A month after getting my Android phone, I bought my first laptop. Personal laptop, that is; I've had laptops for work, and I've found them to be highly convenient when traveling or noveling, so I finally decided to get one of my own. More momentously, after years of running Windows on my personal machines but Linux on my work machines, I decided I was ready to make the jump to a Linux-only environment, meaning the new laptop would have to run Linux.

I had a few other requirements, of course: fast CPU, fast RAM, decently-sized hard drive (I traded battery life for hard drive speed), in order to future-proof it a little. I wanted a large screen and a number pad, so netbooks were almost definitely out, as were most smaller laptops. I was basically looking for a desktop replacement that would have the hardware to go a few years before needing expansion or upgrades.

I eventually decided on the Toshiba Satellite A500. I customized the build on Toshiba's website to take advantage of free upgrades to RAM size and paid extra for a slightly faster processor, my first Intel processor. The machine came with Windows 7, and I was determined to preserve that installation, even if I would hardly ever use it, since part of what I paid for the laptop was for the OS. The plan, then, was to set up the Toshiba with a dual-boot environment, which was made slightly trickier by my not having Windows 7 media to re-install it.

Reading various guides online, include several helpful ones at Lifehacker, led me to decide to shrink the Windows 7 partition, set up a small Linux OS partition, and partition the remaining space on the hard drive as NTFS. Shrinking down Windows 7 turned out to be quite a task, involving uninstallation of all unnecessary programs (MS Office trials, Anti-Virus trials, &c.), disabling paging and hibernation files, and then defragmenting the drive using both the MS tool that comes with Windows 7 as well as one I downloaded for this purpose. After all that, I was able to force my Windows 7 installation into a contiguous 40 gigabyte pocket on the drive.

Phase 1 complete, I moved on to phase 2: repartitioning the drive using a GParted USB boot drive. With all of Windows in one place, I could safely repartition the drive: 40 more gigabytes for the Linux partition, and the remaining 240 gigabytes as an empty NTFS partition. This last was NTFS-formatted to allow me to use it from both the Linux and Windows partitions; all my files and home directory links would actually live on that partition and be accessible to both operating systems.

Phase 3 was the easiest: installation and configuration of Linux. The Ubuntu Karmic Koala CD had no trouble with my partitioning setup, and it installed right where I wanted it. I created a swap file rather than a swap partition, set up the filesystem table to automount the swap file and the NTFS "storage" partition, adjusted the swap priority so the OS prefers to use RAM over swap, and removed/rebuilt the home directory links to downloads, documents, pictures, &c. to the "storage" partition. The only snags involved my video and my wireless cards: the kernel Karmic Koala shipped with didn't support either, so I could only use basic video functions and no wireless access at all.

Both problems were fixed by downloading drivers from NVidia and RealTek, but having to re-enable them every time Ubuntu released a kernel update was highly annoying. Fortunately, it was only a matter of weeks until Lucid Lynx released, and its kernel supported both cards out of the box. With all my data on the "storage" partition, I simply re-installed Lucid from scratch, repeating the setup steps I outlined above.

It's been almost a year, and I'm still thrilled with my laptop. I bought a swanky wireless mouse to go with the massive desktop replacement, and I've actually been fairly mobile with it, despite its weight. My Bag of Holding laptop bag has been great for this, as it has a dedicated laptop pocket for 17" laptops, plus another pocket that accommodates my much smaller work laptop in its protective sleeve.

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