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Ubuntu on the Precision M3800

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Ubuntu on the Precision M3800

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Project Sputnik has sought to prove the viability of offering to developers a highly-portable, factory-installed-Linux laptop that is fully supported by Dell. As a contributor to the project, I know that while energy has been focused on the XPS 13, there has been a lot of interest from the community for a larger, more powerful version as well. When I saw the Precision M3800, the Linux enthusiast in me was excited about trying to run Linux on one. My day job is as a software engineer here at Dell working with Linux and PowerEdge, but I have the good fortune of sometimes being able to get my hands on the latest laptops--even if only as short-term loaners. :)

Dell currently factory-preloads Linux--whether Ubuntu or RHEL--on most of our business-oriented laptops, such as the 15" Precision Mobile M4800 or the 17" Precision Mobile M6800 and the several Latitudes we offer. (We also offer Ubuntu in select countries on our consumer-oriented Inspiron line.) I've looked at those, and while the Precision Mobile M4800 and M6800 offer plenty of power--and in fact many of the Dell Crowbar developers develop and run test clouds on them--something lighter appeals to me, especially after having personally owned an XPS 13 for the past year and a half.

Having been a "full-time" Linux user since the late 90's, I understand that, while having a system pre-loaded with Linux has many benefits, that's not going to stop early adopters from going ahead and wiping out Windows--in my case I never even boot into it--and installing their favorite Linux distribution. I put "full-time" in scare quotes because I owned a "TiBook" for a few years, originally intending to run Linux on it and ending up running MacOS X on that laptop for a couple years until the wireless card was supported in Linux. I never was fond of the closed nature of OS X nor with the extremely limited Unix experience it offered despite the OS's Unix heritage. Experiences like that helped me appreciate the effort people at companies like Dell have put into Linux and open source, and since owning that TiBook, I've stuck to hardware with better Linux support.

 

So, while none of this should be construed as official Linux or Ubuntu support on the M3800, or likewise the consumer-oriented XPS 15, in the hope of helping others like me, I have put together a list of what does and does not work well with Ubuntu on the M3800 as well as the XPS 15. I know not everyone uses Ubuntu--personally I mainly use both Debian and Ubuntu--but know that it has the widest audience. 

Here's a rundown of my findings:

For the most part, everything I tested works. This is thanks to Dell's work with Canonical and hardware component makers to ensure hardware support for the other Precision mobile systems and for the XPS 13 DE.

Since these are Haswell systems, if you're running Ubuntu, you'll want to run Ubuntu 13.10--at least until Ubuntu 12.04.4 is released in January. Ubuntu 12.04.3 and 13.04 don't have support for the Haswell Intel Wireless chipset in these systems. Depending on which configuration you have, you may need to specify the nomodeset boot option if you're going with Ubuntu 12.04.3 or 13.04.

Running in legacy BIOS mode or in UEFI mode both work, but for now you'll need to enable "Legacy Option ROM" in the BIOS if you're running in UEFI mode because of the display's backlight. This is because of an issue with the Intel i915 driver that currently affects several systems from many vendors. If you don't enable this BIOS option, the backlight will be stuck at the lowest setting in Linux.

On Ubuntu 13.10, I found that both Nouveau and NVIDIA's proprietary driver worked fine, though like with Linux on any system with both NVIDIA discrete and integrated Intel graphics, you probably want to give bumblebee a try to improve your battery life. I briefly tried nvidia-prime, but battery life was suboptimal since nvidia-prime keeps the discrete graphics always on. On an XPS 15 configured with only Intel graphics, this paragraph doesn't apply to you.

The Synaptics touchscreen and touchpad both work thanks to the collaboration of Dell, Canonical and Synaptics for the Haswell version of the XPS 13 DE (a.k.a. Sputnik), which uses Synaptics hardware too. However, for the time being, in order for the touchscreen to be properly detected, an option needs to be passed when loading the usbhid driver. Kent Baxley from Canonical has kindly put together "quirk" packages so all you need to do is install the appropriate one (Quad HD+ or Full HD depending on your display):

        http://linux.dell.com/files/ubuntu/contributions/synaptics-fullhd-touchscreen-quirk_1_all.deb
        http://linux.dell.com/files/ubuntu/contributions/synaptics-quadhd-touchscreen-quirk_1_all.deb

Lastly, the SD card reader on both the M3800 and the XPS 15 does not function properly under Linux, including with the 3.12 kernel. After discussing the bug with my friend Chris Ball, who also maintains the SD/MMC/SDIO subsystem of the Linux kernel, Chris agreed to volunteer time debugging the Linux driver for this card reader. I'd like to thank both Chris for his help and the Precision team for loaning a laptop to Chris. With any luck, I will follow up on this blog post once the SD reader issue is resolved.

Hopefully this post is helpful to anyone buying one of these systems with the goal of running Linux. I'd like to hear from those who buy and run Linux on the M3800 or the XPS 15. Feel free to post here or on the Dell TechCenter forum about your experience.

Edit: See Follow-up: Ubuntu on the Precision M3800 for updates on the SD card reader and the touchscreen.

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  • Thanks for the post and the infos!

    Because there were some misunderstandings and disputes in an forum, I want to ask, if the m3800 supports or uses the Optimus Technology. Some were saying, that it uses another technique to switch and save power?!

    The m3800 seems to have an TPM chip. Is this supported under Linux?

    What about the NFC chip of the XPS 15?

    May be there an matte screen as an option to buy?

    Especially for a professional device this is a must for me!

    I'm not sure if I should by the DELL (which seems to be a great machine) or have to look for another Machine, which has a matte screen.

    As I understand the m4800 has an Anti-Glare QHD+ screen with the same resolution and I can work with this touch-support.

    And I'm willing to pay for this option, if necessary!

  • Thanks for sharing your experience, a really interesting article. I have the latest XPS15 - it's excellent. May I ask please would it be possible for you to kindly pen a guide on how-to install Ubuntu 13.10 on these newer laptops including any "gotchyas" with regards to drivers, settings etc etc? Also would you know if it is possible to configure the boot-loader to dual-boot in either Win8 or Ubuntu? Thanks vv much in advance.

  • Sven:

    It uses the PN544 NFC controller, which is supported in Linux. I'm not really familiar with using NFC, though the device is detected, its drivers load, and "rfkill list" lists it.

    As far as the Nvidia graphics, Optimus is used.

    I completely forgot to try the TPM but will reply here letting you know.

    There is no matte screen option for the M3800. If you want a matte screen, you may want to look at our Latitudes (esp. the 7000 series) or the other Precision mobiles.

    nrg-b: Yes, you can dual-boot. In fact, the system I was using had Windows 8.1 on it, which I left there. The Ubuntu 13.10 install process is pretty straight forward, and any "gotchas" are listed above. Is there anything in particular you feel I didn't cover that you're interested in?

  • Since I can't edit my previous comment, I should clarify that I left Windows on the system I tested since it was a loaner. :-)

  • Jared: Thanks for the quick reply. Nice to hear it'll dual-boot. By 'gotchyas' I meant any issues on: creating the bootable usb stick (??), partitioning the ssd, suspend/hibernate functionality, keyboard backlight, webcam, microphone, speakers, wifi, usb ports, touch screen/pad, external monitor via hdmi.  

  • nrg-b: Ah. I found no problems with suspend/resume or the keyboard backlight. The webcam, microphone and speakers work. Wifi is quite speedy and solid--I actually was impressed by that part; see above about support pre-Ubuntu 13.10. All the USB ports work for me. The touchscreen and touchpad worked just fine but see above about the quirk fix you need for touchscreen. External HDMI and DP both worked fine for me with the monitors I tested. So really, I do mean "For the most part, everything I tested works."

    To load the Ubuntu install ISO onto a USB stick, I just use dd. The installer is pretty smart about helping you with partitioning, with or without keeping Windows installed.

  • Jared: Superb! I'll try Ubuntu 13.10 this weekend and let you know how I get on :-)

  • Did you try the Full HD (1 920 x 1 080) or QHD+ (3 200 x 1 880) ?

    How is Ubuntu displayed on these resolutions ? Is everything not to small ?

    Did you have to change anything to display correctly ? Can you share your configuration (X11) ?

  • Please read the following and comment please... Did you have the same ? Did you tweak anything ?

    www.omgubuntu.co.uk/.../what-does-ubuntu-look-like-on-a-retina-display-bad

    askubuntu.com/.../ubuntu-resolution-with-ultrabook

    By the way, thanks a lot for sharing Jared !!! Extremely appreciated...

  • Related to the post of Sven...

    I think there is a misunderstanding ! You can buy a '''M3800''' just released in Belgium with Full HD (1 920 x 1 080) or QHD+ (3 200 x 1 880) ? There is QHD+ on M3800...

  • Jared, did you try the Ethernet port (through usb if I am right ) ?

  • '''Having been a "full-time" Linux user since the late 90's, I understand that, while having a system pre-loaded with Linux has many benefits'''

    should be corrected by

    '''Having been a "full-time" Linux user since the late 90's, I understand that, while having a system pre-loaded with WINDOWS has many benefits'''

    :-)

  • Well I created a bootable usb drive using releases.ubuntu.com/.../ubuntu-13.10-desktop-amd64.iso image. Hit F12 to go to the boot-up options. But when I select boot from USB, I see the Ubuntu logo, the five dots light up and then...the machine hangs. I also tried a different USB stick too but to no avail. I used the boot-up option to recheck the usb files were ok - they were. Any ideas??

  • houdini68: I tested with a FHD M3800, a QHD+ M3800 and a FHD XPS 15 (the last had only Intel graphics). I didn't customize the X config at all. The system has no built-in Ethernet port, but I have a USB 2.0 Ethernet adapter I use with my XPS 13 (the one Dell sells that supports PXE)

    nrg-b: The only time I had problems was when I tried to install in UEFI mode with the legacy option ROM disabled (as I described in the blog post), and that issue was graphics related. However, my USB stick was known to work already. I successfully booted the install media using all of the USB ports. Are you sure the system hung?

  • Jared: Yep the system is hanging. I now get a boot-up error from the USB stick: http://twitpic.com/dljet9

    My USB drive is USB2 which I created using UNetbootin and I use the one and only USB2 port. I'm not sure what UEFI is, how do I control the UEFI mode? The USB stick appears in the dell menu as (IIRC) "USB - UEFI OS". Thanks v much for your help :-)