Dizwell Informatics

News from Nowhere

Toshiba P870 and Fedora 18

It hasn’t exactly been plain-sailing with my new laptop! It shipped with Windows 8 and I won’t touch that with the proverbial barge-pole, so it was clear from the outset that some sort of O/S re-installation would be required. I didn’t expect it to be such a trauma, though.

For starters, none of my distro CDs or DVDs would actually boot. Traditionally, this usually happens because the computer BIOS has a boot order set, and the hard disk often appears in that before the DVD drive. So, no problem: change boot order, make sure DVD is top of the list… and still nothing.

It turns out that this is a direct consequence of Microsoft’s insistence on “Secure Boot” (which you can read about here, for example). I’ve followed that particular saga on various websites for months, but never imagined I’d become one of its victims. But that’s exactly what I was: dig around in the P870′s UEFI settings long enough and you’ll find an option to disable secure boot… after which Linux distros will boot fine. I find it annoying that something trivially easy to do in the past has now become difficult and non-obvious to fix: if you didn’t know about Secure Boot and its consequences for Linux, how would you know to go looking for the option to disable it? You could well argue that someone wanting to boot Linux is likely to be technically clued-up enough to know about Secure Boot -but although I would consider myself to be in that bracket, it wasn’t the first thing that sprang to mind and I had no idea what I was looking for in the BIOS even after I suspected that it might be a secure boot problem. I call that irritating.

Anyway, I finally managed to boot Fedora 17 and install it on a partition I’d vacated from within Windows. Installation was smooth… except that Windows 8 was no longer bootable afterwards. I did everything I could think of to get Windows 8 bootability back, but nothing worked. Fundamentally, I didn’t mind much, because I’d never expected to use the O/S much anyway -but having paid for the damn thing, it would have been nice to be able to at least burn some ‘rescue media’ to use later, if I wanted. I was, actually, a bit miffed that Toshiba supply absolutely nothing with their Prince of Laptops: no drivers disk, no O/S disk, nothing. Instead, it’s all on a ‘rescue partition’, and you’re supposed to burn off copies from there before you stuff around with anything. Being the gung-ho chap that I am, however, I didn’t do that. So, without Windows 8, I couldn’t access the rescue partition. And without that rescue partition, my license to use Windows 8 at some point in the future no longer existed.

In the end, I was reduced simply to wiping the whole thing and just kissing goodbye to Windows 8 entirely (my Technet subscription will get me a copy if I ever feel the need for it in the future, I guess). It disappoints me, though, that Toshiba don’t provide physical installation media for what is their their top-of-the-line laptop.(I’ve read that apparently they do… if you are prepared to pay them $66 for the privilege of them sending it to you. Seems a bit steep, to me).

On went Windows 7, with mercifully few dramas: Toshiba have a page-full of Windows drivers you can download and apply, so everything ended up working quite easily -except for the graphics. Before you can install the NVidia graphics driver (which Toshiba supply), you are told you have to install the Intel integrated graphics driver (which Toshiba doesn’t supply). A not-so-quick trip to Intel’s bewildering website later, however, and even that was sorted. So I had a fully-functioning Windows 7 laptop, finally… and only two days after I’d bought it!

Then, it was a new install -this time of Fedora 18, the latest and greatest from the Fedora fold. There are two fundamental problems with using Fedora on this laptop: the Ethernet port is not detected; and the Wireless Ethernet port is not detected either. So you can install the O/S perfectly well -but you’ll have zero connectivity, making it as useful as a chocolate teapot, basically.

Thankfully, this is fixable. First you will need to copy a bunch of rpms off your installation DVD to some directory or other (hunt around in the packages directory for each of them, being careful to match the names exactly):

cloog-ppl-0.15.11-4.fc18.1.x86_64.rpm
ppl-0.11.2-10.fc18.x86-64.rpm
ppl-pwl-0.11.2-10.fc18.x86_64.rpm
libmpc-0.9.3.fc18.2.x86_64.rpm
cpp-4.7.2-8.fc18.x86_64.rpm
gcc-4.7.2-8.fc18.x86_64.rpm
glibc-headers-2.6-24.fc18.x86_64.rpm
glibc-devel-2.16-24.fc18.x86_64.rpm
kernel-headers-3.6.0-4.fc18.x86_64.rpm
kernel-devel-3.6.10-4.fc18.x86_64.rpm

Install them all in one go with (as root) rpm -ivh *.rpm.

Once those packages are installed, you can download compat-wireless-2012-03-12-p.tar.bz2 using someone else’s PC, transfer them to the laptop via a USB stick, and (still as root) issue these commands:

tar xvf compat-wireless-2012-03-12-p.tar.bz2
cd compat-wireless-2012-03-12-p
./scripts/driver-select alx
make install
modprobe alx

The network icon on the top-right of your screen should spring in to life -at which point, click it, select Network Settings and type in appropriate IP, Gateway and DNS addresses: Ethernet wired networking should now be properly functional.

To get wireless networking going, you’ll have to download a driver for the Realtek adapter, unzip it, cd to the new rtl_92ce… directory and then issue the commands:

make
make install
modprobe rtl8723e

As soon as you’ve done that, clicking the Networking icon in the system tray area at the top of your screen should display a list of nearby wireless networks you can now connect to.

Just be warned that if you use your new-found network connectivity to update your kernel at any time, the kernel modules for both network interfaces that you’ve just compiled will immediately stop working… and I’ve not yet been able to get them to re-compile, despite using newer compat-wireless downloads ad infinitum. For the moment, at least, I’m therefore trapped using a 3.6 kernel, instead of the latest 3.7.x variety… but I can live with that.

On the whole, it’s a painless process getting both networking interfaces working -and as far as I could tell, pretty much everything else on the laptop works as advertised (speakers, webcam and so on). I was worried that the graphics wouldn’t be right (as mentioned above, the laptop uses a curious combination of Intel integrated graphics and NVidia GT 630M), but they appear to work fine. My standard test is the framerate displayed once Stellarium has been installed and run:

That screenshot shows I’m getting about 45 frames per second, which is a bit on the low side, but entirely usable. In the Windows 7 installation, Stellarium manages ~70 frames per second, so clearly there’s some graphical optimisation I could do on the Fedora side of things if I was so inclined… but really, it’s perfectly usable as it is, so I probably won’t bother.

The only other bother I had with Fedora on this laptop was a biggie: VMware Workstation 9.0 produced a kernel panic immediately it was installed …and repeated the feat routinely at every subsequent startup. This turns out to be a reasonably well-documented problem that VMware has with Linux kernels 3.5 and above, generally: it affects VMware Player, too, for example. Happily, a slightly more up-to-date 9.0.1 version cures the problem -though at 395MB, it’s a regrettably large download.

Of course, before you can install that new version, you have to uninstall the old version -which is a bit tricky to do when the presence of the old version causes your O/S to keel over before you get a chance to uninstall it. In my case, from the black screen full of dire warning messages that results when the crash occurs, I was able to press [Ctrl]+[Alt]+[F2] to get to a command-line login prompt. Logging in as root, I was then able to issue the command

vmware-installer -u vmware-workstation

…to get the old version removed. After a reboot, the graphical desktop starts perfectly, so installing the new version was trivial. Fiddlier than I’d have liked, for sure; but fortunately, on this occasion, not a show-stopper after all.

So, apart from a lack of networking and an incompatibility with VMware, Fedora 18 runs nicely on this laptop. Bizarrely, too, I find that Gnome 3 is nowhere near as ghastly as I remembered it: improvements have been made, and the thing now seems to run slickly, looking good as it does so. I found the original Gnome Shell hopeless for a multi-monitor setup, but this newer versions seems a much better fit on a single screen laptop. I had been intending to install Mate, but quite honestly (and much to my surprise) I think I’ll give this particular slick implementation of Gnome 3 a good long run first.

A cautious thumbs up, then: Fedora and the Toshiba P870 work quite well together, with a modest amount of fiddling first. I’ll be happier if and when I can upgrade my kernel, but there’s no functional deficiency in the meantime.