Notes on Linux on a Dell Inspiron 17 5000 (2014, model no. 5748)

Driven by changes in daily use and a need for a bigger screen, I have decided to retire my venerable Toshiba Tecra M9 laptop from active duty and replace with a 17″ laptop.  But 17″ laptops have fallen out of favour with the computer manufacturers over the last few years and the whole laptop market seems to have taken massive steps backwards choosing style over functionality in many important areas.  Well, this is the world we live in and after looking over the main manufacturers models I’ve chosen a Dell Inspiron 17 5000 (model 5748) mainly because it was the cheapest I could find with a full HD (1920 x 1080) 17″ screen and Dell have a good history for Linux compatibility.  The model is new enough that there is little information on its Linux compatibility so I write this post in case it helps others.

Running Linux live from USB:

The laptop arrives with Windows 8.1 installed and so uses the new (well, new to me!) EFI secure boot system.  Ubuntu 14.04 and Fedora 20 live USB sticks were able to boot while this was enabled.  This needs to be disabled in the BIOS to boot Linux Mint 17 (power on, hit F12, switch the BIOS boot option to Legacy – Secure Boot Off, boot from USB…).

Ubuntu 14.04 64-bit boots and almost everything appears to work on the Live version, only the wireless network is missing.

Fedora 20 64-bit boots and most things appear to work but no touchpad and no wireless networking.

Linux Mint 17 64-bit Cinnamon and MATE versions boot and almost everything appears to work on the Live version, only the wireless network is missing.  I have installed Linux Mint 17 64-bit Cinnamon version on a new 128GB Solid State Drive, removing the Dell hard drive with Windows 8.1, this is left on the shelf for a rainy day…

Function keys:

Strangely, in the BIOS the multimedia/function keys are set to be multimedia keys by default and you have to hold the ‘Fn’ key for them to behave in the normal function key way.  Because it’s set in the BIOS this applies to both Windows and Linux.  At first I thought the laptop functions keys (brightness, volume control, etc.) weren’t working in Linux but actually they do once you’ve figured out if you have to press the ‘Fn’ key or not.  Is this normal these days?

Wireless networking:

The standard wireless network card the laptop ships with isn’t supported by the wireless drivers in any of the Linux distros I tried.  No problem, for £17 I simply upgraded the internal wifi card to an Intel 7260 wireless card which is well supported in Linux and adds 5GHz capability.  It is also the same card used in the next model up, the Dell Inspiron 17 7000 so I expected it to be compatible if Dell had done any white-listing in the hardware.  The card takes just a couple of minutes to install and works as soon as you boot into Linux Mint 17…

Touchpad:

So far I’ve been unable to identify the manufacturer of the touchpad used on this laptop.  It works as a basic touchpad but I have no multi-touch functionality in Linux Mint.  Knowing the manufacturer is probably the first step in ensuring the correct driver is running in Linux.  It’s doesn’t seem to be a Synaptics touchpad, xinput list output as follows if it helps anyone…

Terminal_004

I could write more on the modern design aspects of this laptop (keyboard, touchpad, glossy touch-screen…) but I think I’ll leave it there as I start to sound like an old man.  Once you sort out wireless networking, this laptop runs Linux very fast, don’t get caught out by the function keys and the secure boot thing.

G7UHN is now invisible!

G7UHN has entered a new phase this weekend – the home station equipment has disappeared from sight and is now located on a shelf in a utility cupboard!  Operation of the station is enabled by a pair of Raspberry Pis serving out audio, serial and video feeds to a laptop computer which can be located anywhere in the coverage of the home wireless network.  The arrangement of hardware needs a bit of tidying up but this ‘remote’ configuration is now fully functional and I have been making my first digital contacts this weekend with good reports from around Europe:

G7UHN on a shelf

The setup is described in some detail on this page (I’m just catching up with my notes now).  Here’s a screenshot of my new ‘shack’ in operation:

Operating data modes from the laptop...
Operating data modes from the laptop…

This project has taken some time to get up and running but in doing so I’ve learned a lot and my Linux skills are now probably creeping out of the ‘beginner’ zone!

Remote audio improved…

A quick post.  I’ve just discovered an improvement to the remote audio software I’ve been using to stream audio from my SDRs in the loft to my laptop over the home network.  Previously I have been using IPSound and, while excellent for connections between Windows PCs, it has some trouble running under Wine in Linux which is my normal mode of operation.  In the past year or so there has been a great deal of material popping up on the Internet about remote operation of amateur radio equipment and I’ve now come across DF3CB’s excellent RemAud which really follows on from the groundwork laid by IPSound.  I’ve just installed it using Wine in Linux Mint 15 and it works a treat!

GIS for radio maps…

For a while now I’ve been enjoying the ability to export ham radio logging data from Ham Radio Deluxe Logbook direct to Google Earth for visualisation of my contacts.  However now that I have some far reaching contacts, Google Earth no longer presents a full view of radio coverage:

QGIS early days - Google EarthWhat I’d like to do now is be able to plot the same data onto a Great Circle projection map, centered on my home location to present a view of radio contacts’ direction and distance.  A friend (with a specialism in Geographical Information Systems, GIS) has pointed me at the open source QGIS software.  Some light reading around the subject suggests that I basically have two tasks to perform:

  1. Import the data as a Vector Layer into QGIS;
  2. Change the project’s Coordinate Reference System (CRS) to a great circle type projection, centred on my location.

Importing Data to QGIS

Free world map data is available here: http://www.naturalearthdata.com/  …download suitable files and import appropriate shapefiles (.shp) as new vector layers.

Export selected contacts from HRD Logbook to Google Earth (right-click, “Lookup…”) opens an exported KML file in Google Earth and the contact data appears in Google Earth’s “Temporary Places” folder.  The unmodified KML file doesn’t appear to import correctly into QGIS (the folder structure that is generated by HRD Logbook’s export seems to mask the contents) but the individual points and lines can be moved to a single new folder in Google Earth (without their individual folders) and this will save as a KML file that does import nicely into QGIS:

QGIS early days - 10 contacts imported

A slightly hacky way of making the HRD0Logbook output KML file readable by QGIS is to use a text-based ‘find and delete lines’ routine to remove the folder structure which seems to be the problem.

Notepad++ is a good tool for this kind of work.  Open up the KML file and go Search, Find… open the Mark tab and check the Bookmark line box.  Now do a Mark All for the terms “folder” and “All”.  This will bookmark the lines that are to be removed.  Now back the the menu bar, Search, Bookmark -> Remove Bookmarked Lines.  Now save the modified KML file and this should import nicely into QGIS:

QGIS early days - all contacts importedSo now I can get all of my contacts data input to QGIS from HRD Logbook without too much fuss…

Creating a Great Circle (Azimuthal Equidistant) Map

Importing a basemap shapefile or two from Natural Earth is pretty easy and gets you a world map in the standard WGS84 projection (here I have a coastline layer and a 10° graticule layer):

QGIS world map - WGS84 CRS

The next thing to do is to change the Coordinate Reference System (CRS) from WGS84 (the “normal” but distorted view we’ve come to expect from world maps) to a great circle projection, centered on my location (approximately 51°N 1°W).  My initial mistake here was to search with the terms “great circle QGIS” and this brought me lots of information about plotting great circle route lines but not maps.  I realised “great circle” is a fairly ambiguous phrase which is used in varying ways in the GIS community.  Changing the search terms to a more precise “azimuthal equidistant QGIS” quickly yielded guidance on the projection I was looking for.

In QGIS go Settings, Custom CRS… and create a new user defined CRS using the following parameters:

+proj=aeqd +R=6371000 +lat_0=51 +lon_0=-1

…where my location is 51°N 1°W, enter your lat/long figures accordingly.  This gives me the result I’m after:

QGIS world map - Azimuthal Equidistant CRSRight, next thing I need is radials and range circles…

Range Circles

I’m sure there’s an easier way to do this directly in QGIS with buffers but here’s one simple method (and probably easier to understand for a GIS n00b like me).  This online tool creates KML files of circles of a given radius and centre.  They don’t seem to import straight into QGIS as vector layers but they do open in Google Earth and that allows me to group them into a Places folders and export as a KML file that imports as vector layers (a bit laborious but only needs to be done once for any given location):

QGIS world map - Azimuthal Equidistant 1000km range circlesI’m currently looking for a way to draw some radial lines with their origin at my location…

Results

So, all this allows me to plot radio contacts on a great circle type map and helps me relate coverage to antenna configuration, operating frequency, etc…

Contacts 06-10-13 great circle plotThe use of a GIS for this task gives a great deal of flexibility on the look and feel of the output which is quite exciting and something I shall be experimenting with.  🙂

Loft PC upgrade

After some testing of my loft receiver system on my main desktop PC showed that the Loft PC was probably hitting the limits of its performance I’ve decided to do a limited hardware upgrade.  The Loft PC is made from components dated around 2005 which were mid-range back then.  Without spending too much money and keeping the Socket 939 motherboard as the core of the system, the components to take the motherboard to its maximum (what would have been high spec back in 2006) are now available 2nd-hand on eBay.  I have therefore acquired a dual-core Athlon X2 4600+ CPU and an additional 2GB of DDR400 memory as a ‘final push’ on this PC…

Passmark PerformanceTest Summary Results (performed locally, not via VNC) :

LOFT-PC (pre-upgrade, Athlon 64 3000+, 1 GB DDR400): 

LOFT PC (post-upgrade, Athlon dual-core X2 4600+, 3 GB DDR400): 

Desktop PC (Max. power saving mode, Intel i5  750 quad-core, 8 GB RAM): 

The bars show Passmark summary scores relative to my desktop PC running in “max. power saving mode” which was set when the successful SDR/VNC tests had been achieved.  The detail of the Passmark tests shows various gains from the upgrade (and interestingly an increase in memory latency on the Loft PC – due to non-matched memory module pairs?*) but this gives a feel for the relative size of the upgrade.

Most importantly, the upgrade appears to have smoothed out data mode reception on the system so I’m currently running SDR#, VAC, IPSound, Digital Master 780 and RealVNC Server with good performance – success!

Loft PC - running Softrock Ensemble with SDR# and DM780

Quick, time to make an image of the system before something breaks…

* (Later Edit) Well, my instincts proved correct!  It wasn’t long before I had a couple of reports of registry failures and some boot errors (missing/corrupt system folders and hal.dll).  After a couple of unsuccessful re-installs of Windows today I think I’ve traced it to the new RAM (2x1GB low-density DDR400) and the old RAM (2x512MB high-density DDR400) not playing nicely together.  Old RAM now removed and the system seems stable and working well at 2GB RAM.  That increase in memory latency was probably a clue to the problem.  Will re-run the Passmark tests when this fresh system has completed all of its automatic updates…

Loft Receivers v2…?

At the start of my Loft Receivers project there were two obvious approaches to the system architecture:

  1. A loft-based PC running SDR hardware and applications, access this PC via remote desktop method over network (VNC/IPSound)
  2. Loft-based SDR hardware, I/Q outputs streamed over network, SDR applications running on remote PC

Option 1 has been the focus so far due to the relative ease at which it could be assembled using spare PC hardware.  In a number of ways, Option 2 presents a more elegant system (cheaper total system cost, lower power consumption, lighter network footprint…),  but I expect it will demand much more configuration time.  In that respect, Option 1 is conceptually simple – set up a basic SDR PC then connect to it via VNC/IPSound.

In reality there has been a lot of trial and error in getting the Option 1 station up and running and I am still trying to optimise the performance for data modes reception.  With the extra overheads of running VNC and IPSound I may be hitting the limits of the Loft PC’s modest specification (Athlon64 3000+, 1GB RAM).  I had thought this would be plenty enough for the job but perhaps I was being optimistic.  If this is the case, I’m loath to spend a couple of hundred pounds on upgrading the PC’s motherboard/CPU and RAM for what was meant to be a “low cost” project…  Additionally, Spring has arrived and the temperature up in the loft has suddenly risen giving me concerns that it may be difficult to run a full powered PC up there during the summer months.  These two factors may combine to see Option 2 be taken up sooner than expected.

This could be a nice project to put my Raspberry Pi to work.  I’ve read somewhere about using a Raspberry Pi for sending the RTL-USB dongle’s I/Q output via TCP and SDR# can receive this.  The SoftRock Ensemble II receiver would need a USB soundcard plugged into the Raspberry Pi and then the Pi will need to be configured to send the line-in out over the network using Pulse Audio or something…  A quick search shows a promising guide:

http://www.crazy-audio.com/projects/raspberry-pi-for-audio-distribution/

My next steps on this project are to temporarily set the SoftRock receiver up on my more powerful desktop PC (Intel i5, quad-core, 8GB RAM…), access this via VNC and see if the performance difficulties disappear with the extra muscle.  If it continues to be a struggle I expect some RPi action to commence shortly…!

Alternative audio streamers

Am currently working on improving the audio streaming from my PC in the loft. I was pretty fixated on improving my use of VLC by tweaking options and codecs but am now trying alternative streaming programs. There are quite a few suggestions on DXZone:

http://www.dxzone.com/catalog/Software/Audio_Streaming/

One of my local contacts has success with IP Sound but I’m after a method where the receiver can be platform-independent as I’m using Linux on my main laptop at the moment. Hopefully there’s some joy to be found from the link above!

Linux Mint – A Linux I can work with?

It seems like I’ve spent every evening for the past three weeks tinkering with my laptop, a Toshiba Tecra M9. I’ve been trying different Operating Systems since a scratch on a Windows 7 disc forced me to look for an alternative. I tried going back to the factory Windows Vista Business image and then upgrading to Windows 8. This looked OK for a short while but I guess the new Windows regards the Tecra as too much “legacy” tech as I’ve had innumerable problems with freezes, reboots and general crashing. Given up on that.

Over to Linux then, here is another point in my life when I’m going to give Linux a go as a general day-to-day OS. The point of this post is that it may be useful to anyone trying Linux on a Toshiba Tecra M9 and finding problems when they close the lid. Suspend functionality in Linux seems shakey at best. There are many reports of laptops freezing when the lid is closed, various threads point towards setting “Do Nothing” as the action on lid closing, disabling screensavers, etc. but I’ve had no joy in Ubuntu 12, Fedora 17 or Kubuntu 12. Linux Mint 14 however does appear to work. I’ve still had to set the Power Management action on lid closing to “Do Nothing” but the laptop now returns to where I left it when the lid is opened. Huzzah!