An Open Letter to Michael Dell: Why I have no choice but return my Ubuntu Inspiron Mini 10

An Open Letter to Michael Dell: Why I have no choice but return my Ubuntu Inspiron Mini 10


UPDATE: as it turned out, I was shipped a faulty item by Dell. They changed the motherboard, and things worked smoothly. However, at the end of this exercise I learned that the selection of machines available with Ubuntu is still quite small -- hopefully they will extend it soon

Dear Michael,

I have been a fan of yours for many years -- since I was a kid in fact! I watched as you created Dell, one of the first ("the" first?) companies that sold computers by mail order. I watched you become wealthy, successful, and then retire, only to come back to Dell to remind its managers what they seemed to have forgotten: listen to your customers. I watched you embrace GNU/Linux; I remember thinking: I wonder if people realise what this will actually mean. I am sure he does.

So, here I am: I bought an Inspiron Mini 10. I have no choice but return it. And now I can't stop wondering: how could Michael Dell get it just so wrong?

(I apologize for the length of this letter. Open letters should be straight and to the point... but this one is too detailed to be short. I hope you will still read it)

Let me explain. I ordered my Dell Inspiron Mini 10 on the 18th of June. When I ordered it, I noticed that while the Windows XP models were shipped within two or three days, mine would have taken about three weeks. It will be worth the wait, I thought. I did feel a level of discrimination, but hey, you were selling GNU/Linux laptops, and waiting three weeks was better than nothing.

For once, I did not check the machine's specs. It came with Ubuntu, it was born with it and that was good enought for me. I was going to leave it as it came. Maybe Ubuntu 8.04 wasn't the latest version, but I didn't care -- for the first time, I could finally buy a GNU/Linux computer that just worked!

The computer arrived much earlier than expected. It was shipped eight days later -- rather than the twenty one days your site had forecast. I wondered how many people had given up buying one due to the horrific three week wait. On June 26, the machine left Dell. A few days later, it reached my eager hands.

I travel quite a lot. In the end, I only managed to get my hands on this computer last week, August 12, while in Italy (where I still am, and about to go to Australia). I turned it on, thinking: the first time I turn on a laptop that just works!

But it didn't. As soon as the wireless card coughed into life, the computer froze.

Let me say this again: it froze.

A fantastic friend and IT scientist was sitting next to me as this happened. He looked at me. He said "This is impossible. They can't sell something that doesn't work. It's like... it's like selling a toaster that only gets the bread warm. Or... it's like... it doesn't work".

At that point, I actually hoped my computer was faulty -- I must be the only person on Earth who would even hope for that! I persisted and tried a few more times -- the little beast would freeze within three and six minutes. Guaranteed.

I searched online. Mine wasn't an isolated cases -- other people experienced freezes too with Inspiron Mini computer in their stock installation. I wasn't the only person who'd bought a toaster that only made warm bread.

Further online research revealed that tech support would have asked me to reinstall GNU/Linux using the install disk that came with the computer. I did just that. Result: it still froze, no improvements.

That's when I called the friendly tech support at Dell. This was my very first call to tech support of any kind. The technician, with his happy and broad Indian accent, explained to me how to run the hardware tests, a necessary step before he could pass me on to the Ubuntu specialists.

When I spoke to the Ubuntu specialists (I was on hold for only 20 minutes, which was great), I could hear that he was anxious to help me, but had no idea why the computer froze. He told me to reinstall it from the installation CD. I told him that I just did. He told me that the computer must be defective, and I should return it to Dell. I explained that I was travelling. He told me to call Dell, Italy, to arrange it. He couldn't answer the question "Do I have world-wide warranty?".

I installed Ubuntu 9.04 on it, and -- guess what? -- it no longer froze. However, there was another "little" problem: the VGA it comes with is only supported in Vesa mode by Ubuntu 9.04. It's a Poulsbo controller, which is very new and not recognised by the Xorg server. I was disheartened: I knew there was a way to get it working, because otherwise it wouldn't work in Dell's own version of Ubuntu 8.04. So, back online, asking the Google oracle for help -- which worked: I found out how to install Ubuntu 9.04 on the Dell Mini 10 -- by adding the "PPA" packages from the Ubuntu team. Following the instructions is not the easiest thing to do: you have to go through the comments to find out how to add the PPA's public key, and how to install the PPA kernels -- the latest Ubuntu kernel update breaks the new PPA xorg drivers (no 3D though). My last sentence sounds like a tongue-twister. It can be translated as "If you are just an end user, you can choose between a laptop that will freeze within six minutes, call your favourite GNU/Linux geek to get the graphics working, or more simply, just return the beast to Dell.

After all this, I discovered that my work was for nothing. Even with the new drivers, the system still freezes. It just takes a little longer to freeze - about an hour, an hour and a half. But it freezes.

This is why I decided that I would return the unit -- in a hurry. And ask for my money back, in an even bigger hurry.

I don't get it. When you build a computer for the GNU/Linux market, the single most important thing to do is use parts that you know will work well with GNU/Linux. Out of the box. There are plenty of cheap Intel-based cards that are well supported -- all of them would be a much better choice than the Poulsbo chipset that is new and hardly supported. The same applies to the wireless card: Broadcom has been Linux-unfriendly for years!

I will be returning my laptop, Michael. I must say that I am immensely disappointed. When I purchased it, I was pleased that I was giving money to a great company that sold GNU/Linux laptops. Now, I don't even know how to feel -- for myself, and for all those people who will buy a Ubuntu laptop, and will find themselves lumbered with something that simply won't work.

Thank you for listening to your customer,

Tony Mobily Free Software Magazine http://www.freesoftwaremagazine.com

P.S. The touchpad is borderline unusable. When you click the buttons, the pointer will move. This is an engineering problem... did they even try dragging things around when they tested the touchpad's prototype?

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Comments

peter.weyant's picture

I was just reviewing going with a Dell standard for my company because of 3 laptops that I thought should function out of the box with a Ubuntu 9.04 load - the Inspiron 10, 13, and 15. I have burned on the two notebooks and was going to move on to the netbook 10 shortly. Will keep you posted, but this does not look good. The reason I went this path was support on the 15n for 8.04 Ubuntu as supplied by Dell. Cannot understand why this is such a science project for one of the major big 4 laptop/desktop folks to move on and correct. And yes, I understand the Borg being Microsoft. And yes I know netbooks and laptops and consider them the same.

Peter Weyant
www.applicationvoice.com

Marco Marongiu's picture

Hi Tony

This is scary, to say the least.

I was researching myself about netbooks that "just worked" with Ubuntu. I found the Ubuntu Netbook Remix distribution in the Ubuntu site, and read "UNR has been tested on the following popular models". "WOW!!!" I thought, "here we go!".

Followed the link and, guess what?, my best choice was the Dell Mini 10v.

It's sad to see that, unless you overlooked this information (and I am pretty sure you didn't), we also have Ubuntu to blame, and not only Dell. So sad... And so sad I have to start my research once again.

Ciao
--bronto

sgbeamer's picture
Submitted by sgbeamer on

Unfortunate about Dell's ineptitude. I bought and EeePC about a year ago and wiped the very slow linux that came with it and replaced with Ubuntu. I'm running 9.04 now with zero problems. The EeePC is a great little machine. It's like taking a hard back book with you. Good hunting.

David Sugar's picture

There are a few companies that specifically choose to sell (and presumably properly test) GNU/Linux compatible hardware, such as ZaReason and System76. It is also possible they (Dell) originally tested on an older model and simply never tested on later production batches which used perhaps slightly different components.

Very often I see a manufacturer use the same model # for things that sometimes are very different. For example, HP I think for awhile had a dv series that often alternated between AMD/Radeon video and Intel/Intel video. Knowing that at one time something called a "Dell Mini 10v" worked does not necessarily guarantee one made and sold now has the exact same version of the exact same chips, and especially when dealing with closed source drivers offered by vendors who have no interest in assuring their hardware works for GNU/Linux, this seems like a formula for trouble if a vendor is irresponsible and does not bother to test what they current make.

I do not have DELL equipment or any specific knowledge of what they do in this respect, but I simply note this type of issue I have encountered in the past with other vendors.

Richard Bernier's picture

Mr. Mobily,

Hello, my name is Richard; I am part of Dell's Social Media Group. We would like to make arrangements to have your Mini 10 brought here to Round Rock, TX and thoroughly check it. Please contact me when you have the time. I can easily be contacted via twitter, https://twitter.com/Rich_at_Dell.

Regards,

Richard Bernier

GregE's picture
Submitted by GregE on

@bronto

There are two Dell Mini 10 netbooks. The 10v works well with Ubuntu as it does not have the GMA500 video chipset and uses a normal Intel video chip. The products with the GMA500 or Poulsbo video chip are hampered by a very dodgy video driver. The problem is that Intel outsourced the chip to get a very low power usage system. I do not think the drivers are great for Windows either.

I have a Mini 12 running Ubuntu 9.04 and using the PPA Poulsbo drivers. It is indeed stuck at 2.6.28-14, but everything I need seems to work. xorg.conf must be tweaked to stop random freezes. It needs Option "DRI" "off" in the Device section. It took half a day to resolve all the issues. I do want to be able to move up to 2.6.28-15 as it has an important security fix.

I have no need for the webcam or Skype so i have not even bothered to make them work, but all normal functions operate OK. WiFi and 3G (USB dongle) work flawlessly and the screen is sharp and video plays well enough. Music playback through headphones also works. Compiz 3D effects work, but you have to override the blacklist and start Compiz from Autostarted programs rather than the normal Ubuntu appearances menu.

This machine was purchased with XP installed as we have no other option here in Australia. It is meant for my daughter to use for schoolwork, but she turned her nose up at XP and wanted Ubuntu. It is now dual boot, but XP has not been used since Ubuntu was installed. There is a project to hack the Pouslbo driver for Debian that is reported to work with 2.6.30 kernels. The current driver cannot move any further forward due to xorg versions.

Dell's error was to think Intel could supply them with a working driver for this chipset. If they had have opted for a more conventional netbook chipset, as they have in the 10v, all of these issues could have been avoided.

The new 11z models should "just work" with Ubuntu as they use a proper Intel GMA4500 video chip, but I await evidence from real users before I would consider upgrading.

For the time being my Dell Mini 12 is functional with 9.04, but could be way better.

cheers

Hatch's picture
Submitted by Hatch on

Hi Tony,

nice letter. Just one thing I want to add in case people wonder what hardware to buy.

Check http://www.linux-laptop.net/ &/or http://tuxmobil.org/ before you order.

all the best

Hatch

kirkland's picture
Submitted by kirkland on

Just read this article, and I must say that I'm surprised. My experiences have been much better.

I have a Mini9 with a stock Ubuntu 8.04 desktop from Dell, which is actually acting as a backup server for me at my parents house. It has 73d3h of uptime, and has never locked up.

My wife uses a Mini10v as her daily machine. She ran the stock Ubuntu 8.04 for about 2 weeks. It worked fine, but Ubuntu 9.04 Netbook Remix released about that time, and I upgraded her to that. It has been extremely reliable for her. All of the peripherals (except for the microphone) are working like a champ. It has never locked up.

I have blogged my experiences in detail about the Dell Mini's here:
http://blog.dustinkirkland.com/2009/03/wah-your-dell-inspiron-mini9-is-ubuntu.html
http://blog.dustinkirkland.com/2009/07/dell-mini9-server-and-dell-mini10v.html

Cheers,
:-Dustin

not a happy customer's picture

Dear Tony,

I have to tell you that I don't think it is an Ubuntu problem. I ordered my dell mini 10 on the 20th July with Windows XP and had exactly the same problem. It froze on start up and when I asked dell technical support for help they told me to reinstall windows XP about 4 times and I still had the same problem.

Eventually they sent a technician to replace my hard drive and it still froze on start up. It then went to the dell testing centre where they kept it for about a month. At this point I lost my patience and asked for my money back. I am currently waiting for a refund.

I was very disappointed to receive a faulty mini 10 after having been such a loyal dell customer in the past. Needless to say I shall not be buying another dell computer ever again.

john.morgan7's picture

For the people who bought Dell Mini 10's and had problems, from whom did you buy the PCs? I own a Dell Mini 10 running XP and have had no issues. I got it at Best Buy.

Just wondering if you may have pirated hardware?

John P Morgan
Bellingham WA

Author information

Tony Mobily's picture

Biography

Tony is the founder and the Editor In Chief of Free Software Magazine