Tribulations when Loading Linux on a Compaq Laptop

SAN MATEO (07/03/2000) - I got rid of my Toshiba Corp. notebook computer awhile back because I wasn't giving formal presentations very often. That's all I ever used it for. Most conferences have islands of publicly available computers for reading and responding to e-mail at a show. I use my handy Palm Inc. V for most everything else I need, so I don't take a notebook to a show anymore unless I have to give a presentation. You see, I hate notebook computers. I resent having to lug a seven-pound machine across the country.

Unfortunately, I had to give a presentation on Linux-based Web-development tools at PC Expo this year, and it looks like I have a few more presentations scheduled in the next few months. So I gave in and bought another notebook. I picked up a Compaq Computer Corp. Presario 1600 floor model. (Yes, I know you can get the cute, light Sony Corp. VAIO to run Linux, but the CD-ROM drive wasn't available locally, and I needed a laptop immediately.)After spending two days getting Linux to run, all I can say is, "What was I thinking?" I know from experience that the most troublesome hardware for Linux comes from Compaq. Over the past few years, I have been able to install Linux quickly on just about any hardware -- from IBM laptops to bizarre no-name home-brew computers. But I've always had trouble getting Linux to run on a Compaq. Call it bad luck. Call it Compaq's fault. I don't know which, but it's the truth.

This notebook was no exception. The first thing I tried to install was Caldera Inc. 2.4. Everything went fine except the XFree86 configuration. It wouldn't recognize the Trident Cyberblade i1 video, and I couldn't get the video to work with any of the Trident Microsystems Inc. settings when I chose them manually.

Red Hat 6.1 was no better.

I found one site on the Internet where someone said he solved his video problems on the same notebook by moving to XFree86 4.0. I could have installed XFree86 4.0 on Caldera 2.4 or Red Hat 6.1. But Mandrake 7.1 comes with XFree86 4.0, and I've been itching to try Mandrake 7.1 anyway.

So I installed Mandrake. Eventually. I suspect the problems I encountered were caused by the fact that I burned my own copy of MandrakeSoft Inc. 7.1 onto Memorex Corp. CD-R disks. The Compaq DVD drive seems to have problems reading these disks. So it failed to install certain packages at first. It took a couple hours and numerous retries, but I managed to get everything installed, including XFree86 4.0. Unfortunately, XFree86 4.0 by itself didn't solve the display driver problem. (By the way, as far as I can tell, DVD capabilities are currently useless on Linux.)My wife, who is the ultimate Internet search engine, turned up a great Linux on Laptops resource at This page points to Linux configuration tips and details for a long list of notebook computers. The URL included for XFree86 configuration for the Compaq Presario 1600 is I downloaded the configuration file for XFree86 4.0, installed it, tweaked a couple of settings, and it worked. There is also a configuration file for XFree86 3.3.6 you can get at the same page, but that didn't work for me.

The sound card in the Compaq 1600 is a Sound Blaster-compatible chip set from VIA Technologies Inc. Mandrake 7.1 automatically detected this card and configured it, but the driver wouldn't load.

I took a wild guess based on the error message and enabled the MIDI capabilities of the laptop. Then the sound driver loaded but it won't work.

After a little digging, I found out that the Linux 2.2.16 kernel changed this driver significantly. So I downloaded the 2.2.16 kernel and tried it. Finally the sound was working.

Unfortunately, the Compaq 1600 has a Winmodem. There is a Linux driver for this particular Lucent chip set, but it is a binary-only driver that is precompiled for the Linux 2.2.12 kernel. It doesn't load with my 2.2.16 kernel, and I dislike Winmodems enough that I don't want to go back to a 2.2.12 kernel just to use this one. I still have an ActionTec DataLink 33.6Kbps PC Card modem left over from the dawn of time, so I'll have a way to dial out if I can only find the dongle for that thing.

Nick is the founding editor of LinuxWorld ( Reach him at

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