Installing Xubuntu on a Dell notebook

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© Lead Image © lightwise, 123RF.com

© Lead Image © lightwise, 123RF.com

Article from Issue 245/2021
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Combining a Dell notebook with Xubuntu and an M.2 SSD makes for a reasonably priced, high-performance system for all your 3D printing projects.

After a decade of daily hammering on my old workhorse ASUS notebook, I decided it was time for an upgrade, especially since I've started using FreeCAD [1] with both resin and filament printers for my Steampunk gadget projects [2].

My daughter had a Dell 7573 [3] notebook with Windows 10 (running AutoCAD and Revit) that she no longer needed, but wanted to save the data. So we worked a deal: I swapped in a new M.2 SSD (and my daughter kept the old drive with her data), installed Xubuntu, and viola, I had an updated notebook (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The shiny new Xubuntu Dell notebook (with the old ASUS notebook in the background).

In this article, I'll walk you through installing Xubuntu [4] on a late-model Dell Inspiron 2-in-1 notebook. In addition, I'll demonstrate how the new notebook works for my Steampunk projects.

Swapping in a Board

I've used Xubuntu on my old ASUS notebook for a long time. Even on ancient hardware, the native Xfce desktop is clean, lightweight, and reliable. When new, the X83VM ASUS was state-of-the-art with a duo-core Intel P8400 CPU at 2.26GHz, 4GB of memory along with 1GB of dedicated video memory for the NVidia GeForce 9600M GS GPU, 802.11 a/b/g/n WiFi, a nice touchpad, a big battery, and an LED backlit 1080x800 display. I upgraded the original 2.5" 320GB SATA disk drive to a screaming 7200RPM, 750GB model a few years ago.

The Dell 7573 sports a quad-core Intel i7-8550U CPU running at 1.8GHz with a maximum frequency of 4.0GHz, 16GB of RAM, and an NVidia GeForce graphics chip. In addition, the Dell comes with a display that shows resolutions up to 3840x2160 on its sleek 15.6" touchscreen, 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac WiFi, Bluetooth v4.2, and a 250GB solid state disk.

Without thinking, I ordered a run-of-the-mill 500GB SSD "disk" from Amazon to replace the wimpy 250GB offering from Dell. When the disk arrived, I opened the Dell's case and promptly couldn't find the existing hard disk. What the? Yup, notebook technology has marched on, and I was still stuck in the late 2010s. The new disk went back to Amazon, and I instead ordered a SK hynix Gold P31 SSD (~$75) to fit in the PCIe NVMe M.2 slot.

In Figure 2, you can see the spot for the traditional hard drive to the left of the battery. Because the Dell came with an optional 56W battery, there isn't enough room to mount a traditional 2.5" SATA hard drive. Instead, Dell simply equipped the machine with a Toshiba 250GB M.2 board. You'll notice that there isn't even a cable for the hard disk, just a socket. Swapping out the original Toshiba M.2 board for the new SK hynix was easy: Remove a single screw, plug in the new board, and bolt it back down.

Figure 2: The Dell with an empty HDD bay, HDD connector, and the new SK hynix M.2 SSD board.

In the future, I'll crack the case first to see what I need before ordering. Alternatively, you could run Xubuntu from the USB stick and verify the hardware with the lshw or inxi -Fxz commands. Using Xubuntu from a stick is also a great way to make sure everything works on the notebook before a regular installation. While I did that step, I never thought to check for a spinning HDD. Oh, well, you learn something new every day, but I did feel pretty silly.

Installing Xubuntu

The first step to installing Xubuntu is to download an .iso image and burn it to a USB stick (any size over about 2GB will work). I did this on the ASUS using the dd command:

rob-asus% sudo dd if=xubuntu-20.04.1-desktop-amd64. isoof=/dev/mmcblk0 bs=32M

If you didn't download version 20.04, use the Xubuntu version you did download. In addition, use the mmcblk0 designation to choose the whole USB stick and not just a partition; otherwise, it won't boot.

Once the download is complete, remove the USB stick from the ASUS (or whatever computer you are using for downloading). Next, you'll need to go through the Dell BIOS setup menu to set the Dell to boot from the stick.

Power on the Dell. Don't plug the stick into the USB port just yet. Press F12 when the Dell logo screen appears to get into the BIOS menu. Under Other Options, select BIOS Setup (Figure 3).

Figure 3: The Dell BIOS Setup screen.

Navigate to System Configuration, then select USB Configuration, and hit Enter. Make sure Enable USB Boot Support and Enable External USB Port are selected. These allow booting to a USB-connected device, which makes the USB drives visible after bootup. Save and exit the BIOS Setup menu; power down the Dell.

Now plug the USB stick with your Xubuntu image into a Dell USB port and power the Dell back up. Again, press F12 to get to the Dell boot menu. This time, select UEFI USB Boot and hit Enter.

Booting to the USB stick will take about five minutes, because it has to go through a bunch of filesystem checks. USB memory stick storage is also notoriously slow.

Eventually, the Xfce desktop will appear. With a default resolution of 3480x2160, you may need to squint to click on the Xfce logo button in the upper-left corner of the screen. After selecting Settings, choose Display and press Enter to change the resolution: A good usable resolution is 1920x1080. Click the Apply button. If all looks good, choose to Keep the new resolution and close the pop-up window.

You should now see an installer icon on the desktop. To begin, press the installation icon and then just use the defaults for everything.

Set your WiFi to access your in-house router for software updates. The Dell 7573 doesn't have a traditional wired Ethernet port, so network connections are all done via WiFi.

Desktop Applications

I use a variety of applications for my consulting, writing, and speaking activities (Table 1). The old ASUS was still capable of running all my programs, although compute-heavy operations bogged it down just a bit. On the Dell, I've had no glitches with any of these packages. It's actually quite a tribute to the stability and reliability of the Linux-based ecosystem.

Table 1

My Desktop Applications

LibreOffice

Word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation application suite

Chrome

Web browsing and YouTube

Thunderbird

Email client

FreeCad

Project physical part development

Prusa Slicer

3D printing slicer program for the Prusa MK3S+ filament printer

Arduino IDE

Arduino and clones microcontroller development environment

Processing

Language for developing quick visually interactive programs

CHITUBOX

3D printing slicer program for the Elegoo Mars resin printer

kdenlive

Video editor

Gimp

Bitmapped graphics editor

After a new system build, I always immediately install the Synaptic package application manager. Synaptic is easy to use and lets me add or upgrade programs with a nice user interface. I also use apt at the command line for certain quick or one-off program loading tasks.

Other useful programs related to my Steampunk projects include the Mosquitto MQTT server and client package, the luvcview package for viewing video streams from webcams (and the JeVois smart sensor) and the gqrx software-defined radio program.

It pretty much goes without saying that LibreOffice, Chrome, and Thunderbird all work great on the Dell. Running all three at once doesn't even trigger the Dell's fan.

FreeCAD ran fine on the ASUS, but it is a real screamer on the much more powerful Dell. FreeCAD is a parametric computer-aided design (CAD) application that runs on Linux, Windows, and macOS. Parametric means that the objects you build are based on properties, such as length, width, and diameter, and can even depend on other objects. As you add features and change properties, those properties propagate through and adjust the part seamlessly. FreeCAD doesn't work very well on a Raspberry PI 4, even with 4GB of RAM. My experience is that the program will load, but rendering and working with models of any size is slow or causes FreeCAD to freeze. Consequently, I suggest sticking with a regular, fairly current notebook, like a Dell, for the best results.

The only real challenge I've had with FreeCAD is finding a workable mouse navigation model. I ended up choosing the CAD model as opposed to Blender or Revit models (which mimic the way you move around in the respective modeling applications). The CAD version uses the Shift key with the right mouse button for rotating the view and the Ctrl key with the right mouse button for panning around the model. Selection is done with the left mouse button, while the mouse roller handles zooming.

FreeCAD on the Dell has turned out to work exceeding well with the Prusa MK3S+ filament printer [5]. It's straightforward to build my models (Figure 4), like the two-piece foot bracket for my Steampunk lunchbox notebook computer (Figure 5).

Figure 4: My Steampunk lunchbox foot bracket model shown in FreeCAD.
Figure 5: The foot bracket after 3D printing on the Prusa MK3S+.

You simply develop your model and then save the object as a wavefront (.obj) file. Next, pull the .obj into the Prusa slicer program; set the print quality, speed, brims and so on; and then hit the Slice now button (Figure 6). If everything looks good, you then export the G-code and save the file to a regular SD card. Move the G-code file (on the SD card) to the Prusa printer, select the file on the front panel, and let it rip. The whole process works great and is a pretty quick workflow. At some point, I might try OctoPrint on a Raspberry Pi, which creates a network connection between the Dell and the Prusa printer.

Figure 6: The Prusa slicer program showing part of the lunchbox foot bracket, ready for slicing.

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