Sunday, July 15, 2007

Running Debian Etch on my Noebook with an ATI Mobility Radeon X1600

A couple of days ago I had a bit of a crisis when my Notebook running Fedora 7 refused to boot in the morning. It just hanged up after the line with 'Red Hat nash starting', after a package update. The update however, wasn't anything related to kernel, headers, nash or anything related. It was just a few regular package updates. The Fedora 7 crash was quite a disappointment as I was very impressed with how far Fedora 7 has come since FC3/4. I was using Fedora as my primary working distro, that was until the following incident.


So I was stuck with a crashed computer with all my e mails, svn check outs, bookmarks and so on. I tried with modified grub parameters (and various other things) without any success, before deciding to do a fresh installation. The real horror was there.

My Fedora 7 DVD refused to boot into the installer and hanged at Running /sbin/loader. Every time I tried to do an installation it just hanged the same way. By this point I wasn't even sure whether the crash was related to the updates I made. I was worried to see a working system just go out like that (not that I haven't seen anything like that). Even more frustrating was not being able to get the DVD to install. So I downloaded a rescue CD image using another computer and tried to do a Net install with it, still without any success. I will submit these issues to Fedora bugzilla, hopefully soon.

It was about midnight when I had to let go of Fedora, I had to use the computer someway. So I checked my Linux disks. Among old CDs, the only recent thing I could find was the Ubuntu 7.04 CD. I gave it a try. As I expected the X failed at boot complaining about my graphics. Being a Debian fan, I didn't worry much to get Ubuntu boot and then trying to install. After all I was tired with trying so many things.

So ....., I downloaded and burned an Debian Etch NetInstall CD image into a DVD (which was another cause for frustration in a Windows box). Around 4 o'clock in the morning I started my first ever Net installation of Debian.

I set the alarm to 6 o'clock and went to sleep.


A fresh day. A fresh OS. I got up (Nadee, if you are reading this, you just didn't see I slept only 2 hours...... Ok, I'm not doing that kind of things nowadays as often as I used to do. Really! Forgive? Yes, you do :). I had shiny Debian Etch installation (so much for the wait to download Debian DVDs).

Fedora and Debian are my favourite Linux distros for my Notebook. I have tried many distros for myself including Fedora, Debian, Red Hat, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, CentOS, Ubuntu, Vector Linux, Gentoo, Slackware, Mandrake/Mandriva, SuSE, Novell SuSE Linux Enterprise Server, Lycoris Desktop, Lindows/Linspire, etc. and even something called KateOS. I'm not going to list the Live CDs I've tried here, don't worry. After all these years trying and running all these things, I prefer to install Fedora or Debian on my working (desktop) PC.

Anyway, I got the Debian installed and working. First thing I did was to install the graphic drivers for my 256MB ATI Mobility Radeon X1600. Most of you might know that the driver is broken on Fedora 7 and not yet fixed by ATI (AMD). So I was keen to try it in Debian. After several weeks on VESA I wanted to use a proper driver. What was the fun of having a graphic card like X1600 if I couldn't use it?

First I added non-free to enable using non-free packages in the Debian official repositories.
deb etch main non-free
deb-src etch main non-free
deb etch/updates main contrib non-free
deb-src etch/updates main contrib non-free

Then I installed the driver packages,
# apt-get update
# apt-get install module-assistant fglrx-driver fglrx-kernel-src

(fglrx is the driver, module-assistant was to build the kernel modules from the driver package)

# module-assistant auto-install fglrx-kernel-src

This builds and installs the driver kernel modules

# aticonfig --initial
# aticonfig --overlay-type=Xv

Just like that I had my graphic drivers properly set up. So I gave it a run by running a few 3D FPS games like Nexuiz, Sauerbraten, etc. Worked fine. I'm happy and will try a few more games just to be convinced :). This is not to say that I'm happy with the driver scenario. I'm totally, utterly unhappy about the ATIs stand in Linux drivers. As a customer I can be unhappy.

So to finish up the thing. I'm now running Debian 4.0 (Etch) on my Notebook with ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 + 17 inch Widescreen graphics. I've lost my Evolution contacts list during the migration by mistake. I have to get them from Gmail again. I also have to install a few things from source. This include the things I usually install from source like MPlayer/MEncoder, ffmpeg, Nmap, etc. and a thing I usually don't install from source, Pidgin 2.

Altogether, Debian has slightly more things to configure than Fedora or Ubuntu which usually works out of the box. This may be credited to the wider scope of Debian. I can claim that I'm fairly satisfied with Debian Etch on my Notebook. However running Fedora on the Notebook was more smooth for me (I have a fair amount of memory and processor power to waste :). When Fedora 8 comes in a few months, I'll try it again if ATI people are nice enough to provide a working driver, otherwise I guess I'll stay with Debian.

Go Debian!
Note: I sincerely hope this little cheer will convince Debian people to do more frequent releases :) They are doing a great job of providing a stable, relatively less resource eating OS. But release cycle seems a little slower for the desktop.)


  1. Steve8:38 PM

    Many thanks for this very useful post. I recently built myself a little shuttle - with a Q6600 :-)

    I installed XP, dual booted Debian Etch onto it, all nice and smoothly. Worked like a dream.

    And then I decided to give my old ATI X1600 a home in the new box... *clang* up come 101 errors about being unable to start X.

    Being a bit of a linux newbie when it comes to this kind of thing, I decided to google, and found your page.

    I followed the instructions, step by step, typed reboot, and tada, all pretty interface again.

    So many many thanks for making what could have been a complete nightmare, a complete doddle!

  2. Thank you very much for your comment, and it's always great to know that my post helped someone. :)

    About the X1600, I'm going to do a post on getting X1600 on Ubuntu 7.x (on 7.04 it was bit of a pain) and howto get the cool desktop effects (Compiz) working like a charm. :)

    Anyway if you need some help on Compix on X1600 head to the Unofficial ATI Wiki - I've contributed a few tips there on that matter.

    Thanks again.