Monday, February 02, 2009

MSI Wind Dual Boot XP Home / Ubuntu Linux 8.10

My MSI Wind netbook ("Hobbit") has a hard disk with a lot of free space, and is already partitioned into two logical drives.  I bought it largely so I could run Windows programs without having to deal with the annoyances of trying to access USB ports while in a virtual machine.  As anyone who's read this blog knows, I'm more of an OS X or Linux guy than a Windows guy.  So I decided to turn it into a dual boot XP Home/Ubuntu 8.10 system.  This gives me the ability to run Windows apps when needed but do most of my work in Linux.

Because the Wind lacks an optical drive I needed an alternative way to load Ubuntu.  So, I created a bootable USB stick running Ubuntu 8.10 Live, and ran the installer from it.  The bootable USB drive works just like a live CD, and like a live disc, can be very handy if you need to recover data from a system which won't boot.

To create the bootable USB drive, I first took my old 1 GB Microcenter flash drive, stuck it in a Windows box at work, and used Unetbootin (, and told it to download and install Ubuntu 8.10 on the stick.  To get this done in a reasonable amount of time I connected the Windows PC to an SMCWGBR14-N router*, which has its WAN port connected to a Motorola SB6120 DOCSIS 3.0 cable modem, provisioned at 160 GB down x 120 up.  (It's good to work for the ISP.)

Unfortunately, the Microcenter USB stick wouldn't boot, so I tried again with a Kingston Data Traveler 8 GB stick that I keep at the office.  I normally use it for sneaker-netting files between machines, and keep it loaded with various apps and utilities.  Before blowing it away to make an Ubuntu stick I copied them off to my MacBook Pro.  The Kingston drive booted my test PC just fine.  Compared with a live CD, the USB stick is definitely faster.  There's still plenty of room leftover on the Kingston, so I'll be copying the installer files I had on there back into a new folder so I can continue to use it in its old role, in addition to being a bootable recovery system on a stick.

As an aside, the reason for choosing Ubuntu is that there seemed to be a good amount of online documentation covering how to get it up and running on the Wind.

Since I'd been storing my data on the D: partition of the Hobbit's hard disk, I had to first move it over to C:, as I'd be installing Ubuntu onto D:.  With that out of the way, I proceeded to boot the Wind from the USB drive by rebooting the box and holding down F11 to get a boot menu.

Ubuntu installed easily on Hobbit.  The RealTek 8187SE WiFi card is not supported in the Ubuntu 8.10 kernel, so I downloaded a driver for it from ( using my Mac, sneakernetted it to Hobbit using a flash drive, and installed it using the GDebi GUI package installer (you can use dpkg from the CLI).  After a reboot was able to get onto my WiFi network using WPA2 encryption.

The RTL8187SE card is OK at best.  Compared with better cards is slower, not as sensitive, and has poorer support in Linux.  In particular, the driver for the Realtek device is kernel-specific, so if I install a new kernel as a security update, WiFi will break.  To improve stability, speed, and range I've ordered an Intel 4965 AGN card and plan to replace the Realtek card.

During the initial setup, going back and forth between a wired and a wireless network did not always go smoothly.  For example, if Hobbit is connected to a WiFi network and I then connect it to Ethernet, the box has problems acquiring an IP address.  I tried dropping to single user mode (# sudo init 1) from a terminal, but Ubuntu is configured to put you back at runlevel 5 when you do this.  I even tried setting the IP address statically, but wound up having to reboot the box before I could get the box back online.  Hopefully this issue will be improved with the Intel WiFi card.

I've been using Hobbit as a Linux box for a few days now and it's been quite a good experience once I tweaked the UI to my specifications.  I used the Synaptic package manager to install the XFCE desktop environment.  With a lighter footprint than Ubuntu's default Gnome desktop, it's ideally suited to netbooks IMO.  I still have access to the various Gnome programs but XCFE is less obtrusive than Gnome.  (In fact, were I starting over I'd be tempted to install Xubuntu, which uses XFCE as its default desktop.)

One thing to be aware of if you create a similar dual boot setup on an MSI Wind, is that when Ubuntu sets up the GRUB bootloader, it creates an entry in the GRUB menu called MS Windows XP/2000 (or thereabouts), in addition to the Windows XP Home entry.  The XP/2000 entry launches MSI's system recovery utility which restores the box to factory defaults.  I therefore went into GRUB's menu.lst file and changed the entry to "MSI WIND SYSTEM RECOVERY" to prevent confusion.

One of my bete noirs with Linux has been configuring printers.  Naturally, non-GDI printers are much easier to get working.  My Brother HL-2070N was automatically detected by Ubuntu's printer setup utility although a driver for that particular model was not included.  I configured the box with a Brother HL-2060 driver and it worked fine when I printed a couple of test pages.

Skype is one of the IM programs I use and it worked fine using the Ubuntu packages they provide.  The webcam worked with no special tweaking although I haven't tried any voice chats yet.  I have read but not yet confirmed that the input level using the Wind's internal microphone is too low, so to use it for voice chats or phone calls I may need to use an external mic or headset.  We'll see.

If you have an MSI Wind don't hesitate to give Ubuntu Linux a try.  With the exception of the WiFi card, everything worked with minimal tweaking.  The major change I made was to switch desktop environments from Gnome to XFCE, but that was purely a matter of personal preference.

* If you need an 802.11n router, this is the one to get.  It's fast and stable.


RubyDoo said...

Thank you very much Dave, for your candid insight. I am considering a MSI Wind, but needed the 'can I dual boot' question answered first! Another question I have is, will I be able to run most common apps on a netbook like, an office suite, iTunes, Adobe Reader, etc.?

Dave Markowitz said...

A netbook will run any app you can run on low end hardware with a 1.6 GHz CPU and 1 or 2 gigs of RAM. The limiting factors as I see them are disk space, along with screen and keyboard size. Also, graphically intensive apps are likely to be somewhat pokey unless you get something like an Asus N10, which has a dedicated video card.

I have MS Word and Excel 2007 installed on my Wind and they seem to run OK, though I haven't tried any large documents. Adobe Acrobat Reader runs as well as you can expect, but I mainly use Foxit PDF Reader. I haven't run iTunes as my iPod is Mac-formatted. I have VLC installed on the Wind for media files.

Hope this helps.

Niki said...

This is a nice comprehensive explenation. I was planning to try Ubuntu on my Wind and this will certainly help.

By the way, I'm running Garmin Mapsource on my MSI Wind ( 2GB RAM ) and it runs fine ( even with word, powerpoint and excel opened as wel ), it is a bit slower as the version on my normal laptop, but not much.

Pierrox said...

Thanks for your feedback on Ubuntu on Wind. If you're an OSX kind of guy, as you say, have you tried to install Leopard/Snow Leopard on your Wind? It runs incredibly well on that machine!

Dave Markowitz said...

I have not tried turning my Wind into a Hackintosh. While I regard that as interesting from a technical perspective, one of the reasons I bought the Wind was so that I'd have a dedicated Windows PC, for a couple of applications which run only on it. And, while I could dual boot XP and OS X, ongoing maintenance of the OS X side of things is too much of a PITA for me since it's not officially supported by Apple.