Linux Mint on a Dell XPS

Linux Mint's desktop is infinitely customisableAbout once a year I try to convert to Linux, dual booting some distribution or other alongside my Windows installation. Last year my chosen distribution was CrunchBang. It was pretty good fun setting it up and trying to get this and that working, but I never quite got everything going smoothly. This year I decided to go more mainstream with Linux Mint, Linux Mint being the biggest and most polished distribution which isn’t overly commercialised. I got things mostly working within an afternoon with no major problems.

Installing Linux Mint

  1. Download the image file (.iso) from the Linux Mint website. The easiest way to do this is by using the torrent, but otherwise pick one of the mirrors. I went for the 64-bit cinnamon desktop version.
  2. Burn this image file to a DVD or write it to a memory stick. Windows disc burner can do the former, but a third party program like Win32 Disk Imager is needed for the latter. The webpage for Win32 Disk Imager is on SourceForce, who have apparently started bundling unwanted software in with some of their downloads. There are plenty of other places to get Win32 Disk Imager from, or failing that many alternatives which do the same job.
  3. Boot from the DVD or USB drive. On the Dell XPS L502X pressing F12 as soon as the laptop starts brings up the boot menu.
  4. Connect to the internet via WiFi or ethernet. The installer prefers an internet connection though it isn’t strictly required.
  5. The installer has a built in partition manager but it’s very basic. Fortunately the live disc gives you access to a load of other programs, including gparted. If you’re wanting to dual boot, use gparted to organise the partitions on your computer. I have one for Windows, one for Linux, and one for data. You’ll also need a swap partition for Linux, which as a rule of thumb for a modern PC should be as big as your RAM is.
  6. Install Linux Mint, being careful to select “something else” when it asks you how it should arrange your partitions so that you can select the root and swap partitions yourself.
  7. Continue with the installation, following the rest of the instructions.

Fixing a couple of problems

First of all my cursor started flickering. This turned out to be an easy fix; all I had to do was disable an “unknown monitor” via system settings > display.

Linux Mint makes it easy to download proprietary driversThe second real problem was with the display drivers. The Dell XPS L502X laptop, like many, uses Nvidia Optimus in order to save power by switching between on-board graphics processing and the dedicated video card. There are two routes you can take here. The Nvidia driver allows you to use either and switch between the two, but requires that you log in and out when doing so. Changing to the Nvidia driver is easy in Linux Mint. All you have to do is head to system settings > driver manager, then select the newest proprietary driver in the list. Linux Mint seems much less hung up on avoid open source software than other Linux distributions are which makes this much less of a headache than usual.

A more elegant solution is Bumblebee, which works more similarly to how Optimus does on Windows. There are few more steps involved to set up Bumblebee but it’s still not too complicated. My next post will be is a set of installation instructions specific to Linux Mint, as figuring out what to do proved the hardest part of the set-up.

Unfortunately I have yet to get either the HDMI out (which requires the dedicated graphics processor) or the Mini DisplayPort out (which uses on-board graphics processing) to work yet. I’ll come back to this at a later date, probably.

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