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Harry Homeowner harrows Dell Hell

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I had to abandon my abysmal Red Hat 7.2 installation on my Dell Dimension to follow a few other stories, but I couldn't let it go down as a defeat. So Friday after work I rooted through the 300+ e-mails I've received with suggestions for getting it done.

I've been contacted by Red Hat staff and by Dell staff, and by hundreds of Linux enthusiasts, all of whom have offered tech support, much to my delight.

But in the end it was Reg reader and Boeing Shared Services Computing System Architect Kenneth Frazier who cracked the nut. For some reason, his suggestion (more on which below) appealed to me most, and, luckily, I tried it first, saving myself many hours staring at the monitor and drinking heavily to mitigate the tedium.

As I mentioned earlier, the chief consensus was that my CD drive is stuffed; but I rejected it because I've never had the slightest trouble installing any app or OS, including several flavors of Windows, BSD, and other Linux distros on this box.

My hardware may well be causing the grief, all right; but, that's not the same as saying that there's anything wrong with it.

And let's keep in mind that the focus here is to find a Linux distro that the average PC user ('Harry Homeowner') can install and run with ease as an alternative to 'doze. For that reason I installed on a consumer machine such as one finds from Compaq, Dell, Gateway, etc, without recourse to anything more complicated than CMOS setup.

Nevertheless, I was urged to use a different HDD, my Western Digital 204BA with ATA-66 controller being highly suspect. I was told to disable DMA on my CD-DVD at the command line while running Anaconda in addition to disabling it in CMOS setup. I was told to yank my SIMMs in sequence, on the theory that one of them is bad. I was told to install a PCI IDE controller, to separate the CD and HD drives. I was told to put all my PCI cards in different slots, to identify IRQ conflicts, since the Dell BIOS unfortunately forbids productive tinkering in this area. I was told that ext3 is utter crap, and to format for ext2 instead (but 'Harry' wants a journaled file system). I was told to use DOS fdisk instead of Linux fdisk, and Linux fdisk in place of DOS fdisk, in spite of having reported trying both to no avail. I was told GRUB is utter crap and to opt for LILO, in spite of having reported trying both to no avail. I was told that Anaconda is utter crap, and to spare myself the trouble until SuSE and Mandrake arrive in my post box. I was told to get a Mac.

Too obvious

In the end it was painfully simple, but I resisted it (and several other suggestions) because it struck me as a bridge too far for our Harry. My sense is that he's averse to opening his case and mucking about with hardware -- hence my bias towards using only CMOS setup and the tools supplied with the distro.

But at the same time, I couldn't let some obscure gremlin thwart me. No, I'd persist until I'd made two clean, trouble-free installations in a row. And if that meant breaking character, so be it.

It was a simple thing, but let's let Frazier tell it in his own words: "I know this is probably the quarter millionth tip you have received on this subject, but have you tried switching the jumpers on your drives from cable select (the Dell default) to Master and Slave accordingly?"

I hadn't, because BIOS recognized the setup. I'd had this problem with an older machine: when I installed a second HDD it was invisible to BIOS, so I set the jumpers for master/slave manually and all was well. But in this case, I figured, if BIOS recognizes it, then I should reasonably expect my OS to recognize it as well.

It also struck me as something Harry Homeowner would never think of, though it did make more sense to me than any suggestion I received.

Since I've got 2 CD drives I tried switching them first, leaving the cable select intact, and encountered the same problem with freezing during the file installation. But when I set the jumpers on my CD drives to define master and slave manually, it worked. I did it both ways, using the NEC DVD/CD as master first and the Sony CD/RW as master second, and managed two clean installs with absolutely no problems on each setup. I used the automatic format feature in Anaconda and accepted all the defaults. I installed GRUB and KDE in a workstation config.

I'd altered nothing else, so this has got to be the issue. I was prepared to do the same with the HDD if that modification didn't work and continue exploring other possibilities, changing one variable at a time; but thankfully I, and my liver, were spared this exhaustive exercise in boredom.

But as for Harry Homeowner, I still can't recommend Red Hat 7.2 as a Windows alternative in good conscience. He's not going to play with jumpers on his drives.

I'll be returning the machine to cable select and to the CMOS defaults, just as i received it out of the box, before I test any other Linux distro. I hope for better.

Is this Dell's fault, or is it Red Hat's fault? I'll be pleased to hear from readers on that question. But my own sense is that if Red Hat can't work around simple issues with common, vanilla hardware, then they need to focus more on R&D and less on stuffed Tuxes. ®

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