Linux Mint on the MSI X-Slim X370 Notebook

If you followed my Penguin Plunge series, you know I’m growing into a bit of a Linux fanboi. So much so, that I’ve installed several different distros either in dual-boot on a physical machine or in Windows as virtual machines (which I highly recommend if you’re curious about VMs or want to try another OS such as Linux without any heavy commitment). I’ve now taken the next step and purchased an MSI X370 13" ultraportable notebook and have it running Linux Mint 11.4 64-bit as the primary OS. Here’s a look at why I chose the X370, what I like about it, and how I got it loaded up with Linux (it’s easy — you’ll see!).

Update: A BIOS update fixed the bug causing the notebook not to wake from sleep. See below for more information.

The Need for … Portability

Portability doesn’t really rhyme with speed, does it? If you want portability, you’re going to sacrifice a bit of speed, though with the MSI X370 and its AMD E-350 1.6 GHz dual-core APU (CPU + GPU on one chip), you won’t be losing much. And in terms of RAM (4GB) and hard drive capacity (500GB), you will easily outpace any netbook.

I considered netbooks for a while (Peppermint looks like fun), and still think they’re pretty neat (hopefully tablets won’t kill them completely), but their too-small form factor and weaksauce capabilities didn’t fulfill my requirements for a development machine — and that’s exactly what I wanted: a light, slim, and ultimately portable computer that wasn’t too small, could go more than a few hours without a charge, and was capable of running any dev tool I might need…

The X370 delivered and has exceeded my expectations. Its light, compact form is just right: it’s around an inch thick at the extreme and well under 4 lbs (my Asus m50vm is close to 8lbs), yet the 13.4", 1366 × 768 glossy screen and supple, chiclet-style keyboard feel luxuriously roomy compared to a netbook. The packaged 8-cell battery claims up to 10hrs run time (it’s more like 5-6 under normal use, but that’s impressive nonetheless) and it is one stylish, sexy machine (it’s no Macbook Air, but heck.. it’s 1/3 the cost). On top of all that, the price is stomachable and Newegg never fails to please.

The Love of … Linux

That’s a bit more poetic (alliterations are always awesome, aren’t they?!) — and so is Linux Mint. It’s Ubuntu, refined. My sister-in-law and sysadmin/JavaScript developer has made mention that she often feels “alone” while using Linux. I kinda felt that way, too, with Ubuntu. It’s a bit dull and dreary (granted, we’re just talking about default themes here) and if I didn’t peer up from my monitor once in a while, I could almost convince myself I was alone in a cave, despite being tapped into the billions of people on the net. Not so with Mint: it’s fresh — minty fresh — and clean feeling. I don’t feel alone at all!

Mint is a derivative of Ubuntu. It’s basically the same (Debian => Ubuntu => Mint), with a few minor changes: namely, the default theme, the Mint Menu (which I really like), GNOME is the default environment (as opposed to Ubuntu’s Unity), the Update Manager is friendlier and more advanced (arguably), and the included software is slightly different (mostly tried and true programs, while Ubuntu seems to be pushing newer, edgier apps). In the end, the performance is going to be the same as Ubuntu (and most anything that applies to Ubuntu applies to Mint — ie. any software that runs on Ubuntu will run on Mint and e.g. if you need help installing/modifying something, it’s typically easier to find Ubuntu-specific instructions, which should apply the same to Mint), so it really boils down to personal preference. I run Ubuntu on my desktop and one of my primary virtual machines. I chose Mint for the new laptop, and won’t be looking back — it just looks too good on this all-white notebook.

Loading Linux onto the Lappy

I couldn’t resist another alliteration (please don’t sue)! If you’re here looking for information on getting Linux Mint (and/or Ubuntu — and probably any other Ubuntu derivative like Lubuntu, Xubuntu, Kubuntu, or !# Crunchbang Linux, though I haven’t tried any of these) installed specifically onto the MSI X370, then look no further — I’ve done it myself, and it’s a breeze.

Before You Begin..

There are two annoyances is an annoyance you should be aware of before installing Mint (or probably any other Linux distro) to the X370. The first is that this This notebook comes equipped with a Sentelic touchpad, and while it works fine for basic pointing and clicking and has some primitive scrolling ability, multitouch does not work under Linux. This is a known issue with these Sentelic pads, and I’ve yet to find a solution or any indication that it will be solved. I think the only hopes are that Sentelic releases a multi-touch driver for Linux or the Ubuntu gang will put out a generic touchpad driver with multitouch capabilities. I’m not sure that either of those are likely and I wouldn’t hold my breath. Yes, that does suck.

The second annoyance involves the proprietary ATI Catalyst drivers (version 11.7 at least) preventing the X370 (and perhaps all E-350 equipped devices) from waking from sleep/suspend/hibernate. So, you may wish to refrain from installing the ATI drivers (see Additional Drivers below). Yes, that does suck, too.

If you can live with these issues this issue, let’s move ahead to the install.

1: Grab the ISO & Make a Bootable USB Stick

The first thing you’ll need is an ISO disk image of Linux Mint. I chose the 64-bit distribution, but 32-bit will work as well (this may limit you to 3.5GB of memory, however). Considering the X370 has no optical drive, you’re going to want a USB stick with a capacity of at least 2GB (these shouldn’t be more than $5-8 — I found a 4GB SanDisk Cruzer at Office Depot for around $7). If it’s a SanDisk drive, you should probably remove the U3 software using their free removal utility — otherwise it may cause problems in booting from the device.

With that done, I basically just followed the instructions on the Ubuntu website for slapping the ISO onto the USB stick and making it bootable. I did it on Windows XP using the Universal USB Installer — I just selected Linux Mint 11.4 64-bit from the drop-down instead of Ubuntu. It should be a similar procedure to make a bootable USB stick on other OSs (again, just follow the Ubuntu instructions).

2: Prepare the X370

I decided to keep the factory install of Windows 7 on the X370, so effectively these are instructions for a dual-boot setup. If you don’t want to keep Windows, that’s even easier, and you can skip to the next step.

The X370 came with a slightly sliced up hard disk. There were already 4 partitions: a Windows recovery partition, an MSI recovery-CD-maker partition, the Win7 install, and an empty “data” partition. I booted into Windows and used the Disk Management tool to shrink the Windows 7 partition. Open a prompt and type in diskmgmt.msc and hit Enter, then right-click on the Windows 7 partition and click Shrink Volume. I shrunk it as small as it would go, which was about 180GB, leaving around 300GB for Linux (you can divvy this up however you want). And with that, we’re Linux bound…

3: Install Linux Mint

Reboot the X370 with your Mint-ified bootable USB stick attached. It should automatically boot from USB without any BIOS changes — how handy is that? If for some reason it doesn’t boot from USB, you may have to hit F11 to change the boot sequence.

If you aren’t installing into a dual-boot setup, you can simply install Mint over Windows 7 according to the Ubuntu instructions. I didn’t go this route, but one concern is that “data” partition. You may want to remove it and redo the partitions completely. For my dual-boot setup, before starting the Mint install, I did a quick apt-get install gparted and used gParted to remove the data partition and set up a new primary partition with an 8GB Linux swap & the rest devoted to the Mint install as an ext4 filesystem (be sure to set the mount point to “/” — the root directory). Partitions are tricky business, so I won’t get into them here, but needless to say, there’s tons of help online (and you can even browse the net while Mint is installing).

Now you just go through the motions: pick your time zone, keyboard layout, username, etc., then let the installer do its thing. Within minutes, you’ll be booting into Linux (don’t forget to remove the USB stick).

4: Additional Drivers

I’m not sure what went wrong when I activated the additional ATI Catalyst drivers when Mint prompted me to do so. When I rebooted the machine, the display flickered on and off repeatedly and became unusable (I’ve heard mention of a bug that causes the LED backlight to cycle off and on and I think this is similar). I couldn’t find an easy way to uninstall those drivers right away, so I just did another clean install. It’s possible this may only be a 64-bit issue, but I’m not sure.

UPDATE: There is a fix for the bug mentioned below: Update the BIOS using the instructions at this link. You’ll need to follow the DOS instructions by loading the BIOS flash utility onto a USB stick. This seems to have fixed the problem for me.

As mentioned above (in the Annoyances section), there is currently a bug that prevents the X370 from waking from sleep under the ATI Catalyst 11.7 (and probably other versions) drivers. If you still wish to install these drivers, there is a manual installation method for them. The instructions at the Unofficial AMD Linux Community run through the manual installation and removal of ATI Catalyst drivers quite thoroughly. I haven’t had any trouble with this method, and the drivers even show up as Activated in the Additional Drivers configuration window.

5: You’re Done!

Now all that’s left is to personalize. I found it odd that vim wasn’t installed by default, so that was the first thing to go in. The Software Manager is chock full of any sort of program you might want (a supposed 30k+ packages). I got used to the task bar being at the top of the screen, so I moved that up, and then experimented with Docky and Cairo Dock until finally settling on the former (it’s a bit simpler and easier, while Cairo Dock has tons of customization options). From here, it’s all up to you!

Here’s a looksie at how it turned out for me:
!http://www.sdsalyer.com/images/9.jpg (Linux Mint 11.4)!:http://www.sdsalyer.com/images/8.jpg

MSI X370 & Linux Resources

Here’s a few relevant links you may find helpful:

Had any issues with your X370 and/or Linux Mint? Know of solutions to the multitouch or suspension issues? Leave your comments below!

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