Triple-booting a Phoenix Laptop

Posted on June 8, 2010

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A friend recently donated an old laptop to me that she no longer used. It had been lying around since failing to boot and a local computer shop telling her that the hard drive would need replacing (and that the data on it wasn’t salvageable). I gladly accepted the 1.63Ghz dual core laptop knowing that a replacement hard drive would be fairly cheap and worse case I could donate it to a recycle centre somewhere.

Out of curiosity I put an old Ubuntu live disc that was lying around in and booted up. To my, limited, surprise the hard drive mounted happily and a couple of files I tried opened. The friend was thrilled by this and an hour or so of backing up documents and data ensued.

The next question was what use could there be for this old(ish) laptop which was functionally, if not aesthetically, fine. Despite being a Computer Science student I’m disappointed to say that I’ve never really tried any operating systems properly other than numerous Windows variants and Mac OS 10.5. Yes I’ve used some during my time at university for certain modules and I’ve even installed old versions of Ubuntu on my main desktop machine. However they never really took on much of a role other than to get work done that was impossible (or at least unnecessarily difficult) in Windows or Mac OS X. The familiarity of those systems always won out when I wanted to relax or get things done. Therefore, I decided that this system would be solely a linux box but which distribution to install?

Well, rather than make a decision on a single distribution I decided to install three that seemed to be the basis for other distributions and that seemed popular: openSUSE, Fedora and Ubuntu. Although I knew little of the differences (or much about them at all) I set about downloading the CDs and installing them. I suspected that Ubuntu had more focus on simplifying the user interface and installation and, as such, decided to install that last with the hope that it would automate the triple booting aspect of the new system.

On a whim, I decided to attempt to install openSUSE first. I knew nothing of the operating system other than the name and had no idea what to expect. The installation process was simple enough and soon I was sitting with a nice, new, green desktop smiling at me. Suspiciously easy so far. Trying to connect to my wireless network was up next and here the first problem appeared: the wireless icon suggested that there were no networks to join. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing but off I went trying to find instructions for using ndiswrapper with the windows drivers for the laptop assuming that, if no networks were appearing, the problem was that the wireless card wasn’t being found. Not exactly. After an hour of trying this I decided to re-install openSUSE to undo any changes I had inadvertently made that may have caused problems later and looked online again for a different solution. Starting from scratch I looked into how one would normally connect to a wireless network…apparently networks don’t always show up and that I simply had to add the connection manually (using the name of the network and the password). Ahh well, the success buoyed any annoyance at the time wasted. After installing all updates I went to bed happy in the knowledge that the laptop was functional.

A new day and a new operating system. Next up was the Fedora distribution, the operating system of choice for a colleague during my industrial year and, from brief glimpses I achieved, a nice enough system to use. Again the installation process was relatively simple (after a brief excursion to confirm that the openSUSE partition was left intact albeit reduced in size) and here was a pretty blue desktop looking at me inquisitively. Having learned my lesson from openSUSE the wireless connection was simple to initiate and here was another functioning system. Was openSUSE still functional though? Well…no…that would make the whole thing too easy.

Choosing openSUSE from the GRUB boot menu was fine and I wandered off to make a cuppa while it finished. Upon my return I found an error had prevented it from loading. The reported size of the partition and the actual size differed and openSUSE was refusing to boot. What a small inconvenience I thought (or perhaps a less polite version). After reading about fsck and numerous other tools I wasn’t getting anywhere quickly. In fact, working on and off, this took up most of my evening. Eventually I decided to reinstall openSUSE over the old one and the problem was fixed because the partition size was known during installation and didn’t change again afterwards. However, openSUSE had not detected Fedora by default and, try as I might, I could not find the right phrasing of arcane passages to convince GRUB to boot Fedora.

At this point I was tempted to give in, pick a distribution and to format the whole hard drive with a single operating system. A temptation that soon passed. As a last resort I reached for the Ubuntu CD and decided that if I couldn’t get all three distributions coexisting happily by the end of the night I would install a single OS in the morning and be done with it. The Ubuntu installation was much like the others and I told it to split the non-OS partition to leave a partition for documents and data to be shared between the OSes while not touching the openSUSE or Fedora partitions at all (another lesson learned).

Taking longer to install than the other operating systems I was anxious for the process to be done so I could admit defeat and move on to trying a single distribution. As the installation finished I believe the planets must have correctly aligned for a brief moment while some swine sprouted some of those new fangled wings. Restarting provided a nice menu with all three distributions represented (along with various safe modes and memory tests) without any intervention from me. Even better, they all worked.

My first impressions of the three distributions are that, for day to day operation, they are more similar than many would have you believe. The default themes for openSUSE and Ubuntu have the slight edge of Fedora for me but this is simply personal taste and all are equally customisable with a small amount of effort (a small amount I don’t have right now). As I continue playing with each of them I may post more details reviews or comparisons but, as with the suggestions for other future posts, don’t hold your breath.

48 hours after beginning I have saved some data that was believed lost forever and installed three operating systems on a laptop with a hard drive supposedly beyond salvation. The enthusiasm from the success means this post was written on the recently christened Phoenix laptop which has a battery capacity of only 6% its original expectancy when fully charged.

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