Dell XPS 420 with Linux Review

Dell XPS 420Well, it’s not perfect. I think my big mistake was not going with the more expensive NVIDIA video card. Actually, I’m fairly certain that any problems I am having have everything to do with the video card: ATI Radeon HD 2400. On the whole it’s exactly as advertised. Following are some things that I feel are important features.


I was disappointed that the box for this beast was so big. I’ve seen the recent Mac Pro tower boxes and they are not much bigger than the machine itself. The XPS 420 box is HUGE. This does mean that the machine arrived in pristine condition though.

Dell is definitely close to Apple in presentation with the XPS systems. Here’s what came with the machine:

  • 1″ thick User Manual
  • Small quick start manual
  • Very nice noise-canceling ear bud headphones
  • Velcro straps to help you keep your many wires and cables under control
  • Dust Towel for the everyday necessity of wiping the dust off the glossy black finish
  • Faux-leather XPS-stuff collection book-ish thing to hold this stuff
  • Dell Multi-media keyboard (extra $25 I think) It’s very nice
  • Dell 2-button mouse with scroll (I am using my trusty Logitech MX310 instead)
  • REAL WINDOWS VISTA INSTALL DISC (not a stupid ‘from recovery partition disc’)
  • ATI Driver disc, basic Dell software disc, Adobe Photoshop and Studio Elements, Microsoft Works

I also bought a $50 speaker set from them with these nice, small speaker panels to put on your desk and a 12″ box sub-woofer to put on the floor. Sounds great, but would rather just have the table speakers alone.

Fit and Finish

The XPS 420 seems well built and solid. Surprisingly, it’s just about as big as my G5. However, it weighs no where near as much. Also, this thing runs very quiet. Now I realize how loud the G5 was. I think I remember them advertising the G5 as a quiet machine, but maybe I’m crazy.

Dell XPS 420 tower tray
There’s a nifty rubber-bottomed tray on top of the tower that is an excellent fit for all of those gadgets that usually end up on top of your tower: Portable Media Player, Digital Camera, and I put my wireless router there as well. They also provide some thin slits to hide you USB cables that run from the devices to the much-appreciated SIX USB PORTS on the back of the XPS. I don’t think Apple would ever do this, but I love it.

Dell Multimedia Keyboard
The Dell keyboard feels good and the multimedia keyboard comes with an attachable palm rest. I highly recommend spending a little extra for this keyboard. The multimedia keys all work in Linux except for the ‘Volume Dial’ which apparently does not have a ‘button push’ input. If you Google it, somebody has written a script to handle the input, but I just remapped the big arrow keys on the left to control the main system volume instead. It’s nice to have keys specific for media player (next track, previous track, play/pause). There are a few additional buttons that can be used for pretty much anything. I was able to set the ‘Close Window’ button to ‘Eject’ the optical drive disc. My wife likes the Calculator button. Also, someone other than Apple has finally caught on to the idea of putting USB ports on the keyboard. That’s excellent.

GNU/Linux Experience

Thanks to the video card, installing Ubuntu wasn’t very slick. Eventually I used the Alternate install disc with the text-based installer and was sure to specify only my optimal screen resolution, a few smaller resolutions and nothing larger than what I planned to use. Once I figured that out everything went fine after installing Envy and getting the direct ATI video driver.

Everything works aside from things related to the video card. What doesn’t work?

  • Fast User Switching: I get a black screen and Ctrl+Alt+Backspace doesn’t help
  • Hibernate and Sleep: Appears to go to sleep fine, but won’t wake up
  • Compiz Fusion with dual-display: It does work, but doesn’t feel stable and playing video suffers with it on

The only thing I use Compiz Fusion for is the Exposé-like window picker and I think the Alt-Tab app switcher in Compiz looks nicer and is larger. So, not a huge loss and I’m confident these issues can be resolved with improved driver offerings from ATI. Fast User Switching would have been nice also.

The ATI Catalyst Controller application for setting up the video card works well enough. Setting up a second monitor with a combined desktop space was simple. It’s seems a little out of wack though. I wouldn’t fiddle with it too much.


My system sports the Intel Core 2 Quad 2.4 GHz processor with 3 GB of RAM. This machine is fast fast fast. I’m pretty sure most of the speed comes from just one instance of the 2.4 GHz processors. The Quad proc does flex it’s muscles when exporting/converting/compressing video and audio. I don’t have numbers for you, but I was exporting some MP3 files from audio recordings I had made a while back with impressive results. I started the process on my 1.6 GHz 1 MB RAM G5 just to compare. The MP3 compression was at least twice as fast using the latest version of Audacity on both machines. And if you watch the processor activity graphs, the old G5 was peaking the whole time while the Core 2 Quad just hummed along on two of it’s four cores.

Running virtual machines with it is an excellent experience. As mentioned earlier, my wife likes to watch ABC shows online. I tried the Firefox-for-Windows-Over-Wine trick, but that’s not working right. Instead I set my wife up with a Windows XP VM using VirtualBox. I know VMWare is king in virtualization, but installing VMWare server, after agreeing to the legal mumbo-jumbo is a pain and apparently I can’t install VMWare Player via Synaptic on my system (I don’t get it). VirtualBox, because they offer a full open source version, is much easier to install. The performance is good too. I hear the big difference is in networking and that’s not really why I need a virtual server anyway. Regardless, my wife can enjoy a full-screen HD video experience on my Linux system via Windows XP via VirtualBox. Fantastic!

Windows Vista

For starters, Windows Vista runs just fine on a VirtualBox VM with plenty of allotted RAM. However, now that I’ve had some time to look around, I find Vista to be very cluttered. The main menu has too much stuff displayed immediately and there’s so much crap on the initial desktop including the widgets that I felt claustrophobic. I can only imagine what a less savvy user would think on initial start. I’m confused. I thought they were trying to minimize menus and everything to focus on the average user with the capability to customize for an advanced user. They’re so inconsistent. Windows XP was actually looking good in my opinion. As a Mac user I felt a little threatened at the time. I think Vista may be a step back.

On the other hand, the install experience was a big improvement, but unfortunately most of their users won’t ever experience it. The loading and log in screens look great too. I’m starting to wonder if I should start fiddling with the Linux Gnome log in screen. Somebody, a designer, needs to step in and make it cool like what Windows Vista and Mac OSX offer. Currently the standard ‘enter username and password’ screens can look nice, but the ‘list of users with avatars’ screens look like crap on a stick.

Login Ubuntu Login CleanX
Login OSX Login Windows Vista
Login Linux Gnome User List


  1. I can only wait for ATI to improve their Linux driver. Supposedly more ‘openness’ is coming down the pipe. Worst case scenario: I’ll buy another video card. However, it seems like the best open source video support goes to Intel’s integrated video hardware. Since ATI is owned by AMD and NVIDIA is owned by Intel I’m pretty sure Intel is sharing info about the integrated video because it’s their low-end hardware. Somebody tell me what a good 3D and dual-head capable video card is for Linux. It all looks bad outside of older hardware that has been reverse engineered.
  2. The black gloss looks great in photos but is a bitch to keep clean in the real world. Anybody that’s owned a black car knows that.
  3. Frickin’ Windows Sideshow display is completely worthless, even if I was running Windows.
  4. Too many wires and cables. I definitely appreciate why people pay a lot for an iMac.

Dell XPS 420 Lots of Wires


I’m very pleased with this system. It’s extremely nice and it’s a pleasure to finally use a high-powered machine with plenty of screen real estate to run my favorite open source graphics programs. I apologize for the long review (took WAY too long to finish) but there were a lot of relevant details. I hope this review is helpful for Linux users looking for new hardware especially.


Photoshop CS in Linux

Being a freelance Web Designer & Developer is a good career if you are trying to work full time on Linux and open source software. However, you still have to be compatible with your clients’ source files and backups. This means using Photoshop to build layouts or at least slice up the layouts that you get in PSD file formats.

I have been using my aging G5 (boy, saying that makes me and my checkbook cry) to deal with Photoshop files. However, since I have been setting up this beast of a Dell for the Ultimate Linux Desktop I spent some time today in getting the Windows version of Photoshop CS running on top of Wine, the Windows Compatibility Layer.

Wine is so good right now that you can simply throw the Photoshop install disk in your Linux box and run the installer. I’m not kidding, but keep in mind that this is Photoshop CS, not the latest and greatest Photoshop CS3. Wine’s site has a great deal of information about a variety of Photoshop versions running on Wine.

How did I do it specifically? I installed Wine, the Microsoft TrueType Core Fonts Ubuntu: sudo apt-get install msttcorefonts, customized the Wine interface to taste via Applications/Wine/Configure Wine and then ran the Photoshop CS installer.

Hold On, Save For Web Isn’t Working!

Alright, so there is one big fat catch that, if not dealt with, pretty much makes Photoshop worthless to web professionals: The amazing Save For Web plugin doesn’t work. Damn. So close.

Solution: The Magic of Windows Back Slashes

Yeah, it can be fixed! So, the secret is in how you start Photoshop. Either you or Wine setup some kind of shortcut unless you are starting Photoshop from the command line. Here’s how my original shortcut command was written:
env WINEPREFIX="/home/jason/.wine" wine "C:/Program Files/Adobe/Photoshop CS/Photoshop.exe"

and to fix the Save For Web problem, simply replace the forward slashes that follow C: with back slashes:

env WINEPREFIX="/home/jason/.wine" wine "C:\Program Files\Adobe\Photoshop CS\Photoshop.exe"

Huh? What?

Don’t ask. I can only guess that how that particular plugin was written included Windows-directory style references within the code. Sincerely, I have no clue. Thankfully the Wine developers figured it out. On that page it mentions Photoshop 7 specifically, but CS works the same way.

Kodak C330: Apparent SD Card Size Limitation

Kodak C330

Yes, this camera is over two years old. However, we’ve been wanting to replace my wife’s 256 MB SD Card for some time now. With much appreciation, we received a shiny new Kodak-brand 2 GB SD Card for Christmas from her parents. Excellent.

I finally got around to trying it out today only to discover that the C330 camera reads the card as ‘Full’ and any attempt to format the SD Card (which I know to be completely empty) results in the statement ‘Filesys Error 0e0010’.

Fortunately I have another SD Card-based digital camera. It sees that the card is empty and says I can take 600+ pictures at some ridiculously high resolution. I even tried swapping my other camera’s 2 GB SD card with the new one with the same result.

My conclusion is that it’s the size of the card at fault. The 32 MB and 256 MB cards we have work just fine with the C330 while the two different 2 GB cards both have the same problem with this camera. This isn’t surprising coming from a fairly inexpensive camera, but still disappointing knowing that her parents could have spent a lot less money for a card that we could use.

My last gripe is that this apparent limitation isn’t listed in the specifications for the camera in the user manual or on the Kodak site. Perhaps the primary audience for this device is the type that just uses the card it comes with? Perhaps Kodak never imagined SD Cards getting so big! 😉

X11: Switch Control Key To Apple/Command Key

One of the major problems with using X11 to run *NIX applications on OSX is switching from using the Apple/Command/⌘ key to using the Control key as your primary modifier key.

First of all, I don’t understand why the Control key is where it is on keyboards for OS’s that use it as the primary modifier key. It is probably the least ergonomic key to use (unless you have the good fortune of using a Thinkpad, since they don’t include the Windows key). Apple, for all its missteps, gets it right by making the primary modifier key easy to press in combination with other keys. Command, Control, Apple, ⌘, whatever you call it, put it in a comfortable spot! That one detail almost prevented me from switching to something other than OSX. Seriously.

With that said, it’s no surprise that Apple puts the rarely-used-in-OSX Control key off to the far corners of the keyboard. As to why Apple doesn’t include an option to switch the Control/Command keys in the X11 preferences, I can only imagine.

Second, making this change isn’t for *NIX purists that like it the way it is. Don’t get pissed at me. I’m just trying to help Mac people enjoy the fruits of the Open Source community because I’m frustrated with Microsoft and Adobe (and even Apple). Their customers take a back seat to their interest in making money.

Let’s Get Started!

This is simple and if anything goes wrong, it’s easy to get back to where you started. Here’s the meat and potatoes:

  1. Start the X11 application
  2. In X11 go to X11 > Preferences > Input tab. Make sure that the following options are UNCHECKED:
    • Follow system keyboard layout
    • Enable key equivalents under X11
  3. Close X11 Preferences.
  4. Open the (Applications > Utilities >
  5. Type the following in the Terminal window:
    vi ~/.Xmodmap and press Enter. This will open a file named ‘.Xmodmap’ located in your home folder ‘~/’ with the text editor program called Vi. Don’t be frightened!
  6. Vi is run from within the Terminal, so it won’t look much different. Press ‘a’ to switch to Vi’s Insert Mode (I think the ‘a’ stands for ‘Append’) and then type in or copy/paste the following text:
    ! ~/.Xmodmap
    clear Mod2
    clear control
    keycode 63 = Control_L
    keycode 67 = Control_L
    add control = Control_L
  7. If you have a MacBook and want to use both the left and right ⌘ keys, use this version instead:
    ! ~/.Xmodmap
    clear Mod2
    clear control
    keycode 63 = Control_L
    keycode 67 = Control_L
    keycode 71 = Control_L
    add control = Control_L
  8. Now press ‘esc’ or the Escape key to exit the Insert Mode and return to the Command Mode.
  9. Type :wq and press Enter. This command tells Vi to Write (think ‘Save’) the changes you made to the file and Quit Vi itself.
  10. Type xmodmap ~/.Xmodmap and press Enter to complete this process.
  11. Quit
  12. Open something in Gimpshop, Gimp, OpenOffice, Inkscape or any X11 application that you use to test if you have successfully switched to the Apple/Command key.

If you suddenly cannot get any of your X11 applications to start, you can delete the .Xmodmap text file from your home directory. To do this, open a Terminal in either the X11/terminal or the OSX rm ~/.Xmodmap and press Enter. The command rm stands for ‘Remove’. Be careful with this command. There is no ‘undo’ in the command line.

This post uses information found at //extrabright blog and The University of Illinois at Chicago’s Unix 101 pages on Vi. This is my attempt to write a more concise how-to.