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Installing Ubuntu on a Dell Inspiron 17 laptop (7737) dual boot with Windows 8 / 8.1

This is a guide to install Ubuntu on a Windows 8 based laptop. Specifically this is how it can be installed on a new 17″ Dell laptop. This is installed on the Inspiron 17 – 7737, which is a touchscreen laptop in the Dell Multimedia and Entertainment range. The laptop has an Intel i5 based laptop with an Nvidia Geforce GT 750M dedicated graphics processor.

Dell Inspiron 17 laptop 7737 - running Ubuntu Linux

Windows 8.0 / Windows 8.1

The laptop came with Windows 8.0 installed (but this guide also includes details of what happens when upgrading to Windows 8.1)

Considering Windows 8 was pre-installed with the correct drivers it didn’t work particularly well. It started with an error as soon as I logged in, followed by another error when I tried to create a recovery disk. In fact the recovery disk creation failed twice before working on the third attempt.

Like many others I am not particularly impressed with Windows 8. Microsoft running an advert “Honestly, you’ll love the new Windows” would not only be false advertising but a sign of how out-of-touch Microsoft is to its users. I’ve been using every version of Windows since 3.0 and I can only describe Windows 8 as frustrating.

Creating a Windows 8 recovery USB drive

I don’t plan to run Windows 8 much, but I did want to keep the ability to boot to Windows on an occasional basis. As computer manufacturers no longer supply a rescue disk (and haven’t for several years) then I recommend creating a recovery disk first. This can be installed to a USB flash drive, which now needs a whopping 16GB drive (for some laptops a 32GB drive may be needed), fortunately these have come down in price recently.

See my recent post: Windows USB recovery disks – The first thing you should do with a Windows 8 laptop

I did need to use the recovery disk during my testing, but that was due to my experiments with the UEFI setup, and it should not be required for normal install – but it’s certainly better to get one done before you do anything else.

I’d also suggest creating two USB disks as an additional belt-and-braces approach. I created one using the Dell backup and recovery application and one using the Microsoft Windows tool.

The Dell Backup and Recovery software allows includes a “Factory Backup” which can be to USB or DVD. I wasn’t able to get the DVD option to work, and even if it does then it would take a very long time to create all the DVDs. Unfortunately the error wasn’t particularly helpful “backup failed”.

To create a recovery disk with the Dell backup and recovery tool, start by launching the tool by right swipe and searching for recovery. There should be just one program under the application category. Then choose the Reinstall Discs option. You do not need to purchase the premium edition for this.

Dell backup and recovery tool for Windows 8 / Windows 8.1

If you would like to create a second copy using the Microsoft Windows recovery disc creation tool then see: How to create a Windows 8 / 8.1 recovery disc.

Disable Windows 8 fast start-up

I recommend disabling the fast start-up on Windows. Search for “Change what the power buttons do” from the search bar. Then “Change settings that are currently unavailable”, then untick the option “Turn on fast start-up”.

This will mean it will take a little longer each time you boot up the PC, but will reduce the risk of data corruption if other operating systems write to the windows partition.

Windows 8 - disable fast startup option to avoid corrupt data

Shrink the Windows 8 hard drive partition

You can re-partition the disk drive under Windows by running the partition tool.

If your data is spread across the drive then you may need to defragment the disk drive first.
It should be possible to run defrag from the apps search bar, but it doesn’t appear to do anything, instead launch the control panel, choose System and Security and Administrative Tools and then Defragment and Optimize Drives. Run optimise against C:. This takes a long time to run, even on a new laptop.

Then launch the partition tool by searching for partition in the Windows settings.

On the Dell laptop there are already 5 partitions. On earlier laptops this may have been an issue as the legacy MBR partition format only supported 4 primary partitions, but the newer GPT (GUID Partition Table) doesn’t have the same restriction. So there is no need to relocate or delete any of the partitions into logical partitions as we would otherwise need to do.

Find the drive marked as c: (it should be the largest) right click and choose Shrink the partition. Resize the partition to provide an appropriate amount of space to install Linux. You only need a few GB for a minimum install, but as I will rarely be using Linux I resized the Windows partition to around 280GB and the rest of the space (excluding the recovery partitions etc) on the 1TB drive to Linux.

You can see my partition setup below, but note this is after Linux has been installed so the following partitions have already been created (they will show as free space at this stage):

93GB = Ubuntu (/)
536GB = /home
6GB = swap

Windows 8 and Ubuntu Linux partition setup

At this point you may want to reboot Windows. Windows should be able to detect the changes that it made, but others have suggested rebooting so that it can detect the change in the partition layout and update itself accordingly.

Disable SecureBoot

At this point I disabled the SecureBoot option in the BIOS.

SecureBoot is a recent “feature” of Windows 8 computer (Microsoft forced all computer makers to implement SecureBoot before they could install Windows 8). SecureBoot uses pre-loaded signatures to determine whether the boot sector has been tampered with by a virus or trojan. It has the result of making it harder to install an alternative operating system, although many Linux distributions have now found ways to allow install with SecureBoot. The majority of viruses, worms and adware are installed without touching the boot sector. It would perhaps have been better for Microsoft to look at ways of preventing regular viruses, but instead they targeted the boot sector which just happened to make it harder to install competing operating systems.

SecureBoot can be disabled through the BIOS. Press F2 when booting and then set SecureBoot to disabled. The boot mode should be left as UEFI rather than legacy.

An alternative way to reboot into the BIOS is to hold down shift whist clicking on the restart button in Windows 8 – which will then give you a list of boot options.

Download Ubuntu and create a bootable USB flash drive

Download the latest Ubuntu desktop image

The site above also gives a guide for creating a bootable USB drive. If you don’t already have an Ubuntu computer then you want the guide “How to create a bootable USB stick on Windows” which uses the Pen Drive Linux USB installer. There is also a Windows installer which worked with earlier version of Windows, but it does not work on Windows 8, so make sure you create a bootable USB stick or DVD.

Install Ubuntu linux on the Dell laptop

Boot into the pre-prepared USB drive. On the Dell laptop this involves pressing the F12 key during power-on and then choose UEFI Boot: USB1-1 (USB DISK 2.0)

You can go straight to install – or “Try Ubuntu without installing” which is the option I chose.

If you choose to try out Ubuntu before installing then there is a ICON on the desktop to start the install, before you run this I recommend configuring networking so that the installer can get to any appropriate updates during the install.

The laptop can connect to a wireless network which can be configured through the Wireless icon in the top right. Once the network is connected you should run the installer from the desktop icon.

Ubuntu install - install flash and MP3 support

Most of the software on Ubuntu is FREE and Open Source Software. This means much more than not having to pay, it’s about having the source code and the ability to change and improve it. Whilst the range of software is great there are some things that can’t be achieved using open source software either because nobody has created an open source version yet or because of restrictions due to software patents or other zany laws. For example you would like to be able to use Flash on websites, or listen to MP3s and certain video formats then you need to select “Install this third-party software”.

When we reach the Installation Type page the installer should have detected any other operating systems that are installed. Ubuntu does not detect the Windows 8 install correctly, so it says “No operating system detected”. It’s still possible to install Ubuntu alongside Windows, but means that the automated option will remove the Windows 8 operating system. Instead select the bottom option called “Something else”, which allows a custom configuration.

Ubuntu install - partitioning option

The partition editor will then load which shows the partitions used by the Windows 8 install and the Dell recovery partitions. There is also a chunk of free space that was created using the Windows repartitioning tool (note on the screenshot the free space cannot be seen without scrolling down due to the number of partitions already defined).

Ubuntu install - Dell Windows 8 partitions

We can turn the free space into partitions to use for the Linux operating system by using the + button.

How many partitions are created depends upon personal preference as much as anything. The minimum is to have one partition called root (/) and then most installs usually have a swap partition which is used when real memory is running low. I like to keep a separate home partition which makes it easier to reinstall the operating system without having to reinstall from a backup (you still need to have a backup in case anything goes wrong, but that would be a safety net).

I therefore created the following. The root ‘/’ partition and the ‘/home’ partition are both created as ext4, and the swap is a special type that can be used as an extension (although considerably slower) of the physical memory.

93GB = Ubuntu (/)
536GB = /home
6GB = swap

Ubuntu install - Creating new Linux partitions

Most of the rest of the install is fairly obvious asking for location, name, password etc. One thing that is optional is when the install ask you to sign-in or create a Ubuntu One account. This is completely optional, and unlike some other operating systems doesn’t warn you that you won’t be able to do certain things until you sign in. The main thing it does is to create a Ubuntu One cloud account that allows you to synchronise files across multiple computers, which could be running different operating systems (such as other Linux distributions and Windows). Personally I think Dropbox is better, but I do still have and use a Ubuntu One account as well, so I did login to my account at this point.

Ubuntu install - Using a Ubuntu One account

Then let the installer run through the install. You can continue to use Linux whilst it’s installing, but if you create any files they will only be installed on the USB drive (assuming you created a data partition on the USB drive), so it’s best to leave it running on it’s own and then reboot once complete.

Changing the boot order in the BIOS – Ubuntu and Windows 8

If you reboot now then it will still boot into Windows 8. Hit the F2 key during boot to go to the BIOS setup and go to the Boot order.
On the Dell you can re-order the boot order so that it boots to Ubuntu first (this does not work on all makes of laptops – as I have a HP laptop which doesn’t allow me to select Ubuntu as a boot drive). The laptop will first boot into GRUB where you will presented with a menu to allow you to select either Ubuntu or Windows Boot Manager (UEFI boot).

Changing the touchpad behaviour

The laptop comes with touchscreen which works straight away in Ubuntu Linux.
The touchpad which is detected and works has rather strange behaviour with windows being dragged around and maximised and others launched whenever you try to drag something by clicking on one of the touchpad buttons with one finger and dragging with another.

This is due to way that the whole pad is touch sensitive (including the buttons) and that the entire pad is clickable, known as a clickpad.

This can be changed by copying the synaptics touchpad file into the xorg.conf.d directory:

cp /usr/share/X11/xorg.conf.d/50-synaptics.conf /etc/X11/xorg.conf.d/

and then adding the following line to the clickpad entry:

Option "AreaBottomEdge" "82%"

The change also be done dynamically without needing to reboot issuing the command:
synclient AreaBottomEdge=4059

More details:
Erratic behaviour of trackpad on Dell Inspiron 17 laptop in Ubuntu 13.10

Proprietary graphics drivers – Nvidia Geforce GT 750M on Ubuntu

The Dell Inspiron 17 7737 laptop has a dedicated Nvidia Geforce GT 750M in addition to the built-in Intel graphics. This includes the Nvidia Optimus technology, which allows GPU switching between the different graphics processors to provide maximum performance through the Nvidia GPU when required and then switching back to the low power Intel GPU when idle.

The open source Nouveau Nvidia drivers are installed by default, which works, but is not able to make use of the high performance of the Nvidia GPU or switch to power saving with the Intel GPU. Unfortunately the official Nvidia support is lacking. There do not currently have a stable proprietary drivers that can take advantage of the Optimus technology.

In fact whenever I tried to install the Nvidia proprietary drivers using the Ubuntu proprietary driver installer, or by using the Nvidia packages it left me unable to run X until the driver was uninstalled. I also tried installing Bumblebee to only run certain applications through the Nvidia graphics processor, but again the act of installing the proprietary drivers broke X. Unfortunately this means that the extra money spent on the dedicated graphics processor has so far been wasted, and I would have been better off getting a laptop without any dedicated graphics. Hopefully this will be fixed in a future version.

If you would like to try installing more recent drivers onto a working system then, unless you have a good understanding of the X configuration, I recommend only installing Nvidia drivers supplied as a deb package (through Ubuntu proprietary driver install, synaptic or via the Nvidia website). The debian packages can easily be removed (such as by using apt-get remove) in the event that they don’t work, removing drivers installed through the Nvidia installer is not so easy.

Missing battery icon

One minor annoyance is that the battery indicator which should be on the top panel is hidden until the mains power supply is connected, which kind of defeats the point. Although you can connect the power supply and then remove it and the battery indicator will continue to work. I thought this may be a problem with the indicator applet, but it turns out that other tools also report that no battery exists until after the mains power supply is connected. This appears to be in the Kernel driver. Hopefully this will be fixed in a future Ubuntu upgrade.

Stopping the wifi from entering power save mode

One issue took me a while to track down. My wifi would stop working after it had been running for a while. I have had problems with the wireless signal in my house before so I thought this was due to losing the signal briefly. It was only later when a friend suggested it may have been due to the wifi adapter entering power safe mode that I found the fix.

To disable power save mode for wireless create a file in /etc/pm/config.d with the entry:

HOOK_BLACKLIST="wireless"

Upgrading to Windows 8.1

After installing Ubuntu I decided to upgrade my Windows 8 install to Windows 8.1. This should have been straight forward, but Microsoft has decided to set it up in a way that makes accessing other operating systems on the same computer even more difficult. My guess would be that Microsoft are now so worried about customers switching away from Windows that they are now looking for ways to make it harder to switch.

During the upgrade to Windows 8, without first asking for any permission the upgrade tool updates the boot order so that Ubuntu is no longer the default boot option. This wouldn’t be too bad (easy to fix by entering the BIOS), but at the same time they make it so that the BIOS cannot be accessed through the normal F2 boot option, or perhaps that the window during which you can press the F2 key is virtually non-existent.

Therefore to restore the boot order so that it boots the Ubuntu GRUB loader first you need to first boot into Windows then hold down the shift key whilst rebooting the computer. Another step backwards.

Alternative replace Windows 8 with Ubuntu

An alternative to installing Ubuntu on the same computer as Windows 8, is to replace Windows 8 completely with Ubuntu. I hardly ever use Windows 8, but I do occasionally need to run something in Windows. I usually use Windows as a way to test or demonstrate how something can be done in Windows, but occasionally running Windows only software (although this is now very rare).

If you replace Windows with Ubuntu then you may want to create a recovery USB disk first, but otherwise you can skip the rest of the Windows parts and let Ubuntu remove the current partitions and configure new partitions just for Ubuntu..

Summary

Ubuntu can be installed on a Dell Inspiron 17 laptop, which I have tested with a Dell 7737 laptop. It should also work with most of the other Dell laptops.

Microsoft has made it harder to install a dual boot system running Linux, although ironically it is far easier to just remove Windows 8 completely.

As far as the Linux setup is concerned most things work straight away, although the Nvidia proprietary drivers don’t work (at the moment you may be better off looking for a laptop without a Nvidia GPU). There are a couple of other little things (such as clickpad behaviour and misisng battery icon), but generally it does work fairly well with Linux.

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