I pretty much stick to Fedora/Red Hat/CentOS for my primary Linux machines, and just use VMs when experimenting with other distros. This isn't due to any intrinsic brilliance in the Red Hat way of doing things; it's more a case that I'm familiar with how those distros are organized, and can quickly get them configured in a way that I want.
However, whilst the puritanical approach of not including binary/non-free drivers is to be admired, it's not necessarily ideal when it comes to getting a working OS on a machine which might have some 'unusual' chipsets, and many laptops and netbooks fall into this category. As such, I thought it worth installing Ubuntu, due to its more 'pragmatic' approach - I'd previously installed Ubuntu on an Asus EeePC and had encountered no problems.
Trial-running with Ubuntu running from the USB drive was basically fine, so I took the plunge and installed it on the netbook's hard drive, repartitioning the existing Windows XP installation. N.B. at this point in time, I didn't realize that Dell had things up with separate boot and backup partitions, as documented in the previous post.
The hard drive install was fine, other than the expected caveats of not running in the native resolution, and not having fully functional networking - if memory serves, wired Ethernet worked, but not wifi. However Ubuntu popped up an alert asking if I wanted to download the binary drivers for these, and soon all was running happily.
That release of Ubuntu though was around 5 months old, and so it seemed prudent to upgrade the installed packages to their latest versions - big mistake. On reboot, the login prompt (gdm I guess) wouldn't respond to keyboard or mouse. Attaching an external USB keyboard did get it to respond a bit more, but I was unable to get it allow me to enter a username or password. Trying the Ctrl-Alt-function keys to get a non-X11 prompt wasn't any use either.
Ubuntu had created some 'safe-mode' style booting options in the GRUB menu, but these were no good either - booting would halt with some error message I've forgotten, long before getting anywhere near a loging prompt. After faffing around for a while, and failing to find anything useful on Google, I decided to reinstall. However, the Ubuntu installer seemed to be a bit confused, and only offered me the choice of repartitioning the already-repartitioned WinXP disc, not to overwrite the borked Ubuntu install.
At this point I decided to give up on Ubuntu, and try Fedora instead. Before doing this though, I had the forethought to check beforehand how exactly the disk was partitioned. (If I'd done this before starting on this whole process, it would have probably saved a lot of time and stress...)
The hard drive was split up as follows (this was the first time I'd realized there had been more than just a single Windows filesystem originally):
- The tiny Dell boot partition
- The main Windows XP partition
- The Ubuntu partition I wanted to get rid of
- The Dell restore partition
Worse, Ubuntu's installer not creating a separate /boot filesystem meant that the whole boot process - even for Windows XP - was dependent on this Ubuntu filesystem I wanted to get rid of. (Fedora does create a separate /boot by default, so it's easy to get rid of the main Fedora installation with no impact on the prior OSes.) Possibly I could have restored an MBR from a different machine, but given the non-vanilla Dell configuration, I had doubts that this would be problem-free.
In the end, I decided that the only real option was to go ahead with installing Fedora, and hope that it wouldn't make any more of a mess than was there already...