Linux on the NEC VERSA 6200MMX Notebook Computer

DISCLAIMER: This author may not be held responsible for any problems that may arise by following the instructions on this page. However, the information contained here is accurate and is presented from personal experience.

The NEC VERSA 6200MMX


Introduction

The NEC VERSA 6200MX, though a little dated compared to some of the 2XXMhz notebooks out there, is among the most Linux compatible high-end notebook computer you can buy today. Everything works well with Linux on this machine - from the video graphics chipset, right down to Advanced Power Management (supporting suspend even in X as well as automatically powering down the machine when "shutdown now -h" is issued!).

About the only main flaw in the design of this machine is that it can't take both the Floppy disk drive and the CD-ROM drive at the same time (see picture above). This makes installing Linux a little tricky.

In any case, these and other issues are covered in this document.
This machine is highly recommended to run Linux on.


Hardware Specifications


Installing Linux

My previous machine was a Compaq LTE Lite 433/C on which I had hand-built Linux from the old 0.99 days. This time around, I didn't have too much time to spend so I decided on Red Hat 4.1.

As I mentioned before, the 6200 can't take both the Floppy disk drive and the CD-ROM drive at the same time. Since most Linux distributions these days come on a CD-ROM disk and expect to boot from a floppy drive, this can be a little tricky. But theres ways to overcome this 'problem'.

Infact, there are lots of possible solutions - listed here in order of the simplest to the most difficult.

  • Installing using the external Floppy drive connector kit
  • Installing directly from the CD-ROM drive using DOS
  • Installing a base system from floppy disks first, and the rest from the internal CD-ROM drive
  • Installing from an external CDROM drive while the 6200 is fitted with its internal floppy disk drive

    The rest of the system

    Installing Linux doesn't necessarily mean thrashing the pre-installed Microsoft-Windows/DOS (whatever version).


    Running X Windows

    If you're installing Red Hat 4.1, then you have no worries about the version of X Server that supports the Versa 6200MMX's display chipset. XF86_SVGA 3.2 that comes with Red Hat 4.1 has support for the Chips and Technology 65550 chipset (the new X server version 3.3 has even better support!)

    In any case, save this XF86Config file into the /etc/X11 directory and you're off to a running start.

    Both 8bit and 16bit display depths are supported at full 1024x768 resolution. At 800x600 resolution, you even get 24bit colour depth support (with the above XF86Config file the default display depth is 8bits, to get 16bit, or 24bit, issue the following startx commands : for 16bit, "startx -- -bpp 16", and for 24bit "startx -- -bpp 24").

    If you're on the bleeding edge and have moved to XFree86-3.3, then patch the XF86Config file above with this XF86Config-3.2-3.3.diff and you get all the new Chips & Technology 65550 Enhancements that come with the new XFree86 SVGA server, including the XAA Accelerated performance :)

    Note: Occasionally (like once every 10-20 startx) the X-Server comes up to a blank screen. When this happens, you can either shutdown the X-Server by issueing the < Ctrl-Alt-BackSpace > sequence (twice) and bringing up X again with startx.

    Or alternatively, (and this is neat!) depress the "screen close" button located near the 6200's power switch. When the button is released, the blank screen will be pleasantly replaced with your normal X screen!

    This bug was documented in XF86's release 3.2 of the Chips & Technology driver, but seems to still exist in the 3.3 version, although to a lesser degree.

    This is what my screen looks like (AfterStep Window Manager is definitely worth your time :-) Screen Image of AfterStep Window Manager on
 the NEC Versa 6200MMX

    Updating kernel and system support

    New Kernel

    Once you've got Linux and X-Windows up and running, at some point you may want to compile a new streamlined modular kernel (Red Hat 4.1 supplied a 2.0.27 kernel, I'm not sure what kernel version the newer distributions carry). A full screen dump of the current stable kernel version
    configuration (2.0.30 "make config") should help you with your kernel configuration. Some of the items to watch out for are listed below.

    Note: the kernel configuration above shows a very modularised kernel. Since the PCMCIA package only works with modules, it makes sense to support a fully modular kernel. However, this also means you should ensure that the modules package is working perfectly on your systems before re-compiling a modular kernel.

    Sound Support

    Configure the kernel for SB16 support (100% Sound Blaster Compatible). Note however that you should use an IRQ of 5 intead of the kernel configuration default of 7 (unless you changed the 6200's Audio chipset IRQ in the CMOS setup). Use the kernel default configuration for the rest of the parameters.

    Module support

    If you're sticking to the kernel version supplied with your source system, then its best to stick to installing the modutils that came with it as well (for example,
    modutils-2.0.0.tar.gz with the stable 2.0.3X kernels).

    If you're upgrading to the new 2.1.X series kernels, be sure to get the latest modutils from ftp.funet.fi

    Also, you might want to apply the following patch to truly integrate support of the PCMCIA package into modutils. This patch will allow cardmgr to make use of kerneld to automagically (cleanly ;-) load the required modules rather then having to use insmod to load the modules when a PC-Card is inserted into your system.

    Note: if you're using a module package newer than 2.1.85, the above patch may already be included, so check first.

    PC-Card support

    Again, obtain the latest PCMCIA Card Services package if possible. Your source system will probably come with a package that has been tested with your kernel, so, compile that and have it install its modules into /lib/modules

    If you're upgrading to the new 2.1.X series kernels, then I'd suggest getting pcmcia-cs-3.0.0.tar.gz.

    Also, if you patched modutils as mentioned in the previous section, then you'd also want to include the following patch to the PCMCIA package before installing it. This patch tells cardmgr to let kerneld do its job before attempting to use insmod.

    About This Document

    This page was inspired by Kenneth E. Harker's excellent The Linux Laptop Home Page, as well as Nelson Minar's Linux on NEC Versa laptops. If you're planning to buy a Notebook computer to run Linux on, those sites are surely where you should begin.

    Thanks also goes out to Brendan J Frey, Ted Mead and Bryce Nesbitt for the information on the direct CDROM install, Michael S. Landy for the information on installing Linux without first removing MS-Windows/DOS, and Rob Miller for the neat trick to resolve the X-Server screen quirk as well as the floppy/CD-ROM drive 'hot-swap' technique ;-)

    If you have any comments, suggestions, or questions, please feel free to email me.


    Anup M. Changaroth < anupmc@singnet.com.sg >
    Last modified: Sat, 28th Feb, 1998