Debian GNU/Linux on a HP NC6400

Monday, September 18th, 2006 | hardware, linux


We purchased a new HP NC6400 recently and I thought I’d document my experiences for reference by anyone else planning on installing a Linux distribution on an NC6400. Overall, the installation was pretty painless and the notebook is fully usable after a few hours of install work.

The notebook will be used for development and general office-work and needs to be reasonably portable – we regularly travel to our customers around Ireland and in places like Finland and France so durability and battery life are an issue for us. We’ve previously bought hardware from Dell and HP but I was reluctant to purchase another Dell notebook after the problems we had with the backlight on a Dell Latitude D600 (which seems to be an ACPI problem which others have worked around in various ways). I guess in this day and age I expect to be able to use my hardware without problems on Linux and to date, none of Dell’s BIOS upgrades properly address this problem (and it seems like this isn’t the only model with ACPI problems) so I’m inclined to take my business to another vendor. We previously purchased an NC6000 from HP and it has worked flawlessly with both Windows XP and Linux so I decided to go with them again given their track record (for the record, I used to work for HP so I may be biased).

This NC6400 (you gotta love those URLs, memorable to say the least) seems to meet our requirements – it is pretty powerful using the new Intel Core Duo – battery time is supposed to be around 4.5 hours (the Core Duo has a good reputation for power consumption) and it seems to be reasonably light while providing a good hard-drive and all the bells and whistles I’d expect on a modern laptop (including 802.11a,b and g wireless, firewire and usb 2.0 connections and so on). My only reservations were about the widescreen and the embedded graphics card. Widescreen may be useful for a system used primarily for watching movies, but it makes for a bulkier notebook which may be a problem both for carrying and for using in cramped locations like airplanes (business class is too extravagant for us I’m afraid). Integrated graphics cards like the Intel borrow memory from main system memory which can have a performance impact – also, for general 3d graphics Intel don’t have a great reputation. However, given that purchasing notebooks is inevitably about trade-offs, the NC6400 seemed, on balance, to meet our requirements so I went ahead and ordered it.

The system arrived the following day (we use Passax in Galway and I’m always pleasantly surprised at how fast they deliver new systems to us) and was exactly as expected, except for the graphics. Despite the specification on the HP website listing it has having an Intel integrated card, the system actually carries an ATI Radeon Mobility X1300. A pleasant surprise, the performance of an X1300 should be generally far better. So, in summary, the system has the following spec,

  • 2GHz Intel Core Duo Processor
  • 1GB Physical Memory
  • 5400rpm 80GB hard-drive
  • ATI Radeon Mobility X1300 graphics
  • Dual layer DVD burner
  • Intel a/b/g wireless card
  • Gigabit ethernet

My concerns about the widescreen making the notebook too bulky were mostly unfounded – overall, the NC6400 is no larger than the 15″ NC6000 we already have in the office. Generally, the build quality of the NC6400 seems pretty good and I’d expect it to travel as well as its older brother, the NC6000.


I downloaded the beta 3 netinst installer for Debian Etch (the next release of Debian tenatively slated for final release in December of this year). Before I could installed Debian on the notebook, I had to make a partition available. In the past, I’ve repartitioned systems and then reinstalled Windows and Linux on the system – this is pretty time consuming and I’ve been trying to avoid it where possible. I’ve had good results with Partition Magic in the past but don’t have a copy in the office so I tried the latest version (0.3.1) of the GParted LiveCD – an open source tool for resizing partitions. I’ve seen problems with GParted but discovered that these generally stem from GParted being pretty cautious about resizing NTFS partitions if it sees any errors on them. It seems even factory installed Windows partitions often have non-fatal errors on them. Windows doesn’t seem to worry about them normally (even running the disk checking tool doesn’t flag or fix them) – you need to run chkdsk/f from the command prompt in order to get Windows to fix them. Once you run that and reboot twice (hey, it’s Windows, stop sniggering back there) – GParted seems to work fine.

I booted the etch install cd and, using the following options, installed the basic system,

  • I opted for an expertgui install at the the installer boot prompt rather than a standard install — in order to have maximum control over the process if something went wrong during the install.
  • For partitioning, I opted for 2 logical partitions, a 2GB swap partition and a 20GB root partition. I normally like to split up the filesystem across multiple partitions but in the case of notebooks, it’s hard to anticipate how the user will want to use it … so I’m inclined to lump everything into the one filesystem (I don’t recommend that approach for production servers).
  • When selecting a kernel – the installer didn’t offer a choice of an SMP kernel so I went with linux-image-2.6-686 making a mental note to install the SMP version of this afterwards to utilise both processor cores.
  • I chose an Irish mirror to install from and opted for the standard system – I’d prefer to manually select the packages I want after the initial install rather than suck in a load of packages I don’t need (or use a standard Applepie Solutions package list I’ve already prepared and dpkg –set-selections ).
  • Installation proceeded smoothly until the boot-loader section. This failed with a file not found error when trying to install grub. Some digging around found the Debian bug 380351. As a workaround, I logged onto the console and ran the following,
  • chroot /target
  • /usr/sbin/grun-install –recheck “(hd0)”
  • As an alternative, if you want the installer to run smoothly without errors, you can do the following,
    • chroot target
    • ln -s /usr/bin/grub-install /sbin/grub-install
  • At this point, the base system was installed and we were ready to reboot into the basic system.
  • After the grub fix, the bootloader was installed and configured ok – with both Linux and the Windows XP install available as boot options.
  • Conclusion

    After logging into the system for the first time, I went and installed the SMP version of the kernel. A reboot into this kernel confirms that both processor cores are available. Running acpi -V shows some thermal information but nothing about fan speeds or which sensor is which. I tried installed lm-sensors but it doesn’t seem to find any usable sensors. This is unfortunate and I’ll need to investigate further but the fan seems to run ok, and temperatures seem ok on the system so there is no danger of frying both processors due to overheating anyways 🙂

    After that, it was just a case of installing a usable graphical environment including GNOME, Openoffice and Eclipse (which has recently been added to Debian). This went very smoothly although the ati driver did not work with the X1300. I tried the vesa driver and it starts up but doesn’t allow the display to operate at the native 1440×900 resolution of the LCD display on the notebook. Given my public stance on proprietary drivers it was a short trip to ATI’s site to download their binary Linux drivers. The installation went smoothly and the system came back up with a display at the native resolution of 1440×900.

    The wired ethernet works fine – I haven’t tested the wireless yet but since Intel make good open source drivers available for their chipsets including the 2100, 2200BG, 2915ABG and 3945ABG I’m confident we should have no problems getting it up and running (but I will post a follow-up if there are any issues).

    Queries and comments welcome – especially from other NC6400 users running Linux. This page also has some notes on running Linux on an NC6400.

    17 Comments to Debian GNU/Linux on a HP NC6400

    November 14, 2006

    Hi Stephen,
    Have you tested the VT? I plan to do my project in distributed environment (runs on Linux + Xen) later on. So I am interested in knowing how many nodes it can carry on.

    Stephen Mulcahy
    November 15, 2006

    Hi Neo,

    Assuming you’re referring to Intel’s Virtualization Technology (see for more info), I haven’t gotten around to it yet. I guess it would be interesting to see how much faster virtual machines run on a VT enabled system but for the moment it’s running in dual boot configuration which meets our needs.


    November 23, 2006

    about VT on a nc6400, you might have a glance to this hp forum thread :



    November 29, 2006

    Hi @ all!

    I’ve an HP 6400, too. I have some small Problems open, do you know anything about them?

    1. Error message for a Bios Bug:

    Nov 29 20:16:43 xandra kernel: PCI: BIOS Bug: MCFG area at f8000000 is not E820-reserved
    Nov 29 20:16:43 xandra kernel: PCI: Not using MMCONFIG.

    2. Batterystate can’t be updated. reload the battery module and restarting acpid doesn’t solve this problem

    3. I can’t wake up my Notebook when I suspended it with

    echo mem > /sys/power/state

    as root.

    Thanks for any ideas…

    Stephen Mulcahy
    December 1, 2006

    Hi Andreas,

    What distribution of Linux are you using and what kernel version are you running with?

    I’m also seeing the problem with the battery state not updating (and Linux doesn’t seem to detect when the AC adapter is plugged in or unplugged). I recently updated the notebook to the latest Debian testing including the 2.6.17 kernel which I was hoping would rectify this – it sounds like it’ll take a BIOS upgrade from HP to fix this ACPI problem (and some others). suggests they are aware of the problem anyways, but there haven’t been any BIOS updates since August. Take a look at for some more information on this and a suggestion that HP may be releasing a BIOS upgrade to address this sometime soon. I think the BIOS bug messages relates to this also. suggests that you can maybe fix this by loading/unloading modules at boot time – but I’m not sure this is worth the effort.

    He also indicates on that page that you’ll need to try a very recent 2.6.18 kernel to have any chance of suspend/resume working properly. From my perspective suspend/resume still sounds like too much effort for too little gain, I’m gonna sit on the sidelines for a while more until the bugs are shaken out.


    February 6, 2007


    I have also installed an Edgy Kubuntu on my NC6400. Almost everything works fine thanks to the various tricks found here.

    Regarding dual core and VT: you should download latest bios (0.8) from HP site and upgrade to this version. Then validate the VT option in the bios. After that, I succeed to install vmware with a 64 bits version of RHEL on my virtual machine.

    My main problem is the dual screen: I have an ATI X1300 which works fine in 14440×900 with fglrx driver (glxgears is running smoothly). I tried to add the dual screen features with the aticonfig utility, I also tried many manual patches on xorg.conf, but in all cases, as soon as an external display is connected and xserver restarted, I get a black screen on both displays and need to reboot… has somebody any idea ?

    Stephen Mulcahy
    February 20, 2007

    Hi Philippe,

    I recently installed the F.08 BIOS from the HP site (the site claims it was available in Dec-2006 but I’m pretty sure it only showed up in Jan-2007). I was mainly interested in whether this addresses the problems I’m seeing with battery state not updating (when the power is unplugged sometimes my power applet doesn’t seem to recognise it) rather than the VT support, but I did notice that it mentions enabling VT support.

    I’m afraid it doesn’t fix the battery problem. I happened to be at at the weekend and caught a great talk by Matthew Garrett who leads the Ubuntu Laptop Hardware team – he said he has some patches which he expects to submit to 2.6.21 which should address various power quirks on HP laptops. I’ve offered to test them so if I get my hands on them I’ll post another update here.

    April 4, 2007

    how do i installe a new hard driv for my hp nc6400. can anny one healp ?

    stephen mulcahy
    April 4, 2007

    This document on HP’s site (accessed by following the support links from the front page) gives instructions on how to replace drives, including hard-drives.

    If you’re not comfortable with those instructions you probably want to take it to a local laptop shop where they should be able to help you.

    April 26, 2007

    Hi, just a slight problem with my nc6400 – wondering if you can help!

    I’ve had it for about 8 months now, and have looked after it – no contact with water, etc, to stuff it up, and I even (usually) take the battery out when I know I’m just going to be running my notepad on AC power.

    The other day, I took the battery out (after being in the laptop for maybe a week). It was out for no longer than 24hrs, before I had to move my laptop, so I stuck it back in, and it claimed that the battery was 64% full. Although I didn’t look at how full it was prior to me taking it out in the first place, I can usually leave it out for a week or so, and it’ll still be about 90% or so full.

    So that was the first strange thing. THEN – after plugging it into my notepad (which was connected to AC power), it would appear to charge. But this would only last between 30-90seconds, before it would resume to full AC power, with no charging to the battery.

    I’m confused. I’m thinking that the battery is actually quite full (hence the reason it doesn’t charge it), and instead, my notepad is incorrectly regestering it at a lower percentage.

    Thanks for any insights you can give me!


    stephen mulcahy
    April 30, 2007

    Hi Elly,

    It sounds like a bad battery to me. This is particularly unlucky given the care you seem to be taking of your battery – you seem to be following the battery best care practices to the letter (much more-so than I ever do, to be honest!). The good news is that your battery should be fully covered by warranty if it’s less than 12 months old so I’d say give HP a call and see about replacing it. There may also be a HP tool for checking the status of batteries on newer laptops – this should give you some diagnostic info on the state of the battery and is probably worth running before contacting HP support.



    September 3, 2007

    I installed Debian Etch – just the first CD after downloading and burning it. The installation worked very well, it detected the SMP processor and chose the -686 kernel. This is twice as fast as windows but only offers Gnome not KDE. I’ll need another CD for that, my connection here is slow.

    The problem with shutdown is due to pcmouse. This can be solved by lsmod -r psmouse before shutdown, or see some of the other reports for HP Compaq models, i think the 6230 or 6320 has a scrip that you can install and it works well afterwards.


    February 2, 2008

    Hi Stephen,

    thank you for your report, are you still happy with your choice of the laptop? I plan to buy one and search for experiences of other users.

    other question: do you have some new information about the smartcard-reader and its support on debian? Other reviews are quite pessimistic :-/


    stephen mulcahy
    February 4, 2008

    Hi Ando,

    I haven’t experimented with the smartcard-reader (I didn’t even realise there is one! do you mean an SD card reader by any chance?).

    One of the other guys in the office uses it on a day to day basis and seems happy enough with it – he has had some instabilities which he suspects are due to the Intel wireless card – I haven’t had a chance to update the Debian install on it to current stable though so I’m not sure its a hardware problem per-se.

    Personally, I’m not a fan of widescreen laptops – but that seems to be unavoidable these days. I’m currently using a Lenovo T60 myself (I haven’t had a chance to blog about it) and have been very happy with that on Linux and Windows (but I haven’t configured up some of the more exotic items in it such as the fingerprint scanner).

    I hope that helps a little.

    February 5, 2008


    I decided to buy one and maybe it will be delivered still this week 🙂

    The smartcard-reader should be located in the lower-right corner over the dvd-tray.

    I tend to install debian sarge or ubuntu gutsy (hardy, after stable release), still don’t know exactly, but I will report if I note irregularities. A Thinkpad is an other class of Laptop and was out of budget, thus I have to accomodate with a 14″ at least non-glare display 😉

    thank you and see you soon, when I have finished my report 🙂

    stephen mulcahy
    February 5, 2008

    Hi Ando,

    Best of luck with your purchase. I’d suggest you install Debian Etch rather than Sarge – it should provide better support for various features.

    February 9, 2008

    Yes, I confused sarge and lenny 🙂 Now I ended up with an Ubuntu Gutsy. The first impression is amazing. I have to install still much and to configure some critical devices.

    see you soon