How to set up dual monitors in Ubuntu on Dell Inspiron 1501

It took me about five minutes to get dual monitors working on my Dell Inspiron 1501 under Ubuntu 7.04. Here’s how I did it.

  1. I tried the xorg driver, which had been working fine on just the laptop display, but it wouldn’t work; I could get either the external display or the internal display to show, but not both. If you get it working, post a comment and let me know.
  2. I enabled the proprietary driver via Ubuntu’s Restricted Drivers Manager.
  3. I read the Gentoo Wiki page on dual monitors.
  4. As root, I ran
    aticonfig --initial=dual-head --screen-layout=above -v
  5. I rebooted.

At the moment, I’m typing into Firefox on the laptop monitor. My Dell 1800FP monitor is perched right above it; it’s the same width in pixels, and almost the same physical width. I have no windows open on that monitor, but I do have a nice background image! XFCE configures the backgrounds for each display separately.

I’ve been using this setup for about a week now. It’s not flawless, but the flaws don’t get in my way much. Here are the problems I’ve noticed:

  1. The driver is proprietary. Okay, this is a major flaw.
  2. The driver doesn’t work perfectly. Occasionally a weird defect in the screen image appears and won’t go away until X is restarted. It looks like a bar code and usually shows up near the bottom right of one of the monitors, often right over the clock in my system tray.
  3. If I log out of XFCE, my system hangs and I have to use the Alt-PrntScrn keys to shut it down and restart it.
  4. When I start my laptop, only the display on my laptop shows anything (perhaps the login screen isn’t dual-monitor capable). As soon as I log in, both monitors become active. While this is happening, my mouse randomly jumps between the top-left corner of the two monitors.

The two monitors are running two different X displays. I’m not crystal-clear on how this should normally work, but I get the idea Xinerama isn’t the same as this and should work better (I don’t know if I can set up Xinerama with the proprietary driver, but I don’t think so). This has a variety of side effects:

  1. Windows I open on one display can’t be moved to the other (oddly, I can drag and drop between displays, which I didn’t expect).
  2. I can’t alt-tab to the other display.
  3. When I click on a link in Thunderbird, if Firefox is running on the other display, it says Firefox is already running but not responding, and refuses to open the link. I can’t get Firefox running on both displays at once.
  4. My XFCE panel on the laptop display doesn’t show windows on the other display. I tried creating a panel for that display too (XFCE recognizes that there are two displays and lets me place the panel on either one), but I couldn’t place it at the bottom of the display. When I chose to place it at the bottom, it seemed to place itself 768 pixels from the top (the external monitor is 1280x1024, but the laptop display is 1280x768). So I placed it at the top of the display, added a taskbar applet to it, and voila I had what I wanted – but when I rebooted, the panel showed up on the laptop display again.

Otherwise I haven’t noticed any troubles. Anyone who has suggestions on these issues, feel free to post a comment!

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I'm Baron Schwartz, the founder and CEO of VividCortex. I am the author of High Performance MySQL and lots of open-source software for performance analysis, monitoring, and system administration. I contribute to various database communities such as Oracle, PostgreSQL, Redis and MongoDB. More about me.