Installing FreeBSD 11 on a Dell Inspiron E1505 Laptop

I recently installed FreeBSD 11.0-RELEASE on an old Dell Inspiron E1505 laptop. I made these notes on the process in order to help you should you want to do the same.


This machine has a 32-bit Core Duo processor and 2GB of RAM. It requires the i386 installer image. I used FreeBSD-11.0-RELEASE-i386-disc1.iso to create a CD and installed from that.

I needed a wired network connection to complete the installation, so I attached to an ethernet network before performing the installation.

In the “Distribution Select” dialog, I added “src” to the already selected “ports” option. As discussed below, I needed to do this in order to get WiFi working

In the “Partitioning” dialog, I selected “Auto (ZFS)” and took the defaults. “Auto (UFS)” also works, but ZFS is awesome. You can also choose GELI encryption. If you do, you will be required to enter a password before each boot.

I selected “sshd,” “ntpd”, “powerd”, and “dumpdev” at the “System Configuration” dialog.

I ended up with a 2 GB swap file by default, which is fine.

Desktop Environment

I installed and tested MATE, Xfce, KDE 4, and Cinnamon. Cinnamon is too slow to use, but the others are fine.


NOTE: The keyboard hotkey to toggle WiFi (fn-F2) works in FreeBSD, but it does not toggle the keyboard WiFi LED the way it does on Windows. It is impossible to know what state it’s in by looking at it. If you can’t get WiFi to work, try this hotkey to see if WiFi might be disabled. Or, you can disable the hotkey altogether via the BIOS to remove this ambiguity.

The WiFi card in this laptop is a Broadcom BCM4311 802.11b/g WLAN. The correct driver for this is “bwn”.

Build the firmware kernel module

I don’t really know what happens in this step, but I think a firmware module is built that gets applied to the hardware whenever the driver is loaded. Really, I just followed instructions.

For this, kernel sources are required. If you didn’t check the “src” box during installation, you can download the version that matched your installed version and extract the files:

# fetch
# tar -C / -xzvf src.txz

You don’t need to build the kernel, but the files are required for the next step, building and installing the WiFi firmware module:

# cd /usr/ports/net/bwn-firmware-kmod
# make install clean

Enable WiFi

I added these two lines to /boot/loader.conf:


I added the following two lines to /etc/rc.conf

ifconfig_wlan0="WPA DHCP"

The last line is because my AP is configured for WPA and DHCP.

I unplugged the Ethernet cable and rebooted. Then I typed:

# ifconfig wlan0 up

You should see the WiFi LED on the keyboard light up. The LED is lit when the interface is “up,” even if WiFi is disabled by the keyboard shortcut. You can check its state by checking dmesg. You’ll see a line like this every time you hit fn-F2:

bwn0: status of FR switch is changed to ON

Connect to an AP

I installed the GUI app “wifimgr” and use it to connect to my WiFi access point:

# pkg install wifimgr

I knew WiFi was working when I saw an IPv4 address assigned to WLAN0 when I checked:

# ifconfig wlan0

Switching Between WiFi and Ethernet

I don’t know of a good way to switch between network interfaces when I connect or disconnect the network cable, so I just reset the networking service and let it sort itself out:

# service netif restart


I installed Chromium and Firefox. For Chromium, the docs say I needed to set kern.ipc.shm_allow_removed=1 in /etc/sysctl.conf, so I did that.

Both work pretty well, but Firefox is more stable. Chromium hangs frequently.


Performance is surprisingly good for such an old 32-bit machine. Booting takes longer than it does on Windows. YouTube in HD is a weak point: the machine has difficulty keeping up. But is no different than how the machine behaves under Windows. I think the CPU just isn’t fast enough.

The HDD is also limiting factor. I replaced it with an SSD and performance is even better. The laptop is also quieter because the fan near the disk does not turn on.

What else works

  • The trackpad works fine, though there are no multi-finger gestures.
  • The hotkeys for volume control work.
  • Some of the fn number pad keys (/, *, -, +) work.
  • The fn brightness controls on the up and down arrow keys work.
  • The DVD drive works.
  • The speakers work.
  • The headphone jack works.
  • USB ports work.
  • The SD card reader works.

What doesn’t work

  • Suspend/resume does not work.
  • Hibernate does not work.
  • A microphone plugged in to the mic jack does not work.
  • The mute keyboard shortcut does not work.
  • Some of the fn number pad keys (7, 8, 9, 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, 0, .) don’t work.

It is possible that I just don’t know how to configure these things.

What I did not try

  • The PC Card slot.
  • Firewire.
  • The modem.
  • The VGA port.


I’ve only had FreeBSD installed for a couple of weeks, but this is a completely usable laptop. With the SSD, it is usually completely silent.

If you have this setup yourself, I’d love to hear your experience.

Written on October 22, 2016