...making Linux just a little more fun!
By Ben Okopnik
I've been looking for a laptop lately. Not just any laptop, but a backup to my main, do-everything desktop-replacement machine (an Acer 2003WLMi, currently being replaced by Acer with a newer model due to being a lemon) - which is also a laptop. The larger agenda here, however, is to also find something to replace the Acer: The machine itself, though difficult to configure, works fine with Linux, but the company's tech support/customer service has been consistently horrible and arrogant to such a degree that I, with more than 20 years of experience in the computer business, cannot recall anything equally appalling. So, in actuality, I'm shopping for two laptops - and what makes the process quite pleasant is that there's very little time pressure involved.
In my shopping and comparison process, I found a number of Linux laptop-related sites - all of which list a multitude of machines and the configuration directions for them. What I found lacking on all of them were qualified opinions, otherwise known as reviews. Honestly, now - I don't expect a rant ("this thing sucks The Rock of Gibraltar through a mile of garden hose, and I would torture my worst enemy by buying him one!") or an encomium to please the ears of the gods ("Now shall I sing of a Laptop, Great and Powerful, the sort that is scarce to be found in the Earth but one which Vulcan himself would proudly claim as his masterpiece...") - but basic statements like...
As to my qualifications to do this kind of testing - after wearing out a number of laptops over the years, I consider myself to be somewhat of a connoisseur of the breed. Add to this the fact that I've been working on computer hardware and software since the Elder Days, have a strong preference for Linux, and possess a lifelong passion for finding out Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How (and know the methods necessary to get those answers), and you've got somebody who knows enough to ask the persnickety questions that the manufacturers don't want asked - and has no problem asking them. Given all of the above, this is definitely something I can have fun doing. Also, living aboard a sailboat as I do - particularly one not attached to a dock with all those conveniences like shore power and cable connections but swinging free at anchor, where I have to "make my own" or do without - I ask quite a lot of my computer equipment; therefore, I consider this to be an excellent test environment.
Note: in this testing, I'm restricting myself to brands that a) can be bought off the shelf in US stores, and b) have a no-cost return policy. This rules out Dell, Gateway, and others of their ilk (I may reconsider after checking their return policies a bit more carefully, but for the moment, they're out - I'm not up for shipping hassles.) However, this should still leave plenty to work with - and I plan to keep hunting until I find something that satisfies me, both in terms of the quality of the unit itself as well as its ease of configuration and (to some degree) support under Linux.
Dear readers, I invite your comments and recommendations. If you've got a laptop that you use with Linux and have found to be easily configurable, or know of one that fits the above restrictions and you think might be a good one, please feel free to contact me with your experiences and suggestions at .
Now, let's dive into this first review...
One of the pleasant touches with this machine is that Averatec has included a nice sturdy laptop carrying bag - not the fanciest thing in the world, but quite adequate and then some. Conversely, the power supply is large and heavy - and, as I found out a little later, runs quite hot. Some laptop buyers may also find themselves at a loss when looking in the box: laptop, bag, two CDs (Wind0ws XP and Averatec's recovery disc), and the power supply is all they'll find. Oh yeah, there's a "Quickstart Guide" page - one side of a glossy sheet. No manual (Averatec does provide a PDF of it on their site along with the Wind0ws drivers), no bubbly "Welcome!" pages designed by marketing, no cables, no "special offers" - nothing. Personally, I liked it; some people might be disconcerted.
I popped out the HD that came with the machine, slipped in the Debian-loaded HD that I'd kept when I sent the Acer off to the factory, and booted up. Here was my first chance to find out what this machine was really made of - the information I needed to make intelligent buying decisions (which the manufacturers, for some silly reason, usually hide, with a unanimity that approaches collusion. I've never understood why.) Well, running "lspci" would expose all.
0000:00:10.0 USB Controller: VIA Technologies, Inc. VT82xxxxx UHCI USB 1.1 Controller (rev 80) 0000:00:10.1 USB Controller: VIA Technologies, Inc. VT82xxxxx UHCI USB 1.1 Controller (rev 80) 0000:00:10.2 USB Controller: VIA Technologies, Inc. VT82xxxxx UHCI USB 1.1 Controller (rev 80) 0000:00:10.3 USB Controller: VIA Technologies, Inc. USB 2.0 (rev 82)The USB system worked "right out of the box". One of the nicer things about this machine is that it comes with 4 USB ports; considering that there are very few other ports, this is an absolute necessity. Given that my usual Net connection is via a USB cable connected to my cell phone, the no-twiddling, "just works" hookup here made life quite pleasant.
0000:00:00.0 Host bridge: VIA Technologies, Inc.: Unknown device 0204 0000:00:00.1 Host bridge: VIA Technologies, Inc.: Unknown device 1204 0000:00:00.2 Host bridge: VIA Technologies, Inc.: Unknown device 2204 0000:00:00.3 Host bridge: VIA Technologies, Inc.: Unknown device 3204 0000:00:00.4 Host bridge: VIA Technologies, Inc.: Unknown device 4204 0000:00:00.7 Host bridge: VIA Technologies, Inc.: Unknown device 7204 0000:00:01.0 PCI bridge: VIA Technologies, Inc. VT8237 PCI bridge [K8T800 South] 0000:00:11.0 ISA bridge: VIA Technologies, Inc. VT8235 ISA Bridge 0000:00:18.0 Host bridge: Advanced Micro Devices [AMD] K8 NorthBridge 0000:00:18.1 Host bridge: Advanced Micro Devices [AMD] K8 NorthBridge 0000:00:18.2 Host bridge: Advanced Micro Devices [AMD] K8 NorthBridge 0000:00:18.3 Host bridge: Advanced Micro Devices [AMD] K8 NorthBridge 0000:00:11.1 IDE interface: VIA Technologies, Inc. VT82C586A/B/VT82C686/A/B/VT823x/A/C PIPC Bus Master IDE (rev 06)The "internals" - i.e., the resources necessary for the CPU to communicate with the peripherals - all worked fine, despite the "Unknown device" messages. In fact, it's been a very long time since I've seen Linux fail to work well in this area, no matter what strange hardware I've thrown at it.
0000:00:09.0 CardBus bridge: ENE Technology Inc CB1410 Cardbus Controller (rev 01)Cardbus and PCMCIA worked out of the box as well; plugging in a CardBus Ethernet card (a Netgear FA511) worked without a hitch. There's only one PCMCIA slot, which could be insufficient for some situations - but, again, given the number of USB slots and the built-in Ethernet port, I could certainly cope with it.
0000:00:0b.0 Network controller: RaLink Ralink RT2500 802.11 Cardbus Reference Card (rev 01)RaLink provides tarballs with compilable source for this 802.11g wireless LAN card on their website (well done, people!); however, compiling it required downloading a dozen MB worth of Qt libraries, which I was not willing to do over a cell-phone link. "ndiswrap" once again (in my experience) proved to be a great alternative in this situation: I grabbed the source for it, compiled it, downloaded the Wind0ws drivers, and ran the installation procedure. In the process of doing this, I learned about "/etc/iftab" and "ifrename", which allow you to remap interface names; I created the file, entered
wlan* mac 00:04:23:72:F5:DCinto it (the above being the MAC address of the interface as shown by "ifconfig"), and - voila! - instead of "eth1", my wireless interface was named "wlan0" when I brought it up. Unfortunately, I had no way to test it: it's 802.11g-only, and there are no "g" access points around here that I know of. However, every other test short of that showed it to be up and working.
0000:00:11.5 Multimedia audio controller: VIA Technologies, Inc. VT8233/A/8235/8237 AC97 Audio Controller (rev 50)I compiled "snd_via82xx" as a module - that being what ALSA requires, which also leaves the system flexible enough to recognize other sound hardware - and everything came right up. I'll confess that I use "Timidity" (essentially, a MIDI emulator) for playing MIDI files, so I did not test that part of the sound system... but it works so well that I stopped caring a long time ago. MP3s, WAVs, etc., worked fine; dumping AUs into "/dev/dsp" produced the expected results. The top volume is about 80% of what I'd come to expect of a laptop, but my "multimedia-enabled" Acer (built-in bass speaker) has probably spoiled me in this respect.
0000:00:11.6 Communication controller: VIA Technologies, Inc. Intel 537 [AC97 Modem] (rev 80)I haven't tested this - I don't have a lot of use for modems these days - but I'd imagine it works about as well (or as poorly) as any other AC97 (win)modem. There are drivers available for such things; I've used them in the past. "They work" is about all one can say about them... that's not to denigrate, in any way, the effort of the Linuxfolk who have put in their time and effort; rather, it's a simple statement of fact: winmodems suck.
0000:00:12.0 Ethernet controller: VIA Technologies, Inc. VT6102 [Rhine-II] (rev 74)Compiling a "via_rhine" module took care of this; "hotplug" automatically detected it and loaded in on the next boot.
0000:01:00.0 VGA compatible controller: VIA Technologies, Inc.: Unknown device 3108 (rev 01)I didn't have any major problems with this, and only a couple of minor ones. Obviously, this is a relatively new piece of hardware (the "unknown device" message says that it doesn't have a description in the PCI database); however, it worked OK "out of the box", at 1024x768 all the way up to 32bpp. One odd note here is that instead of going blank whenever it times out, the screen breaks into a weird medley of twitching color blobs (X and console both) that makes me feel like it's about to blow up at any second; somewhat unnerving, to say the least. Also - and some people may find this much more important than I did - I simply could not get DRI/GLX to work (resulting in relatively slow but still reasonable video rendering for, e.g., DVD playing. There are also a number of games which will not run without it.) I've seen a report of a successful DRI/GLX configuration for a similar machine with the same video hardware, but didn't get that far myself. Perhaps it was the fact that I was uninterested in investing quite that much effort in this area.
The DVD-RW seems to work fine. I've burned a few CDs on it, and just popped in a DVD of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" to check the "video in" end; seems OK. I've also mounted and read several data CDs without any problems.
The keys have good, definite action - unlike the mushy ones on my Acer, which provides nearly zero feel. The touchpad is OK, if a bit odd - selection by tapping doesn't follow the standard "word-line-none" cycle, and there are no multi-finger gestures (i.e., pasting), although using the buttons works fine. This may be resolvable by configuration, though.
I've never had much luck with sleep or suspend under ACPI; however, suspend-to-disk works just fine - unless you load the cdc_acm module (used for USB modems - i.e., my cell phone.) Not this machine's fault, but something to be aware of; trying to suspend, or even simply unload the module freezes it solid. This has been so for the entire 2.6 kernel series, unfortunately. Since this kernel is considered to be experimental, I can't even submit a bug report unless I join the kernel-developers list.
Other black marks: the 5400 has three fans (at least as reported by ACPI), with one of them running immediately on startup and a second one kicking in just seconds later. They are theoretically (hah!) controllable via ACPI; I have not found it to be so in practice. The status is readable but is not controllable (despite the fact that I can change the "off" message for fan #3 to "on" - but cannot change any "on" settings to "off" - it does nothing.) Moreover, on a warm Florida day (80 degrees Fahrenheit; my boat has fans but no air conditioning), the machine will often pop up a "going down now due to thermal overload: 88 degrees C!" (or similar) message and immediately die, with no time to save or close anything.
The physical design of the machine also has a slight but important oddity: after carrying it in the bag with the power supply, I found a number of vertical lines marked on the LCD screen. These went away with careful cleaning, but made me realize that the distance from the screen face to the keyboard was inadequate: when there was even a slight pressure on the top of the machine (back of the screen), the display face pressed against the keys! In my estimate, this would wear into the plastic of the LCD screen after a while - a completely unacceptable result. I suppose you could retain the acrylic sheet that comes taped onto the display as a screen protector, but this seems ridiculously makeshift for a brand-new laptop.
Ben is the Editor-in-Chief for Linux Gazette and a member of The Answer Gang.
Ben was born in Moscow, Russia in 1962. He became interested in electricity
at the tender age of six, promptly demonstrated it by sticking a fork into
a socket and starting a fire, and has been falling down technological
mineshafts ever since. He has been working with computers since the Elder
Days, when they had to be built by soldering parts onto printed circuit
boards and programs had to fit into 4k of memory. He would gladly pay good
money to any psychologist who can cure him of the recurrent nightmares.
His subsequent experiences include creating software in nearly a dozen
languages, network and database maintenance during the approach of a
hurricane, and writing articles for publications ranging from sailing
magazines to technological journals. After a seven-year Atlantic/Caribbean
cruise under sail and passages up and down the East coast of the US, he is
currently anchored in St. Augustine, Florida. He works as a technical
instructor for Sun Microsystems and a private Open Source consultant/Web
developer. His current set of hobbies includes flying, yoga, martial arts,
motorcycles, writing, and Roman history; his Palm Pilot is crammed full of
alarms, many of which contain exclamation points.
He has been working with Linux since 1997, and credits it with his complete
loss of interest in waging nuclear warfare on parts of the Pacific Northwest.
Ben was born in Moscow, Russia in 1962. He became interested in electricity at the tender age of six, promptly demonstrated it by sticking a fork into a socket and starting a fire, and has been falling down technological mineshafts ever since. He has been working with computers since the Elder Days, when they had to be built by soldering parts onto printed circuit boards and programs had to fit into 4k of memory. He would gladly pay good money to any psychologist who can cure him of the recurrent nightmares.
His subsequent experiences include creating software in nearly a dozen languages, network and database maintenance during the approach of a hurricane, and writing articles for publications ranging from sailing magazines to technological journals. After a seven-year Atlantic/Caribbean cruise under sail and passages up and down the East coast of the US, he is currently anchored in St. Augustine, Florida. He works as a technical instructor for Sun Microsystems and a private Open Source consultant/Web developer. His current set of hobbies includes flying, yoga, martial arts, motorcycles, writing, and Roman history; his Palm Pilot is crammed full of alarms, many of which contain exclamation points.
He has been working with Linux since 1997, and credits it with his complete loss of interest in waging nuclear warfare on parts of the Pacific Northwest.