Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Acer Aspire One, Ubuntu 8.10 and Windows XP ULCPC edition

Over the years I have purchased quite a number of small computers looking for portable computer nirvana. Things like the HP 620LX palmtop and the NEC 800. Both ran the sucktactular WinCE though. Deep yuck. To get to a real OS, I have build Franken-IBM-X30's because I did not want to pay full tariff on the original units. Better. Much better. But parts are old, and there are some problems with the case design such that mine has a number of cracks held together with glue and tape. Very geeky I guess.

There has always been an inverse proportion between the price and the the size at the low end, except it was more of a bowl shaped curve: really small or really large laptops cost major coinage, and there was always a sweetspot in the middle someplace. It varied a little by manufacturer but it was more or less true across the board. One quick example: I paid less for my Acer 5610 than I did the HP 620LX palmtop. Part of that is time of course: The HP was bought back in the late 1990's. That actually makes it worse: factor in inflation and that HP would be over 1000 USD now. Better example: look at Sony VIAO today: The small laptops cost way more than the medium size units.

The OLPC XO-1 has changed all that. Whether it was meant as a laptop for the children of the world or not, its first and easiest to find effect has been on the creation of the "Netbook" class of computer.

I have an XO-1, bought last year as part of the “Give One, Get One” promotion, and it has been a handy little unit: I wrote here about it standing in for an Apple iBook for my brother for example. The XO-1 has never been a full replacement for me for an small notebook computer though. Two things hold it back: one is that the word processor is not the full OpenOffice WP, and I can not therefore do what I want with the HTML for things like this post, although blogger is wretched at the the way that it imports HTML so maybe that is not such a big thing.

The real problem is the keyboard. It was designed for children, and it works well for them. Me... not so much. A friend of mine, Anne Gentle, who works with the OLPC on documentation carries an external keyboard around for hers. That works, but defeats the purpose of having a computer that I can toss in the bag and use on the airplane.

In fact, as I type this right now, I am on an airplane, winging my way to Denver, Colorado. (Parenthetical Paragraph: be careful about airplanes and Netbooks. Easy to leave in the seatback pocket... having done it while writing this article, and being really happy when Frontier Airlines found it! Yea Frontier!)

The unit I am using is my brand new Acer Aspire One. The AAO fits fairly well on the tray table of this Airbus A319, but the flight is full, so he guy next to me is not enjoying my elbow as I try to type and it keeps swinging over the armrest. I type hard....

My neck is not enjoying the angle either. The screen is tilted forward, notback, in order to get the keyboard far enough away from me. I'll clearly decide in a little while to finish this up in my hotel room and watch a movie on the iPhone instead.

The AAO was 349 USD at Fry's last Friday night, and I have it set to dual boot the special edition of WinXP called ULCPC (just what Windows needed, another SKU) and Ubuntu 8.10 for now. I am in fact using OpenOffice under XP on the plane because the WiFi cutoff switch is not yet enabled under Ubuntu. I have the doc on that, just have not set it up yet. (Later edits done from the awesome Old Chicago restaurant in Boulder using Ubuntu) The box for this AAO said it has a 120 GB HD, but in fact the one I have has a 160GB drive. I am not taking it back to get that "fixed".... My AAO is glossy black and looks like a big iPhone 3G, and this is further enhanced by the fact that I have an Apple sticker (from my iPhone purchase in fact) placed on the lid, so that it looks like a small Macbook. I only have the 3 cell battery in this unit though, and that is something I will probably change as soon as I can find a six cell one. With a six cell battery, this is the first computer I have ever seen that has a chance of being able to run all day long away from the power cord.
Speaking of the power cord, the one that comes with the AAO is terrific, in that it is small in diameter, and very very long. I can see sitting in an airport and actually being able to reach a plug with this one.

The AAO is pretty much everything I have been looking for (to date) in the ultra portable computer department, and slots in neatly above my iPhone and below my MacBook Pro.

Circling back to my "Nirvana" comment: I know that time will march on, and that the AAO will one day look as primitive to me as the HP 620LX does now. The difference is that I never felt the HP or any thing that came before the AAO were even close to being the mini-laptop that I wanted. This little Acer is close.

That brings me to my first problem with the AAO: Windows XP. I don't run Windows anywhere else, and I do not intend to start here with the AAO. XP with service pack three is not a horrible OS or anything, and many will be happy with it. It is just that at Casa Carl we use either OS.X or Linux. I keep Vista around for experiments only, and really don't need XP for experiments. I pretty much know what XP will do, and besides I have a dual boot work laptop (Dell D620, Mint 5 and XP) should I need XP for something. That being said, the AAO will stay dual boot till I have a chance to get Ubuntu totally sorted out. On airplanes for example, I do have to be able to turn off the WiFi card. According to doc I read, I have to tell Linux what to do with the keycodes that the WiFi switch generates. Doesn't look too hard. See here for details:

/usr/bin/setkeycodes e055 159 
/usr/bin/setkeycodes e056 158
Looks pretty easy. (Update: Ran this manually, and it works exactly as documented. Cool Beans! Added to /etc/rc.local. Will use Ubuntu on the return flight if I fire up the AAO.) The AAO can be bought with Linux pre-installed, but here is another place the AAO slightly misses the mark for me: No mechanical hard drive versions of the AAO have Linux on them. I wanted the 120/160 GB hard drive and was willing to sort out Linux rather than have a tiny SSD harddrive but have Linux preconfigured.

Here is where I do not get the AAO price point at all. It would seem that the SSD version with it's more expensive disk save money on the OS, and that Acer inverts that for XP so that with the less expensive disk you get the more expensive OS. I want the less expensive OS and the less expensive higher capacity disk please.

I also wanted the real Gnome desktop, not the special one that they put together for the AAO. The AAO also comes with a version of Linux called Linpus, which I never heard of till I started the AAO / Netbook research. I tried to download Linpus to have a look in a Vmware Fusion VM on the Mac, but the Linpus file server kept timing out. I tried Linpus on an AAO at the store (MicroCenter), and decided, based on first impressions, that it was not for me. Linux is Linux more or less, but this one was too simplified on the user interface. Probably great for Linux new folks. Very task oriented. Very iPhone.

Installing Ubuntu 8.10 RC

I was on the road when I bought the AAO, and so I did not have all my usual external devices with me: I did not have a CD burner I could put Ubuntu 8.10 on and then boot. This was not a big problem as I found an easy four step procedure to download the Ubuntu 8.10 .iso, and write it to USB flash fob, make it bootable, and then boot and install Linux from:


The only thing I had to change from their documentation was that I had the release candidate, not the beta, so the .bat file had to be modified with the right file name of the .iso.

The AAO, via F12, booted the fob, and in no time I was looking at the very familiar Ubuntu Live screen. Amazing how much faster a USB fob is to boot than a CD. There was one thing I did not expect: The wireless card was not visible. I was surprised because my research into the AAO before buying it (and I looked at every NetBook out there with USA availability) was that the AAO had an Atheros WiFi chipset, and Linux supports those very well. Atheros has open-sourced the driver, and even the firmware bits.

I like to support companies that do the right thing when it comes to device driver support, so having an Atheros card was a big plus for the AAO. Very big.

Since it was going to be dual boot for now, this was not a show stopper: I could always run back to XP and surf and download bits if I needed (Linux can read the NTFS disk space, no problem), so I went ahead and ran the install. Besides, Ubuntu was not the GA version yet. Chances were it would be fixed by Ubuntu, saving me the trouble later.

Since I had a 160GB HD, I went into manual partition mode, gave XP 30 GB, and there is a 5 GB or so recovery partition on the front of the disk. This proved utterly useless recently on my Acer 5610, but I left it be for now. I gave '/' 8GB, set up a 2GB swap, and gave the rest to /home. Formatting the new /home took a bit, but the install flew down after that, taking maybe 4 or 5 minutes. Here is the full disk layout:

steve@kara:~$ sudo fdisk /dev/sda 
Disk /dev/sda: 160.0 GB, 160041885696 bytes 255 heads, 63 sectors/track, 
19457 cylinders Units = cylinders of 16065 * 512 = 8225280 bytes 
Disk identifier: 0x11a8ba38 
Device Boot         Start         End      Blocks   Id  System 
/dev/sda1               1         637     5116671   12  Compaq diagnostics 
/dev/sda2   *         638        4285    29302560    7  HPFS/NTFS 
/dev/sda3            4286        5258     7815622+  83  Linux 
/dev/sda4            5259       19457   114053467+   5  Extended 
/dev/sda5            5259        5501     1951866   82  Linux swap / Solaris /dev/sda6            5502       19457   112101538+  83  Linux

Once I was booted to Ubuntu, I still had no wireless, but the hardware manager said that the Atheros drivers were loaded. That meant it could see the hardware, but that the drivers were not working for some reason.
A quick boot back to XP (and XP does boot very quickly on the AAO) and some googling with FireFox (the first thing I always install on an MS Windows computer, even before OpenOffice) and I had the solution from the Ubuntu forums: I had to disable the Atheros driver, and then it would load the right bits. Not at all intuitive, but it worked.

Next I installed all the package updates with Synaptic. It was only 100 or so, far fewer than the Beta. A reboot, and the wireless was gone again. I disabled the Atheros drivers again, rebooted, and it still didn't work.
More research, and it turned out the latest kernel regressed the Atheros drivers, and it would not be fixed till after GA. Nuts.

I had so little time in it (Ubuntu installs fast, and this time no /home format required), I just decided to reinstall, and to not let the kernel updates back on to the computer till I had read that the Atheros stuff was fixed again. That is where I am today. One thing: My wireless activity light blinks, even though in the forum they mentioned it would not. No idea what is up there. Glad it works though.

Ubuntu has had no other issues: Compiz works out of the box, even with the tiny amount of video RAM (8 MB). Ubuntu boots slightly slower than XP (something I have never seen before. Usually Ubuntu runs rings around MS Windows) but there is a concurrency setting for boot that should get it going faster, should I get really wrapped around the axle on that issue. Probably won't. It is not slow in any case. It is just that the version of XP on the AAO has been tweaked. Ubuntu figured out the screen size (1024x600) without issue.

I read reports when researching the netbook class of computer that the fan ran a lot on the AAO but I have not seen this. There were some references to Acer making some BIOS changes to fix this, so perhaps my unit is new enough to have that fixed. Running all this time (over two hours) on the airplane, it has never gotten more than slightly warm on the bottom (and later, when on Ubuntu do the edit it was the same. Slightly warm. With the WiFi enabled it still was good for well over two hours).

I set aside a paragraph just to mention the screen. The LED backlit screen is beautiful. What the iPhone screen was to all the phones that came before it, this screen is to every small laptop I have seen. It is right up there with the new Macbook, the Macbook Air, and the like for color, clarity, and crispness (sounds like a diamond commercial). The "secret" in part is surely the LED backlight rather that the Cold Cathode Florescent types of older computers. I read in a review a comment about viewability angle, and I can verify that one oddity: you can go off angle left to right and the screen stays very readable. Maybe too readable for an airplane. Tip it forward or back though and it polarises very quickly. It seems like they took a 1200 x 1024 bit of LCD, halved and rotated it 90 degrees to make this screen.


In a perfect world, I would be able to run whatever OS I wanted on this hardware. The hardware is so nice, and so close to what I have been wanting that it is sad that OS.X is not available. Steve Jobs, in replying to a question about when Apple would do a Netbook said that they could not make one at the price point of the Acer that would not be junk. The thing is, from all appearances, the AAO is not junk. In fact, it is utterly amazing what all comes with this unit at this price. All sorts of USB ports (three of them) and card readers and an external VGA connector. Slipcase. Decent keyboard, although I am about ready to toss the CapsLock key out the window (but the don't roll down on A319's). I can't seem to avoid hitting that thing. Most useless key on a keyboard from any manufacturer , and they always make it extra big so I can hit it as often as possible. I have been assured by a touch typist that the CapsLock key is a "Good Thing", and I trust that typist implicitly... but on this one she is dead wrong. The key is evil. Evil I say!

With Ubuntu Linux, I do not have to put up with Evil. A quick trip into system / preferences / keyboard, and CapLock is just another ctrl key. Bye bye evil.
I was tempted by an HP 2133 for one reason. Keyboard. There was one sitting right next to the AAO at Fry's. I played with it. It's keyboard is better than the AAO's. But at 1.2 Ghz rather than 1.6, less hard drive, and coming with Vista rather than XP, and at nearly twice the price (600 USD versus 349 USD), and just couldn't go there.

An Apple Netbook at that HP's price I would probably do though. Hello Steve Jobs or whoever runs Apple? Market calling.


rfg8ta said...

I have the AAO SSD with Limpus Linux.
It boots very fast, 18 seconds from
hitting the power button, the desktop
is fully usable. The WiFi is not;
it cranks a bit looking for AP and
supposedly handshaking with it. Maybe 10 more seconds, but I do not
feel that is the fault of the AAO,
but rather the way WiFi works.

Limpus is interesting. The quick boot is absolutely stunning and it
will draw crowds at a cafe! Like
you said, the screen is gorgeous
and the keyboard perfectly usable
unless you are goliath or a brute
with big, sausage fingers. I have
average hands, all okay; and 99.9%
of women, teens and kids will be
fine with it.

My only failure with it so far has
been not been able to get the 3G
AT&T USB Sierra Mercury dongle to
work on it. It is recognized,
loads the module, but I cannot
play with it thru the keyboard,
CLI or wvdial. I am still working
on it though, and it works fine on
my dell XPS one desktop
(after some fiddling!).

I loaned the AT&T thing to a buddy
that is taking a coast to coast
road trip, and he uses Vista on his
laptop for this trip. His hard
drive has 7.10 on it also, but for
this trip he NEEDS the card. We
have a bet as to how long his
Vista will last. There are bug
storms and locusts out there! Heck, he may even go thru Texas and
tangle in a Bush or something.

Nice article, keep up the good work.

Wroolie said...

Thanks for posting this. I read this a few days ago while making the decision to install Ubuntu on my Acer Aspire Pro. I was really disappointed with the Linpus OS and think that Ubunut is definitely worth the extra few seconds of boot time. This post helped me make the decision and it is working great.

cheap computers said...

I guess still, the 8930G-7665 is definitely performance and multimedia-oriented.

Steve Carl said...

8930G-7665? quad core, 18" screen? Nothing remotely like the AAO other than the color. That beastie is the very definition of a "transportable computer", in the sense that it is easier to move than a desktop.

wireless headset said...

I would take an Acer over an HP any day. Acer is becoming a huge part of the PC market.