Monday, November 10, 2008

The Acer Aspire One, More RAM, and Puppy 4.1.1

This post is a follow on to my previous post about the Acer Aspire One (AAO).

There is one really bad thing about the Acer Aspire One and that is that to get the hardware I wanted required getting the one that has WinXP pre-installed. No big deal for me: Ubuntu 8.10 is now installed and running very very nicely, and the hardware is just counting the minutes (or maybe its me...) until Mint 6.0 is released so that it can get the latest version. I thought about going to Mint 5R1 of course, but wanted a chance to play with Ubuntu 8.10. The new AAO hardware presented that opportunity.

What is bad about the XP on the AAO is that when my wife got hers, she did not also go to Linux. No.. instead she looked at it as a chance to get a computer she could run WordPerfect X3 on. She still spends most of her time on her MacBook and Pages, and is saving her pennies for a new Macbook, but that means Windows camel has a nose back under the tent flap at the Casa, Yes: I know my Acer 5610 dual boots to Vista, and that my AAO dual boots back to XP as well, but these are for experiments and professional learning, not for production use. I wish Corel would release WP for Linux (a modern version I mean. I have WP8 for Linux) so I could head this off at the pass. Nuts. OpenOffice.org 3.0 does everything I need and more, but my wife is more of a power user than I am when it comes to word processing. Apparently mail merge on OOo is not up to WP X3. Then there is the whole "Show Codes" thing that every word processor other than WP is missing.

The AAO has surprised me with its speed and utility. The Intel Atom 1.6 Ghz processor is hyperthreaded, which to Linux looks like two CPU's. I turned on various monitors like gkrellm and the Gnome taskbar monitors, and can see that the threads are getting different workloads: Linux is taking full advantage of the design. It is crisp. The monitor is also still amazing: the LED back-light making the white color look so clean and bright that the previous king of my monitor stable.. the Macbook Pro... looks a little gray and dingy in comparison.

Despite being crisp with is factory 1GB RAM, I decided it was worth the time, effort, and 22 USD to replace the stock Hynix 512 MB pc2-5300 stick with a 1 GB unit from Crucial. In fact, I decided it was worth taking the Acer apart over and over and over... although that was not the original plan.

I noted in my last post about the AAO that my unit did not match the box documentation: For one thing, I had a 160 GB HD rather than the advertised 120GB. My wife ordered hers from Outpost, and hers is also 160 GB while documented as 120 GB. I got to wondering if I was really limited to only 1GB of RAM on the upgrade, so I went to Fry's and got a Kingston 2GB PC2-5300, and dived into the Acer. I used the instructions here:

http://www.crunchgear.com/2008/08/28/how-to-add-ram-to-the-acer-aspire-one-netbook/

However, the pictured routines are not complete, and the video gave me the clues for the missing bits. The video also told me that once I got to the part about taking out the mainboard I had a different unit than they did. The screws were not all in the same place, and how the hard drive connected in to the mainboard was utterly different. This made me hopeful that 2GB RAM stick would work.

For all I know, it would. The problem was that the stick I had had been returned as not working, and it did not work in my unit either. I have no idea if this was because the stick was bad or the AAO... even the new one... does not support the larger RAM size. If it does not, it seems a stupid limitation.

I went back in with the 1 GB stick, total 1.5 GB, and all was well with the AAO again. Both XP and Linux felt crisper. I expected Linux to be faster since it is far better at addressing memory, and it uses memory not in use by programs as disk cache. I did not expect WinXP to speed up though.

Quick aside here: XP can only run about two programs at a time on my wifes AAO. I have never tried to figure out if this is a weirdness of hers (as long as she is on MS Win, she is on her own) and XP has not been up enough on mine to know if that is also true on mine. I have no idea if MS dumbed down XP ULCPC even more than XP Home (which would seem redundant and unnecessary but since MS says they are not making as much money because of the Netbooks, it might be true). I can tell you it is not a limitation of the hardware. Ubuntu 8.10 (and soon, I am sure, Mint 6) have no such problems. I have all sorts of things open all the time. My problem is screen real estate on the 1024x600 screen for active tasks!.

If you have researched the AAO at all, you know that adding the RAM to the system unit is not for the faint of heart. I take apart hardware all the time, and at first I did not think it was that bad... till I crunched the right hand speaker cable putting it all back together and had a horrible speaker buzz for a while till I took it back apart and fixed it. Doh. An AAO is not as hard as a G3 or G4 iBook. But it is not as easy as an Acer 5610 either!

It it a total mystery why there is no access hatch over the top of the memory slot. It is on the bottom of the mainboard, and there is an access hatch on he bottom. The hatch lines up with what looks like a place that they might someday solder in a connector for something: maybe a G3 wireless card? But there is nothing there on mine, and to get to the freakin' RAM slot is a complete system teardown...

The Hard Drive that the AAO uses was not what I expected at all. I thought it would be the same form factor as what iPods use. Given the small size and bantam weight, surely it used an itty bitty HD. No. Looks like a standard 2.5 inch laptop hard drive.

Before I leave the AAO hardware for this post, I do have to say that I can not wait till the aftermarket catches up to the AAO. For one thing, there are not yet any decent cases for this form factor. I bought a car DVD player case, and it works pretty well, but it would be nice to have something a bit more form fitting and with a place to stick the power cord. The other thing I will buy as soon as I can find it at a reasonable cost is a 6 cell battery. The stock three cell battery lasts about 2.5 to 3 hours, but part of the reason to have the uber-portable form factor of the AAO is to leave the power cord behind for the day.

Its Not Puppy Love

I do not try to diss Linux Distros for the most part. The people that work on them usually do it out of love, and often for free or for what people donate who love their work. That being said I have to say that Puppy Linux 4.1.1 is not ready for the Netbook form factor... at least not the AAO. Where Ubuntu (with a quick disablement of the ATH5k drivers) works pretty well, and extremely quickly, Puppy 4.1.1 does not work quite as well. Fast... but no 802.11, so what is the point? Web 2.0 pretty well sucks rocks when you can not get to the web.

I followed the directions at PenDriveLinux ....

http://www.pendrivelinux.com/2006/03/25/puppy-linux-on-usb/

.... and created a bootable CD. I booted this on the Acer 5610, and created a bootable USB fob (FWIW: I had to replace the USB Flash drives MBR, even though the on-screen directions says you probably won't have to)

I booted this on the AAO, and while Linux boots *fast* it does not detect and load the Atheros drivers in a way that works. I messed around with it: Puppy has a pretty nifty tool for this: but nothing that Puppy provided created a working wireless connection. Sure, I could have gone NDISWRAPPER, and Puppy even has a cool way to load this, but I refuse to go that route on an Atheros equipped computer.

Puppy worked fine on the Acer 5610 with its Intel wireless though, so this appears to be a problem that is specific to the AAO and its very recent Atheros card. Probably "fixed in the next release". lcpci on the AAO says:

03:00.0 Ethernet controller: Atheros Communications Inc. AR242x 802.11abg Wireless PCI Express Adapter (rev 01)

I had a spare USB fob, so I left Puppy on it. The other USB fob on that keyring has Ubuntu 8.10, so if nothing else I have a pretty nice repair tool set with me at all times. Is it geeky to have more than one USB fob on your keyring?

Puppy is interesting and fun to play with: Not the easy-breezy Ubuntu/Mint experience, but amazingly complete for being 96 MB or so. My 2GB fob that Puppy 4.1.1 is on has all sorts of room to spare.

Another day closer to Mint 6......

5 comments:

Rafael José de Oliveira said...

Hello my friend, congratulations on his blog he is very cool and I read a very good information about the Acer Aspire one, I got an e use Ubuntu as the operating system, your site has a lot said about Linux, thanks for that.

Daniel [Diesel] Mitchell said...

Great post, lots of useful information.
I didn't find it too difficult to dismantel my AAO to install the additional 1GB of RAM, however thats because I didn't bother with a full dissassembly, instead I did enough to ensure that I could life the mobo slightly, just enough to insert the RAM without bending and breaking the mobo!

I am upgrading to a 250GB drive soon, so will have to go the whole hog then.

Have you had any luck in finding a good bag for your AAO? I recently picked up one from Techair.co.uk which is actually designed for 7" netbooks, but the compartment for the computer is the perfect size to fit the AAO snugly, with little to no movement and the padding is fantastic. I got mine from a local retailer for just £10, much cheaper than the £29.99 asking price on their website. Take a look here - http://www.techair.co.uk/store/productdetails.asp?ProductId=198 - I think you'll find there is plenty of space forall you need to store.
Mine hold the AAO, charger, 2 external 2.5" HDD's, my mobile phone, and iPod nano, and all sorts of other stuff (including a wireless mouse).
I don't know if you live in the UK, but if you do look up Microtest Ltd - mtltdretail.blogspot.com - they will sell you one for £10 like they did for me (you'll have to call and place an order over the phone though).

Hope this helps.

Steve Carl said...

Diesel

I am still using the DVD case. It has actually worked out fairly well and is small and light enough to meet the basic mission profile.. have a small light easy to carry around computer.

I changed out the power cord so that now I have an even *longer* power tether than I had before. The previous cord was about 2 meters I think. The new one is about 2.5 meters. This is the wall-to-brick part. Add that in to the brick to unit cord, and I can reach outlets in hospitals and doctors offices pretty easily. (A reference to http://on-being-open.blogspot.com/2008/12/now-in-handy-hospital-size.html)

This extra long cord kind on needs the extra space in the 11 inch DVD player case. I'll probably just stay with it for now.

I, like you, also sometimes carry stuff like external harddrives, spare USB cords, flash memory fobs, etc, so the extra space is nice.

MIhail Buzarin said...

Thanx for the information you posted.
To be honest I have tried 7 or 8 Linux distributions for my Acer Aspire One. I have the latest Mint distro now but still searching for "the best".
Mandriva Powerpack 2009 worked excellent until they have done something and when trying to update now .... a lot of mess.
I have tried Gos too but it is not quite out out-of-the-box. Of course ... the wireless card not working.
CrunchBang is okay , no problems with the audio drivers on Skype ( Mint and Ubuntu have some interruptions during the audio-video conversation ) works fast and let's say everything is out of the box but even with those key combinations I find it a little bit hard to work with.I have tried to figure out where to find the "Connect to server" stuff ! There is not at "Places"!
Anyway the following distributions will require a lot of work to install and then to configure the hardware (wireless card, web cam, mic ) on an Acer Aspire One netbook:
Red Hat Enterprise, CentOS, Scientific Linux, Debian, Suse, Fedora.
As I said ...I'm stil looking for the best (from my point of view ) linux distribution on my Aspire One.
Back to my research now!

Steve Carl said...

The quest for the best distro never ends, because in part Linux is a fast moving target.

I have Mint 7 on my Acer right now, and it is doing everything I need it to do: It is a netbook, so I do not expect it to do everything my laptop does... but it does most of it anyway.

It is amazingly fast, and gets faster with every kernel revision. I presume in part this is better and better Intel Atom support, and in part it is all the work that has been done to speed up things like booting.

I have to admit to being restless though. I am just about ready to jump into Ubuntu 9.10 testing, and am thinking that the Acer will be the first computer to go over.