Thursday, March 26, 2009

Ubuntu 9.04 Alpha 6, the Acer and the Dell

Since I last posted here, there has been a lot of work done on Ubuntu, getting ready to ship next month. What has changed on my end is two things: The addition of a Dell Mini-9 to the mix, and getting Alpha 6 working on the Acer Aspire One (AA1)

The Dell Mini-9

The Dell Mini-9 came into my hands, albeit briefly, last week. I bought it as a gift for my wife, although she does not know it yet. It shipped with Ubuntu 8.04.1, and a "special" low power version of it at that: All the complaints I have seen about the speed of the Mini-9 can be traced directly back other fact that it is *not* an I3/4/686 version of the binaries, but a special compile for the low power version of the Atom called "lpia". It is not horribly slow at that, but it is not great ether. The Acer with Mint 5 on it ran rings around it side by side, and the Dell has 2GB where the Acer has 1.5 GB. Neither are memory constrained, yet the Dell was slower.

Backing up for a second: the Mini-9 came with 512MB, and when I plopped in the 2GB chip, it made very little difference to the speed. A very undramatic upgrade. The good news there is that Linux still runs great in 512MB....

The "lpia" version of the Ubuntu 8.04.1 has another problem: Not much appears to be compiled for it, so if you go into a tool like "Synaptic" and try to add things, rather than the 26,000 some odd packages, that are far less: Forgot to count. Already installed over it. Worse, even with software sources set to do all versions, not just LTS (System / Administration / Software Sources) it still would not update to 8.10.... Because Dell has not done an lpia version of 8.10 yet and released it. The Atom can run X86, so lpia had to go.

For all the trouble with software upgrades, the Dell beats the pants off the Acer for hardware upgrades: The hatch on the bottom opens with two screws, and there is the memory slot, the SSD slot, the WIFI slot, and an empty one labeled WWAN on the mainboard silkscreen. The Acer required taking nearly the whole thing apart to get at the same bits.

Then there is that capability to take a 2GB memory chip (in my case a Patriot PSD22G8002S, or PC-2-6400 800 Mhz). The BIOS on the Acer can only take a 1GB unit. Phooey. And now I have another 512 MB chip to find some use for. Someone needs to make chip stackers again....

The next upgrade the Mini-9 will get will be to replace the 4GB SSD. I tried to get one from Fry's, but all they had were the full length, EEPC style units. The Dell has a half length mini-PCI slot. A quick look around the Internet, and it appears I won't have any problem finding something. Probably a 32GB SSD. Linux does not need that space: It fits easily inside of the 4GB, but as I learned, it is really easier to keep /home on the SSD too and sync it to the SD or USD Flash drives later for backup. More on that in a sec. Coming from the Acer's 160GB moving-parts-hard-drive, it is a very different world.

I created a USB stick with Ubuntu Alpha 6 on it (same procedure as in "Mint 6 RC1 on the Acer Aspire One") and booted the Mini-9 off it. My first pass was to put in a 2GB SD card and make that /home, but that caused all sorts of issues with suspend / resume and reboots, where apparently the MMC driver was not being installed soon enough in the boot so that /home was not available. Grrr.

One thing about the Ubuntu 9.04 installer: They changed the Time Zone selector. Much much much better. Now you just see the 24 time zones. Neat world map too. Thank you Ubuntu folks!

I guess I could take the mount of the SD card (/dev/mmcblk0p1) out of the /etc/fstab and put it in rc.local or something as a mount, so that everything would be up first, but I'll let my wife figure that out. I am not really sure what she'll do with this unit. Another option would just be to have Conduit (very nifty app!) sync the SSD version of /home with the SD card from time to time.

Even though the Dell has a Broadcom Wifi card, Linux loaded it up and it worked right out of the box: In fact, everything did. Install was dead easy if slightly slower than I would have expected. SSD's are slow on write.

I went ahead and installed the Netbook-Remix while I was at it to see how that compared to the Netbook desktop that Dell had provided on the default 8.04.1 install. The answer was that the Ubuntu Netbook stuff is IMHO far better. If nothing else, faster since it is X86, not lpia. But I liked the whole setup better: I imagine Dell will at least think about using the Distro default version at some point rather than continuing to maintain their own version of a desktop, whenever they get around to supporting 9.04.

Turn off Compiz if you use the Netbook desktop. Compiz will load by default, and even works on the little netbook fairly quickly, but the Netbook launcher and Compiz hate each other. Very frakkin ugly.

I tweaked out the Mini 9, and basically have it ready to give to my wife, so now I have to quit playing with it. Its bad enough I opened her present I guess, but Ubuntu 8.04.1 really had to come off there first, or she would have thought the Mini-9 was not so frelling great.

There: A Farscape and BattleStar word, and not half done! Geek Points!

Acer Aspire One and A6

The AA1 may not be as easy to upgrade, hardware-wise, as the Dell, but it is still a nifty little unit. There are two things about it that beat the Dell: The screen is better a little better (brighter, deeper colors), and I like the keyboard better. The AA1 keyboard has slightly smaller keytops, because it has 6 rows of keys rather than five. The Mini-9 drops the PF key row, and embeds those as fn- keys (Like fn-a is F1) in the regular keyboard. Further the Mini-9 messes around with where the single and double quotes are, and the vertical bar, which I use all the time on Linux, is also a fn- type key. PF11 and PF12 are just gone. The Mini-9 BIOS uses regular letters at boot to control getting into setup or changing the boot order.

I liked that the keys were a little bigger on the Dell, so while I prefer the Acer, I could live with the Dell. it will be interesting to see how my wife, a blindingly fast touch typist, adapts to the Dell.

The Acer has my normally prefered Atheros Wifi card, but with Ubuntu and 8.10 and the mess around the "ath5k" drivers that has actually favored the Dells Broadcom chipset. Weird.

Once I had the Dell dialed in with Ubuntu 9.04 A6 and the new Netbook desktop, I liked it so much I wanted the exact same thing on my Acer. As I wrote here back in January about Alpha 3 ("Ubuntu 9.04 Alpha 3 on the Acer Aspire One... briefly"), the Wifi mess was still not sorted, but I was ready to try again. After all, GA is next month! This had to be close I thought.

It is, but it was not easy like the Dell.

I booted the USB, and installed Ubuntu 9.04 A6 for the second time. It installed more quickly than on the Dell, because the SSD drive is slower on writes than the round-and-brown of the Acer. Actually, last time I took apart a disk drive, the platters were silver now, not brown. But I digress...

It booted up, and my misery started. There were two issues, but it took me a while to find them:

1) acer_wmi module has to be blacklisted, or you can not use the Gnome desktop network widget for connecting to Wifi. I had to hand code 'iwconfig' statements at command line till I figure that out. No biggie, but the widget is so much better.

2) And this is the one that really killed me: For reasons I do not know, my repository sources were set to default to Chile. I could not figure out why Synaptic / apt-get update were taking so long to refresh, and why I could only see about 6,000 packages after they had refreshed. It was making me crazy! Lost at least a day to this. The reason I lost part of this time was that until I found the note on an Ubuntu forum about blacklisting acer_wmi I thought I was fighting a network problem with the ath5k stuff still.

As an aside: I am not sure not that I look at it that the problem I was having with the AA1 and the Wifi with Alpha 3 was not the "acer_wmi" thing. I did not dig that deeply then. This time I was determined to make it work.

Next up, the AA1 fan runs way more than it used to under Mint 6. More like the way it does under XP. I do not know why yet. I loaded up "powertop" and had it crank back the write-back settings, and that seemed to help, but it still runs more than it used to. It might be that without the acer-wmi loaded something is not connecting up in power management, but if so, I'll just wait for that to be fixed. I love the Wifi widget too much to lose it. The fan shuts off when the system is unplugged, so it also appears that it is just staying CPU cranked up when it has bounteous electrons.

It all seems so noisy compared to the dead-quiet Mini-9.

The battery life on the AA1 is not great either, and about 2 hours, but it never has been. The battery is just too small. The Dell has a 4-Cell unit, and it good for about twice as much time as the 2-Cell Acer. I should have bought the 4-Cell Acer I guess: I am looking in the after-market at a couple options. The AA1 2-Cell has got to go. It was amazing how much nicer it was to carry around the Mini-9 and not be worried about it running out of power during the day.

Because the AA1 had Mint 6 and a full Gnome desktop on it, I had to clean up the Gnome config files to get the Netbook desktop to look right: Rather than spend a great deal of time thinking about it, I just torched .gconf, .gconfd, .gnome2, and .gnome_private, and restarted Gnome, and the Netbook desktop appeared.

Well, once I turned off Compiz. Boy those two hate each other!

While waiting about today for some lunch, I wrote part of this post on the AA1 in the text editor (since Bloggers interpretation of HTML is kinda sucky) and it was really nice to have the AA1 up on Ubuntu 9.04 with the Netbook desktop. Fast, full featured, and if the usage is slightly different, much easier once used to it on the 1024x600 screen. Several people stopped by to ask about the unit and see how it worked... although one of them was because I have an Apple sticker on the lid. That would be nice: an Apple Netbook. Everything I have read says that is not going to happen though. In the meantime, this all works pretty well. Finally.

Next upgrade to the AA1? I am guessing Mint 7.


schizo said...

I bought an AA1 ZG5 a couple of weeks ago, & downloaded UNR 9.04 (beta) to an 8GB Toshiba USB flash drive, & it installed flawlessly.
My problem is that Network Manager isn't recognizing the internal Qualcomm 9211, 3G modem.
Apparently Ubuntu NetBook Remix 9.04 (beta) didn't come with wvdial, usbserial, & a host of other things that would make sense to include in a "NetBook" release.
Since I live off-grid, & my cell-phone + AA1 is my only web connection, I'm experiencing the joys of downloading files with Windoze exPee, then trying to use USB flash drives to transfer files...
I certainly hope the release version has a better selection of included packages!
Thanks for sharing your experience!

Steve Carl said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences as well. I have not seen the ZG5 yet. Mine is a 150 and does not even have an internal Modem on it.

I also did not start with UNR, but the base Ubuntu LiveCD does not install those packages by default either. I just looked at a Dell D620 (that has an internal modem) and no modem support appears to have been installed there either.

I have to guess, without any facts to support it, that even though Linux supports modems way way better than the early days that most of the folks doing work on the distros these days are Wifi users, and do not really think about the off-the-grid usages very often.

I have a place off the grid as well: When I am not at work, I live far far out west. I plane to tether with my iPhone when release 3.0 supports that, so I would have hit this issue then. Thanks for the early warning!

Nino said...

as far as i know the mini9 is a fanless netbook with a solid state harddrive so you shouldn't get a peep out of it :)