Sunday, May 3, 2009

Out and about with the Acer Aspire One and Ubuntu 9.04

Please bring your netbooks to the upright and locked position...

As I type this, I am winging my way to the San Francisco Bay Area. The Acer Aspire One (AA1) is in its natural habitat, i.e., a tray table on a crowded 737-800/900 (it does not say which...). All seats are filled, and there is no spare room for anything, much less a large laptop.

Since I last traveled with the Acer, I have made a few changes to the AA1. I upped the RAM to 1.5 GB, so that for a simple edit session with OpenOffice WebWriter, I am only using 11% of the memory. 38% is in use as cache, and the rest is just waiting for something to do. Don't get this wrong though. I am not sorry I upped the RAM, even it it was a real PITA relative to something like the Dell Mini-9 or even an Apple Macbook. If I could have gone 2GB, I would have. On the plane I am trying to conserve power and only have OpenOffice WebWriter open. On the ground, in a library, or at Starbucks I might have seven or eight things going at once, and then the RAM is handy. Besides, on any notebook computer, I like as big a disk cache as I can get to "speed up" (I.E. cache) the writes to the typical 4200 or 5400 RPM disk.

The other big change is that the netbook is running Ubuntu 9.04 GA, and while I experimented with it for a while, I have taken off the Ubuntu NetBook Remix (UNR). Mostly this was because I use Gnome desktops on all my other Linux systems right now, and while I like Netbook remix, I prefer to be able to window the desktop from time to time, even on the tiny netbook screen. Sure, I could use the desktop switcher to run over to classic mode, and then pop open a window and tell Maximus to stop maximizing everything.. but then I'd have to undo all that when I switched back. Ultimately I decided that the eye candy of NetBook Remix was not worth the hassle. I can always turn on Compiz if I want eye candy. What is still impressive to me is that this little unit can do the eye candy with Linux and not be noticeably slowed by it. I will probably replace the XP install on this unit with the GA of Windows 7 at some point, and it will be interesting to compare those two on the same box. Hard to see the Aero effects (even of the tweaked out Win7) working very well, but who knows? Linux can do composited graphics on a netbook. Surely MS won't leave that gauntlet tossed to the ground forever.

Heat and Noise

I experimented around with the 'acerhdf' kernel module, and it worked more or less as advertised, at least as far as keeping the CPU fan turned off most of the time, but I did not like how warm the AA1 became when it was installed, and the Wifi would start to act flakey after a while, so I disabled it for now. Fan runs more especially when on A/C power, but the systems stays cooler to the touch and the Wifi has not wigged out since. I assume without sensor data or thermal scans to back me up that the Atherosw Wifi card was getting too hot.

The main problem that the acerhdf was trying to address was how noisy the AA1 is, but if I am listening to music on the iPhone, or typing blog entries on an airplane, I can not hear the fan at all, so why take the chance of heat damage (further heat damage?). It was all really Dell Mini-9 envy anyway, because that little unit runs dead quiet: Does not even have a fan. Might as well face it: The AA1 is not the Dell, and if quiet is key, get the Mini-9.

A disappointment so far as it relates to heat is how few sensors appear to through ACPI to the lm-sensors code. I run the Gnome applet to monitor that and all I can see are the hard drive (42C right now...) and another one called 'temp1' out of 'libsensors', but it always reads 0C, so whatever that is it is not being accessed correctly. Whatever temp1 is, it did not even appear under Ubuntu 8.10, so I assume someone is working on getting the AA1 sensors mapped correctly. The best computer I have ever had in this regard was the IBM T41: It had a whole raft of instrumentation. CPU, Graphics, batteries, various memory, i/o busses.... the works. I gues you could make the case that the IBM was a top of the line (at the time) business computer, and the AA1 is a 300 USD or less consumer unit... but really: Do thyristors cost that much? Would one on top of the CPU and another on the Wifi card really jack the price up that much? If so, then how about Intel and Atheros just build that stuff in to everything they make?

Battery Park

When I bought the AA1, most of the units being sold had 3 cell batteries and 120GB hard drives. As I noted here in past posts about the AA1, the box my unit came in said it had 120GB HD, but it was really a 160GB, and that is de rigueur these days for the Netbooks with mechanical hard drives.

The 3 cell battery that came with the unit has 2200 mAh, and was good for about 1.8 hours of usage. Another reason I was interested in the acerhdf module was to keep the fan off as much as possible, and make the battery last as long as possible. 1.8 hours is barely more than one meeting, and does not even come close to one Austin to San Francisco plane trip, or one Houston to Alpine train trip.

Backing up for a sec to the heat thing: it should be noted that the fan does run less often when the AA1 is not plugged in. It appears to do a better job dialing itself down, and running with less heat when unplugged, It does this without any obvious slowing of the computer, so I am not sure why it does not manage its power/heat a little better when on A/C.

Acer had 6 cell batteries as an option for the AA1, but I had never seen one at retail back at my time of purchase and come to think of it I still have not. In fact, one Fry's ad at the time noted that they had the 120GB / 6 cell config, and when I went there they had the 160Gb / 3 cell config. Only way I have seen to get a 6 cell battery from Acer as the stock install is to order it that way. That is just my experience, as I have read accounts of people finding them in the wild.

No matter what, the 3 cell I had was just not going to get it done. Even my Macbook Pro from three years ago has longer battery life (and I have not been deeply impressed by the MacBook Pro's batteries, but that is another post). I decided to order a 9 cell, 7200 mAh replacement. There are several makes and models out there, and I found a manufacturer in the US that makes a 7800 mAh unit … right after I had ordered mine. Doh.

Mine came from Global Laptop Batteries, and it appears to be a decent unit. See picts. Ignore the Apple logo. That is just dreaming... or a Dell Mini-9 converted to OS.X. Not the Acer. It is a bad OS.X candidate, not even counting EULA's and all.

Overall the Global buying experience was mixed. The battery shipped almost immediately from Hong Kong, according to the USPS, but from then on it was never really clear where they were. The steep 20 USD in shipping did not buy any sort of enhanced tracking, and the battery was two weeks in arriving.

7200 mAh gives 6+ hours of power cord free time, especially here on the airplane with the Wifi off. Probably closer to seven, but I am not measuring it with any precision. I have used it for three hours messing around and writing this, and still have 4 hours runtime left according to the battery meter. Wonder what that 7800 mAh would do...

If this ebay deal is any good, it would run rings around the deal I got.

The 9 cell battery is tall, and I rather like that, as it angles the keyboard towards me on the tray. Much nicer to type on with the tall battery installed. Cuts less into my palms at the edges of the keyboard, as there is no real 'palmrest' on something this small.

It is a big battery: I have not weighed the AA1, but it is probably 3 pounds now. It is a good tradeoff, especially as the battery is shaped such that now the AA1 has a nifty handle on it, although before carrying it all over the place with the 'handle', make sure the battery lock slide is engaged! I'm just sayin'....

With the 'handle', any extra weight is not really noticeable, and I do tend to carry it around sans bag and power cord now, so I am probably saving weight overall.

Ubuntu 9.04 GA

Ubuntu 9.04 itself is a thing of beauty. The performance on the Acer is crisp until I start trying to manipulate photos. That can insert pauses and make the fan run a bit. Firefox, when pointed at a page with a lots of Web 2.0 stuff like Gmail will also crank up the fan, although the browser stays fast. I run the FF 3.5 beta 4 rather than the Ubuntu sourced 3.0.10 though. One of the things Beta 4 brings to the table is better speed in Javascript, which helps all the Google apps. Except one. Google Gears is not yet updated to support it, so I can not run offline Gmail or Docs without reverting to 3.0.10. No problem: I have both Firefox versions installed if needed.

One app that does not run well is Google Earth. it just needs more CPU/graphics mojo than this little Netbook has. Maybe a Linux native version would work better, but not this boxed WINE version.

With 1.5 GB of RAM, having both browsers running, plus OpenOffice , Rhythmbox (for Internet Radio) , and a few other things is no problem. Everything launches very quickly as well, and relaunches from cache are even better. OpenOffice has been rapped over the years for its slow initialization, but I just re-launched the WebWriter and it came up in 3 seconds. Netbooks may be minimal hardware by todays standards, but Linux is still lean and mean enough to make them seem pretty crisp most of the time... as long as you are not running the a mini-9 with Dells default LPIA Ubuntu 8.04 build... You listening out there Dell?

Aside: I have read that Win7's most basic version will limit one to only running three things at once. With Ubuntu 9.04 on either the Acer of the Dell Mini-9 with its 2GB, I have never hit the limit for how many apps I can open. Either machine stays responsive well past three things running at once. That limit is clearly not being imposed by the hardware. In my testing of Win7 Beta I have seen that while it is faster than Vista, it is slower than XP SP3. Win7 RC is supposed to be faster than the Beta, So I assume that the limit is just there to make people want to install XP SP3 again.....

Do You See What I See?

Even Internet video does not work too bad on this AA1. With Flash 10 installed, I can watch Hulu or MSNBC's news programs while on the road. The screen is bright and beautiful, the contrast ratio better than the new MacBook (but not the new Macbook Pro...), the wide screen perfect for movies. This puts a lie to the recent statement by Apple that Netbooks are 'junky'. Don't believe me: Go in to the Apple store. Fire up iPhoto on a Macbook, and a Macbook Pro. Navigate to the same picture on both, and one with good contrast and lots of black. The Macbook.. the brand new cadillac carved from a block of aluminum Macbook... has dark gray on the screen rather than black. Sorry: no room to be calling Netbooks junky till your own house is in order there Apple.

Video is the leading edge of the Netbooks 1.6 Ghz Atom CPU though: pretty much nothing else can be happening on the computer if you want the video to be smooth. When in a hotel room on the road, the little AA1 is perfect for sitting in the bad and watch programming till ready for sleep. Here is a place where the AA1 appears to slightly exceed the Dell Mini-9.

AA1 to Dell Mini-9 Comparisons

I can watch video on the Mini-9 (when my wife lets me see it) as well, but its screen does not appear to be quite as bright, and since the unit is fanless it feels like it dials itself down to stay cool far faster. It may just be that the Dells stock SSD is just slower. I am looking at the high performance (appears to be mostly from RunCore) and larger stock speed SSD's available for the 9 because while Ubuntu 9.04 does fit in the 2GB SSD, it leaves little room for growth or patching. The SSD price points are shifting so quickly right now it is hard to determine what the best deal is. As i write this, a 32Gb SSD at stock speed is about 80USD, and a RunCore high speed SSD is about 130USD. The main difference is that the write speeds are about 4x faster. Read speeds are a tiny bit slower. For standard writing and web browsing, I am not sure the performance is worth the price.

One of the things I like to use the AA1 for is to listen to Internet Radio. Mostly stations like WBUR, KQED, or Air America, While Rythmbox is a great app for that, the AA1 speakers suck rocks. Here is another place where the Dell exceeds it, as it has tiny but fairly usable speakers at the base of the monitor, facing forward towards the listener. If you are going to have a fat bezel around a monitor, why not use it for something? What a terrific idea! Plenty of room on the Acer monitor bezel for speakers... but no. Music on the 9 is passable as long as it is not serious listening, just low volume background. 'All Things Considered' or 'The Rachel Maddow Show', being mostly speaking voice, come through fine on the Mini-9.

The AA1 by contrast has speakers mounted facing downwards, just under the 'palm rest', and the 9 cell battery tips the unit forward, closing out some of the air space between the speakers and whatever the AA1 is sitting on. I invested 10 dollars in a pair of battery powered speakers, and while they are not great, they are portable, tuck in luggage nicely, and bring the AA1's sound back to at least as good as the Dell mini-9's. They also will run off the USB port for power, so the batteries inside the speakers last a good long while, even though they are AAA size. For really good sound, I have the Altec Lansing portable speakers that I use with my iPod.

Back to Ubuntu

One of Ubuntu 9.04's new features is the unified message center. It took me a bit to get used to that, especially as the NetManager icon sits in it, and when I upgraded one of my test machines to 9.04 I had lost the icon for the NetManager out of the Gnome toolbar, and it was driving my nuts trying to figure out how to get it back. FWIW, should this happen to you, it is called the 'Notification AREA' in the 'add to panel dialog (right click on tool bar to access). Ubuntu also moved the power down / suspend / hibernate button to the notification area from the 'system' menu. Took me a couple times to figure that out. Now that I know what it is, what has been centralized there I like it. It is a very clean way to present all of these functions. Avahi Autodiscover reports what it finds there as well.

Herein lies another reason I switched back to the classic menus from the Ubuntu NetBook-Remix. I keep my tool bar stocked with all sorts of applets: launchers for terminal and Firefox, remote console access, sensor and system performance data, weather, and so forth. NetBook-Remix only displays some of these things, because it re-tasks part of the toolbar for the top of the currently focused window. I get it. It makes great use of the screen real estate, and lets the focused app fill the screen. If I were building a NetBook for a Linux neophyte, I would install NetBook Remix as the default. When I handed the Mini-9 over to my wife, I had NetBook-Remix as the default in fact. It was the first thing she turned off. I assumed that, since she is primarily a Mac user these days she would like UNR better than Gnome. Nope. Her UNIX system programmer genes reasserted themselves immediately. She wanted multiple windows available. She wanted drag and drop to the desktop. UNR was making everything too simple. Oh well. The desktop switcher makes short work of flipping back and forth, though I note she never does. She has left Maximus intact though.

One of the funny things about the AA1 (and probably most netbooks right now) is how often when I am using it out and about at someplace like Starbucks or Taco Bell that people stop and ask me questions about it.

  • How well does it work?

  • Which one do you have?

  • Did you look at any others?

  • Are you glad you got it?

  • Was it worth the price

  • How well does Linux work on it?

  • Can you really use Linux to replace Windows?
It's kind of fun to be able to talk about it with people, and, unlike some things, no one appears to find you too geeky or perhaps even a little elitist (a unfortunate common reaction to an Apple MBP). People seem to get that this is a computer that almost anyone can afford. In fact, based on some of the conversations I have had recently, I think there is a great unmeasured consumer group out there: Those who have wanted computers but never thought they could afford one before now. Those for whom this will be not be an ancillary, special purpose computer, but their first and only computer.

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