Tuesday, January 12, 2010

My New Ubuntu Linux Laptop

I had been toying with getting a netbook, but I realised that most of the situations where I would use one were already covered by my Google G1 phone and what I was really missing was something for writing articles and working on web pages. Having a full laptop made more sense than a netbook for this purpose. At the same time I am not totally tied to Windows as I use a lot of online applications. I also have access to a Windows desktop machine so I had that available if I got stuck.

Having used Ubuntu previously on an old Toshiba laptop I knew it would work for what I was planning, is potentially more resistant to security issues and does not require the same level of updating as Windows Vista. I had a look around for either a laptop with no operating system installed or one that was Cheap enough that I could uninstall Windows wothout feeling like I had taken a loss. In the end I found two laptops without an operating system from Ebuyer.com for £310 and £390 respectively. The first with a Celeron processor and the second with a full Core 2 Duo. I thought about it for a few days and then ordered the more expensive Core 2 Duo version. It arrived the next day.

To get this laptop in perspective - back in 2000 I paid £1100 for a Toshiba 1100MHz Celeron with 1GB RAM and a 40GB hard drive. At that time this was quite a reasonable price. In 2005 I bought a very small Pentium laptop for £550. I did not mind paying £390 for something that came with no software but had the advantage of 4GB of RAM and a good quality battery.
Ebuyer call it the "Extra Value Laptop, Core 2 Duo T6600 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 250GB HDD, 15.4 TFT". Its actually a Clevo M76T and this is what is written on the bottom. Clevo make own brand computers for a number of companies (including some of the Advent PC's for Currys and PC World). Clevo also sell some directly under the LogiQ or Clevo brand names. This one was supplied with a LogiQ badge on it and the following spec (although I can't guarantee that another one bought from Ebuyer would be identical):

Processor
  • Intel T6600 Core 2 Duo Dual Core Processor 2.2Ghz,
  • 2MB Cache
  • Intel GL40 chipset (easily compatible with Ubuntu)
  • 4GB DDR2 800Mhz (not the usual 667MHz you get on cheaper machines)
  • 250GB SATA II Hard Drive
  • Super multi DVDRW
  • Compatible with 64bit operating systems
  • 15.4” Diagonal Size Screen (max resolution 1680 x 1050)

Audio
  • Integrated Speakers
  • Built in Microphone

Input Devices
  • Keyboard and Touchpad

Networking
  • 10/100 LAN
  • Wireless LAN 802.11b/g (but not "n")

Dimensions
  • Width 268mm
  • Depth 359mm
  • Height 37mm
  • Weight 2.5kg

Power Supply

  • 6 Cell Lithium Ion Battery (approx 3 hours life on one charge according to reviews on the Ebuyer.com web site)

Interfaces

  • 3 x USB 2.0 ports (one on one side and two on the other)
  • 1 x VGA port
  • 1 x Headphone port
  • 1 x Microphone port
  • 1 x S/PDIF output port for digital audio
  • 1 x RJ-11 port
  • 1 x RJ45 LAN port
  • 1 x DC-in jack
  • 1 x eSata external Port

Miscellaneous
  • 7 in 1 Card Reader
  • 1.3mp Webcam

Quality of Build
It seems quite well made. Its as robust as my previous HP laptop which was a little more expensive but came with Windows Vista installed. The keyboard does not sag in the middle, which has been a problem with a couple of laptops I have owned. The white keyboard is easier to use in poor light than the darker one on the HP.

Choice of Operating System
I decided on Ubuntu 9.10 (Karmic Koala). This is a 750MB download as an iso disk image file which you then burn to a CD with a burning ROM. I used Nero to burn it as I have that on my main windows PC.

This laptop has 4GB of RAM, but only 3GB of this is useable because of the hardware architecture. This is the same for any 32 bit operating system running on x86 hardware. My previous Windows Vista laptop had the same issue. Using the 64 bit version of Ubuntu would make all of the 4GB available, but having read a number of articles it looked like it might not improve performance by much due to losses elsewhere and there might be difficulties getting some software to run on the 64 bit platform. If I needed to run 8 or 16GB of RAM I would definitely go for a 64 bit operating system, but for a laptop installation it was not worth the extra complication.

Installing Ubuntu on the Laptop
The operating system (Ubuntu 9.10) installed from the CD without any hitches. I was not expecting any problems as I had done this before on an old Toshiba Laptop with Ubuntu 6. That installation had even picked up and configured the old PCMCIA wireless card that was in it so I was confident that the newer version would install easily on a laptop with a standard Intel chipset.

The installation took about twenty minutes. After this I had to click on the wireless status icon in the top bar to connect to the network.

I tried to install some software through the Ubuntu software centre, but kept getting the error message "Not available in the current data". To fix this I ran:

sudo apt-get update

which forced an update. This got rid of the error message, but Ubuntu then decided to run its own even larger update through the update manager which took some time to complete.

(It is presumably possible to run the updates from the GUI without having to use the terminal window, but I am used to using the shell from previous professional involvement with Linux.)


Installing Software
I found that a lot of the open source software I currently use on Windows is available on Linux. This included:
  • Google Chrome (needs to be downloaded from Google.com - it is not in the Ubuntu software centre).
  • Check Gmail to get notifications of new email.
  • Kompozer for html editing.
  • Filezilla FTP.
I installed all of these and they ran correctly.

I installed the Open Office Database component through the software centre. This was not installed with the rest of Open office during the Ubuntu installation and I use it. it was easy to add it without doing a reinstall of the whole of Open Office.

There is also some commercial software available for Linux including a version of Nero although I have not tried it.

Playing DVD's
Ubuntu does not ship with the necessary DVD decrypter as this might be covered by copyright law in some countries. This means that you have to install some additional libraries. I tried to get DVD's to play on the pre installed totem movie player by installing libdvdcss2 but this had no effect so I installed VLC.

On inserting a DVD I now get a prompt to open the disk and a choice of application to use.
I select VLC and they play correctly with all the menus working.

Fonts
For some reason Google Docs was displaying documents OK in Chrome but in Firefox the fonts were wrong so I installed windows core fonts using the command:

sudo apt-get install msttcorefonts

This has changed the display of some web pages. Not for the worse, just differently.

Battery Life
I activated the battery status monitor in the top bar and set the laptop power and screensaver settings to conserve power when running from the battery. The battery had been on charge while I was setting up and was showing 100%. After an hours use off the charger it was still showing 70% full which is in line with the battery life claimed by other owners of this machine in reviews.

Wireless
Although the inbuilt wireless card does not do type "n" it seems to be as good as my previous HP Windows laptop which did. It is better than the previous Sony one which suffered a lot from drop out or not being able to log into the network.

Chat Client
I decided to remove the Empathy client that Ubuntu had preinstalled because it did not support Facebook chat. Instead I opted for Pidgin with the additional facebook plug in.

Video Editing
I had a look at the various available video editors. They all seem aimed at DV camcorders rather than files from SD cards. The LiVES video editor seemed simple so I installed it. Kino looked better but I was concerned that it might not handle the file types. Jahshaka is a very professional grade editor, but might be a steep learning curve. Previously I had used WIndows Movie Maker for simple videos and Corel Video Studio for proper video production and HD. I need to see what suits me best on Ubuntu.

Boot Time
After installing all this software the machine boots from cold to useable in about 60 seconds, including typing in my password.

Visual Effects
Its possible to change the visual effects used when windows open and close. I tried the more advanced style but prefered the default one.

Still to Do
I have a few more things to do including:
  • Deleting all the preinstalled software I am not currently using in order to reduce the time taken for system updates.
  • Possibly changing the Gnome theme, but I might just change the colours of the default theme.
  • Install a music library program to replace iTunes. I will probably use Songbird as it is supposed to synchronise with iPods but installation looks a bit complicated.
  • Antivirus is probably not necessary on Linux, but AVG do a free anti virus that works with Ubuntu. I will think about this later.
  • Might install Nero for burning CD's, but I will try the burning program that comes with Ubuntu.
  • Look at printer drivers, but I have already found that Linux drivers fro my epson printer are available.
  • Test the memory card reader.
  • Install a 3G dongle - there seem to be some issues getting these to work with the current version of Ubuntu relating to the kernel thats being used.
  • Need to arrange for pidgin and gmail check to launch on startup.

Overall conclusion
Its been a (relatively) cheap way to get a high performance laptop with reasonable battery life. It works with all my usual online applications and I have my most use open source programs running on it. It needs to be used for a while before I can give a full verdict on it.

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