Netbooks

I have been interested in the idea of a netbook since they first appeared. I can see the advantage of a small portable computer especially since laptops seem to be getting larger. I remember many years ago using a 486 laptop that only ran dos but was small and light. It was the ideal travel companion. So recently I decided it was time to add to my collection of pcs.

The new unit is Kogan Agora Pro from Kogan, an Australian company. At under $500 it is the cheapest netbook available in Australia but despite that is well equipped. It has a 160gb drive and 2 gig ram as well as the standard Atom processor. Graphics are Intel 950 which support 3d, transparency etc. OS is gOS a version of Linux based on Ubuntu with a emphasis on Google.

So how good is it? It is only available online which is a bit of a concern. I like to see and touch before I buy. However there were several good reviews online so I took a risk. It arrived in a couple of days. Just a plain white box with the usual hardware but no manual. That is only available on the website. Kogan proudly state they are a paperless company. It had a Windows XP sticker even though it came with Linux, that went very quickly. My first impressions were very good, it runs well and seems well made.

I was not so impressed with the operating system though. It seemed to be an older version as it contained out of date versions of OpenOffice and Firefox. The getting started guide recommended against updating it too. Seems that causes problems with the wifi driver. To add to that it didn’t recognise my wireless broadband so I couldn’t get online.

My next move was predictable I guess. gOS was gone and Fedora replaced it. Most things worked out of the box including wifi and my wireless broadband. I was surprised how well it ran even with KDE 4.3 installed which is a bit resource intensive. Even the desktop effects worked. It didn’t take me long to have the desktop customised the way I like it. Later I added the Xfce 4.6 desktop and that runs even better. I will give Fedora’s new Moblin spin when that becomes available after the release of Fedora 12 in about a month.

I have used it around home, in meetings and when out and about. It has prove a worthwhile investment and a useful tool.

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Putting On the Fedora (for Real This Time)

Previously I posted about setting up a test Fedora 8 installation to see if it could work as my primary system. I was intending to replace my existing Ubuntu Feisty system and had to decide between Fedora and Gutsy. Well the decision was easy and now Fedora 8 is now my main system.

Generally I was pleased with Ubuntu but it had some problems as I detailed earlier. The only problem that was fixed in the upgrade from Feisty to Gutsy was the OpenOffice Base issue. USB sound and the scanner problems still exist. To be fair usb sound is a problem in most Linux distros and still exists to some extent in Fedora. And there are fixes for the scanner problems on the forums.

Installing Fedora went well, my hardware was mostly set up correctly. There were a couple of things to sort but I was generally happy. I selected all of the applications I wanted at installation and didn’t include what I didn’t want (like games). I selected to install both KDE and Gnome. After installation I had to run the updates and  force it to detect my second printer.

The usb sound problem exists in that I don’t have system sounds although they work when tested. This is no real loss as I usually end up turning them off. More importantly I have sound in all the applications I have tested including Firefox which is something I couldn’t get with Ubuntu.

The most serious problem was the operation of my Wacom graphics tablet. It worked fine with Ubuntu and was recognised but not configured correctly under Fedora 8. Although it worked it was jumpy and couldn’t access the whole screen. I searched the forums and found a fix and after editing xorg.conf it appears to be working as it was previously.

Ubuntu wins in terms of package manager. The default Synaptic is without a doubt the best package manager out there. The Fedora option is slow and clunky by comparison. Adding support for mp3 and similar codecs is more difficult in Fedora too. Unlike Ubuntu it doesn’t give you the option, you have to find and install them yourself. Fortunately the forums and other sites have all you need. The Fedora8 Tips and Tricks site was very useful for this and similar issues.

I have been using both KDE and Gnome and now seem to have settled on KDE. This is probably not surprising as many of my default applications are KDE ones. Krusader and digiKam are good examples. They work well under Gnome so it probably shows I prefer the KDE way of doing things.

So is that the end of Ubuntu for me? Well no as I have installed Gutsy as a test system and intend to install KDE 4 on it and give that a try. Wonder where that will lead?

Handling Data

I have been using OpenOffice for sometime. OpenOffice is the free fully featured office application that is available for Windows, Macs and Linux. It is the default office application in most Linux distros. It is compatible with Microsoft Office formats. As such it is a viable alternative to MS Office without the expense.

Like most people I guess my main use is Writer and Calc, the word processor and spreadsheet elements of OpenOffice. I have made a little use of Base, the database element. It is the newest part of OpenOffice and in some ways it shows. However it is quite capable of accomplishing what many users need. I have had few problems with it before.

When I tried to create a new database today I struck an unusual problem. After creating a table I tried to create a view using the wizard. The wizard ran fine but wouldn’t save. It gave no errors just sat there. The screen wasn’t locked or anything, I could cancel out without problems.

After doing a search I couldn’t find any similar problems but a few people mentioned their preference for using Sun Java instead of the free or other versions. I installed and tested with first version 6 and later version 5 and in both cases the wizard wouldn’t even run. I restored the free version and I was back to the former situation where the wizard ran but wouldn’t save.

Fortunately I had access to another system on my dual boot computer and it worked fine there. I am now not sure what to try next. Any ideas are welcome.

Living with Ubuntu

I installed Ubuntu Feisty Fawn on my Thinkpad T20 laptop as part of its rebirth. I also installed it as another boot option on my desktop. So what has it been like using it every day. I should point out I am not completely new to Linux having used various distros over the last few years. Linux has been my default operating system for the last year or two.

Installation went well. It was very simple, after the live cd booted I clicked on the install icon. The laptop installation was straight forward as I used the entire disk. On the desktop I have a spare harddrive and decided to use all of it which also was simple. Maybe too simple. I would prefer the option to select what gets installed and what doesn’t. I know I can do this post installation but why not at install time? Other distros do it.

There were some display issues on the laptop which I covered in the previous post but I was surprised how well most things worked, especially wifi. On the desktop all my hardware was recognised and works. Even the film scanner I have had to set up manually in the past. The graphics tablet works better than it has under any OS.

I like to personalise the desktop on my systems and here I found one of the weaknesses of Gnome. It is less intuitive to change colours etc than KDE. Once I got used to it though I was able to make some changes. I found editing the menus easier under Gnome. The desktop effects don’t work on the Thinkpad (no surprise there) but I use the cube on the Desktop.

I like single click having used it since it first appeared back in the days of Windows 98SE. I found it needed to be set in some programs, eg. Nautlius, although I had previously set it a system preference.

Installing additional software is a breeze, Synaptic is possibly the best tool currently available. I installed KDE and can switch between it and Gnome with ease. I also installed many other applications but that is a subject for a different day. The installation of the codecs needed to access some files, eg. MP3s, is handled well.

System updates are generally handled well. One update which included a new kernal reintroduced the display problems on the laptop and I had to redo the manual set up.

Localisation is an issue for many users and is for me. All systems default to US for English speaking countries and required some attention. During installation I was asked for my location and the time zone etc. was correctly set but I had to alter the language settings manually. There are Australian dictionaries and the local Ubuntu site covers this well. (As an aside Australian English is English UK with local place names etc. added).

I have had problems on the desktop with the USB sound card. Initially only Rhythmnbox would work but after searching various forums I got some system sound working but Firefox and other programs are still silent.

I will probably update to Gutsy Gibbon in the future but am no hurry to do it as I’m happy with the way it is running at the moment.

Overall though it has been a positive experience, Ubuntu is working well for me. It does nearly everything I need to do although I had to install several other programs to get to that point. They will be the subject of a future post.

New Life for Old Laptop

I’m writing this on my Thinkpad T20. Nothing unusual in that you may say and you would be right, sort of. This old machine hasn’t seen much use recently as it was showing its age. It has a P3 700 and used to run W98SE on 128meg Ram, all on a 12gig hard drive. It seemed its days of usefulness were over.

I had been considering replacing it but it doesn’t get a lot of use, mainly as a terminal for Internet use and occasional use in meetings etc. and it is in good condition. I couldn’t really justify the cost of a new machine. There is not much available under $800 to $1000 here in Australia. So what other choices did I have?

I found a dealer selling used ram, important as the new Ram was very expensive if you could find it. I had been quoted $220 from an interstate supplier. For $50 I had an extra 256m installed and tested.

The hard drive was the next to go. I was going to get 80 gig but on a dollar per gig basis 160 was much cheaper so I splashed out. My old machine now had almost as good specs as a machine selling for $1200 or more. All for an investment of under $200. All it needed was a modern OS.

I have been using Linux for a number of years on my desktop but the hassles of getting WiFi working on the laptop meant I hadn’t used it here. I have read reports of much better support now so decided it was time to give it another go.

I had a few different distros on disks laying around so I tried some. The older ones still had wireless problems and some of the newer ones had other hardware issues, the video card is a problem. The DVD drive is a bit fussy too, some disks that work fine on my desktop wouldn’t load on the laptop.

After a couple of experiments I installed Ubuntu 7.04 Feisty Fawn. WiFi worked with WPA (when I found the correct password) on my Netgear WPN511 card out of the box. But no sound and video was a problem.

With the Savage driver X refused to load. I set it to vesa and it worked but wouldn’t allow resolutions greater than 800×600 and 1024×768 is the native resolution of this screen. The screen looks terrible at the smaller resolution too, but that is probably the driver. I spent some time on Thinkwiki (a recommended site for Thinkpad users) and the Ubuntu forums trying many suggestions without success. A live CD is handy here, it allows editing of messed up files, I found it the easiest way of restoring the last working setup. Finally on the forums I found a way of editing xorg.conf that worked. Now I have 1024×768 on a good clear screen.

I wasn’t too worried about the sound as I often work with it turned off so as not to disturb others but a chance find on the forums mentioned a similar problem solved by pressing the volume keys next to the Thinkpad key. So simple I hadn’t tried it. I’m embarrassed to say it worked.

There have been other issues too. I spent some time trying work out why ACPI won’t load. Every time I rebooted I got a message that I needed to force it to load, which I had done. Then I realised it was loading. I still get the message but it seems to work. The battery life is not as good as it was previously but that will take some fine tuning. The battery icon works well as does the wireless one.

With memory of 384 meg, which is less than the recommended but more than the minimum for Feisty, I find some programs slow to load but work well once loaded. I wouldn’t try using too many programs at a time but I have had no problem so far.

This is the first time I have used Gnome. All my Linux experience has been with KDE. So far so good. Of course I could install KDE and thereby make my system Kubuntu if I want but at the moment it is fine.

The result is a usable laptop for a minimum of expense, around $A200 and an investment of several hours of my time. Would I recommend it to others? Not unless they are willing to invest the time to make it work but I am pleased with the outcome.

UPDATE. One small problem has come to light since I wrote this. As this is an old computer the bios doesn’t know about big drives. It doesn’t handle anything over 33 gig. However Linux overcomes this problem except in one area. Linux can’t do anything until it is running. Consequently the boot partition must be on the first 33 gigs. I tried adding another copy of Linux as a dual boot but as the new partition was added on the end it wouldn’t boot. Not a big problem but worth noting.