Well, I've done it again. Some time ago I saw an HP 1010ez, which has an AMD Athlon Neo CPU and ATI Radeon graphic controller. It caught my eye because of my experience with the Lifebook S2110, which has an AMD Turion CPU and ATI Radeon 200M graphic controller (which is currently still on TDY with one of my golf pro friends). The list price is about 850 Swiss Francs (roughly 500 U.K. Pounds or $825).
The hardware configuration is very good:
- AMD Athlon Neo CPU 1.6 GHz
- 2 GB memory (max 4 GB)
- 320 GB disk
- ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3410 graphic controller
- 12.1" WXGA screen, 1280x800 resolution
- 10/100 wired and 802.11 B/G wireless network
- 5-in-1 memory card reader (SD, XD, MS, MM)
- 3xUSB, HDMI, VGA ports
- 92% full-sized keyboard
- Touchpad with on/off button
I was particularly interested in the Neo CPU and Radeon graphics; the 12.1" 1280x800 display seems wonderful after working with 1024x600 netbooks; both network adapters are a bit on the weak side (I would prefer Gigabit wired and Wireless-N); the memory card reader is a big plus, because most netbooks seem to have SD only, so if you have a Sony (or other MemoryStick) camera, you need an adapter; the keyboard is essentially the same as the ones I have used and liked in the HP 2133 and 2140 Mini netbooks; and the touchpad on/off button is just nice.
It came preloaded with Windows Vista Home Premium. You can imagine how thrilled I was with that. NOT. But that is the way of the world, you frequently have to pay the Microsoft Tax, so just shut up and deal with it. Of course, the first time I booted it, it took a long, long, long time to struggle to its knees with Vista. I have no interest in seeing, doing or trying anything with Vista, so I only brought it up long enough to get it to install and stabilize, then shut it down again and booted the Ubuntu Jaunty LiveCD. I used the partition editor (gparted) to reduce the Windows partition from 300 GB to 32GB, and left the Recovery partition intact (just in case). I then set about installing (or trying to install) various Linux distributions. This was what I was really interested in, seeing how Linux dealt with the CPU and graphic controller, and specifically how the whole thing compared to the ASUS N10J with its Intel Atom CPU and nVidia graphic controller.
My first try, out of habit, was Ubuntu 9.04 (Jaunty Jackalope). That turned out to be very strange, interesting, and surprising... First, neither the LiveCD nor a USB stick I had created from it would boot. After selecting the language and "Try without changes", it just hung. While trying to figure that out, at one point I switched from my standard USB CD/DVD drive to the on which came with the laptop, it suddenly booted. The trick turned out to be starting the boot, then after it showed the Ubuntu logo and progress bar (making no progress), unplug the USB drive (or key) and plug it back in again. Beats me why that works...
Jaunty then installs without problem, but it doesn't support the Atheros AR9285 wireless network adapter. A bit of searching on the net, and in the Ubuntu Wiki, showed me that it needs Linux kernel 2.6.29 or later, but I could add that to Jaunty with this command:
sudo apt-get install linux-backports-modules-jaunty
This has to be done, of course, with the wired network connected so that it can download the necessary modules. Once this is done, which only takes a minute or so, and you reboot, the Atheros wireless works just fine.
All is not yet well in the Jaunty world, though, because the sound doesn't seem to work. At that point I decided to move on to some other distributions, and come back to this one later if I need/want to. There may well be some other problems with Jaunty on this system, but I didn't try long or hard enough to find them.
Next up, logically, was Ubuntu 9.10 (Karmic Koala). It uses Linux kernel 2.6.31, so it should support the Atheros adapter. Unfortunately, I can't get the Alpha 6 LiveCD to boot at all. I gets up to the point where it starts to bring up the desktop, and play the startup drum roll, and then hangs in a loop doing that over and over again. Not much fun, nor very interesting, so I moved on to another distribution.
openSuSE 11.2 is also using a newer Linux kernel, so I took that next. I used the Milestone 7 LiveCD (KDE), it installed just fine, and it seems to run with no problems. The wireless network works, sound works, hooray! The only problem that I saw was that it doesn't set the keymap properly, it stays on U.S. English, but that is a general problem I have seen with 11.2 on all of my systems, I am sure it will be fixed before the final release. So, at this point I at least had a distribution which was working correctly, and the performance was excellent - as expected, there was simply no comparison with the creaking and groaning it was doing when running Vista.
I looked around for another distribution with at least kernel 2.6.29, and came up with Zenwalk 6.2. Very interesting, because I've been quite pleased with it installed on several of my other systems. The installation was smooth and easy, and everything seems to work - including the Atheros wireless networking and the sound. The mouse seemed rather sluggish, and the sound volume was pretty low, but I'm sure both of those can be adjusted.
Now I was on a roll, two fully functional distributions in a row! But then my luck ran out... the others I tried were:
- Fedora 12 (Leonidas): The LiveCD won't install, it crashes with a kernel fault when the actual installation process starts, after all the installation and configuration questions have been answered. The installation DVD seems to complete ok, but the installed system won't boot.
- Mandriva One 2009.1 (Spring): The LiveCD installs just fine, and the installed system boots, but the Atheros wireless doesn't work. I was not able to find instructions on how to remedy this with a brief search of the web and the Mandriva wiki, and the 2010 RC1 release should be out about now, so I decided not to fight with this, and just wait until I could try the new release.
I still intend to try a few other distributions, especially the newer ones as they become available, but at this point I decided to just use the two which work (openSuSE 11.2 and Zenwalk 6.2) for now.
My overall impression of the 1010ez is very good. Performance so far, in my average use, is noticeably better than the Atom-based netbooks, and pretty much on a par with my Intel Core2 Duo Lifebook. The only noticeable deficit I have seen so far is the battery life - while I was doing these installations, testing, and writing this blog the batteries lasted just over two hours, which is a lot less than the typical netbook, but you have to keep two things in mind - the 12.1" screen is significantly larger than the netbooks, and the screen is by far the largest battery drain in the system; and installing from a USB-powered CD/DVD drive, which of course also causes almost continuous hard disk activity, is also a very large and atypical battery drain. I would guess that what I have done is pretty much a "worst case" scenario, and more typical use would yield substantially better battery life. Oh, and one other thing, there is no PCMCIA or ExpressCard slot, so it would not be possible to use either of my 3G Broadband Cellular cards; if you needed something like that, you would have to go with a USB device.
The 1010ez seems to me to be a very attractive alternative for those who want a larger screen than most typical netbooks have, without being a full-sized "notebook". If I could just figure out what to call it, more than a netbook, less than a notebook... hmmm.
More on this in the future, as I gain more experience with it, and some new distributions come out which will (hopefully) support the Atheros wireless card.