Linux, Loss, Laptops, and Lower Costs. Oh, and value too.
Feels like forever since I posted here. It was last year as I recall which means it's a new year. Happy New Year, everyone!
Last year was also when things started going wrong with my Toshiba notebook.
On the surface it might seem like a tragic loss, but I find it hard to get upset since I've had the computer for two years now, which is pretty much how long I expect any of these things to last. It was (still is, I guess) a Satellite P200-AB1 with a Pentium 4300 dual-core chip that came with 160 GB hard drive and 1 GB of installed memory. The latter I boosted to 2 GB when Best Buy or Future Shop -- can't remember which -- had a deal on notebook memory. The whole thing cost me $700 plus donations to the government. My first notebook, many years ago, was a Dell Pentium 150 top of the line unit that set me back nearly $8000 (that's eight thousand dollars) when all was said and done. My new top end price for a notebook is $800 or less. And I won't pay for the ridiculous extended warranties.
Anyhow, just before Christmas, it started making occasional strange noises (never a good thing) running rather hot at times, and on at least three occasions over less than a week, something in the hardware just shut down. Once, I got up for a coffee and came back to find the unit completely powered off even though it was plugged in and the battery was charged. Most recently, the screen just went black. Powered right off. This despite the fact that the notebook was still running and I could SSH over to it from another machine. It was obviously time to retire the unit while I could still do it gracefully. Sure I could take it in, wait two weeks while I get it repaired, assuming it was worth the cost to do so, but I need my notebook. It's my work and an important part of how I earn my living. I really can't afford to wait two weeks. So I went shopping.
The whole boxing week thing is interesting in that I'm not sure how much I believe the 'sale prices'. There are always sales and I happen to like shopping for its own sake. I blame my French Canadian background for that one. We all like to shop, men and women alike. I started looking at flyers, then Websites, then found myself in Best Buy. They had an Acer Aspire 7535-5415 with a AMD Turion dual core ZM-84 chip running at 2.3 Ghz, 4 GB of memory, a 500 GB hard drive, a 17.3 inch 16:9 HD LED display, 802.11b/g/n WiFi, HDMI outputs, and a bunch of other things. It's loaded. The only thing I miss is a FireWire port which I used to connect my old Sony HC40 Handycam. And I suppose a Blu-Ray player would have been cool though not necessary. It also came with something called Windows 7 Home Premium, whatever that might be [ insert appropriate smiley here ].The "special boxing week price" was $599 Canadian.
I don't know about you, but that seems like a lot of machine for $599 which is now my new high price for a notebook computer. After checking that the processor did indeed hardware level virtualization, I bought it. I would probably still have bought it even it it didn't do VT. I got the unit home, installed Kubuntu 9.10, 64 bit edition, and proceeded to move my data from my old notebook over my wireless network. It took a few days since I had a lot of data and quite the environment to recreate but most of it took place in the background so I could still work. For the record, I'm writing this blog entry on the new notebook.
It's blindingly fast. It's beautiful to work with. It even looks pretty cool with a metallic blue case and design that borrows a page from the Apple 'hardware can be beautiful' handbook. I can't yet speak about the long term quality, but the desktop unit that lasted me the longest number of years, many many moons ago, was an Acer 486. We'll see how this holds up over time.
So where is this going, you might be asking. It's about the money.
As I mentioned, that's a lot of computing power for a small price tag. Even at the 'sale price', I'm betting that Best Buy made money and Acer made money and other people down the line made money. Add to that Windows 7 Premium Home edition which, according to my local Future Shop, is $225 Canadian for a full version or $130 for an upgrade. We Linux and FOSS people call this the Microsoft tax. There were also a bunch of other pieces of software installed, some full versions and others time-limited trials. I don't really care, I wasn't going to run any of it anyhow. Assuming that this story is correct in saying that NewEgg offers OEM versions of Windows 7 for $110, then my notebook could have goes a full hundred dollars less, at the very least. So now, I could theoretically have gotten all this computing power for $500 or less. Just install Ubuntu or Kubuntu or any other version of Linux you prefer and you have a seriously inexpensive, seriously powerful, and infinitely more reliable machine than theMicrosoft-taxed version can offer.
I don't know about you but I have serious doubts about the value of any of any of this hardware. Whether it be HP/Compaq (where I've had the worst luck with notebooks), Lenovo (second worse luck), Dell (third), Toshiba (best luck), and now Acer, the real cost of the hardware combined with the proprietary software package is a fuzzy thing indeed. I remember going to a charity wine auction in Mississauga years ago. The auctioneer would hold up a bottle and say, "you can see the value". Really? I can see a bottle, and regardless of the wine's vintage or the vintner's reputation, I won't know whether the wine tastes great or was worth what I paid for it until I open it and taste it.
Where's the value here? How does any manufacturer justify the price tag they attach to their hardware? As a result of this experience, I now expect to pay no more than $600 for a loaded notebook computer. My expectation of what I can get for that kind of money has gone up dramatically. In truth, the single most valuable thing on my notebook is first and foremost the data, quickly followed by the tools that let me get my job done (or play as the case might be). Those tools are my Kubuntu Linux operating system and the various free and open source software programs that make up the distribution. Cost of that software? $0. Free. Value of that software? Priceless.
Before I wrap up, you probably want to know what worked and what didn't. The short answer is everything worked, that I've tried so far. The free X.org video driver didn't provide acceleration but the proprietary FGLRX driver available through the Kubuntu "Hardware Drivers" tool (under the System menu) did the trick. I did have some strange issues with the WiFi dropping out but I installed the linux-backports-modules-karmic-generic and linux-backports-modules-wireless-karmic-generic packages and rebooted. Sadly, I also updated the firmware on my Linksys WRT54GS router at the same time, so I don't know which of these things actually fixed my problem.
Incidentally, I found the modules solution by googling my wireless card (an Atheros AR928X) and Karmic and the word SOLVED. Here's a tip to save yourself some time when searching for a solution. Often, if people are good about it, the forum post where the answer to your problem is to be found, will be updated with the word "SOLVED" in the subject line. You're welcome.
On a side note, after all these years and all these upgrades, my basement is starting to look like an old computer graveyard. Someday, I am really going to have to do something about that.
Until next time . . .