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.

Marcel's new notebook, an Acer Aspire 7535

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 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 . . .


This laptop's Video Memory

if got the exact same laptop that I bought on New Year at Best Buy but the problem is they stopped selling it and I would want to upgrade the video chipset. Do you by any chance know if it's integrated or dedicated video memory. Also, do you know what kind of bus it uses (It think it's PCI-Express but not sure).

Acer Laptop

Hey there Marcel,
Just thought I would throw my $.02 in there about your new laptop. I have bee running an Acer Aspire 3680 (I think - don't have it with me atm) for the last 5 years. Everything works and always has (never even booted windows) and the only thing it needs after that much use is a new battery. Good choice!

Notebooks, overheating, and repurposed old computers

Marcel, in my capacity as a computer refurbisher I see quite a few notebooks and it's interesting to read about your experience with notebook hardware because it closely matches ours. The brand of notebook we tend to see coming in the most with the most serious problems is HP. This is not a huge number, maybe 20 to 30 (we're a small shop), but HP is the clear winner in this category. The problems are board-level problems. Most surrounding companies won't touch the notebooks even if they're out of warranty (they just say replace it). I have on tech who does board-level repairs on these. We also see a significant amount of older blue Toshiba Pentium 4 class notebooks (overheating seems to be a common problem with them). Not to make you paranoid but we also see a fair amount of Acer notebooks come in, but off the top of my head I think most of the problems we see are related to software on these machines, not hardware.

Our experience with Ubuntu 9.10 is not as positive as 9.04, particularly on notebooks. Here's what we've found (and this might just be coincidence): Ubuntu 9.10 appears to run CPUs faster/hotter. I use it on a desktop machine at work and with 9.04 our shared network printer always was instantly available, now it takes a few seconds to become available each time. We've experienced some video slow down problems on certain hardware that didn't have a problem with 9.04. As it is we're now sticking with LTS-releases even though it means going backwards until 10.04 is out... and I just don't have time to check bug requests, do my work, and write bug requests. On my own personal notebook I actually switched to Fedora 12 and it's been running well without issues. I continue to run Ubuntu 9.10 on my work desktop (my work is cool!).

John Kerr, even old systems (PII) are still useful, especially thanks to Linux. And while we don't build anything less than a PIII (generally 1GHz, but the odd time I have something less on the shelf) we still get older systems in and occasionally we use them for something. Here's a list of projects we sometimes use older systems for:

* Coreboot (aka Linux BIOS) - supporting the project by sending specs. And while we don't expect to see the systems supported it's easier to test coreboot on a PII than worry about destroying the BIOS on a dual core system. ;-)
* Router (of course routers are cheap these days), but with 2 network cards you can set up a pretty advanced Linux router.
* mp3 machine (I have one inside a VCR case in the shop... the onboard video has an hardware issue, but the audio works just great).
* parts for your own hackerspace (we keep BIOS chips, LEDs, power switches, etc.)

Of course I'm biased, we still have a Vic 20 at the door running Donkey Kong alongside a SGI O2 and an Atari 800 ;-)

Microsoft Tax

Often you will find the transfer cost of a Microsoft OS to be in the $20 to $30 USD range for OEM's. And whenever they feel particularly ripped off they will bring out a Linux machine and oddly their cost goes down.

Now they have to heavily advertise the Microsoft OS de jour and place essentially free co-op advertising and place stickers on it.

This is called market control (monopoly). Suddenly people buy upgrade packages for $200.

Now Fry's US will sell Windows 7 Pro OEM (with virtualized XP for about $99 USD with hardware, yes buy a piece of computer guts) And we all know Fry's made money.

All I will say otherwise is that there are not many takers anymore for the upgrade packages like their used to be.

But try and buy a computer without the Windows OS. Identically configured it costs more (from Dell by about $100 USD) than the Ubuntu Freedos versions do. Perhaps they have higher quality parts?


Did you try to get a refund of the M$ tax?

When you started talking about the Microsoft tax, I was expecting a story about how easy or hard it was for you to get a refund. Have you tried? If so, how did it go? If not, why not? Some retailers will try to stonewall, but the Windows EULA clearly states that if you are not willing to agree to the license terms then you should remove the software and get a refund of the purchase price. Threatening to take them to small claims courts might help (no lawyer required on your part, but higher costs than just refunding your money on their part).

Re: Microsoft Tax

Hello kilgoretrout,

So what you're saying then, is that the software on the computers sold by Acer, HP, Dell, et al, really serve the same function as Google Ads on a Web page. [ insert appropriate smiley here ]

-- Marcel

Resurrect the Toshiba

The problem you describe with your Toshiba laptop sounds like the unit is overheating. Over time, dust can build up on the intakes for the fans, thus reducing the airflow through the laptop. Get some canned air and blast out the dust from all openings on the laptop, and I bet the problems will go away.

Microsoft Tax

I seriously doubt that Acer is paying Microsoft anywhere near the OEM price listed on New Egg for Widows 7. Also Acer receives a fee from the vendor for every piece of crapware/trialware they include on their laptops which is why new computers in general and especially Acer computers are filled with this junk. Those fees would not be forthcoming if the laptop was loaded with Ubuntu or any other Linux distro. In effect, the software house leeches that feed off the Windows ecosystem subsidize the MS Tax.

computer junque

Hi everyone
I was a computer junque hoarder too. But I did not buy it, this was stuff that I brought home from the curb. There is a difference between junque and junk. Junk is just stuff that is broken and is of no use to anyone. But junque! that is the stuff that you might use someday. Junque is the really good cool stuff.
I am cured, I no longer keep stacks of computers around in case I might need them someday. The off lease computers that we can buy today are better and faster than most white boxes. I do like to have a spare box to do some experiments on, but that is about it. Come to think of it, there is less junque showing up on the curbs. It was about a year ago that I came home with a Dell computer that was in a snowbank, and I could never afford to buy this computer new, but there it was. It is now a workstation server, quite fast, junque for sure. I wonder if more people are buying laptops today, and when they are done for they are ... junk.

Today, I would not bring home anything under a P3. I will open up the computer right there on the curb, because sometimes the sum of the parts is worth more than the whole. The old P2 may have had a decent graphics card added, or more ram, or I might as well nick the NIC, but that is it.
Always carry a screwdriver.

The expanse of space surrounding Planet *buntu is getting busier and busier. As a result, achieving a stable orbit is particularly difficult when you're easily distracted. Consequently, Marcel Gagné's blog looks at pretty much anything and everything that orbits Planet *buntu. News, howtos, rumors, opinions, controversy, tech tips, helpful hints . . . you'll find it all here. Oh look! A shiny object!

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