Thursday, October 18, 2007

Linux preinstalled on Acer laptops - a scam?

Here's a bit of a firsthand bitter experience with laptops and Linux from last week. (It's also another hard reminder why I run Apple computer gear exclusively for myself for two years now.)

My wife's aunt wanted to buy herself a computer. She wanted the "usual" functionality, y'know, browse the web, e-mail, listen to music, watch movies, online chat. It also must have a hungarian UI. I suggested she gets a desktop computer, but she insisted on a laptop. Oh well, it's her money.

Her budget was half of what you'd need for a MacBook. Not wanting to enrich Microsoft's Windows division, I suggested we get a laptop that comes with Linux preinstalled. I had some successes installing Ubuntu Linux on some machines lately (one of them an oldie IBM ThinkPad where Ubuntu even recognized the PCMCIA wireless card without a hitch). Also, seeing how she lives 100 km from here, I didn't feel like doing tech support on it often, which is something I believe I would end up doing with Windows (if my wife's machine is any indication).

My argument was that for the same money, we'll get a stronger machine, since the manufacturer didn't have to scale back the hardware budget to accomodate a Windows license.

We ended up buying an Acer Aspire 5315 that's distributed locally in a Linux configuration for 120000 HUF (660 USD).

Now, the first thing is that it comes with a Linux distribution named "Linpus Linux". There's no install CD so I can't reinstall it if anything goes wrong. Also, I can't install any graphical interface. That's right. In 2007, a machine equipped with a 1280x800 screen, gigabit ethernet, wifi, DVD burner, and bluetooth comes with a preinstalled OS that dumps you to a shell prompt upon boot. No graphical environment whatsoever is preinstalled. I've tinkered with it a bit, and noticed it doesn't actually bring up the wireless network interface. We'll see later why.

Ok, so let's install a proper Linux on it. I started with Freespire - it's an Ubuntu derivative, but comes with non-free media codecs. Just what I need, so auntie doesn't nag me later that she can't play back MP3 and WMA files. It went up without a hitch, but I hit exactly three problems with it:


  • Sound drivers claim to work, but no sound comes out.

  • The Atheros wifi chipset is too new, so it's not yet supported by pci_ath

  • An attempt to install hungarian language ends up with error message saying qt_language_selector is not found


Trust me, I've spent fair ammount of time browsing all sorts of support forums to solve these, but had to throw in the towel in the end.

Next, I tried a mainline Ubuntu distro (Feisty Fawn). This ended rather quickly - I got dumped into a BusyBox command prompt by the installer. Turns out FF doesn't recognize the chipset, and thus can't detect the hard disk drive properly, and as a last ditch measure gives me a command prompt. Geez...

At this point, I decided to give Windows XP a try. I had a copy of WXP SP 2 at hand, so I tried installing that if only to see whether the sound might be defective in hardware (if WXP drives the sound chip, then it's apparently not). To my utter surprise and disbelief, WXP installer also failed to recognize there is a HDD in the machine. Ouch. Friends are telling me that I'd need to provide the installer with SATA drivers externally. Yeah. Provided I can find them. And then there's the minor issue that Windows XP installer only accepts external drivers through a - you guessed it - floppy drive! Yes, there are USB FDDs. I've also heard some newer BIOSes can present a USB pen drive as a floppy. Still, what would've it taken to write the damn thing so that it can accept external drivers from a CD?

Back to Linux - there's another Ubuntu derivative named Kiwi. I chose it because, similar to Freespire, it comes with nonfree codecs preinstalled, and can be installed in Hungarian language by default, so Freespire's language selector problems at least won't trouble me. It was also based on next Ubuntu release - Gutsy Gibbon.

Well, what can I say. It did boot and install, but the sound still didn't work, and I still couldn't get wifi to work. Yes, I did try ndiswrapper with Windows drivers, but even after I blacklisted pci_ath and rebooted, some part of the OS still pulled pci_ath, which took precedence, but was unable to drive the new chipset.

So, I had to admit defeat. I wasted sunday evening, monday evening, and part of tuesday evening on this. My time is worth more to me than this.

So I phoned an IT shop in the city and asked them for a quotation on Windows Vista Home Basic. (Seeing how XP doesn't install, how Acer itself suggests Vista, and how the driver CD only contains Vista drivers.) With Vista, sound works (not a hardware problem then), wireless works. All hardware works.

But here's my question: why does a company sell a computer with Linux preinstalled if there's no Linux distribution currently on planet that can, installed out of the box, correctly drive all of its hardware? What can be said of such a marketing practice? In case of Acer Aspire 5315, at least the wireless and audio didn't work (and I haven't tested either the Bluetooth or the DVD burner, so I can't say they either work or don't).

If they aren't aware of the hardware support limitations, shame on them for being unprofessional. If they are aware of it, shame on them for enticing us on purchasing the machine by representing that it has an OS installed appropriate for it. Duh.

Vista install is running as I'm writing this. I'm cheering myself up thinking of how next time I'll be installing an OS it'll be Leopard on my two Macs.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

You dont need any extra drivers to install windows XP. Just set the "Use HD as" option to IDE. Thats it.

Anonymous said...

Dear Attila, you surely can install XP on AS5315-just set HDD mode to IDE not AHCI. Regards

Attila Szegedi said...

Thanks for the suggestion. Is that supposed to be in the BIOS setup? I remember digging in the BIOS setup for options, and haven't spotted any such configuration option. When I'm next in the vicinity of that machine (it's now serving its owner, my wife's aunt, in a far away city) I'll take a look.

Also, there's the minor issue of driver CD and Acer website only providing Vista drivers for this machine (do they work on XP too?)

Attila Szegedi said...

Do you maybe also have suggestions about installing any readily available Linux distribution on it that'll be able to handle all hardware in the laptop, including sound and wi-fi? It was sold as a Linux laptop, after all.

Tibor said...

Simple soultions are always the most genial ones! :-) I had the very same problem as Attila had, and this post helped me to solve it. My daughter bought an AS5315 just two das ago (the price was 38.500 CSD, or about 500€). The problems started whne I wanted to isntall XP with SP2. It took me hours and hours of experimenting, and I finaly did. All the devices functioned (I used the drivers from the manufacturers CD) except the wireless adaptor. Yesterday, in the serch for solutions/drivers, I stumbbled uppon this post and "I saw the light" :-) First I did was to chande the HDD mode in the BIOS, and the XP SP2 insrtalation just stardted normanly, woth no problems. But the final solution was Vista, which "sat down" just fine, of corse, after the light and easy instalation of the drivers from the Acer CD. The only, small dilemma was the type of the wireless adapter (there are drivers for 3 different types), because I did not see the way how to identify it. So the simple "install and try" method was used.

Anonymous said...

tibor:
"install and try" method was used...

and which one worked out of 3?

Attila Szegedi said...

I don't know about Tibor's machine, but the Aspire 5315 I was confguring had the Atheros chipset.

Anonymous said...

I got Atheros wifi working on XP on my Acer Aspire 5315 by downloading/installing Aspire 5100 Atheros XP driver.

http://support.acer-euro.com/drivers/notebook/as_5100.html

Anonymous said...

I installed Windows XP on my Aspire 5315 which came with Vista. Got drivers from the Acer web site (listed on North American and European sites). One problem with XP is that when I close the lid the 5315 goes on Standby but when I open and resume, the fan does not come on and machine gets too hot and shots itself off. I have to wait for about 10 minutes until the computer has cooled down and then I can restart and the fan comes back on. I have read somewhere in a forum (can't find it now) that other people had this problem. Has anybody reading this a solution? Thanks.

Attila Szegedi said...

Speaking of getting hot: the 5315 my wife's aunt uses sometimes shuts off abruptly completely on its own - I have witnessed this firsthand. I have the suspicion that the machine might have a problem with cooling. I suggested the usual trick I use with my laptops - prop up the machine on four LEGO bricks to increase bottom airflow - but it didn't help in this case...

Since I bit the bullet and bought her a Windows Vista license (BTW, did you know that Vista Home Basic does NOT come with a built-in DVD playback software? Hilarious.), I can't comment on XP issues; I have no experience with them. Under Vista, it seems that putting the machine and waking it up starts the fans normally.

Attila Szegedi said...

By the way, I found this very helpful page that has a step-by-step Windows XP install instructions for Acer Aspire 5315. It does require that you have a working Windows somewhere already to create a customized Windows XP install CD with Acer drivers. However, it does not require you to switch the HDD mode from AHCI to IDE, therefore retaining native performance of the HDD.

Tibor said...

Attila two thumbs up for this find! Realy a very helpfull post. Apsolutely nothing is missing. Excelent!. BTW. The wireless modem in my daughter's notebook is Atheros too.

RWillis said...

I bought this laptop for $345 USD and removed the Vista Basic that came pre-installed on it. I downgraded to XP which hogs much less of the system resources and was able to find a support forum for all the drivers. Some of them are Vista drivers but they still work. This system is dual booting XP and Linux Fedora Core 8. I have tried 3 different Linux distros and have also run into the same sound and wi-fi problems. I think I may have that solved and will post if you are interested. As for the XP drivers, I have them all if you need them... Let me know

Attila Szegedi said...

Yes, I would be interested in your solution for both wifi and sound on Linux; it'd be appreciated if you could share it with us.

The Real Bev said...

I too would appreciate whatever rwillis has to offer. We returned an HP laptop because it had the linux-hostile Broadcom chipset, but the Atheros chipset on the Acer 5520 seems just as balky.

Anonymous said...

http://soulpass.com/2007/11/10/installing-windows-xp-professional-sp2-on-acer-aspire-5315-2153-laptop/

Instructions to installing XP on this laptop, plus links to every driver you will need for XP. It works flawlessly on this machine and runs much faster without vista. Hope this helps.

Dr. Samuel K. said...

My MSI 10" notebook came with SUSE 10 preloaded. Not the beast of SUSE I should say. A major chunk of the HDD amounting to 56 GB was locked in a passworded folder which didn't accept my root password. I had finally just 1.2 GB left on a 80 GB HDD. The wifi worked after tweaking a bit but would only work on a secure wifi environment, strangely it would not hook up on an insecure environment.
Off went SUSE and I managed to install Ubuntu 8.04. This time the HDD partition was fine but the realtek wifi card wouldn't be detected. I got around to tweak it but to no avail. It just wouldn't budge. I tried downloading the latest ndiswrapper and installing it. Ubuntu has a bug too.I find it very difficult to convince my friends to give up pirated windows xp and vista but the linux distro's don't seem to be addressing basic wifi issues. Wifi's should be hassle and protocol free and they should be quick link up's.....

Anonymous said...

I have this machine working fine with XP but if you want a good linux distro with excellent support try Linux Mint www.linuxmint.com there support is first rate and I am sure they would be more than happy to help you.
Cheers Les