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.