Contributed by johan on from the it's-not-the-size-that-counts dept.
Ian Darwin (ian@) sent us the following story about the Acer Aspire One:
We are certainly entering an era of "small is beautiful", at least when it comes to sub-notebooks. Numerous manufacturers are producing these now, as witness this comparison. The Asus EeePC (some models), the Acer Aspire One reviewed here, and the rumoured Lenovo U8 all use the Intel Atom CPU, which is "dual threaded". This looks like a dual-core, and runs GENERIC.MP. Although it's not as powerful as a dual-core, it's close enough that it's faster than many a few-years-old full size laptop. I've been using the Acer for a few weeks, including on a trans-atlantic flight, after several years with a much-heavier full-size industrial-strength notebook. I bought an HP Compaq just before notebook prices tumbled several years ago. I think I paid about C$1200 for my Compaq "R4035", with a single 2.2GHz AMD64 CPU. I paid 1/3 of that for the Acer. It's about 1/6 the weight and yet, being a 1.6GHz dual-threaded i386, it's close to the same speed (for tasks where multi-tasking can be taken advantage of).
Please read on for the rest of Ian's story.
In writing this, I've skipped over a minor semantic issue: What do you call a little notebook like this? I've seen them called notebooks, mini-notebooks, sub-notebooks, "netbooks", ultra-lights, and a few more terms. I just gave it "tiny" as its host name until something better comes along.
Exact model? My retailer had in stock the 512MB with 8GB of flash drive for C$350, or the 1GB with a 120GB real hard disk for only C$50 more. In both cases I knew I'd have to replace the operating system (the 8GB came with Linux and the 120GB came with that silly thing from Redmond). Note that the "120GB" is actually 114473MB, or 234441648 sectors, as reported by our wd(4) driver. After considerable vacilation, I opted for the larger configuration, thinking the extra RAM would be better, if not now then in a year or so. Programs, after all, rarely get smaller over time :-) So mine is a model AOA150. It arrived complete with a "Designed for MS-Windows" sticker (which was last seen adorning a waste basket someplace I was passing through) and an official MS-Windows COA which I plan to peel off carefully and to send in for a refund, as per the MS-Windows EULA. I have never booted MS-Windows on this box and I never will, so this is in legitimate compliance with the EULA. Speaking of removing Windows, this was the second laptop I'd done this to in a few weeks: my university-aged son bought a Lenovo laptop and, in Canada, Lenovo weren't selling them with his chosen system (Ubuntu) at the time he needed it. The question "Do you want to use the entire disk?" has been answered in the affirmative on both machines.
And speaking of windows, OpenBSD's X Window System works nicely out of the box, with no config file needed (thanks Matthieu for that). The native resolution is a slightly strange 1024x600, but text and images are very clear. More importantly, the resolution changes to the more standard size 1024x768 when you start X with an external monitor or projector plugged in, so running presentations (or whatever) works quite well. The only downside is the Acer's monitor remains at 1024x600, so you only see the top 3/4 (600/768 actually) of what the audience is seeing. I'm told this can be worked around with xrandr, but haven't had the motivation to do so yet. The resolution does not change back when you unplug the external monitor, until you restart X. Not always a problem, but a potential issue if you use a window manager with the task bar at bottom (as do KDE & others). And yes, it is quite feasible to run KDE on this thing!
Clearly peripherals and expansion is more limited than a full notebook. There's no built-in CD-ROM, for example, and no room for it. So? The odd time you need it, use an external USB drive. I've actually never needed to do that - I netbooted OpenBSD for installation - just as Music CDs are nearing their end of life, perhaps the lowly CD-ROM is too. There's no Firewire, but we don't support that anyway. The maximum memory is claimed to be 1GB, 1/2 on-board or even on-chip (so our SPDMEM driver does not see it) and 1/2 in a standard SODIMM. Others have reported putting at least 1.5GB in the machine. Anybody for 2.5GB?
With three external USB ports there is plenty of room for the obvious road-warrior peripherals. Carry a mini-mouse (or borrow a full-sized USB mouse when you arrive). Plug in a USB memory stick. Whatever.
Actually, speaking of the mouse, the built-in trackpad works OK, although it's a bit weird in that the buttons are beside, not below, the slider area. The function key to enable/disable the trackpad does work.
In fact the biggest small issue may be the keyboard. While it's afull QWERTY layout, the keys are slightly closer together than on a full-size keyboard, but still quite a bit larger than the Asus EEE. Since I've been typing for four dogs' ages on standard keyboards, it does take me a while to get used to it. I'm still making dumb typos. My fingers' collective favorites include getting stuck in SHIFT LOCK (truly fun in vi), hitting enter instead of | when typing shell commmands, and generally inserting truly random characters. You'll probably find one or two in the finished version of this article, despite my efforts at proof-reading. For heavy-duty typing, you might want to plug in a USB keyboard.
Battery life? My Aspire One came with a three-cell battery. There is a six-cell battery available, which apparently sticks out of the back, and making the unit not fit properly in the little slipcase that comes with it. Even with the hard drive, and the screen stuck at full brightness, battery life is several hours. I've yet to run it down to zero during an accurate time test, but early results I've got indicate that the hard-drive model will run for almost four hours. KDE's klaptopdaemon (under Settings->Power Management, and shown in the lower right in the KDE screenshot given earlier) works from apmd(8); OpenBSD's apmd knows how to talk to ACPI, so it all "just works".
One nice thing about this unit is that it runs on about 35 watts of power. A typical full-size laptop runs on about 90-110 watts; a desktop PC anywhere from 200-600 depending on CPU, memory, disk drive and including an external monitor. The charger or power brick is tiny too - it's almost dwarfed by the UK power or 'mains' plug. The brick runs fairly warm but not hot; my guess is there will be failures here over the lifetime of the unit. But it's a standard part: mine is rated 19VDC, 1.58A, tip positive. What is this 1.58A? One can imagine the arguments in the design meeting: "If we use a 1.58A power supply instead of 1.6, we can save $0.02 on every unit, and only a few will fail during the warranty period...". Or maybe not; maybe that's exactly what it needs, no more.
Whinging about the power brick aside, it's pretty impressive that the hardware makers continue to make smaller notebooks like these that are still almost fully as functional as their larger counterparts. And it's good that they're largely "standard" PCs, so that open operating systems can run on them. That said, there are some hardware/driver issues outstanding as of 2008-10-10:
- The built-in wireless network does not work. Our Atheros driver recognizes the chip as an AR5424, but can't quite talk to it. There has been some code in this driver for the 5424 since 2006, but documentation remains sketchy and so these newer chips do not always work. Our wireless guys are working on it - go Reyk! Since the Linux distributed with some versions of this computer apparently works, their binary-blob HAL driver may work (I tried downloading the sources linked to from Asus' site but kept getting dead links). Hopefully the recently open-sourced legacy HAL layer might help. And the lack of a working driver here is not fatal, because the built-in wired networking (re0) works just fine, and I just plug in a USB wireless adapter (rum0) when I need WiFi.
- The internal 0.3MB web cam does not work today. Guess what - this is "luck of the draw". In looking through the dmesg files (one reason we ask you to send a dmesg to dmesg@ when you get a new computer running), I found that some of the Acer Aspire One computers were shipped with a "Sonix Technology Co., Ltd. USB 2.0 Camera" whereas others, including mine, shipped with a "SuYin Acer Crystal Eye webcam". Unfortunately, the Crystal Eye must have cataract, because I can't see a thing out of it. Luvcview first of all just won't start, because as Marcus found by reading a trace I sent him (thanks!), the Suyin only supports uncompressed format. Trying luvcview with "-f yuv" had promise. Sadly it results in luvcview starting up but showing only garbage. This, too, is being worked on. And again, it's not fatal: there are lots of plug-in USB web cams (with higher resolutions too, like the Logitech 9000), so this can be worked around.
- Don't be fooled by spdmem(4)'s failure to notice the first half-gig of RAM. This memory is apparently part of the chipset/motherboard, not in a SODIMM module. so spdmem doesn't see it. On my 1GB system, for example, spdmem only reports this:spdmem0 at iic0 addr 0x51: 512MB DDR2 SDRAM non-parity PC2-5300CL5 SO-DIMMA more accurate figure comes from the kernel's memory probe:OpenBSD 4.4-current (GENERIC.MP) #4: Fri Sep 5 13:23:56 EDT 2008 root.tiny.darwinsys.com:/usr/src/sys/arch/i386/compile/GENERIC.MP RTC BIOS diagnostic error 80Full dmesg here.
cpu0: Intel(R) Atom(TM) CPU N270 @ 1.60GHz ("GenuineIntel" 686-class) 1.60 GHz cpu0: FPU,V86,DE,PSE,TSC,MSR,PAE,MCE,CX8,APIC,SEP,MTRR,PGE,MCA,CMOV,PAT,CFLUSH,D S,ACPI,MMX,FXSR,SSE,SSE2,SS,HTT,TM,SBF,SSE3,MWAIT,DS-CPL,EST,TM2,xTPR real mem = 1061076992 (1011MB) avail mem = 1017499648 (970MB)
When OpenBSD's software issues with the wireless and webcam hardware are solved, this is going to be one sweet lightweight portable. You can read updated status on this laptop near the top of the i386 laptop page at OpenBSD.org. See also:
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