UPDATE: Not sure if it worked in the beginning and got messed up somehow by other people fiddling with the computer, or if it never worked. Anyway, I was unable to get Skype to work on the Notebook under Ubuntu (no Microphone input). Also tried Google Talk, which seemed a little bit better, but suffered from whining feedback loops. Not sure if the problem was on my side or the callee’s side. Anyway, bottomline: unable to get Video Chat working under Ubuntu. Microphone works in Sound Recorder, so it doesn’t seem to be a problem of the Mic fundamentally not working.
mum’s old notebook backup computer at my mum’s place is failing, so I was looking for a new computer capable of running Ubuntu Linux. Looking through the selection at a local renowned computer store (Cyberport), all notebooks seemed really ugly. The only one I liked was the Acer Aspire 4820T TimelineX. I was skeptic about Acer before, but shop employees told me that it is OK.
I actually ordered a Dell Inspiron 15R before I bought the Acer, as it is the only notebook left in Dell’s Ubuntu initiative, but I also found it far too ugly and I therefore decided to return it. Sorry, Dell, but it is hard to tell from the pictures on your web site what to expect. Especially if instead of actual photographs you use 3d rendered images.
I am really pleased with the Acer, though. It comes in different variants and I ordered one without an extra graphics card, as that apparently can lead to problems under Linux. It also has a Core i5 CPU and 4GB of RAM. My only worry at the moment is that the glossy display might be annoying, but while doing all the installation stuff, the display never got in the way. So I hope it is OK. Another concern might be the quality of the webcam, I haven’t really looked into it, though. My MacBook’s webcam does not seem significantly better, so maybe it is just the current state of integrated webcams. Wish I could have found a notebook with a 2MP cam instead of the 1,3MP of the TimelineX.
From the internet I had learned that I should update the BIOS before installing Linux. So I booted into the preinstalled Windows 7 just to execute Acer’s flash installer, bringing the BIOS to version 1.22. I suppose should I ever have to do another BIOS update, I could try the DOS updater that Acer also provides, combined with a boot CD made from one of the free DOS clones (FreeDOS or DRDOS?). Let’s hope it won’t come to that, though.
Next I used the standard installation CD of the 64 bit desktop version of Ubuntu 10.10 to install Ubuntu on the notebook. I am pleased to say that I did not experience any issues at all, as far as I recall. Everything works out of the box. I had a network cable attached during installation, so that the installer can get the latest updates. Also, I enabled the proprietary drivers that are available for the notebook (only for the broadcom WLAN chip, apparently).
Things that work out of the box: WLAN, Webcam, volume and brightness keys, sound (Skype), hibernate and suspend to RAM – did I forget to check anything? I haven’t checked Bluetooth, mainly because I couldn’t think of a use case. I also didn’t try to set up the touchpad for multitouch, because it has a dedicated stripe on the side for scrolling, and it will be used with a mouse most of the time anyway. There are instructions on how to enable it, though.
Still, there are a few things to be done on a clean Ubuntu install before an unsuspecting user can use it: DVD and MP3 support, Thunderbird, Google Earth, Flash, remote access.
To enable MP3, I installed the package ubuntu-restricted-extras via Synaptic Paket Manager. This also installs MSTCoreFonts (I guess Microsoft fonts like Arial, so that web sites look the same as on other computers) and presumably a couple of other things. Then in the RhythmBox settings I changed the default encoding for CDs from ogg to MP3. Now that I checked it, I see there is also an option for AAC – maybe it would have been a better choice? Also in the settings of the MP3 format, I changed the quality value from 6 to 2. I have no idea what I am doing there, though. It seems since I last encoded MP3s, it has become customary to use variable bitrates. So when I tried it first I was surprised by the seemingly low bitrates of the resulting files. Some googling lead me to assume that the variable encoding has a quality setting between 0 and 9, and I saw 2 to be recommend. But as I said, no idea – probably I should have left the defaults alone…
For DVD support I followed the instructions at Ubuntu Help on Restricted Formats, that is, installed the package libdvdread4 and executed
sudo /usr/share/doc/libdvdread4/install-css.sh in the command line. Unfortunately the command line thing is necessary, but I guess we are lucky to get DVD support for free at all. I also installed the VLC player for good measure. Sometimes the default movie player of Ubuntu fails, and VLC is often a good replacement.
Flashplayer: my memory is bit fuzzy, maybe it was already installed or the Ubuntu installer asked me during setup if it should install stuff like that. If not, it can be installed via Synaptic or the Ubuntu Software Center. Again, it seems to work flawlessly out of the box on Firefox. After some thought I decided to also install Flashblock and Adblock Plus, also via the Software Center. Flashblock is a bit inconvenient, but being spied upon by the evil Flash cookies, and being spammed with Flash ads is even more inconvenient. Another alternative might have been the route suggested by Daring Fireball to remove Flash from Firefox and use Google’s Chrome with inbuilt Flash support as a fallback.
I installed Google Earth via the make-google-earth package process, as detailed in this German Ubuntu Wiki. Other than this and also the official Ubuntu wiki state, installing the ia32-libs package was apparently not necessary – in fact, I could not find that package in the standard repositories anyway. I missed that Google now offers debian packages for Google Earth that I could have tried.
I haven’t used Evolution in years, and last I tried it it wasn’t really good, so I always immediately install Thunderbird as the mail program.
Another thing I always do on a fresh Ubuntu install is remove one of the panels. So I have to add the stuff from the bottom panel to the top panel – “show desktop” icon and the open windows selector. For the first time I didn’t switch off the Gnome effects (semi-transparent Windows, closing/opening animations and stuff like that). Somehow on the fast notebook and the glossy screen, I actually liked them.
Lastly I installed the openssh-server, so that I can remote ssh into the notebook sometimes. Of course the DSL router needs to be configured to forward some port to the ssh port on the notebook.
I have to admit I haven’t really looked into remote administration of the notebook. I figure ssh access should be enough to also get some graphical interface to run (like remote desktop or VNC), but I don’t know how yet. Might be another post some day.
Did I miss anything? Overall, as I said, I am extremely pleased with the notebook. A minor thing: the fan seems to be spinning most of the time, but it’s volume is very low. You can’t have everything, I suppose.