In Luuurrrrve

At the weekend I was driving on an errand and I happened to pass PC World. While I’m not a fan of PC World particularly, I do like to drop in as I pass by to browse the laptops and netbooks, particularly the netbooks as it’s the only place you really get to compare one against another. I noticed they were selling the HP Mininote 2133 for £200. At first I thought they were just selling off the display model, but that was the stock price.

I bought a Dell Inspiron Mini 9 in December and was a little disappointed with it, aside from the fact that I waited 3 months for the Ubuntu version to have matching specs as the Windows version and for Dell to start offering accessories like a carry case as they did in US, I even phoned them and asked but they declined to say whether there were any plans to do so. Eventually I got pissed off, bought the Windows one and installed Ubuntu. There’s nothing wrong with the performance of the machine, I just can’t type accurately on the keyboard no matter how hard I try, some keys are just way too small for my fingers and the screen is just a little too pokey to make checking my mail comfortable. I wanted a ‘throw in the bag and forget I’m carrying it’ web browser, mail client and SSH client, so my three major use cases were immediately uncomfortable even when using Ubuntu Netbook Remix, which is very nice and is designed specifically for limited screen real-estate.

The HP Mininote was marketed as a school or business mini notebook and cost around £360 last time I looked. I think it was probably immediately overlooked by everybody looking for a netbook on that count, it’s not something you can buy the kids for Christmas or birthday or a geeky treat to oneself at that price. Also the 2133 uses a Via chipset and C7-M ULV processor (mine is the 772 specifically) which was Via’s netbook architecture while it developed it’s next gen netbook architecture, the Nano. While many are prejudiced against non-Intel PC hardware, I’m not. My first PC was a Via Cyrix 133MHz that my cousin built for me out of spares and it was f***ing awful in performance terms, not that I’m ungrateful of course, I wouldn’t be doing what I do now if it weren’t for that machine; and my main desktop was an AMD Athlon XP for four and half years. However while early netbooks used either the C7-M or Intel Celerons, as soon as the Intel Atom hit the manufacturers, the Via C7-M was immediately in the cold and was at least 3 years older in design. Time will tell us what the market thinks of the Nano, but I suspect that Via are already too late to the party. Interesting discussion on netbooks, including how Via missed the boat is at Ars Technica here.

The major selling points of the 2133 over all the other netbooks are:

  • Higher screen resolution at 1280×768 (most netbooks are 1024×600)
  • Excellent display quality
  • 92% keyboard
  • Build quality. While most netbooks are plastic, the Mininote 2133 has an aluminium outer chassis and anodised magnesium inner casing. The keyboard is coated to stop the keys collecting gunk or the transfers wearing off
  • 1 Gb ethernet
  • ExpressCard slot
  • The screen has a protective outer shield
  • The hard disk has an accelerometer which means the drive will park the heads if it detects that it has suddenly tilted or is falling.
  • A button to disable the mouse pad and mouse buttons

All this alongside the usual netbook fare:

  • 1.2 GHz Via C7-M CPU
  • 1GB RAM
  • Bluetooth 2.0
  • Wireless b/g
  • 5400 RPM 120 GB HD
  • 0.3 MP webcam
  • Available with SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10.1 (which is pretty dated now), Windows Vista Home or Business

The Dell Mini 9 comes with 0.3 or 1.3 MP webcam, I chose 1.3 on mine (bigger is better right?), but as I’d read elsewhere that it would, the machine struggled to keep up with the webcam and the screen representation was blurry. I don’t know if this is a Linux driver issue or a CPU issue. The mouse buttons on the Mininote are on either side of the mouse pad, like the Acer Aspire One. I thought this might be horrible but it’s actually quite comfortable.

It turns out they didn’t have any more in stock in the store I was in, so I drove over to the one in the next town to get one and came home with my new toy. I bought the SLED version. First thing I noted was that the battery is completely discharged. I had to put it on the charger before it would do anything which put paid to playing with it in the car. On boot up I went through a pretty detailed OEM setup, which asked some questions I couldn’t answer without a network connection, something about registering for updates.

On completion, I rebooted and got a SLED GDM login screen, logged in and got the Gnome desktop, with the SLED slab menu and single desktop panel. While it was attactive, being an Ubuntu user it was completely alien to me, so I completely re-laid out my desktop, adding an extra panel, moving the applets around and added the Gnome default menu. While doing so, my first thoughts formed:

  • The machine was pretty sluggish.
  • SLED’s version of the default Gnome menu is a complete mess full of pointless sub-menus and duplicate entries.
  • YaST is shit and it’s icon tool-tips don’t adequately explain what each tool does.
  • There seems to be another ‘Control Panel’ for no apparent reason. This seems to be a castrated version of Gnome’s Control Centre.
  • There didn’t seem to be anywhere to configure the fonts or desktop appearance.
  • It took me ages to work out how to do this registration thing so I could get updates. I didn’t know whether that meant software updates or product announcements by email.

My primary objectives with any new install is to set up my desktop environment how I like it, install security updates and then install additional software. To get security updates I needed to find this registration thing, it took ages but I found it in YaST. I’d already started Firefox to see what my webmail looked like on the screen and the default home page was the page to create a Novell login, so I’d already done that by the time I found the registration app. When I completed jumping through the registration hoops, an update manager applet whirred away for around 20 minutes making the machine barely usable before telling me I had 3 updates. It went away for another 20 minutes when I told it to install them. I rebooted and the update manager made my system slow for another 20 minutes before telling me I had another update. I installed, rebooted, waited for my machine to stop being slow again before being offered a few hundred updates, which again took 20 minutes. I rebooted again and got a usable desktop again as all updates were applied.

There are several software management tools, I tried a few of them but nothing allowed me to install extra software. I tried to install gnome-games but I kept getting asked for an installation DVD which didn’t come with the machine. I decided to add another package repo but after Googling I came to a Novell page which offered repos for the latest version of Banshee, and Firefox, repos for the OpenSUSE build service and links to the OpenSUSE repos accompanied by the warning that mixing SLED 10 and OpenSUSE packages should work but may lead to dependency hell. At this point, I began to regret buying the machine.

I decided to fuck everything, I had been willing to try SLED 10, even though it’s really old as I didn’t want to try something else, find nothing would work and then be left with no OS as the machine didn’t come with a restore disk. I’d already read the Ubuntu Laptop Testing Team page on the 2133 and it sounded troublesome but I tried 8.10 anyway. The screen corrupted and X locked up when displaying GDM, a known bug. I’d already had a recommendation that Mandriva 2009 worked, but I’d try that if I couldn’t get Ubuntu to work at all, so I tried the latest 9.04 alpha build. It installed fine and all of the hardware worked, I got none of the awkward bugs or workarounds described in the the testing team 2133 wiki page. More relieving than that was the the machine wasn’t slow any more, it wasn’t sprightly but it didn’t feel slow to use. It didn’t feel any slower than the Mini 9. I installed all of the updates available and the machine didn’t churn like it had under SLED. Quite interesting was the fact that for an alpha release I found it completely usable and largely un-broken. I think the only bug I came across so far was that Flashblock, the Firefox extension for blocking Flash media, kept forgetting it’s whitelist, but that was fixed after an update.

My HP Mininote 2133 Desktop under Ubuntu 9.04 alpha 5

My HP Mininote 2133 Desktop under Ubuntu 9.04 alpha 5

The only issues of note with the Mininote 2133 that I have found so far are:

  • You have to add acpi_osi="!Windows 2006" to Grub’s menu.lst and reboot to make CPU frequency scaling work. I did and it works. Saves on battery. The CPU will scale between 1.2 GHz at full speed and 800 MHz as shown above.
  • The wireless works with Free drivers out of the box, but a proprietary driver is available and you need it if you use networks with a hidden SSID. I’ll stay with the Free drivers.
  • The graphics performance is not great and the drivers aren’t very featureful.
  • Battery life isn’t great. The SLED version comes with only a 3 cell battery, which should give you about 2 to 2 and a half hours battery life, which doesn’t seem to be much worse than the Mini 9 in my experience. I seem to get 90 minutes to 1 hour 45. You can get a 6 cell battery which protrudes downwards and props the laptop up a bit which some people seem to prefer.
  • The machine runs hot as a result of the Via C7-M processor, not uncomfortably so, but it does make you wonder about the lifespan of the other components in that heat.

The first two points are informational only, they work as they are but you have to make some slight mods if you want absolute functionality. The last two I was already aware of. Ultimately, battery life will go through the roof, along with performance as netbook hardware develops, we’re just at the beginning of the upward curve at the moment.

The main point though I think is the graphics performance. The machine uses a Via Chrome9 HC graphics chip which pulls in 256MB of your system RAM, though I think 786 MB RAM is enough for most netbook use cases. However, the graphics drivers are an issue. You essentially have 3 choices. By default you get the openchrome driver from which is perfectly adequate but lacks features such as 3D acceleration, dual-head support and MPEG2 and MPEG4 acceleration. I don’t know whether this is a driver or a chipset limitation but playing Youtube videos is ok though not great, make them full-screen and they become pretty choppy. A quick, unscientific test by playing the same Youtube video on the Mininote and the  Mini 9 at the same time showed that the Mini 9 can play the video in full-screen with roughly the same performance as the Mininote can when playing the small embedded movie within the page. The Mini 9 only started to get noticeably choppy in full-screen, while the Mininote is a bit choppy playing the small embedded video. I recorded no stats, it was just naked eye observation. When your desktop background draws on the Mininote after logging in, you can see the background change colour in sequential re-draws, like a slow-ish VNC or RDP session, it’s not bad but just enough to be noticeable. That said, I’m not knocking the guys who work on openchrome, as it may be the chip itself, but in any case they’re doing a good job without too many hands on deck. If you use Via graphics chips and can code in C, then maybe you could help. Via has always been unhelpful towards the Linux community and despite setting up various Linux driver initiatives and making big announcements, they themselves still don’t seem to have come up with a release quality driver, so I doubt the openchrome guys are getting much assistance from Via. Writing graphics drivers with no help from the vendor has always proven to be a thankless task.

Via drivers are your other choice, they come in a variety of flavours, 3D or 2D and proprietary or open source. Currently they are all either beta or alpha quality and are built around Ubuntu 8.10, 8.04 or other select Linux variants, based on specific kernel versions. According to the openchrome wiki, the proprietary drivers do MPEG2, MPEG4 and 3D acceleration but the applications requiring MPEG acceleration must run as root, which is insecure and pretty crazy. The open source drivers from Via are the same with some stuff taken out including the MPEG acceleration.

I haven’t tried any of Via’s drivers, I’m not sure I will until there are 9.04 packages. At the moment, the openchrome drivers do the basics and that’s all I need. If I need to do multi-head then I guess I’ll have to try the Via drivers, I don’t expect to need 3D acceleration (if I’m honest, I use a few things like the Terminal Server Client Applet and VNC client password boxes which don’t like it), but better video playback and screen re-drawing would be nice.

What I haven’t really talked about yet though is what I think of this machine in use. You can probably guess though. It’s in the post’s title. I love it. It feels great to use. The chassis is solid, inflexible and hard, in fact it feels nice to run your fingernails against while you’re thinking (weird huh?). The keyboard is nice to use and feels great on your finger tips, the screen resolution makes the machine comfortable to use compared to any other netbooks I’ve played with. It’s not sluggish to use and you can do real work on it, unlike most netbooks. The ever militant Peter Cannon, bless him, pointed out that he’s seeing netbooks appear in the second hand market as many people bought them thinking they’d be a full featured laptop, just smaller and cheaper, then found that they were just a bit too under-powered to do anything other than browse the net (even though the clue is in the name). The HP Mininote is a step up terms of usability, it’s not a fast laptop but it is usable as a result of the higher res screen and the bigger keyboard. My next laptop might be an HP if the build quality and feel is this good. I remember the last time I was looking for a laptop, I showed Ade the one I eventually bought and he pointed out to me that I didn’t need anything so big and heavy as it would be awful to carry anywhere, I just needed a little one, like his tiny Samsung (I think). Almost immediately after purchasing the one I showed him, I agreed.

While Via isn’t the currect choice for netbook hardware, I can’t complain about the performance (though in SLED it was horrible, I can’t imagine Vista was great either). It won’t feel like this for more than a year or three though, I expect it to get bogged down sooner rather than later, but still it will be the same with all current netbooks. In any case, it’s easier to maintain Linux and keep it sprightly, with Windows you have to reinstall when it starts to feel sluggish.

It will be interesting to see what the Via Nano does to the Atom netbook market, but already the reason for the £160 price drop on the Mininote 2133 is that HP has replaced it with the Atom based Mininote 2140. It looks the same and provides the same functionality as the 2133 while addressing most of the complaints about the 2133, namely increased battery life and the machine runs cooler. The 2140 also offers a larger hard disk or an SSD and 2 different resolutions, either 1024×576 or 1366×768 with the latter yet to be released. On the other hand though, it will probably price itself out of the comfortable netbook price range again and people will buy the larger netbooks from the likes of Asus, Dell, MSI and Acer. (Side point, everyone I know who bought an Acer Aspire One loves it too).

For now though, I luuuurve my 2133. You should get one too while they’re cheap. Probably some photos to follow in an update.

Wikipedia articles:

HP Mininote 2133 and 2140

Dell Inspiron Mini Range

Acer Aspire One

Asus Eee PC

MSI Wind (aka Medion Akoya or Advent 4211)

UPDATE 30/04/2009:

  • I hear that Vista is dreadful on the Mininote 2133, if you’re buying one I recommend using Ubuntu 9.04 (which is current at the moment).
  • The Ubuntu Netbook Remix interface runs badly on the 2133 due to the openchrome graphics drivers being unable to do 2D acceleration. There are a few other Netbook Remix bugs too.
  • Still no Ubuntu 9.04 drivers from Via. Their last release was 2nd December for 8.10 which just about 5 weeks after the Ubuntu release on October 30, so maybe they will release some 9.04 drivers in the next month. It would be nice to release them in time for the Ubuntu releases.
  • The Via processor includes what is called Via Padlock for hardware encryption which supports AES encryption of data up 25 GB/s, SHA hashing of data up to 20GB/s and random number generation of up to 20 million random bits per second. This is supported by the Linux kernel and by OpenSSL but doesn’t seem to work under Ubuntu 9.04 (in the beta at least) (old Launchpad bug #119295). The padlock-aes and via-rng modules load fine but aren’t loaded by default. The padlock-sha kernel module crashes if you load it and configuring it to load at boot time results in the machine hanging during boot up (Launchpad bug #355384). With the working modules loaded, OpenSSL recognises that it is padlock ready but the CPU is not. Ubuntu forum discussion on Via Padlock.
  • HP’s guide price for the 2140 starts at $449, which is pretty pricy for an Atom machine with a lower vertical resolution than pretty much every comparable machine out there at the moment. Cheapest I can find online is around £360 ex VAT as predicted.
  • I still like my 2133, which is pretty good considering the honeymoon period is over.