hardware

My review of the Geeksphone Peak with Firefox OS

I wrote in September that I had pre-ordered the Geeksphone Peak+ with Firefox OS and why I did so. Unfortunately the Peak+ was delayed and in October it turned out the delay would be longer than expected. At that point Geeksphone offered those who had pre-ordered the Peak+ to send them the original Peak instead, which had become available again.

Because I didn’t want to wait much longer, I accepted this offer. I received my Peak the next day on 22 October, after it was shipped from Spain to my address in the Netherlands in less than 24 hours. I also got a refund because the Peak had a lower price. Initially I was disappointed in Geeksphone’s communication of the delay. I learned about the delay through the order status on their website rather than an e-mail which they could have sent, but the way the handled this restored my trust in them.

The Peak smartphone

I think the hardware is very adequate for a phone which is sold for € 150. I haven’t compared it with the Android phones at the same price point, but if I look at the Samsung Galaxy S4 of my brother or my dad’s iPhone 4 I don’t get the feeling my phone is deficient. Sure, the Galaxy and the iPhone cost over three times as much and have better hardware, but I’m satisfied with it.

But there are a few things which I would have liked to see differently. The iPhone 4 for example measures 115,2 by 58,6 by 9,3 mm and has a 3,5 inch screen with a resolution of 640 by 960 pixels. The Peak measures 133,6 by 66 by 8,9 mm and has 4,3 inch screen with a resolution of 540 by 960 pixels. I like how the iPhone 4 fits in my pant’s pocket, but the slightly larger Peak is a bit more noticeable. I would have preferred the iPhone 4’s slightly more compact dimensions and higher amount of pixels per inch.

When I took off the Peak’s back cover to place the battery and SIM card I feared I would break it, but it’s sturdy enough. The quality of the enclosure won’t win awards either, but it’s good enough for me. What worries me more is that the Peak only gets half of the full reception quality in my home, while my former dumb phone would always get full reception quality. However, in practice I’ve never experienced problems with the reception during phone calls.

The Firefox OS software

Version 1.1 of Firefox OS does the basics right and I haven’t seen it crash. However, being an operating system in its infancy, it doesn’t have much good apps. For example, Here Maps which is included by default doesn’t have turn-by-turn navigation. EverNav does, but if you want to use it you to have log in, which is something I don’t want. I’m surprised no one has built a good map app based on OpenStreetMap yet. It would have been useful if a flashlight app and an app for taking notes were included by default, but they aren’t available yet either.

I often use the 9292 website, which is popular for planning trips with the Dutch public transport. Because Firefox OS hasn’t been introduced in the Netherlands yet it’s unsurprising they don’t have an app for Firefox OS. This isn’t an issue as a Firefox app doesn’t need to be much more than a simple manifest file which redirects to a mobile website. Unfortunately 9292 doesn’t detect the Firefox OS user agent and redirect you to their mobile website like it does for Android smartphones. You can visit the mobile website manually and than add it as a favorite to your home screen, but it doesn’t display 100% correctly in Firefox. And the favicon used for the home screen uses a very low resolution, so it’s not a pretty sight. I’ve already sent them a message to inform them of these problems.

I intend to build my use of the phone around ownCloud, which would allow me store my calendar and contact data with my own web host. This way, I don’t need to use services like Google Calendar and the big companies can’t poke their noses into my personal data. GNOME also supports synchronization with ownCloud, which allow me to work easily with the same data on my PC, laptop and smartphone.

It’s already possible to synchronize the calendar with ownCloud if you follow these instructions (in French). However, synchronizing the contacts with ownCloud using CardDAV is not yet possible though, all Firefox OS offers at time is synchronization with Facebook.

This and other issues I’ve noticed have been filed at Mozilla’s bug tracker, of which the first two were filed by others and the last four by me:

  • Bug 859306 – Sync contacts with carddav
  • Bug 901218 – [Peak] Back camera does not take photos in full resolution : 1.2M instead of 8M pixels
  • Bug 934092 – can’t set locale separately from language
  • Bug 934094 – “order by last name” setting doesn’t take surname prefix into account
  • Bug 934097 – alarm doesn’t trigger when the Peak smartphone is turned off
  • Bug 934099 – Firefox OS doesn’t use delta updates
  • Bug 934115 – m.9292.nl website displays two arrows in a drop down menu

The first bug is most important to me. If it’s also important to you, you might want to vote for the bug report.

The Dell XPS 13 is now available with Ubuntu

After almost a year since it was announced, the Dell XPS 13 ultrabook is finally available with Ubuntu in the Netherlands. Including VAT, it would cost € 1330. On my job at an ICT service desk I’ve had the opportunity to use both the XPS 13 and the comparable Samsung NP900X3C. The A05NL version of the Samsung starts at € 1000 at the moment. Both are very nice laptops indeed.

But how does that compare to other laptops, in particular my Acer TravelMate TimeLine 8371 which still serves me nicely? In the end of 2009 I paid € 532 for the Acer, minus € 70 for the Windows Vista Business license refund and plus the € 187 for the Intel X25-M 80 GB SSD it set me back € 649 total. Obviously there is a large difference in price, but what’s the justification for the much higher cost of of the Dell and Samsung?

Notebookcheck reviewed both the Acer, the Dell and the Samsung, albeit in slightly different configurations than I’ve seen. The key differences for me are that the Dell and Samsung have much higher resolutions: 1920 by 1080 pixels and 1600 by 900 pixels respectively. The Acer has 1366 by 768 pixels, and all three have a 13.3 inch monitor. The lower resolution of the Acer is by no means annoying to me, but I’d appreciate more. Another key difference is the weight: 1.73, 1.4 and 1.19 kilo for the Acer, Dell and Samsung respectively. If you take a laptop with you on holiday in a backpack filled with clothes like me, the difference in weight is notable. Both the Dell and the Samsung also have more durable enclosures than the Acer.

The Dell and Samsung have much faster CPU’s, more RAM, larger SSD’s. The only downside is that the Dell has no ethernet port at all and the Samsung requires an adapter, because both laptops are too thin for a full port. The Dell has DisplayPort and the Samsung has a VGA connector requiring an adapter which is not included. The Acer does have a normal VGA connector and only the Samsung and the Acer have a card reader.

I think I like the Samsung most. Even though the limited connectivity is a downside – Samsung should include a DisplayPort connector too and include adapters for VGA and HDMI – I don’t think it’s a big problem. However, the Samsung shoves Windows 8 down my throat, and I’m not so eager to go through all the trouble to get a refund for the Windows license. Choices, choices! For now I think I’ll keep using my Acer until it’s spent, by that time there will be better hardware in the form of Intel’s “Shark Bay” platform.

I also wouldn’t mind less powerful CPU’s so the price could be lowered. All I want is a laptop which is portable, with a monitor size between 11 and 13.3 inch, a keyboard (no tablets for me), a long battery life and a low price. That might happen in the form of Intel’s “Bay Trail” platform for its Atom architecture. Of course, some competition from AMD would be much appreciated.

The Lenovo ThinkPad L530 laptop

Recently my brother was looking to buy a new laptop. He moved out of my parent’s house recently and wanted to replace his PC with a laptop to use both privately and for his job. He wanted a 15 inch laptop because his work involved some traveling, so a larger desktop replacement was not desirable. But he didn’t want a smaller laptop either because he wanted a large screen. The only game he plays is League of Legends, which can be handled adequately by the integrated graphics chip in recent processors.

Considerations

Nowadays you can get 15 inch laptops for little more than € 300, but if you buy cheaply, you pay dearly. Most of those cheap laptops have relatively low display resolutions (with 1366 by 768 pixels being most common) and because they’re meant for consumers they almost always have glossy displays. Build quality often isn’t good either.

That’s why it’s smart to buy more expensive laptops which are more sturdy, often the models intended for business customers. These also have matte displays, which don’t turn into a mirror if there’s a lot of sunlight. But most importantly, if you’re willing to pay a premium, you can get a high-resolution display of 1600 by 900 pixels or even more. Quite a difference in screen real estate.

The choice for the L530

A few weeks ago, one of the cheapest 15 inch laptops available in the Netherlands with a 1600 by 900 pixels display resolution was the Lenovo ThinkPad L530 for € 752. Even though this is “budget” in terms of ThinkPads and this model has an ordinary plastic case, the reputation these laptops have for good build quality still stands. And it has a matte screen. As an added bonus it also came with Windows 7 instead of the disaster that is Windows 8. My brother was discouraged by the high price compared to the usual low-end consumer notebooks, but I managed to convince him.

I won’t review the laptop in detail because that has already been done by NotebookCheck. Like they say, you shouldn’t expect it to be as sturdy as the premium ThinkPads with its plastic case, but it’s certainly a good deal for € 752. After buying and unboxing the L530 however, we were surprised to find out that the touchpad had a problem: the mouse cursor moved like a person stuck in quicksand.

When my brother read the review on NotebookCheck again, he noticed they had also experienced a “major problem with the touchpad’s responsiveness”. They assumed this problem was restricted to their test laptop. Curiously, I couldn’t find anyone else experiencing the same problem on the Internet. It was time to contact Lenovo and get them to fix the laptop.

Lenovo technical support

The first impression wasn’t so positive. We had to sign a form to give them permission to re-install Windows 7 if necessary and some other trivial matters, but this form had many Dutch grammar and spelling errors. I still remember my ordeal with Acer’s helpdesk, but expected Lenovo to do better. Apart from the form though, Lenovo did its job properly: when the laptop was returned the touchpad worked fine.

Only the reparation report raises some eyebrows. It claims they replaced the display and the “kbd (keyboard?) bezel”. I have no idea what those have to do with the touchpad.

News summary, May 2012

This is a summary of various news which caught my attention during the last month.

Games

  • Valve’s Steam, Left 4 Dead 2 and probably some of their other games will be ported to Linux. This is great news, I love you Valve!
  • CD Projekt RED released a free upgrade to the Enhanced Edition of The Witcher 2 which provides 10 GB (!) of new content. Other developers such as Electronic Arts are run by people who care most about making money, but this developer is run by true artists who want to deliver a great game besides making money.
  • The long-awaited Black Mesa: Source mod is still alive. I was disappointed in the lack of news but recently they have started communicating again. According to an interview (part one and two) the reason for the delay is that they have very high standards for their work and weren’t satisfied with the game yet. I’m looking so much forward to the final product.
  • Another free game made by volunteers is Wing Commander Saga. It has been released recently and looks quite impressive, I haven’t tried it yet.

Hardware

Dell is working on Project Sputnik which aims to produce a laptop for developers. It’s based on Dell’s XPS 13 ultrabook and Ubuntu 12.04. This is great news, because the two companies that I know of which ship notebooks with Linux – System76 and ZaReason – don’t offer ultrabooks. The smallest they have to offer are 14 inch models weighing two kilos. Also, I appreciate the design of the XPS 13 more, the only disadvantages are the glossy screen and the lack of an Ethernet port.

As I wrote on this weblog earlier, under Linux my Acer TravelMate Timeline 8371 initially didn’t have suspend working. It still consumes more power and its fan turns noisy much more frequently than if Windows were used. It would be great if Dell’s laptop would have everything working out of the box. However, I have one important requirement: it should work just as well with other Linux distributions as it does with Ubuntu. That means there should be no special software or drivers tailored to make everything work with the Ubuntu version shipped with the laptop. If they can realize that, count me in.

Software

We have a choice of two open source Linux-based operating systems for smartphones, Android and more recently Tizen (which has not been shipped with any smartphone yet). Fortunately Mozilla has introduced a new contender: Boot to Gecko (B2G). While Android is open source in name, I feel that Google exercises too much control over Android and has become too powerful. I don’t trust them with the personal data they gather from me.

Mozilla on the contrary is a party which I do trust. B2G has more credit for openness and has a great vision behind it which distinguishes it from the competition. Additionally, B2G is far less demanding on the hardware, so it could run on much cheaper smartphones. I can’t wait to get my hands on a smartphone which uses B2G.

Additionally, if you buy an Android phone you contribute to Microsoft’s profit because they are extorting manufacturers of Android smartphones with patent threats. I don’t want to pay for a smartphone if even one cent of the manufacturers income is spent on royalty payments to that immoral company. Motorola, which has been acquired by Google recently, is fighting back. In May Microsoft won a legal case against Motorola because Motorola infringed on one of Microsoft’s patents on generating meeting requests from a mobile phone. Read the parent’s description to see how ridiculous and trivial this patent is. Once again I’m glad we don’t have software patents in the EU.

Politics

  • The Netherlands is the second country in the world to adopt net neutrality. I consider this very important for freedom on the Internet and I praise our politicians who decided to impose it.
  • As I wrote in my second to last post, I was worried that the Dutch People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy isn’t protective enough of freedom and privacy, especially on the net. Thankfully I’ve been proven wrong now that they voted in favor (article in Dutch) of canning ACTA.

Some news regarding my TravelMate 8371 notebook

A while ago my Acer TravelMate 8371 notebook’s monitor developed a darker spot in the lower right corner. The problem was annoying at most because it did not let through as much light as it had before, but sufficient reason to send it for repairs. After coping with the problem for some months, I decided to send it to Acer for repairs a few weeks ago in September. Had I waited any longer, the two year warranty period would have passed.

I had very negative experiences with Acer’s customer service, as you can read in the archive of my weblog, and when I requested the RMA I again feared for the worst. The person helping me asked if the Windows installation on my notebook was Dutch or English. I answered that I had installed Linux after I had been given a refund for my Windows license. Apparently Linux or anything different from Windows was not an option in the script of the rigid call centre agent or the RMA process used at Acer, so she concluded it was an English Windows. Fortunately my fears proved to be unnecessary when I got the notebook back a week or so later. It had been sent on long trip to Acer’s repair centre in the Czech Republic and I noticed the monitor was replaced and everything was fine.

Meanwhile, bug #240802 in KDE’s bug tracker which I filed because something in KDE prevented the audio device on my notebook from switching to power saving mode no longer occurs on the latest development version of Kubuntu 11.10. It was probably accidentally fixed. The other bug, bug #15612 in the Linux kernel’s bug tracker (currently down due to security problems), has been fixed by very helpful developer. It took quite some effort on my part because I had to learn myself how to compile my own kernel after applying a patch to the kernel source with the help of documentation on the internet, which was an educational experience. The catch is that the developer is not going to implement the fix before it has seen wider testing, which has yet to happen. That’s understandable, but on the other hand frustrating because owners of my notebook still have to implement the workaround to fix suspend.

At the moment I have the Fedora 16 beta installed on my notebook because I wanted to check out GNOME 3.2. I’m pleasantly surprised with the power consumption, which is around 8,3 Watt according to PowerTOP while idle with WiFi enabled. That’s a lot less than the values I encountered with my previous tests which I wrote about in my previous blog posts. The latest Kubuntu 11.10 development version sucks 10.2 Watt under the same conditions. Not sure if this is caused by differences between Ubuntu and Fedora or the difference between GNOME and KDE, to figure that out I’d have to test with Fedora’s KDE spin. 8,3 Watt is still a far cry from the figure of 5,9 measured on Windows Vista for my notebook, but it’s acceptable because it prevents the fan from becoming audible. I hope to learn some tricks to decrease power consumption on Fedora 16. Also, because Fedora 16 does things different from Ubuntu you have to apply the workaround for the suspend fix as follows: the grub configuration file to be edited is located at /etc/default/grub and then the command grub2-mkconfig -o /boot/grub2/grub.cfg should be executed to make the changes take effect.

Sadly, the Nokia N9 got canned

As you can read on the Wikipedia article of the Nokia N9 now, the smartphone won’t be released in the major markets, probably including the Netherlands. Apparently Nokia, being Microsoft’s slave now, thought it necessary to self destruct the capital and effort invested in the development of the N9 and kill off this product which competes with it’s future Windows Phone smartphones. Even when the N9 was floored already after the announcement that Nokia would discontinue the development of MeeGo in favour of concentrating on Windows Phone, that evil bastard Elop couldn’t resist giving it a last fatal kick to head. I’ll never buy anything from Nokia again and I hope that pathetic company with it’s Windows Phone products gets overwhelmed anyway by the competition consisting of iPhones and Android-based smartphones.

Or even better, other manufacturers could pick up MeeGo, which is entirely possible because MeeGo itself is not dead, only the N9 is which was the only smartphone using it so far. But I’m not seriously disappointed, because mobile Internet has become expensive anyway I prefer to wait until the pricing becomes more reasonable before I buy a new smartphone. Until then I’ll continue using my dumb phone.

My first smartphone to be: the Nokia N9

In June Nokia announced the Nokia N9 smartphone which is the first smartphone to run on the MeeGo operating system. As it looks like right now, this will become my first smartphone when it will be released. I’ve been looking at Android smartphones for some time, and while I think Android is a good operating system, I think MeeGo has some important advantages over Android. Both operating systems are based on the Linux kernel, but I feel Android has been modified too much while MeeGo delivers the features of a complete Linux distribution. The user interface and hardware look very impressive as they are demonstrated on the website of the N9.

Unfortunately some software shipped with it is closed source. In that regard Android has the advantage in the form of custom open source firmware created by the community, for example in the form of CyanogenMod. For me the presence of some closed source software is not a serious problem as the developer community can do the same for the N9 as the CyanogenMod developers did for Android, creating open source replacements for the closed source software. I understand this makes some people sceptical for who this is important though.

A more important problem is that it’s not only the first, but also the last smartphone running MeeGo we’ll see from Nokia. Nokia, now with that evil ex-Microsoft employee Stephen Elop as it’s CEO, decided to switch to Windows Mobile for all future smartphones. It’s an absolutely shameful decision to throw away the work done on MeeGo, as has been written elsewhere already. This could make you see the N9 as stillborn in a certain way, but I think that if it’s a good product we have to show Nokia the great error in it’s ways by massively buying this smartphone.

However with the telecom providers in the Netherlands increasing prices for mobile Internet I have my doubts about switching to a smartphone. Right now know I use a dumb phone with a SIM-only plan for € 5 a month, getting a smartphone and an appropriate plan for it would be very costly in comparison. And even though the N9’s battery life should be adequate, it’s still a far cry from my dumb phone which can last nearly two weeks on a charge.

Testing the Intel X25-M 80 GB Postville’s performance on the 8371

Encouraged by a comment on my previous post about my Acer TravelMate TimeLine notebook, I have benchmarked my Intel X25-M 80 GB Postville solid state drive using IOzone. My results are as follows:

Iozone: Performance Test of File I/O
        Version $Revision: 3.308 $
        Compiled for 64 bit mode.
        Build: linux

O_DIRECT feature enabled
Auto Mode
File size set to 262144 KB
Record Size 4 KB
Record Size 64 KB
Record Size 512 KB
Command line used: iozone -I -a -s 256M -r 4k -r 64k -r 512K -i 0 -i 1 -i 2
Output is in Kbytes/sec
Time Resolution = 0.000001 seconds.
Processor cache size set to 1024 Kbytes.
Processor cache line size set to 32 bytes.
File stride size set to 17 * record size.
                                                  random  random
    KB  reclen   write rewrite    read    reread    read   write
262144       4   38211   42784    46048    45918    8684   37782
262144      64   69923   77192   115359   113808   91553   74527
262144     512   77909   60055   220997   221988  204858   77677

Through Google I found comparable benchmarks. This one was posted on the Ubuntu Forums. It should be noted that this is a 160 GB X25-M, the poster mentions that his one is a ‘G2’ which means that it’s a second generation one with the Postville code name like mine. Probably the greater amount of storage would have some benefit for performance, but I’m not sure. These numbers are taken from the benchmark without TRIM. If I understand correctly it doesn’t matter if you use an X25-M with the latest firmware which supports TRIM (like I do), because there is no support for it in Linux/Ubuntu yet and it looks like it won’t be in the next Ubuntu release either. With Google or in that topic you can find an explanation on how you could use a recent version of hdparm and some kind of trick to use TRIM, so that’s how that poster probably got his follow-up benchmarks with TRIM. I didn’t bother because I think I’d rather wait until the support for TRIM is mature enough for it to work out of the box. The poster used an HP Elitebook 8530p with an Intel Core 2 Duo T9400 CPU and 4GB DDR2-800 RAM.

                                                  random  random
    KB  reclen   write rewrite    read    reread    read   write
262144       4   55854   61601    77975    77408   18740   37199
262144      64  102575   87223   200613   201029  141870   70205
262144     512  110951   93840   244588   242498  233184   95013

I found a second post with benchmarks on another forum, but unfortunately no more than that. In the specific post I just linked it’s not mentioned, but in an earlier post in the same topic the poster gives the model number of his SSD, INTEL SSDSA2M080G2GC, which means he has the same model I have. He posted his benchmarks at 5 December mentioning that it they were made with the most recent firmware. If I recall correctly, that’s still the latest firmware at this moment. So he’s using the same firmware as I am, the first firmware to include support for TRIM. Not sure what system was exactly used for the benchmark, but the poster mentions it’s a notebook. I’ve asked him and I’m waiting for a response.

                                                  random  random
    KB  reclen   write rewrite    read    reread    read   write
262144       4   39360   46785    53897    51421   11412   39529
262144      64   71098   54363   130520   129911   98805   74485
262144     512   81657   78925   207837   210842  218651   81242

So which conclusions can be drawn from this? No definitive. I should also take into account I’m using the EXT4 filesystem on my X25-M in combination with an alpha version of Kubuntu 10.04, which uses the 2.6.32 kernel. Benchmarks done by Phoronix show that with this and other recent kernels EXT4 suffers from performance regressions. The numbers presented by the benchmarks done by the poster  on the Ubuntu Forums leave my X25-M in the dust, but comparing to the last benchmarks doesn’t give such a dramatic difference. The greatest difference can be found in the benchmark with the 4KB blocks (first row). If anyone has a better interpretation of these benchmarks and the context to offer, please comment.

Edit 12 February 2010: the following results were achieved with the ext3 file system, using the noatime option. Contrary to my expectations it’s not better, but sucks more.

                                                  random  random
    KB  reclen   write rewrite    read    reread    read   write
262144       4   45452   42928    43576    43587    9120   40782
262144      64   59020   73224   109954   108622   90028   74706
262144     512   81555   82546   172479   171934  174380   82114

My Acer TravelMate Timeline 8371 notebook

As I wrote in my previous post, I’d write about why I bought this notebook and my experiences with it so far. I’ll also write about the choice of a Linux distribution for the notebook, and about battery life, in two future posts.

Let me start with my criteria. I have already written about my old notebook in the past, and after that I wrote what my requirements were for a new notebook. I wanted a portable notebook which is thin and light, with 13,3 inch as maximum screen size. I wanted long battery life, more than three hours. Performance was less important, I didn’t intend to use it for gaming or anything else which is resource intensive. I also wanted Intel hardware because Intel supports Linux very well. The material choice for the notebook should be modest and sober, a lot of notebooks aimed at consumers pretend to be expensive mirrors because they use ugly shiny plastic in abundance and have glossy displays. The materials used for those notebooks are often easily damaged or scratched as I experienced firsthand with my Fujitsu-Siemens notebook. That was a piece of expensive junk, so I wanted to avoid that for my next notebook. And I didn’t want to spend much money.

Until recently there wasn’t anything on the market which could meet these criteria. There has always been a class of notebooks which could meet them partially, like the X-series Lenovo ThinkPad notebooks for example, but  these were far too expensive, much more than € 1000. When the Intel Atom processor was introduced it was cheap and consumed little energy, but it was mostly restricted to netbooks not larger  than 10 inch. VIA’s Nano processor, meant to compete with the Atom, didn’t show up much in interesting notebooks. So far ARM’s plans to enter the netbook market haven’t been realized either. It finally got interesting for me when Intel decided to introduce the Consumer Ultra Low Voltage (CULV) platform, aimed at notebooks which are thin and light with a relatively long battery life and a low price, positioned between netbooks and normal notebooks. Despite the negativity in the last link I provided, fact is that Intel now provides an alternative for those who don’t need the performance and don’t want to pay the high price for the high end ultraportables. AMD launched the Athlon Neo processor to compete, but laptops utilizing those processors fell dramatically short on battery life for me.

The Acer TravelMate Timeline 8371 met all my requirements. According to the specifications it weighs 1,65 kilograms, delivers over eight hours of battery life and it has a 13,3 inch monitor with LED-backlight and a 1366 x 768 resolution. It doesn’t have an optical drive, which is an advantage for me, I don’t need one. I got the 353G32N model, which is the most basic, it uses the SU3500 processor. It’s a single core processor, but that’s fine with me, a dual core processor would consume more energy and I wouldn’t need the extra performance. It comes with 3 GB RAM and a 320 GB hard disk drive. It cost € 531,50 which is great value and only slightly more expensive than most netbooks, if you substract the € 70 you can get with a Windows refund it’s even less.

The TravelMate Timeline 8371 is a business version of the consumer-oriented Acer Timeline 3810T notebook. The consumer version is already unassuming in it’s usage of materials, unlike other consumer notebooks, but the TravelMate version is a real business notebook, and it’s also cheaper than the cheapest consumer-oriented Timeline which sells for € 622,68 at the cheapest. I like the materials and sober black look of the 8371, but I haven’t used it enough to say anything about how durable the materials are. The dimensions of the notebook are exactly right for my backpack, which has a compartment with thicker ‘edges’ offering more protection, probably meant to transport more delicate stuff like notebooks. This compartment has a very small zipper opening and I was worried that my notebook wouldn’t fit through the opening, but fortunately it does.

I don’t have much to say about the touchpad and keyboard, they’re fine. I’m reasonably fast with the touchpad, but it’s still not as convenient as using a mouse. That’s why I intend to learn how to use more keyboard key combinations to issue commands instead of using the touchpad. I’m less positive about the monitor, the vertical viewing angle is very shallow. That might not be obvious at first, but if you don’t look at it exactly straight, colors will be different. I noticed because I use a Dell 2007WFP 20 inch monitor on my desktop PC, which uses an IPS panel. IPS has excellent viewing angles, so the difference in color of the background on my weblog for example quickly caught my eye. If you’re not to picky you won’t notice though. A more serious complaint is that the monitor’s backlighting seems to be flickering sometimes, sometimes I observe the lighting intensity change when it’s displaying a static image. Most of the time I can’t hear the fan when the notebook is in operation, it’s very quiet. But when you start working while the battery is charging, the fan inexplicably starts turning very fast even though the CPU isn’t being stressed. I upgraded the BIOS (I had to use these instructions on Linux) from version 1.13 to the most recent 1.18 to see if it changed anything, but it didn’t. Same goes for suspend which doesn’t work with 1.13 or 1.18 yet. But maybe that should be fixed in the Linux kernel or somewhere else in the software stack?

One of the first things I did after receiving the notebook was replacing the hard disk drive (HDD) with a solid-state drive (SSD), the 80 GB Intel X25-M. The second generation, the ‘Postville’ to be exact, which is an improved version of the first generation. It carries a hefty price tag for 80 GB, € 187. But it is an SSD, which means that it is dead silent, consumes less energy, is more reliable and has a longer life expectancy, but most of all, that it’s fast. The X25-M is the fastest SSD you can get, so it definitely makes a HDD bite the dust. At the moment, a beta version of Kubuntu 9.10 which is not updated to the final release is installed on my 8371, from the moment the splash screen appears after GRUB to the moment KDM appears takes no longer than 2 seconds. My desktop which is equipped with a decent HDD (a Western Digital WD6400AAKS 640 GB for those who’d like to know) and the latest Ubuntu 9.10 takes 15 seconds to do this. I don’t do much data-intensive work with my notebook so the advantage isn’t great, certainly compared to the price, but it’s one of those little things like an extremely fast startup which makes the difference. It would certainly be more useful to replace the HDD in my game PC with an SSD, but then the relatively small amount of storage space would be a problem. Nevertheless, it’s certainly worth it’s money in my notebook.

The process of removing the HDD from the 8371 and replacing it with the SSD was easy, you just turn the notebook upside down and open the hatch on the lower right side. Take out the HDD, attach the SSD to the same mounting mechanism as the HDD, and you’re done. I didn’t go so smooth for me, I wanted to verify if the SSD worked first so I didn’t put the hatch cover back in it’s place before I checked. To my dismay it wasn’t detected by the notebook, and neither was the HDD if I put it back in. I started to panic and put it in and out many times, to no avail. I decided to ask in a forum topic of fellow Timeline owners if they had any problems with replacing the HDD, I was answered that it could not go wrong with a description of the procedure to follow. I had already followed the described procedure, with the exception of closing the hatch with the cover. Apparently the hatch cover was necessary to fix the HDD or SSD in it’s position. Once that was done everything worked fine.

I’ve included a few photo’s which aren’t very good due to my dSLR. Some reviews can be read here and here. Here is the page on Ubuntu’s wiki dedicated to the Acer Timeline series. There are also a few bug reports, one concerning the internal microphone which doesn’t work (never tried to use it myself) which is bug #445614 and bug #429456 concerning the failure to suspend.

Acer TravelMate TimeLine 8371 laptop

Getting a Windows refund from Acer in the Netherlands

In September I bought an Acer TravelMate Timeline 8371 notebook. In a following blog post I’ll write about my motivation for buying it and my experiences with it, but this first post will be dedicated to describing the troubles I had to weather to receive a refund for the Windows license. As a Linux user I use Linux as operating system, so I didn’t want to pay for the Windows license which comes bundled with my notebook. Buying another notebook which comes with a Linux distribution pre-installed was not an option, because I specifically wanted the TravelMate Timeline 8371. Not only that is my motivation, but I also hate Microsoft for their business practices, so every opportunity to prevent them from making money is a welcome one.

First I verified that others were successful in getting refund, as a Google search on ‘acer windows refund’ revealed that a Belgian Acer customer received a refund. Belgium is not the Netherlands of course, but it’s close. Even if no one had been successful yet, I would have been prepared to file a lawsuit. Before ordering the notebook I sent an e-mail to Acer to ask if it was possible to get a Windows refund. I received an answer on 14 September, stating that it is not possible ‘because Windows is pre-installed’. Of course the person who wrote this answer is ignoring that the Windows End User License Agreement does give the customer the right to ask for a refund.  I decided to call Acer. The person who received my call initially told me as well that it wasn’t possible, but after insisting that it was possible because I found testimonies on the Internet, he decided to ask a colleague who confirmed that it was possible. He told me that merely € 15 would be refunded though. No worries, it was a matter of principle for me anyway. He told me about the procedure: I shouldn’t unbox the notebook and send it to Acer at my own cost.

After confirming that Acer would grant the request for a refund, I ordered my notebook, which cost me € 531,50. It was sent to me on 18 September. When I received it, I called Acer again for details on the procedure. After being put through three times (!), I finally got someone on the line who was able to help. He told me the procedure was slightly different than I was told before, it wasn’t necessary to keep the notebook unboxed (I did sent it to Acer in it’s unboxed state though, anyway) and I would be refunded € 70 for Windows Vista Business (it’s a TravelMate, a notebook targeted at business customers). All I would have to do is send the notebook along with a form I needed to fill in to request the refund. So far so good, the € 70 instead of € 15 was a lot more reasonable and apparently capable people work at Acer’s helpdesk as well, besides the nitwits who aren’t informed of the procedures.

On 23 September I sent my notebook to Acer, I noticed it was received by Acer the following day according to the the track & trace system of the package delivery company. On 30 September I received a voice mail from Acer, asking where the bill of my purchase of the notebook and the form were. According to the instructions I had to include a copy of the bill with the form to request the refund, which I did. I had placed them in an envelope which I had attached to the package containing the notebook with adhesive tape. So the same day I called back and told a colleague of the person who spoke in my voice mail that the the bill and form were inside the envelope attached to the package containing the notebook. The fact that they had to ask me where they could find it worried me, so on 1 October I called again to verify if they had found it. The person who received my call said it would be investigated and that I would be called back tomorrow. The next day they didn’t call me back. I called again on 6 October, and after being put through I was told again that I would be called back ‘soon’. I began to realize their definition of ‘soon’ is out of touch with reality, and when by the next day I still hadn’t received a call by afternoon I decided to call myself. Without the need to put me through the person who received my call told me they had found the form and bill and that the notebook would be sent back to me again. I had my fears after experiencing the abominable performance of Acer’s helpdesk so far, but after this I thought the whole ordeal would have a happy end after all.

My hopes were premature, as I discovered the hard way on the following day, 8 October. When I saw the package, I noticed the package as well as the envelope had never been opened. All they had done was attach a report of the repair center on the package, stating under ‘Diagnose/Repair details’ that ‘The OS installed without problems, no problems found’. I was totally gobsmacked, dumbstruck, dumbfounded, not knowing whether I should laugh, cry or become enraged. Not only did this pretended ‘diagnose’ have nothing to do with my request for a Windows refund, apparently they thought that if the notebook was never unboxed there wouldn’t be any problem with it. The moron at the repair center didn’t notice the envelope at the package, or more likely they were too rigid in their procedure or too lazy to open it, because I can’t imagine they wouldn’t have noticed it. The moron at the helpdesk lied to me, or possibly misinterpreted the information, when he told the envelope was found. Acer really crossed the line this time, they had already wasted two weeks and too much of my time without being capable to do a simple task.

Back to calling the helpdesk I thought. The first person I got on the line put me through, and I had to select a choice in a spoken menu. After selecting my choice nothing happened, and I was somehow routed back to the main spoken menu which you always get to hear first if you call the helpdesk. Again I tried to get to someone on the line through the usual menu choices to get support for my TravelMate, but this time it was too busy and I had to call back, the recorded voice told me. I called a second time later that day, and I tell the whole story to the other person on the line. After she said she finally understood the problem, I was suddenly disconnected. The only cause of this which I can think of would be that the person on the other end of the line accidentally or deliberately pressed the disconnect button, it wasn’t my Internet connection (I use VoIP telephony). At this moment I was seething with anger, but called for a third time. Fortunately the person who received my call didn’t put me through and easily understood my problem. He told there had been an error in communication, he gave me a new RMA-number and sent me a UPS-label so the notebook would be sent to the repair center again at Acer’s cost. He told me I had to sent the envelope separately instead of attaching it to the package. He put me in the waiting line for a few minutes to finish handling the case, but before he could speak to me again, I was once again rerouted somehow to the main spoken menu. So for the fourth time I called again and told the connection was cut, I was put through again. I asked to which address I should send the letter, and I knew enough.

I called UPS to make an appointment to collect my package and sent the form and bill to Acer. This time they received the package on 14 October, and they sent it back on 15 October if I’m correct. The repair center’s report stated this time that the partitions and license were removed and the system was sent back, as it should be. The following week I was called by Acer again to ask for my bank account number so they could deposit the refund there. A few days after the phone call I still hadn’t seen a transfer of the refund to my bank account, and decided to contact Acer again through e-mail and the phone. My efforts to get the question answered how long it would take for the refund to reach my bank account proved to be fruitless because the helpdesk was clueless and incompetent once more to make a long story short. In the end I decided to be patient, and after waiting some time longer I finally noticed € 70 transferred to my bank account by Acer on 30 October. € 70 on a total price of € 531,50 is 13,2%, quite a notable amount of money.

The moral of the story? If you persevere you win, 1 – 0 for me versus the evil empire called Microsoft. Acer’s helpdesk put me through hell, but fortunately a few people work there who are genuinely interested in helping the customers, besides all the incompetent rotten apples. Don’t misunderstand me, even though Acer’s helpdesk frustrated me to no end I always remained polite during my phone calls, even though I spared no opportunity to blacken Acer’s service in this blog post. Acer should be punished for dealing with it’s customers like this, but if you ask me if I’d buy an Acer product again I’m not sure I’d say no. The TravelMate 8371 simply is a good product for a good price, and in September 2009 the competition didn’t have a product which satisfied my requirements. I don’t want to know how high the telephony costs are for calling Acer’s 0900-number (a number prefix for telephone numbers in the Netherlands which charge an extra fee per minute), probably far too much and a notable share of the € 70 I gained. I’m glad my parents pay the phone bill.