I’m an old-school horsepower junkie. Brute acceleration when I push down on a gas pedal, monster trucks, and triple-engine-blown alcohol tractor pulling all rank way up there in the cool department, as far as I’m concerned. Oddly, I have the same addiction with laptop hardware.
My four year old AMD 64-bit HP Pavilion laptop threw a rod (the LCD died) a couple of weeks ago, so that gave me a perfect excuse to score a new machine. Naturally, it had to be rugged with a lot of built-in horsepower.
After much research I ended up, of all places, at Best Buy.
The late model Asus X83-VM, with an Intel Duo Core T8400 processor, 4 GB of RAM, an Nvidia GeForce 9600GS video chip, a 1280 x 800 screen, and 320 GB SATA drive, seemed to fit the bill. It also had 5 USB ports, Gigabit Ethernet, Wi-Fi, SATA port, and an interesting brown woven computer block looking kind of lid cover. The fact that there is 1 GB of dedicated video memory and an LED back-lit LCD made the $958, on sale with tax, a reasonable deal.
Am I back in ’68, standing in a Plymouth dealership, signing a check for a dual-quad 426 Hemi 4-speed Roadrunner?
Nope, but this Asus is the next best thing. Now on to the shop…I mean office, for a little ‘tweaking’ with Kubuntu.
Adding after-market speed parts
There isn’t much you can do to a laptop other than add memory to increase the performance. Since the Asus is pretty darn stout to begin with, bolting on Kubuntu will let you take full advantage of the hardware while adding all the features not found in other operating systems. I like the little things, like various free applications, command line scripting, Web development stuff, and all manner of interesting network tools.
I wanted to retain Vista, so I registered the three-month free trial of Norton Anti-Virus and downloaded the latest Kubuntu 64-bit ISO for Intel/AMD processors using Firefox. Under Vista, I then used CyberLink’s Power2Go program to burn the ISO on a CD, followed by a quick reboot.
Running in live CD mode proved to be problematic for Kubuntu, but I was able to verify the operation of the new Nvidia video chip. I also had to use a wired Ethernet connection, because Wi-Fi wouldn’t connect to my access point.
Installing from the KDE desktop didn’t work at all while in live CD mode. For some reason none of the applications under the big ‘K’, except Konqueror, seemed to want to execute. Rebooting with the ‘Install’ option worked fine.
Repartitioning the disk, always traumatic for me, was simple and straightforward. The 320 GB disk was split into three partitions, one little DOS thing, a 150 GB slot for Vista, and a 130 GB slot for data. I elected to split the data partition into a 100 GB Linux OS block with the remainder being allocated for data and whatever swap needed to be configured. The change went smoothly and before long I had a new system on /dev/sda6. At some point I’ll go back and re-allocate only 50 GB for Vista and divvy up the rest for data and Kubuntu.
I didn’t expect KDE 4.1 to deviate so much from KDE 3.0, which was on my old HP Pavilion. The program menu under the big ‘K’ is much different than the old way and it has been a challenge for me to remember where everything now resides.
The basic build includes only a basic set of applications, although they’re enough to get started with Web browsing (Konqueror), editing documents (OpenOffice.org), and running Linux (Adept Package Manager, Dolphin File Manager, and Konsole) on the machine. All programs loaded and ran fine. While connected to broadband, it’s easy to add all the other programs you might need. Don’t forget to change the Adept package manager settings in the ‘Sources’ tab to allow installation of main, universe, restricted, and multi-verse applications. The Nvidia card definitely needs the latest restricted drivers to function at its best.
Once the Nvidia drivers were installed, all of the KDE and Compiz special graphics effects seem to work pretty well. I’ve noticed that there were occasional artifacts when changing between windows, but it wasn’t anything major. Compiz will spin the desktops around without any hesitation.As with any hot new ride, Kubuntu installed in the new Asus laptop has made me a happy man.
I’m talking hot in the context of performance, not heat. It was a pleasant surprise to be able to sit this laptop on my lap without scorching the tops of my thighs. As a matter of fact, I can lift up the front and press the back of my hand against the underside of the case, without any discomfort. There is also a removable cover over the processor that will allow vacuuming out the heat sinks once in a while. Lack of heat doesn’t hide the fact that this thing is very fast.
I like to fly the A-10 Warthog, in FlightGear. The program loaded without problems and worked flawlessly with my antique Sidewinder Precision 2 joystick. I engaged the ‘Show FPS’ animation under the Kwin Desktop Settings menu and was able to run at a respectable 60 frames per second, with FlightGear, Firefox, and OpenOffice.org Writer all going at once.
As you might imagine, I had a bunch of data on my old HP Pavilion disk that I needed to put on the new machine. The simple solution was to pull the disk out of the dead laptop and put it in a Sabrent SATA and IDE 3.5 inch to USB 2.0 aluminum drive enclosure, from CompUSA. I used a 2.5-inch to IDE adapter board to mate the laptop drive to the new disk drive box. Be aware that many laptop disks pull more than the 500 milliamp rating of a pure USB connection. The Sabrent is made for regular-sized drives and so has its own power circuitry and wall wart. It will also work without any special drivers. When it is plugged in and powered up, all the partitions on the external drive are immediately visible in the Dolphin file manager. I had no trouble uploading my old data to my new laptop drive. The old Windows XP partition could also be seen and accessed. Make sure you correctly plug the 2.5 inch drive into the adapter, otherwise it will show up as /dev/sdb in the system log and you won’t be able to mount it.
I’m in the process of consolidating all my music and photo files, so recently bought a Western Digital 500 GB USB external drive. Just as with the Sabrent enclosure, the thing worked simply by plugging it into an available USB port. No drivers or fussing with settings. I think the $89 price (from major retailers) is probably about as low as it’s going because everybody is pushing the 750 GB and 1 TB drives now. Get ’em while they last.
My only big gripe about the whole exercise is that the CD/DVD seems to have issues. It worked under Vista and for doing the installation of Kubuntu, but I’ve had trouble getting K3b to recognize media and can’t play audio CDs. I think it must be permissions or a bug and not the hardware. Perhaps readers will have some suggestions.
Absolutely no buyer’s remorse
After about a week of evaluation, I’d say that if you need a new laptop, you can’t go wrong by teaming up the latest version of Kubuntu and the Asus X83-VM. The fit and finish is great. It’s light and has a bright 14-inch screen. Kubuntu has done a great job with the desktop applications and hardware recognition.
This has been one of the easiest installations I’ve been through in a long time.
And, just like the first time I took my 406-cubic-inch, Chevy-powered, ’48 Willy’s Jeep out for a spin, I’m driving this laptop around with a huge smile on my face.
Article courtesy of Linux Planet.