This page is about frustration. The frustration of struggling to get my laptop’s hardware working with GNU/Linux. I am the owner of an ASUS AT6c, but after a few days of being its slave, it could seem more appropriate to say that actually the computer is my owner. If you are looking for a smooth Linux experience, just don’t buy this machine. Happily (for you), there are plenty of Linux-friendly options out there. It is not the case of this stubborn piece of scrap.
I wanted to buy a 64-bit computer because I do some heavy computation at home from time to time and I also work with 3D applications. I was very impressed by the performance of the multiprocessor Opteron clusters we have at work. This is my third laptop, the previous two ones being 32-bits. My favourite one had a 3 GHz Pentium IV processor. Yes, it was bulky, heavy and noisy, and the battery was exhausted in less than an hour, but it was fast as a worm’s slam of brakes. It was stolen from my office. It hosted a couple of fully-functional RetHat-family distributions. Then I got an HP Compaq with a 2 GHz Centrino. It was slim but a mediocre performer. I was buggy and always had hardware problems. It died of a known disease right after the warranty had expired. So I decided not to get another HP machine. It, nevertheless, witnessed my transition from RetHat-based systems to Ubuntu, always fully functional and fully configured.
I was aware that configuring a 64-bit laptop was not going to be trivial and I had read here and there certain comments suggesting that ASUS is not the best choice for a Linux laptop. However, I also have a 32-bit desktop with an ASUS motherboard and a dual Pentium IV which is flying with Ubuntu and so I decided to give ASUS a chance. Big mistake.
Probably, thing would have been easier if I decided to stick to a 32-bit distribution, for even the users with 64-bit MSWindows systems still have difficulties to find the right drivers and software, but, no way, I want to profit from the full potential of the machine.
This far, I have tried the following 64-bits distributions: Ubuntu 6.06, Ubuntu 7.04, MEPIS, OpenSUSE 10.2, Sabayon 3.4, Fedora 7, Mandriva 2007 and CentOS.
All the kernels I tried need the noapic option in order to boot (probably nolapic is also recommendable, but I am not sure). A couple of them will boot anyway, but they will complain:
MP-BIOS bug: 8254 Timer not connected to IO-APIC
Yes, the BIOS is buggy, despite I have uptated it twice since I bought the computer in November 2006. Current version is 0806 and I have little hope that ASUS would fix the problem. Essentially, because they don’t seem to care much about the ever-growing community of Linux users. Anyway, their server are so slow that I have wondered many times how they manage to survive in today’s world.
For most, if not all, the aforementioned distros, the installation and configuration process is easier and faster than for Windows (of course, most people get the computer with preinstalled Windows, but often not all the most optimal are installed or they are out-of-date). Essentially, I found two issues. There might be others, for instance, I haven’t checked the Bluetooth and other stuff I don’t use, it have read it should work, though, and I have noticed that the experimental drivers for the built-in webcam are still far from perfection. The two conflictive pieces of hardware that are important for me are the graphics card and the wireless card.
The graphics card (NVIDIA GeForce Go 7300) is relatively easy to install and configure either with the NVIDIA installer or with the binary packages provided by distros such as Ubuntu. Most distros configure by default the NV driver, which is just fine if you don’t need 3D acceleration, as it is my case. Sabayon installs the NVIDIA proprietary drivers out of the box. However, the latest NVIDIA drivers appear to be either buggy or incompatible with the latest versions of the 2.6 kernel, for they cause the system to become unstable. The X-server and occasionally the whole computer freeze after one two three hours in, at least, OpenSUSE, Sabayon and Fedora. In Ubuntu I installed the packages from the repository and they seem to be stable.
The wifi card is a Broadcom BCM4318 [AirForce One 54g] 802.11g. Of course with such a name no one would expect it to be particularly open source-friendly. Indeed, it is the Linux’s bête noire in this notebook. Actually, the only distribution for which I found it to work was OpenSUSE, via Ndiswrapper with a 64-bit Windows driver obtained from the ACER website. With Sabayon the card was correctly detected and the available networks show up in any wireless manager; however, with the graphics card crashing all the time, I haven’t had the time to test if it was actually able to connect. In Ubuntu it is also possible to configure it with Ndiswrapper, but it is unable to connect to any network. It insists it is connected, but it is not.
An additional, Ubuntu-specific, problems has to do with the Mozilla-“compatible” flash and java plug-ins, which are not working very well, if at all. I tried both those installable from Synaptics and those downloadable from the Sun and Adobe websites, respectively. So forget Youtube and similar stuff. In conclusion, Ubuntu is not (yet?) an ideal distribution for this computer. Yet, it is still my favourite distribution despite of the fact of depending on donations from certain millionaire.
Sabayon is very promising, but still a bit buggy. As its popularity is increasing at an amazing pace, one would expect that version 4 will be mature enough to compete on equal terms with the major distributions. For Mandriva, I haven’t tested it much because it asked me to upgrade to the commercial product as soon as I wanted to install the proprietary drivers. CenOS was not even installed because an unknown error during the installation process. Fedora is an austere and robust distribution, the wireless card was not correctly detected and you have to do a bit more of manual configuration than with the other distros, including mounting the NTFS partitions. I haven’t tried the NVIDA drivers with Fedora, but I guess that the result would be similar to that with OpenSUSE and Sabayon, for it seems that they are buggy or that they are incompatible with the latest kernels (which is another way of being buggy). MEPIS is based upon Ubuntu and it is even more “user-friendly”. Therefore it is worth trying, but not in this particular computer as it had the same problems with the wireless card and, quite likely (I haven’t tried), with the NVIDIA drivers.
In summary, OpenSUSE seems not be currently the best option for this laptop (UPDATE: no, actually Debian is the best way to go, see comment below), provided that there is a way to solve the problems with the proprietary graphics drivers (either by a driver update, a kernel update or by installing an older version of the drivers). This is not surprising for they say that Novell has just signed a pact with the devil (strategy which is well known to have certain advantages in the short term). Anyway, as I ignore the terms of the pact, I will refrain from giving an opinion.
The corollaries of these frustrating experiences are: 1) the open source community is currently producing the most performing and user-friendly software available (and cheap, meaning, free!). 2) If it is able to progress in the next few years at the same pace that it has done in the last few, in no time even the devil will be moving towards a Linux kernel (as Apple has, kind of, already done). 3) The main serious obstacle in the way of the open-source software is that the hardware is not “open-source”…
I think it could be a good idea to set up a website ranking hardware producers in terms of Linux-friendliness. That would help newbies to find its way to the right hardware and would put some pressure on industry to move in the right direction. Some kind of hardware-watch indented to reward the efforts of those more cooperative with the open-source community.