Sunday, 6 December 2009

Ubuntu 9.10 on Acer eMachines EL1600

My old blog has a report on Ubuntu 9.10 on the Aspire 4315, which was an update. I also have four aging hp nx5000 machines (which actually outperform the aspire) yet to upgrade, which I'll talk about another day.

Recently, however, my desktop machine started having random reboots. Investigation showed that the heatsink for the CPU had become detached - but that there were also a host of other problems as well. After a struggle, I declared that machine dead. Which was sad - that was a custom machine and I can ill afford to replace it.

But replace it I resolved to do - forcing myself to the reality that I was no longer doing any hard-core computing which mandated the speed and processing power of the old box, I just hunted down a new and very cheap one. Settled on the sleek eMachine that now whispers next to my monitor.

Dick Smith were selling these things for NZ$500, which gets you the box (atom processor and intel chipset with XP-home pre-installed) with a keyboard, mouse, and speakers. Honestly? It looks really really nice.

The thing to realise here is that the technology under the hood is actually pretty old, and, thus, cheap. Sales have been slow so I suspect vendors are anxious to get a lot of surplus stock off their hands. Modern computers are over-specced anyway, and the price earns a lot of forgiveness.


I normally use a logitech cordless desktop set converted for dvorak layout, but that means my wife cannot use it so I resolved to keep the qwerty keyboard for her use. My regular speakers are cumbersome compared with the new ones - which take up a USB port for power instead of using a seperate PSU. So I'm using the new speakers.

The box has no provision for a floppy drive - which means I cannot use my card-reader (requires floppy IDE). The back looks like it has places for PCI card interfaces but I don't see how they can fit inside. Possibly intel or acer or someone will start making pci cards for these small form-factor desktop machines? I have yet to open the box to see what is inside it. This post is really all about the software.

DSE promote this computer as "Broadband Ready". I quickly discovered that the only difference between a Broadband Ready computer and a regular computer is the label which says "broadband ready". Staff helpfully explained that this was because it does not come with a dial-up modem - so the absence of a functionality is being promoted as the presence of something. There were other computers which did not bear the legend "broadband ready" - they do not have modems either. This is why tech and marketing do not get on.

This one came with Windows XP Home SP3... last time I had an XP machine I had a hard time activating it. This time it was a doddle, probably because I had an active wired ethernet connection from the getgo, but likely because it was a brand new licence so nobody suspected I was some sort of murdering ship-stealer.

I went through this trouble because I wanted to dual-boot.

Windows XP Home SP3

Logging in to Windows did not require a password or any visible security, it was easy to set up extra users, but very difficult to set up my dvorak keyboard. I gave up and used the qwerty one that came with. I did not need logitechs driver disk to use their wireless kbd and mouse, though the special keys did not work, and the mouse was sluggish (I am used to shunting the mouse from one side of the screen to the other with a twitch.)

This XP comes eMachines branded, theme = ugly, but that was easy to get rid of. Tougher was getting rid of the bloatware ... trying to remove it produced a progress dialogue which fairly crawled by ... until I noticed that the internet light was flashing. When I unplugged the cable, the uninstall suddenly sped up. Then it rebooted without warning?!

The other uninstalls behaved themselves. I disabled windows update, which it does not like and nags me endlessly each time I log in.

So - some hours later I have a basic Windows install. I added Firefox,, and ClamAV.

OK. So I don't really like Windows. I did have a good reason for hanging on to it this time though. Subject for another post. The next step is to install Ubuntu.

Ubuntu 9.10 (Karmic Koala)

I had previously downloaded the release ISO from Canonical, and burned it to a CD. I backed up XP, which took up two DVDs (actually one and a bit). Rebooted with the CD in the tray, and found I had to alter the BIOS to boot from the drive. Fine - try again.

I elected just to install how a normal person is expected to act: no fancy geek stuff.

I don't think the installer can get friendlier without actually sleeping with me. It even realised I was in New Zealand and suggested the correct time and language stuff. I discovered I had neglected to plug the ethernet cable back in, but it hotplugged without incident.

The actual partitioning was a matter of moving a slider about - no-brainer. The install went without a hitch, and provided a slideshow. The box is 100% free software compatible so there are no proprietary drivers in the system at all. This is so sweet.

First login shows that the gnome interface is now more Windows-like, I didn't really like it that much but six of one and half-a-dozen of the other right? I no longer need to enter my user-name, and the interface basically gives the snooper a list of users for this machine. Is this good or bad?

Everything is more Windows like. There are more windowsy themes and backgrounds for eg. Loads of peole are blogging like this is just great but really, who does not have a collection of their own wallpapers anyway?

Setting the keyboard to dvorak was easy, but the function keys had mysteriously stopped working. I discovered that this is a design "feature" of the keyboard and I can turn them back on again by pressing the mode key. It is a feature because logitech provide special drivers for Windows which changes the behaviour of the function keys.

All the keys seem to do something, if you want something other than the default, keytouch is probably the way to go. It comprises of two tools: KeyTouch - The tool to setup a keyboard that is already in the database; and KeyTouch-Editor - The tool to setup your keyboard by teaching it. You select your multimedia keyboards input, then press keys and indentify them from a drop down list.

Since I have a home LAN, I want to share the Public folder. I want to be able to share to visiting Windows computers too, so that means windows networking, which means SAMBA. This did not go as planned.

Symptom - rt-click on the ~/Public folder, select Sharing Options > Share Folder, produces error: "testparm" (No such file or directory) This is a known bug. Solution:
sudo apt-get install samba-common-bin

The testparm utility used to be in package samba-common but was moved for some reason buried in the dev mailing list archives. Some people have found that the samba-common-bin package is flagged for upgrade in synaptic, so just opening synaptic and clicking "apply" may work too.

Ubuntu 9.10 persists in the annoying behaviour of presenting a popup when updates are available. It still pops over what you are doing with Murphyesque timing, like at the exciting bit of a movie, so I usually disable this.

The issue with sound on openGL apps, which we saw with the aspire 4315, reappears here. the fix is the same: install the pulse-audio/SDL libraries:
sudo apt-get install libsdl1.2debian-pulseaudio

Creating a new user from System > Administration > Users and Groups turned out to be a bit of a trial, not because it was hard but because the created password was not persistent. I ended up using the commandline to set the password and U&G for setting user permissions.

Be warned: if you are strugglintg with user setup, you have to remove the entire user configuration - including the users home directory - before the CLI tools will work properly. Otherwise the CLI tool will see that there is already a user directory and use it instead of making a new one. This is actually useful, when everything is working, since it allows admin to quickly reinstate old users.

The reboot was slower than previous - probably because of the new KMS function which automatically configures the monitor and graphics. Loading graphics is smoother as a result, and I have not experienced the xorg.conf issues I had on previous installs. This is promising, and if it continues like this I'll probably forget how to configure graphics in linux just like I've forgotten how to compile the kernel.

In the past, each new release of Ubuntu has distinguished itself as being an order of magnitude improved from the last. I have openly wondered how long the team can keep this up. Well, now we know. This latest release is perhaps a bit too experimental to be called an overall improvement. The improvements are there in the KMS (Kernel Mode Switching) and seamless upgrade, but they came at a price: slower boots and odd interface issues (which you always get when technology changes). Thus Karmic is sort-of a transitional release between two ways of doing things - don't expect greatness.


  1. I should point out in all fairness that the Karmic cold-boot on the eMachine, at 45 seconds, is almost a full minute faster than the XP boot. By which I am counting the time until I get a useable desktop. When you see the windows desktop the OS has not finished loading, and Ubuntu typically has more to do - so a direct comparison is tricky.

    Karmic is only "not great" in comparison with other Ubuntu releases: expected an order of magnitude improvement - did not get it. It is a vast improvement on XP or Vista. Never used W7.