David Madore's WebLog: Blogging from my bed

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(Monday)

Blogging from my bed

I recently bought myself a birthday (or is it an un-birthday?) present, namely a laptop computer. For years I resisted the idea of getting one, arguing that I would rather have a desktop on every possible desk where I might be than one laptop: indeed, I considered (and perhaps still do) laptops to be expensive, easily prone to breaking, and generally troublesome. Still, my boyfriend pointed out to me that the luxury of having an Internet access from one's bed is not to be eschewed. ☺ So I was tempted and, when I found out I could have one of these little beasts for just under 600€, I went for it. So here I am, blogging from my bed, and trying to decide what I think of the tiny laptop keyboard and (to my fingers) alien touchpad. I guess I can get used to it.

It's an Acer Aspire 3633WLMi (with an Intel Celeron M 370 processor at 1.5GHz, 15.4″ WXGA screen, 60GB hard drive, 512MB RAM, DVD burner and WiFi: not a very powerful beast, but I still think it was a good bargain). It's called mizar (after a star in the big dipper: ζ Ursæ Majoris), also known as IPv6 2001:7a8:7171:37:216:36ff:fe2e:867f. And, of course, I use it under Linux… which is were I expected a great deal of trouble and got some (but not as much as I thought).

Here's a more detailed report of the extent to which the hardware works under (Debian) GNU/Linux:

  • A number of things worked (sometimes unexpectedly) fine out of the box: the graphics hardware (Silicon Integrated Systems [SiS] 661/741/760/761 PCI/AGP VGA Display Adapter, says lspci) and the sound system (Silicon Integrated Systems [SiS] AC'97 Sound Controller (rev a0)) were among the pleasant surprises (the system has no accelerated 3D, but I don't think the hardware has it anyway; however, it does have accelerated 2D and video, which is good). That the Ethernet controller, USB ports, hard drives and other very common hardware works is of course less of a surprise, but still nice; I didn't try burning DVD's, but I expect no difficulty there, and reading them certainly works. The touchpad has this really cool driver which is configurable in unbelievably many ways.
  • I did have a little more trouble with the battery status indicator. This is probably because the BIOS ships with broken ACPI tables or code. However, using a sufficiently recent Linux kernel version (2.6.17.7) solves the problem, so I didn't look into it.
  • WiFi probably does not work. The hardware appears to be an Atheros Communications, Inc. AR5005G 802.11abg NIC (rev 01), and it's about the only chipset that the MadWifi driver does not support, so no luck there (and the error message is annoyingly cryptic: unable to attach hardware: 'Hardware revision not supported' (HAL status 13)). Then I tried this cruft which is intended to make it possible to use Windows drivers on Linux: I had some trouble locating the appropriate driver in the first place, and now I think it still doesn't work, but it's not entirely clear. The driver seems to detect the hardware (it succeeds in reading the hardware address) and creates the network device, but then it fails while scanning access points: now it could be simply because there is no access point to be found (indeed, unless one of my neighbors has WiFi at home, there should be none), but the obscure error message (ndiswrapper (set_scan:1167): scanning failed (C0010011)) probably indicates a more serious problem… I don't know for sure, though. If necessary, I can buy some external PCMCIA WiFi card which would is known to be supported.
  • Update (): Actually, MadWifi works better than described above. The problem was that the laptop has a radio kill switch in front which needs to be pressed to activate the receiver. Now I can at least detect access points around me. However, I still didn't manage to actually get any packet throught (but it may be due to the peculiar nature of the network I'm trying this on).
  • Update (): OK, finally it works. I had to play with iwpriv ath0 authmode 2 and similar arcane commands. Urgh…
  • Suspend to disk seems to works. This is unexpected: I thought doing a suspend to disk under any kind of Unix was inherently impossible and the best they could achieve would be some horrible and unworkable hack — well, it is a hack, but it seems to work pretty well at least under certain circumstances. (In fact, as is often the case, there are confusingly many different ways to suspend, and I only tried uswsusp a bit.) I was logged in graphically and had various programs open when I tried suspending to disk, and all was restored correctly. (Well, in truth, the Network Time Protocol daemon was confused: but that daemon certainly does not expect to run on a laptop!) I didn't try suspending to RAM, yet.
  • Update (): Suspend to RAM also works, but causes a few difficulties with the graphics state.

Incidentally, I'm starting to find that Firefox isn't all that crappy (I've found ways to make it suit my needs — more or less). So I'm giving it a try on my laptop.

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