A cheap Linux laptop

A few weeks ago, I bought a laptop, a Lenovo B50-45, for £160 brand new. It has a 15.6in screen, and is big enough to include a numeric keypad! Surely it can’t be any good for that money!! I got it from Ebuyer, though at the time of writing they are temporarily out of stock, but with the promise of more to come. But still for that same price.

Reviews were surprisingly good, but I tend to look at the worst ones first, and they complained of a lack of speed, that you were often waiting for the computer to catch up. However, it’s running Windows 8. My intention was always to use PCLinuxOS 64-bit XFCE edition. So let’s see how the hardware stacks up.

b50-45-laptop

  • AMD Dual Core E1-6010 1.35GHz processor ought to cope with Linux, comfortably.
  • It has a single chip of 4Gb RAM, but has two SODIMM DDR3 slots, and can take a total of 16Gb RAM. A second 4Gb in the other slot could take it up to 8Gb. But in any case, you’d think that 4Gb would run Linux OK.
  • 5400rpm Hard Drive, 320Gb. Hmmm, could be a problem. The question is how get-at-able is it, could it be changed for a solid state drive?
  • Radeon R2 graphics which I know little about.

So, how suitable is it for Linux in practice?

Well the first thing you notice is that it boots straight into Windows with no access to BIOS or making a USB stick or CD-ROM boot first. Consulted the sheet of paper that comes with it, and to change that, you have to switch off the unit, then stick something sharp into a hole in order to press the “Novo” button.

2015-03-24 15.31.17

This resulted in a menu, and there were options to go into BIOS and change things, including how it boots — either on this occasion, or permanently. As you can see, after sticking your pin into the hole, you can boot into BIOS, and change Boot Mode and Priority to Legacy. You can change the Legacy boot order too. If you choose not to put the CD or USB stick to the top, you can use your pin in the hole again for a one-off change of order.

screenies-combined

2015-03-24-15.32.45Booting up the XFCE version of PCLinuxOS 64, I had two problems, one was that the Screen Resolution came up 1024×768 instead of 1366×768. With the benefit of hindsight, if you’re copying what I did, I recommend that you leave it alone for now. The reason is that whatever you do now, you’ll have to do it again on first boot. For some reason, this computer will not run the ATi flgrx driver live, and tells you that you have to use the VESA driver. But once installed it works fine. More immediately, you need some additional help with partitioning, so you need to install a small utility off the internet, which sometimes doesn’t log in through wireless in a live session. The workaround is simple enough.

cc-screenie

Firstly you go into the PCLOS Control Centre (Configure Your Computer), and select Hardware > Browse and Configure Hardware. You find your wireless card under “Ethernetcard”, and make a note of the module name. You then open the Root Terminal, and after you put in your root password, you type in (I’m using ath9k here, yours might be different):

rmmod ath9k

and hit Enter. The Hardware causes the module to reload, but this time it works. You only get this problem when booting live.

TO REMOVE WINDOWS ALTOGETHER:

Once you’ve done this, open Synaptic Package Manager and install “parted”. Don’t worry about updates, you’re still running live, just install as little as possible.

Return to the root terminal, and type the following:

parted /dev/sda (if sda is the label of the main hard drive in the computer
                   — it should be but check)
mklabel msdos
quit

You will now have a blank hard drive! You can add partitions as part of the installation. (Skip forwards to “Reboot First”)

TO ADD LINUX AND KEEP WINDOWS

gparted-screenie

Open Synaptic Package Manager and install “gparted”. This is a GUI program. Reduce the size of the partition (WIndow8_OS) to about 50Gb, and move the partitions LENOVO and PBR_DRV left. You can now add a Swap partition, a root partition and a home partition, ready to install PCLinuxOS. Note that to boot into Windows, you will need to use your pin in the hole to raise the boot menu. Windows will not appear in GRUB.

REBOOT FIRST

Before you install, you will probably need to Reboot the live system so that the kernel recognises the changed partitions.

This enabled me to install PCLinuxOS, There is no longer any need to worry about the wireless or screen resolution until first boot after installation. Once all the usual installation stuff is done, it booted fine to a desktop. Wireless works now without any hacking, (take this opportunity to go into Synaptic and update software and install the latest kernel,) but the screen is wrong. You need to go into the Control Centre and change the Monitor size and Resolution to 1366×768, The other thing you need to do is to change the “Graphic Card” to “ATI Radeon HD5000 to HD6300 (radeon/flgrx)”. It defaults to “vesa” but don’t let that bother you, just change it. After that, remember to click on Options after selecting the Graphic Card and accept the defaults. You may need to reboot before you see the correct resolution on screen.

Sound was a problem. This is because it defaulted to trying to use the HDMI socket rather than the internal speaker. I installed task-pulseaudio and pavucontrol, and rebooted. Also went back into the Control Centre for Sound, and checked “Enable PuiseAudio” and rebooted again. Running the Pulse Audio Volume Control, I made a few adjustments made through the configuration tab, changed the HDMI controller to “Off”. You can change it back to “On” if you need it, but simply doing that reversed the priorities and I was able to get sound. But, no matter what I did, I couldn’t get the internal mic to work. On the side of the unit, there is a single socket for a “headset”. So I need to plug in a suitable unit with the combined headset plug on the end, which I have, and it cuts off the internal speaker. I did find, though, that when I did, I was able to do a full test call on Skype, all working nicely. So I’m not sure if the built-in mic was faulty or just not working in Linux. I’m afraid I’m so far out of the loop in Windows 8.1 that I couldn’t test it out there either.

mic-screenieA bit of research, and I found that I could buy a small mic dongle that plugs into a USB socket. It’s not that dear (£4.90 with postage), and it works! After I plugged it in, the extra device appeared in Pulse Audio Volume Control, and I changed the settings for the internal sound card to output only. Of course, I had to do the usual fiddling with pavucontrol from Skype, but the outcome was successful! So I am well pleased!

Screen Brightness: After I changed the Video settings from Vesa to flgrx, the screen brightness buttons on the keyboard just worked. I did that after I’d updated the kernel to the latest (3.19.2), so I don’t know whether it would have with the earlier kernel. I used the “Power Manager” Plugin on XFCE instead of the standard battery monitor. When you click its icon, it has a slider which does the same job as the buttons, but the buttons don’t work when the slider is showing. I couldn’t find a way to automatically reduce the brightness when the mains is disconnected, but the setting to fade the screen after a period of inactivity worked well, with separate settings depending whether you are running the computer on battery or mains.

Volume Keys: You will need to install either Volumeicon or the XFCE PulseAudio Plugin. Either of them will capture the volume keys. The old XFCE “Audio Mixer” is totally useless with PulseAudio and should be removed from the panel. In the case of Volumeicon, right click on its icon in your system tray and ensure that the “Mixer” is set to “pavucontrol”, change the “Left Mouse Button Action” to “Show Slider”, and check all three hot keys. With XFCE PulseAudio Plugin, you just need to check “Enable Keyboard Shortcuts”.

Suspend: Important on a laptop. No key for it, but selecting from the Xfce exit menu works perfectly. When you close the lid, the machine goes into a low power mode with USB still powered (my mouse is still lit) but wireless and screen go off and drive is silent. When I lift the lid again, it comes back to life. Nice touch.

Hibernate: Also important, but something is not right here. It goes into hibernation, and when you restart, it skips the menu, but then does a totally normal warm boot login instead of returning you to where you were. My first installation was alongside Windows, and there were more than 4 primary partitions on the drive, and I had to create 8, 9, and 10 in order to install PCLinuxOS (swap, /, and /home). I later removed Windows altogether, but even with the “normal” hard drive set-up, and a 16Gb swap file, I had the same problem. I’ll keep looking into this.

Keyboard: For a light-touch, touch-typist, great, reacts well, works well. For a heavy handed moron, I can’t see it lasting too long. Fortunately I can be a gentle typist when the occasion demands.

Touchpad: For best results, use Tex’s “Fix Touchpad” program and select Elantech. Or if you’re rubbish at using touchpads, like me, you can switch it off (the F6 key) and use a mouse.

Display: It’s not the greatest res, 1366×768, but it’s not bad. I find it quite pleasant to work with, with enough space on screen. Colours are good. Display is clear enough.

Speed: No speed merchant, but compared to my aging Samsung NC10, it flies. I’m happy with that!

Upgrade Potential: From the manual, the RAM slots and Hard Drive look very easy to get to. If I was using this as a main computer, I would change the Hard Drive for an SSD, no question. At some point I might do anyway!

DVD Rewriter: There is one, not tested yet.

SD/SDHC Media Socket: Also present and as yet untested.

Battery Life: Not tested yet, but if I pull the mains plug out on a full battery, the estimate is 2hr 30min. Not an even remotely reliable method.

USB Sockets: It has 3 USB sockets, 1xUSB2 and 2xUSB3. When installing, I have to use the USB2 socket for the pen drive, otherwise it hangs somewhere between “plymouth” starting and “unionfs” being set up. It also failed to recognise, in any of the sockets, an external powered case with 2 SATA hard drives inside. Strange. The mouse works though! As does the pendrive in the USB3 sockets when not trying to install. Just as well because, once installed, the USB mic is in the USB2 socket.

Overall: So far, so good. As a cheap linux machine for use on my travels, but mainly indoors with a power point available, you just can’t argue at this price! The only bad thing for me is the fact that I can’t Hibernate it. You get what you pay for, and I paid for a very cheap but largish laptop! That said, it appears to be a much better machine on Linux than on the operating system it was designed for, if some of the reviews I’ve read are anything to go by.

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