A Cheap Linux Laptop — Take 2

You may have seen my previous article “A Cheap Linux Laptop“. Well this is a rewrite. I have changed several things since I wrote the original article, and I think it would be better to start over. The major changes are: (a) lessons learnt, (b) I installed a Solid State Drive, and (c) I used the LXDE desktop instead of XFCE. [I am now back with XFCE.]

Back in April, 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, who don’t stock it any more. Six months down the road, the model is selling at a higher price via other suppliers. There are a number of models in the B50 series, and I imagine that they would prove to be similar.

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. It ought to run a bit quicker under a lightweight but fully-featured Linux desktop though.

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 bottleneck. However, it’s very get-at-able, and can be changed for a Solid State Drive.
  • Radeon R2 graphics which provide enough 3D power to run a composited desktop. I’m not a gamer so I don’t need to push the graphics hard!

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

2015-03-24-15.32.45OK, so now I know how to boot from a PenDrive, this is a good time to power down and change the Hard Drive for a Solid State Drive. I used a SanDisk SSD Plus, 240Gb. This is a bit smaller than the existing Hard Drive, but still plenty. You take a panel off the bottom (it’s quite simple, two screws and it slides out), and you get access to a 2.5″ Hard Drive holder, the BIOS CMOS battery, and two RAM slots, one of which is empty, and the other has a single 4Gb SODIMM, making expansion to 8Gb cheap and simple. The Hard Drive caddy slid out, and it was a simple matter of taking it out of the caddy, putting the SSD in, replacing the caddy the same way it slid out (and as you slide it back, the connectors link again and it’s in circuit). You’ll need a small crosshead screwdriver. Simple!

Booting up the LXDE version of PCLinuxOS 64 from a pendrive (which must be plugged in the USB socket on the right hand side), I had three problems, one was that the Screen Resolution came up 1024×768 instead of 1366×768. This will not be a problem once you have installed Linux. For some reason the ATi flgrx driver won’t run from a live session.
[Edit: I have since re-installed with a recent XFCE version of PCLinuxOS 64: The more recent version boots from any USB slot as it includes USB3 drivers.  The screen resolution and the correct driver were detected correctly by the live CD, too!]

Don’t worry, it can be sorted out after installation. And the wireless didn’t work. It works just fine once the system has been installed, so don’t worry about that. Working with an empty hard drive, you can let PCLinuxOS installer partition it for you, or if you know what you are doing, you can create your own custom partitions. I went for 16Gb (ext4) for root partition, 16Gb (swap) for swap partition, and the rest of the drive (ext4) for the /home partition. Installation with PCLinuxOS was, as always, pretty simple. This part of it is documented on the PCLinuxOS web site, I don’t intend to repeat it here.

When you reboot into the installed system, it will be possible to connect to your wireless signal. Once you have done this, I would run Synaptic and make sure that all the software on there is up to date. You should also use Synaptic to search for and install the latest kernel. Most importantly, you need to go into the Control Centre (Hardware) 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. [Later versions of PCLinuxOS detect the hardware better and will default to the correct settings]. 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.

I had a problem on my big computer with LXDE, where it seemed to drag despite being a lightweight desktop. I posted a workaround on the PCLinuxOS site. Everything you need to do is in the first post. I just did the same on the laptop as on the desktop, and had no problems with it, and I would recommend you do the same. [I re-installed with PCLinusOS XFCE and there were none of these problems.]

To ensure that sound works properly, install task-pulseaudio and pavucontrol. Go into the Control Centre (Hardware), ensure that, in Sound, that Pulse Audio is enabled, and reboot. After rebooting you can use pavucontrol to ensure that the sound is being output through the internal speakers, not the HDMI connection (unless you want to play it through a TV). 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 and I hadn’t tested it out there either. There was a workaround however.

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 (£2.47 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. [just works now, from the beginning]

Volume Keys: You will need to install Volumeicon rather than using the LXDE volume applet. Its setting can be made to capture the volume keys. You should also ensure that the “Mixer” is set to pavucontrol. The ALSA settings should be Default and Master. You can also get it to display on-screen graphics when you adjust the volume from the keyboard, that’s on the OSD tab. [Now you need to install xfce4-pulseaudio-plugin instead of the standard volume control.]

Suspend: Important on a laptop. No key for it, but selecting from the LXDE exit menu works perfectly. [and from XFCE exit menu too]

Hibernate: This I couldn’t get to work. 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. I’ll keep looking into this. [SOLVED: The installation defaults to using GRUB2 as a bootloader. Change this to GRUB1 when prompted and the problem is solved!]

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, every time you switch on or take the machine out of “suspended” state.

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: Without the SSD when I originally set it up, it was OK but nothing to write home about. With the SSD the main bottleneck has been cleared. It’s fast!

Upgrade Potential: I already changed the Hard Drive to SSD, and the RAM slots are easy to get to, to add another card to make it 8Gb or 12Gb, or take out the 4Gb card and go the whole hog to 16Gb (2x8Gb). LXDE is not that demanding a desktop and this might not produce much of a further improvement.

DVD Rewriter: There is one, not tested yet. Detected by hardware so I reckon it’s OK.

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. [More recent live disks have USB3 drivers and the problem will not occur.]

Overall: Since I changed the Hard Drive to a SSD, and the desktop back to a more recent XFCE, it’s been a pleasure to use. 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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