Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Netbook Experience Is A Little Less Shiny Right Now

During the holidays I received some Hanukkah gelt from family specifically earmarked for buying myself a new computer. The Toshiba laptop I'm writing this on is six years old now, it's slow by today's standards and it has developed a highly intermittent harware problem. Sometimes, out of the blue, it will shut itself off for no apparent reason. Since having a reliable and portable computer is vital for me to make a living right now a replacement was the best gift I could possibly get. A netbook seemed like the perfect solution to me and I ordered the one that seemed to give me the most power for the least money in a very small and lightweight case: a Sylvania g Netbook.

For the first couple of weeks I was thrilled with the little laptop. I was less than pleased with the stock gOS Linux implementation but once I replaced it with a Linux distribution that actually had the proper support and drivers for the hardware I was really, really happy. I used the little Sylvania for everything. Then, like the Toshiba, it started having an intermittent problem. It would lock up for no apparent reason. I went back to the stock gOS configuration and it still locked hard at random times.

I bought the netbook from J&R Music World in New York City via Kudos to J&R for immediately authorizing an exchange and promising that they would ship a replacement within 24-48 hours of receiving my defective unit. J&R is a long established brick and mortar store that I shopped at when I lived in New York. They have an excellent reputation for customer service and it seems to be well earned so far. They also had some of the best prices on netbooks when I shopped for mine. So... the replacement should be here next week some time.

In the meanwhile I'm back on my old computer. Having worked on the Sylvania for two weeks this one really does seem slow now despite only a small difference in the processor (1.2GHz Via C-7M ULV in the netbook vs. 1GHz Intel Celeron in this one). Of course the fact that the netbook had twice the memory (1 GB vs. 512MB RAM) is probably a big part of the performance difference.

Back in the 1980s I did work for a major electronic manufacturer. I learned back then that 90% of electronic failures happen in the first 5% of service life. What happened with my netbook is just plain bad luck. It could have happened with a Dell or an HP or an Asus netbook. In any case it would have been handled promptly under warranty. I certainly don't blame Sylvania at this point. I really have nothing to complain about. OTOH, it's always frustrating to have something new fail like this. For me, temporarily, the shine is off the netbook experience.

I have written a detailed review of the Sylvania g Netbook for O'Reilly Broadcast but for the moment I'm not publishing it. I want to make sure the replacement works as it should before I publish my opinions on a large public tech forum. I expect the review will go out pretty much unchanged but... Yeah, things just aren't shiny right now.


George said...

I, too, have a Sylvania g Meso. I bought it after extensive comparative shopping. The machine had a real HD (issues with SSDs on netbooks), non-glare screen, adequate RAM, a really good, top-tier, non-Microsoft-tainted Linux distribution, real USB ports (check HP specs), quality construction, and it's yellow!

I easily clicked off the default idiot-GUI and used the included standard Gnome desktop. Changing distributions with Linux netbooks can be problematic, as you found. I have been totally happy.

Omar said...

Caitlyn: Came here because the article was linked in the LinuxToday frontpage. Nice writeup, congratulations.

You say that your Sylvania netbook had a lockup problem. Let me ask you a question that might help: Did that netbook had a swap partition enabled? Because it looks to me like a case of running out of memory.

I remember when I ran Slax (a live Linux distribution, based on Slackware) on a totally crappy notebook who had just 256 MB of RAM, and Windows XP installed on an NTFS partition. It worked fine until, all of a sudden, everything slowed down to a slow-as-molasses crawl and total, unrecoverable lockup.

It turned out that Slax did not want to create a swap partition on the HD's free space because it was partitioned on an NTFS partition, and NTFS write support is officially experimental on the Linux kernel.

Thus, I suspect you might be experiencing the same issue. This could be particularly true if your HDD is solid-state; I remember that people discouraged creating swap partitions on flash drives because flash memory supported a limited number of writing operations. Anyway, let's hope the issue gets fixed.

Caitlyn said...

@George: I don't have a Sylvania g Meso. I have the original Sylvania g. It's a different machine. I also did NOT find changing distros to be a problem at all since I have a USB CD/DVD drive. I think there's a bit of a misuderstanding here.

@Omar: The problem wasn't lack of memory. 1GB of RAM would be adequate to run without swap if I wanted to but even that wasn't the case. I had 2GB allocated to a swap partition. You are also clearly unfamiliar with this netbook. It does not have an SSD in lieu of a hard drive. It has a conventional 30GB drive.

Anyway, I appreciate your desire to be helpful but this definitely was a hardware problem. The unit is being exchanged so I really don't care if it ever gets fixed or not.