Monday, October 20, 2014

Low Cost Linux Laptop for Learning

My HP Pavilion DM1-4108AU notebook computer was not working reliably, so I decided to replace it with a Leader Companion 220. The 220 has a 11.6" screen and cost AU$298.00 at Big W.

One reason for selecting the 220 was that it has a VGA video socket, as well as HDMI. Many of the locations I give presentations in have older VGA projectors and it is handy not to have to use a HDMI to VGA adaptor (the ASUS X200CA also has VGA). The unit also has a full complement of sockets, with 1 USB 3, 2 x USB 2, Ethernet, and an SD card slot. In contrast many of the new slim notebooks have touch-screens and origami hinges to run them into clumsy tablet computers, but lack VGA and Ethernet sockets. The 220 looks similar to Chromebooks, such as the ASUS 11.6" Chromebook (C200MA-KX002), but with more ports and a hard disk.

The 220 has a plastic case with the top painted silver. It is slimmer than the HP DM1 and looks elegant. The "Leader" brand on the outside is hard to see which is good). The unit has the same footprint as a sheet of A4 paper and so fits easily in a portfolio. One problem the 200 shares with other notebooks is that the bezel and screen are both very glossy, resulting in reflections which make the screen hard to see.

The 220 comes with 2GB RAM, but Ian Chase at Leader Computers Pty Ltd advised the it can take a 4GB or 8GB DDR3L 1600MHz SODIMM Module (in place of the 2GB module). The computer is a bit sluggish with only the supplied 2GB of RAM when running the supplied Windows 8.1, but is fast enough for everyday use with Linux Mint 17 (Qiana) 64-bit with the  MATE desktop.

I tried the computer first booting Linux from a flash card (after dealing with UEFI firmware and Secure Boot). Even running Linux just from the flash drive it was faster than Windows 8.1 (I simply had the Linux ISO image on the flash drive without any permanent memory allocated). After finding Linux worked from the USB drive, I made the Windows 8.1 partition smaller and then installed Linux on the hard disk, which ran much better than Windows 8.1 (but retaining the ability to boot  Windows).

The 220 is sold in other countries as a Clevo W510TU and I found a user manual and service manual for it under this name. The 200 has an Intel Celeron Dual Core N2807 2.16GHz Processor, whereas other, presumably more expensive, models have an Intel N3530 2.58GHz processor.

The 220 came with a Toshiba 2.5" 500GB 5400rpm SATA Hard Drive. What is more interesting is that there is an empty mSATA slot for a second Solid State Disk (SSD) drive. So to increase performance it would be possible to install a small capacity SSD drive for the operating system and keep the hard disk for data. But the 220 has only a small battery (48.84WH) good for 4 hours, so I decided to remove the hard disk and replace it with a 64GB SSD (more than enough for Linux and some data files, as my current computer has only about 32 GB of its storage used). So I purchased a Plextor M5M PX-64M5M 64GB mSATA III Solid State Drive (SSD) for AU$50.00.

Curious about the relative speed of different disks, I ran the Benchmark utility which comes with Linux Mint:

DiskInterfaceAverage Read Rate MB/sAverage Access Time msec
Plextor 64GB M5M PX-64M5M SSDmSATA2750.1
Patriot 60 GB Pyro SSDSATA1920.3
Patriot 60 GB Pyro SSDUSB 31090.4
Toshiba 500GB MQ01 ABF050USB 39017
Toshiba 500GB MQ01 ABF050SATA9117
Western Digital 160 GB WD1600BEVTUSB 35617
Western Digital 160 GB WD1600BEVTSATA5717
EMTEC 8GB Flash USBUSB 3260.7

What this suggests to me is that the SSDs are much faster than the mechanical disks. That is no surprise, but it is interesting that the mechanical disks are not much slower on the USB 3 interface than SATA. So I might as well leave the Toshiba 500GB disk which came with the Leader as an external USB connected device for backup, there is no great speed improvement installing it in the laptop with the SATA interface.

One problem with the 220 is that it is very difficult to disassemble, even with the instructions in the  service manual. First the keyboard has to be removed, depressing four small tabs and removing a delicate ribbon cable. Then five  screws are removed from under the keyboard and five from the back. With that done the back can be prised off, showing the hard disk (which is not otherwise secured), the empty mSATA slot and one memory slot.

Once I worked out how to get the back off the 220, removing the hard disk was easy (it just pulls out). Adding the mSATA SSD required unscrewing one screw, inserting the card and replacing the screw to hold the card in place. Rebooting with the Linix on USB showed the mSATA card and I was able to install Linux in a few minutes.

Replacing the hard disk with SSD seems to have have added one hour to the computer's running time (from four to five hours). There is a fan in the 220, but with the SSD installed the computer is noticeably quieter (I have to put my ear to the case to hear the fan).

ps: The now surplus 500 GB Hard disk (worth about AU$50), I put into a Orico 2595US3-BK 2.5" SATA to USB 3.0 Aluminium External Enclosure  (AU$18.00), to backup data.

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