Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Kogan Agora Laptop Better with Classic Interface and Flash Disk

ABC TV's Q&A (apparently pronounced "QanDa") on 20 June 2011 featured on-line electronics retailer Ruslan Kogan. He did okay. But regardless what I think of his TV performance I do like his computers. On 10 June I took delivery of a Kogan Agora PRO 12" Ultra Portable Laptop Computer. The minimalist on-line store and the minimalist packaging impressed me almost as much as the modest design of the hardware. Kogan's business and the products have been pared down to give the customer what they want and no more. In this case a very plain cardboard box with a very generic looking black laptop, with a very generic version of Linux on it.

The lightweight laptop form provides a 11.6 inch screen and a good size keyboard, sufficient for a days work, but small enough to fit in a bag with a pad of A4 paper. The LED back-light screen is very readable. This would make a good laptop for a student, if a few battery and interface problems could be fixed.

My favorable impressions of the hardware changed when I discovered the battery only lasted about 2 hours, much less than the claimed 3.5 hours. However, more of a problem was the new "Unity" interface of the Ubuntu Linux software installed.

Unity attempts to provide an interface which makes maximum use of the limited space on a netbook screen. However, the Kogan has a relatively large 11.6 inch screen and so does not need a compact interface. Also the way the interface saves space is to strip off the borders around windows, the titles and menu bars from them. This has not been implemented consistently across the applications which make up Linux.

Even applications which are provided by default with Ubuntu had problems. The "Evolution" email package's setup menus did not work correctly: clicking on one icon actives the icon below it and attempting to click on a button instead causes the window to scroll.

I was ready to send the laptop back for a refund when one of my colleagues suggested switching back to the Ubuntu classic (no effects) user interface. This can be done from the login screen, without changing software. It transformed my experience of the laptop. The borders and menus reappeared around windows and the menu items I clicked on activated. The responsiveness of the machine improved noticeably. Also the battery life increased by 45 minutes, due to the interface not making intensive use of graphics, for effects such as translucent menus.

While the menus in "Evolution" now worked, it still did some strange things and I decided to switch to the simpler Mozilla Thunderbird email package.

The laptop still has limitations, the major one being the limited battery life (now 2 hours and 45 minutes and less than the claimed 3 hours and 30 minutes). I tried a number of other Linux power saving tips, but most of these seem to have already been incorporated into the newest versions of Linux.

One option left to consider is a flash Laptop Solid State Drive. The flash drive will save a little power when running, but more importantly would allow the laptop to be switched off more often, as it can be switched on more quickly.

Ironically, a cheaper model of the Agora is offered with a 30 GB solid state drive. But this has only 1 GB of RAM and comes with the Google Chromium OS. I did not want to have to install a different operating system and more RAM myself, but in retrospect, that would have been easier than the changes I have to make to get Ubuntu to work properly.

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