September 10, 2009 – 9:17 pm
I got myself a Samsung N140 netbook a couple of days ago, as i’m going back to Australia for a couple of months soon and i don’t want to have to drag my heavy old Thinkpad around with me. I’m likely to have to do some web development work while i’m there, so i wanted something i could work with comfortably. The N140 seemed to fit the bill – it’s got a non-gloss screen, for a start, and a full sized keyboard. It also comes with a 6-cell battery, which promises about 9 hours of off-mains use – and, from my experience so far, it gets pretty close to that, too.
You can get it with Windows XP or Linux (for £20 less). I chose the Windows version because i wanted to be able to dual boot – so i could upgrade the firmware on my Nokia 5800. I tried doing it using XP in a VirtualBox virtual machine on my Thinkpad, but it didn’t work. I could take it to a Nokia service centre and get it done for free, but i’d have to leave my phone there for a day or two and £20 for a Windows system seemed worth it to avoid that hassle. Anyway, i’m going to be running XP in a virtual machine on this system too (for testing web sites), so i don’t mind having a licence for it.
The first thing i did was install Linux. I’m running Fedora 11 on my Thinkpad, so it made sense to install that on my netbook too. Installation was fairly easy – using the live version and writing it onto a flash stick using the supplied utility. There was one annoying glitch in Fedora installation though – when i tried to manually set up the partitioning system it refused to allow the root partition to be ext3 because the image on the installation system was ext4 and it refused to allow it to be ext4, saying it had to be ext3. (I must remember to file a bug report!)
In the end, i allowed it to set up its own choice of partitioning scheme – which i’m not really happy with, but which worked. When you first set up XP on this system, it allows you to create two partitions – so i created the minimum possible one for Windows (which is still way too big) and i used the rest for Linux. Samsung’s system restore system also grabbed a 7GB partition at the beginning of the disk. At some point i’ll get round to deleting that and shifting the windows system down there, freeing up 25GB of hard drive space in the process.
Most things worked out of the box with Fedora 11 – sound, bluetooth, ethernet, SD card reader, touchpad, webcam. But the wireless interface didn’t work and nor did the built-in mic.
I think support for this wireless card (Realtek RTL8192) is included in version 2.6.31 of the Linux kernel – which is currently in development – but it’s not in the current Fedora version (220.127.116.11) and i didn’t really want to build a custom kernel if i could avoid it, so i used ndiswrapper – which works fine.
I got the RTL8192 driver from the CD that came with the computer – it wasn’t easy to find, but it’s there on the disk. But i had a bit of trouble getting ndiswrapper to work. For some reason when you install ndiswrapper using yum, it doesn’t require the kernel module – so, of course, it won’t work. You have to explicitly install kmod-ndiswrapper as well. Once i’d worked that out wireless networking just worked (with NetworkManager).
Once you’ve installed ndiswrapper, install the driver with
ndiswrapper -i net819xp.inf
(you’ll need all three of the driver files in the directory you execute that command from).
should write the configuration file for modprobe. Once that’s done,
should get wireless working and the interface showing up in NetworkManager. If not, a reboot will do it.
Getting the built-in mic to work was a bit trickier. First, i installed the gnome-volume-control (also known as gnome-alsa-mixer) application, hoping that there would be a switch somewhere that would turn it on. But there wasn’t. So i resorted to the best mixer of the lot – the one that always seems to show all controls, even when nothing else does – gamix. Unfortunately gamix isn’t packaged for Fedora any more (i should try lobbying for its inclusion again i guess), so i always keep the source code handy.
Getting gamix to build required installing a few development libraries – glib-devel, alsa-lib-devel, and gtk+-devel. Once i built and installed it, gamix showed a switch that the gnome mixer didn’t: “mic”/”front mic” in the capture section. Switching this to “front mic” made the built-in mic work. The sound isn’t very good though, so unless you really need it, it’s not worth the bother!
The other problem i had was with some of the software. In particular, Thunderbird’s account settings window and Nautilus’s configuration window are too tall for the 600 pixel screen. This is really annoying, as it means you can’t get at important parts of the configuration. Both of these bugs have been reported on their respective bugzillas.
The workaround i used was to use the System–>Preferences–>Display dialog to rotate the screen left – and then turn the netbook on its side. That way, you can get at everything on the config window. It’s a bit awkward, but it works!
Some of the function keys work with Fedora and some don’t. Using the ‘Keyboard Shortcuts’ dialog i set Fn-ESC (which has a moon on it) to suspend, and Fn-F12 (which is “scroll lock”) to “lock keyboard”. I wanted to use Fn-F10 for this, as it’s got a picture of a screen with an “X” in the middle of it, but that doesn’t seem to generate a key code.
The volume keys work, but the brightness keys don’t – which is a bit of a problem, as when the N140 is being used on battery power the brightness drops to a very low level and there’s nothing you can do about it. This obviously helps with battery life, but it would be nice to have the choice.
A workaround for this seems to be to suspend it with the power connected, then disconnect the power and then wake it up. When you do that, it comes back on with full screen brightness, even though it’s running on batteries.
Overall, i’m very happy with the N140 so far. It’s mostly very well designed and a pleasure to use. Its one really weak point, however, is the keyboard layout – it’s not centered. That might not matter much if you type with two fingers, but if you touch type it’s a big problem.
Surely it would have been simple to move one key from the right of each row over to the left hand side. That would leave the centre point of the letter and number keys – the gap between the ‘g’ and the ‘h’ – in the middle. As it is, it’s too far to the left and if you touch type your left palm is sitting on the corner of the palm rest, which isn’t very good ergonomically. A single key width to the right and it would be perfect.
I considered pulling the keys off and moving them over, and then modifying the key mapping. But keymapping is an awkward business in Linux and it may well be more trouble than it’s worth. It’s also complicated by the fact that i may want to dual boot Windows – i don’t even know if it’s possible to remap the keys in XP.