R Cubed Technologies makes a Linux dream machine out of an ASUS notebook.
Although you certainly can pick up a laptop from number of mainline PC makers and install Linux yourself, this remains a risky proposition. Whether it's fun or frustrating depends on the distro, the machine and, of course, your skills. The graphics adapters, chipsets, power-saving features and other elements make laptops inherently more complex than your standard desktop. Many of us look forward to the challenge of calling on our ingenuity and resources, such as the Linux on Laptops site (www.linux-on-laptops.com), to make the thing work. But what if you absolutely positively need it to work out of the box?
Your desire for more standard hardware might direct you to the mainline companies; however, there you'll be barking up the wrong tree. HP, for instance, once had a pre-installed Linux laptop. My conspiracy theory on why it disappeared? One of their VPs freaked when the 425 area code popped up on her caller ID; hence the kibosh. Regardless of the reason, your better bet is to call on one of the myriad scrappy, garage-and-basement-founded hardware companies that flourish in our community. If you look around, you'll find a wide array of options, with many of the machines produced by mainline companies but customized by Linux specialists.
A fine example of this innovative breed of Linux company is R Cubed Technologies, whose LS1250 laptop is the focus of this review. Linux Journal Editor in Chief, Nick Petreley, had had his eye on this sweet little machine for some time and asked me to review it, not knowing I had actually just bought one. Thus, I have had the machine for a few months and am in the perfect position to rate it after much day-in-day-out usage.
My old laptop was a beast. I bought it as a desktop replacement with a nice, big display for doing GIS. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a cheap copy of ArcGIS, so I do GIS at my university's computer lab instead. Then, I started traveling more, which left me lugging the beast around the world on my chronically sore shoulder. “Wouldn't it be nice to travel in comfort?”, I thought.
Beyond portability, I wanted a laptop that would fit my mobile editor/student lifestyle. I was looking for solid performance at a fair price and dual-boot functionality, as well as excellent keyboard, display and Wi-Fi support. See the sidebar for information and specs on the LS1250.
As you can see from its specs (for example, the older processor), although the LS1250 is by no means cutting edge, it packs a solid punch into a small, easy-to-tote package. Note also that the LS1250 is actually built by Taiwan's ASUS Computer. R Cubed's role is to ship you the LS1250 packed with Linux goodies, as well as other OSes if you so desire. Thus, in order to give credit where due, let's take a closer look at both the LS1250's physical aspects (ASUS' responsibility) and the functional aspects (R Cubed's responsibility) and see how this machine stacks up.
Being the geek that I am, I approach the practical with confidence and the style factor with apprehension. Though style is secondary to me, I admit that ASUS has made a sleek and attractive laptop. I like the LS1250's matte silver-grey color with black trim. The nagging doubts I had earlier about the “cool factor” have been gradually vanquished with each woman (now four and counting!) who raves about my cool laptop. Admittedly, a Mac or Sony VAIO will generate more net saliva, but the LS1250 may prove a better value on a “conversation starters per dollar” basis.
Not only is the LS1250 handsome, but also it feels well built. The carbon-fiber alloy material gives the chassis a nice, solid feel—neither bulky, creaky nor “plasticky” but rather more rigid, almost metallic. Both ASUS and R Cubed claim that the carbon fiber improves portability and is “120% stronger than conventional material”. Dropping the laptop to prove the latter point was fortunately not part of the test.
Regarding portability, this is an area where the LS1250 performs well. ASUS rightfully classifies the LS1250 (that is the Z33Ae in its catalog) as an ultraportable. Weighing in at a thrifty 3.4 lbs. (1.5 kg), the LS1250 slips easily into my backpack or laptop case with the same burden as a mid-sized, softcover book.
Once I've transported my LS1250 to its destination, I am generally pleased with its physical performance. The aspect I like most is the crisp, responsive keyboard. Despite this enjoyment, however, I find fault with the combination cursor block and scroll keys that were stuffed into the congested lower-right corner. I continually reach over and press the wrong undersized key or play Twister with my fingers. Getting rid of one of those special (er, stupid) Windows keys would free up plenty of room for a better layout.
The 12.1" XGA TFT LCD display is bright, crisp and consistent with no dead pixels and works decently in direct sunlight.
As mentioned above, the ergonomic design of the LS1250 is strong. For example, ASUS won a German industrial-design award for the rimless design of its touch pad, which sits flush with the palm rest. This design feels smooth to the touch and eliminates dust accumulation.
I chose the standard 3-cell Li-Ion battery, which worked solidly but less than promised. While in a “word processing” power-management mode, I got around 1.75 rather than 2.5 hours worth of word processing and wired Web surfing.
Finally, heat management is solid, though the underside and palm rest can get quite warm under everyday working conditions. The fan located on the right side runs continuously but acceptably quietly.
Of course, I could have bought the LS1250 directly from ASUS and installed Linux myself. Instead, I chose to have R Cubed do my dirty work. It was a good decision, because R Cubed invests a great deal of effort to make nearly everything work smoothly out of the box. When I placed my order, R Cubed was offering only Fedora Core, but when I asked for SUSE 10.1, R Cubed obliged and sent me a fully functional machine with its own customized kernel. Now R Cubed says that it is an official Novell partner because of this, so maybe I should be asking for royalties?
I was very pleased with R Cubed's Linux installation for three main reasons. First, the LS1250 came preconfigured with a majority of the applications you'll find in a SUSE distro. Second, all of the function buttons worked appropriately on both Linux and Windows XP. And third, I was surfing wirelessly within seconds of starting the machine. Let's take a closer look at each of these.
The folks at R Cubed shipped me the LC1250 partitioned to my specification, which was dual-boot SUSE Linux 10.1 (60GB) and Windows XP (20GB). The GRUB bootloader was already configured as well. After booting the Linux side, I fired up KDE and found a vast majority of applications that come with a SUSE distribution, all conveniently categorized in the menus and with key icons on the desktop and below on the Kicker (taskbar). Not only do I have all of the standard applications—OpenOffice.org, Acrobat Reader, Firefox and so forth—but nearly every application type has at least two options from which to choose. It has barely been necessary to install additional programs on the machine. My most pleasant surprise occurred when I plugged my Canon PowerShot digital camera in to the USB port, which instantly was recognized by digiKam. I was asked if I wanted to download the photos on the camera, which I did, and I was managing them without a hitch.
I also am enamored with the Wi-Fi capabilities out of the box. The installed KNetworkManager is smart, performs automatic link-ups for you and makes managing wireless networks a breeze. I discuss actual Wi-Fi performance below.
Through no fault of R Cubed, I was unable to play most video formats out of the box, despite having the various media players installed, such as Kaffeine, Totem and RealPlayer. This left me to find and install codecs on my own. I learned that R Cubed is now providing multimedia installation icons that allow one to acquire instantly all of the codecs one needs to play back all common video formats.
On my old laptop, I never even thought about the function keys at the top of the keyboard, because none of them worked on Linux. However, all of them work on the LS1250 on both Linux and Windows—hibernate, wireless on/off, brightness control, display, browser launch, volume control and mute, and so on. R Cubed also provides users with a directory called .asus_acpi in their home Linux directory where users can customize what occurs when each button is pressed.
A button worthy of special mention puts the computer into five different modes of operation. These performance modes range from Turbo at the top to Word Processing in the middle to Maximum Battery Savings at the bottom. Each step down not only dims the display but reduces processor speed and hard drive spin while expanding the read and look-ahead caching in order to avoid powering up the hard drive.
Because this is a review of only one laptop, our performance assessments will be subjective. The performance matches my expectations considering the processor and memory (768MB RAM) onboard. I run all of the applications I want to, including audio CDs on Amarok, never feeling like the system is overtaxed or sluggish.
The Wi-Fi performance exceeds my expectations. Besides the excellent network management mentioned above, the signal reception excels under even challenging conditions. My ultimate test is whether I can sit outside on my porch under a metal roof about 30 feet from my router. All of my previous laptops with wireless PC cards struggled to maintain a connection. The LS1250, with its integrated wireless, maintains a strong connection. Furthermore, from an unobstructed distance of about 50 feet the LS1250 was able to maintain wireless performance of about 13Mbps.
I tried experimenting with the 3-D acceleration by playing the game Chromium B.S.U., but I had difficulty. Despite enabling acceleration with YaST, the game told me that it was unavailable, and it played sluggishly. R Cubed informed me that such a problem should not have occurred because the chipset supports acceleration. Unfortunately, I was unable to ameliorate this problem before deadline.
One of the most pleasant aspects of working with R Cubed is that the company is big enough to put out professional products yet small enough to know who you are. When I called to inquire about my order, I simply mentioned my name and the person at R Cubed knew what I ordered and its status off the top of his head. Furthermore, R Cubed has an order-tracking system that shows the order's status. My only complaint is that R Cubed does not enter any information in the system between the order placement and shipment. Thus, I was waiting for what I felt was a long time and was forced to call to discover the ETA of my machine.
Despite this complaint, the post-order support was as friendly, accessible and as personal as my earlier inquiry. The technician (probably the same person), who picked up after a few rings, knew my machine and troubleshot my problem (which was no audio on the Windows side) in just a few minutes. Phone-support hours are 8:00am to 5:00pm CT on weekdays only.
Recently I spoke with R Cubed's CTO, who told me that the firm is gradually expanding its support and features. One of these new offerings is remote support, whereby a technician can remotely access and troubleshoot a customer's machine via VNC. Another offering is a set of custom self-installations of applications, such as Internet Explorer on Wine, Google Earth and VMware Server. Finally, you can now ship your machine back to R Cubed and, for $50 US, the company will upgrade your OS with its custom kernel to maintain full functionality.