It was a little over a year ago that I heard about a special netbook coming out. Asus had scored a hit with its eeePC line-up of subnotebook computers. I wanted one so bad, but they ran Xandros, a Linux from a company that signed a patent swap deal with M$. I refused to give any money to M$ if I could avoid it, so I just looked in complete jealousy.
Then, Everex announced that they were going to come out with one of their own. Based on the Stepnote available overseas, the Cloudbook would come with gOS, or "Google-ish Linux". gOS was based on Ubuntu. It would be available through Walmart. I hate Walmart with a passion, but 1) it was a chance to show a retailer there was consumer interest in Linux and 2) it wouldn't be running one of the "dark" Linuxes (the others are SuSE, the first Linux I ever used, Linspire, which is now owned by Xandros, and Turbo Linux. Guilt by association goes to Mandriva, which signed a co-development deal with Turbo, so I'm nervous about what they are exposed to). So I bit the bullet, ordered online, and a short time later, came out of Walmart with my brand new Cloudbook.
Those were fun times, he said wistfully. You can say that again. But like all dry spells and peach pits, this too shall pass. (Bonus points to anyone who gets the reference. Especially YOU, Mornblade.)
The Cloudbook, at the time named Kylie (I name my computers to keep them straight in my head. This one was Kylie because it was small, cute, talented, and sexy), was never intended to be a serious machine for me, just an on-the-go joy toy. Surf the 'net, watch some videos, jot notes, play some games, things like that. Nothing serious. At first, I couldn't say anything wrong about the Cloudbook, but as time went on, I ran head first into its limitations and quirks. In a way, the Cloudbook was like that woman you take home when you're drunk -- the next morning, you're wondering what the hell you'd done.
I should have known I was in trouble when the programs that ran on it were all sized for a standard 8X6 display, not the 80x48 the Cloudbook had -- I had to drag the entire window just to access the buttons at the bottom of it. The wifi signal seemed to come and go at random. In my house, I couldn't get a solid connection unless I was right by the transmitter. However, I could take it outside at a greater distance than in the house and lock on just fine. The OS would also sometimes have trouble reading the mouse. Once it got to the desktop, it would put up a message saying that it wasn't reading the driver properly. If that happened, I had about one minute to shut the machine down or it would hang. And I'm not talking casual -- I would have to yank the battery to power it down, as no buttons, even the power, would work.
It was the first time I had run into the "proper" way of gaining root access, where the password for the first established identity enables root. I was used to a completely seperate password and identity for root (some Linux experts told me those were "broken" Linuxes. Not me, I like the idea of a completely seperate password for root. Also, SuSE, if you log in as root, gives you a wallpaper that is bright red with bombs all over it to remind you of the dangers. Now THAT'S a reminder! The only change I made was adding a sound effect -- anytime a program launched in root, you heard the robot from Lost In Space go, "DANGER! DANGER!"). I was working on updating the system when a brownout hit my area. It was enough that the computer switched from the brick to its battery in the middle of the update. And apparently, this was enough to hose the system. It never got further than LILO ever again. Over a power source switch!
This Cloudbook from Walmart did not come with a restore disc. However, you could download the gOS 2.0 "Rocket" from Everex's web site. I did, burned it to a disc, and ran it to restore the system. gOS acted like a first time install, and promptly crashed while probing the hardware. That is so not a good sign.
I figured that wasn't a bad thing, as I could simply put whatever Linux I chose on there. Sorry, kids, but gOS blows. Not only is changing power sources enough to brick the machine, not only was there the trouble with the mouse, but you couldn't update it normally. It was Ubuntu, just with a gOS logo in the upper left corner instead of the Ubuntu insignia. And yet, when Ubuntu went from 8.04 to 8.1, gOS warned users not to use the Ubuntu updater, as it would conflict with the specialized gOS build, please use the official gOS updater instead. What, they couldn't have removed the Ubuntu updater, they had to leave it there? Just what kind of changes were these? I've never heard of a Linux have more than a couple of compatibility issues with its upstream!
It's at this point the tale gets really sad. I tried several different modern Linux distros. Any based on Qt and the KDE desktop would hang during multimedia playback. Only a few got the wifi working. Ubuntu and Crunchbang, an Ubuntu derivative that uses OpenBox instead of GNOME, were the best for getting things working. So I settled on Ubuntu, not knowing there were a couple of big surprises waiting for me.
So the Cloudbook was functional again, right? Wrong. The headphone jack didn't work. There was a patch for ALSA that fixed it, but it hadn't made it into the stream yet. The worst, though, was my discovery about the CPU. This thing is sold as a VIA C7-M processor, running at 1.2G. Nope. During a memtest, it said it was only running at 600Mhz. In order to get the full 1.2, you have to overclock it. That is accomplished with software. gOS, based on how YouTube videos played back, could do it. Ubuntu, once again based on YouTube videos, could not. Even worse was that VCD video skipped. Pam is another laptop of mine, a Compaq Presario 1247 with a 400Mhz CPU and running Puppy Linux. It plays VCD flawlessly. An attempt at running Puppy on the Cloudbook showed that video skipped there, too. I don't think the 600Mhz is correct. (By the way, a quick check showed no Power Save option in the BIOS. That was the most likely culprit for the speed issues, but it didn't even have the option.)
The memtest also said sometimes the memory was 512M, othertimes it was 600M. That last number is really odd -- I can't think of a single modern chip combination that gives that number.
As a classic gaming enthusiast, I have a Stella emulator which lets me play the old Atari 2600 games on my computers. Stella ran horribly on the Cloudbook. You couldn't have ANYTHING running in the background, or the games would stutter like Max Headroom on a coffee buzz. You'd have to completely shut the machine down to fix it, killing the process didn't solve anything. I use the Stella emulator on my GP2X, a portable game system powered by Linux. It skips occassionally, but not as bad as this. In other words, a machine with twin 200Mhz ARM CPU's was outhustling a subnotebook with a 1.2G CPU and 512M of memory. What's up with that?
The wifi would work for a minute or two after you turned the machine on, then it would never work again until you restarted the machine. It also took a full two minutes to go from power on to the login screen, then another two minutes just to get all the background processes loaded. And any program started during this time would behave erratically. Like the Stella emulator, you couldn't kill and restart the ap, you had to completely shut the machine down and wait for it to get itself together with another cold boot.
I managed to find some real Linux experts. These guys have been rolling their own for longer than I've been using distros, period. They all had problems and each of them that had a Cloudbook gave up on the machines within a few months. The few that had the CPU going at the full 1.2G said the system was horribly unstable at that speed. If these guys couldn't make it work, what chance did I have?
It never occured to me that I was buying a Linux machine that was not actually Linux compatible. The drivers for the OS were not GPL'ed, so no one had to say how they worked.
Every time I went to a store that had a subnotebook for sale, like the Acer Aspire One or an HP or even an Asus, I reacted with a sigh of longing. The Cloudbook was too bloated to be a practical machine. Last December, subnotebooks started popping up. Toys R Us had both Asus 700 models, the Windows version and the Linux version. Both had the 4G flash drive, for $300 and $260 respectively. Target had the 700 with the 8G flash drive for $300. I was actually tempted, because I knew people who got any Linux distro, from Red Hat to Debian to Gentoo, working on it. But I don't like flash as my primary storage, since it can only be written to so many times. The first eeePC's used a regular USB thumb drive, but Asus got word that people were performing surgery on the unit, replacing the 2G thumb drives with 16G or higher, so they came up with a proprietary connector to stop that. So if the drive went belly up, I was hosed. The Acer Aspire One was $350, and I knew that came installed with Linpus Linux if you bought it overseas.
Then, while browsing through a store, I came across the Lenovo (a.k.a. IBM) S10 IdeaPad. IBM uses lots of standard parts, and the S10, if you buy it overseas, comes with Linpus Linux installed. Unable to fight any longer, I bought one. Every Linux distro I tried worked, except for the wifi. Ubuntu had the driver under its restricted drivers database. Others, you had to download the binary and install it. No big deal, but I was liking my Ubuntu experience (especially after I had removed Mono from the system) and stuck with that. Oh, and the user manual it came with? All about working with Linpus Linux. But it didn't come with Linpus, it came with XP. Deciding that Ubuntu was great, I nuked and paved the drive and put 8.1 on there. The best part? The S10 didn't even exist when 8.1 was released, and it STILL SAW AND CONFIGURED EVERYTHING PROPERLY!
So the S10 is now known as Kylie. The Cloudbook? No idea what to do with it. Attempts to put Puppy on it to speed up boot and functionality didn't work. I put Crunchbang back on it -- two minutes from startup to login, but less than 15 seconds to the desktop and background processes after that. Haven't tried anything with it yet, I'm just glad I got a functioning OS on it. I'm considering dumping it, maybe on eBay. A machine with a working OS is easier to sell than one with a blank drive.
So the Cloudbook is now sellable. Maybe. I'm still toying with Crunchbang a bit, seeing what it can do. Worst comes to worst, I can always reinstall. I know this one works. But remember, being on the leading edge of technology sometimes gets you bitten in the ass. I used to make fun of my buddy Ty, who had a first gen XBox 360, and all his fun problems and threats. He hasn't done it to my face, but I know he's laughing his ass off at me and the Cloudbook..