One of the problems about buying a new Linux laptop is that the latest machines are not yet tested for Linux compatibility. Will the wifi card and the bluetooth work? Do the function keys do their respective jobs? Do suspend and hibernate work correctly (and waking up from them)? Does the backlit keyboard work? Buying always involves risk, so this time I thought I would document the experience fully to benefit others, as my way of thanking them for what they have already done for me.
Choosing a laptop for Linux
Installing Linux (in my case Ubuntu) on a laptop begins with the choice of model and make. You need to analyse your requirements. What can you afford? What features are must-haves? etc. In my case I whittled down my list to a set of requirements I was not prepared to compromise on:
- Low power usage. My last laptop spent all the time running the fan at full blast. It began to smell and smoke and was very loud. And yet the CPU usage stayed at around 10%. What it would do at close to 100% I have no idea. The newest laptop models sport the Intel 6th generation chips that run on as little as 15W. The whole laptop can run on just 45W. I think that is cool, in every sense of the word. One of the drawbacks of high power is the way it goes through the battery so quickly. At 120W it will last around 1-2 hours. This means that it quickly reaches the end of its lifespan of 400 recharge cycles in around 100 days. 45W and 10 hours puts a lot less stress on the battery.
- A backlit keyboard. This is not a luxury for those of us who wake up in the middle of the night and try to catch up on email from overseas, which I do all the time. Or watch the cricket. I hate turning on the room light at 2:00AM to do that. Laptop manufacturers mostly take the view that a backlight is a luxury, even though it only costs them $5 to install. ASUS for example, have a nice range of elegant laptops that would suit my purposes but the mid-range machines lack a backlight. ASUS designers take note! Apple has made a lot of money from this observation.
- A FHD (1920x1080) screen. I spend too much time in Netbeans IDE to settle for anything less. HD has insufficient pixels to allow me to show the subwindows like projects, files, variables, debug and the source code all at the same time. I realise that a lot of ordinary users only need HD (1366x768) but FHD is becoming the new baseline. An IPS screen to allow better viewing angles would also be preferable but is not essential.
- Compatibility with Linux. I don't have the time to install obscure drivers and maintain them every time I update the kernel. So I'd really like as much as possible to work out of the box.
- A solid-state drive. It is so much faster to boot up and consumes less power that I couldn't bear going back to a boring Winchester type drive. And I only use around 64GB, so 128GB would be enough, and 256GB would be perfect.
This seemed a simple list but very few laptops under AUS$2000 fit the bill. The Dell XPS 13 had everything except that it has a fan, and a noisy one at that. The ASUS Zenbook UX303LA was nice but lacked a backlit keyboard, and reportedly didn't support Linux well. The Toshiba Tecra Z40-C had everything too, but it was not available in my country (Australia) yet, or not with a backlit keyboard. The Apple 13 inch Macbook Air's screen lacked FHD and had a weak processor. So I turned to HP and was surprised by the specifications of their latest range. I selected the HP Envy 13-d107TU, which I had delivered (almost) to my door for AUS$1550.
What's in the box
The box is Spartan. Inside I found only two hardware items: a tiny power adaptor and its cable, and the laptop. The left hand side has a wide SD card slot and a single USB port, also the combination speaker/microphone jack and a security lock point. The right hand side has HDMI, power and two more USBs, and a power-on light. The power jack goes in firmly and deeply, reassuring me it will not break easily. The power cable is thick and sturdy, with cable strains at each end (Apple take note!). The case is made of aluminium in two pieces that fit closely together with the seam only visible on the underside. The feet are reduced to two large rubber feet at the back and a long one at the front. Hopefully this design will prevent them falling off. The screen hinges are recessed and I'm not sure how robust this design is. My last two laptops suffered from hinge break, and also my son's Samsung. The screen is glossy, although the technical description said "anti-glare". I guess they mean anti-glare coating on an otherwise glossy surface. I prefer matte screens. The screen is set in by about a millimetre so that when closed it doesn't rub against greasy keys. When opened, the bottom of the screen serves as a prop to raise the back. These are good design touches, but the overall appearance resembles a bit too closely the Macbook Air, although this is a good design to copy. The keyboard backlight comes on through a function key, saving the battery when it is not needed. Caps lock and sound mute have separate extra LEDs for status. The keyboard travel seems generous and the spacing of the keys is not cramped. Up and down keys are half-size and a bit awkward though. The keys seem to be made of metal with the characters as see-though grey plastic. This makes it easy to read even in full light and the letters presumably won't ever rub off with age or solvent.
Trying Ubuntu 16.04.1
The guarantee says only that it covers faults in manufacture of hardware for one year, but not against damage of any kind. I presume they mean normal wear and tear. For example, if opening the lid like 2000 times caused the screen to fall off then that would be my fault, not a flaw in their design. But it doesn't say explicitly that installing Linux would invalidate the warranty, only that if software damaged the hardware somehow then they wouldn't cover it. I think Linux is pretty safe in that regard, and nowadays they usually blame you for whatever goes wrong within the warranty period so they can charge you regardless, so I decided to proceed with the installation.
Since the laptop boots automatically into Windows I had to restart a few times before I discovered that holding down the F10 key enters the system setup. The boot setup is hidden in the "System Configuration" menu under "Boot options". I didn't disable UEFI, just chose "USB Diskette on Key/USB Hard Disk" in the UEFI Boot order and moved it up to the top of the list with the F6 key. One horror: the system configuration lists the CPU fan as "always on". Yikes! I can hardly hear it though. I reboot, saving the configuration. That got me to the Try Ubuntu screen. I selected it and reached the Ubuntu desktop in 26 seconds.
The trackpad works well. The left click is deep and positive, and the movement of the cursor is smooth. Right clicking works, but the menu came up once when not clicking it.
The network came on without a struggle. This seems stable and I doubt it will be a problem.
The backlight on the keyboard was on at the start but it turned off and back on again when I pressed F5 (the correct key). Hooray!
Airplane mode seems to work. At least it cut me off the network but it came back on when I pressed it again.
The sound function keys work fine.
Even the print screen key works!
The menu coming up on the desktop by accident was because the default setting is "tap to click". I turned that off in Mouse and Trackpad (System Settings) and it is now fine. But now if I let my thumb hover over the bottom of the trackpad in anticipation of a click and then touch it even a little it scrolls or jumps so I open the rubbish bin. Previously I had a trackpad with separate buttons, but now the "buttons" are concealed within the trackpad itself. I think this is just something I have to get used to.
Brightness function keys work, and there is no shortage of backlight power. The brightness setting is preserved after reboot. Screen reading at sharp angles is excellent. I begin to see the advantages of IPS.
Suspend and waking up from it works (by pressing the start button as usual). Waking up from ordinary screen sleep also works by pressing any key. The network still works on waking from suspend, even after several hours, but I had to save my network settings before it would work.
The help function key does not bring up ubuntu help, but perhaps this is only because this is a trial version. I see no help in the desktop menu.
Now for the acid test: does it support bluetooth? I used a pair of Bluedio Turbine headphones which worked on my previous laptop (with the Intel 7260). This also has an Intel wifi card so it should work. After setting the headphones into "ready to pair" mode it picks it up and allows me to save the headphone configuration. I play a youtube video and hear high fidelity sound without problems.
The installation process took only a couple of minutes. Is installing Windows this quick? I think not. My recollection is that it requires you to reboot upteen times before it will work. I decided not to install third party graphics drivers as the ones on the trial screen worked fine. Also I chose to completely erase the hard disk. Since I never use Windows this saves me a lot of space. On reboot it gave me a quick message in the top left hand corner I couldn't read in 1/10th of a second, but all seems fine. F1 still does not work.
One problem though is that recharging seems to be slow. After more than an hour it went from 35 to 68%. So it will take several hours for a full charge. I guess though that this reflects the low power of the charger compared to more "powerful" machines.
I can only estimate battery life but in just one hour it went down to 83% although that was with the keyboard backlight on most of the time so I guess about 6-8 hours under normal work load, not the 10 they claim. But every manufacturer does this.
This laptop works so well with Linux they should sell it preinstalled and save us all from the Microsoft tax. Compared to my previously owned Gigabyte P15-F and Clevo W550EU it supports Linux better and appears to be a more robust machine. Only time will tell if that last bit is true.
Two weeks on...
I have gotten used to the trackpad, so my initial complaints about it proved groundless. So far I have no complaints. Let's wait until something falls off, shall we?
Three months on...
The front rubber foot, which runs along the entire front of the base underneath started to come off. Due to a design flaw every time you pick up the laptop you must hold it by this rubber strip, which is only fixed to the body by some feeble contact tape. I had to re-glue it on with superglue and it now seems fine. Also the right hinge is getting a bit creaky and the fan now makes a tiny bit more noise. It's still barely audible but I know these are both things that can later go wrong.
Also the network drops out sometimes when I wake it from sleep. It never used to do this so it appears to be a Linux problem. I have to reboot to reconnect to wifi. It's a bit annoying but not crucial.