It's that time of your life again. You feel squeezed and slow again. Your eye sight can no longer accept the smallness of the screen and the shame of slowness of your 133MHz CPU makes you wanna hide in the cave your predecessors came from. The battery effective life gets down to zero and the cost of replacement battery exceeds the cost of the whole laptop. Yes, It's that time of your life again - time to buy a new laptop. You scramble in your wallet and find out couple grand left over from the tax refund sent by your favorite Uncle (Sam). All right then. THE LAPTOP HUNT time.
My goal was to find the most of the laptop I can find for 2K. It must run Linux, be significantly thinner than 2 inches and have a decent screen (at least 1024x768). It definitely should not look ugly and have a reasonable battery life (at least 2 hours). So, my choices were: Dell Inspiron 4000 and HP OmniBook 9000. Both were good choices, but I ended up buying Sager NP2260V. Hey who would not want to have the fastest CPU on the market (1GHz), very reasonable hard-drive (20Gb), and 133 Mhz system bus? And all that for much less that I would have to pay for either Dell or HP? Sure I fell for it. I tried to do the Linux compatibility research, and I have stumbled on SiS web-site with description of how to configure Linux or run on their SiS630 chipset. I though I was well in business. Oh, little I knew. But read ahead - the ending of this story is happy.
When you read the specs of this laptop, your hands start to shake and drooling begins:
1GHz(!!!) Pentium III,
133(!!!!) Mhz system bus,
20Gb Hard drive,
IEEE 1394 port,
Built-in DVD drive,
Built-in 100BT ethernet,
14.1" 1024x768 LCD display;
And all that for under $1800. Pure bargain, if you ask me.
However, if you do consider this laptop, please note following little details, that you may not have noticed (At least I did not) while looking at
the specs on Sager's web site (www.sagernotebooks.com).
This laptop does not have a plain serial port. It was not a serious concern for me since I prefer to use IR connection with my PalmV. Of course, you may have a different opinion on that matter.
The built-in modem is a winmodem. The kernel recognizes it as AC97-compliant winmodem, but at this moment I still don't know if it is possible to get it to work. On the other hand, I don't really care for it, since I have a left-over PCMCIA modem card which works just fine.
Both modem and ethernet use the same jack on the back of the laptop, so even if there ever will be a driver for this modem, you will not be able to use both ethernet and modem at the same time. Oh well, as I said, the PCMCIA works just fine ;-).
The video controller (SIS630S) does not have it's own memory. It uses portion of system memory for a frame-buffer. This means that if you want a laptop to play 3D games, this laptop is not your first choice. And probably not a second choice either. I don't play games on my computers, so I don't care too much about video card performance. Your opinion may be very different.
This laptop has only 1 (ONE) PCMCIA port. This was my worry, since I have an external CD-RW and wanted to be able to use the modem, but after thinking for a while, I decided that I don't really need to use both of them at the same time. And since the laptop has a built-in Ethernet, I decided that I can live with just one PCMCIA port.
The battery is not hot-swappable. In fact, in order to replace the battery, you need to use a screw driver. Not a nice thing to do in an airplane seat ;-). The good news is that battery lasts a bit more than 3 hours in Linux if you don't do anything CPU intensive. Of course, playing DVD full screen in Windows 98 will drain the battery in under half an hour.
The baby came on Friday. In my opinion, the laptop looks very slick. Silver-colored body with nicely-rounded (but not too-much rounded) body. The laptop is heavier than my previous Fujitsu 635t, but I expected that - since this one has a DVD and a floppy built-in. I would say that in my opinion, aesthetically, this laptop is quite a bit better than Dell or even IBM laptops, but of course, it's not as good as Sony's Viao series. Of course, I'm not going to spend almost $1000 extra for the mere look of laptop. The screen is very bright and very sharp. It is much better than any laptop that I have seen around. And it does not reflect glare as much as other laptops. Of course, it is just a first impression, and I could be very biased. There is only one dead red pixel on the whole screen, which I hear is pretty good.
First thing I did, is to boot it up and check how it feels in Windows. The Windows feels a little bit faster than my previous 133MHz laptop, but not too much. There's not much of a surprise here - Win98 is not famous for its speed ;-). The next step then is to install the choice of the next generation - Linux!!!
The installation proved to be a bit trickier than I expected. It looks like the SiS630S chipset that is used in this laptop is quite different from the regular SiS630 chipset, or maybe SiS630 is simply not very well supported. Oh well. The end-result is pretty good, so I'd say it al worth the pain of installation/configuration.
After squeezing as much juice as possible from the windows partition, I tried to install RedHat 6.2. The installation went without adventures, except that it could not get X11 running and fell back to console-based installation mode. Right after 6.2 got installed, I went on to check for the auto-detected hardware. The first thing I noticed, was that the 2.2.16 kernel installed by RedHat did not have the Ethernet driver for this laptop. I remembered that SiS web-site mentioned that their driver was included in the Linux kernel starting sometime in the 2.3.x series. So I decided to go for it, and install RedHat 7.0 and then upgrade the kernel.
Oh yes, I did try to install SuSe and Mandrake, but former switched into some weird X mode so that installation became completely unuseable, and Mandrake died with an OOPS while trying to probe PCMCIA ports. I am personally most comfortable with RedHat, so I did not pursue these two distributions any further. If your choice of a distribution is not RedHat, you may try disabling PCMCIA detection at boot time, and make install run in ascii mode - this may get you going.
I installed RedHat 7.0 by pretty much following the prompts. I have selected SiS630 chipset, manually entered 8192Kb for Video memory, Generic LCD 1024x768 panel. Important: while giving options for video modes, select only 1024x768 video modes. The reason for that will be explained in the next section.
Once installation is complete, and RedHat is ready to reboot your laptop: STOP!! Do not click on the button, but switch another virtual screen (Alt-F2), go to the place where RedHat mounted your future root partition (you can find this out by using "mount" command), cd into future /etc/rc.d/init.d and "mv pcmcia pcmcia.bak". The reason for this action is that the default pcmcia package installed with RedHat 7.0 causes a kernel Oops when starting PCMCIA kernel module. You will install working PCMCIA later in section 4.4. After you disabled pcmcia package, switch back to the installation screen (Alt-F1) and reboot the laptop into newly installed RedHat 7.0.
All right. Now the bad news: The Xfree can not initialize this laptop's video chipset. Not even 4.0.3 that has just been released. However! The good news is that it is still possible to make it work by using a frame-buffer trick in lilo.conf. Here's my lilo.conf. Note the "vga=0x317" line. What this does is that in real mode lilo switches the video controller to the 1024x768 mode and continues booting Linux. The advantage - you get to see a cute penguin while laptop boots, but more importantly, the X-server will now work in the full screen mode - yahoo!!! The disadvantage - after X server quits, it has not idea how to switch controller back to the text mode, so you can forget about using your ascii vga consoles.
Now that you have changed lilo.conf, run lilo to update your boot sector and reboot into nice 1024x768 video mode. Now you can go ahead and try to run X. REMEMBER: once X starts you will not be able to go back to the text console. Once you make sure that X in fact works, change your initdefault in /etc/inittab to 5 to get xdm once your laptop boots:
That's about it. If this explanation is not clear, or if you want my XF86Config (which I don't think you need) e-mail me, and I'll try to help.
By default, RedHat 7.0 installs 2.2-series kernel which does not have support for the Ethernet card that this laptop has. However, I cannot live without my DSL connection to the Internet, so upgrade to 2.4 was the next thing to do. I just downloaded 2.4.2 from kernel.org, unpacked it into /usr/src/linux ran xconfig and compiled. It only took 6 minutes to compile (quite an improvement compared to 50 minutes that it used to take on my previous laptop). If you would like, you can get my configuration file here: http://www.anikin.com/sager/linux-2.4.2.config
You will need an updated PCMCIA package for the 2.4 kernel. I used pcmcia-cs-3.1.24 from http://pcmcia.sourceforge.org. Install it, and pcmcia will work just fine.
It just works. I did not touch anything.
Xine plays "Mission Impossible-2" without losing any frames. However, X must be in 16bpp mode to avoid losing frames. I did not try other movies yet ;-). Xine 4.01 that I have installed still have some minor glitches with synchronizing video and audio, so for better DVD experience, I still need to reboot into GatesWare.
The installation of Linux on this laptop is a bit of a pain, but after it is done, I believe it is well worth it. I love the screen, look, feel and speed of this laptop. The battery lasts well over 2 hours (and if you don't compile kernel all the time, it will last over 3 hours). So if you don't mind the minor issues mentioned in section 2 and are not afraid to follow directions in section 4, you will have a bargain supercomputer for a laptop. Great notebook at even better price.
Just the usual - don't blame me if your laptop causes nuclear explosion as a result of you using directions from this page. Whatever I described, worked for me and that's about all I can say. Laptops' hardware change on regular basis, and whatever worked for me, may fry your laptop, or worse, not work at all. On the other hand, if you can find these directions useful, send me a note - I like feedback.