With my interest in Linux growing, I decided it was time to get a machine dedicated to running KDE directly. I already had my machine in the basement, which I connected to using NoMachine. It’s an excellent (free!) product if you want to remotely control another computer. I was able to run a reasonably-high quality connection from my MacBook Pro at 1680×1050. The connection never lags on NoMachine; it dials back the quality temporarily when the screen gets busy. That meant that scrolling through long directory listings or pages of source code would go blurry for a moment, then sharpen up. But it still wasn’t like a realtime, live screen. There was always a hint of softness and filtering to the display. Plus, if the thing crashed (more like, if I crashed it), I’d have to go downstairs, climb over bicycles and boxes of CDs, and power on my ancient LCD monitor to see what happened. I know, such a trauma.
But I digress.
After spending my vacation downtime doing research, I settled on the Acer Aspire E15 (specifically model E5-576G-5762; there are multitudes named “E15”). It’s got an Intel Core i5 quad-core processor, 8GB of RAM, a 2GB NVIDIA graphics card, a full 1920×1080 screen, and a 256GB solid-state drive. It shipped with Windows 10 Home pre-installed, so the $599 price tag certainly included the infamous “Microsoft Tax” for an operating system I didn’t want and planned to erase.
My reading and research told me that upon arrival, I should let Windows 10 do its painstaking update processes. Apparently Windows is the only way to update the BIOS on this machine; Acer doesn’t provide any other option. So I let it grind away for the better part of three hours performing updates. Meanwhile, I downloaded the latest developer edition of KDE neon and put it on a bootable USB drive. Once the updates finished, I made a Windows Rescue Disk on another USB drive (I really need to put labels on those…) and prepared to install Linux.
Linux on laptops has traditionally been a tricky proposition. If there’s not a problem with the touchpad, there will be hassles with the WiFi adapter. Or things like not going into suspend mode when you close the lid. There’s so much varied hardware in the world that even the agile open-source community can’t keep tabs on all of it. Which is why I did so much research and bugged so many people on Reddit, Ask Ubuntu, the KDE forums, and elsewhere. Finally I got a handful of partial answers, which I pieced together and decided this machine would work.
Booting from the USB stick was easy and simple. The install was quick and uneventful. I considered shrinking the Windows 10 partition down to the bare minimum and keeping it available as a boot option if I needed it, but at only 256GB, I wanted all the bytes I’d paid for. Plus, I had the bootable recovery USB stick if I needed it (I really need to label that).
The machine booted into KDE quickly and the touchpad and backlit keyboard worked flawlessly, with no headaches. The WiFi, though, was giving me trouble. I kept losing the connection, having to rejoin the network, and then endure awful speeds as I tried to search for the issue. I ended up tethering the laptop to my iPhone over Bluetooth and using the phone’s connection for a while. That worked great.
I narrowed the problem down to two suspects: the WiFi broadcast channel, or the repeater I had plugged in. Changing the WiFi channel made no difference. Once I yanked the repeater out of the wall, the machine snapped to life and browsing the web and downloading updates ran at full speed. I think the repeater and the main router were on different channels, which was causing a sort of interference. Apparently other devices and operating systems can negotiate this, but not the Linux drivers. I need to get that repeater reconnected and reconfigured – I may have reintroduced a problem on my wife’s MacBook Air. But I don’t think so. The Air is a tricky little sucker when it comes to WiFi – troubleshooting it for her in the past (without the repeater, or on hotel WiFi) has proven that much.
The only additional package I had to install was TLP – Advanced Power Management For Linux. It added or enabled kernel modules for full power management support, like dimming the screen when on battery power, or going into suspend mode when shutting the lid.
Music playback is pretty lousy. It’s got typical laptop speakers with no bass and tinny highs. I’d like to connect to my Amazon Echo as an external Bluetooth speaker, but I’ve got some work to do there. The laptop is insisting on pairing with a PIN, which the Echo doesn’t support. PIN-pairing is old-school Bluetooth, and this laptop supposedly supports the almost-latest version of Bluetooth. I’ll get back to you on this.
The screen is nice and sharp, much sharper than the NoMachine connection I was used to. Everything scrolls smoothly and crisply. I’m very pleased. I can’t find which laptop review site said this machine has a lousy display, but they need to clean their eyeballs. I don’t know about off-angle viewing, since I’m the only one using it. I won’t find out how good the screen is in daylight for another couple of months. But I’m perfectly happy. A full 1920×1080 (IPS) display in this price range is uncommon.
The keyboard is a little squishy, as is clicking the trackpad. But this is a $599 mid-tier laptop, not a $2500 MacBook. The body is plastic, not aircraft-grade machined aluminum. But these are compromises I can definitely live with.
So far, my fears about the laptop being underpowered are wrong. Even with a dozen open browser tabs, Thunderbird email, and a music player all running, I haven’t hit the wall on memory or speed yet. I’ve been able to compile code quickly and effortlessly.
In short, a few minor bumps in the road, but I’m overall very pleased. It’s been but a few days, but I’ve made sure they were thorough days with plenty of testing.
And after I peeled off the last of the stickers, no signs of Windows anywhere. Except this damned key on the keyboard…