- Processor: VIA C3 processor (Nehemiah) 1.0GHz, FSB133MHz, 64KB L2 cache
- Memory: 128MB system memory, one SODIMM slot supports DDR 266 module
- Display: 14.1" XGA (1024 x 768) TFT LCD display
- Graphics Processor: CLE 266 with Castle Rock GFX, Sharing Memory Architecture up to 64MB, AGP 4X
- Audio: AC'97 2.1 compliant
- Networking: 10/100 Base-T LAN on board, Internal 56Kbps FAX/Modem
- USB Ports: Four USB2.0 ports
- Hard Drive: 30GB, 2.5" 9.5mm height, ATA 66/100
- Optical Drive: 12.7mm 24X CD-ROM
- Pointing Device: Synaptic touchpad
- Keyboard: 3.0mm travel, inverted-T, 88 keys with Windows keys
- Other Ports: headphone jack, microphone jack, PS/2 mouse port, serial port, parallel port, external monitor port
The VIA C3 Nehemiah processor isn't a powerhouse. It is better than its predecessors, though. The floating-point unit (FPU) is now clocked at the same speed as the CPU core, as opposed to half the core clock in previous models. It also now implements more media instructions, ala Intel's Streaming SIMD Extensions (SSE) in addition to MMX. The small L2 cache means that code runs better when optimized for size rather than speed. While not up to serious number crunching, the CPU is fast enough for just about anything you might wish to do on the laptop.
The first serious limitation is the amount of memory. One of the first upgrades one might make is to increase the memory to its maximum of 512MB. At the stock 128MB, you have to be careful about running out of memory. This memory is shared with the video processor; the default configuration is to allocate 96MB for the system and 32MB for graphics.
The DirectX 8.1-compatible video processor, called Castle Rock, is a variation of the VIA Unichrome GPU. The main difference between Castle Rock and Unichrome is extra support for multimedia. It won't wow your friends, but it's sufficient for most gaming, and plenty powerful enough for multimedia. The display is a vibrant, clear 14" LCD. My unit arrived with no dead pixels and only one stuck pixel. While not very large, I have no complaints about its performance in text processing, games, or playing videos.
The audio is the standard VIA AC'97 output. The built-in speakers are rather bad -- I recommend using the headphone port when you can. There is a built-in microphone next to the touchpad, but I'm not sure exactly how much use one would get from it. I guess if you have VoIP, it might come in handy. I just tend to ignore it.
The laptop has no floppy drive and the standard optical drive is a 24X CD-ROM. For reading DVDs, I hooked up an external USB2 combo drive. You'll find the four onboard USB2 ports very useful. It's a major plus that they included four ports instead of the more common two ports you tend to see on laptops. The hard drive is a decent 30GB in size.
As shipped, the system comes with the Linspire 4.5 operating system preinstalled. It is set up to boot into an environment designed to make Windows users feel at ease. Three things turned me off: first, I don't exactly care for the Windows layout. I prefer more of a Mac-style interface. Second, Linspire 4.5 is old, using the outdated 2.4 Linux kernel. Many of the modern Linux amenities are missing, such as support for newer peripheral hardware. Finally, Linspire is preconfigured to run as the root user. This is rather bad for security while not really making anything easier for the user. After playing around with Linspire for a few minutes, I decided it wasn't for me.
The first thing I did was to restart and enter the BIOS setup. I highly recommend turning off the splash display and setting the computer to boot from the CD-ROM first. Given the small amount of memory, you should also set the display to use 16MB of memory, leaving 112MB for the system -- every little bit helps. Change the AGP aperature to 32MB.
At this point, I inserted the Fedora Core 3 rescue CD and booted it. There is a minor issue with the LCD display, so to avoid garbled screens in rescue mode, type this in at the command prompt after you boot the rescue CD:
linux nofb rescue
I then formatted the hard drive and ran fdisk to prepare the partitions I would be using later. I created a 7GB partition for Windows, a 6GB partition for AROS, a 10GB partition for Fedora, a 1GB swap partition for Fedora, and a 4GB partition for SkyOS, another alternative OS I enjoy working with.
Installing the "good stuff" in Linux
Once you've completed the basic installation described in the article, you'll want to install a few drivers and programs to get the most from the CN4949 under Fedora Core 3. These include drivers for hardware accelerated OpenGL and video decoding, and applications to play video and audio media files of all sorts.
You can find precompiled packages with the drivers needed at the Unichrome RPM Packages for Fedora Core 3 web page. You want to download the following packages:
Get the latest version that matches your kernel. What if you went straight from the stock FC3 kernel to the very latest, which happens to be newer than what is on this Web page? Good question -- the stock kernel is 2.6.9-1.667, and the latest when I updated was 2.6.10-1.770, while the latest set of packages on the Web page are for 2.6.10-1.766. Rather than recompile the packages, I installed an older kernel that matches the packages available. You can find all the various kernels for Fedora Core 3 in the updates repository. For example, check the updates repository at FreshRPMS and you'll find 2.6.10-1.766 In order to install an older kernel, you need use a special option. In a shell at superuser level, enter the following to install the above kernel:
rpm -ihv --oldpackage kernel-2.6.10-1.766_FC3.i686.rpm
This will install the kernel and add it to the GRUB boot menu. Restart to activate the kernel. You can then use RPM to install the packages you downloaded above. You will also need to download the text file XvMCConfig. Copy this using the following command (again, at superuser level):
cp XvMCConfig /etc/X11/
It will ask if you wish to overwrite the file that is already there. Answer "yes." At this point, it's time to edit the X.org configuration file to tell the system to use the VIA drivers you just installed. You can edit this file using your favorite text editor while running at superuser level. Nano and Gedit are two easy-to-use text editors available to you. I'll use Gedit for the example:
Scroll down to Section "Device" and change the Driver line from "vesa" back to "via". You are not done yet. If you change only the driver, you will just get a blank display until you change the monitor timing settings. Scroll up to Section "Monitor" and change the HorizSync setting to be 28.0 - 48.5, and the VertRefresh setting to 60.0 - 60.0. This will allow the VIA driver to generate a signal the LCD panel can handle. Now save the file. Restarting X.org (or the computer) should bring up the display using the VIA drivers. If you don't get a display, boot the Fedora Core rescue CD and double-check the settings.
Once you have GNOME back up, open a shell and type
glxinfo to check that you are actually using the new drivers. Running
glxgears from a terminal window should show an increase from about 88 FPS under the VESA drivers to about 630 FPS with the VIA drivers. You will now find that OpenGL games and screen savers run much better.
Now it's time to add a decent repository to the repository list so that you can get some multimedia applications and plug-ins. First, save the following as a file called "freshrpms.repo" to "/etc/yum.repos.d/":
name=Fedora Linux $releasever - $basearch - core
name=Fedora Linux $releasever - $basearch - core
name=Fedora Linux $releasever - $basearch - updates
name=Fedora Linux $releasever - $basearch - freshrpms
name=Fedora Linux $releasever - $basearch - dag
This will add the Dag Wieers and FreshRPMS repositories to the list of repositories the system will use. You then need to inform the system of the GPG keys for the repositories. Enter the following lines:
rpm --import http://freshrpms.net/packages/RPM-GPG-KEY.txt
rpm --import http://dag.wieers.com/packages/RPM-GPG-KEY.dag.txt
You can now add MP3 playing by running
yum install xmms-mp3 from a shell at superuser level. Then run XMMS and disable the MP3 placeholder plug-in in the preferences. If you will be playing AAC or WMA files, you will wish to run
yum install xmms-aac and
yum install xmms-wma as well. You can do all three at the same time by running
yum install xmms-mp3 xmms-aac xmms-wma
For video, you have a choice of Mplayer or Xine. I prefer Xine as it handles DVDs and (S)VCDs better than Mplayer, and has support for hardware-accelerated video decoding, which we just installed. Run
yum install xine to install Xine. Run
yum install xine-skins for extra skins for the xine GUI.
In the Xine preferences, set the video driver to use to
xxmc for hardware acceleration. This sometimes might not work depending on the video format being played, so if you have trouble, set the video driver to use to
xv instead. Sometimes
xv is actually faster than
xxmc. Try it both ways to get an idea of what works best for you.
I put in my Windows XP Pro SP1 CD and restarted the laptop. Windows XP Pro installed perfectly in just under an hour. It ran surprisingly well for how little memory there was. Windows did not install drivers for all the hardware on the laptop, so I had to get video and audio drivers from VIA's web site. The USB was particularly vexing as VIA doesn't make the drivers themselves, but leave it to Microsoft. Until you go to Windows Update and update the system, you only get USB 1.1 functionality from the USB2 ports. Even worse, Service Pack 2 from Microsoft has broken drivers for this system, so the USB won't work at all if you use the drivers from SP2. You need the drivers from SP 1.1a to get properly functioning USB2 from the laptop. I wasn't about to go through all that trouble, so I googled around until I found someone who had posted the drivers on their Web page. I didn't bother with the modem drivers, as I use broadband.
Finally having all the drivers installed, I was able to check things out. As expected, the hardware 3D rendering capabilities were not Earth-shattering. 3DMark 2001SE showed 563 3D Marks in 1024x768 millions of colors mode, 822 3D Marks in 640x480 millions of colors mode, and 895 3D Marks in 640x480 thousands of colors mode. Don't expect to run DOOM3 on this system, even if you boost the memory to 512MB. It's unrealistic to expect that kind of performance from a $500 laptop. However, it can run your older 3D games nicely.
With USB2 operating, I connected an external USB2 combo drive (CDRW with DVD-ROM) to try out multimedia. I installed PowerDVD XP and inserted my Incredibles DVD. All I can say is wow. The display is crisp and vivid. The system is easily capable of playing DVDs, even without hardware acceleration. In fact, the version of PowerDVD I have doesn't work with the Castle Rock hardware acceleration properly. With hardware acceleration turned on, PowerDVD just gave a blank display.
I installed my favorite video player, BSPlayer, along with a slew of codecs. I then tried playing a high-bitrate MPEG4 version of Akira I made some time back for multimedia testing. BSPlayer was set to use yv12 layers and played the video without a problem. As I said earlier, this laptop has plenty of power for multimedia. You will probably only run into trouble trying to play back high-definition video streams.
A better distribution
With Windows XP Pro installed and running well, I then booted the Fedora Core 3 install disc. When installing multiple operating systems on a computer, always install Windows first; that way when Fedora Core sets up its bootloader, it can set it to allow you to choose between Fedora and Windows when you start the laptop. The Windows bootloader is not designed to allow booting for any other OS than Microsoft's. At the first command prompt, type this to begin installation:
linux nofb resolution=1024x768 reiserfs
The "nofb" is to prevent any garbled screens as mentioned earlier; the "resolution=1024x768" is to give you a nice-looking install screen instead of the ugly 640x480 install screen you normally get on LCDs. Finally, "reiserfs" is vital for installing on a laptop. ReiserFS is a transactional filesystem; until a write finishes, it doesn't show up at all. If a write is interrupted for some reason (dead battery or loss of power), it's as if the write never occurred at all. You never wind up with corruption in ReiserFS. I highly recommend that fragile systems like laptops use ReiserFS when it's available. If you don't include that on the command line at the start, you'll only be able to chose between ext2 and ext3 for your filesystem when you set up the Linux partitions. If you wish to use another filesystem, you can use "jfs" or "xfs" instead of "reiserfs" to allow the selection of JFS and XFS respectively when you set up the Linux partition.
At this point, install as usual, being sure to select Disk Druid to manually set up the partitions for the install instead of the automatic partition set up. Once it finishes installing (about an hour and a half for almost 3GB) and it asks you to remove all disks and reboot, press Ctrl-Alt-F2 to switch to a shell. In the shell, type "nano -w /mnt/sysimage/etc/X11/xorg.conf" and change the video driver from "via" to "vesa". This is because the stock X.org VIA driver cannot generate sync rates the LCD can handle, resulting in a blank display. The current X.org version fixes this problem, but you must go with VESA until you update the X.org package.
After saving the change, press Ctrl-Alt-F7 to get back to the installer screen, then click on Reboot. Finish the installation normally after the system reboots. Once you are on the GNOME desktop, immediately update the kernel. The stock kernel which comes with Fedora Core 3 has a tendency to lock up on occasion when accessing the hard drive on systems that use the VIA CLE266 chipset. The updated kernel doesn't have this problem. After updating the kernel, reboot so that you are running on it. You can then update the other software if you so wish. Please be aware that updating everything (about 300 packages) can take all day.
Other than the problem with X.org and the LCD display, all the other hardware works with Fedora. Sound and USB2 function properly without needing extra drivers. If you wish, you can also get proprietary Linux video drivers from VIA. I'd recommend staying with the latest X.org drivers. I normally install Xine as my DVD and video player of choice. I use XMMS for playing audio files. You can get both from the FreshRPMS or Dag Wieers' repositories.
AROS and SkyOS support
I originally got the laptop so that I could experiment with AROS. Fedora Core 3 installs a complete set of developer tools when you select a Developer install or select the developer packages as part of a Custom install. These work fine in compiling AROS. AROS can run in a window in Linux, or natively on the computer. AROS works fine on the laptop, but currently doesn't have a driver for the sound or network, and uses VESA for the video. These are things I planned to work on once I had Linux installed and set up the way I like. I was also able to install and run SkyOS on the laptop. SkyOS has both a sound and network driver for this system, but uses VESA for the graphics.
All in all, this laptop has proved to be a decent value. Even the way it comes, you can still get a lot of useful work out of it. Add an external DVD-ROM and you've got a good multimedia system. For more taxing tasks, you will more than likely need to get more memory. 256MB and 512MB SODIMMs are not very expensive, so I recommend getting one when you can. Installing a new memory chip is not very difficult on this computer.
If you are looking to use the CN4949 on the road, you might also look into getting an 8-cell battery to replace the stock 4-cell battery. You can get them from ECS. Although the machine is called the Balance CN4949, it's really just a rebadged ECS G320. How do I know? When you turn it over to get the serial number to write on the registration card, it says right on the bottom of the laptop "ECS Model GREEN320." Can't get any more definitive than that.
|Manufacturer||Elite Computer Systems (ECS)|
|OS Support||Linspire 4.5 preinstalled. Will work with Windows XP, other recent editions of GNU/Linux, SkyOS|
|Market||Low-cost portable computing, Linux-compatible laptop computing|
|Price (retail)||U.S. $500 as configured|
|Product Web site||Wal-Mart's site, Balance's site, and ECS' site|