Revisiting Linux With elementaryOS, Acer Aspire V5

With the old Macbook getting on in age (it is an early 2008 model MacBook4,1) the move to find a replacement for it was always on the cards. The machine had served me well, travelling with me to different parts of India, including high-altitude passes in Himalayas. Of late, even after a complete reinstall, the machine has been showing its age and with persistent heating problems and lock-ups, the writing was quite clearly on the wall. I could get it repaired, which I eventually will, but the board only supports DDR2 and the memory is maxed out as it is at 4GB. The only other option is to upgrade to a SSD, fix the problems and hope for the best after that.

The primary candidate for the replacement was to go for the 13″ Macbook Air. After the millionth (failed) attempt to find a reasonably priced Linux laptop solution that just stayed out of the way, I was pretty sure that I’d have to stick to OS X and Apple, and have no choice but to gulp down the high premium that Apple charges for the fire-and-forget experience it is more than justifiably famous for. In the midst of all of this, I ran into this interesting so-called Linux laptop from Acer. It is called the Aspire V5-431 and I found a pretty decent price at Flipkart for it.

At this point, I must digress a bit about the non-Apple laptops. Dear god, some of them,  especially the Lenovo ultrabooks, are such a ‘slavish’ ripoff of the Apple laptop line up. I can imagine smartphones looking much like each other these days. There are not too many different ways in which you can design a phone, but that’s not the case with laptops and it is really shameful the extent to which the copying happens here. I guess none of these copies are much of  a threat to Apple in the market, so it is probably not worth suing the manufacturers for it, but it still is not a great thing to see. The V5-431 also suffers from a bit of this ‘inspiration’ problem, but it is hard to mistake it for an Apple unit.

The laptop comes pre-installed with Linpus Linux, which is instantly discarded by most users. But having a Linux laptop meant that I could have some degree of certainty that most of the bits and pieces would work well should I run some other Linux distro on it. It has been a while since I have used a Linux desktop as my main platform and it seems that while the underlying platform has changed a lot (and for the better), the user experience is still ghastly and inconsistent, featuring interfaces and UX that can only be created and loved by engineers.

That was when I came upon this project called elementaryOS. It is based on Ubuntu (current version is built on Precise: 12.04.2), but has an awful lot of work that has gone into making the front end user experience clean, consistent and fast. It is hard to miss the very obvious OS X inspiration in a lot of the visual elements, but once you start use it a bit more, the differences start to show up and it does that in a nice way. Linux on the desktop/laptop has been begging for something like this for years and I am really thrilled to see someone finally do it right. If you care to take apart the bits on top, you’ll find a familiar Ubuntu installation underneath, but, you really should not bother doing that.

I have gone through some three re-installs for the OS so far due to various reasons. One thing you need to watch out for, while sorting out eOS on the V5-431 is to stick to the 32-bit OS as things get quite a bit crazy should you attempt mixing 686 and X86_64 platforms while using virtualization. The eOS 32-bit kernel is PAE-enabled, so you can use more than 4GB RAM on the machine, but I would highly recommend sticking to 32-bit on everything (OS, Vritualbox, any guest OS) and you’ll not have a reason to complain. I discovered all of this the hard way as my primary requirement is to have a working Vagrant installation on the laptop and eventually had to go through redoing the base box in 32-bit (the original from the Macbook was 64-bit Centos 6.4) in the end.

The experience has been pleasant so far with the laptop. I have ordered more memory (8GB, to be precise) and even at 2GB the machine feels a lot faster and stabler than the ailing Macbook. I will hold off on getting a SSD at least for now as I feel the machine is quick enough for me at the moment and the extra memory will only make things much better. After many attempts at customizing the interface what I have realized is that it is best left alone. The developers have done a great job of selecting the defaults and 9/10 times the modifications you’ll make are not going to make it any better. The only thing you’ll need is to install the non-free TTF fonts, enable them in your browser’s font selection and get on with the rest of it.

Other than that, the main issue is of color calibration of the monitor. The default install has a blue-ish tint with the monitor and the blacks don’t render true on it, which was infuriating when you get that on a glossy screen. I finally fixed the problem by calibrating the display on a Windows installation and pulling out the ICC profile from it. I’ll share the link to the profile at the end of this post and if you have the same machine and are running Linux on it, use it. It makes a world of a difference. You will have to install Gnome Color Manager to view the profiles.

After all of that, the machine seems quite a good deal for me. It does not heat up too much, is extremely quiet and weighs a bit over 2-kilos. The 14″ screen is real estate I appreciate a lot, coming from the 13″ Macbook. The external display options are standard VGA and HDMI. My primary 22″ monitor has only DVI-D and DVI-Sub inputs, so I’m waiting for the delivery of a convertor cable to hook it up to that one. The battery is a not the best, though. Acer has cut some corners on that, but you can’t have everything at such a low price. Even with the memory upgrade, the machine will still cost me less than 1/3rd of what a new Macbook Air (the base model, that is) will do right now. I’m getting around 2.5 hours on real hard core usage, which is not bad at all.

The stack is otherwise quite stable. It reads something like below:

  • Google Chrome
  • LibreOffice
  • Virtualbox
  • Vagrant
  • Sublime Text 2
  • Skype
  • Dropbox
  • VLC
  • Darktable

I’m not exactly a power user and 90% of my work is done in a text editor, web browser and VLC, but the combination of eOS and the Aspire V5-431 is something that I can easily suggest to a lot of people looking to break away from regular Linux/Windows/OS X and that too at a good price. There is a new version of the laptop that is out with the next generation of the chip, but I have not seen any great benefits that you’ll get from that upgrade which will cost a bit more. You can spend that money on getting more RAM instead.

eOS is also a nice surprise and it is a pretty young project. With time it will only get better and eventually become quite distinct from an OS that looks similar to OS X.