Netbook Nightmare: My Experience With the Sylvania g Netbook
Back in December I joined the netbook revolution with the purchase of a Sylvania g Netbook, the original model introduced in July of last year. The preinstalled implementation of Linux was incredibly poor but once I reloaded the system and added the necessary drivers I found that I enjoyed the little system at first. Then a hardware problem developed: the system would intermittently lock up for no apparent reason. I eventually restored everything to factory default and it still happened so I exchanged the netbook. The replacement proved to be faulty straight out of the box with wireless completely non-functional. A second exchange proved impossible; according to the dealer the model had been discontinued. I still see the original Sylvania g Netbook offered for sale at what seems like a very attractive price so I thought it best to share my experiences before someone spends their hard earned money on one.
Before launching into a detailed review of the g Netbook I should point out that I have replaced it with a Sylvania g Netbook Meso, a newer and more powerful model that has been flawless so far. The newer system demonstrates that Digital Gadgets, the folks that license the Sylvania name for their netbooks, can do a Linux netbook that just plain works.
I was attracted to the original Sylvania g Netbook (not the Meso) for two reasons. First , it is one of the smallest and lightest netbooks on the market. It weighs in at just 1.9 lbs. (0.86 kgs.) Second, I couldn't find another netbook that offered anywhere near the features of this unit at a comparable price. As I write this the g Netbook can be purchased for around US$239-$249.
I was more than willing to work with a 7" screen. My venerable (OK, ancient) Toshiba Libretto SS-1010 has a 7" screen and only supports 640x480 resolution. A 7" widescreen display with 800x480 resolution didn't seem like a problem to me. You do get used to moving a window that is longer than the screen with ALT+mouse drag quite a bit at that resolution but that was a small price to pay for the extra lightweight design. The display is bright and sharp and wasn't at all fatiguing to work with for an extended time.
The keyboard is significantly larger than the one on my old Libretto and is large enough to type on properly. I have small hands and fingers so that may not be true for everyone but I found the keyboard perfectly comfortable and reasonable for such a small notebook. The mouse was another matter. At 0.6" it has to be the smallest touchpad I have ever seen. While I could adjust the sensitivity to get a reasonable rate of motion across the screen and still have good control I still found myself using an external USB mouse most of the time.
Battery life was generally excellent. I did everything from compiling software to watching videos and I was able to average around 3½ hours per charge.
Sound from the internal speakers was typical of netbooks: thin and tinny sounding. Connecting external amplified speakers to the headphone/speaker jack provided very decent sound quality.
Under the hood the Sylvania g Netbook sports a 1.2GHz Via C7-M ULV processor, 1 GB RAM, and a conventional 30GB hard drive. Once I had the proper drivers to support CPU scaling in place I found the performance to be surprisingly good.
Aside from the minor quibble with the touchpad I would have rated the hardware in this unit highly if it hadn't failed on me on two consecutive systems. I understand that two units is hardly a scientific sample and that I may just have had really bad luck. Unfortunately the software proved to be a disaster as well.
Anyone familiar with the Everex Cloudbook sold by Wal Mart starting in late 2007 will notice an immediate similarity between that system and the g Netbook. The physical layout has been rearranged and improved and memory has been increased from 512MB RAM to 1GB RAM in the g Netbook but otherwise this is essentially the same platform. The Cloubook received terrible reviews largely because the gOS implementation lacked drivers to adequately support the hardware. Sadly that hasn't changed. The drivers do exist but for reasons known only to gOS or Sylvania they simply aren't included.
By default the system boots with the 1.2GHz processor underclocked to 600MHz. This results in decidedly slow performance. For example watching streaming video from a site like YouTube is choppy. The Via C7-M ULV processor supports frequency scaling under Linux running a 2.6.25 or newer kernel. gOS 2.92 or 3.0 comes with a 2.6.24 kernel. A backport (patch) to the provided kernel can allow CPU frequency scaling to work properly. The backport code has been around longer than the g Netbook has been on the market but it was left out of both the OS as shipped and the updated 3.0 version available on the Sylvania Computers website.
Once the patch was applied and necessary software was installed the performance of the system was quite good. gOS didn't include a compiler by default and both terminal emulators and Synaptic were hidden away. Unless someone knows Linux in general and Ubuntu specifically rather well solving this problem would be daunting to say the least.
In addition the provided Via UniChrome video driver does not support 3D graphic acceleration. Updated drives are available on the Via Linux Portal website which correct this problem. The latest OpenChrome drivers also can provide 3D acceleration.
WiFi also was somewhat problematic. The Realtek 8187 wireless chipset does work with the provided native Linux driver but the signal strength is unexpectedly low and range from the router is poor. This has been widely reported online and the problem is not unique to gOS. It turns out that the driver itself is poor. This is solved on the Sylvania g Netbook by upgrading to gOS 3.0, which uses ndiswrapper and the Windows driver.
Upgrading from a beta OS to the final release seems to make good sense in any case but even that step proved somewhat problematic. Neither Sylvania nor gOS provide for an in place upgrade. Sylvania does provide an iso image with the OEM version of gOS 3.0. If you have a USB CD burner you can download and burn the CD and then do a conventional installation. How many new netbook owners will own an external CD burner? Once installed the upgraded gOS version still fails to address the CPU scaling or graphics driver issues.
In general I found that the OEM version of gOS to be a less than adequate Linux distribution. Once I created a desktop shortcut for gnome-terminal I was able to edit the .desktop files in /usr/share/applications and restore most of the disabled functionality. Once I had done that it became obvious pretty quickly why the folks at gOS or Sylvania might want to disable the ability to install additional software or upgrade the system.
As shipped gOS 2.92 or 3.0 include a number of outdated applications with known security vulnerabilities. My normal modus operandi when installing a new version of a Linux is to check for upgrades provided by the distributor to close any potential holes in security. gOS has its own repository but it is not included in the configuration of apt-get or Synaptic. Once I enabled the gOS repository I found that there were few if any meaningful upgrades available. Newer versions of applications like Firefox or Thunderbird simply weren't there. The Ubuntu 8.04 LTS (Hardy Heron) repositories are enabled by default and, as expected, they offered a large number of upgrades. I did what I'd do on an Ubuntu system: installed them all. That proved to be a huge mistake. I was left with a broken system that would boot only to single user mode. There simply is no automated way to secure the OEM version of gOS offered by Sylvania.
I could probably have repaired the broken gOS installation with sufficient time and effort but at this point I decided to follow the advice of a number of g Netbook users online and install a more conventional, full featured Linux distribution.
I first tried Ubuntu 8.10 (Intrepid Ibex) and that proved to be a huge improvement over gOS. CPU scaling worked out of the box. Once I downloaded the updated driver from Via so did 3D graphics acceleration. Even compiz-fusion worked well. There is one documented bug which results in no sound from the headphone/speaker jack. The fix requires patching ALSA as described in the Ubuntu forum. (The Alio Li 1705 uses the same audio chipset as the Sylvania g Netbook.) The end result, after tweaking and patching, is that I finally had Ubuntu fully working and supporting the hardware in the netbook.
I also tried Vector Linux Standard 6.0 rc2. That earlier release candidate did not correctly detect my video chip set and gave me a rather ugly 640x480 display using a default VESA video driver. Editing the /etc/X11/xorg.conf file to resemble the one produced by Ubuntu or provided by gOS but using the OpenChrome driver provided with Vector Linux mostly solved the problem. I had my nice, sharp 800x480 graphics back and 3D acceleration worked fine but I had some weirdness with video refreshes. A newer version of the OpenChrome driver by Tungsten Graphics is available which should resolve the issue. Vector Linux has an updated, patched alsa-driver package so the sound issue present in Ubuntu 8.10 isn't a problem with Vector Linux 6.0. CPU frequency scaling also worked out of the box with Vector Linux.
By this point I had a fully working system in terms of software but the hardware problem I mentioned (intemittent lockups) had reared its ugly head. I restored the factory default configuration of gOS to confirm that the problem was indeed hardware.
Having suffered through two hardware failures, one after only 10 days of use and the second out of the box, I am more than a little bit skeptical about this particular hardware platform. If I assume that I had just plain old bad luck and that the Sylvania g Netbook does have reliable hardware for most people then there really isn't much to complain about The only real negative I found was the incredibly tiny touchpad.
My experience with the gOS Linux implementation was truly nightmarish. As provided by Sylvania the OS doesn't include correct drivers for the hardware leaving the system effectively crippled. For a new user who isn't quite Linux savvy this probably can't be fixed. The OS is also configured to make installation of additional software or patching the existing OS difficult at best. A knowledgeable Linux user will find it best to wipe the hard drive and start over, doing a new installation from external media. I can't imagine that very many people would be satisfied with the g Netbook as shipped.
My experience with Ubuntu proved that it is indeed possible for Sylvania to provide a first class out of box experience on the g Netbook. Unfortunately they did anything but. This is precisely the sort of half-baked implementation that unfairly tarnishes Linux as difficult to use.
Bottom line: I really can't recommend the Sylvania g Netbook at all. If you load a different Linux distribution and add the needed patches and drivers you might get an acceptable result. Most people would do better to spend $299 and get the g Netbook Meso preloaded with Ubuntu Netbook Remix instead. That's what I did in the end.
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