posted by h3rman on Thu 21st May 2009 11:01 UTC

"Lemote Yeeloong Loongson-2/MIPS Netbook", 2/2

Smooth upgrade

Except for the wallpaper, I was welcomed with a stock Debian Gnome environment autologin to the user "loongson", which had access to root privileges with the sudo command. Apart from Gnome, the system was also stuffed with KDE applications, giving the user lots of choice what to run. I could instantly run a system update of hundreds of megabytes, indicating that the image that was planted on the disk hadn't been refreshed for a while. No bandwidth problems here, but I did realise that the packages were dragged to Rotterdam all the way from China after looking at /etc/apt/sources.list:

  • deb http://dev.lemote.com/debian-loongson/ loongson main
  • deb http://dev.lemote.com/debian/ testing main
All it took to upgrade to the stable Lenny release was to comment the former two and add a few lines, for instance
  • deb http://ftp.nl.debian.org/debian/ lenny main contrib
  • deb http://security.debian.org/ lenny/updates main contrib
(and its sources) and run aptitude update && aptitude full-upgrade. All this was a smooth experience on this MIPS system. The Lenny stable release has a much improved NetworkManager, which is nice for a (mini) laptop, and a responsive Gnome 2.22.3 environment.

The hard drive has been sliced up in one 55 GB partition for the entire / system and one 92 GB which is to be mounted manually. I guess we all opt for our own partitioning scheme, and I would have at least separated /home from the rest of the system, so I think it's a clever choice by Lemote to slice it up at least once. (It comes with a 1 GB swap partition, equal to RAM.) One thing that surprised me was that the default system setup allowed for any user to sudo its way into root privileges, which seems to be a bit.. luxurious if you target users with at least some prior experience with a *n*x system. One might want to fix that in the /etc/sudoers file.


MIPS port goodness, and why proprietary sucks

The Debian mipsel-port comes with repositories stuffed with mipsel-precompiled software, as long as it's free software and thus compilable by the packagers. This is one of those moments where you really start to appreciate the work done by the Debian developers and packagers who make all this work, and make it work that well. It's also where the show-stopper for some of us comes up: there's no Adobe Flash, Skype or other proprietary stuff available for this architecture. This is probably a problem for those of us who can't live without watching the Flash streams offered by several popular websites. There's Gnash and Swfdec but they won't play just every Flash video, let alone flawlessly (often forcing you to kill the browser), even though the cpu is capable of doing so. A reminder of the severe limitations of proprietary software.


Stability

To be quite frank, the only non-i386/x86-64 system I've ever used extensively running Linux is an Apple iBook G4 with the PowerPC architecture. This wasn't much of a success with Linux; some hardware poorly supported, and poor overall stability including unpredictable system freezes - the price to pay for buying the products of secretive hardware vendors.

The contrast with the Yeeloong couldn't be bigger: it's a solid and responsive GNU/Linux system, even if it's not a powerhouse. The first impression its performance makes is that especially in the graphics chip department, although it works well, this is not much of a beast. Yet the keyboard controls for adjusting the screen brightness work flawlessly, better than on my 2008-model all-Intel Thinkpad (running the same Debian). It can be set to rather dim, as well as to very bright, with plenty steps in between. The screen's viewing angle is excellent (from a certain brightness), and thankfully the glossy-type screen hasn't made its way to mini laptops this size yet. There's a VGA port which is interesting mostly for use with a lower-end digital projector. Whereas many such projectors will work with an 800x600 resolution, the resolution the video chip will churn out can't get higher than the native screen's 1024x600.


Fan sound, heat

The Yeeloong's fan isn't so silent (if the room you're in is silent), especially when running on AC power, which I fear is hard to avoid if you have to make the fan tiny enough to fit in the case. The smaller the fan, the better it's heard. Fortunately the Yeeloong's fan sound isn't of the annoying variety at all. I haven't had a chance to compare it with other mini laptops.

The laptop doesn't get hot, although closing the lid when the computer is running does heat it up a bit, without reaching any excessive temperatures. The tiny three cell battery provides about an hour and a half battery life. The system does have a spinning hard drive, which is less energy efficient than the SSDs that used to be the promise of the "netbook" market.


Performance

I'm not sure what the value of benchmarks on such a system as this would be, but let's say that compiling OpenOffice.org on a 797 MHz Loongson-2 isn't going to be much fun. If readers suggest any benchmarks I might run (and how, since I've never done it) I'd gladly do so and put them on my blog. This 1 GB RAM system easily allows for a couple of PDFs to be open in Evince and KDE's Okular, as well as a browser with a number of tabs, mplayer streaming music, a graphical text editor, LyX and OpenOffice.org without losing much of its initial responsiveness. For better performance, I like using just the OpenBox window manager, and a somewhat less processor-intensive browser than Iceweasel/Firefox, which I found in Gnome's Epiphany (also Debian's default, even though frankly it is less stable than Iceweasel). The wireless chip (as stated above, a Realtek RTL8187B 802.11g 54Mbps) obviously isn't the most powerful on the market either, but it works well. The overall system feels stable and responsive for a mini laptop. It may not be the fastest, but it never feels flaky.

Not unimportant for a review, how to get the Lemote Yeeloong? The Dutch Tekmote website sells them for under EUR 400 including shipping and VAT, and they seem to ship worldwide, in which case I guess no VAT is paid, so you can get one at about 368 euros - and in white too. :-)


For enthusiasts

Considering the fact that the development of the Loongson MIPS cpu continues unabated, and the amounts of cash the Chinese government is able to invest in this architecture, the future looks very bright for this cpu. So it's not just an exotic architecture, it's an exotic architecture with a future. That alone makes this machine an interesting option for free software enthusiasts looking for a mini laptop. Personally, I'm very happy with the Yeeloong, it's a nice, blob-free machine, a pleasure to type on, and it feels stable and reliable.


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Table of contents
  1. "Lemote Yeeloong Loongson-2/MIPS Netbook", 1/2
  2. "Lemote Yeeloong Loongson-2/MIPS Netbook", 2/2
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