Few hardware vendors have not yet launched their own mini laptop (or, “netbook”). Most brands these days produce their own version of the same hardware, with Intel’s i386-compatible Atom cpu’s and Windows XP installed on a spinning hard drive or sometimes still a solid state disk. Some Linux models are still sold by some vendors, among whom Asus, which more or less started selling in this OLPC-inspired genre of laptops.
For the GNU/Linux fans among us, mini laptops have remained an unfulfilled promise. Weren’t we supposed to now be able to buy GNU/Linux preinstalled laptops that would work instantly with free/open source software drivers for every device, and no blobs? Yet, just a year or two down the line, most mini laptops have Windows XP on their drives, and even sometimes need proprietary drivers for some devices to work with a free operating system. ARM systems with perhaps the Android Java/Linux OS have not hit the market yet.
…Promise: Loongson-2 (MIPS)
Enter the first non-i386, Debian GNU/Linux mini laptop – and the first mini laptop that doesn’t target children or the general audience, but users (students, hobbyists, professionals) specifically looking for a Linux system. Not only is the Lemote Yeeloong incompatible with i386, it is part of a larger Chinese effort to produce an independent range of processors, for which no license fees have to be paid to major American, Japanese or other foreign cpu designers such as Intel. In other words, this is more than just a consumer device – it’s part of something bigger.
The Lemote Yeeloong mini laptop is just one of a range of Lemote computers equipped with the energy-efficient Loongson2 cpu. A MIPS-compatible cpu (MIPS following RISC principles, if I understood it correctly, like ARM, PowerPC, SPARC do, among others) clocked at 797 MHz; which can be clocked down by the operating system to 199, 298, 398, 498, and 597 MHz.
Assembled by Quanta, one of the major laptop manufacturers, the Yeeloong’s looks and build are not revolutionarily unlike many other mini laptops. Although I don’t own any other mini laptops of the “netbook” genre, I’ve tried out several in stores to find out how they compare. Since I’m a Thinkpad user, the keyboard is on my priority list – the keyboard of the Yeeloong is quite decent, with a good layout. It hardly has any flex and the keys have a nice feedback. Having used this laptop for typing text extensively now (I translate and edit text in Gedit most of the day) I can say its keyboard is a pleasure to use. It has full-size navigation keys, PgUp and PgDn, and Home and End with a Fn combination. I had to get used a bit to the size of the right Shift key, which is the trade-off for the full-size navigation keys. All in all, might be the best keyboard available on any 8.9″ mini laptop (but I’ve not touched the Dell’s 9″ model keyboard).
Weighing just over a kilogram, the build quality is good for this type of laptop and the designers have refrained from any unnecessary fluff. Except for a nice and shiny lid which might get your fingerprints all over it. Since I happen to like the way Thinkpads look, many people think I am unqualified to judge in matters of taste so I’ll leave it at that for the design part.
What I do care to mention is that (except for the shiny lid) the laptop case, including the palm rests and the touchpad, is made of the right type of decent, non-shiny plastic. The case doesn’t look or feel cheap, really the opposite. The lid closes nice and firmly without a hinge; it can be opened up until about 135 degrees. The speakers are to the front, facing the user. What can we say about a mini laptop’s set of speakers.. They can produce quite a bit of noise, for what it’s worth – and in stereo at that. Nothing wrong with those speakers.
As for ports, it has 3 USB ports, VGA, an SD-card reader (I couldn’t try if other formats, which I don’t have, fit in), mic in and earphones out; and it has its own microphone below the south-eastern corner of the keyboard. Oh, and it has a webcam, which sadly I didn’t get to work yet after having upgraded to stock Debian (with Gnome’s Cheese program at least), so it seems I may have botched that one by disabling Lemote’s own repositories. The gNewSense website does list it as working with some programs, so I’ll be figuring it out.
The touchpad is not so big, and reminds one of some of the Acer models. I happen not to like touchpads that much in general, and a trackpoint would be high on my list for a mini laptop but I guess you can’t have it all. The good news is that combining the Fn-key with F6 disables the touchpad, which I do most of the time when editing text (navigating with the keyboard whenever possible), or when I plug in a mouse. Some other mini laptops have this shortcut too.
The screen has enough of a rim around it for a slightly larger (10″) screen to fit in. But like many other models this size it does have the same (1024×600) resolution as those slightly larger screens, so the same amount of “screen real estate” fits on it.
Now let’s move on to where this little machine is different. Its hardware allows for everything to work with 100% free software drivers. This includes the “BIOS” which is a free startup system from the BSD world (and BSD-licensed), called “PMON2000”, with a very pleasant command-line based interface, which I’m sure will be appreciated by any Unix administrator.
What’s underneath the keyboard? To begin with, cpuinfo tells us the cpu model is a “ICT Loongson-2 V0.3 FPU V0.1″. ICT, short for Institute of Computing Technology is the Chinese research institute where the chip was designed. It falls under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which also produced what is now the Lenovo brand. The Loongson-2 may not be on many shelves of Western stores, but they might well be widely used in China by several governmental and state organisations, including the army. Looking for technological independence, the Chinese government wants to be free from the mighty arm of powerful American corporations like Intel.
AMD is, it seems, less of a problem: it provides (with NEC) USB controllers for the Yeeloong, as well as the audio controller, the IDE interface and the ISA bridge. Linux lists all those as “Geode companion” (the Geode, of course, was AMD’s acquired low-power cpu for the OLPC project’s XO laptops). I assume that this should contribute to the Yeeloong’s low energy consumption. The wireless network adapter (USB-connected, internally) is by Realtek (RTL8187B, 802.11g, 54Mbps). Realtek also made the ethernet controller (RTL-8139/8139C/8139C+). A video chip was provided by Silicon Motion (SM712 LynxEM+).
Distribution support – Debian
OK, you put all that in a neat little package and what do you get? A system that will run, for now, a limited number of GNU/Linux distributions or BSD operating systems. Don’t expect to just install and run Windows (although there’s a Windows CE MIPS port) or Ubuntu (but see below) on the Yeeloong. The good news is that the MIPS architecture used by the Loongson-2 has been supported by Debian since its 3.0 release. The port used for the Loongon-2 is “debian-mipsel”, the -el ending referring to “little endian”. Such MIPS chips were also used in Digital DECstations. The cpu and the operating system are 64 bit.
Free-as-in-speech software, no blobs
It makes sense to install Debian on the Yeeloong, because its mipsel-port is the most mature, but other candidates to be thought of in the future might be Mandriva which was ported for the Gdium OLPH (“One Laptop Per Hacker”) project. And lest we forget, the Free Software Foundation’s Ubuntu-based, purely free software, blob-free gNewSense GNU/Linux operating system is also being ported to this architecture, which must have something to do with the fact that Richard Stallman himself uses the Yeeloong laptop. So in a way some flavour of “Ubuntu” will be running on the machine soon. For this review, I took the liberty of asking Mr Stallman to comment on the machine, and he replied that he uses it for its ability to run with free software only, which (I suspect he meant) includes the BSD-licensed startup system. The GNU initiator also mentions on his website that he stopped using the OLPC “XO” laptop (which also has a “free BIOS”), after the machine was turned into a platform for running Windows.
For those who prefer a BSD: FreeBSD lists its FreeBSD/MIPS port as “in the early stages of development”; OpenBSD “currently runs on the 64 bit MIPS-based SGI O2 workstations,” which I suppose is a somewhat different architecture, and obviously NetBSD is the most likely BSD to run on a relatively exotic architecture of this kind.
Turn it on
When I first booted the machine it took extremely long to boot – at least three and a half minutes. The boot splash screen doesn’t give any information by default, so I next booted the machine from the startup system command line with “gui” (I really like to have a shortcut to be able to see boot messages, but couldn’t find one). It then turned out that the system is taking its time for “dhcpdiscover” attempts for wlan0. I managed to get rid of this behaviour by commenting the lines iface wlan0 inet dhcp and auto wlan0 in the file /etc/network/interfaces, reducing the startup time to about a minute, which is neat. NetworkManager now takes care of the wireless network nicely.
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.
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 800×600 resolution, the resolution the video chip will churn out can’t get higher than the native screen’s 1024×600.
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.
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. 🙂
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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