Quest for the Ultimate Jolicloud Computer
For the past four months I’ve been using a eMachine eM250 10″ netbook running Joli OS as my primary computer. During that time I came to love my Jolicloud experience, but there was always this feeling that I wanted something just a little bigger and faster. Isn’t that always the problem with computers: you always want something better? Joli OS may work great on old & new hardware, but I knew that if I was going to continue using the OS for the long-term I would need to replace my netbook. And thus my quest to find the Ultimate Jolicloud Computer began!
When I started thinking about upgrading the netbook I came up with a few things I liked & disliked about my system. Funny enough there were more things I liked than disliked. So my requirements for a new system were not going to be that extravagant.
Let’s first look at what I liked about the netbook:
- Complete hardware compatibility with Joli OS: Being an Intel Atom-powered netbook, Joli OS worked flawlessly. I never once had an issue getting it to work with Joli OS.
- Thin & lightweight: Besides compatibility, this was by far the biggest feature I liked about my netbook. Easy to tote around & doesn’t take up much space.
- Small screen: This is more of a consequence of being thin & lightweight.
- Large 250gb hard drive: Just because you have a small computer doesn’t mean you have to skimp on space.
- Built-in card reader: I love being able to access my photos from my camera’s memory card without having to plug in an adapter.
- Low cost: We paid $230 for the netbook brand new in December 2009.
Here’s what I didn’t like:
- Slow single-core CPU: For most general web sites the single-core CPU was plenty, but as I started using Flash heavy sites like YouTube or sites with embedded video I quickly found that it was barely up to the task. The slow speed was most notable with non-YouTube videos, but that might have been more of a result of Adobe‘s less than great Flash plug-in for Linux. Good thing is updates are getting better.
- Small screen: A 10″ screen is probably the absolute smallest size I would ever want on a portable computer. It worked great for the majority of the sites & apps I used. However, I kept longing for more screen real estate for Gimp, TweetDeck & some sites like Gizmodo, io9 & Kotaku.
- 1gb RAM: I kept feeling that if I had just a little more RAM the OS wouldn’t need to do so much disk swapping. You notice this more so with multiple browser windows running Flash than anything else.
- No internal DVD drive: Sometimes it’s nice to be able to watch DVD movies without having to attach an external drive.
With those pros & cons I was able to put together a list of things I wanted in the Ultimate Jolicloud Computer. You’ll probably notice right away that I won’t necessarily need a new or fast computer to meet most of these requirements.
- Low-cost: My budget target was initially around $350-$400.
- Netbook or Ultra-portable form factor: I wanted to keep the weight & size low. Normal size laptops were never considered.
- Upgrade to a dual-core CPU: A dual-core CPU will most likely solve a lot of my speed problems.
- Upgrade to a 11.6″ or 12.1″ screen: Anything bigger than 12″ will most likely result in too big of a computer.
- Upgrade to 2gb RAM: Anything more than 2gb wouldn’t be used & would make it too expensive.
- Add an internal DVD drive: Not totally necessary, but it was something I was considering if it fit my budget.
With those requirements I began searching locally & online. I first checked with my local Walmart & Best Buy. Unfortunately neither had anything that would fit my price range and had a 11″ or 12″ screen. Plus, they wouldn’t allow me to boot Joli OS from a USB drive to test compatibility. I next started combing Amazon & eBay for systems that fit my requirements. After a couple of weeks I eventually came up with the following list of computers:
- Asus Eee PC Seashell 1201 & 1215 series
- Acer Aspire One AO721 & AO751 series
- Gateway LT3119u
- Toshiba Portege R500
After reading reviews, comparing CPU & GPU benchmarks and going through the Jolicloud & GetSatisfaction support sites I whittled my list down to just two: the Asus Eee PC 1215P and the Toshiba Portege R500. I had considered going with the AMD-based Gateway since it had the majority of the features I wanted & a price I could afford. But I ultimately decided to consider just Intel CPU-based systems since Jolicloud initially focused on supporting those. Compatibility with AMD-based CPUs was unknown & I wanted something that worked with the least amount of problems. With that said, the Asus 1215P would have been great as it uses the same Atom N550 CPU that the Vye Jolibook uses. Unfortunately I had to drop my budget at the last minute to around $325. So at $370 it was barely out of my price range. This left the Toshiba Portege R500 as my last viable system.
Turns out that the Toshiba Portege R500 is a great ultra-portable laptop. It originally shipped in 2008 and was meant to compete with the Apple MacBook Air. I began searching eBay for used or refurbished models and quickly found a few models that fell within my new price range.
Here are the tech specs for the Toshiba Portege R500-S5006V I finally settled on:
- Intel Core 2 Duo U7700 1.33GHz CPU with Intel Mobile 945GMS Express chipset
- Intel Graphics Media Accelerator(GMA) 950 GPU
- 12.1″ LCD with 1280×800 resolution
- 2gb DDR2 PC2-5300 RAM
- 160gb hard drive
- integrated DVD burner
- SD card slot
- Wireless 802.11a/g/n adapter & Bluetooth support
- ports: 3 USB, Firewire, 10/100/1000 Ethernet, VGA, PCMCIA, headphone & microphone
- fingerprint reader
- 6-cell 5800mAh Li-ion battery pack
- 2.4 lbs!
I bought a refurbished model from ATR Computers that had a few cosmetic issues on the lid for $298 with free shipping. With the extra money left over I was able to purchase a laptop bag. Anyway, ATR had different versions of the same model ranging from $229-$359 depending on condition & memory. ATR offers a 30-day warranty on all their items, but also offered a factory warranty from Toshiba until June 28. I ordered it on a Monday & received it on Friday. It came pre-installed with Windows Vista Business edition. As soon as I received the unit I began updating it with the latest updates. I wanted to know how much hard drive space I had left before I installed the dual boot version of Joli OS. After that was done I was left with 104gb of the 160gb available. The Joli OS Express Install automatically suggested a 52gb partition. After about 15 minutes I was up & running on Joli OS. Everything worked the first time. I had no problems with hardware compatibility except for the unsupported fingerprint reader. Wireless networking connected automatically and after a few minutes of syncing my apps & updating to the latest system components I was back to Joliclouding! On a side note: the OS, all my apps & my local synced Dropbox folder only took about 8gb of the 52gb partition. Let’s see Windows 7 do that! 🙂
So what are my impressions after 2 weeks of use? I absolutely love it! It was well worth the upgrade. It’s super thin & lightweight for the size. I can’t believe they were able to fit a DVD drive in it. Battery life is about the same as my netbook, averaging about 3 hours & 20 minutes per charge. The 12.1″ LCD is also the perfect size. I can’t conceive of ever wanting anything bigger. One note about the screen is that it is a transreflective LCD with LED backlighting. It has a button that turns off the backlight so you can reduce battery consumption. This also makes it so that you can read it outside because it will use sunlight to illuminate the screen instead. I haven’t had much of a chance to use it outside yet, but I already noticed that this tech causes it to have a narrow viewing angle. I find myself adjusting the screen tilt more than usual. It’s one of the few complaints I have about the laptop. Another complaint I have is with the really small speaker. There’s only one and it’s located in the upper left corner next to the power button. It’s doable for normal use, but I find myself turning the manual volume knob up to the max. In a few cases I even have to connect headphones since background noise can drown it out. The LCD’s narrow viewing angle & the small speaker are the only two complaints I have so far. Neither of which are deal breakers.
So what about the speed? All the benchmarks I found showed its CPU should be at least twice as fast as my netbook’s Atom N270 CPU. The benchmarks even show it being faster than the dual-core Atom N550 CPU used in the Asus 1215P. Not sure if it’s that fast in real world conditions, but there’s definitely a noticeable increase in speed over the netbook. The desktop launcher is zippier, apps start quicker & Flash animation & videos don’t chug along anymore. The dual-core processor definitely helped and I’m more than happy with its performance.
I had also thought the 2gb RAM was helping with the speed, but after about a week of use I finally discovered I was missing a 1gb SO-DIMM module. I quickly contacted the seller & he apologized for the omission & rushed out the missing module. This was one of the biggest reasons behind the delay in my review. Anyway, I just received the module Friday and after installing it I’m noticing that it helps the most in allowing more apps to run at the same time. While writing this review I had about 7 apps running(3 local & 4 web apps, 1 being a YouTube video running at 720p) & it hovered around 950mb of RAM use). Definitely glad I got the extra 1gb of RAM. Thanks ATR for quickly resolving the issue. I was really hoping I wouldn’t have to send the unit back. Even with that snafu, I would still recommend buying from their eBay store.
All in all, I’m really happy with my choice. Is it the Ultimate Jolicloud Computer? Probably not, but for right now it is mine. The Portege R500 supports every feature I was looking for & was in my budget. I would also recommend it to other Jolicloud users, but it won’t satisfy everybody. Some may prefer bigger or better screens. Some may even want a faster CPU or longer battery life. I think the biggest problem facing most users is the hurdles they face in trying to find a system that fits their needs & is compatible with the OS. If there is one thing that can be learned from my experience it’s that you should be looking at Intel-based systems primarily. That’s where Jolicloud put all their initial focus & so should you. That’s not to say AMD systems will not work. I have a HP Pavilion desktop that has a AMD Athlon 64 X2 CPU and Joli OS works fine, but other than that I haven’t seen a lot of people post their experiences with AMD-based systems. I also learned that(if you can afford it) dual-core CPUs are definitely worth upgrading to. If I was wanting a fast Joli OS system I don’t think I would go with anything slower than a dual-core Atom CPU.
One last thing I learned is that not everybody is going to go through all the research I did to make sure everything would work. I think Jolicloud could do a better job of helping users find compatible systems. They need some kind of app that will query your system & tell you if it’s compatible or not. Maybe they can build it into the installer or put it on their web site? It would also be nice to have a searchable database list of CPU & GPU chipset combinations that are known to work & those that might have issues. Right now they have a list of compatible devices, but that list is hard to get to with the latest site revamp. Plus, it doesn’t help much if the model you’re looking at isn’t in the list. You would need to know the CPU & GPU of the model you were considering & then cross-reference it against those already in the list. That’s way too much work for the average user. Most likely they’re going to install it to see if it works & when it doesn’t they’re going to complain about it. I see quite a bit of that on Twitter & that’s something that could be diminished with some kind of database system.
Until Jolicloud creates that database, I think we should do our own. Please post in the comments section what systems you’ve tested Joli OS on. List the make & model along with CPU, GPU and any other kind of specs that might be pertinent. Then list if it worked or not. Maybe all the info we’re able to collect will help others find their own Ultimate Jolicloud Computer.
UPDATED: April 30, 2010
After my blog post on Monday I was contacted by Jolicloud to address my concerns about helping new users with finding compatible hardware for Joli OS. They have since updated their official Help Center & Knowledge Base with two excellent articles aimed at giving new users help with finding compatible hardware.
The first article: “Is Joli OS compatible with my machine?” has 3 points:
- The golden rule: It’s always worth to try: They state that most of the time it just works. If you’re concerned that it might not work they offer a link to an updated list of devices that are known to work. That’s the second new article & I’ll discuss it more below. They also offer that you can try out Joli OS without installing by using a USB key. This is by far the best & simplest way in my opinion. I tried using this method when I looked at retail stores, but was denied that opportunity. So you may only be able to do this if you happen to already have the hardware in hand. Anyway, they also offer that you could install the Joli OS Express version in Windows or try out the Jolicloud web app in Chrome, Firefox or Safari. The former might be a waste of time if your hardware isn’t supported. It’s easier to just use the USB key. The latter only shows you how the Jolicloud desktop app works not if Joli OS will work on your machine.
- The suggested hardware specifications: Here they offer the recommended memory, CPU, graphics & wireless networking support. They first state that Joli OS requires a minimum of 384MB of RAM, but also say that they recommend 512MB for “better comfort”. I’ve always used at least 1GB on all the machines I’ve tested Joli OS on. So I can’t give much guidance on using 512MB or less, but I will say I don’t think I would personally be comfortable running Joli OS on anything less than 1GB. One thing you’ll notice on the CPU list is it’s dominated by Intel Atom processors. Joli OS did start out as netbook OS after all. But there is support for legacy Intel & AMD processors as well. My concerns about AMD netbooks might not have been valid, but I’m still glad I went with the Toshiba Portege R500 as it still had the faster processor. As for graphics support, the recommended list looks heavily focused again on Intel, but they do show support for NVIDIA & ATI(now AMD). Looks like they weren’t kidding when they said most hardware will just work.
- The path to follow if you have an issue: Here they offer some links to more help topics on troubleshooting the problem. They also suggest that if it worked before but now it doesn’t, then you should try their Jolicloud Restore Utility. I’ve used that once & it worked as promised. But if that still doesn’t help, then re-install the OS. With a Joli OS Express dual boot system this is really easy & fast. Just boot back into Windows. Go to the Add/Remove Programs in the Control Panel & uninstall Joli OS. Once that is done, install it again. Takes about 15-20 minutes. They next offer that if some of your system components are not yet supported, then keep eye out for system updates. A lot of times an update will fix the issue. Or you can check with the Ubuntu community since Joli OS is based on Ubuntu.
That first article is an excellent resource for new users seeking help on finding compatible hardware, but the next article they added goes beyond that by actually listing devices that are known to work.
The article “Initial list of devices compatible with Joli OS” is basically an updated version of the list of compatible devices they had on their main web page. The list is sorted by manufacturers & then by system models. At the time of this update they had 83 different manufacturers spanning 502 different models! They also listed support for two different virtual machines: VirtualBox & VMWare. And guess what? My Toshiba Portege R500 is now in the list! 🙂 The article even goes a step further by allowing users to post comments to the article. This is an excellent way for users to let Jolicloud know what devices work & don’t work. And since the list is not closed you can expect Jolicloud to update it with your feedback. So if you have Joli OS running on your system & it’s not in the list, then post a comment to the article so they can update the list!
I’d like to thank Jolicloud for the excellent support they’ve provided to me while writing this article. They have always gone well beyond what I have come to expect from most tech companies. Keep up the great work!