Sunday, November 06, 2011

The Linux Adventure: Part 1 - Hardware

Ok, so I'm finally going to get more involved in using more operating systems and some languages on the side for learning purposes.

To help a friend out with some projects I've picked up an HP laptop, the DV6 6047cl and I'll be dual booting with Windows 7 64bit Home Premium and openSUSE 11.4. I'll catalog this adventure in a series of posts that will encompass a review of the laptop, the various steps taken to install Linux, and any roadblocks I encounter on the way.

Part 1 - Hardware
Picking the damn notebook was 75 percent of the battle. I went back and forth over several details and surveyed several units I found online and at retail outlets. Time was a bit of a constraint because my friend is already way ahead of me with the whole LAMP install and is already trucking along with his code.

The toughest parameters to agonize over were the laptop specs and price. I wanted a notebook with a big screen because I want something that's easy on the eyes and would look good if I needed to run videos or work with graphics. I expect to be hashing out a lot of php, perl, and MySQL code, so I wanted a good processor too.

For a while I was leaning toward a really high-end machine with all the goodies, but I just couldn't get it to the $1000 mark. Getting the big monitor, good video card, Intel i7 processor, backlit keyboard, Bluetooth, and HDMI support in one machine for that price was not possible in the places I looked. Even raising the price, it was still hard to find notebooks that put all that into one bundle for less than $1200.

I finally decided on the DV6 6047cl on sale at SAM's Club for $900 (originally $1000). Intel i7, 8GB RAM, switchable graphics between the Intel onboard video and an ATI Radeon HD 6770M, and 1TB hard drive. Also got the Bluetooth chip and HDMI port and some USB 3.0 ports, but missing a backlit keyboard (this is such a handy feature, why is it considered such a luxury item by both Dell and HP? You had to go very expensive to even get the option on the custom builds).

The 15.6 inch screen was disappointing after salivating over the 17.3 inch panels that the high-end Dell and HP units have at full HD (1900 x 1080). But after working with it a bit, the 1366 x 768 resolution isn't terrible (ok, it does seem a little squashed height-wise) and the images are crisp enough. I gave up on the 17.3 inch screens when I realized they wouldn't fit in the cases and backpacks that I use now. I don't expect to carry the notebook through a bunch of airports but I did want a reasonable amount of portability. At just under 5.8 pounds, it's not too bad for carrying.

Realistically, I probably could have been well satisfied with a much lesser machine. SAM's Club had an HP unit running the AMD A6 3400M chip whose integrated video capability is superior to the Intel onboard video...and it was $300 less. But when I looked at the CPU ratings on, I just saw how far below even the newer i3 chips the AMD was, and I decided for the i7. Maybe that was stupid, cause I don't plan to run a lot of games on this, but I had these visions of me doing MySQL backups and running compilers and just sitting around with my thumb up my ass and an hourglass on the screen and I just decided to buy the i7. Besides, I still would be using Windows, and that bloated thing will eat all the processor you give it.

The $900 wasn't a fun hit to take, but over a decade ago I bought a Dell Inspiron Pentium 233Mhz laptop for about $2300, so I just shut up and bought the damn thing. Was it worth it? Read on.

Hewlett Packard DV6 6047cl Review
I suspect SAM's dropped the price to flush out the notebooks that had been sitting in inventory for about six months, but I could be wrong about that. I made the purchase in August 2011, and since then, the SAM's I visit hasn't gotten any new stock but the prices went back to normal and haven't changed much. The notebooks they have there are just sitting around and don't seem to be moving...although it might hurt, SAM's has got to realize that tech generally doesn't hold its value well. Lots of even cheaper and newer notebooks at Best Buy are coming out with new circuitry that give them Bluetooth, 802.11 b/g/n, WiDi, and even WiMax support. This DV6 gets the former two but not the latter two; WiDi and WiMax are luxuries but would be great features to have if you travel and do presentations.

Physical composition
I can't lie here; most of the reviews of the DV6 series that I've read seem favorable but I disagree. For what would have been $1000 when it first came out, I'm a little disappointed in the build quality. Everything on the notebook is made from plastic. The lid feels flimsy and the unit falls way short of the Apple stuff; it's not as expensive, but at a grand, it is close enough in price to be better than it is. Disappointing, especially considering that comparably priced DV7 units, while also plastic, tended to look better. Guess HP had to cover Mark Hurd's golden parachute somehow. However, like most Wintel stuff it's serviceable and everything worked correctly out of the box.

In retrospect, I probably should have sprung for the larger monitor. I think the number one computer component to spend money on is probably the monitor: it's what you subject your eyes to for hours on end. The DV6's 15.6 inch screen is plenty crisp and clear but I think the higher resolution on the 17.3 inch screens would involve less scrolling and certainly some apps (games, photos) would look better.

That said, I'm appreciative of the DV6's relatively portable dimensions. It's not too heavy and it fit into my old notebook backpack.

The keyboard is a chicklet-style keyboard (I've also heard some refer to it as a "floating island" keyboard). I do like this keyboard a lot. Typing is fairly easy to do and I like that it includes a numeric keypad. The navigation keys aren't anywhere you recognize from your desktop keyboard, but such is life with most notebooks. One quirky thing is that the function keys appear to be set to control notebook functions by default and to make them trigger regular functions (for example, F1, F2,...etc), you have to hold down a "Fn" toggle key. Weird. I am used to the application software functions being the default slaving, and the notebook controls (brightness, music controls, volume) requiring a special function key. This might be configurable but I haven't delved through all of the DV6's documentation yet.

I must give a thumbs-down to the touchpad. It is from hell. In both Windows and Linux, its default setting must be called "annoy." It is painfully sensitive, causing the focus to jump to wherever the mouse cursor is when you are typing. I don't know how even the most patient human being could use this touchpad and not want to commit suicide within a couple hours; the most fundamental function in computing, to enter text via keyboard, is compromised. The only reason I haven't returned the notebook due to the touchpad is because I've progressively been able to improve its performance through configuration tweaking.
  • In OpenSUSE, I was able to toggle off a "tap to click" option that has successfully stopped the touchpad from making the cursor jump everywhere.
  • In Windows, I've yet to completely solve the problem but I've been able to reduce it somewhat by tinkering with the sensitivity settings. Although I disabled the same "tap to click" functionality I found on the OpenSUSE side, the Linux drivers seem to have handled this particular malady much better than Win 7.

The DV6 fares well here. Obviously the i7 2630 QM is a big factor, but the ATI 6770M helped too. The Windows 7 experience index scores 5.9, which is what a lot of quad-core PCs not using solid state drives will rate. All the individual categories outside of drive performance rate higher.

Windows 7 runs smoothly and so does openSUSE (I'm running the KDE Plasma UI). I really didn't notice many issues with the system stalling or waiting around a lot.

I haven't tried many games on it yet but the one I did was Civilization V. I was pleased here. Civ V really kicks my desktop's ass. While the desktop is not comparable to modern screamers, it's not too slouchy for a two-year-old PC: an HP with an AMD Phenom II X4 3.0Ghz CPU, 8GB RAM, and an nVidia 9800 GT. But Civ just kills it. The HP DV6 runs Civ V in a less demanding resolution, but it's significantly smoother even at high detail settings. So score a point for the notebook.

Battery Life
The DV6 uses the newer switchable graphics system. It comes with both an Intel integrated video chip and an ATI Radeon HD 6770M discrete graphics card. The notebook is supposed to be smart enough to know when to switch between the two automatically to preserve battery life.

So far, I've noticed that it seems to work ok in Windows 7. You can configure power profiles with the included "Configure Graphics" utility available at the context menu when secondary mouse-clicking on the desktop. Typically when the notebook is unplugged it will switch to using the Intel onboard chip, and when plugged in will use the ATI card. Preliminary tests show this to be the case, but I'm not impressed. I am getting about three to four hours of battery time when using the Intel graphics. Hardly what was advertised, but then I suppose there is a price to pay for the i7's strong performance.

Note: HP notebooks in the 61xx series (mostly DV7 but also some DV6 units) are said to have issues with the switchable graphics. It's possible my unit does also, as I haven't tested trying to run on the Intel chip and then see if running a game causes it to automatically switch to the discrete chip. HP is working on it, but apparently the fixes so far are reportedly less than optimal.

Battery life under Linux is a different story. I'm still tinkering with the setup, but it appears there isn't a definitive support stack for the switchable graphics system yet, and so both cards are powered at all times, draining the battery in less than two hours. More on this later in the Linux portions of the article series; it's not a high priority to fix at the moment but I would like to address it at some point.

I'm pleased with the DV6's showing as an all purpose machine under both operating systems. Web browsing, office work, music, games, and video all seem to run great. The DV6 is quite versatile. The Blu Ray drive supports LightScribe and DVD burning, so you can do a lot with it, though it is understandably slower than my desktop's drive.

This is also one of the notebooks featuring "Beats Audio by Dr. Dre" whatever that is supposed to mean. I'm an old fart that associates names like Bose and Yamaha to the quality audio gear, and I don't know much about Dr. Dre (besides that he's a rapper) and HP's infatuation with him, but I will say the notebook sounds nice. Notebooks have tiny speakers, so they're not really supposed to sound all that great, but this one seems to do better than the average notebook. Actually, I'll say that I like the sound very much. The notebook seems to have multiple speaker ports: two in front and possibly another under a grille that stretches across the back of the notebook.

I'll keep the DV6. Parts of it were disappointing but the performance is good and so far dual booting is working out well. It's also a well-appointed notebook with good multimedia support and plenty of ports. The two USB 3 ports are nifty; I tried out copying an 8GB file from a friend's USB 3 portable hard drive and it took just over a minute which blows away the USB 2 performance.

Linux guys, please do not all attack me here, but I will say that while Linux has clearly come a long way in being install-friendly, so has the Microsoft OS. Win 7 wins the comparison in ease of use. I had no problems whatsoever getting drivers and hardware to work, and except for the touchpad, everything just plain worked without hassles. Linux is great, and I only gain more appreciation for it as I continue to work with it, but I had to fiddle with things a bit to get the WiFi and Bluetooth to work, and I'm not sure yet if USB 3 and the DV6's fingerprint reader work under Linux.

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