Thursday, October 18, 2012

MSI CR650 Review with Linux

Update: I've given up on the proprietary ATI drivers. Read on to find out how to remove the ATI proprietary drivers.

In my previous post, I installed the Ubuntu-powered ZorinOS 6 on my friends notebook. That notebook is the MSI CR650. I've been able to kick it's tires for a while now and I'm sort of impressed.

Let's get one thing straight. This is no screamer. It is an AMD Fusion E-240 CPU powered notebook. It runs at 1.6Ghz and incorporates the AMD Radeon HD6310 GPU which gives it better than average performance than what you would normally expect for a notebook within it's price range. At 2GB of RAM, it is a bit cramped for Windows but great for Linux desktops.
If the specifications look odd, don't worry. Apparently, different regions get different specifications but since the difference is only in the bundled OS (or not), CPU and memory config, MSI didn't bother changing the model number. Minor things, you know. It's the chassis that matters. And if you are buying this variant of the the CR650, you are better off with a Linux distro.
Since ZorinOS 6 is essentially Ubuntu, you can equate my comments to any other Ubuntu variant like Mint or Ubuntu itself.
Most everything runs out-of-the-box. Just keep to the mantra of Install, Update and Reboot before doing anything else and you should be fine. I panicked when the wireless didn't seem to work at first and tried to fix it before the first big update. Wrong. Just let it go, do the Update and Reboot. And then judge.
My advice to anybody buying a notebook, go and buy it yourself at a shop. Pick it up and feel it's weight. The CR650 is a bit on the heavy side. I blame that mostly on the larger-than-most 15.6" screen. Running at max resoution of 1388 x 768, the screen is a beauty, a heavy beauty. The batteries do contribute but not normally more than other notebooks.
The full keyboard took some getting used to. I've used a similarly large HP with a full keyboard before but the CR650's keyboard posed some challenges. Mainly it's keys are not full size, just slightly smaller. Worse, the right shift key was cut in half to make way for the direction keys, which meant I pressed the up arrow key a lot. While the numeric keypad would be useful for someone who needs to enter numbers by the truck-load, I would rather had a full keyboard. Plus, the location of the PgUp and PGDn keys need getting some used to. Special Fn keys all work with the exception of the Eco key which is supposed to change the power usage profile. I don't know whether it works because there is no feedback. Dmesg is silent. Even if it works, I couldn't see any difference. There is a slight lag when pressing the volume keys but not much. The top row special keys next to the power key are all user configurable so you can assign them.
There were some Linux-specific issues faced.

Camera. The webcam proved somewhat of a challenge. For the longest time, I couldn't get it to work. What ever I tried, it simply would not detect the camera. Documentation on the Internet was sparse to non-existent. I began to wonder whether I was alone facing this problem. Apparently, I was. The camera Fn-F6 combo key is a hardware toggle switch to turn the camera on or off. At least that's what the dmesg output looks like. Which is cool because stuffing the keyboard buffer with the Fn-F6 combo key won't trigger it on. Which means it can't be turned on from remote.
The picture is sharp but slightly dark. I tested it with Skype and Google Hangout. It performed well with Skype by there was a noticeable lag when using Google Hangout. However, it could have been due to the plugin because the other people in the hangout said they didn't see the lag.
Ubuntu auto selects the HDMI output as default audio output for newly created users. Ubuntu sees the HDMI output as another sound device as opposed to an output device. For example, my Lenovo PC considers the front headphone jacks and the rear speakers jacks at two separate outputs for a single sound device, my sound card. Well with the CR650, you get two sound devices, the internal sound card and the HDMI hardware. It is a nuisance to set for every new user. After you create the user, you'd have to log in as that user and set the preference manually.
A bigger problem is with the ZorinOS / Ubuntu not detecting the sound hardware. Sometime the sound card would not be detected after a reboot or coming out from suspend mode. Rebooting the laptop fixes it. Although the reboot rarely takes more than 3 minutes, it's still a nuisance.
Graphics. ZorisOS is Ubuntu through and through. Which meant I was using Gnome3. And Gnome3 on ZorinOS uses Compiz. I don't know what it is exactly but I always feel strange when using Compiz. Even when I was using on Mandriva and Mageia. It felt like the screen was being drawn a microsecond slower. I once thought that having to draw on the 3D layer full time would kill the idea of a 3D desktop GUI. Apparently, I was wrong.
Overall, on the CR650, graphics performance was good. There was no noticeable lag in refresh and 3D worked fine. The ATI chip gives the system a good boost. Too good in fact. I think that faster graphics  performance may fools users into thinking that they are using a fast CPU. This illusion is brought crashing down the moment they try something a bit CPU intensive.
There is also a problem with the ATI graphics driver. You can choose to run the proprietary driver or the open source driver. The ATI proprietary graphic drivers were supposed to give you better 3D performance. Installing them on ZorinOS was straightforward. However, I managed to install only the release driver but not the updated driver. I can't help to think that whatever those updates were, they could have been fixes for the problem I saw. Mainly on the Chrome browser, prolong user or opening too many tabs may result in rendered dynamic objects not updating. This could be Flash or even javascript objects. For example, on the Yahoo mail login page, the login and password boxes did not update when I typed in my username and password. Re-sizing the window, which triggers a refresh draw, fixes it and shows what I typed in. But this is just one example of many. Scrolling Facebook in Chrome is also an issue as some parts of the screen get updated later, if at all. It was better on Firefox, but graphic elements still showed up like the Youtube playlist section at the bottom of the screen scrolling up as you scroll down instead of remaining static.
I finally gave up and removed the ATI proprietary drivers. It was fairly easy. From the menu go to System Tools, then System Settings. Under the Hardware section click open the Additional Drivers icon. Make sure the ATI/AMD Proprietary Driver is selected. Then click on the button Deactivate. Close the window and it'll start a progress bar showing it's doing the work required to uninstall the drivers and install the open source version. Reboot the laptop to complete the process. The performance  may not be as slick but is just better in most instances. Most noticeably, gone are the refresh elements.
Can I recommend the MSI CR650? Absolutely. The large, gorgeous screen is it's biggest draw. It may be a bit heavy to lug around all the time but as a portable desktop replacement that going to be used for browsing, e-mail and word processing, this is a good deal.

1 comment:

  1. MSI has a wide range of amazing and amazing Laptops to select from for the use of organization, action suffering from and other aspects.

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