This report is listed at TuxMobil - Linux on laptops, notebooks, PDAs and mobile phones

Debian Linux on an Acer Aspire 5044WLMi

For a friend, I wanted to find (once again) a decent and cheap laptop.
To my surprise, and some trepidation, this Acer Aspire 5044WLMi was available
from Curry's for only GBP 400.00 - and their two year warranty for an
extra GBP 99.00 means that even things like accidental damage (dropping it)
are covered.

The device is excellent value for money - absolutely no question.
It has an AMD64 Turion 1.8Ghz processor; 512Mb of RAM, an 80Gb hard drive,
one of those WXGA 'Crystalbrite' LCD screens (15.4 in), Atheros 802.11g
Wireless, Gigabit Ethernet, and even a DVD writer / CD writer.

With some absolute arseing about, in only two monster 4 hour sessions,
I managed to get nearly everything going but the Bluetooth.  Things
that I missed on the first day was that debian-amd64 contains stable
(sarge) and the 'mainline' debian packages contain testing and unstable;
madwifi works, but if you don't have acer_acpi installed (not part of the
main kernel source) then the wireless is off.

Debian-AMD64 / Unstable woes

Installing debian on an AMD64 system was a bit of a risk - and also a bit
of a nuisance.  As this is 64-bit, Flash Player doesn't exist.  Windows Media
(win32codecs) doesn't work.  Didn't even look at java.  Basically, all of the
proprietary stuff you're taking a big risk - and that fortunately turned out
_not_ to include the 802.11g Atheros Wireless.  I could solve this by
installing firefox in a 32-bit chroot however I ran
out of time: if you wanted to do that yourself, the instructions are there,
and I have successfully followed them about a year ago to install an entire
KDE system, and a FreeNX server.

What particularly pissed me off though was the messages on the Debian
web site, after I'd successfully booted off of the Debian/Sarge AMD64
netboot installer CD and got a minimalist install, was that the package
archives kept referring me to the debian archives for testing and unstable.
As I had already added as an apt
source, I couldn't work out what the hell they were talking about.

What they were talking about, after clarification from mad phil
was that you simply had to put exactly the same line as you would if you
had an x86 system - deb testing main -
and/or deb unstable main.  Both of these archives
are on exactly the same web site - just that one is debian/ and the other
is debian-amd64/ so it is hardly surprising that I couldn't work out
what was going on.  It's only the sarge stuff that's in debian-amd64.

you WILL need to install testing or unstable.  the sarge 2.6.8-12-amd64
kernel does NOT recognise half of the hardware.  you certainly can't get
the fglrx module (non-free) let alone get it working.  You can't get
xserver-xorg.  At the time of writing, a 2.6.18-1-amd64 kernel
(from unstable) works absolutely fine.

Also, kde 3.3 is pretty dire, and doesn't automatically recognise devices
properly when they're plugged in (DVDs, memory cards etc).
So, as usual, I installed hal, dbus, udev, kde 3.5, superkaramba,
kroller.sez-v0.94.1(my OSX lookalike bar from, printconf
etc. from debian/unstable, and it worked.

The only annoying debian/unstable difficulty I encountered was an error
occurring when using KDE's Print Manager to add a CUPS printer.  However,
running printconf automatically happily detected the (HP PSC1215) printer,
so I didn't worry about it.  Oddly, KDE Print Manager could delete printers -
just not finish off adding one.  Such are the risks of using Debian/Unstable
and this is likely to be solved...

Xorg and the fglrx module

Xorg could only be installed from debian/unstable - and it worked fine.
I made sure that I selected all the screen sizes available, and xorg
detected that the screen was 1200x800.  I made sure i installed
xserver-xorg-video-ati and also the fglrx-driver.

I was stunned to find that fglrx, the proprietary ATI Radeon 200M driver,
worked - and it looks really pretty.  The font aliasing is really impressive.
However - and this is an absolute kicker - it's abysmally slow.  Running
Kaffeine resulted in 70% CPU utilisation, in xorg, and a jerky frame display
on the 1200x800 screen - playing a DVD would freeze for nearly a second
and then jolt forward.  Completely intolerable.

By utilising the standard free software ati module, instead, the speed
was regained: only 15 to 20% CPU utilisation instead of 70%, BUT - the
fonts looked, in comparison to the fglrx driver, pretty dire.  However,
when push comes to shove, getting the machine to work at a tolerable
speed was a lot more important than making it pretty.

I'm guessing that this is, ultimately, all down to the graphics card sharing
the main CPU's memory.  This is generally a Bad Idea, as any memory access
made by the Graphics GPU will instantly halt the processor.  Hence, all
those pretty fonts and all that pretty aliasing when DVD playing
just pissed all over the performance of the machine.

Xorg and the synaptics touchpad

ksynaptics happily detected the synaptics touchpad - however it told
me that 'SHMConfig' 'On' had not been added to the xorg config.  So
i located these Gentoo Synaptics Xorg instructions
and followed them - and hooray, everything worked.

remember to install xserver-xorg-input-synaptics.

Xara Xtreme and Blender

The person I was installing this for expressed an interest in CAD/CAM
packages at their university, so I took the opportunity to download
and attempt an install of xara xtreme, for linux.  The 32-bit precompiled
version, running under 32-bit-emulation, just looked like too much hard
work, so I downloaded the source, and compiled it 64-bit.  After picking
the right apt-get install xxxxx-dev packages, and ignoring the confusion
of following the compile instructions for wxWidgets to compile xara
by mistake, everything just worked.

debian/unstable already includes the right version of wxWidgets, so you
don't have to compile wxWidgets 2.6.something from source code.

The program looks amazingly professional - a hell of a lot better than
the GIMP, which was designed by geeks for geeks (to make pretty icons),
whereas Xara was designed by windows programmers for professional graphics

Blender just installed out-of-the-box.  apt-get install blender, and it

Both of these programs are absolutely amazing.


There is some extra ACPI functionality in the ACER BIOS: wireless, bluetooth
and the light on the email button.  Courtesy of Mr Mark Smith, it's possible
to enable these things - rather fortunate, all considered, so that we can
use wireless for example.

acer_acpi's home is currently here.
basically, you have to compile up and install this (remember to do
make acer_acpi.ko!) and then, at the moment, you need to manually create
yourself an /etc/init.d/{something} entry - or edit an existing one
(i edited /etc/init.d/module-init-tools which you shouldn't do because
an upgrade will destroy this file!) which contains the modprobe acer_acpi
and also the echo 'enable : 1' > /proc/acpi/acer/wireless.

basically it's all very not ideal and clunky, and someone really needs to
integrate it into debian/linux and it's not going to be me because the
machine is already on its way to the person who needs it.

Atheros 802.11G Wireless

once the acer_acpi had been used to switch on the wireless, then the
atheros (madwifi) driver magically worked!  i had to do apt-get madwifi-source
and then unpack /usr/src/madwifi.tar.bz2 or whatever and then build it
(apt-get install build-essential linux-headers-2.6.18-1-amd64 before that
of course).  it was all a bit of a pain.

and, even afterwards, things weren't entirely hunky-dory - and they certainly
weren't 'noddy user' friendly.  the laptop is going to someone who won't
know what an ifup is - and even the fact that the kde network interfaces
control module requires a root password to switch off the wired interface,
switch on the wireless interface, _then_ run kwifimanager - a separate
program (!) - to assign a wireless-essid to the wireless interface, which
wasn't even working in the first place even though i'd put auto ath0 in
there - it was all a bit much.

of course, auto ath0 in /etc/network/interfaces DOESN'T WORK duh because
ath0 doesn't exist, as an interface, until wlanconfig ath0 create has been
run!  so, the kde network interface control module can't know anything
about it.  it's all very awkward.

Alternative Reading

This report on the Acer 5024WLMi with Ubuntu 5.10 AMD64
contains some very useful and relevant information.  In fact, probably
any Tuxmobil ACER report
on an Aspire 50xx will contain useful information.  For example, the
/usr/local/bin/wireless script will be relevant because the 5024WLMi
also uses the same acer_acpi.ko module.  The keycodes thing is also
worth investigating.  And definitely the powernow_k8 thing, which I
unfortunately didn't have time to test out.


After some trepidation, I was absolutely delighted with this machine
and with the stunning success of installing Debian/AMD64 - native - on it.
If I had more time, I would have installed firefox in a 32-bit chroot.
Also if I had more time, I would have clunked about with the Atheros
Wireless a bit more, to make it easier for my friend to switch between
wired and wireless.  And, the shared memory for the graphics card does
really trash the performance, but (unlike the proprietary fglrx
driver) the xorg ati driver doesn't seem to really be affected.

Oh.  and the keyboard is a bit wobbly: i kept finding that passwords with
the letter t didn't work until i hit the keys a bit harder.  Also,
i do recall once encountering the same keyboard problem as reported

But other than these glitches, it is stunningly good value for money.
The screen is great.  It's got more than enough hard disk space.  It's
got more memory than I knew what to do with, even a year ago.  It's got
an amazing 64-bit processor.  And the price tag, at GBP 400.00, is
almost unbelievable.

Curry's are definitely onto a very quiet winner, by selling this machine.
The money you'd normally spend on a more expensive machine you can
put towards a 2 year or a 3 year no-questions-asked warranty.

Ironically, we won't talk about the money that Curry's would save by
not sucking up to Microsoft (about GBP 50.00).  And, if anyone from
Curry's is reading this: remember that if you get threatened by
Microsoft for not sticking with their cartel, report them to the E.U
commissioner: they will be very interested to hear from you.