StudioDave Does A Hardware Review And Meets Ubuntu 8.10

A few months ago I started sensing the need for a replacement for my aging and ailing HP Omnibook 4150. That machine's audio capabilities were negligible even with external hardware, but it had been serviceable for writing articles and as a portable MIDI composition environment. Alas, after years of travel and abuse the Omnibook's hard drive gasped its last breath of life. I had no fear for my data, the drive had been backed up, but clearly the time had come to buy a new portable computer.

My home town doesn't offer much choice when it comes to buying hardware. We have a Wal-Mart, a Best Buy, a Staples store and some local repair shops. Few sales people here know much about Linux, so my hopes for satisfaction were low. Nevertheless, I found a contender at Best Buy, a Hewlett-Packard G60-125NR. After due deliberation and much helpful advice from my colleagues on the Linux Audio Users mail list I decided to purchase the machine.

This purchase was risky. Google supplied only a little information about the machine's performance under Vista, and those reports were not overwhelming in their praise. However, I did find some reports indicating success with recent Ubuntu systems, and the machine's hardware seemed to be a near-perfect fit for my needs. The G60 is powered by an AMD Turion running at 2 GHz and includes a 250G hard disk, 3G memory, and a LightScribe CD/DVD-RW drive. Graphics are provided by an on-board nVidia geForce 8200M, sound is handled by Intel's HDA codec. Vista was pre-installed, so I took a quick look around before wiping the disk. Very pretty, rather slow. I hoped to see and experience better performance with Linux.

I had specific intentions for this machine. Above all it had to run AVSynthesis, which meant that it would need accelerated 3D graphics capability along with support for high-quality realtime audio. I also wanted to install a complete environment for building a specific version of Csound 5.09 and for compiling Ardour 3 from its SVN source code, which meant that I would need a relatively up-to-date Linux distribution. Other required components included a recent version of JACK and the latest Java SDK.

So how did I fare ? I'll announce the spoiler now and tell you that everything is coming along nicely and I'm happy with my purchase. But Linux is Linux, and configuring a Linux machine for audio production can be troublesome. Read on for the details of my trials and travails as Studio Dave goes mobile.


In The Beginning

A new machine deserves a new operating system, so decided to sample a few distributions before settling on one. I first tried plain vanilla installations for 64-bit Ubuntu 8.10 and Arch Linux. Both failed, but I succeeded with OpenSUSE 11.0. Alas, the nVidia binary driver wouldn't load, so I followed another lead (thank goodness for Google) and installed the 32-bit version of Ubuntu 8.10, aka Intrepid Ibex.

I must emphasize that my failures with the other distributions were likely my own fault. When I installed OpenSUSE I learned that a bad driver (the Atheros wifi driver) could freeze an installation. I fixed the problem by adding brokenmodules=ath5k to the installation options, and soon afterwards I had a working OpenSUSE system. I applied the same option to the Ubuntu installation, along with brokenmodules=ath_pci. I'm not sure I needed either option, but the installation proceeded smoothly to completion.

After the installer completed the basic user-level configuration I replaced the GNOME desktop with Fluxbox and added the realtime kernel to my start-up selections. I also added nVidia's closed-source driver, an uncomplicated task thanks to Ubuntu's Hardware Drivers manager. However, I needed to add myself to the video group before I had full GL/GLX support as a normal user. With that issue resolved I was ready to wrestle with the machine's audio hardware.


The Sound Scenario

By default Intrepid is set up for simple desktop sound such as DVD, CD, and soundfile playback, but my needs are considerably more demanding. As I expected, setting up my required audio support was troublesome labor.

For some reason Intrepid does not create an audio group, and membership in such a group is necessary to ensure priority access to the sound devices. Fortunately the GNOME Control Center provides a nice control panel for defining new groups and their members. With that step taken I then proceeded to configuring the JACK audio server. I need flawless performance from JACK, and that requirement alone took some time to meet.

The G60's audio chipset is based on Intel's HDA codec. This codec is designed primarily for high-grade playback of DVDs and other audio streams, including various surround sound configurations. Nothing is inherently awful about the chipset, but it is definitely not designed for desktop audio production. This fact presents itself glaringly when the JACK server is invoked. Without alteration to anything in the basic system JACK's performance was very poor with a relentless stream of xruns. I checked with Google, and indeed this problem was well-known and had a number of proposed solutions. These proposals included setting the period size to 3, the frames per period to 256, and the sample rate to 44100. In addition to these settings for JACK I learned that certain options should be passed to the ALSA kernel sound module (snd-hda-intel), including a model specification, a fix for a DMA-related problem, and a switch to enable MSI (message signalled interrupt). Alas, none of the suggested fixes worked for my hardware. I was about to give up on the on-board sound when fellow enthusiast Shane Richards pointed me towards Rui Nuno Capela's excellent rtirq script. I installed the script according to its instructions and started it so :

  dlphilp@maximus:~$ sudo src/rtirq-20071012/rtirq.sh start
  rtirq.sh: start [rtc] irq=8 pid=852 prio=90: OK.
  rtirq.sh: start [snd] irq=10 pid=1970 prio=85: OK.
  rtirq.sh: start [ohci_hcd] irq=5 pid=1916 prio=80: OK.
  rtirq.sh: start [ohci_hcd] irq=11 pid=1156 prio=79: OK.
  rtirq.sh: start [ehci_hcd] irq=7 pid=1920 prio=80: OK.
  rtirq.sh: start [i8042] irq=1 pid=841 prio=75: OK.
  rtirq.sh: start [i8042] irq=12 pid=840 prio=74: OK.

Following Shane's advice I set JACK's priority to 70 and restarted the server. I was astonished to discover that I could achieve the optimal latency possible with this hardware and suffer no xruns at all. That latency is hardly low (JACK reports 17.4 ms) but it is serviceable until I deploy a better external interface. To recap, here are my JACK settings :

  jackd -R -P 70 -d alsa -p 256 -n 3 -r 44100

where -R indicates realtime activation, -P sets the priority level, -d names the audio system backend, -p sets the period size, -n sets the number of frames per period, and -r equals the sample rate.


Annoyances And Solutions

The system speaker's beep was annoyingly loud until I discovered the hardware volume control keys. The G60 includes a function activation key (labeled fn) located to the left of the Windows key. The *, -, and + keys on the numeric keypad - labeled for speaker mute, decrease volume, and increase volume - are activated in combination with the fn key.

I don't usually care for a notebook's touchpad, and I was pleased to see that the G60 included a switch to disable the device. Alas, it didn't work, or so I thought until I discovered the touchpad controls in the GNOME Control Center utility. I still need to find a way to disable the touchpad at start-up, but at least now I can turn off the device during a session.

I knew that some degree of Linux support exists for the LightScribe disc drive, and I was interested to see how well that support would work for my new hardware. I installed LightScribe's system software and tested their SimpleLabeler along with the 4L-gui and 4L-cli labeling tools from LaCie. Everything worked as advertised, though I had to install libstdc++.so.5 for the LaCie software. These programs are all closed-source, but LightScribe's SDK is available as free software licensed under the GPL. Now if I can figure out how to add text with 4L-gui I'll have completed my LightScribe preparations.


Untested

The G60 includes a port for an HDMI connection, but I haven't tested it. HDMI is interesting enough to investigate, and the installed versions for the ALSA (1.0.17) and nVidia (177.80) drivers support the interface on the G60, so I'll check it out eventually.

I also did not test the machine's wifi support and its media card reader. Sorry, I ran out of time.


Remaining Problems

Some annoyances remain. I installed the firmware and loading rules for my MidiSport 2x2 USB MIDI interface, but the device still doesn't initialize until I unplug it and plug it in again. Suggestions are most welcome for a fix to this problem. I have a similar problem with the rtirq script, I'd like to have it loaded by the time my login appears.

My Edirol UA25 arrived as I was putting the final touches to this article. Again I'm faced with resolving xrun issues with JACK, but I'm confident that I'll soon have it working to my expectations.

I mentioned that I intended to set up a development environment sufficiently current to build Ardour 3 from its SVN sources. Alas, Intrepid's components are a little too current, and the environment's GTK support is actually too new for Ardour 3. I doubt that the problem will remain much longer. I did successfully compile Ardour 3 with SYSLIBS=1, an option emphatically not supported by the Ardour developers. I'll have more to report regarding Ardour 3, but not until I can build it according to the official recommendations.


And A Big Thank You To...

I owe my colleagues on the LAU list for much advice on many topics, but they were especially helpful with regards to this purchase. Extreme thanks go out to Mark Knecht (aka He Who Never Sleeps), Shane Richards, Arnold Krille, and everyone who responded to my pleas for assistance. I made the buy with much greater confidence because of their support and encouragement.


Satisfaction Level

I am satisified with this machine, and Ubuntu 8.10 is an excellent fit for the hardware. AVSynthesis runs nicely in realtime, and the rtirq script has eliminated xruns from JACK's performance. The apt system has made it easy to update the system and set up a full-featured development environment, and of course there's the whole UbuntuStudio apps collection for me to explore. I'll have more to say about my new machine and its performance with Linux audio software, so be sure to check in again soon.

______________________

Similis sum folio de quo ludunt venti.

Comments

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Problems with the same model

Filipe's picture

Hello people! I have the same model of notebook, a HP G60-125NR and dual boot Windows Vista and Ubuntu 9.04 64Bits. The system is very unstable with a loot of random freezing, desktop interface freezing, keyboard stop work, mouse move arround the screen but i can't do anything. I have tried this tutorial but the problems persist! Thks a loot! Im whaiting for some help!

Well

Mike8787's picture

Well I guess you are right, nothing is better than preinstalled linux on your notebook.

MikeCrabe

Pardus does a great job

Willem Gielen's picture

Nice article, it is always a tricky to buy a new computer. My experiences with Pardus Linux are great. It is good to read that you tried several options, but as Pardus works with most computers out of the box, it is also worth a try!!
http://www.pardus.org.tr/eng/

wondering why this laptop was chosen

dbmuse's picture

I cringed when I saw the laptop weight. I didn't catch the price. I am very curious of why this brand model made it the best. I bought a macbook pro with the idea it can be triple booted... mac/linux/windows giving me maximum flexibility. Plus the last generation pro is well discounted if you look in the right places. And some are using 6GB of memory. In the end I only dual boot mac/linux and stay mostly in mac land but that is my lack talent.... on the linux side.

LightScribe not GPL

foo's picture

Where is this supposed GPL LightScribe SDK? The only one I could find was very non-free.

Try Googling for

Dave Phillips's picture

Try Googling for "lightscribe gpl".

Similis sum folio de quo ludunt venti.

Intreip has known issues RE: audio workstations

evilsoccerfiend's picture

There are known problems with Ubuntu Studio and the RT kernel it ships with. The consensus on the list is to stick with 8.04 until the issues are resolved.

I am running 8.04 on my laptop, and 64Studio on the Desktop. Currently 64Studio is my preferred studio environment as Ubuntu Studio is still a little fragile at times while 64Studio is solid, at least with my hardware.

Real-time and dual-core

Peter Hoeg's picture

Dave, further to evilsoccerfield's post, please see the release notes from ubuntustudio.org:

"... the real time kernel in this release has some problems: only supports one processor (even on dual core machines) ..."

You've got one core sitting idle with the real-time kernel! I wouldn't personally recommend 8.04 with 8.10 out (I have a brand new laptop that only works properly with 8.10), but get the UbuntuStudio64 straight away and stay clear of the RT kernel.

/peter

UbuntuStudio

GregE's picture

I am wondering why you installed standard Ubuntu and then added stuff rather going for UbuntuStudio from the start. I installed Studio on my daughter's desktop with a Creative sound card (Live! - needed for old midi keyboard) and it made the whole thing fairly painless. The only manual tweaking was adding sound samples to the midi synth on the sound card, rather than using software midi. I too, had to fiddle with Jack a little, but overall it works well.

enjoy

Microsoft Tax paid

Refusenik's picture

There's one sad note to this generally happy story. Since Vista was pre-installed, this "Linux wins" story is one more instance where a Linux related sale is contributing to Microsoft coffers.

Imagine a hidden 10% tax on any other thing you buy. This is a pretty unconscionable reality we're all in as far as computers are involved. Very few have the inclination and energy to pursue a refund. For this reason I prefer to build my own boxes.

You might get a tax return

Anonymous's picture

How do you build your own laptop?

Here is an article about how someone got a refund for Vista on their HP laptop.

http://equiliberate.org/?q=node/3

Unfortunately you can't get a refund for OEM Vista. Not sure what's installed on the G60.

It is difficult...

Anonymous's picture

You can get a refund for OEM Windows, but the OEMs don't make it easy. At this point, they'll probably tell you that you should have bought the laptop with Linux pre-loaded in the first place, which some OEMs do offer (including HP now), but you'll never find at Best Buy, Circuit City, or other big-box store.

You might be able to gleam some info on getting a refund at this site. It's a bit dated, mainly up for archival purposes, but the info is there.

http://www.windowsrefund.info

Ubuntu Variant for Audio/Video/Graphics

Michael's picture

An alternative to the standard Ubuntu would be a variant called Ubuntu Studio. From their site (http://ubuntustudio.org):

"Ubuntu Studio. A multimedia creation flavor of Ubuntu.

Ubuntu Studio is aimed at the GNU/Linux audio, video and graphic enthusiast as well as professional.

We provide a suite of the best open-source applications available for multimedia creation. Completely free to use, modify and redistribute. Your only limitation is your imagination. "

Ardour SYSLIBS=1

Josh's picture

Hey Dave! Great article. I'm curious about the SYSLIBS=1 option for Ardour; I've read about it, but have no idea what it does, nor what it would be used for. Can you explain that a bit, and why you had to use it to make your situation work? Thanks! Josh

SYSLIBS and Ardour

Dave Phillips's picture

Hi Josh,

SYSLIBS=1 tells scons to use your system libraries instead of the ones built within the Ardour source tree itself. The system libraries may work, but they are not in sync with the developers' versions, hence the non-recommendation.

Best,

dp

Similis sum folio de quo ludunt venti.

Check out system76 for your

Vadim's picture

Check out system76 for your next laptop. Nothing beats better hardware compatibility than having linux pre-installed.

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