Netbook Nightmare: My Experience With the Sylvania g Netbook

By Caitlyn Martin
February 13, 2009 | Comments: 31

gnetbook2.jpgBack in December I joined the netbook revolution with the purchase of a Sylvania g Netbook, the original model introduced in July of last year. The preinstalled implementation of Linux was incredibly poor but once I reloaded the system and added the necessary drivers I found that I enjoyed the little netbook at first. Then a hardware problem developed: the system would intermittently lock up for no apparent reason. I eventually restored everything to factory default and it still happened so I exchanged the netbook. The replacement proved to be faulty straight out of the box with wireless completely non-functional. A second exchange proved impossible; according to the dealer the model had been discontinued. I still see the original Sylvania g Netbook offered for sale at what seems like a very attractive price so I thought it best to share my experiences before someone spends their hard earned money on one.

Before launching into a detailed review of the g Netbook I should point out that I have replaced it with a Sylvania g Netbook Meso, a newer and more powerful model that has been flawless so far. The newer system demonstrates that Digital Gadgets, the folks that license the Sylvania name for their netbooks, can do a Linux netbook that just plain works.

Hardware Overview

I was attracted to the original Sylvania g Netbook (not the Meso) for two reasons. First , it is one of the smallest and lightest netbooks on the market. It weighs in at just 1.9 lbs. (0.86 kgs.) Second, I couldn't find another netbook that offered anywhere near the features of this unit at a comparable price. As I write this the g Netbook can be purchased for around US$239-$249.

I was more than willing to work with a 7" screen. My venerable (OK, ancient) Toshiba Libretto SS-1010 has a 7" screen and only supports 640x480 resolution. A 7" widescreen display with 800x480 resolution didn't seem like a problem to me. You do get used to moving a window that is longer than the screen with ALT+mouse drag quite a bit at that resolution but that was a small price to pay for the extra lightweight design. The display is bright and sharp and wasn't at all fatiguing to work with for an extended time.

The keyboard is significantly larger than the one on my old Libretto and is large enough to type on properly. I have small hands and fingers so that may not be true for everyone but I found the keyboard perfectly comfortable and reasonable for such a small notebook. The mouse was another matter. At 0.6" it has to be the smallest touchpad I have ever seen. While I could adjust the sensitivity to get a reasonable rate of motion across the screen and still have good control I still found myself using an external USB mouse most of the time.

Battery life was generally excellent. I did everything from compiling software to watching videos and I was able to average around 3½ hours per charge.

Sound from the internal speakers was typical of netbooks: thin and tinny sounding. Connecting external amplified speakers to the headphone/speaker jack provided very decent sound quality.

Under the hood the Sylvania g Netbook sports a 1.2GHz Via C7-M ULV processor, 1 GB RAM, and a conventional 30GB hard drive. Once I had the proper drivers to support CPU scaling in place I found the performance to be surprisingly good.

Aside from the minor quibble with the touchpad I would have rated the hardware in this unit highly if it hadn't failed on me on two consecutive systems. I understand that two units is hardly a scientific sample and that I may just have had really bad luck. Unfortunately the software proved to be a disaster as well.

Linux Implementation

The Sylvania g Netbook is offered with gOS 2.92 Escape Pod, a beta version of gOS 3.0 Gadgets, which is based on Ubuntu 8.04 LTS (Hardy Heron). Windows is not an option for this model.

Anyone familiar with the Everex Cloudbook sold by Wal Mart starting in late 2007 will notice an immediate similarity between that system and the g Netbook. The physical layout has been rearranged and improved and memory has been increased from 512MB RAM to 1GB RAM in the g Netbook but otherwise this is essentially the same platform. The Cloubook received terrible reviews largely because the gOS implementation lacked drivers to adequately support the hardware. Sadly that hasn't changed. The drivers do exist but for reasons known only to gOS or Sylvania they simply aren't included.

By default the system boots with the 1.2GHz processor underclocked to 600MHz. This results in decidedly slow performance. For example watching streaming video from a site like YouTube is choppy. The Via C7-M ULV processor supports frequency scaling under Linux running a 2.6.25 or newer kernel. gOS 2.92 or 3.0 comes with a 2.6.24 kernel. A backport (patch) to the provided kernel can allow CPU frequency scaling to work properly. The backport code has been around longer than the g Netbook has been on the market but it was left out of both the OS as shipped and the updated 3.0 version available on the Sylvania Computers website.

Once the patch was applied and necessary software was installed the performance of the system was quite good. gOS didn't include a compiler by default and both terminal emulators and Synaptic were hidden away. Unless someone knows Linux in general and Ubuntu specifically rather well solving this problem would be daunting to say the least.

In addition the provided Via UniChrome video driver does not support 3D graphics acceleration. Updated drives are available on the Via Linux Portal website which correct this problem. The latest OpenChrome drivers also can provide 3D acceleration.

WiFi also was somewhat problematic. The Realtek 8187 wireless chipset does work with the provided native Linux driver but the signal strength is unexpectedly low and range from the router is poor. This has been widely reported online and the problem is not unique to gOS. It turns out that the driver itself is poor. This is solved on the Sylvania g Netbook by upgrading to gOS 3.0, which uses ndiswrapper and the Windows driver.

Upgrading from a beta OS to the final release seems to make good sense in any case but even that step proved somewhat problematic. Neither Sylvania nor gOS provide for an in place upgrade. Sylvania does provide an iso image with the OEM version of gOS 3.0. If you have a USB CD burner you can download and burn the CD and then do a conventional installation. How many new netbook owners will own an external CD burner? Once installed the upgraded gOS version still fails to address the CPU scaling or graphics driver issues.

In general I found that the OEM version of gOS to be a less than adequate Linux distribution. Once I created a desktop shortcut for gnome-terminal I was able to edit the .desktop files in /usr/share/applications and restore most of the disabled functionality. Once I had done that it became obvious pretty quickly why the folks at gOS or Sylvania might want to disable the ability to install additional software or upgrade the system.

As shipped gOS 2.92 or 3.0 include a number of outdated applications with known security vulnerabilities. My normal modus operandi when installing a new version of a Linux is to check for upgrades provided by the distributor to close any potential holes in security. gOS has its own repository but it is not included in the configuration of apt-get or Synaptic. Once I enabled the gOS repository I found that there were few if any meaningful upgrades available. Newer versions of applications like Firefox or Thunderbird simply weren't there. The Ubuntu 8.04 LTS (Hardy Heron) repositories are enabled by default and, as expected, they offered a large number of upgrades. I did what I'd do on an Ubuntu system: installed them all. That proved to be a huge mistake. I was left with a broken system that would boot only to single user mode. There simply is no automated way to secure the OEM version of gOS offered by Sylvania.

I could probably have repaired the broken gOS installation with sufficient time and effort but at this point I decided to follow the advice of a number of g Netbook users online and install a more conventional, full featured Linux distribution.

I first tried Ubuntu 8.10 (Intrepid Ibex) and that proved to be a huge improvement over gOS. CPU scaling worked out of the box. Once I downloaded the updated driver from Via so did 3D graphics acceleration. Even compiz-fusion worked well. There is one documented bug which results in no sound from the headphone/speaker jack. The fix requires patching ALSA as described in the Ubuntu forum. (The Alio Li 1705 uses the same audio chipset as the Sylvania g Netbook.) The end result, after tweaking and patching, is that I finally had Ubuntu fully working and supporting the hardware in the netbook.

defaultscreen-small.png

I also tried Vector Linux Standard 6.0 rc2. That earlier release candidate did not correctly detect my video chipset and gave me a rather ugly 640x480 display using a default VESA video driver. Editing the /etc/X11/xorg.conf file to resemble the one provided by gOS but using the OpenChrome driver provided with Vector Linux mostly solved the problem. I had my nice, sharp 800x480 graphics back and 3D acceleration worked fine but I had some weirdness with video refreshes. A newer version of the OpenChrome driver by Tungsten Graphics is available which should resolve the issue. Vector Linux has an updated, patched alsa-driver package so the sound issue present in Ubuntu 8.10 isn't a problem with Vector Linux 6.0. CPU frequency scaling also worked out of the box with Vector Linux.

By this point I had a fully working system in terms of software but the hardware problem I mentioned (intemittent lockups) had reared its ugly head. I restored the factory default configuration of gOS to confirm that the problem was indeed hardware.

Conclusions

Having suffered through two hardware failures, one after only 10 days of use and the second out of the box, I am more than a little bit skeptical about this particular hardware platform. If I assume that I had just plain old bad luck and that the Sylvania g Netbook does have reliable hardware for most people then there really isn't much to complain about The only real negative I found was the incredibly tiny touchpad.

My experience with the gOS Linux implementation was truly nightmarish. As provided by Sylvania the OS doesn't include correct drivers for the hardware leaving the system effectively crippled. For a new user who isn't quite Linux savvy this probably can't be fixed. The OS is also configured to make installation of additional software or patching the existing OS difficult at best. A knowledgeable Linux user will find it best to wipe the hard drive and start over, doing a new installation from external media. I can't imagine that very many people would be satisfied with the g Netbook as shipped.

My experience with Ubuntu proved that it is indeed possible for Sylvania to provide a first class out of box experience on the g Netbook. Unfortunately they did anything but. This is precisely the sort of half-baked implementation that unfairly tarnishes Linux as difficult to use.

Bottom line: I really can't recommend the Sylvania g Netbook at all. If you load a different Linux distribution and add the needed patches and drivers you might get an acceptable result. Most people would do better to spend $299 and get the g Netbook Meso preloaded with Ubuntu Netbook Remix instead. That's what I did in the end.


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31 Comments

Glad you found a good replacement. I've been very happy with Dell's Mini 9n, which is basically a clone of the Meso and a dozen other netbooks on the market. Now I read that Dell has cut the price $50 off last year's Black Friday price that I paid, only $249 for the base model.

I assume there'll be a followup review for the Meso? That's up near the top of my current list of likely netbook purchases (once I've managed to set aside the spare cash for it).

@Michael: When I looked at the base model of the Dell Mini 9n it only had 512MB of RAM. I really, really wanted 1 GB for what I do which argued in favor of the Sylvania g Netbook. When I looked for a different unit to replace the g the Dell price had gone up. I'm glad you're happy with the Mini 9n. By all accounts it's a good little system.

@Epicanis: Yes, a review of the g Netbook Meso will be forthcoming. I've only had mine two weeks so far. I'd like to give it a little more time to make sure I can write a proper, in depth review.

I would recommend the acer aspire one. I have used this since Christmas day since Santa(me) gave it to my wife and family. They all use it for email, chat, web browsing and word processing. They also watch movies and listen to music too. The Linpus distro is fast and friendly, the acer updates are good too. I would recommend this little unit to any novice user to expert.

Caitlyn
I think you'll like the Meso.My wife has been using hers since Christmas and still loves it.So far there hasn't been any problems with it.

@Kevin Power: I'm glad you're happy with the Acer Aspire One. I've generally heard good things about it. I did consider it but rejected it in favor of the Sylvania g Netbook Meso for two reasons: first, the units with conventional hard drives (as opposed to small SSDs) were only offered with Windows and second, price. It was a lot more money to get lesser specs.

@alc: I'm very happy with the g Netbook Meso so far. I just want to give it a little more time before reviewing it. Having suffered through two premature failures of Sylvania netbooks I want to be absolutely certain that isn't going to happen again. Call me paranoid if you like :)

I had to pay $302Cnd (Tax included) and I got a 120 Gb Drive and 1/2 Gb Ram. Not bad Eh.I got it at the computerscanada.ca store in London Ontario Canada.

Did you try connecting the netbook to an external monitor? I am having a heck of a time getting it connected. I keep getting an "out of range" error on my monitor when X starts.

I have tried editing xorg.conf and setting the proper screen size and refresh rates, but nothing seems to work.

@Steven Young: Yes, mine worked with an external monitor, albeit only at 640x480, so I really didn't see the point. I did not have to make any special alterations to xorg.conf to get it to work. I just adjusted the resolution in Xfce. It should also work with a widescreen monitor at 800x480. If you have a conventional monitor (not widescreen) the results you are getting are what I'd expect at any resolution other than 640x480.

There are reports that the g Netbook will deliver 1000x600 resolution (widescreen again) both internally and externally with the Windows drives and 800x600 externally as well. I haven't seen anyone report success doing that with Linux. My old, small flat panel monitor supports 1024x768 and 640x480 but not 800x600 or 1000x600 so I saw no point in trying to pursue this.

Sorry I can't be of more help.

I'm using an Asus PC 900A from Best Buy, purchased for $200. After switching to FreeBSD I'm pretty happy with it (except for the slow 4Gb SSD). I switched to FreeBSD almost immediately, but the original Linux distro has received some pretty bad publicity (among other things, the SSD was 97% full at the get-go). I did try booting Ubuntu (8.10, I think) from a USB drive, which was quite a bit better than the Asus pre-install. I just wonder if they are deliberately trying to make Linux look bad with a lousy out-of-the-box experience in order to push people over to their presumably higher-margin Windows models...

Quick question...have you tried using a virtual screen that is larger than the hardware screen resolution? I couldn't get it to work on the FreeBSD/xorg system, I'm stuck with 1024x600...

WARNING: never buy a Sylvania computer.

I purchased a Netbook G last September and never have been able to get the unit to function properly. I contacted the manufacturer and discovered Sylvania is in name only - as Sylvania essentially leases their namesake to go on these units. It has been impossible to get a refund or exchange for another less problematic model. The best they have offered is a $179.99 refund to send my computer to some third party reseller in New York - even though I paid $313. Mind you, this unit supposedly comes with a one-year warranty.

DigitalGadgets is the company that is selling these computers as Sylvania. DigitalGagets is simply a terrible and likely soon to be non-existant company. Good luck finding a name or number or anything tangible on them. Everything is done in email and most of the responses really leave you wondering what sort of operation they are running.

To add to the foolishness, when you contact DigitalGadgets via their online form, you get a response from Levin Consulting, a Cleveland, Ohio, company. A company that specializes in trolling the far east digging up goods already made to be rebadged as a product from a known mega-corp.

The issues:
* Wifi does not work
* The CPU scaling doesn't work - runs at 600Mhz always.
* Video output is choppy - no driver support.
* Sound output to headphone jack doesn't work
* Battery life is not anything near 4 hours due to CPU scaling not working.

AVOID SYLVANIA PRODUCTS.

@paulb: While I share many of your concerns about the g Netbook (obviously) I disagree strongly with your "avoid Sylvania" warning. I am thrilled with my g Netbook Meso (later model) so far. Everything just works.

I had no problem finding a phone number and an address for Digital Gadgets. It is on their website. The phone number is in bold orange letters on the top of the Customer Support page. Their street address is on the "About Us" page. The claim that you can only reach them online is false. Have you tried phoning them directly at 888-571-0866? I would try that and work your way up though the management chain until you get a reasonable response. FWIW, I was able to get a full refund from the dealer for my g Netbook.

You will also note that I was able to fix all of the problems you list. If you install Ubuntu 8.10 (Intrepid Ibex) or Vector Linux 6.0 then CPU scaling will work just fine. That is almost certainly true of *ANY* distro which has a 2.6.25 or newer kernel. Video works well if you use a current driver, not the horrible old one provided by Sylvania/gOS. You can also install gOS 3.0 or newer to get wifi working. Using the Windows driver and ndiswrapper works with any distro as well. Sound output to the headphone jack requires a patch to ALSA. In other words, if you know Linux and know what you are doing it can all be fixed. From what you have written I do not believe you have a defective unit, merely one with a terrible out of box configuration.

Do I think it's right to ship a computer with drivers that don't work or are just plain buggy? Of course not. My review basically says that the g Netbook is a very poor choice for most people. OTOH, to say that everything the company puts out is to be avoided isn't something I can agree with. To claim that the address and phone number aren't available is just plain false.

The key is to buy from a reputable dealer who will replace a defective unit.

Thanks for the followup on paulb's comment, at the end of your review I was left wondering about the company's response(s) and the ultimate disposition of the g. A refund would have seemed foregone, but no mention was made in the review. Also, given the replacement rounds and dissatisfaction, I am curious as to the reasons the company offered for this state of affairs. Not that they would admit to shoddy workmanship, but that your replacements coupled with the company dropping the model quickly causes me to wonder if any of them were intended to work.

Hi Caitlyn,

I thank you for the very informative article chronicling your experiences with the gBook. To date, I have tried gOS 2.9, gOS 3, Ubuntu 8.04 and after reading your article, Ubuntu 8.10. I find 8.10 better performing than either gOS or Ubuntu 8.04, but very buggy. I can live with most of the problems, except for one, that the Frequency Scaling still doesn't work. On boot-up, I see a message stating FS is inoperative, and once 8.10 is up, the FS control state that the function is not there. I installed and ran cpufeq-info, and it states "no or unknown cpufreg driver is active on this cpu". Under Ubuntu "services", "CPU Frequency Manager (powernowd)" is installed. I checked the BIOS options, there is no option to turn FS on or off. FS is the reason I went to 8.10 (IBEX). Any thoughts?

More importantly, I want to commit to one distro and release and work it until all (okay most) of the gBook problems are solved. Which distro would you recommend today? I am almost of the mindset to go back to Unbuntu 8.04 and add the FS backport, if someone can tell me for sure that it works. I was not on 8.04 very long, but it had to be more stable that 8.10 appears to be (at least on my gBook). Your thoughts??

I know that this machine was built for XP, that the vendor switched to gOS/Linux to make some more money, but it would really have been nice if he had burned a stable ISO with all the needed patches!!

One thing I thought I would mention - which you likely already know about the gBook - but others may not. The input to its cooling fan is at the bottom of the machine, right where you might rest it on your thigh when using it. Bad idea. First, the machine will begin to hang up on you and if the cooling flow problem is not corrected, it will hang solid or die w/o warning (only to usually reboot once cooled down in a minute or two). As long as I watch not to cover the cooling input port, my machine hardware has been rock solid.

I thank you for your time :-)

Eric

@Eric: I know I'll touch a nerve with some by saying this, but... I've found Ubuntu to be terribly buggy as a rule. Every release has issues beyond what I find normal for most distros.

I never found a distribution that worked 100% with the original g Netbook. That hardware problems preempted any chance of my getting there. The closest was Vector Linux 6.0 but the GUI installer is not netbook friendly (had to use the text installer) and I had to manually configure my xorg.conf file. The Openchrome drivers had weird refresh issues. I understand there is a newer Openchrome version from Tungsten Graphics that resolves problems with the CX700 graphics chipset so that might well work. At least frequency scaling worked out of the box :) The other option would be to take the source code for the Ubuntu 8.10 driver from the Via website and compile it against the Vector Linux 2.6.27.12 kernel.

I've read a good report about Fedora 10 on the g but I never got around to trying it.

The g Netbook, AFAIK, was NOT made for Windows at all. All versions and variations on this machine I've found run some sort of Linux.

Personally the g Netbook is one machine I'm happy to be rid of. The g Netbook Meso is head and shoulders above the original g.

Fendora 10, nor Fendora 11 work with the G netbook..I just tried.

Hello folks,

The Easy Peasy Compatibility list could really use some input from you. It seems that you have a netbook which is on our list but we don't have the details of how it works with Easy Peasy. Would you be willing to help us out with this? If yes then please follow these simple instructions to input your details.

http://www.geteasypeasy.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=1303

We would really appreciate your help. thanks :)

The netbook g meso is a nice machine. I am a network engineer by trade, and it is handy when working in crammed telecomm rooms. I can just plug into he routers and begin proramming. It would be nice if had a serail cord for the Cisco/8E6 units but I can usually used the integrated RJ-45 unless I need console access which is pretty rare.

Shane Cauley
cheyenne
Wyoming

I've had my g netbook for over a year and it runs flawlessly. There's one important thing you need to do when you get it, install Windows.

@Marvin: My problems were hardware problems acknowledged by the manufacturer so installing Windows wouldn't have fixed anything. Nice try, no sale.

I have seen first hand what installing Windows on a netbook does: it makes the system intolerably slow. It also means you have hideous security problems and have to run anti-virus and anti-malware software that slows things down further. Thanks, but no thanks.

You do get credit for the worst advice ever posted to a Linux website.

Again. Been using my gnetbook for over a year with no issues with xp. And use mathematica(and extremely resource demanding piece of software) heavily with no issues.

Mathematica? On a g netbook running Windows? Sure, it will run fine if you don't mind it going slower than molasses running uphill in the wintertime. As an extra added bonus by installing Windows you have made your netbook compatible with 99.4% of all malware in existence: viruses, worms, trojans, you name it. See: http://www.daniweb.com/news/story310770.html Running Linux that just isn't a worry and my system isn't bogged down by having to constantly run anti-virus software.

You win the award for really bad advice offered here.

Does anyone know what server type to use when you are looking for a wireless connection? How do you unlock the network settings?

Server type? What on earth are you talking about? You don't need a server type to configure wireless under Linux. You need to be logged in as root (or sudo to root) to unlock network settings in most Linux distributions.

You'd be best off asking questions in your Linux distribution's support forums.

That is so crappy! I'd just spend a little more, like $250-$280, get an Intel Atom netbook with XP Home. A real netbook, that is. Who'd want this one? :S

Well... using Windows XP turns ANY netbook into crap. See: http://broadcast.oreilly.com/2009/06/high-netbook-return-rate-windo.html Linux is a far superior choice when installed properly, as it is on my current HP netbook.

Also, did you look at the date of the article? Intel Atom for $250 in late 2008? You're kidding, right? Besides, the performance of the netbook running Linux was just fine. That wasn't the issue. The issue was hardware failure on two separate machines. Yes, gOS was poorly configured but once I installed VectorLinux from a software perspective all was right with the world.

FWIW, I'm totally satisfied with my current netbook which runs Linux. See: http://ever-increasing-entropy.blogspot.com? No thanks! I'm not a masochist.

What's up with this crappy imitation of a netbook. I'm talking about the Sylvania 7" Netbook. This "Device" is crap, in the sense that we cannot connect to wireless connection, I bought this for my mother-in-law so she can surf the web and set up a facebook account. On the other hand I bought a NookColor eReader and it connected to our wireless system in seconds. This piece of crap is useless. I would get my money back but I threw away the receipt. I tried calling the 800 number but no answer and when I did get ring, they would answer and hang up.

As I described the supplied wireless driver has limited range but it does work. I also made clear that upgrading the OS and changing the driver solves the problem. The "device" is not "crap" because of faulty wireless. It's simply a poor software configuration.

i wish to find out as to how i can manage to make a clean reinstall of the os as my machine is not booting up. what options should i take to get the machine running once again

I bought the G Netbook when it fist came out. I used it to download picture file from my camera onto the then big hard disk. As discussed, software implementation was poor. Since that time a friend has used it for a year and a half for her bedridden partner for surfing, games and e-mail.

I now have it back and have loaded Ubuntu 11.04. The upgrade took all night and boots and runs well inspite of an error in the upgrade.

Now I am using it to try to learn Linux.

Light - Fun - Educational -- It depends on what you want. At the time it was worth the money and if it dies tomorrow I did ok.

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