A Linux Netbook Done The Right Way: the Sylvania g Netbook Meso

By Caitlyn Martin
March 31, 2009 | Comments: 15


Back in February I wrote about my experience with the original Sylvania g Netbook, which I termed a "nightmare" due to both hardware failures and an incredibly poor implementation of Linux, specifically gOS, that failed to include the drivers necessarily to properly support the hardware and which made upgrading or adding that support difficult at best.

I also pointed out that I had replaced the g Netbook with a newer Sylvania model, the g Netbook Meso, in late January. I stuck with Sylvania for a simple reason: at the time the Sylvania offerings gave me the best value, meaning the best available hardware at the lowest cost. I couldn't find anything else that would give me a full 1GB of RAM and a sufficiently large hard drive in the $300 or under price class. Since then prices have dropped further but Sylvania still offers more for less money than any other netbook brand.

I was also cognizant of the fact that Osram Sylvania doesn't make computers at all. They license their brand name to Digital Gadgets who, in turn, imports their netbooks from different manufacturers. The original Sylvania g Netbook is based on the Via Technologies Nanobook design and is very similar to the Everex Cloudbook. The Sylvania g Netbook Meso, which uses an Intel CPU and graphics chipset, is based on entirely different technology. Hardware issues I experienced in the older model were not going to be replicated in the newer model.

In just over two months of use so far I have been very impressed with the Sylvania g Netbook Meso. None of the issues, hardware or software, that I encountered with the original g Netbook, are seen in the somewhat newer model. The Meso has proven to be an upgrade in performance, in reliability, and most definitely in the area of software. The preinstalled Ubuntu Netbook Remix 8.04 just works. A newcomer to Linux will have no problem adapting to the OS and applications provided and keeping the system updated and secure is straightforward and problem free. In short, with the Meso model Digital Gadgets/Sylvania clearly demonstrates that they can do a Linux netbook very well indeed.

Hardware Overview

The Sylvania g Netbook Meso is actually a rebranded AMtek Elego. The Meso, while still very small and light, is significantly larger and heavier than the original g Netbook. The Sylvania website claims a weight of just 2.2 lbs. but the number on the AMtek website turns out to be far more accurate. It weighs in at 2.54 lbs. (1150g) and is 9" (233.5mm) long by 7" (177.3mm) wide by 1.25" (34.1mm) high when closed. Even with the AC adapter travel weight is under 3 lbs.

The Meso features an 8.9" backlit screen with a native resolution of 1024x600. I have to admit that this is significantly better than the 7" screen and 800x480 resolution I was prepared to live with when I bought the original g model. The display is very sharp and bright and is not at all fatiguing to work with for extended periods of time.

The keyboard has been a major complaint in some other reviews. All netbook keyboards are smaller than standard laptops. I have no problem touch typing properly on this keyboard and the beveled key edges and very responsive feedback from the keys definitely help. I realize that I have small hands and fingers so others might have different results. Many reviewers note the lack of a right Shift key but that isn't the only oddity on the Meso keyboard. A number of symbol keys are very oddly placed, such as the backslash and pipe (vertical bar) key to the left of the spacebar. The right and left square brackets are two rows apart and the apostrophe and quote are to the right of the up arrow key as well. This definitely took some getting used to and I found that I unconsciously developed a decidedly non-standard typing style as I adjusted. The touchpad on the Meso is a very reasonable size and works as well as any I've used to date. The mouse buttons are directly below the touchpad and are also as large as anyone can reasonably expect on a netbook.

Battery life isn't nearly as good as the original g Netbook I reviewed in February. I have yet to get anywhere near the published 3.5 hour battery life for this system. The best I have achieved is just under three hours and when watching video or compiling software I have had less than 2.5 hours or working time before the battery was exhausted.

Sound from the internal speakers is typical of netbooks: thin and tinny sounding. Connecting external amplified speakers to the headphone/speaker jack provided very decent sound quality with one caveat: plugging into the headphone jack produces an audible hum in the computer itself. The hum is loud enough to be annoying when music or sound isn't playing.

Under the hood the g Netbook Meso is powered by an Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz CPU. This processor is hyperthreaded and performance is excellent. The Meso is significantly faster that the 1.2 GHz Via C7-M ULV powered original g Netbook. CPU frequency scaling works out of the box and with any Linux distribution I've tried to date. The Intel 945 Express Graphics chipset is also extremely well supported and 3D graphics acceleration also works as expected.

The Sylvania g Netbook Meso was originally offered with either 512MB or 1GB RAM but at present only the 1GB configuration is available. The Meso uses a conventional 2.5" hard drive and is available with either 80GB or 160GB of storage. While I believe that SSDs are the future of laptop and netbook storage at present the models used in netbooks are significantly smaller and slower than the conventional hard drive offerings. This was a significant factor in my choice of the g Netbook Meso.

The system has three USB ports all in a row on the left side of the system. If you are using a largish USB device you may find you need a USB hub or extension cord in order to be able to use all three ports. Even my aging 512MB Lexar JumpDrive is too wide to plug in if two ports are already in use. My newer, larger USB memory sticks have no such problem. The microphone jack and power cord are also placed right next to each end of the row of USB ports exacerbating the issue. There is also an SD card slot on the left side so between that and the USB ports adding storage is no problem.

The Meso has a very solid feeling to it and appears to be durably built. It is available in four colors: basic black, snow white, blush (a light pink), and a blindingly bright yellow. Despite my quibbles with the keyboard, battery life, USB port placement, and audible hum when using the headphone jack I'd still rate the hardware in this netbook as generally excellent. In addition to using it as a replacement for my old Toshiba Satellite laptop I've plugged it in as a desktop replacement, deliberately letting it run long compilations overnight and keeping it up and running for several days. This isn't typical netbook usage by any means and the Sylvania handled it flawlessly without missing a beat.

Linux Implementation

The Sylvania g Netbook Meso is offered with either Windows XP or Ubuntu Netbook Remix 8.04 LTS (Hardy Heron). Since I make my living from Linux and UNIX it isn't surprising that I would choose the Linux version. I would actually recommend the Linux version to anyone. Ubuntu Netbook Remix, as implemented on the Meso, is easy enough for anyone to use. Ubuntu should offer superior performance to Windows XP for most applications and there is no need to add antivirus or anti-spyware software since both are essentially non-issues on Linux. In addition the Linux version, much unlike Windows, comes with a full suite of software applications already installed and ready to go, including OpenOffice, which does an excellent job reading and creating Microsoft Office documents. Other applications preloaded include the Firefox web browser, Skype, Evolution e-mail, Adobe Acrobat Reader, Rhythmbox media player, Cheese (an easy to use webcam application) and Pidgin instant messenger software. Evolution is a particularly good choice because of its ability to access Microsoft Exchange Server based e-mail accounts.

By default Ubuntu Netbook Remix (UNR) uses a tabbed, browser-like interface that is extremely easy to use. For those who prefer a more conventional GNOME desktop it's simply a matter of clicking on Preferences and choosing the "Classic" desktop. None of the usual Ubuntu functionality has been hidden. Users have easy access to the full Ubuntu software repository so updating a system and keeping it secure is or finding new software to install with the Synaptic package manager is no problem. There has also been no attempt to hide system administration tools or the command line, much unlike other "simplified" netbook Linux implementations that actually make it harder for a new user to learn and to customize their system to their needs.

Unlike the original g Netbook most everything "just works" as shipped on the Meso. There are two notable exceptions. The webcam provides a picture that is anything but sharp with the provided driver. An updated webcam driver available for download from the Sylvania website solves this problem. A BIOS update to resolve some reported issues with suspend and resume is also available. Both the BIOS update and the webcam driver update are scripted, meaning they need to be installed at the command line as root.

Both wired and wireless network connections worked properly right out of the box. The RALink wireless chipset is completely supported by the kernel. Connecting to my WPA2 encrypted network was no more complicated than entering the passphrase once and telling the system to remember it.

Without any doubt Ubuntu Netbook Remix is the best implementation of Linux I've found on any netbook. Aside from the need for two updates, something not uncommon on Windows based laptops, UNR is completely ready to go. While the gOS Linux implementation on the original g Netbook was an absolute disaster the implementation on the g Netbook Meso proves without doubt that on the second go Sylvania/Digital Gadgets got preloaded Linux right.

It should be noted that there is a second Linux distribution included on the Meso. The recovery partition is actually an implementation of Clonezilla with an image of the factory default installation. Accessing the recovery partition is a matter of editing the /boot/grub/menu.lst file and increasing the timeout from zero.

Conclusions

I've been totally satisfied with the Sylvania g Netbook Meso. No, the hardware isn't perfect but the design issues I pointed out are all minor issues which haven't detracted from my computing experience. Performance is excellent, as in more than good enough for me to use the Meso for literally everything I normally do on a computer without feeling like I'm missing anything. The netbook is solidly built and still lightweight enough to go anywhere.

Ubuntu Netbook Remix is also well configured and well stocked with the applications most users will want. While a tabbed desktop designed for the small netbook screen and for ease of use is offered by default none of the functionality of Ubuntu has been stripped out or hidden. It's also just two clicks of the mouse to switch to a conventional desktop. There are two updates available specifically for the Meso which should be applied. In general, though, Sylvania did a first class job in providing a Linux netbook that anyone should be comfortable using, newcomer and experienced Linux user alike. This is exactly the opposite of my experience with the original Sylvania g Netbook.

With a current street price of $269 the Sylvania g Netbook Meso may be the best value in a netbook available today.


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15 Comments

That's a nice article here. Personnally, I am waiting for the ARM netbooks to come up, they would have a very long battery life as I was told.

Thanks for the update - One of these days (once I can pry the money out of the budget) I intend to pick up a Linux netbook, and the Sylvania G Meso is one of the top choices so far. My only complaint is that they only support 1GB of RAM (though apparently you can upgrade that to at least 2GB, it is said to void the warranty if you do so).

Strangely, for me the most interesting fact here is your mention of the BIOS upgrade. Maybe it's just because I haven't gotten a new computer in three years, but it seems significant to me that we can FINALLY do BIOS updates on computers without having to boot into "Windows" to do it...

My MSI Wind U100641US Intel Atom N270 160GB 10" Netbook - Black
will arrive tomorrow with Windows XP. It is coming off and I'm gonna try Ubuntu netbook remix

Slightly off-topic, but the entire "www.sylvaniacomputers.com" site has been down for a few days now. Not sure what's going on...

And a more on-topic followup question: how big is the recovery partition on the hard drive? (Is the hard drive actually larger than 80GB to accomodate it, or is it literally an 80GB hard drive, with a portion of that used up by the recovery partition?)

The Sylvania Computers website is now at http://www.digitalgadgets.com

It's an 80GB hard drive. The recovery partition is about 4GB. The recovery partition does reduce the amount of usable space.

In the default configuration there are three partitions: recovery, swap, and a 74GB partition for OS and data. I used Parted Magic to shrink the 74GB partition to just 7.5GB for OS only and created a 50GB home partition. The rest I used for additional partitions for other Linux distros.

When I read about the Eee PC last spring ("under a kilo"), I had to have one. I loved it, but after working a couple of hours on the 9" screen, I couldn't see a thing when I looked up. Now I'm planning to get the Dell lightweight 12".

@Anonymous: Clearly a netbook isn't for you. I've used the old Toshiba Libretto with a 7" screen (not widescreen, mind you) for about 10-12 years. They weren't called netbooks back then but it was essentially the same thing. I have no such problem with small screens and clearly neither do a lot of people since the small machines are popular.

9" screen? Yeah, it's a bigger machine than I'd like but I've adjusted :)

I thought the plan for some of with eyesight issues was to get a laptop and a 'docking station' with at least a decent flatscreen but perhaps also a nice mouse and decent sized keyboard. This still takes up less space than many cases on the market today when packed away but still has the portability for taking to other place (presumably some of these might have a similarly usable screen for temporary use). There are also a range of products for people with much worse eyesight along with "Accessibility features" worth exploring. Hopefully i have found an angle there you haven't already tried and hopefully one that might be helpful.

Good luck and regards from
Tom :)

I've had my Meso for a few weeks and I think it's a real quality piece of hardware. I bought it ($250!!!) with Ubuntu but have since set-up a dual-boot so it runs Windows XP (for Powerpoint presentations, mostly) and Ubuntu 9.04. Like you, everything worked for me out of the box and I have essentially no complaints. Thanks for writing this article. There are a few reviews on the web that are sort-of lukewarm about the Meso, but I think it's really top-notch. I certainly wouldn't use it as my primary computer (I like big screens for work), but it's great for traveling, email, web, youtube, skype, etc.

When I read about the Eee PC last spring ("under a kilo"), I had to have one. I loved it, but after working a couple of hours on the 9" screen, I couldn't see a thing when I looked up. Now I'm planning to get the Dell lightweight 12" vatan.

@Sylvester: May I respectfully suggest you get your eyes checked. I am using my Sylvania pretty much as a desktop and laptop replacement. I work on it for quite a few hours every day, as in eight or more hours, with the 8.9" screen and it has no negative impact on my eyesight. Thankfully my eyesight has always been quite good. I really fear you may have a problem.

Personally, I miss the small size and light weight of the original Sylvania g Netbook. The 7" screen didn't bother me either.

The whole point of netbooks is small. Clearly a netbook, any netbook, is just not for you.

The review sounds good..I'm wondering if this is available in the philippines...

@neil: The Sylvania name was only licensed for the U.S. market. In Asia this netbook is sold as the AMtek Elego. I am not familiar with what is available in the Philippines, sorry. Hopefully you can find it under the AMtek brand name. I'm still happy with mine.

Dear Caitlin, It's been almost a year since you posted this article. I thought to ask you if the hard drive on the Sylvania G Netbook (not the Meso) is upgradable (from 30Gb to 80GB)? Thank you for your help. I am about to purchase a new one (believe it or not) that actually has Windows XP uploaded (not Linux).

@George Molina: I had terrible experiences with the original Sylvania g that were hardware problems, not software. See: http://broadcast.oreilly.com/2009/02/netbook-nightmare-my-experienc.html I would highly recommend avoiding that system like the plague.

In addition, even if everything works the Via C-7M processor is considerably slower than an Intel Atom and the maximum RAM capacity on the original G is just 1GB. That system will be terribly slow running XP. If you want to run Windows I can almost guarantee that you will be terribly unhappy with it even if the hardware doesn't fail. If you plan on wiping Windows and installing Linux and don't mind working through the driver issues (should be pretty much solved on a current distro anyway) then performance should be acceptable.

Regarding upgrading the hard drive, AFAICT the g uses an ordinary 2.5" drive. Sylvania does not offer an upgrade so it would strictly be a DIY project that would void the warranty. I've never taken the g apart, opting for warranty repair or replacement instead, so I can't tell you whether or not it's difficult to do. If it's like most netbooks the main issue will be disassembly and assembly. The hard drive itself shouldn't be much of an issue.

Anyway, I hope this helps.

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