The Day The Netbook Died

By Caitlyn Martin
October 6, 2009 | Comments: 22

Back in March I wrote a glowing review of my Sylvania g Netbook Meso, calling it "a Linux netbook done right." For more than seven months I was entirely happy with the netbook. Running Linux it proved capable of being a small and very portable desktop replacement with just enough horsepower to do all the things I do on my systems for both home and business use. While that model was on the market I often recommended it highly.

Last month, right before the Rosh Hashana holiday, everything changed. On that Friday, with no warning, the little netbook failed to boot up. I couldn't even get to the BIOS. For the third time a Sylvania netbook I owned had suffered a premature hardware failure. The netbook had a one year warranty and it was only seven months old so I expected to send it in for repair at no charge.

On Monday morning right after the holiday I called Digital Gadgets, the company that markets Sylvania netbooks, and never could get past voice mail. I left messages in their tech support and general mailboxes. I did the same on Tusday, both morning and afternoon, and again Wednesday morning, without response. By Wednesday afternoon I was truly frustrated and tried the Digital Gadgets support form on their website. I also wrote to Amazon.com, the dealer that sold the netbook in the first place, asking for their assitance in obtaining warranty service.

I finally got a response from tech support at Digital Gadgets asking questions about the failure by e-mail. On the third e-mail they agreed to provide a repair under warranty. Before that happened I also heard from Amazon.com. Under the circumstances they offered me a full refund.

Here is my final e-mail to Digital Gadgets support:

Thank you for offering to repair my Sylvania g Netbook Meso under warranty and sending me a UPS shipping label yesterday. I will not be availing myself of your offer.

As you already know I had left messages on the Sylvania tech support line for nearly three days before you contacted me. On the third day I also wrote to Amazon.com, the dealer who sold me the laptop, asking for their assistance in obtaining warranty service. Shortly after you contacted me they offered me a full refund of my purchase price. I decided to accept that offer and the credit was processed today.

What you are not aware of is that the Sylvania g Netbook Meso was actually my third Sylvania netbook which failed prematurely. I purchased a Sylvania g Netbook (original model) in December of last year which failed after just 10 days of use. It would lock up intermittently with increasing frequency for no apparant reason. I exchanged it for an identical model. The new one had non-functional wireless straight out of the box. I then returned it and purchased the more expensive Meso model thinking it would serve me better. As you know it worked well for seven months but then suffered yet another premature hardware failure.

I've taken a "three strikes, you're out" attitude towards Sylvania and Digital Gadgets as a result of Amazon.com's kind offer. They went above and beyond what they needed to do in terms of customer service. While your response was also entirely appropriate and professional the lack of response to my phone messages on your tech support line was not.

Thanks again, but I've already decided to buy a netbook from one of the larger, more well known computer manufacturers.

Part of my reason for writing this is to give Amazon.com some well deserved kudos for their excellent customer service. I would have gladly purchased the replacement from them but, sadly, they no longer offer current netbook models preloaded with Linux and I refuse to purchase a Windows machine. As a result they have lost my business. The best customer service in the world can't sell products they don't carry.

Did I have any problem finding a Linux netbook? Nope, none at all. An article detailing the currently available choices, at least here in the United States, will follow shortly.

My other purpose in writing about my experience was to update my March review and warn people away from Sylvania netbooks. It turns out there was no need; Sylvania netbooks seem to have disappeared from the market. Considering my experiences I'm not at all surprised that their foray into the netbook market wasn't exactly successful. It's a pity because for seven months I really did like their product.

Oh, and apologies to Don McLean, whose line "the day the music died" from "American Pie" inspired the title of this article.


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22 Comments

One such place is http://www.system76.com/ just incase it has slipped by ya. ^.^

Did you try to Flash the BIOS? I have an Acer Aspire One that I use to test several Linux distributions every week. After several installs the Netbook will fail to boot up. Black screen with no 'press F2 for bios' etc screen. Flashing the BIOS with a USB Pendrive fixes it instantly.

How do you flash the BIOS when your netbook is "black screen with no press F2 for bios"?

Because Acer did one thing right with this somewhat sensitive BIOS, which is left a hook available that a properly formatted USB drive with certain files in its root will allow the BIOS to reflash itself in almost the worst of conditions, and in almost all cases, your machine will come back to you.

That is why most of my USB keys I use on a regular basis are bootable with the files in place.

Of course, from a security standpoint, I can look at it as a huge gaping hole. It is what it is.

Kudos on the article. While I am sure you will get dozens of responses from tech-savvy individuals on how you could have fixed your problem, the reality is general-acceptance of Linux on any hardware platform will not be successful if only advanced by some of these boutique shops.
Hopefully the endeavors by Canonical to mainstream the Linux desktop will be picked up by major HW players. I think only the HPs, DELLs, and Lenovos of the world are really positioned to advocate Linux beyond the data center.

I have a meso g. It is crap. It looked good at the beginning, but not long was required to show it up for what it is.

Mine buzzes annoyingly when I plug a headset in. It locked up frequently when running fairly heavy-duty apps like Audacity, and the keyboard is simply unusable for any kind of typing (only one shift key).

I tried to contact support and gave up. I re-imaged the machine with Ubuntu 9.04 and use it strictly for online banking.

HP 2133 netbooks suck too. We bought one and at about the 3 or 4 week mark it just died. I knew it was the motherboard and sure enough that is what it turned out to be. The service company said it took three replacements (and 3 months of us waiting) before we finally got it back working again.

I'll never touch an HP again, and their service is nothing less than shocking.

@Brandon: I looked at System 76 and also at ZaReason. Their prices were simply beyond my budget and not at all competitive.

@Linux Affic: As I pointed out in the article the system would not boot at all. You need to be able to boot into Ubuntu to flash the BIOS on the Sylvania netbook.

@Frihet: I had absolutely no problems with the g Meso for seven months. No buzzing, no lockups at all and I used it very heavily. I also adapted to the keyboard very quickly and had no problem typing on it. Giving up on service instead of demanding service is a guaranteed way to be sure your problem will never be solved.

@slumbergod: I have dealt with HP service, both as a corporate customer and with their desktop systems for about 15 years now. I've generally found HP customer service to be outstanding. I don't doubt your report at all but it is 100% contrary to my experience. My new netbook, which I will be writing about, is an HP.

Search for crisis bios recovery for instructions.This is what I used.Acer has more than 4 different Bios versions. Best early instructions came from persons saying they worked for acer on blogs not phone support.
Repair manual downloads available.


1) Format a USB memory key with the FAT mode.
2) Download the latest version of the BIOS from Acer support website:
* HERE if you have a Aspire One A150
http://support. acer-euro. com/drivers/ notebook/ as_one_150. html
* HERE for the Aspire One A110
http://support. acer-euro. com/drivers/ notebook/ as_one_110. html
3) Extract the files from the zip and put both the FLASHIT.EXE and the BIOS file in the root directory of the memory key.
4) Rename the BIOS file to ZG5IA32.FD and then remove the disk.
5) Turn the AA1 off, insert the battery and connect the AC adapter.
6) Insert the USB Memory Key into one of the USB port of the Aspire One.
7) Press Fn+Esc, keep it pressed and press the power button to turn the AA1 on.
8) Release Fn+Esc after a few seconds, the power button will be blinking.
9) Press the power button once. The AA1 will start the BIOS flash, do not interrupt for any reason. After some minutes the power button will stop blinking, and then the AA1 will reboot. Wait till the AA1 has completed all this operations.

@Roger: That may be helpful for an Acer Aspire One. Sylvania has no equivalent crisis BIOS instructions. Their instructions to me were to send then netbook back. What works for Acer does NOT work for other brands.

I've already returned the Sylvania and received a refund.

Regarding the symptom experienced in the failure of this netbook, namely that "... It would lock up intermittently with increasing frequency for no apparant reason..." let me offer a plausible and very possible technical explanation: Mobile Ion contamination of one the silicon microchips, perhaps the keyboard controller itself. First, I have lots of semiconductor Fab experience throwing into the garbage anything that remotely "smells" of "Sodium Contamination, aka Mobile Ions". Second, about 15 years ago, I bought a desktop which exibited the same problem (only this one took about 30 days to start locking up). Another sign that it is an IC from a "dirty" wafer Fab is if the machine is left unplugged or off for 3-6 weeks and Voila! it boots up again after that respite. The ions become randomly redistributed while the transistors are without an applied voltage and their havoc does not show up until they have been in operation for a number of hours (depending on contamination level). It is what it is, someone doing business selling garbage.


@fred: Wrong netbook again. That was the one I returned in December of last year. The one I returned recently just stopped working, period. Nothing on the screen at all. There was nothing intermittent about it.

Folks, please read carefully before offering interesting but irrelevant theories and solutions.

You could also have called the article "The Day the Notebook Stood Still".

"Hey Gort! You been playin' games on my computer again? How many times have I told you NOT to fry the circuits when you lose?"

Since you've already returned the unit, I won't suggest removing the memory and the HD to make sure one of those isn't causing the problem.

Seriously, I wonder about the build quality of any $200 or $300 laptop, and what has been given up to reach that price point. I'm starting to have more problems with my ASUS EEE netbooks (keyboards starting to flake out), and I wonder what will be next. Perhaps these machines are meant to be throw-away goods.

the night chicago died...
that was my first tune recognition from your title.

Instead of buying a netbook, at this point I would probably buy a used IBM laptop. It may be somewhat larger and heavier, but the IBM laptops that I have used have all been very well built. The main problem is to find one with a touchpad instead of (or in addition to) the silly "eraser mouse" button.

@KB0HAE: A used laptop, like the Toshiba I'm writing this on, won't serve my needs. If I have any complaint about today's netbooks it's that they are too darned big and heavy. I still have a circa 1998 Toshiba Libretto with a 7" screen and I loved that machine when it was powerful enough to do real work. I also loved the small form factor and the 1.7 lb. weight of the original Sylvania g Netbook. The last thing I want or need is a big, heavy machine to lug around.

Also, considering how long ago IBM sold their Thinkpad line to Lenovo anything that says IBM on the case will have less horsepower than a current netbook. I'd also be afraid of buying somebody else's problem.

Small and portable is what I want. I was very happy with the Sylvania g Meso for seven months. I think by sticking with a name brand manufacturer I'll get the quality I want in a netbook. My HP Mini 110 will be here next week :)

Still diggin my original Acer Aspire One!

@Linc: If Acer hadn't dropped Linux like a hot potato the current Aspire One models would have been worth considering. I just refuse to buy a Windows box and add to Microsoft's market share myths. I also prefer to support companies that support Linux. Acer kind of, sort of half-heartedly did for a while there, but no more.

Hi Caitlyn,

Thank you for taking your valuable time to relate your experiences. We've been purchasing used netbooks but refuse to pay more than $75 to $100 cash for them. That will go down soon as the wireless internet providers and businesses like Google, Amazon, and Walmart all get into the act of offering free netbooks for one reason or another.

Sincerely,
John and Dagny Galt
Starving The Monkeys, Owners Manual For The Universe!(tm)

.

Sorry to hear about your netbook woes, kid. I use an Acer that came with winXP, and I shrunk the partition with Puppy Linux's GPARTED utility, adding not only puppy, but desktopbsd unix as well. I'd like to put debian and/or slackware on it, but I've seen too many video issues with these, as well as other driver issues. As to Acer's limited and dismal foray into linux, I can only say they chose a dismal rendition of linux to use on their little machine, which prompted most folks to return them at a ratio of 4-1 over the windoze machine. I left my two windoze partitions on only to make the machine easier for others to use who are linux-challenged. Good luck on your HP-Mini, as I hear it is a fine machine, albeit more pricey than I want. As an aside, MicroCenter usually sells Acer refurbs for $199, which means that the device came originally with linux, and got returned by someone that hated their version of it. You can always replace windoze with something you like. Be sure to post a review of what you got!

Thank you for your belated reply to my article about the failure of the Sylvania. In the six months I've had the HP Mini 110 I must say it has been flawless. I've really enjoyed using the netbook. It also came preloaded with Ubuntu 8.04 LTS (Hardy Heron) so I didn't add the Microsoft's oft inflated market share numbers, which, IMHO, is a good thing.

Sadly HP seems to be pricing themselves out of the market. The basic starting price of the Mini 110 was $275 when I bought it. It's now up to $380 while Dell still offers a comparable netboook which has received excellent reviews for $279. Part of that cost may be the Windows 7 license as HP no longer is offering Linux preloaded in the consumer marketplace. (They still do in their business line.) So... while I can recommend the HP Mini 110 as an excellent piece of hardware (at least so far) I can no longer regard it as good value for the money.

You're right, I need to review the netbook already :)

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