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Review: The ECS A535 notebook computer (Wal-Mart "Balance")

(Click any image below for a 1600x1200 hi-res version in a new window)

SUMMARY of the false advertising situation (Almost resolved)

I've removed the long chronology that was previously found on this web site because it's no longer relevant. Wal-Mart has investigated, talked to their vendor, confirmed that the machine is not what was advertised, and has corrected their advertising as of 10/28/04. I hope to find out today (11/1/04) what compensation they plan to offer to purchasers who were duped by the earlier advertising. As for my own case, I have switched to a different laptop and don't intend to deal with ECS any more, ever again.

For those people who don't know what I'm talking about, models CN4301 and CN6302 (and probably also model CN6301) were incorrectly advertised up until 10/28/04. The CN4301 was listed as having an AMD Athlon XP-M 1600+ (this processor has a 1.2GHz clock speed) and the CN6302 was listed as having an Athlon XP-M 1800+ (this is supposed to run at 1.4GHz). In fact, the slower machine runs at 1.1GHz and the faster machine runs at 1.2GHz. I initially believed that the slow speed was just a BIOS bug or jumper error, but investigation showed that not only is the CPU installed in the machine rated for the slower speed, but it is ALSO not an Athlon XP-M; it is a mobile Athlon 4, the previous generation chip. Furthermore, the special "Balance" BIOS loaded onto these machines has been hacked to lie about the installed processor. If you flash with the generic BIOS off ECS's web site, you see truthful information about the processor. So, this was a deliberate fraud attempt on the part of the vendor. The vendor in this case appears to be a company called "J. Mason / MTS Products", one of which is probably a d/b/a. This is the company you'll deal with if you ever call for technical support. I have an understandably low opinion of them, since they tried to brush me off when I was first investigating this issue. Fortunately, Wal-Mart took me seriously and looked into the matter quickly.

Wal-Mart's customer service operations manager informed me that they will be emailing all customers who bought this product with a compensation offer. I will post details of that offer here when I find out what they are.

Latest update on Linux support with this machine, as of 10/17/2004:
  • Audio: This is a rather interesting situation. The DMA engine in the SiS southbridge is 100% supported by the Intel 810 driver in both ALSA and OSS. No problems there at all. The reason this volume issue arises is that the C-Media AC97 codec physically lacks a PCM volume control register. The Windows driver simulates software volume control by attenuating the waveform in the DMA buffer before passing it on to the chip! At this time, there is no implementation of a software-only mixer in ALSA or OSS, although it is a proposed addition to ALSA. C-Media does have a Linux driver for their chips, and that driver does have software volume control support as described, but there are a few reasons I don't want to try it. First, their web site has been down for several days, so I can't download it. Second, it's only been tested against 2.4.x kernels. Third, and most important, I don't want the performance hit. I am vaguely considering writing a quick patch for the ac97 driver that will support this dumb software volume control. If I do that, I'll make the driver detect max volume setting and bypass the attenuator code entirely. That is the best way to handle it, but it's definitely not the way C-Media handled it, judging by the performance niggles people have reported.
  • Ethernet: The r8169 doesn't support mii-tool, or at least the r8169 driver doesn't expose the right ioctls. This is not a show-stopping problem but it does mean that there is a long pause on boot if the Ethernet isn't plugged in.
  • WLAN: Now working very well. Simply disable the "check for sleep inside spinlock" option when building your kernel. This option fights with the linux-wlan-ng driver. There are, however, two minor glitches. First, if you boot the machine into Windows, then reboot into Linux, the WLAN might not be recognized (use the power-cycle method described below to fix this). Second, WLAN isn't always recognized perfectly at boot time. My way around this is to have a shell script that unloads prism2_usb and p80211 modules, then modprobes prism2_usb, sleeps 5 seconds, then ifup wlan0. Note: You may get into a situation where the device isn't properly recognized even when you boot back to Windows. To fix this, you need to power down and unplug the AC adapter briefly. You shouldn't normally encounter that problem, though - I only hit it regularly when I was repeatedly loading and unloading the drivers while testing out configuration options.

I recently needed to buy a new laptop computer for my wife. To cut a long story short, I decided to give her my "old" laptop (a rather nice vpr Matrix 120-180B5 (Samsung P10), P4-1.8GHz/512Mb/30Gb/DVD/CDRW/15" XGA) and buy something cheap for myself. She needs lots of battery life, and my old machine has two good batteries; I almost never use battery power. While scouring the Internet for something cheap, I found Wal-Mart advertising two models of home-brand (Balance) notebooks, one at $598 (model CN4301) and one at $698 (model CN6302). Further research led to the discovery that this machine is in fact an ECS (Elitegroup Computer Systems) model A535. I could not find much in the way of reviews on this model anywhere on the web; it's either very new, or has only been sold under disguised house brand names. So, I took a chance (I've read that Wal-Mart has a very good return policy) and bought the $698 model, which turned out to be $775.80 with tax and shipping.

First advice: Skip the $598 model. Yes, it's very cheap, but if you put down the extra $100 for the CN6302 model, you get:

  • Faster processor (1.2GHz vs 1.1GHz)
  • Double the RAM (256Mb vs 128Mb)
  • Combo optical drive (DVD/CD-RW vs. DVD-only)
  • Double the battery (8-cell vs. 4-cell)
There is also an intermediate model, CN6301, sold on It is the same price as the CN6302, but only has the smaller 4-cell battery. Go figure. Here are the full specifications for the CN6302, since Wal-Mart is kind of brief on the topic:
  • AMD mobile Athlon 4 1600+ CPU (1.2GHz)
  • 256Mb RAM. 128Mb is soldered on the motherboard, the additional 128Mb is on a TwinMOS PC2700 SODIMM (even though the chipset can apparently only take full advantage of PC2100 RAM). There is only one SODIMM slot, and the unit supports modules up to 512Mb, giving a maximum possible RAM of 640Mb. Note an interesting issue: With PC2100 RAM installed, I could not get the WLAN card to work. I had to put back the PC2700 DIMM.
  • 40Gb hard drive (9.5mm Hitachi), combo DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive (Panasonic UJDA-760, 24x CD-ROM, 24x CD-RW, 24x CD-R, 8x DVD).
  • 14.1" XGA LCD. ECS does offer a 15" option but Wal-Mart doesn't carry it. However I think XGA resolution is too low for a 15" screen anyway. The display is very bright and readable.
  • SiS chipset throughout - including a SiS 962L AGP4X video chip using shared memory. You can configure it for 8, 16, 32 or 64Mb of video RAM. The 3D performance is minimal, though 2D performance is quite acceptable.
  • Integral stereo speakers (very good, for laptop speakers) and microphone (well-positioned, to the right of where your right hand sits on the palmrest).
  • Four USB 2.0 ports, parallel port, VGA output, TV (S-video) output.
  • Gigabit Ethernet (Realtek RTL8169), internal soft-modem, internal 802.11b card.
  • Two programmable buttons; by default one launches MSIE, the other launches your mail program.
  • 8-cell Li-Ion battery. The manual for this product says 2.5 hours battery life, whereas Wal-Mart's web site, and ECS's web site as well, both say 80 minutes. In actual testing, I got a little over 90 minutes.
  • Fullsize keyboard with nice deep key travel. The tactile feel is not bad at all; any deficiency here is more than made up for by the fullsize key spacing, anyway.
  • Built-in touchpad pointing device with scroll button as well as two regular buttons. The two normal buttons are very flimsy and quite hard to press; you should use the tap-to-click functionality provided by the touchpad. The buttons will break after being used for a while, I guarantee it!

I ordered the mid-grade shipping option ($16.20 vs. $7 for the cheapest option). I placed my order Sunday, the laptop shipped Tuesday and it arrived Thursday to my house in New York City. This was MUCH faster than Wal-Mart's site estimated. According to Wal-Mart, in fact, I won't be receiving the laptop for another week yet. Here are some pictures of the device as I unwrapped it:

Here's how the notebook arrives to your door. This product can only be ordered from, it is not available in the physical stores.

Some views of the internal packaging arrangements.

The actual computer is packed in the usual styrofoam inserts. Note that the manual says it arrives with the battery installed. This is not the case.

The unit comes with a Windows XP Home product recovery CD, CD-burning software, and a utility CD containing the hardware drivers.

Where to begin with a review? First, you should nota bene that this machine needs to be reviewed and assessed in the context of where it's being sold, and to whom it's being marketed. It is emphatically not a machine for power users; it is intended for students, home users, and others who need a basic Internet machine with the bonus of being a laptop. With that in mind, read on for my impressions of the unit generally, and some specific information about getting it working with Linux.

Now, some important history. ECS is primarily a motherboard manufacturer. A couple of years ago, they released the first of a line of machines they called "Desknotes" (sold under various names including the PC Chips brandname). These were machines that looked like laptops, but were built using cheaper desktop chipsets. They did not have an internal battery; they were AC-tethered (although ECS did sell external battery packs). The A535 is clearly an evolutionary step up from the early Desknotes, but not a very big one. It's competently engineered, but laptops aren't ECS's design strength. The two obvious omissions from this particular machine are PCMCIA/Cardbus (it was left out to save cost) and the fact that it only runs for ~90 minutes on its "extended" battery, where contemporary machines typically run for as much as three hours on a standard battery.

The first thing you'll notice when you turn the machine on is the exceedingly loud CPU fan, which runs more or less constantly while the machine is operating. The speed regulator on this fan also lacks hysteresis, so if you're doing certain tasks that push the CPU into a particular temperature range, the fan speed will oscillate in a somewhat irritating way. There is also a second fan that comes on occasionally during particularly intensive operations, but the second fan is much quieter. Note that the BIOS from ECS's USA web site is VERY aggressive with the fans; they run full speed almost constantly. The BIOS off the Taiwanese site is much quieter; I recommend the upgrade. By the way, this fan issue should be a warning flag to you that the machine probably has cooling problems - and sure enough, it turns out that the CPU throttles down due to overheating after just a few minutes of use. So, you'll probably never be able to enjoy sustained full-speed performance out of this machine - although the average user might not even notice this issue. However, it's good to see that the hot CPU is located well away from the battery, which means that the battery should enjoy a long service life - the main killer of Li-Ion batteries is heat. The machine also runs nicely cool to the touch; it's perfectly comfortable to work with on your lap while sitting on the couch.

I didn't use the preloaded Windows XP Home installation at all; I immediately blew it away and installed Fedora Core 2 plus a small Windows XP Professional partition for playing games. From a raw install, the following results were obtained with Fedora Core 2:

  • Video - Internal LCD working fine. Did not test TV-out.
  • Sound - Plays back audio properly, but volume control is not working; you can either have full blast audio, or silence. This appears to be a conflict between two audio drivers, both of which load mixers - the OSS driver for the C-Media chip, and the ALSA driver for the SiS SI7012.
  • Wired network - Working properly.
  • Wireless network - Not working.
  • USB - Working properly.
  • Modem - Not working. I don't have an analog phone line, so it is very unlikely I will ever test or debug this issue.
  • Touchpad - Basic pointing device functionality is working, but tap-to-click is disabled.

The first thing I worked on was a kernel upgrade. Pretty much all the tinkering I need to do relies on having a hand-rolled kernel available. So I installed kernel with this configuration file. This sped up the boot process quite a bit, but did not solve the audio problem. However, while I was installing my custom kernel, I added psmouse.proto=imps to my kernel boot line, which re-enables the tap-to-click function of the touchpad. My next point of attack was WLAN. The WLAN adapter is connected via an internal USB connection. It is a Prism 3-based adapter, manufacturer: AirVast Taiwan, product: IEEE 802.11b PRISM3 USB. VID=0x124a, PID=0x168b. I downloaded linux-wlan-ng-0.2.1pre22. src/prism2/driver/prism2_usb.c already recognizes this device. After installing the driver, I can connect to unsecured (no WEP) APs, but not to my AP, which has WEP enabled. I'm still debugging this problem. Power management in Linux is about 75% there - suspend doesn't completely work, but screen blanking does turn off the LCD backlight, which is an important feature. The ACPI implementation basically seems to be 100% Linux compatible, it's just that some of the drivers, particularly those related to XFree86, don't have power management implemented yet. Look for support here to improve with newer kernels.

So here's my summary of the unit. Overall it is a good value. If you don't need to do games or video editing, this is a competent laptop and the price is just right. Given its design limitations, I'd give this product four and a half stars out of five. It loses the half-star solely because of the flimsy touchpad buttons.


  • Low cost.
  • Complete set of features for all its target market.
  • Adequate performance for most tasks except games.


  • Sluggish processor.
  • Poor 3D graphics performance (perfectly adequate for productivity, but unacceptable for modern games).
  • Noisy fan(s) running all the time.
  • Flimsy trackpad buttons.
  • No expansion route except USB - you cannot add FireWire, for example.
  • Short battery life (note, however, that you get exactly what is advertised - in fact, slightly more).

Other miscellaneous pictures: and all original content herein is © Copyright 2004 by Lewin A.R.W. Edwards. "" is a trademark protected under U.S. and international law. Infringement or attempted dilution of the intellectual property rights held by Lewin A.R.W. Edwards will be prosecuted to the fullest possible extent.