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Review: The ECS A535 notebook computer (Wal-Mart "Balance")
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:
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:
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 walmart.com, 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:
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 188.8.131.52 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.
Other miscellaneous pictures: