Sunday, July 27, 2014

Linux Distros for Laptops and Power Saving Tweaks for a 2nd Gen i7 Machine

In this post I will note down my experiences in finding a suitable Linux distro for my HP Pavilion dv6 and some power-saving or improving battery life tweaks I now use.

This laptop is really a portable desktop, that is a burn-top rather than a laptop. It is heavy (~2.5 kg), power hungry but very powerful, when it is not overheating and burning your lap.

The first distro I tried was OpenSUSE 12.3 with KDE. This worked out of the box with everything and was a joy to use when AC is plugged in. However, the battery life wasn't great (~1 hour) and it over heated constantly. I upgraded to 13.1, but that process broke my C++ development environment as some libraries became unreachable. Probably fixable but I felt it time to try something else/new.

Battery life and overheating

To improve battery life, I installed TLP and followed this very useful article on howtogeek to tweak this as much as possible.

It is also important to update to the latest video card drivers, AMD/ATI drivers in my case. ATI has settings in Catalyst for power saving and OpenSUSE has improvements for Radeon cards. To get a sense of what is consuming the power, install PowerTop.

To reduce overheating, I underclocked the CPUs to a max of 1.8GHz from 2.0GHz on AC power, to 1.2 GHz and changed the default governor to 'powersave' when on battery. BTW, this trick also works on windows by changing the max execution from 100% to 90% etc. (see this post). This improved battery life and reduced stuttering from overheating, especially if streaming video.

The result was an increase of battery life from 1hr to 2.5 hrs and almost zero fan noise on OpenSUSE 13.1 KDE. All bets are off when you start compiling code however. ;)

Linux Distros for Laptops

KDE is probably the best desktop manager right now along with Cinnamon, but both are processor hungry etc. and suited to desktops so I started to look into other options.

I read that XFCE and LXDE managers would be better for laptops in various places. I had tried these before a while ago and they were very lightweight and snappy. But they were missing important customisation features and looked too stripped down and ugly a few years ago.

I tried XFCE via XUbuntu 14.04 and it was great and looked stylish. Installed flawlessly, boots fast and just works (WiFi, boot splash, suspend etc.). The search feature in the menu like KDE and Cinnamon is also great, but had issues picking out all the installed apps. My touch pad lost its ability to track three fingers and that, combined with a warning that BIOS detected 'overheating', pushed me to look elsewhere. I would reccomend this for older machines or those lacking CPU power.

Next one I tried was elementaryOS, an Ubuntu based distro which I saw running on a colleague's machine. It looked stunning, snappy and workable. After installation, I got the same BIOS error (not surprising since the stable version at the time was based on Ubuntu 12.04) and the panel was very difficult to customise. It looked so good I wanted to stay but even after an hour of searching on the web I couldn't get a working CPU monitor or weather indicators. A distro I would setup for the Mrs or family as it was clean and elegant.

In the end, I ended up re-installing XFCE version of OpenSUSE 13.1 and haven't looked back (so far). The Ubuntu version of XFCE looks better, but the BIOS error disappeared and the track pad worked again. Combined with Cairo-Dock, the final result is reasonable looking and battery life slightly better than the KDE version. I simply switch between KDE and XFCE depending if on battery or not.

OpenSUSE with XFCE and Cairo-Dock
Hope this is useful to someone.

Todo: I need to try the XFCE version of Linux Mint and Lubuntu.

Cheers Shakes - L3mming