Wednesday, 4 May 2016

HP455 Laptop: good news for Linux users

If you bought an HP455 laptop running Ubuntu, you may know there are problems updating the OS from the old 12.04LTS version supplied.

As this laptop relies upon special HP packages, it can be extremely difficult to upgrade, while still maintaining functionality of wifi, sound and function keys.

However, with the release a few days ago of version 16.04LTS, this may have all changed.

You can buy an HP455-G2 with Ubuntu 12.04 installed from eBuyer for £299. This is a great laptop for the money. I like the large bright screen, the nice feel of the keyboard and mouse pad.

My wife has had an HP455 for a couple of months, which is mostly used for photo editing via The Gimp. Although the pre-installed Linux operating system dates back to 2012, everything seems to run well.

I am not a fan of the Ubuntu desktop, with its vertical column of application buttons. It seems to be quite sluggish on the kind of cheap, low spec computers I tend to use, and so I made the move to Lubuntu when this new Ubuntu desktop first appeared a few years ago.

But I have to admit that many features work well (e.g. print-screen invites you to select a save location) and Ubuntu is probably a better choice for many users.

Time to upgrade

So I decided to investigate 16.04 with a view to update the operating system, and the use of a solid state drive (ssd) to speed up boot and application loading.

Being worried about losing what we already had, I started by taking out the 1TB hard drive and carefully putting it to one side. Access to the HDD and the RAM is very easy; just remove one screw and slide off the large access panel.

It would be easy to double the RAM from the supplied 8GB to 16GB, thanks to the second empty slot. The HDD is held in place by 4 screws, with 4 more securing the cage to the drive, which needs to be transfered to the replacement drive.

With a temporary disk replacement, I tried the latest versions of Lubuntu and Ubuntu. Some of my findings may already be out of date. This is because there are many updates to a new release like 16.04 in the days following its release.

Initial tests on Lubuntu looked favourable. Wifi appeared to work (more on that in a moment) but I had no sound. Running 'alsamixer' I found there were two audio cards listed. By simply selecting the second card in the settings for an application like Audacious, I proved that sound worked OK.

I then created a hidden file: /home/steve/.asoundrc
...and added the following to change the default card:-

pcm.!default {
    type hw
    card 1

ctl.!default {
    type hw          
    card 1

Note that card 0 is the first card and card 1 is the second card.

This did the trick for the single user (steve) for other applications such as Firefox, and also proved that the speaker function keys were supported in the software and worked as HP intended.

I reinstalled Ubuntu as a fresh install over Lubuntu (i.e. I started again) and found I didn't have to switch the sound cards, as audio worked properly first time, as did the speaker on/off switch and the function keys which control the volume.

It looks like the microphone function key also works (in that a graphic pops up showing mic enabled/muted) but I haven't actually done a sound check on it.

The snooze function works (the 'moon' key), as does the wifi enable/disable button.

There is a function key which probably switches between internal and external display which I haven't checked.

Wifi: still a problem?

After about 30 minutes of playing around with this setup, I lost my network/internet connection, although the wifi 'radiation' icon still indicated all was well. Re-booting brought the wifi back up. Some time later, it went down again.

The HP455-G2 uses an rtl8723be based wifi. Do a search on the internet and you will find dozens of users with very similar problems, and a handful of suggested solutions, many which appear to work for some, but not all users.

What appears to solved our problem was to issue this command in a terminal:-

echo "options rtl8723be fwlps=N ips=N" | sudo tee /etc/modprobe.d/rtl8723be.conf

The 2 options that are disabled by this command (fwlps & ips) appear to be power save functions. Unfortunately I did not check the settings before doing this. However I understand the default setting are on (Y) so maybe both need to be disabled for reliable operation.

At the time of writing, the wifi on this computer has been trouble free for approx 50 hours spread over several days. If I get any problems, I'll be straight back to update this page.

Installing the ssd

While the original 1TB drive was still in the laptop, I copied all user files & folders to a plug-in USB drive. There are better ways of moving a users Home to a new drive, but this is what I do.

One of the great things about Linux is that user files all live in the users home directory, /home/{username}. For example: /home/fred

It is important to maintain the users file permissions when backing up, so I first logged into the laptop using my wife's account. On the backup USB drive I created a folder. We also want all files in the users home, so in file manager I enable Show Hidden Files in the view option.

Its then a case of selecting all files under /home/{username} and pasting the selection into the new folder on the USB drive.

With the new ssd in place and (eventually) the new operating system installed, do not test application software, especially Firefox and Thunderbird which will create a new default user profile when first run (we want the system to pick up the existing/backed up user files including any profiles).

Having block selected the files on the USB backup drive, I paste the selection into the /home/{user} folder on the new drive. During this copying process I get a number of prompts;

 - Where folder names already exist, I select: merge
...this is to keep any files in existing folders.

 - Where file names already exist, this can be tricky. But generally I over-write with new versions.


So we now have a cheap laptop with an up-to-date Ubuntu version and access to more recent versions of applications like The Gimp.

As expected, it is also much quicker at booting to login screen: approx 15 seconds
...and login to desktop: approx 6 to 7 seconds.

The Gimp takes 8 seconds to load, while LibreOffice Writer and Calc each take about 3s.

That's more like it!

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