A few months ago, I posted a hardware teardown of the CVS Sylvania Netbook pictured above. After working with it and performing a lot of research on it, I promised a follow up article, and here it is. To sum it all up, with a bit of modification to the software, a spare SD card and a lot of patience, you can actually turn this thing into a somewhat useful Linux device. There’s also some improvements and suggestions to be had for improving the Windows CE side of things should you decide to continue using it in its default state.
When I posted the original teardown, I was somewhat distressed at how little information there was for this device. There was a ton of “marketing” material online however very few real-world posts. This appears to have changed and although most of the reviews lamblasted the device as a horrible design and underpowered, I have found that for the price I paid for it, it’s not bad at all. In this article, we will be focusing on software because as much as I’d like to say I’ve done a lot of hardware mods to this thing, the truth of the matter is that I haven’t. Time has continued to get away from me and I’ve had to put a lot of projects on hold. But let’s not start this article off on a downbeat.
In the three months that I’ve been doing research on the Sylvania Netbook, I have uncovered a lot of information that can help turn this machine into a pretty useful piece of equipment. The fact that it has a pretty decent battery in of itself should be of merit to justify the time invested in fine-tuning it.
1: Windows CE
In my research, there have been two key complaints against the Sylvania netbook in regards to a “stock” configuration. The first complaint has been that it is running Windows CE (affectionately called “WinCE”) and the second being that the WinCE installation is really badly implemented.
- The key thing to remember with working with Windows CE is that Windows CE is NOT Windows like on your desktop or “normal” laptop! Windows CE was designed for small form factor devices and although it shares the same name as it’s bigger brother desktop OS, Windows CE can not run Native Windows applications. This appears to be the biggest hurdle in locating user software for the device as people will attempt to download software then when they get the software into the netbook, they are thrown off by an error message stating it’s not a “valid” application. Consider it like taking a MacOS program designed for MacOS and attempting to get it running in Windows XP. It ain’t gonna happen. That being said, there is Windows CE applications out there, however the pickings are slim.
- The other issue with working with the stock Windows CE installation is that the OS software is so badly implemented on the netbook that most things that should work, don’t. Thankfully for us there is a patch available that will make things easier. From research, the patch addresses several performance issues with the core OS, several updates to the builtin applications as well as an update to Internet Explorer. Unfortunately, IE will still render mobile sites by default, but the rendering won’t take as long. The patch also fixes the issue with the wireless card not being able to properly associate with WPA/WPA2 secured networks and DHCP release/DHCP renew works as expected. I have uploaded the patch to here. In order to install the patch, follow the below instructions. You will need a spare SD card at least 128MB in size.
Here’s how to download and perform the OS update:
- Download the patch from here: sylvania_laptop_OS_update.zip
- Extract the executable to an SD card.
- Insert the SD card into the Sylvania netbook.
- Browse to the SD card slot (Computer -> SD Card)
- Launch the patch and follow the on screen prompts.
2:On the Linux side of things…
When I did my original research, I was fortunate to have come by a site dedicated to a Linux distribution made solely for the WM8505 series devices like the Sylvania Netbook. The site and the distribution were called Bento Linux and much like the Japanese namesake, the distribution was very small and was designed to be able to run within the computer’s limited spec. Unfortunately, the site www.bento-linux.org no longer exists but thankfully I still have the documentation and files needed to pull it off. If you are the owner of bento-linux.org and are willing to give me the site files, I would be more than happy to host it here. Please contact me in the comments.
One of the added benefits of Bento-Linux is that unlike some replacement OS installations, this is a sidecar installation meaning that all work is done on the SD card. If you want to boot to Windows CE, halt the Linux OS, pop out the SD card and power the Netbook back on and you’re up and running like nothing happened. Although the Bento Linux site did have instructions for performing an installation to the device’s flash ram, it is not recommended as if you accidentally mess up the Linux distribution, there may be no recovery. In a sidecar installation, you can pop the SD card into another device, make your changes, and then put the SD card into the netbook and you’re up and running again.
Although the site claimed that the distro could run on a 512MB SD card, I will up the recommendation to at least a 2GB card. Prices are low and SD cards are very commonplace so it’s worth it to get a larger chip. I started out on a 2GB SD card, but later upgraded to a 4GB Microdrive and noticed a significant performance increase going from solid-state memory to a USB Microdrive. Your mileage will vary, but it is recommended to stick with an SD card first, then perform upgrades and additional installations as needed later on. As far as USB devices are concerned, you can use any USB storage device/keydrive that is recognized by the usb mass-storage driver in Linux.
Please note that the version of Bento I was running is usable however it did not appear that the sound card was operational. Since I am intending to use this as an external serial console, this was not a deal breaker for me.
Installation (SD Card Only)
Bento-linux comes in two parts. One part is for a FAT16 partition placed at the beginning of the SD card and it contains the boot commands needed to tell u-boot (the Netbook’s bootloader) how to boot the linux kernel and the root filesystem. The other part contains the linux kernel and the filesystem in an EXT3 filesystem and will contain all the files needed to run Linux.
- You will need to start with an SD card at least 1GB in size. I used a 2GB which gave me some room to play around on and of course the bigger, the better.
- Partition the SD card with a 20MB FAT16 partition at the beginning of the card and the rest of the disk space can be allocated for an EXT3 partition. Do not create a swap partition.
- Download the file fatpart.tgz and extract it into the root of the FAT partition on the SD card.
- Download the file extpart.tgz and extract it into the root of the EXT3 partition of the SD card.
- Unmount the card and insert into the Sylvania’s SD cardslot and power on the machine. It should boot the Bento Linux distribution
Installation (SD Card + USB stick)
This setup does not require special partitioning, however it does require that the SD card be formatted FAT16. You will also need a USB storage device formatted EXT3.
- Download the file fatpartusb.tgz and extract it to the root of the FAT formatted SD card.
- Download the file extpart.tgz and extract it to the root of the EXT3 formatted USB stick (or hard drive).
- Insert the SD card into the Sylvania’s SD slot and insert the USB stick into a free USB port on the Sylvania.
In either instance, when you first boot the distro, it will simply bring you to a console prompt and you are good to go. There are a couple of things you may want to do:
- (Pretty much required) Set a root password.
- Install fluxbox (light weight graphical interface) and wicd for wireless control.
- Install aurora (lightweight firefox lookalike)
- Install other applications though apt-get as desired.
Although the bento-linux site is no longer in existence, it appears that all the repositories that come with the distribution point to the arm ports of the official Debian repositories. Prior to them going offline, I saw a note about Bento-Linux had the sources for the WM8505 however it appears that VIA has recently released the sources for the WM8585/VT8505 chips that drive the netbook so if you have any custom drivers, it appears that now there is an easier method for getting the drivers compiled in. I am not a kernel compiler expert so I can’t advise on this process, however some brief research does seem to indicate that there is some element of truth to this.
Linux Impressions and final words
After getting the Bento Linux distribution working comfortably in the netbook, I played around with it and made some tweaks here and there that did give some notable boost in performance. If you are using a spinning platter form of storage, creation of a swap file or swap partition is recommended as it will give you a performance boost. Attempting to make a swap file on the SD card or on a solid-state USB drive are not recommended because of the performance hit when writing to these devices and also due to the issue of “burn-in” when a storage cell is written to frequently. I found that the device works decently enough for quick tasks and light webpages however it will not handle flash at all, nor will it be able to render sites with large amounts of images. In my testing, I was able to use this device to configure Cisco switches and other devices through a USB-Serial adapter and Linux’s “minicom” terminal emulator.
While I believe it was a valiant effort by Sylvania to enter into the netbook market, I do believe that they should have done more research. The Sylvania netbook, even running Linux and with all the performance tweaks mentioned, still is easily beat by Asus’ first offerings into the Netbook market. The two biggest things that seem to harm this device are the lack of RAM in the system (mine only has 128MB RAM) and the sub-par processor less than 1GHz. If you have one, then you may be able to make it work for you, however if you are considering one, I’d stay clear. It’s not worth the price they are asking for it at CVS.
A couple of comments left by Syed and Dave to the original CVS netbook post indicates that there are people out there that are able to get Android running on this device. If you have information or an article written on how you did it, let me know in the comments. I’m interested in trying it out and finding out what works on this machine.