Motile M142 Cheapo Linux Laptop Notes

I’ve been using Linux laptops for the past few years, most recently a very portable C302 Chromebook running GalliumOS that sadly stopped charging a while back and never recovered (definitely don’t recommend), and a slightly less portable Gigabyte Aero 14 that’s taken a beating, but keeps on ticking.

While the Aero still works fine, and it’s light for a gaming laptop (with a VR capable GTX 1060 GPU), at 2kg and with a massive power brick, it’s still heavier and bulkier than I’d prefer to travel with now that I rarely use the dGPU (which also makes external HDMI output a real pain). I was meaning to just wait for the new AMD Zen2 mobile chips (scheduled to be announced at CES in a couple weeks and with some great performance numbers leaking lately) early next year and seeing how any new laptops announced stack up against some of the strong Ice Lake options before buying a replacement laptop, but since I’ll be hitting the road again next month and the new AMD laptop models seemed unlikely to ship for a while (if the timing gap from last year’s models are anything to go by), and since there have been some crazy laptop deals lately, I decided to grab a dirt cheap last-gen AMD Ryzen laptop as a potential temporary placeholder on a lark and give it a spin. I’ve been pleasantly surprised so far.

I bought the Motile M142 (14″ FHD IPS/Ryzen 3500U/8GB RAM/256GB SATA SSD) for $300 (it seems to be bouncing up and down in price a bit; there’s also a Ryzen 3200U model that’s regularly been dropping to $200). It is a Walmart-only brand (Tongfang is the ODM), and besides being as light as most high-end ultrabooks at just over 1.1kg, it’s also surprisingly well built (it was also originally priced at $700 and has been subsequently discounted). Notebookcheck has a comprehensive review (there are some other discussions, reviews and videos online if you search for Motile M142), and it’s not the only ~$300 AMD Ryzen laptop available (it is the lightest, and the only real trade-off is that it is a single-channel memory device), but I thought I’d focus writing up some of the more Linux-specific aspects.

The TL;DR on it is that running Arch with the latest kernel (5.4.6), firmware (20191215.eefb5f7-1) and mesa (19.3.1), basically everything, from the keyboard (including backlight), trackpad (including gestures), wireless, sound, external HDMI output, screen brightness, webcam, and suspend, all just work. (Yes, I’m just as surprised as you are.)

Some more detailed notes:

  • I got the black version (more of an extremely dark grey) that looks pretty sharp (here’s a video of the silver version, and the black version), although the plastic on the keyboard does immediately start picking up some finger grease. My unit (manufactured in Sep 2019) had a slight imperfection on a corner but I didn’t feel like waiting for another 2-weeks to swap out what ultimately will be a somewhat disposable laptop.
  • As mentioned, this laptop is quite lightweight at 1.1kg (2.5lb), and it’s also thin, at 15mm thick (but still has gigabit ethernet (Realtek) with one of those neat flippy jacks). The screen bezels are also quite thin, which is a nice bonus, and reduces the overall footprint.
  • The screen is matte IPS, but not especially bright or color accurate (about 250nits, 62% sRGB), but it’s comfortable enough to use w/o any complaints. I’m currently using clight for automatic dimming/gamma adjustment and it works great with the webcam and geoclue2. Also no problem using arandr for external HDMI output, resolution switching, etc.
  • I booted into Windows when I got it just to give it a quick spin (the product code is blown into the BIOS so you can get that easily) and gave the included SSD a quick test (SATA3, and the expected ~450MB/s read and writes).
  • After that I cracked the laptop open. All you need to do is unscrew 6 fully exposed #00 screws to pop off the back, but one corner screw on mine was firmly stuck and stripped. I was still able to access what I needed and I swapped out the 1×1 AC Intel 3165 wireless card with an extra Intel AX200 I had lying around (the 3165 isn’t bad and is fully Linux compatible, but I was able to go from 270Mbps to 500Mbps in real-world AC transfers). There is a second M.2 slot, and I put an extra NVMe drive I had lying around for my Linux drive.
  • Probably the biggest caveat worth mentioning is it has a single SODIMM slot – you can upgrade the RAM, but it is single channel. There are also no BIOS options to speak of, you’ll be locked to 2400MHz on the RAM (interestingly, according to dmidecode, the 8GB stick of RAM included is actually rated at 2666, but running at 2400). The biggest impact of single channel memory is on gaming (GPU) performance, which can be 50% slower than a dual channel setup. If GPU performance is a concern, a refurbed HP 15-cw1063wm at about the same price is probably a better way to go (or something with a dGPU if you want to deal with that).
  • While this laptop has USB-C, like many in its class, it’s missing USB-C PD. This was a minor concern for me since I’ve been focused on minimizing power adapters/standardizing on USB-C for travel power, but I’m happy to report that since it uses a standard 19V/5.5mm barrel jack, it worked perfectly with a cheap 5.5mm to USB-C PD adapter cable I had, so if you have a USB-C PD charger you like already, then that’s all you need. It also charges without issue from my external USB-C PD capable power bank.
  • This laptop comes with a 47Wh battery, which is actually pretty great for it’s class (and better than all the similarly-priced alternatives). Out of the box, the laptop idled at around 12W. Running tlp I was able to get that down to about 8W. Surprisingly powertop --auto-tune was actually able to do better and I’m currently idling at about 6W (7-8W under light usage like right now). I’ll probably spend a bit more time tweaking power profiles (maybe using RyzenAdj to throttle to keep temps low), but it looks like right now I’m looking at about 6h of battery life under light usage. This is one aspect that hopefully the new Zen2 models can significantly improve.
  • Speaking of which, I haven’t played around much w/ ZenStates or RyzenAdj yet except to confirm they do work. The fan isn’t too distracting but it will spin up even during normal use at default settings (you could probably use RyzenAdj to keep temps below the fan curve – looks like it starts to spin up at ~42C. The cooling seems to be sufficient: if I use RyzenAdj to bump the temp limits up to 90C, it can sustain 3.2GHz clocks on all cores running stress at about 82C.
  • The screen hinge only goes to 160 degrees, but the laptop is light enough that I can still use a compact tablet stand to stand it up. When I’m working at a desk I tend to prefer that setup w/ a 60% keyboard and a real mouse.
  • The built-in keyboard is fine (nothing to write home about, but perfectly cromulent for typing – I’m writing this review on it) and some of the Fn keys work hardcoded (like the keyboard backlight controls) but the rest show up on xev. The trackpad is also fine (smooth enough and decently sized), and has the usual fidgety middle click support if you are able to click directly in the middle. Both are PS2 devices.
  • Sound works out of the box with pulseaudio/alsa, using AMD’s (Family 17h) built in audio controller. Speakers aren’t very good, but the headphone jack works fine/switches output like it should. Webcam works as well.

Here’s my inxi output for those curious:

System:
  Host: thx Kernel: 5.4.5-arch1-1 x86_64 bits: 64 compiler: gcc 
  v: 9.2.0 Desktop: Openbox 3.6.1 Distro: Arch Linux 
Machine:
  Type: Laptop System: MOTILE product: M142 v: Standard 
  serial: <filter> 
  Mobo: MOTILE model: PF4PU1F v: Standard serial: <filter> 
  UEFI: American Megatrends v: N.1.03 date: 08/26/2019 
Battery:
  ID-1: BAT0 charge: 31.8 Wh condition: 46.7/46.7 Wh (100%) 
  model: standard status: Discharging 
CPU:
  Topology: Quad Core 
  model: AMD Ryzen 5 3500U with Radeon Vega Mobile Gfx bits: 64 
  type: MT MCP arch: Zen+ rev: 1 L2 cache: 2048 KiB 
  flags: avx avx2 lm nx pae sse sse2 sse3 sse4_1 sse4_2 sse4a ssse3 svm bo
gomips: 33550 
  Speed: 1284 MHz min/max: 1400/2100 MHz Core speeds (MHz): 1: 1222 
  2: 1255 3: 1282 4: 1254 5: 1239 6: 1296 7: 1222 8: 1259 
Graphics:
  Device-1: AMD Picasso vendor: Tongfang Hongkong Limited 
  driver: amdgpu v: kernel bus ID: 04:00.0 
  Display: x11 server: X.Org 1.20.6 driver: modesetting unloaded: vesa 
  resolution: 1920x1080~60Hz 
  OpenGL: renderer: AMD RAVEN (DRM 3.35.0 5.4.5-arch1-1 LLVM 9.0.0) 
  v: 4.5 Mesa 19.3.1 direct render: Yes 
Audio:
  Device-1: AMD Raven/Raven2/Fenghuang HDMI/DP Audio 
  vendor: Tongfang Hongkong Limited driver: snd_hda_intel v: kernel 
  bus ID: 04:00.1 
  Device-2: AMD Family 17h HD Audio vendor: Tongfang Hongkong Limited 
  driver: snd_hda_intel v: kernel bus ID: 04:00.6 
  Sound Server: ALSA v: k5.4.5-arch1-1 
Network:
  Device-1: Realtek RTL8111/8168/8411 PCI Express Gigabit Ethernet 
  vendor: Tongfang Hongkong Limited driver: r8169 v: kernel port: f000 
  bus ID: 02:00.0 
  IF: enp2s0 state: down mac: <filter> 
  Device-2: Intel Wi-Fi 6 AX200 driver: iwlwifi v: kernel port: f000 
  bus ID: 03:00.0 
  IF: wlp3s0 state: up mac: <filter> 
Drives:
  Local Storage: total: 350.27 GiB used: 61.56 GiB (17.6%) 
  ID-1: /dev/nvme0n1 vendor: HP model: SSD EX900 120GB 
  size: 111.79 GiB 
  ID-2: /dev/sda vendor: BIWIN model: SSD size: 238.47 GiB 
Partition:
  ID-1: / size: 97.93 GiB used: 61.48 GiB (62.8%) fs: ext4 
  dev: /dev/nvme0n1p1 
  ID-2: /boot size: 96.0 MiB used: 86.7 MiB (90.3%) fs: vfat 
  dev: /dev/sda1 
  ID-3: swap-1 size: 11.79 GiB used: 1.0 MiB (0.0%) fs: swap 
  dev: /dev/nvme0n1p2 
Sensors:
  System Temperatures: cpu: 33.5 C mobo: N/A gpu: amdgpu temp: 33 C 
  Fan Speeds (RPM): N/A 
Info:
  Processes: 224 Uptime: 12h 12m Memory: 5.80 GiB 
  used: 3.29 GiB (56.7%) Init: systemd Compilers: gcc: 9.2.0 
  Shell: fish v: 3.0.2 inxi: 3.0.37 

Things aren’t perfect, but so far seem to be relatively minor niggles. This list might grow as I use this more (or might shorten with updates or some elbow grease):

  • I’ve read about all kinds of stability and suspend issues with Ryzen mobile laptops, and sleep and suspend seems to work OK, but I have run into at least one compositor issue (which resolved itself when I closed the laptop and reopened it), and the laptop doesn’t like it when you run suspend directly (which seems to bypass the tlp-sleep and systemd-suspend services that do a bunch of cleanup steps.
  • There are a few keyboard niggles. It looks like asus_wmi and wmi_bof are loaded by default (WMI) and hard links about half the shortcuts (sleep, super-lock, network radios, perf-mode, keyboard backlight) and passes through the sound and backlight keys (acpid shows the hard-link events as all the same). One thing that took a bit of figuring out is that Fn-F2 is a super-lock switch which will disable the super/windows key.
  • The lid close works for suspend but not for wakeup (to wake up, hitting the keyboard or power button is required). There are a number of GPP’s labeled in /proc/acpi/wakeup so this may be a future yak-shaving project.