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:

  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 
  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 
  ID-1: BAT0 charge: 31.8 Wh condition: 46.7/46.7 Wh (100%) 
  model: standard status: Discharging 
  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 
  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 
  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 
  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> 
  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 
  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 
  System Temperatures: cpu: 33.5 C mobo: N/A gpu: amdgpu temp: 33 C 
  Fan Speeds (RPM): N/A 
  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. I solved a black screen resume issue I had initially by installing xf86-video-amdgpu.
  • 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.
  • I had an occasional issue where the touchpad would disappear on resume or reboot (and required a power cycle to show back up) but this seems to have gone away by itself.
  • An unsolved issue is that the internal MicroSD card reader seems to not detect cards after resume. I have a small USB MicroSD card reader so this hasn’t been annoying enough to try to hunt down/figure out.
  • Gentoo Wiki has some more info:

Large Capacity Travel Battery / Power Bank

UPDATE: Just as a temporary (Fall 2018) note for those interested (I think this is going on for another month) but Omnicharge has a new device, the Omni Ultimate, that looks pretty great and is only $50 more than their Omni 20 device on pre-order ATM with significantly beefed up specs. My only reservation about recommending for everyone is that it has a 145Wh battery that puts it in the may require approval category and it’s a bit overkill, but it has the highest DC output voltage (150W) and that is adjustable from 5-60V in 0.1V increments (!), which makes it an amazing option if you have a lot of devices (drones, cameras, laptops, etc) that you are carrying around.

I got sidetracked into looking at some of the latest big power bank options (something I last did a year or two ago) and there’s been a few interesting updates. There are a lot more “stick” form-factor inverters like the Jackery PowerBar, although personally I’d much rather have 12V and 19V DC output.

If you’re looking for the cheapest, most compact, highest power output, flight-allowable (100Wh max) battery, it actually remains the same – the RAVPower 23000mAh or the Poweradd Pilot Pro2 (basically the same design). This is pretty no-frills/basic, but has impressive energy density and gets the job done, with 12V and 19V output and decent amperage.

If you need an inverter or are price insensitive, the Omnicharge Omni 20 is pricey, but is very well designed. It also has extremely wide input (4.5-36V) and output (1-24V) options, and the output is selectable to 0.1V – that means you can for example, charge a Mavic Pro battery directly w/o an additional adapter, as it wants 13V+ to charge. It will also take an input of 45W, tied for the fastest charging of anything I’ve run across. It’s surprisingly the same volume as the RAVPower battery, although a bit heavier and less energy dense. There’s also a new USB-C version, and while I don’t care about the lack of inverter, it’s also missing the variable DC output entirely, so not for me, but it’s lighter and cheaper, so maybe worth considering if you’re all USB-C PD.

The Goal Zero Sherpa 100 has come down a bit in price a bit and is also a great option. It has a detachable inverter, is chainable, and most importantly, has the highest power output (120W max – 10A @ 12V and 6A @ 19V) and the fastest recharge time of anything I came across. While I haven’t used the Sherpa personally, I’ve had good past experience w/ many types of Goal Zero products in some pretty torturous production conditions.

I’ve included my spreadsheet below, I got a bit pooped out after a while since there are so many clones/bad options available. There are a few decent options that are way too big to fly with. Oh, for fun, I do have a sheet specced out if you know what you’re doing and thinking about building your own pack and wanted to build something more compact that can output 200W. Oh, the Wirecutter is only mildly wrong this time, but mostly because they assume that you want to recharge your laptop or other DC devices and suffer inverter power loss in the first place.

Alienware 13R3 Review

While my VR development has been a bit sidetracked recently (one guess why), with the release of Nvidia’s Pascal 10-series mobile GPUs, I’ve been looking forward to abandoning my previous portable VR workstations and switching to a more traditional, relatively compact laptop.

I was originally most interested in the Aorus X3 Plus V6, but its release was so delayed, that I ended up preordering the Dell Alienware 13R3 when it was announced in November. Due to some discount hijinks (and the fact that it hadn’t shipped when it was scheduled to), I ended up reordering during the Black Friday sales. Delivery was originally scheduled for Dec 5, but got pushed back until the 22nd, by which time I was already out of the country, so I only this week finally had a chance to break it out and put it through its paces.

So, first, some positive things:

  • OLED screen – the main reason I decided I wanted the Alienware 13, despite the long wait and a few other concerns, was because of the screen. While only 60Hz, the OLED pixels really are glorious – sharp, contrasty, with 1ms switching and a ridiculous color gamut (104% AdobeRGB). It’s a capacitive multitouch screen (I don’t like to touch my screens but the one time I accidentally did, it seemed to work), and it’s mounted on a very solid hinge that doesn’t not wobble *at all* when typing. There is an achilles heel, but I’ll save that for the ‘cons’ section.
  • Good performance – If you order the 13R3 now, you’ll get the latest Kaby Lake (7-series) processor – mine was in the one-month window where the Skylake (6-series) shipped, however the performance difference is minimal (the Kaby Lake might have an ever so slightly better boost clock). I got mine with the highest specced i7-6700HQ that despite worries due to thermal problems in many early subreddit threads, ended up running fine. CPU stress tests clocked it at about 75-80C running at a boost clock of 3.1-3.2GHz, with even lower temperatures undervolting w/ Intel XTU. Sadly, when running benchmarks like Valley or gaming, the system still ended up being about 20% slower than my compact (stock) i7-4790K and GTX970 combo, but I doubt that any other GTX1060 based portable system would do much better (the GPU clock of the GTX1060 didn’t boost to 1900MHz, but stayed a reasonable 1600-1700MHz at around 80-85C while gaming).
  • The keyboard and trackpad were top notch, both in feel, and surprisingly, with the lighting on the trackpad (this is configurable, but by default the trackpad glows when in use and it’s actually pretty neat). The top plate is a soft touch plastic that is nice, although even over a couple days of light use, has started to acquire a few spots of sheen (ick, I know).
  • The Webcam has IR support for Tobii eye tracking (never used) and Windows Hello logins (which actually works great and is delightful)
  • Build quality is super solid – it’s built like a tank and it feels like you could definitely use it as a bludgeoning tool and then continue on your merry way. It’s also worth noting that swapping RAM (2 slots) or m.2 SSDs (2 slots) is a breeze – literally 5 phillips screws on the bottom, which is a big plus. The service manual is online, and overall, near complete disassembly looks like a breeze.
  • Due to the delays, I ended up calling Dell customer service a few times, and while not always completely helpful, I didn’t have to spend too long on hold and most of the time it felt like they were moving the ball along, so kudos for that.

OK, now with the cons, which includes some pretty serious stuff, sadly.

  • The screen – As I mentioned, one of the main reasons I picked the Alienware 13 over anything else was the OLED screen. And it really is glorious – as long as you are in complete darkness that is (that Achilles heel I mentioned). Even in indirect or low ambient light, the screen is basically a mirror, and if you like running dark text terminals like me (which would also be better for the OLED’s battery life), you will spend a lot of time staring at your own reflection. I really can’t fathom why someone would have such an otherwise awesome display and then put it behind such a glossy piece of glass.
  • Size and weight – While the build quality is admirable, and in theory I knew it was heavier than some of the alternatives, it’s not until you get it in your hands do you realize how bulky it really is. The computer itself is 2.5kg (5.5lb), and the power brick is another 0.8kg (1.7lb) on top of that. In total, you’re looking at almost 3.3kg (7.2lb) for the package. The sizing isn’t much better. It’s relatively thick at about 24-27mm (the other dimensions aren’t super small either), but worst of all, the center of the laptop is actually pointy, not flat. This makes propping the laptop up or using many laptop stands a non-starter. I don’t really know what Alienware was thinking with that design element.
  • Battery life – shorter battery life is something that I expected but in practice, turned out to be unacceptably low (much lower than reviews and claims I had seen) 84t92ao. In my unscientific rundown test of random web browsing and YouTube video watching, I got 3h 10m of use from a full charge before it shut down. This was in a darkened room and I don’t think I heard the fans turn on once mind you, so I don’t think it was stressing the system (also, w/ the OLED screen, you can’t disable Optimus, so I assume it wasn’t working out the dGPU even).
  • I paid a few bucks extra for the Killer 1535 (vs 1435) network card, which is supposed to have solved some of the older 1435’s connection problems. I also uninstalled the Killer Suite and reinstalled just the drivers, as that’s supposed to help as well. Alas, for whatever reason, the 1535 would drop connection (well, remain connected but time out on packets) about once a day. I have half a dozen devices running on my AC wifi without issues, so I’ll lay the blame on the card – it’s a relatively minor issue since it’d only be about $30 and 5 minutes to swap it out w/ an Intel wifi card, but I figure I’d mention it, while I’m piling on.
  • As I mentioned, there’s some minor throttling under gaming loads (1600-1700MHz on the GPU vs the 1900MHz max boost), although angling the laptop for better ventilation didn’t seem to improve things much. I also noticed some minor occassional graphics memory corruption in certain overlays in the game. Note: performance improved by about 10% after updating to the latest Nvidia WHQL drivers. There’s probably more I could have done to tweak out performance, but the screen, life, and bulk really killed my enthusiam

As you might expect, after a few days realizing some of the shortcomings, I’ve ended up deciding to return the system. I think for those that don’t fly/travel as much, or that don’t mind extremely glossy screens (there must be a lot of people like that, because I feel like Dell isn’t the only offender here), this might be a good fit. There really are a lot to admire here, and the reviews that I read/watched were mostly positive, so I don’t want to give the impression that this laptop is a total stinker.

For those looking at lightweight/portable VR capable workstations, your options are still sort of limited. I’ve ordered a Gigabyte Aero 14 that will hopefully address the worst issues I had with the Alienware 13 – it has a matte anti-glare IPS display (sadly w/ average color gamut), is 1.9kg (the 2.4kg weight with the power adapter is the same as the weight of the Alienware laptop by itself) and is almost 50% thinner. It also has a beefier 94Wh battery (Gigabyte has made claims for 10 hours of use, but honestly, I’d be happy if it could hit 5h of web browsing) and an Intel 8260 wifi card. Gentech is also offering a free liquid metal CPU+GPU repaste so I have some hopes that performance might actually be a bit better as well.

Here’s a couple video reviews of the Alienware 13:

(Just look at that glare in the Linus video – he doesn’t mention it at all)

Oh, and here’s some Aero 14 Reviews

DJI Mavic vs GoPro Karma

Last week, GoPro announced its long-awaited drone, the GoPro Karma. The most compelling part is that it’s a modular system that includes the drone and a 3-axis gimbal that can be detached and used as a handheld. The product itself is super polished and includes a carrying backpack (w/ a chest mount no less) for a very reasonable price. For $1099, you get the system with a GoPro HERO5, which offers top-of-class image quality – honestly, GoPro’s promo vid, entirely filmed w/ GoPros, needs to be seen in high quality (youtube-dl -f 266+140 '') to be believed.

Today, DJI responded with the DJI Mavic, a foldable/portable drone that is smarter (it has all the obstacle avoidance and object tracking of the Phantom 4 and more) and incredibly small (folding into probably half the volume). It also has a (super-tiny) 3-axis gimbal and a camera that looks about on par w/ the HERO5 Session. It is $999 w/o a carrying bag/backpack, and neither the camera or stabilizer are modular (it also requires your smartphone to use for navigation vs the Karma’s AIO controller). Here’s the best hands on I saw today:

I’m definitely in the market for a travel drone, and while the Mavic’s stability is perhaps a question mark (UPDATE: looks good on Casey’s video), in almost every other way, it’s an obviously a better drone than the Karma, but if you are looking for more general (ground + air) filming, to get the same setup you’ll need to either pack your phone and spend another $300 for something like the DJI Osmo Mobile or for all-weather/action use, a stabilizer and an action camera (conservatively $500 total). As a do-everying solution, the GoPro Karma is compelling, even more-so when you consider that you can upgrade the camera separately. (While the HERO5 is w/o a doubt “the best GoPro ever,” honestly I was hoping that GoPro would end up offering an Ambarella H2 option for 4Kp60 10-bit capture and >60Mbps recording. Well, there’s always next generation.)

As of right now, I’ve preordered the Mavic, as the image quality is good enough, I don’t much care about the GoPro accessory or software ecosystem (both of which could be big pluses for some people), and I’m much more weight/volume than price sensitive. I sold some of the GPRO today that I bought a couple weeks ago to defray the costs (I’m actually still pretty bullish on GPRO and still long on it. Also, was pricey by the time I looked at it, but AMBA has been on a tear and maybe be the real winner from the drone wars.)

I’d like to start doing some more video in general, but I’m currently a bit undecided on the right mix of cameras. A m43 upgrade is almost certainly in the cards (the new Olympus EM1mk2 will do Cinema 4K 237Mbps recording w/ IBIS as well as a monstrous 15fps mechanical shutter for stills. The GH5 will do UHD 4Kp60 422 although details are sparse since it won’t be out until mid-2017), but I’m a bit unsure on what kind of stabilized (waterproof?) camera I’d want to go with, and whether there are any worthwhile stereo-180 or mono-360 cameras coming out (I’m tracking a bunch of options, just haven’t seen anything great yet).

UPDATE: The Karma does not fare well in this comparison:

UPDATE 2: Hmm, maybe not so terrible, the Hero 5 video quality is better and you’ll be able to upgrade the camera as well…