Saturday, December 1, 2012

Acer Chromebook C7 With 16GB Of Memory?

Most of my posts have both business and technical elements with a tilt towards the business side. Today I'm going to turn the dial all the way over to geek and expand a bit on my Acer C7 review while also exploring the (unofficial) memory expansion options of the C7.

First of all a word of warning. You void your warranty by opening the case of the C7. If you take a look at the bottom of the C7 you should see a sticker like the one pictured bellow. It basically tells you you're SOL if you open the case and anything bad happens later. Don't say you haven't been warned by me, and Acer if you choose to explore further. 

To Boldly Go..

Below this sticker is a single screw you'll need to unscrew in order remove the bottom plate.

When you do you'll see something similar to this.

The hard drive is on the right and the memory is in the center. The C7 comes with a 2GB SoDIMM pictured towards the top and center. If you look just below it you'll see an additional slot that is empty.

I recently decided to upgrade my main laptop/computer from 8GB to 16GB as the cost with tax and shipping from Amazon was only $70. I'd had the C7 about a week when I received the 2x8GB SoDIMM's and decided to see if the C7 would work with that much memory.

Above you'll see the C7 with the 8GB SoDIMM's installed. Below is a closeup.

You can click on these images to see a bigger version but its probably not worth it in most cases since the quality is fairly low.

The next step was to power the C7 up and see if it would work. I first tried ChrUbuntu Linux. The results were what I was hoping as if you look towards the upper left corner of the following photo you'll see a number that starts 16 and has a lot of additional digits after it...

I'd had a less than stellar experience with this distro when the C7 had only 2GB. By default it doesn't setup a swap/page file and opening Chrome with a half dozen tabs was enough to cause the OOM (Out Of Memory) killer to kick in and start freeing up memory in its usual brutal and unforgiving way. Creating a swap file solved that problem but the system was sluggish which isn't a surprise. Any time you have to start using your hard drive as additional memory performance will suffer. I could have chosen a more light weight window manager but didn't bother since I was fairly sure I'd be upgrading the memory soon.

ChrUbuntu is a 64 bit distro/kernel and it had no problem recognizing and using all 16GB. Having that much RAM in the C7 didn't magically turn it into a high powered workstation but it did improve the user experience since it no longer needed to swap to the hard drive.

Next up I toggled the C7 to boot into Chrome OS and restarted.

I'd noticed before that the mini Linux distribution at the heart of Chrome OS is 32 bit. For the non technical this means that it will normally recognize less than 1/4th of the 16GB I had installed. There is some "magic" that can be done to work around this limitation. It's called "PAE" or "Physical Address Extension" and  what it does is allow the 32 bit Linux kernel to use all of the memory that is installed. This does come at a small cost in lost performance. How much of an impact depends on a lot of different factors but about 5% is typical.

I had no clue if the Chrome OS Linux kernel had PAE enabled but once the C7 came up and I logged in I was able to confirm that it does...

The impact of the additional memory in Chrome OS was smaller since its already very light weight. Opening tabs seemed a bit quicker but that could have been my imagination.

Once I'd verified that the 16GB config worked in both ChrUbuntu Linux and Chrome OS I pulled the 8GB SoDIMM's and put them in my main laptop. That left me with 2x4GB for the Chromebook. Not surprisingly both operating systems work fine with 8GB as well.

It probably doesn't make a lot of sense to upgrade a C7 to anything more than about 8GB since the underlying hardware isn't really up to supporting applications that would need those kinds of memory resources. You can get to 8GB at the cost of your warranty and around $40.

The additional memory does seem to extend battery life a bit. I don't have any formal measurements on this though.

Additional Thoughts

The C7 is an inexpensive work horse and surprisingly customizable. Don't like the hard drive? Invest in a solid state drive and replace it. Want more than 2GB? No problem, can do. Want to run something other than Chrome OS on it? Very doable. I haven't verified Windows 8 but I'd be surprised if it can't be made to work and Ubuntu Linux is already a given.

I'd really like to see an extended life battery. Three to four hours is OK, but I've gotten used to being able to go five hours or more before I have to find a wall outlet. It's not a fatal flaw though given the very modest price of the C7

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