Linux on the LG Gram 14" 2020

TLDR

The 2020 14” LG Gram laptop is a surprisingly great, trouble-free Linux laptop to use as a daily driver and worthy replacement to a Macbook Air or Pro. It’s lighter, quieter, and seems more performant than comparable Macbook Air’s or Pros for such a slim machine, has a ridiculously long battery life, and a gorgeous screen. It has yet to overheat despite a lot of heavy lifting genomics, software engineering, and data science heavy lifting (unlike my Macbook Air). When the fans do spin up, they are very quiet. Virtually no downsides to this machine and I have to admit it’s a worthy and cheaper replacement for a Macbook Air which I wish I’d risked buying earlier. I don’t understand why more professional reviewers in the Linux community are not pointing at this machine. Details below.

Preamble

I’ve been looking for a worthy replacement for my 2016 12 inch Macbook for a while. Something as light, more powerful, quiet, that I could drag anywhere thoughtlessly, and run linux on since I want to be putting my money where my mouth is open source wise, but make no concessions on work capabilities or flexibility. (especially after the 2020 Linux Sucks talk where Lunduke called out people talking Linux, but using OSX).

In the end, I decided to go with a LG Gram 14” 2020 model. What you read on the tin sounds great. Fast processor, great screen, it’s under a kg in weight, has very long battery life, I love the keyboard on it for thumping out prose, and the worst thing I can say about it, is that it feels less solid than other laptops build-wise despite the MIL toughness rating LG touts for it. It’s not a traditional choice when you ask about Linux laptops, though I often feel my goals for a very portable laptop of an all-round business, engineering, and data science machine rather than a “geek box” means that I am often not reviewer’s target audience when they talk about linux laptops. I want something to replace a Macbook Pro or Macbook Air and not have me feel like I am taking a step down. I want to feel like I am taking a step up or at least getting something for whatever I may be trading off. I also need to be able to work in corporate, business environments as a manager rather than just an independent developer or data scientist which involves travelling on planes, connecting to foreign wifi, VPNs, videoconferences, Office docs, making business presentations, and getting the same mileage and flexibility I would out of an Apple or Windows laptop.

So, I bit the bullet and ordered one on a good deal from Amazon after obsessing over the choice.

Since I wanted to use this as my sole daily driver and effectively replace my Macbook Air, but also experiment a bit with my daily environment, I decided to try out 3 distros: Manjaro Awesome, POP OS 20.04, and Manjaro i3. This may be a non-traditional choice for people who would go with Ubuntu, SuSe, or RHeL out of the box (or even the hard core Arch). POP is a surprisingly professional and slick Ubuntu based distro (it deserves a lot more accolades for how well it works, and I’d argue is targeted towards software engineers, data scientists, and researchers in emphasis). They have also innovated in small ways on daily usage, for example, allowing the ability to have tiling of windows much like features in tiling window managers like i3 and Awesome. I have to admit POP OS is what I thought I would end up using, though I’ve ended up coming down on the side of i3 and Manjaro. Manjaro was actually the dark horse. Manjaro, for me, is an easier way to install Arch Linux and take advantage of the excellent AUR ecosystem. It also contrasts a snapshot versus rolling distro approach. More on what I went with later, let’s get to the meat of this machine.

The Machine Itself

If you’re not familiar with the LG Gram, you probably know LG from its ubiquitous position in the world of panel displays and TVs. The South Korean manufacturer has made major inroads the last decade, much like its chaebol cousin Samsung, in a wide range of areas underpinned by some key electronics categories.

When I ran around last year looking at a replacement for my long-in-the-tooth 2016 Macbook, the LG Gram was the only machine that met almost every criteria in my grid: light, powerful, long battery life, quiet, and had a good keyboard. I have to admit, I seriously like the keyboard on this machine. The Razer’s was slightly better for sheer bangability, but typing on the LG Gram is very comfortable, has nice travel, and feels like an upgrade from the Macbook Air. I also like the fact the arrow keys are in an inverted T configuration, which you don’t see so much anymore, since I still use arrow keys instead of hjkl despite the damage to my geek cred.

My 2020 model is specifically the 14Z90N-U.AAS7U1 0.1 model with 16GB and a 500GB SSD and with Wifi 6. The memory, SSD, and Wifi are noticeably fast and I am sure it adds to this machine’s impression of speed. It sports a 10th-gen 1.8GHz Intel Core i7 i7-1065G7 (8) @ 1.800GHz with an integrated Iris Plus Graphics G7. It has an impressive 8 cores (compared to my Macbook Air’s 4 with its 2018 i7 processor). The Gram is expandable (unlike some of th other machines I looked at, nor the… cough… Macbook Pro or Razer) so I will possibly add another 8GB of memory at some point in the future and will install another TB SSD for expandability as I move over to using this as a daily driver and to increase its longevity (impressively, so far the Gram is using significantly less disk space than the Macbook Air as well despite having all my data housed on it now.).

Specs

CPU Intel Core i7-1065G7 @ 1.8 Ghz
Graphics Intel Iris Plus Graphics
Screen 14-inch FHD resolution
RAM 16GB DDR4
SSD 512GB SkHynix HFS512GD9 SED
Ports 2xUSB 3.0, 1xUSB-C, audio jack, 1xHDMI, 1xThunderbolt 3, MicroSD card reader
Wifi Wifi6 Intel AX201, 802.11ac
Bluetooth 5.0
Sound DTS: Ultra
Weight 0.99kg

The screen is especially nice on the LG Gram (unsurprising, considering LG’s dominance in the TV and panel space) though I would have preferred a matte version as I personally find it a bit too glossy and reflective at times (I do tend to use dark themes though) though I imagine matte is something I’ve gotten used to on the Macbook Air. It can be a bit distracting in bright rooms like my home office. There’s a slight colour difference between the panel and the Macbook Air’s TrueColor display, but other than the fact the screen is highly reflective, there is plenty of screen real estate, it’s wider than the Macbook Air screen, and I believe in 16:10 ratio (which is great for movies) and I have no complaints with it.

The battery life is pretty astounding and with TLP tweaks in Linux runs all day for virtually everything I do, which is nice. I imagine performance is thermal throttled in some way, but so far the machine has ripped through everything I’ve given it and since I felt performance on the 2018 Macbook Air was fine, I’m surprised by reviewers commenting on middling performance (Windows issue, perhaps?). The noticeable speedup with everyday applications like emacs is pleasantly surprising and welcome (though on the Gram I am running 28 instead of 27 as I do on the Mac).

Oh, another thing I love. The fans are very quiet. Much quieter than the Macbook Air which keeps on sounding like it’s taxiing for takeoff when I get CPU spikes (Dropbox, for reasons no one can fathom, does this constantly on large deletes or creations of files like node_modules directories.). Love the fact it’s so quiet. I got very used to the fanless state of my Macbook 12” and total quiet while working, so the LG Gram feels like an upgrade from the Macbook Air. Also, it has yet to heat up in any way (or overheat like the Macbook Air.). Admittedly, these issues probably have more to do with buggy Intel chips (one of the reasons Apple is moving to its own silicon) than the machines themselves, but it’s an area where the LG Gram, like its weight came out clearly on top.

I have only three real nitpicks:

  1. Why a separate barrel power pin and power brick but also charging USB-C?
    Why the extra space was dedicated to a power port instead if say, better speakers or an upward facing placement on the speakers is beyond me. I’ve been charging it via USB-C every since it arrived and not even sure what I did with the original barrel pin connector and powerbank. They could have saved space and cost and reworked speakers or given a matte screen option. :-/
  2. The speakers are just ok
    Not bad, but I think LG Gram could have stolen a march on other manufacturers at this price point and made them really great and focused on the acoustics of this machine a little more (especially with its screen, it’s great for watching movies or video direct rather than streamed to a TV.). I would have hoped for speakers with more oomph since this I plan on this being my primary machine, and the fact the grills are downward pointing means sound is not as rich as you get on the Macbook Air (which has good sound) or MBP. I’d love to see this upgraded in the next version of the machine (perhaps use the space to the sides of the keyboards for the grills like they do on the Macbook Air’s since there is so much room?)
  3. It seems fragile
    The last thing is something every person that reviews this machine comments on. Lightness in a 14” machine comes at a price. Even though it may not be, the laptop feels a bit fragile despite the MIL toughness spec LG touts (which allegedly may be easy to hit.). I imagine this is why it’s so ridiculously light, since they used a magnesium alloy rather than aluminum, but there is an almost disturbing flex to things like the screen which makes the machine feel less solid than its build quality warrants. Let’s see how the thing will deal with future squishing in backpacks and my vagabond life of international air travel (when COVID lets us all do that again.).

Starting Install

Considering the issues I had putting Linux onto Apple’s 2016 Macbook 12” a few months ago, getting Linux going on the LG Gram 14” was amazingly trouble-free. I was actually prepared for this section to be a long list of the config changes and exceptions to the stock install I had to do to get the hardware pieces up and working, but… everything worked out of the box with all 3 of the distros I worked with, including full disk encryption.

In fact, it worked so well that I don’t understand (again!) why more Linux hardware reviewers and forums don’t recommend this machine vocally as something you should run out and buy right now. While I think this has a lot to do with how far distro developers have improved installers and how far Linux has come as a general desktop operating system, I’m impressed at how smooth installation was, and how everything “just worked” out of the box on Manjaro Awesome 20.0.0, POP OS 20.04, and Manjaro i3 20.0.3.

Things I would have expected trouble with, like:

  • wifi6
  • webcam
  • sound
  • brightness keys
  • sounds keys
  • keyboard backlighting
  • USB-C monitor and charging

… all worked flawlessly on boot up both in Manjaro i3 20.0.3, Manjaro Awesome 20.0.0, and POP OS 20.04

I ended up spending more time trying to craft a Manjaro i3 system at firt merely because it was very fast, loved having the workspaces and rofi launcher/clipboard manager, and really liked the easy configuration by simpe text files.

Suspend worked normally though I’ve noticed if I close the laptop lid the battery still continues to drain more than I would like overnight and, for some reason, the machine will not hibernate/suspend to RAM, so looking into why has sort of uncovered this interesting rabbit hole where it seems a great deal of Linux distros (in fact, none I could find by default) both encrypt the drive and have a mechanism for hibernate to disk enabled. I’ve seen some fixes for getting that working, and even on an attempt with Arch, could not get it working, but for me this is problematic as I need to keep energy consumption low, particularly when travelling. It is interesting this ie not working on most distros, even when you enable swap space for the capability (for example, in Manjaro) since it is something I take for granted with Apple when I close the lid on my Air. Still trying to determine how to retrofit my install to get this working, though at the moment, hibernatiing from i3 on Manjaro has the machine shut down and then causes the CAP LOCK key to start blinking which is usually indicative of a serious power hardware issue (though obviously not in this case.).

I will need to look into that as obviously it’s a big problem if I need to use it on long flights and as a daily driver (right now, hibernate, blanks the screen, but then some sort of ppower system panic causes the Caps Lock key to flash… something I have to admit I had never seen before and had to google.). Battery life goes all day if you use tweaks like Slimbook Battery and take advantage of the Balanced or Green configs (which also has a nice systray selection.).

Wireguard worked out of the box VPN wise, and I’ve noticed a significant speedup in my VPN speeds (I use NordVPN which has a great CLI linux client, its own Wireguard implementation called NordLynx, and I have a systray icon for indicating the V pn connection is active.).

In fact, the only hardware item that seems not to be working right off first boot up on the machine was the fingerprint sensor, though I have not tried to get it going and imagine it may be because it needs some configuration to get it working (with say PAM or similar – I know on the Macbook Air I thought it’s something I would never use, but it’s surprisingly handy for not typing in your unlock password and such. Nice to have so will look at it some idle Sunday.)

There’re some minor tweaks I’ve had to perform to optimize a few things on Manjaro (which is an Arch based distro) or work around minor bugs (for example, an X config tweak to stop GPU offloading apps from freezing sometimes, which I’ll outline in a separate setup post but seems to be an Intel issue with the 5.x kernel family.)

BIOS changes

So, what do you need to do to get to the installers and have a clean install experience?

First off, alter the BIOS to let the system know it needs to boot from your USB ISO and you also need to disable Intel’s Secure Boot.

Pretty easy, and I was pleasantly surprised this was all that was required to get working Linux on the machine.

When you turn on the LG Gram and as it’s booting up, hit F2 before you see the logo to get into the Phoenix BIOs. If you don’t get the BIOs screen, shut down the machine and repeat. You missed having the system register the F2 before the logo (or were too early). I tend to hit the key repeatedly until the logo comes up which always seems to get me into the BIOS.

In the BIOS, go to Secure Boot. Change the setting there to Disabled.

Then, simply go over to Boot Order under the Boot menu option to make sure the selected install USB you have will boot first (be careful as there is an option marked “USB CD”. That’s not it. In fact, I recommend having the USB already plugged into the USB-A or USB-C port first as it will show up as an option to choose (via the + key to move it up the boot order list) so you can select it since it chooses it by name rather than device it seems.).

Once your install USB is the top selection in the boot order, hit F10 and say Yes to the Save option.

Wait for system to reboot and it should load the bootable ISO and you can install from there. On POP, this will put you directly into the installer, but for Manjaro Awesome and i3 you’ll need to explicitly go into the menu item to install the distro.

In every case, I nuked the disk completely (removing Windows) and installed from scratch, encrypting the drive partition as well (POP OS does seem to be a little quicker unlocking the encrypted partition on boot up for reasons I’m not sure about as well as having a much more elegant full screen disk unlock screen as opposed to Manjaro’s bare bones terminal prompt. In general, the POPOS installer is quite a bit slicker than Manjaro’s but that is the only discernable difference.)

Manjaro vs POP OS

[updated: 2020-08-19]

My original intention has been to install POPOS as I was really impressed with the 20.02 beta earlier in the year on my 2016 12” Macbook. However, I ended up enjoying installing both Manjaro Awesome on my system, and then for more simplistic followup, Manjaro i3 (and even Arch Linux i3) due to the speed and slickness of the keyboard driven workflows. In the end though, I found I was spending too much time tweaking little things in i3 distros to get them working or looking the way I want though the experiment was well worth the time and I learned a lot about linux internals and picked up some new software as well (in particular, the rofi launcher/clipboard/calc is something I loved as it gives me Alfred-esque workflow from OSX and am now using it on POPOS to enhance workflows and keyboard driven speed ups.).

It did make me a little sad, though. I think an amazing Linux desktop distro which is much different from current desktop environments (many of which, I believe, ape Windows and OSX too closely) is merely a matter of some hard work by a small, talented team who understands what passionate powerusers want. I still feel I am making compromises with POPOS as it consumes more resources than I would like and I miss the raw speed of i3 (and gnome can be annoying at times), but it’s polished, works well, looks clean, and most everything I needed to do I can do now by some subtracting, swapping things out, or adding a few key apps in there. Though, I have to admit, I loved the ability of my entire desktop system to be defined by the i3 config file and a few other programs. The simplicity and ability to understand what was going on was awesome (I still might just use POPOS and switch it to i3 but, need to get some work done… :-) )

In the end, while it took a bit of digging, I managed to find up to date flatpaks or PPAs to get things like Go 1.15 installed and Emacs 28 so my system is now actually even more up to date than my Macbook Air, but I imagine I’ll miss some of the niceties in Arch/Manjaro and AUR based distros in general, since they do seem to encourage (if not outright require) greater experimentation with your system. Of course, I want to ride that fine line between improving my system and not fiddling with it continually so I can get work done. Also, the ability to swap to more advanced non-LTS kernels in Manjaro is handled very well. I have to admit I did like the feeling of running the 5.8 kernel rather than 5.4. I am sure it’s my imagination, but it did seem faster and my battery seemed to last even longer.

Depending on how you want to use your machine and both your expertise with Linux and your tolerance for desktop environment stability, I’d have to say, go with POPOS if you want your system to be a daily driver from a business and engineering/data science viewpoint. Manjaro and Arch are amazing if you want to be more hands on with your system and poke around curring edge Linux internals and don’t mind the fact you might need to wade into config files at a very low level. Ultimately, it’ll depend on what’s important to you and how critical your machine is as a daily driver and type of work you do.

Bottom Line

Quite honestly, I am loving this machine and it kicks ass as a light, fast, long-lasting, portable machine with a great screen that chews through heavy coding and data tasks effortlessly. I’m already gravitating to it more than my Macbook Air which surprises me (The MBA is a fine machine and solidly built and the OS is beautiful and ergonomic.).

I’m going to do a separate post on what I did to i3 to make it into this great little productivity system I’ve got since it did involved tweaking and even some changes to my current workflows which surprised me since it actually made things better (changing to log and weekly capture templates in emacs, for example or using rofi as a swiss army knife of everything) and there are still a few quirks with i3 that are small but may be deal killers for people – for example, i3 keeps forgetting my dual monitor setup (using ARandr and Nitrogen to remind it of proper wallpapers is trivial but an extra thing to do when you’re focusing on other things). I also do really like the way it’s easily configurable via simple, understandable text files and its keyboard driven defaults (which you can change if you don’t like.). I sort of liked the idea of the workflow was working with Awesome WM and its Manjaro version but found tweaking Awesome to my liking to be buggy and error prone and frustrating leading me to i3 as a simpler, easier alternative. It’s not all sorted yet, but the minor things are easy to live with and something I will work on as side projects in the next little while (for example, to somehow getting i3lock to work with Apple’s Aerial AppleTV videos as a screensaver, or a slightly more robust snippet manager than greenclip currently supports). To be honest, moving my massive photo collection (45k+) out of OSX Photos into something like Shotwell is probably the only major hurdle left I need to figure out. I also need a way to figure out how to display arbitrary styled html files at regular intervals on the i3 desktop.

Overall though, super happy with the laptop and the crafted setup I’ve got at the moment. As I get things into the shape I want, I’ll post the dotfiles and a summary of things needed to get applications tweaked to duplicate what I’ve got here as a better productivity system. So far, the only thing I’m missing is copy-paste from my OSx system to my iPhone as a feature (which is scarily handy at times.).

If you have questions, or enjoyed the post and just want to chat about it, please feel free to ping me on twitter @awws or mail me at hola@wakatra.com. Curious to hear about other people’s experiences with this laptop as well as other Linux laptops which fit this “digital nomad” profile and have worked well for its owners. I’ll update how using this as a daily driver business machine works as time goes on to contrast it with using Apple’s laptops since I feel that is the real competition Linux actually has.