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Ubuntu MATE, Pithos and the Sounds of Popcorn

Our resident Linux newbie finds another hardware problem, akin to popcorn in the machine, in his quest to give new life to an old Sony Vaio by using Linux.

The Linux Gadabout

My trusty old Sony Vaio laptop has been saddled up with Ubuntu MATE for a little over a month now. For the most part, it’s running just as smoothly as it ever did on Windows XP — and definitely better than it ran with the lovingly installed bloatware that came included with it shiny and new from the factory.

Upon the suggestion of FOSS Force reader Jeff, I invested in a recent upgrade of RAM that fulfills its maximum potential of a single gigabyte. Compared to its performance in the past, it’s definitely noticeable. But compared to my main work computer with a humble (by modern standards) 4 GB RAM, it can feel a little sluggish if I try to do do something unreasonable — like having two programs open at once.

Even though I’m a pretty patient person, I’m not sure if this machine is ever going to serve me well as a fully functional workstation again. I don’t want to shell out much more money to further upgrade the hardware — though the RAM addition made sense because it was cheaper than the tip on a nice dinner out. Adding an SSD as some have suggested would no doubt make it zip along respectably, but I’d rather put the money it would take to do so into one of my newer machines (and future experiments). And in spite of its fairly tiny size, the thing is kind of heavy. This could be handy for keeping it from going overboard when I’m on my next round-the-world regatta, but this quality doesn’t have much use for my everyday life.

Popcorn noises in Linux?
Why does my Sony Vaio laptop make random popcorn sounds since installing Ubuntu MATE Linux?
[Photo credit: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos]

Still, I’m not convinced this old Sony Vaio is quite ready for the scrap heap, either. A comment from Joseph got me considering the alternative of single-purpose tasks for its future: “If you’re into Pandora Radio, check out Pithos or Pianobar and you can turn that system into a simple entertainment system.”

I’ve always thought having a low-budget digital jukebox around the house would be kind of neat, and this system would seem a good fit for the task. After all, I used it for playing music (some would loosely call it DJing) at one of my local haunts for a few years, so I know it should have the physical capacity to easily dispense tunes. The laptop’s native speakers are nothing fancy, but I’d plug the machine into headphones, a soundbar, or set it up to transmit to a Bluetooth speaker for a more authentic jukebox experience. Even for me and my technical inexperience, this seemed an easy enough project. I downloaded Pithos, connected it to my Pandora account, and gave it a test run. Things went well enough for a few seconds, but a problem I’ve experienced intermittently since installing Ubuntu MATE made an unwelcome return: I call it the popcorn sound.

When I’ve just booted the machine from a restful overnight, it’s not uncommon for the popcorn sound to make itself known in full force — it’s as noisy as a coworker taking over the break room microwave with a jumbo bag of Pop Secret (mercifully without the accompanying fake butter rubbed on old feet smells). But then the machine warms up and the popcorn sound usually goes away. Now, however, I’m hearing minor instances of this annoyance when I listen to my Pandora playlists in Pithos. It’s not so much the full rumble of bursting corn en masse, but more akin to the late-blooming kernels that hold out, lonely, until the very end of the popping cycle. I tried to capture this phenomenon in action to present as an example here, but of course it chose this time to be camera shy. The most prominent instance happens around 59 seconds in (please forgive the vertical video; this wasn’t really designed with cinematic critique in mind):

You’ll probably notice the volume slider jumps in sync with the popcorn noise to disrupt Ewan MacColl’s dulcet tones. I don’t know if this problem is familiar to anyone else, but here’s the big question: does it seem to be software or hardware related? While this never happened when the laptop was running on Windows XP, I won’t instantly assume it’s a Linux issue since I have moved a couple of times in the past few years and it’s not always a gentle process (just ask what remains of my record collection). I’m hoping this might be something easily corrected with a driver, but wouldn’t be surprised if it requires another excursion into my poor machine’s innards for a more physical remedy.


  1. juan juan July 14, 2016

    Before tossing it out, try installing LXDE edition on it just for kicks. It is less resource intensive than using Gnome.

  2. Christine Hall Christine Hall July 14, 2016

    @juan I’ve been thinking the same thing. Or even Xfce, which is my favorite desktop and much less resource hungry than the GNOME derivatives, while still being very configurable. And since he’s coming from the Window’s world, the UI will be very familiar to him.

    He might also want to try a lighter distro. Although based on Ubuntu, the legacy edition of Bodhi would probably fly on the Vaio, although getting used to the Moksha desktop might be a deal breaker.

  3. juan juan July 14, 2016

    Xfce will run slightly better than Mate, but not that much on so little RAM. Fluxbox based distros do better on low resources machines, maybe Enlightenment also could work.

    So far for me LXDE works pretty good and the menus and bars do the job pretty well.

  4. Maarten Maarten July 14, 2016

    It may have something to do with the sampling rate used in Pulse Audio. You are using Ubuntu MATE, right?

    Check this link to see how you can fiddle around with the settings:

  5. CFWhitman CFWhitman July 14, 2016

    There are a number of possibilities for the cause of this problem. It could be related to IRQ sharing and other activity on the machine. It could be related to the power_save setting for the sound card being turned on (sometimes it is in laptops) and the hardware not dealing with that setting very well. It’s possible that another distribution would work better or a settings tweak. If you want to check the power_save setting, type this at the command prompt:

    cat /sys/module/snd_hda_intel/parameters/power_save

    If it’s off, you’ll get a 0. Anything else means it’s turned on to some degree.

    If it’s on you can turn it off temporarily with this command:

    echo 0 | sudo tee /sys/module/snd_hda_intel/parameters/power_save

    Then check to see if that helps with your problem. If it does, then there are ways to turn it off permanently. Of course, battery life may be affected by turning this off, though I don’t know how much. When this creates a problem, I think it might be because it keeps checking to see if it should turn off the sound to save power, and every time it does, you get a pop, but I’m not sure about that.

  6. Gary Gary July 14, 2016

    I’ve been running MX-15 on several old netbooks with 1GB and a first gen Intel Atom. That distro has out performed everything else I have tried by a large margin including Mate, Xubuntu and several LXDE variants. As far as the sound problems I might try an external USB sound card. You can find several on Amazon for less than $15 USD if all else fails.

  7. Don Nadie Don Nadie July 15, 2016

    I also think Ubuntu Mate is too heavy for your old VAIO. Back up your hard drive and start trying light distros especially made for old hardware. I had amazing results with Puppy Linux Trusty on an 1996 HP notebook with a Pentium II 333 MHz and 256 MB of RAM. It ran great because the entire OS fit into memory and didn’t have to access the hard drive to fetch any part of Linux. I’m sorry that ancient HP finally died; it wouldn’t even boot.

  8. CFWhitman CFWhitman July 15, 2016

    I tend to agree that something lighter, even plain Debian with a lightweight desktop would be easier on the hardware. MX-15 (or Antix MX) would probably be a good one because it has the Debian repos available and is tweaked to make it more user friendly on old hardware. I haven’t tried it yet, but it’s a recent addition to my list of new distributions to check out for low powered hardware.

    I run Salix OS Fluxbox edtion on an old machine from 2003, and it’s quite good, but does have a more limited software repository to choose from, but supplies a relatively easy way to compile a lot of missing packages.

  9. Cesar Jimenez Cesar Jimenez July 15, 2016

    Install Zram, you should see a performance improvement.

    $ sudo apt-get install zram-config

    Then reboot.
    $ sudo shutdown -r now

    Verify zram is loaded.
    $ cat /proc/swaps

    Great for dual core systems with 1 or 2gb ram. I don’t recommend for systems above 3gb of ram, or slow single core cpu.

    If you want to remove it.
    $ sudo apt-get remove –purge zram-config

    Anyone else used zram and can give feedback?

  10. tracyanne tracyanne July 15, 2016

    Don’t just go a head and install some lighter weight Distro. Test all your proposed light weight candidates via USB stick or CD/DVD ROM first.

    In other words isolate the problem/solution before applying any probable solution.

  11. Robert Glen Fogarty Robert Glen Fogarty Post author | July 16, 2016

    Juan, Christine, Gary, Don Nadie, CFWhitman: I’m beginning to think you’re right about trying a lighter distro on this poor old thing, and I appreciate the suggestions (a number of which I’ve not heard of before). Thank you!

    Before I do that, I want to — as tracyanne wisely suggested — isolate the problem in Ubuntu MATE before ripping up the interior and starting from scratch with something that may introduce an even greater number of problems. I’ve no doubt that something a little lighter under the hood will probably be the Vaio’s ultimate fate, but I’m just so curious to find out what’s causing this one problem first before moving on for good.

    CFWhitman (again!) and Maarten: Thank you for pointing me toward other ways of sniffing out the problem at hand!

    Cesar Jimenez: I believe I did that a few weeks back, but I’ll double check. The step-by-step you provided is very appreciated!

  12. Chris Angulo-Bertram Chris Angulo-Bertram July 17, 2016

    I had an old Vaio running for a while, did not have the sound issue as far I remember. I did plunk down some money at one point to engage Sony support for some drivers I believe, but even if I did not (may have been for Windows) you may look at Sony’s site for drivers.

    My question is does that sound happen when hooked up to external speakers or when running on the built in ones, I could not tell which from the video.

    I ran without too much issue Mint 17 cinnamon, and it went not too bad for quite some time, but alas my machine got dropped and really broken, so it is no more. Good luck though, and don’t give up, any Linux on that machine is better than any windows you could run in it.

  13. Robert Glen Fogarty Robert Glen Fogarty Post author | July 21, 2016

    Chris: I haven’t tried hooking it up to any external speakers since installing Ubuntu MATE, but the problem seems to be internal — the volume slider visibly jumps at the popping. I’ve given myself a break from the mystery for now, but I’ll report what I find out when I get some time and patience to return to solving it. I agree about any Linux being better than any Windows I could run on it, though!

  14. RandyNose RandyNose July 21, 2016

    OK. Here’s what ya can do to got distro hopping, and testing and all that, you’re new to this stuff, so I think you’d want to be able to do so with ease, distro hopping, not being new.

    Install Multisystem, and use a 8 or 16 gig drive (USB 3.0 preferred even if your system can’t use it, I find they tend to be faster, due to disk speed) to put multiple distros on. And yes, I left it in French. LOL. Just for the fun of it.

    ## Ajoutez le Depôt de MultiSystem
    sudo apt-add-repository ‘deb all main’
    ## Ajoutez la clé publique
    wget -q -O – | sudo apt-key add –
    ## Rechargez les sources
    sudo apt-get update
    ## Installez MultiSystem
    sudo apt-get install multisystem

    Or view it on their page:

    But don’t translate the page and use the commands, it won’t work. Translate it to see what it is they’re saying, and then un-translate to copy the commands into a terminal.

    Sometimes using another distro “fixes” an issue because you’re using another kernel. I was thinking that the issue might be due to the sound effects, but not if it’s doing it while you’re moving the slider up and down. – Also maybe mute the mic, or try another browser? Is the mic enable in chrome? ?


    As for possible uses, I’ve got an old machine in a corner in the living room that I can remote into that serves as mainly a digital picture frame with pictures of the family for it’s screensaver. If I were really fancy I’d figure out a wooden frame and use a PI or something else with just a monitor, but I’m not that motivated to do so. But, what I do use on that PC is Linux Mint and I have Banshee on it, Guayadeque Music Player, VLC (every PC should have VLC) and Spotify. I have it setup as a DAAP server also, so if I wanted to stream music off of it I could. But I find Rhythmbox to do a better job of that out of the box, and I have Rhythmbox on another machine doing just that.

    Oh.. and yes, Mutlisystem has Plopboot, but I’ve not used it, so.. I can’t speak of it’s wonders and mysteries.

  15. Carlos Coen Carlos Coen August 3, 2016

    The White House announced today a new report from the National Science and Technology Council on challenges, opportunities and the path forward in quantum information science, including a plan for high-performance computing.

  16. Robert Glen Fogarty Robert Glen Fogarty Post author | August 8, 2016

    RandyNose: My eyes initially crossed when I saw your suggestion, but after pardoning your French, I may just give it a try. Thank you!

  17. Robert Glen Fogarty Robert Glen Fogarty Post author | August 8, 2016

    Also, I really like that wooden frame + Pi idea as a picture display!

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