Linux on the Sharp Actius PC-A800

The PC-A800 was the newest notebook in Sharp's Actius line in 1Q2000 in the US. Here are some notes and pointers on installing Linux on this machine.

Preparing the hard drive

The A800 is shipped with Windows 98 installed. If you want to run Linux, you have the usual choices of wiping Windows from the hard drive (and maybe getting a refund!), or partitioning the drive and dual-booting.

If you do the latter, use a partitioning tool, for example FIPS, to split the original single 8GB c: drive partition. A 50/50 split gives plenty of breathing room for most purposes. There is no separate partition for power-management; this machine does suspend-to-RAM, not suspend-to-disk.

Installing Linux

I suggest using a recent version of a major distribution. You will want a kernel at least 2.2.13 or later and XFree86 3.3.6 or later, in order to have the PCMCIA card services and sound and video drivers you need. Actually, it is best to have a 2.4 series kernel, or a 2.2 series patch that gives you journalling file system support; see below under "APM".

Booting and installing from your distribution's CD set would be the easiest; just configure the A800's BIOS to boot from CD, pop the right disk in the drive, boot and go. The machine uses pretty generic hardware, and generic notebook basic hardware support in Linux is quite good "out of the box" these days.

Instead, I downloaded the pre-release Debian 2.2 "frozen" PCI-IDE boot floppy images, made up another floppy with the appropriate wireless LAN drivers and tools, and did a dselect-apt network install over a 128-bit RC4 encrypted Wavelan link. But that is only because I like doing things the hard way.


The A800 uses the NeoMagic NM2200 video controller. (This is a departure from the Trident chipset in Sharp's Actius "UltraLite" PC-A2XX line, but consistent with many other laptops such as Dell Latitude, Toshiba Portege, HP Omnibook, and various Panasonic, IBM and Sony models.) This controller is supported and its properties automatically probed by the SVGA server in XFree86 version 3.3.6 or later.

Whatever X configuration tool your distribution uses at install time should easily handle all this with a little input from you, but if you have to edit your XF86Config file by hand, the monitor, graphics, and screen sections that I am using are available here.

The LCD display on the Sharp is beautiful, one of its main selling points. There are many options you can play with in configuring the NeoMagic driver, but it does such a good job with the defaults that you shouldn't have to.


The A800 uses an AC97-codec compatible NeoMagic audio controller. This controller is actually integrated with the NM2200 video controller in a "MagicMedia 256" NM256AV audiovisual chipset. (Again, this is a common choice of other notebook OEMs but a change from the use of the ESS Solo chipset for sound in Sharp's Actius "UltraLite" PC-A2XX line.)

The nm256 sound driver correctly detects and works with this controller. This driver has been available as one of the "OSS sound modules" in the Linux kernel distribution since 2.2.13 and should be compiled as a module. (It was written by an anonymous psychic to whom the community owes a debt of gratitude.)

A note about the audio hardware on the A800: This machine does the best job imaginable of recreating perfect retro 1959 tinny transistor radio sound from its little mono speaker. Use headphones if you want stereo.


I'm running the pcmcia-cs 3.1.16 PCMCIA card services modules and a 2.2.16 kernel and everything seems to work very well. But I haven't tried it with every conceivable PCMCIA card.


This is the price you pay for having a nice slim lightweight laptop: the battery life on the A800 is not that great (maybe 2 hours if you're lucky). As a result, it's important to have power management working. Here are the 2.4.18 kernel .config settings I use:


With these settings APM support and power management will work with this machine's Phoenix BIOS 4.0 release 6.0, at least as far as battery alarms and "system suspend" is concerned. However the various apmd(8) flags that are supposed to permit changing APM settings from the Linux side don't seem to have any effect; the BIOS defaults of low battery alarm at 15% and critical battery alarm at 10% are what you get. (Interestingly, Win98 appears to have problems recovering from a suspend under some condiditions. Works fine under Linux though.)

Because you will be running out of power a lot, sometimes when you're not able to go through a full normal shutdown, it is advantageous to have a journalled filesystem to prevent disk corruption. I've had very good results with the ext3 filesystem under 2.4.18.

Read the PCMCIA HowTo for tips about how to deal with PCMCIA cards that cannot be suspended and resumed in the usual way.

Keyboard and mouse

The A800 has a nice "full-sized" notebook keyboard and a 2-button GlidePoint touchpad. Under XFree86, using a "Microsoft Natural" keymap, "GlidePointPS/2" mouse protocol on /dev/psaux with Emulate3Buttons option works perfectly well.


The CDROM is recognized as the first drive on the second IDE channel, i.e. /dev/hdc, if you have it installed in the modular bay at boot. The PC-A800 manual says the CDROM and floppy drive are not hot-swappable.

Floppy drive

The floppy drive is recognized as the first floppy drive, i.e. /dev/fd0, if you have it installed in its bay at boot. The PC-A800 manual says the CDROM and floppy drive are not hot-swappable.


Cable, DSL, wireless ethernet are so superior to dialup connections that it's been a long time since I've wanted to use a modem. Personally, I would much rather that the A800 came with an internal 10/100 ethernet interface like smaller Actius "UltraLite" models do. If you want to try to get the A800's internal modem working for you, GromitKC's Winmodem page might be a good place to start. Let me know if you figure it out; I haven't even tried.


Haven't tried this either. Linux-USB's page would be a place to start. Let me know if you do it.


Enjoy your Sharp. I think it's a great machine, compact and capable, and it was a good deal at its sub-US$1600 street prices in May 2000.

You can try mailing me with questions or comments.