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Notes on Linux Fest Northwest

April 30, 2012 10 comments

I’m currently on the road in Oregon, heading back to the cozy confines of the redwoods of Felton, but I wanted to get a couple of notes down before posting a more comprehensive blog item at home about Linux Fest Northwest which was, in a word, outstanding.

First things first: I would venture to guess that there were more than 1,000 folks who showed up to the event, and I’ll try to dig up a more accurate number later. In fact, we had folks checking out the CrunchBang table before we had even set up around 9ish on Saturday morning. While the show, of course, had its Saturday morning tsunami of humanity followed by a more reasonable and slow-paced Sunday, it was never lacking the electricity that Linux expos usually transmit during the course of the weekend. Carl Symons and the rest of the crew at LFNW put on a great show, period.

The CrunchBang table: Bill Smith and his wife Portia did outstanding work staffing the booth, and my thanks go out to them for the help. It should be noted that Bill’s attire — a Tux vest — was great, and Portia had #! painted onto her nails. Needless to say, they were ready for the show. Many visitors to the table already knew what CrunchBang is, and some were, “What’s CrunchBang?” We gave away about 100 pieces of media and displayed on my old ThinkPad T30 and a newer ZaReason Alto 3880 how CrunchBang works across a wide range of computer hardware.

The ZaReason tablet: A last-minute request by computer-maker ZaReason had me splitting the table between CrunchBang and ZaReason, and one of the things that drew attention and cause some buzz is the tablet that ZaReason will be coming out with soon. We had one of them in the booth, and many folks thought it was pretty cool, though one person said it looked too much like an iPad (and I don’t believe that was a compliment).

Friends old and new: Seeing old friends and making new ones is one of the great things about the shows. Great as always to see Rikki Endsley, Robyn Bergeron, Deb Nicholson, Jeff Sandys, Greg DeKoenigsberg and others whose names I’ll remember between Springfield and Felton and try not to kick myself for forgetting while driving. A special shout out goes to Eric Craw, a new CrunchBang user who installed it after hearing my presentation on Saturday and immediately did some programming to submit to the distro.

I’ll get into more of the nuts-and-bolts of the show in the next blog item when I return home, like getting to start my presentation on Saturday morning with “Hello, I’m Greg DeKoenigsberg” (in my best Johnny Cash) and more details on my talk and the hands-across-the-water CrunchBang Birds of a Feather meetup. But it’s about time to get back on Interstate 5 and head south.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and develops business software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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Eliminate DRM!

This is Strata!

February 15, 2012 9 comments

There is only one word to describe the speed, style, and power of the ZaReason Strata 6880 laptop.

Damn!

First things first: This laptop is wide — a 15.6-inch-screen-wide-in-high-definition wide — and it is powerful, to the tune of the test model’s Intel i7 Quad-core with 8 threads running at 2 GHz. The 8GB of memory below the keyboard coupled with the Nvidia GTX 540M video card make this a well rounded machine for, well, just about anything. The width of the laptop — oh, it still fits on my lap because that itself is wide, too — allows the laptop to have a full keyboard that includes a number pad on the right.

For something this fast and powerful, you should probably have a license of some sort — a pilot’s license comes immediately to mind.

As mentioned yesterday in my review of the ZaReason Alto 3880, my current ThinkPads come in the basic black. This laptop, too, comes in basic black, but it’s a shiny, slick black as opposed to a staid, utilitarian black favored by IBM and then Lenovo. In terms of black, if the ThinkPad makes you think of a limousine, the Strata 6880 in turn makes you think of the Batmobile.

Strata 6880′s strengths

Originally, I thought that for a laptop, this was kind of big — maybe wide would be a better word to describe it. Sure, I have a wide lap, as I mentioned before, but for something this size? Anyway, it only took an hour or two to become accustomed to the extra witdth in screen real estate — a bonus on a machine like this that’s so nimble and quick. Multiple windows are a snap here and there’s a lot less promoting and reducing when working on multiple projects simultaneously. And the screen: a crystal-clear LCD display with a 1980-by-1080 footprint shows whatever I choose to bring up with a clarity bordering on perfect. This comes in handy especially when watching DVDs or streaming video — which you can do while working on other things (why would you? I don’t know, but for the sake of testing this machine, the Strata 6880 handled everything I had thrown at it) . Not only does the streaming audio/video come across clear and uninterrupted while working on other things, the performance was nothing short of remarkable. I would imagine that most of the graphics performance would have to do with the Nvidia video card, that seems to handle things easily.

Like in yesterday’s review of the Alto 3880, the Strata 6880 ran three different distros: Linux Mint 12, Fedora 16 and CrunchBang Statler. It ran each perfectly and, with the addition of Flash on Fedora in the post-install, everything ran as it should out of the box. If you’re wondering, I did spend extra time with Fedora, only because I wanted to give some extra time to GNOME 3 and, while I can see some of its advantages now working on a machine that will run it, personally speaking that desktop is not for me. As for Linux Mint, MATE and Cinnamon ran quite remarkably, and my home distro — CrunchBang — was flawless and fast on this hardware.

There are times when using the Strata 6880 that I feel like I am driving a Testarossa to go to the grocery store and back. I don’t mean this as a slight — the capabilities and potential for this machine are far wider that what I would use it for. What I’m currently using it for is this — Web stuff (including streaming audio and video), a little testing (though most of that is done on a desktop), correcting photos in GIMP, making and running presentations in LibreOffice Impress (which worked well, by the way), and watching DVDs. This laptop, though, does make me want to break out the Blender book again and give that program another shot, maybe seeing what more the laptop can do.

Still, when I was running multiple programs like GIMP, LibreOffice and streaming a video, the warmest the Strata 6880 got was 54 degrees C — doing the same thing with the ThinkPad usually get the temperature up to the 70s (though, kids, don’t try this at home). All of which is to say that the laptop does all the work thrown at it and seems to look for more.

I understand that the Strata 6880 can be a gaming platform, and I would believe it judging by the high performance. I don’t “game” — I may have game, but I don’t usually play on the computer — so I didn’t try it out the gaming side of things. But with the current setup, it would not surprise me that games would be an easy fit for this laptop.

Needs improvement?

To be honest, I had a few qualms about the wide screen at first, but they quickly subsided as soon as I started getting used to the width and found I could put it to good use. Like the Alto 3880, it has the same single-button-on-a-fulcrum setup where you push either side of the single button to get the left/right mouse button, and having a separate left- and right-button mouse set up on the laptop is more of a personal preference than anything. Unlike the Alto 3880, the Strata 6880 had a stiffer keyboard which was more to my liking, so it gets high marks there. One thing that could be a reflection of how much I was using the machine unplugged moreso than anything — and I don’t think it’s a “need improvement” item, but some might: I only got a little over two hours of battery time while unplugged, but again it was while multiple programs — including streaming video — were running. To be honest, I’m never more than two hours away from an electrical socket, so battery life is not a big issue with me.

A final look

As I said a couple of days ago, I don’t have a ranking system — I still don’t, even after yesterday’s review of the Alto 3880 — but I would give the Strata 6880 the highest marks across the board for design and performance. Looking more closely at the machine itself and judging by the firmness of the keyboard, the laptop also feels durable. My only regret in having this laptop for several days is that I couldn’t make it break a sweat — again, the activities I normally do in my day-to-day digital life include the typical Web stuff augmented by some Web and photo work, some software testing for programs that are not terribly complex and a lot of LibreOffice, either writing or using Impress. Also, as I mentioned yesterday, I can’t emphasize enough how important considering a purchase from a Linux hardware vendor is, and apparently the differences in prices are not as much as I thought: After a trip to Best Buy in Capitola yesterday, the difference in price between this laptop and others like it is marginal. The $849 base price for the Strata 6880 is about $50 less than a comparable HP laptop with similar specs on the showroom floor at $799. So if this is in your price range, the Strata 6880 is a good buy.

Of course, the worst part of this process now comes with me having to pack up these laptops and send them back to Berkeley. Thanks, ZaReason, for allowing me a chance to give these two laptops the once-over, and thanks, too, for making such great Linux-based hardware.

Specs as tested

Screen: 15.6-inch bright glossy LCD display at 1920-by-1080 pixels
Processor: Intel i7-2630Q 2 GHz, Quad-core, 8 thread
Memory: 8GB DDR3-1333
Graphics card: Nvidia GTX 540M 2GB
Hard Drive: 128 GB SSD
Optical Drive: CD-RW/DVD-RW
Audio: Speakers above the keyboard for quality sound output
Wireless: #WZF B/G/N
Reader: 3-in-1 card reader — SD/MMC/MS supported
Camera: 1.3 Megapixel webcam included
Ports: HDMI and VGA monitor ports; Gigabit Ethernet port; 2 USB 2.0 ports; 1 USB 3.0 port
Operating System: Your choice from a variety of Linux distros, or no operating system
Battery: Six-cell battery
Weight: 5.51 pounds
Basic price: $849
Price as tested: $1,426

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started developing software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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Eliminate DRM!

High on the Alto 3880

February 13, 2012 13 comments

Those of you who know me know that I’m an old ThinkPad guy, in more ways than one. I myself am older than many of you reading this — well on my way to AARP membership status as I reach 55 this November — and the ThinkPads I use on a daily basis are themselves old, namely a T30 and an R40.

ThinkPads are painfully utilitarian, amazingly solid, and like the Model T Fords come in a wide variety of colors as long as you choose black. For these reasons, ThinkPads lend themselves to being the laptop of choice for many laptop users, mostly developers. To make them more attractive — for loss of a better word — many a ThinkPad is embellished with stickers on the cover, rivaling the best of the NASCAR field. Mine is no exception: My ThinkPad does its laps with EFF, SCALE 10X, Oregon State University Open Source Lab, Open Source for America, two Google Summer of Code, and No Starch Press stickers gracing the laptop cover.

So when ZaReason sent me an Alto 3880 to put through its paces, my first reaction was, “Wow. This is too nice to put stickers on.”

The Alto 3880′s cover is a very stylish silver and should be kept in its pristine form. A look around the laptop before opening it shows that ports are readily available on the sides — with monitor, ethernet and USB ports conveniently located on the left side instead of on the back. While many might find this a simple design, ThinkPad users would be thrilled to know that the oft-inconvenient ThinkPad reacharound to plug in USB cables or thumb drives is not necessary here. In giving it the once over before opening it, the Alto is light in one’s hands, but it still feels sturdy.

Opening the cover and pushing the on button reveals a screen with remarkable clarity contrasted on a black background and base. If you’re a regular ThinkPad user, the keyboard is different — flat keys at the same level — and takes getting used to. With heavy fingers like mine, the pounding I would normally offer the ThinkPad feels like I’m mercilessly pounding this keyboard and suggests some behavior modification. But ultimately the keyboard is tough enough to withstand it and after adjusting to the new keyboard — wider than the ThinkPad’s — it is easy to adapt to and to get accustomed to the additional real estate for your hands.

Performance wise, the Alto 3880 flies on the trio of distros I used on it, and without boring you with the minutiae, with one exception that turned out to be a software clash, the laptop performed without a hitch. With the 1366-by-768 resolution on a an remarkably clear 14-inch screen, the laptop would make a fine — no, make that an outstanding — replacement for my old ThinkPads.

I used three different distros on the Alto 3880, and each performed well, and each would make a fine choice for the person owning this laptop. The three contestants, for the sake of argument, are Linux Mint and Fedora — both which you can have preinstalled by ZaReason — and CrunchBang, which you can install on your own (until I convince ZaReason to make it a choice). However, as I understand it, if you request a different distro, ZaReason will install it. Or if you want no operating system, they’ll send it like that, too. Unlike other Linux hardware vendors, ZaReason offers a wide choice in this department.

But I digress. Here’s how the distros did:

Alto 3880 with Linux Mint: Originally, the laptop came to me with Linux Mint 12, which is the latest version of the distro with the GNOME 2.x-type desktop. The Alto 3880 did remarkably well with Linux Mint, which is growing on a lot of people (including me). Switching from MATE to GNOME to Cinnamon was a snap, and the performance was outstanding. In one instance on a busy morning where I forgot to plug in the laptop, I got just over four hours from the battery using multiple programs on Linux Mint.

Alto 3880 with Fedora 16: I’m waiting for the myth that Fedora is too “cutting edge” for the average user to go the way of the Studebaker and the hula hoop. It’s just that — a myth — and Fedora 16 runs circles around just about everything else on this machine. After installing Flash so one can — oh, I don’t know — participate in the wider Internet world, the distro and hardware handled everything I threw at it from a video and audio standpoint with aplomb.

Alto 3880 with CrunchBang Statler: The laptop has the horses, so to speak, to run the previous two desktop environments without breaking a sweat. So when faced with handling the Openbox window manager on CrunchBang, the distro soared. Also, the built-in camera worked flawlessly during a Google+ Hangout with the CrunchBang crew.

Alto 3880 strengths

Regardless of what distro is running on it, the Alto 3880 is remarkably versatile and handles a wide range of work without complaint. In fact, the only problem I had was helping my daughter solve what turned out to be a common GIMP and Banshee problem where the programs, both running simultaneously, weren’t playing nice with each other — clearly not a reflection on the hardware. The screen is very clear and handles high resolutions flawlessly, which is a benefit for those who want to do things like watch videos or do intricate graphics work (Note: My daughter Mimi will be writing her own review of this laptop as well). Across the distro board, the audio and video performance was outstanding, with the onboard speakers sounding good enough to forgo plugging in speakers in some cases (though the speakers sounded good, too, when used to watch DVDs). the laptop itself is lightweight but solid, and the design is top-notch — this is a beautiful laptop.

Needs improvement?

There is a lot to like on this laptop, but the one thing that took getting used to is the keyboard. Again, this might be just something for the personal preference folder, but the keyboard at first tends to feel a little light to the touch. Also, the mouse button, which is a single bar at the same level as the touchpad operating on a centered fulcrum (click the left side for the left mouse button, right side for the right) is hard to adjust to when coming from hardware where the buttons are raised. To be fair, it would be difficult to imagine that a ThinkPad-like keyboard would work, design wise, on a laptop like this.

A final look

I don’t have a rating system — stars, penguins, horseshoes, whatever — in place, but if I did I would rank the Alto 3880 very high; for the sake of argument, let’s say 4.5 penguins out of a perfect 5 penguins. Its combination of sleek design and high performance make this laptop one that would easily draw me away from the ranks of the ThinkPad users. The retail price for this machine is $599, which many of you might think is a little high compared to what you could get at Best Buy. But when you consider that when buying from a Linux hardware vendor, you’re not only getting a quality machine with a great OS, your purchase supports FOSS, for starters, by not putting another “sale” in Redmond’s tally. With its wide range of capabilities and performance, the Alto 3880 is a laptop I would be proud to own and, if Uncle Sam is generous with a tax return, would be glad to purchase.

Specs

Screen: 14-inch HD, 1366-by-768 Glossy LED Backlit Display
Processor: Pentium B940, 2 GHz, 2 core, 2 thread
Memory: 4GB DDR-3
Graphics card: Intel Integrated HD Graphics
Hard Drive: 250GB 5,400 RPM (NOTE: Tested with 400GB HD)
Optical Drive: Combo CD/DVD burner
Audio: Speakers above the keyboard for quality sound output
Wireless: 802.11 B/G/N WiFi included and Bluetooth
Reader: 3-in-1 card reader — SD/MMC/MS supported
Camera: 1.3 Megapixel webcam included
Ports: HDMI and VGA monitor ports; Gigabit Ethernet port; ensington lock port; Headphone and microphone jacks; three USB 2.0 ports
Operating System: Your choice from a variety of Linux distros, or no operating system
Battery: Six-cell battery, up to 5 hours
Weight: 4.5 pounds
Price: $599

Coming tomorrow: This . . . is . . . STRATA! A look at the ZaReason Strata 6880.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started developing software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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Eliminate DRM!

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