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Welcome to the pre-Post-PC era

March 9, 2012 21 comments

Joe Brockmeier wrote an insightful piece on ReadWrite entitled “What We Lose in a Post-PC World” that starts off with this: “Tim Cook, Ray Ozzie, and a host of others have proclaimed that we’re in a “post-PC world.” Well, not quite yet, but you can see it from here.”

You can see it all right, with the Hubble. It’s that far off in the distance.

I agree with most of that Joe writes, incidentally. In fact, I agree with all of what Joe writes, except for the “see it from here” thing (I’m assuming he didn’t use a telescope, space-borne or otherwise). There are things that you can do with your post-PC apparatus, like surf the web, watch videos and all those important digital experiences. But bear in mind that you’re not going to be using Blender on your Android tablet anytime soon.

So while we wait for Hallmark to make up cards heralding the Post-PC era, allow me an introduction of a new placeholder era: the pre-Post-PC era. In the pre-Post-PC era, discussions we’re now having involve the how and what you can — and can’t — do with new technology like tablets and smartphones, followed by heated discussion about the same, punctuated by name-calling, general flaming and hurt feelings around issues of disagreement at which time parties go to neutral corners and take a 10-count before coming back into the proverbial ring and discussing the issue with cooler heads.

Meanwhile, technology marches on and as evening falls on the pre-Post-PC era — which might be called the post-pre-Post-PC era by purists, opening another argumentative can of worms as a sideshow — Blender developers will actually get an Android version for tablets up and running, just proving the point that you can do it, but ignoring the important question around why you would make software to run on something that’s not built for the job.

“Because they can,” they might say, and that’s a valid answer.

One more prognostication: Sailing through the Post-PC era, there will be a post-Post-PC era, after the advent of the pre-post-Post-PC era, where people will start thinking, “You know, I had a laptop (or desktop . . . or both) once where I didn’t have to strain my eyes on such a small screen, and where I actually got stuff done rather than just wasting time.” Or something like that.

At that time, the post-Post-PC era will allow everyone to realize what most of us already know: That what’s nebulously referred to as post-PC hardware works in tandem with, not as a substitute to, the hardware like laptops and desktops that already exist.

(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!

An appeal to reason

March 7, 2012 13 comments

A little over an hour ago, I was giving the final read on what was originally this blog item, under a different title and with a metric ton or two of humor, cutting criticism and the high quality of commentary that you’d expect from this blog. It was in derisive and cutting response to what Mark Shuttleworth considers “innovation” as outlined in this morning’s ZDNet blog item by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols.

Having the ability to use the English language to slice and dice the ridiculous with the accuracy of a Benihana chef with a complete set of Ginsu knives — whether it’s an idea or a person or both — is both a blessing and a curse. The Mark served up some pretty meaty fastballs right in my wheelhouse — a baseball metaphor now that we’re in spring training — and if he puts them where I can hit them, they’re gone. And I tattooed them, right into the next time zone.

But reading the blog item over again before deleting it, I felt like Bill O’Reilly. That alone forced me to take a shower and rewrite this blog item.

In any case, rather than put you through an eye-rolling, arm-waving rant on this screen about how The Mark’s vision of reality differs from — well — reality (to say nothing of his uncanny knack for hyperbole and a penchant for exaggeration, followed by responses to criticism that redefine ad hominem), I’m just going to appeal to reason and let the reader decide.

Quoting Shuttleworth from the ZDNet blog: “Yes, we are moving beyond the desktop, but we are also innovating to make the desktop itself, better.”

No, you’re not, Mark. Here’s why.

Unity: This is a one-size-fits-all solution to a situation that requires a wide range of flexibility, unless of course you don’t consider the user interface for a tablet any different than that of a 17-inch monitor, and everything between. How this can even be remotely considered innovation when, for all intents and purposes, it’s a round peg trying to go into different shaped holes?

Wait for the improvement? No, thanks. I tried Unity for an entire day, and I wanted to like it. I spent a couple of hours tweaking it, reading wikis (thanks, Google) and getting it to where it would best work for me. But it got to a point where its functionality failed on so many levels, in large part to a UI that was not suited to my hardware. I wanted very badly to say something nice about it — “Um . . . it’s a nice color” — but I even couldn’t do that. Unity is a digital cowpie, and no matter how many improvements you make to a cowpie, it’s still a cowpie.

As a result, I’m glad to use Xubuntu on one of the lab’s machines, which is the one distro in the ‘buntu universe that shines.

HUD: Head-Up Display — no, I’m not going to ask “head-up” what? Nope, I’m not going there. Having tried this (HUD, that is, not . . . um, never mind), I can’t see how this is an improvement: I have to type the name of a program I want in order to get the program I want. Couldn’t I do this — oh, I don’t know — from the command line? And if so, doesn’t this make HUD a GUI for the command line?

A more important question: This is innovation? The only way this is innovation is that Canonical had this ill-advised, counterproductive concept of doing things this way before anyone else did. Being the first to do something counterproductive is not innovation; arguably, it’s regression.

If you like Unity and it works for you, use it. Like HUD? Same thing. I have no problem with people using what they want — that’s a key to using Free/Open Source Software — and you should be glad that FOSS provides a wide range of choices on many levels, including the user interface.

But innovation? No, that’s not a good word for what Canonical is doing with Unity and HUD. Or at least it’s not a word that describes it.

(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!

Counting to four

March 1, 2012 8 comments

The recent FOSS hubbub-in-a-teapot has Linus Torvalds ranting about security — again (remember the “masturbating monkeys”?). The rant deals with having to use root passwords on OpenSUSE for basic daily usage, which Linus find a bit much and says so with inspired prose.

Arguably, he has a point, or several. How he makes it, though, is a bit over-the-top.

Pot, meet kettle. I have a reputation for being quick on the proverbial draw when it comes to things that annoy me — to the point where my Santa Cruz Sentinel colleague Tony Solis has made a chart designating the “Larry Threat Level” on any particular newsroom day. And if you permit me a Captain Obvious moment, writing when you’re furious is not the best thing to do. I’ve had to backpedal on more than one occasion because the white-hot prose that flew from the keyboard here sounded great in the fury of anger, but later it paled in comparison.

So I don’t mind so much that Linus went off like a Roman candle about this incident. What I do mind a bit — and I think it’s way beneath him, no matter how annoyed he is — is this line from his “venting,” as he puts it: “So here’s a plea: if you have anything to do with security in a distro, and think that my kids (replace ‘my kids’ with ‘sales people on the road’ if you think your main customers are businesses) need to have the root password to access some wireless network, or to be able to print out a paper, or to change the date-and-time settings, please just kill yourself now. The world will be a better place.”

Calling security-obsessed programmers “masturbating monkeys” is one thing. Suggesting suicide for something that, at best, is an annoyance that can easily be fixed is akin to spraying down someone with automatic gunfire after they kick you in the shin.

Truth in advertising: I have a stake in this, sort of. Years ago, a friend of mine had a spouse who commited suicide. On a variety of levels, it was extremely traumatic for family and friends, and it’s not something you fix from the command line or by writing better code. It’s permanent.

When things annoy me — which is more often than I’d like — I go walk in the woods. Fortunately for me, I live within walking distance of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, where I go to put things in perspective; 200-foot trees can do that. Linus, I know redwoods are native to northwestern Oregon, so a walk among the trees might be good idea before hitting the keyboard to vent. Or dive, since I know you’re a scuba diver (the Pacific is not far from Portland, if I remember correctly).

So Linus, and everyone else, it’s also good to take Mark Twain’s advice: “When angry count four; when very angry, swear.”

(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!

Stop the presses

February 24, 2012 6 comments

It consistently awes me, sometimes to tears, to see how consistently wrong some Free/Open Source Software commentators are about things like the current state of the desktop. To hear some of them tell it, it’s a hand-wringing, brow-furrowing situation in which the fate of the entire paradigm rests in the delicate balance.

Let me explain this in simple terms: It’s not. If anything, it’s an invitation to a front-row seat to witness digital Darwinism at its finest.

So stop acting like this is a crisis. It’s not.

Unity is a dog — it’s a textbook case of incredibly bad judgment by The Mark to make a cookie-cutter, all-in-one user interface across a wide range of different hardware. But that’s all it is. Is it the death knell of the desktop? Hardly. It’s not even the death knell of Ubuntu.

The same with GNOME 3: Arguably a bad move, but not one that is forcing GNOME to fold up the tents and go the way of the Studebaker or the hula hoop.

KDE thriving? In my opinion, it is. That’s a good thing, and they have weathered some bad times recently to come out stronger and with a good product for those so inclined to use it.

Xfce making progress at GNOME’s expense? Tough if you’re a GNOME guy or gal, but not bad in the grand scheme of things. Xfce has always been a good desktop environment which is finally getting the recognition it deserves — it will be interesting to see how they take advantage of this (and good luck, guys and gals).

There is even more attention now toward window managers like Openbox and Fluxbox, as the current desktop environment “crisis” ushers in a sort of renaissance for window managers that gives users a new look at a facet of Linux that is not often discussed.

The bottom line is that’s what it’s all about: choice. Choice is good. Having choices is a virtue, not a vice. It’s simple: Get that and you get FOSS.

[Note to the Linux Foundation: You may think that events@linuxfoundation.org works, but I’m still getting bouncing e-mails across a wide variety of machines using various e-mail programs on FOSS and non-FOSS platforms. Tell you what: I’ll just print out my blog from yesterday and mail it to you. Watch your mailbox.]

(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!

What I do

February 23, 2012 3 comments

Yesterday started out in uncharacteristically annoying fashion and, to be honest, I was counting on it to make a thrilling comeback to become a typically normal day sometime before mid-afternoon.

No such luck.

One of the several things that made it a day to shake one’s head at and try to forget as soon as it’s over is a form letter I got from the Linux Foundation rejecting my request to attend the Collaboration Summit. “If you would like us to reconsider our decision, please email us at and provide more specific details about your job function and why you would like to attend.”

Email? Oh, I’ll do one better, Linux Foundation.

In reality, Linux Foundation, if you think that there are others more worthy than me to attend the Collaboration Summit, I’m completely OK with that. Additionally, not going to the Collaboration Summit — as much as I’d like to attend — allows me to rearrange time that I can put toward attending another Linux event elsewhere in the country.

But here’s why I think I should be allowed to attend the Collaboration Summit, and I’d be grateful if you’d keep this in mind for future applications for other Linux Foundation events.

I started using Linux in 2006 — the PowerPC version of Debian on an Indigo iMac G3 — while campaigning for Insurance Commissioner in California as the Green Party candidate. You can blame Cameron Spitzer, then the Greens’ IT guy, for showing me Linux and the Free/Open Source Software paradigm.

Since the end of that campaign where I just missed being elected by a paltry 47 percent of the electorate, I have been an advocate for Linux and FOSS. I formed the Cabrillo College GNU/Linux Users Group in 2007 while attending school there. In 2008, I organized an event called Lindependence in Felton, California, where the town had three opportunities in July of that year to try out Linux. We gave away 300 live CDs of various distros in the course of the month and we estimate that we could have converted between 30-40 people to the ranks of the Linux users.

The offshoot of Lindependence — the Felton Linux Users Group — thrives in our area, and is a regular attendee at farmers markets in the Santa Cruz County area, providing “organic software” free of proprietary additives and preservatives.

In 2009, I formed a partnership that became Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy providing Linux and FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment. Our client roster is small — an asbestos abatement company, two restaurants, an electrical contractor and a grocery store — so we don’t pull in Gatesian or Jobsian numbers on our ledger. But we do OK.

There are other things I do on behalf of Linux: I’m the publicity co-chair for the Southern California Linux Expo, the largest community-run Linux show in the country. I held what others (not me) describe as a “leadership position” in the Fedora Project, including serving as an Ambassador mentor. These days, I primarily work with a distro called CrunchBang, a Debian derivative, which I find provides the best Linux experience for any user choosing to try it.

I also write this blog, “Larry the Free Software Guy,” and its distro-specific sibling, “Larry the CrunchBang Guy.” The former is commentary on FOSS issues of the day, written with what I hope is always a high degree of insight and humor.

That may not be enough, but that will have to do. I also have a family — my daughter, now 14, has been giving Linux presentations for two years as well — and a full-time job, so I make no apologies if this does not clear the proverbial high bar set for Collaboration Summit admission.

Again, I don’t mind if you want to give the pass to the summit to someone you think is more deserving — and there are thousands of folks out there in the FOSS world who are more deserving than me. I get that, and I would completely agree. But you should know that I’m not your standard-issue casual Linux user, either.

Oh, and one more thing, Linux Foundation: Thanks for all the great work you do.

[EPILOGUE: The address events@linuxfoundation.org — which is included in the email sent with the rejection as a link at which to appeal the Linux Foundation’s decision — does not work, and I have the bounced e-mails to prove it. Is it events@linuxfoundation.COM maybe? Maybe.]

(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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