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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!

T-minus 96 hours and counting

January 16, 2012 6 comments

Those who know me well know that, among other things, I really don’t like ice hockey. Oh, I root for the San Jose Sharks in the National Hockey League because they’re the “home team” here, just over the hill in the Silicon Valley (Edit: One thing about hockey I do like is The Green Men at the Vancouver Canucks games — very funny performances outside the visitor’s penalty box). But to be honest, it’s a sport that makes me grind my teeth. The truth of the matter is that I don’t like it because I can’t play it.

SCALE 10XSkating on ice is hard enough. Canadians, Scandinavians and Russians: I know you all have a gene that allows you to turn pirouettes on the ice straight from the womb, and that’s great. But I can’t stay perpendicular for very long while on skates on frozen water. Add to this that I’d have to stay perpendicular on the ice and keep a rubber disk in front of me with a stick; difficulty squared. The clincher? Keeping perpendicular on the ice while keeping a rubber disk in front of me with a stick while people are trying to knock me down (which, of course, would anger me to bodily harm on the ice, and I understand that you can’t legally hit people with your stick, unfortunately).

“So,” you ask, “are we going to get to the point of this blog anytime soon, Larry?”

Yes.

While I don’t like hockey, currently my favorite article of clothing is my SCALE hockey jersey, which is now packed and ready for SCALE 10X. SCALE 10X is being held Friday to Sunday of this week, a mere four days from today, at the Hilton Los Angeles Airport hotel.

A little history: At SCALE 9X last year, the powers that be at the show figured there should be some way to identify the staff on the floor of the show — something that would make them stand out. The result: SCALE hockey jerseys, with the name of the staff person across the back. If you were a speaker, a vendor, an exhibitor or anyone else at the show and you needed something, you needed to give a hip check to the person you saw running around with a hockey jersey.

Or you could find me: I’d be the one in the hockey jersey taking five steps and immediately falling down, but I digress.

I’m giving two presentations at SCALE 10X this year — “User Groups 2.1: Noob Morning in America” (a reprise of last years “User Group 2.0″ talk) at 10 a.m. Friday in the hotel’s beautiful Catalina D room, and “On Beyond Zenwalk” on Saturday at 3 in the hotel’s Los Angeles B room. I’m also your host for the CrunchBang GNU/Linux “Birds of a Feather” event on Saturday evening as well.

Just don’t ask me to shoot and score.

More on SCALE 10X coming this week in this blog. Watch this space.

(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!

No predictions in 2012, except . . .

January 3, 2012 1 comment

Normally, I take the time at the end of the year to be a complete goof (and that differs from the rest of the year . . . how?) and write some predicitions for the following year, like I did for 2009 and for 2010. I didn’t make any predictions for 2011 at the end of 2010 — rather, I wrote what I thought I’d like to see in 2011, followed by a Moment of Zen. For 2012, I decided to forego this practice altogether, if for no other reason than I can’t seem to fit a “year of the Linux desktop” joke into the mix.

But there are a couple of things we might see in 2012, like . . .

SCALE 10XLinux Expo Numbers Will Be Up: Don’t let the early curveball fool you: The Southern California Linux Expo SCALE 10X, held in January this year (as in about three weeks from now) in Los Angeles, kicks off the roster of Linux/FOSS expos for 2012, which stands to be the “Year of the Linux Desktop Expo” (See? You knew I’d get the Linux desktop in there somewhere). I’d be willing to bet that it has been obscured on people’s radar because of recently concluded the holiday season, so mark your calendars — and get yourself over to the registration page to sign up if you haven’t done so already. Also, the $109/night deal for SCALE attendees at the Hilton still stands as well. Because a.) what better way would it be to kick off this year and b.) how could you resist a weekend in L.A. with nearly 2,000 of your best friends?

That’s followed by Linux Fest Northwest (I’ll be there), Texas Linux Fest, and a slew of others. Which reminds me . . . .

I’ll be at more shows. Yep, I think I’m going to be heading east of the Rockies this year and submitting papers and venturing off to other shows where I have not yet been. This would include many, if not all, of the Linux expos on the other side of the Continental Divide. That could be an announcement or a warning — you decide.

One more thing: I heard this from more than one person. It could be a rumor, speculation, wishful thinking, acid flashback or whatever form these kind of statements take. I have no proof, just a gut feeling that it’ll happen. I could be wrong, but if I’m not, it’ll change the face of FOSS a little. OK, maybe it will change the face of FOSS more than a little.

It is this: Dell buys Canonical sometime in 2012.

Remember where you read it first.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started developing software at Redwood Digital Research, in the cozy confines of his home office.)

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Eliminate DRM!

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