High on the Alto 3880

February 13, 2012

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.


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!

  1. February 13, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    Wait…. those stickers go on the outside? This may solve one of my problems.

    Keyboards, just like stickers and boat names, are such a personal thing. And being
    a guy who learned on a manual machine back in the dim ages…. LtFSG has to haul
    himself up the huge learning curve. You’ll get it.

    Sounds like enough computer for all the heaviest graphics types.
    Pretty good battery life too. Are you really going to send this one back?
    I’ll pm my address, eh?

    • February 13, 2012 at 4:03 pm

      Yes, it would be tragic if UPS “lost” this machine . . . heh heh heh. Just kidding: I’ll send this and the other ZaReason laptop back on Wednesday, much to my dismay. I think I’m going to buy an Alto, though.

  2. February 13, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    Is Flash the only thing not part of Fedora that you had to install? All open-source drivers for the video and networking? Sounds like a good deal.

    • February 13, 2012 at 5:32 pm

      When installing Fedora? Yeah, Don. Fedora doesn’t come with Flash and it’s not in the repositories — that ol’ “free software” thing — but as far as video and networking, everything was working right out of the box on the other distros (Mint, CrunchBang) and as soon as I installed Flash on Fedora, it was working there, too.

      • February 15, 2012 at 5:01 pm

        That’s great news (I generally avoid hardware that needs drivers that aren’t included in the kernel–those drivers make upgrades too “interesting”.) Good to see it all working and thanks for your answer.

    • jeremy
      March 29, 2012 at 6:22 pm

      I like what ZaReason, System76, and others are trying to do. Unfortunately I think these companies don’t fully understand or at least appreciate the problems we are encountering. They are acting in the interests of others who are turning GNU/Linux into a non-free platform. Buying a system from them does not guarantee you software freedom. Microsoft Windows is only a small part of the problem.

      ZaReason is using NVidia, Atheros Bluetooth, and other chipsets that are not free software compatible. While these chipsets work on the above distributions at the time of this review there is no guarantee they will continue to work and some distributions don’t work at all right now. The companies releasing proprietary drivers and firmware that ZaReason relies on have shown a willingness to discontinue support. Without free drivers and firmware the community can’t adequately support these chipsets.

      There is a reason ALSA, Trisquel, and the free software foundation don’t work with non-free software.

      There are also other technical and ethical problems with using these chipsets. ZaReason needs to up its game or get out of the way. There is another small company making the necessary changes. Just shipping without Microsoft Windows isn’t good enough any more. I won’t be supporting a company that doesn’t support my freedom.

      There are easy ways to test how free your system is. Download a copy of Trisquel. Trisquel doesn’t ship non-free software. If you find that your hardware doesn’t work complain to the company you bought it from.

      And yea- this specific laptop does have other problems. Real problems that aren’t listed in the review. It does no have support for bluetooth across distributions for instance. This chipset is reliant on non-free software.

      I hope ZaReason will change. I’m doubtful they will. Prove me wrong ZaReason.

      • March 29, 2012 at 7:52 pm

        Interesting, Jeremy. Your first sentence says you like what they’re doing, and then you spend the rest of your comment — 290 words of it — criticizing what they’re doing. Spoken like a true free-software dogmatist.

        I think hardware makers have to include whatever they choose to include in their hardware to make it work until such time as “free software” can catch up.

        Thank God for the Linux kernel, otherwise we’d still be waiting for Hurd 20 years later, and it’s still not ready. We’re still waiting for a functional Gnash as well — which is why I’m OK with people using Flash to use things like the Khan Academy. Many people — me included — aren’t “free” to wait for the free software dogmatists to get their act together and provide truly free software. In the meantime, we get by with what we can.

        Live with it.

  1. February 21, 2012 at 10:31 pm
  2. May 22, 2012 at 9:50 am
  3. May 22, 2012 at 10:18 am
  4. March 15, 2014 at 11:18 am
  5. March 15, 2014 at 11:40 am
  6. March 15, 2014 at 11:43 am
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