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ZaReason UltraLap 440 Review Part 2: This time, it’s personal

March 16, 2014 3 comments

[BLOGGER'S NOTE: Yeah, it's unconventional to do a review in two parts this way, but the timing of my receiving the ZaReason UltraLap 440 coincided by chance with the week leading up to SCALE 12X, perhaps the busiest time of my year as the publicity chair for this event. This is the second of two parts, where I look at the day-to-day use of the UltraLap 440, in contrast to the work trials and tribulations that I covered in Part 1 of this review ].

As I mentioned in the last item, ZaReason allowed me the use of their new UltraLap 440 for a test drive. I wasn’t able to use the laptop under normal day-to-day use because of SCALE 12X, but after the event, things settled down. My life became my own again, and the UltraLap 440 also settled into the day-to-day routine of writing, Web surfing, Python projects for the class I co-teach, and the occasional video.

First things first: The UltraLap 440 given to me is a model with 8GB of RAM ($59 extra, with 4GB being the default) and with the 120GB Crucial SSD drive (the default being 500GB 5,400 RPM drive). Other than these modifications, the laptop has a dual-core i5 Intel processor running at 1.6 to 2.6GHz, Intel video card, Intel WiFi, and Bluetooth included (I didn’t use the Bluetooth). The specs and options for this machine are here — and the base cost of the UltraLap 440 is $799, and the version tested goes for $957 (extra RAM, Crucial SSD drive raising the price). We’ll get back to the financial side of things in a bit.

Day-to-day use: As previously mentioned, when I’m not handling publicity for the best FOSS show in the U.S. every year, my hardware use habits revolve around writing documentation, teaching a beginning Python class for homeschooled middle- and high-schoolers in Santa Cruz, surfing the Web and the trappings that entails, and watching a video from time to time. As an aside, I am a huge Aaron Sorkin fan, and I can often be found breaking down episodes of “The Newsroom” or “The West Wing” from time to time, as well as watching other films via DVD.

I threw a lot at the laptop working on SCALE 12X. As I mentioned, it performed flawlessly. Because the rigors of my daily digital life are far less than the those of working on the expo, the laptop handled everything I threw at it — lesson plans, various writing projects, some photo fixing via GIMP and even an installation of Citrix Receiver for my work at the newspaper were all handled easily and quickly (8GB is a blessing to someone for whom 4GB is huge, and the difference is remarkable).

Long live the battery: Of special note on this laptop is the battery life. The way I tested it — other than forgetting I had not plugged in the laptop while working at SCALE and letting it wind down to a dangerously low level (OK, 15 percent to me reaches that threshold) — was to do the video test: Watch as many episodes of Season 1 of “The Newsroom” to see how far I could go. The results? With an open browser with five tabs (Gmail, WordPress, Associated Press, Google News and ZaReason), I was able to watch Episodes 8, 9 and 10 while running the battery down to 9 percent by the end of the third hour. Because I don’t have newer hardware to compare it to, this clearly outdistances any ThinkPad I’ve ever owned, and clearly outperforms my current main laptop.

Distros on the UltraLap 440: When I booted the UltraLap 440, it came with Ubuntu 13.10, which was used only long enough to install Korora 20 KDE, a Fedora derivative which I like to use with hardware with a lot of horsepower. As an aside, one of the advantages that ZaReason has over other Linux hardware vendors (looking at you, Ubuntu-specific System 76) is that you have a choice of distro when you order — they’ll install Ubuntu (and the other *buntus, like Kubuntu), Linux Mint, OpenSUSE, Debian, Fedora, or even your choice of distro that you ask them to install.

Nevertheless, Korora 20 KDE ran flawlessly on the UltraLap 440. Another aside — if you like Fedora and want all the bells and whistles that you might want for simple Web surfing, then Korora is worth a try. Updates and installs went without problems and most of the things I added were handled without breaking a sweat.

Another personal distro of choice that I use on other hardware is CrunchBang, a Debian derivative with the Openbox window manager. When you have 8GB of RAM at your disposal and your distro is running a window manager as opposed to carrying the weight of a desktop environment, well you can probably fill in the blank. In short, CrunchBang flew as if a rocket engine was placed on a go-kart.

The UltraLap 440 fires on all cylinders, but not all is unicorns and daisies with this laptop . . .

The one glaring issue: Before I mention this, I have to say first that I am a very fast typist. My fingers, though large, can zip across the keyboard with the speed of the fastest of the qwerty artists. Chalk this up to typing since the early ’70s. In any case, when I tested the ZaReason Alto 3880 a couple of years ago, I had some misgivings about the keyboard; misgivings that were unfounded since the Alto still performs well here at home.

However, the keyboard on the UltraLap 440 takes getting used to when using it for the first time, and the learning curve — that is, allowing your fingers that may be used to another keyboard to get accustomed to this one — took longer to negotiate than I would have anticipated. However, once I got the hang of it, it was fairly smooth sailing from then on.

Postscript: Despite the keyboard issue, there are a multiplicity of upsides to buying this laptop, despite the fact that some might consider that price a little on the high side. To be honest, I cannot afford a laptop close to $1,000, but the UltraLap 440 is well worth the price — for those who can afford a laptop in this price range, the UltraLap 440 would make an outstanding choice.

One more thing: Much has been made of the fact that Linux-specific hardware is more expensive than their Windows-based counterparts. Without bring the UEFI issue up, one of the advantages of buying Linux-based hardware is that it shows supports for FOSS.

Perhaps the hardest thing about reviewing this hardware is that I have to return it. Thank you, ZaReason, for providing the world with outstanding FOSS-based hardware.

This blog, and all other blogs by Larry the Free Software Guy, Larry the CrunchBang Guy, Fosstafarian, Larry the Korora Guy, and Larry Cafiero, are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND license. In short, this license allows others to download this work and share it with others as long as they credit me as the author, but others can’t change it in any way or use it commercially.

(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!

ZaReason UltraLap 440 Review Part 1: Baptism by fire

March 15, 2014 2 comments

scale12x[BLOGGER'S NOTE: Yeah, it's unconventional to do a review in two parts this way, but the timing of my receiving the ZaReason UltraLap 440 coincided by chance with the week leading up to SCALE 12X, perhaps the busiest time of my year. All of which is to say, as you'll see below, that a lot of work was thrown at this machine during the course of the week prior to SCALE 12X, during SCALE 12X itself, and immediately after SCALE 12X. The tl:dr here is that it performed flawlessly and more detail is forthcoming in Part 2].

The e-mail came as expected: ZaReason CEO Cathy Malmrose wrote me the day before asking me if she could introduce me to the new ZaReason marketing manager, Vy Nguyen. “Of course,” I said. Vy wrote me and asked me if I could review the new ZaReason laptop, the UltraLap 440, like I did with the ZaReason Alto 3880 a couple of years ago.

As if you have to twist my arm to try new hardware. Gladly, I said. However, there was a minor detail: With this request coming in February, my attention was locked laser-like on the Southern California Linux Expo and that the rigors of this show had better make this laptop a hard worker with the ability to process a lot of data for long periods of time at the touch of these unusually fat fingers.

In other words, this hardware was going to get slammed under nearly constant 12-hour-a-day-minimum use for the next few weeks.

Long story short, the UltraLap 440 worked like a champ in the weeks leading up to SCALE 12X, during SCALE 12X and immediately after SCALE 12X.

First things first: Off with Ubuntu and on with a distro on which I can get real work done. That would be Korora 20 KDE (though later on, as you’ll read in the next review, other distros were given a test run on this hardware). Copy over my home directory onto the new laptop, make a few adjustments and I am good to go.

As mentioned earlier on many occasions, I’m a ThinkPad guy at heart, so when a smaller, lighter form factor crosses my radar, skepticism rears its ugly head. “So, kid, show me what you’ve got,” was my first response taking the laptop out of the box.

This skepticism was squashed fairly quickly. This hardware is a “lightweight” in form-factor only; the UltraLap 440 did the same tough work, under the same tough conditions under which I put some of the more traditionally hard-core hardware, and it passed this test with flying colors (and, to be honest, I could be easier on hardware. But in my defense I’m not hard on hardware on purpose. I’m just an incredibly clumsy oaf with heavy fingers).

Also, battery life on this hardware deserves special mention. On more than one occasion over the course of the SCALE 12X weekend — usually when picking up the laptop and running with it under my arm, like a football, to some emergency — I had neglected to plug in the laptop. I never ran out of power, noticing at one point that I was somewhere in the 20s, percentage wise, after just over three hours of battery use under some fairly trying conditions that included, but was not limited to, a high number of file exchanges from external drives, USB sticks and SD cards, to say nothing of live streaming video monitoring during the course of the show.

The old saying is essentially correct: Good things actually do come in small packages. The 14-inch screen — the HD display is one of the strong points, despite the fact it took a little getting used to from the nearly square ThinkPad screen — did not hamper my personal work performance. There are even little things that bear big mentions, like the multi-monitor support coming in very handy during the show, or the 8GB of RAM — an optional upgrade for $59 that is well worth the expense — helping to carry a heavy load without breaking a sweat.

For the few weeks around SCALE 12X, the UltraLap 440 gets high marks for grace under pressure, and its use in non-show conditions — let’s call that normal day-to-day use — will be the topic of the next review.

Coming next, ZaReason UltraLap 440 Review Part 2: Daily life with the ZaReason UltraLap 440 that does not include the best Linux/FOSS show of the year, highlighting the upsides of this machine — and there are many — and the downside — primarily one, which is easily overcome.

This blog, and all other blogs by Larry the Free Software Guy, Larry the CrunchBang Guy, Fosstafarian, Larry the Korora Guy, and Larry Cafiero, are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND license. In short, this license allows others to download this work and share it with others as long as they credit me as the author, but others can’t change it in any way or use it commercially.

(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!

Whew

March 6, 2014 3 comments

scale12xDecompression can be a killer. A thousand pardons for taking so long to post about it, but the Southern California Linux Expo SCALE 12X was nothing short of fantastic on a variety of levels.

No, that’s not hyperbole.

Lawrence Lessig absolutely nailed it in the Friday night keynote. Don’t take my word for it — watch the keynote on the SCALE 12X site here. Also, Lessig is going to need a little help fixing the government, so if you’re so inclined just send an email to SCALE@lessig.org with a description of the sort of commitment/skills you can offer, and if helpful, a description of your background.

The rest was, frankly, a well-choreographed blur of 90 or so talks over three days, punctuated by two days of exhibits with around 100 exhibitors and whirlwind of volunteers who rhetorically knocked it out of the park.

If you were there and want to relate your experience, go for it in the comments.

But back to the “knocking it out of the park” thing, it inspires complete and utter awe how much this show improves every year. It all boils down to one question.

What makes a great show like SCALE 12X?

Everyone: The volunteers, the staff, the speakers, the exhibitors and the sponsors. But most importantly, the attendees tie the ribbon on a fantastic expo, making it the complete and wonderful package it is.

The final tally: There was an uptick of roughly 10 percent in registrations for SCALE 12X, with a new record number of people enjoying three days of presentations, workshops and exhibits.

It was great to see old friends and to meet those I have talked to on numerous occasions but finally got to meet in person: Leslie Hawthorn, whose outstanding keynote was SRO, and Steven Rosenberg of the L.A. Daily News, who gave us a pre-show story in the Daily News’ constellation of Southern California publications.

[Yes, I compared SCALE 12X to the Daytona 500 in that article -- an afterthought that the press picked up (shame on me -- I should know better). But the comparison is a valid one: Like NASCAR holding its biggest race first, so FOSS also holds its most important event at the beginning of the year.]

As the publicity chair, the Publicity Team fired on all cylinders for the entire weekend: Hannah Anderson, who handled social media and floor interview duties as if she was born to do these things, kept everyone informed, and a team of photographers and videographers — Dennis Rex, Michelle Klein-Hass, Sam Is, and Sean McCabe — kept the photos and videos flowing throughout the show.

Graphics: Mike Hamanaka and Josh Adler did a fantastic job in the graphics department — Mike with the signage, badges and stickers, and Josh with the publications and T-shirt design. I got a lot of comments on these during the course of the show and it bears special mention.

Again, I would stress that if anyone has any of their own tales of SCALE 12X they’d like to share, please post them in the comments. As for me, I was stuck marshalling the media forces in the press room for a better part of the show and I got most news second- and third-hand, so some first-hand accounts would be appreciated.

One more thing: As I mentioned in a previous item, ZaReason gave me an UltraLap 440 to review right around the time SCALE 12X was happening, so the laptop got a baptism by fire, sort of, at the show. I am still in the process of giving it a month-long, long-term road test, so to speak, and I should point out that at the show, the laptop performed flawlessly as my main machine. More on this will be detailed in an upcoming review.

This blog, and all other blogs by Larry the Free Software Guy, Larry the CrunchBang Guy, Fosstafarian, Larry the Korora Guy, and Larry Cafiero, are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND license. In short, this license allows others to download this work and share it with others as long as they credit me as the author, but others can’t change it in any way or use it commercially.

(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!

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