29 June 2008

My new laptop, Betty

EDIT (2010-06-29): Broken images fixed.

OK, I know I said I'd post about this Friday after dinner, but I was really tired by the time Crimsun and I were done hanging out, I was really tired. Plus, I still don't have internet at home. Oh, the laptop's name is Betty after Betty Jean Jennings and Betty Snyder, two of the women who programmed ENIAC. The other two laptops are Ada and Grace.

I decided to go with ZaReason because I wanted a 13" laptop, and I wanted to support a Linux-only company. Their Open Hardware Warranty, which does away with that "you opened it, so it's void" nonsense many larger companies have, was also a nice bonus. System76 often uses the same parts as ZaReason, so I'd trust their hardware too, but they don't have a 13" model available. The one I got is the UltraLapSR. I've been drooling over it for months. Yay for paid internships!

So, specs:

  • Core 2 Duo 2GHz (T7250)
  • 2GB RAM
  • 250GB 5400RPM hard drive
  • Intel X3100 (i965) graphics
  • 1280x800 shiny screen
  • VGA out
  • Intel 4965 Draft N wifi
  • Bluetooth
  • ESATA port
  • 3 USB ports
  • Firewire
  • DVD-RW
  • SD reader

I opted for the Intel graphics because I've had great luck with them. There's an Nvidia option as well. The combination of Intel graphics and wifi, though, means I can remove linux-restricted-modules, which I think is great. It also makes me feel safer using 64bit Ubuntu. All supported hardware uses fully open drivers. Woot!

After being spoiled using two 22" monitors at work, the 13" screen feels so small, but I'm sure one of my friends will pull out an EeePC or XO fairly soon and remind me what a small screen is. I do like the size though. As far as I can figure, 13", maybe 12", is the smallest you can go before the keyboard starts being the wrong size and awkward for typing. So this hits that perfect point where it's large enough to type on, but it's still small enough to carry around and be nice and light, weighing in at 4.8 lb (2.17kg) which is certainly better than the old laptop which was 7lb (3.17kg).

ZaReason doesn't advertise it on their site, but there are a few pieces of hardware on here not listed above. They don't list them, because they aren't supported in Linux yet. The first one I noticed was the webcam, because you can kind of see it in the photos. Plus, one of my friends has an older version of the ASUS on which these are built, so I've seen it on hers. That doesn't really bother me since I have a USB webcam and still haven't actually found a use for it other than taking avatar photos with Cheese. The second one I noticed was the fingerprint reader (Bug #163156). It's the same one found in the Thinkpad R61, some Sony Vaios, and some System76s. Libfprint developer Daniel Drake is working on it thanks to hardware donated by System76. I noticed it was there when I went to middle-click-to-paste by smacking the part where the left and right buttons come together and discovered that they don't touch because of the fingerprint scanner. The last thing is the Express Card reader. I haven't tested this (I don't actually have anything to put in there...nor did I when I had a PCMCIA slot), but I'm assuming it doesn't work since it (like the other two) isn't listed in the specs on the site. I know work is being done to get the Memory Stick/Pro parts of the SD slot working as well. I didn't know that was there til I did an lspci.

Now for the function keys. If I hit the Fn+F2 or the hardware wifi switch to turn off the wifi card, I can't turn it back on. The switches won't undo. Just have to reboot. F3 has a little envelope, and pressing Fn+F3 does indeed start Evolution. Sweet! Brightness and volume keys both work. The key that shows an "e" with a swoosh around it doesn't register any keypress event in xev at all, so no, it doesn't launch Firefox. Same goes for the button that's meant to kill the touchpad. NumLock is fine, I have no idea what Scroll Lock is supposed to do so no comment there. Haven't tried using an external monitor because I don't have one. The suspend button does work. There's also a button with a lightbulb and a battery on it. I don't know what it's supposed to do, but it doesn't seem like it's doing anything.

So that's the end of the hardware incompatibility scariness. They don't mention it on the site, but I think the microphone works. At first I didn't think that, but then I realized I had the Capture thing on the mixer muted, so that'd explain that. I didn't try the mic jack because I lack the peripherals, but there are two microphones mounted in the screen for wireless VOIP, and they do work. Also, suspend and hibernate work just fine as advertised. Bonus: since this lapto doesn't have a switch on the edge to hook the lid shut, putting it in my bag doesn't bump it into resuming while in an enclosed space and then overheating. Bootup time seems pretty good. According to bootchart, it takes 25 seconds. My others are over 30 seconds, so woot! And something that makes me really happy is that this 4965 has much better range with the new iwl drivers than the 3945 does. With ipw, the 3945 had great range, and then it went downhill with the open source iwl drivers. The 4965, probably because iwl are the only drivers it's ever had, has great range once again.

As I said before, I requested 64bit Ubuntu. I asked lots of questions before buying it, including about whether LVM was an option. Yes, LVM is a possibility. I was thinking about having /home encrypted but then I realized that that would 1) require that they know what passphrase I wanted to use 2) shorten battery life with the extra CPU usage. I will be travelling internationally this summer, and the border guards in The Land of the Free are now allowed to search and take images of the hard drives of their own citizens' computers, so I've been looking into what sort of encryption tricks I can use. Anyway, the question about LVM meant that when I ordered it and included the 64bit request in the comment box, I got an email asking if I wanted LVM or had any partitioning requests. Thanks for the reminder, Earl! So it's partitioned with 10GB / and the rest /home, just as I asked. Being able to make requests like that is great. It defeats the purpose of a pre-install if you just have to redo it yourself to get it just right, doesn't it? +1 for the customer service.

One thing I'm noticing is that this thing runs extremely quietly and doesn't get hot. The bottom is slightly warm after about an hour of use, but not even as warm as your forehead gets when you've got a fever. You can't hear the fan unless you put your ear right up to the vent. Of course, I'm sure my long nails clicking on the keyboard totally undo any quiet this would give my roommate when she's trying to sleep ;) Also, though they advertise a 2 hour battery life, it's really more like 2 and a half, even with the brightness all the way up.

It feels very solid. Where my others seem to have a bit of give, this is sturdy. My other laptop presses on the hard drive or optical drive if you press to hard on the areas next to the touchpad. This doesn't bend at all. The "mouse buttons" on the touchpad don't have any wiggle to them. Even the eject button on the DVD drive feels tougher. It doesn't wiggle like most others do. I've had issues with optical drives in the past, and I wouldn't be surprised if flimsiness—the way it wobbles and jams closing it—had to do with it. None of that here. The drive moves in and out perfect and automatically aligns as it goes back in. The keyboard feels great. It's clicky. I love clicky keyboards. If you've ever been annoyed at that squish that's in Dell's and Apple's keyboards, and in Gateway's when new (once you get enough dust in them, they start clicking properly), but you love the keyboard on a Thinkpad, you'll love this. It's like the Model M of laptop keyboards, no joke.

Now, for the looks. It's gorgeous. Since I went for the Intel graphics, I have the black one. Their site only has photos of the white one with Nvidia graphics. That one has what appears to be a honeycomb pattern in the lid. This one has light zig-zags alternating between thick and thin lines made right into the plastic, not as part of the gloss finish. The outside is all black, except for a silver trim on the edges where it closes. The inside is the same matte silver with a slightly textured surface, similar to a silver MacBook. The touchpad is not a separate piece like on many laptops. It's simply an indentation in the midst of the rest of the front panel. There are two silver plaques with ZaReason's logo engraved on them; one is on the back of the webcam, the other is centered below the screen. It seems when the Massachusetts LoCo had all those metal case-badges made they bought quite a few, because I didn't have to put my own on here. It came with it. And finally, the Super key has an Ubuntu logo instead of a Windows one!

Here you can see the shiny surface, and if you click to look at the larger version, you'll see the wavy pattern I mentioned.

UltraLap SR (lid)

Here's the inside. That's me typing this post in vim. Notice how the icons for the indicator lights are visible on both the lid and the inside surface. The two holes at the top are the microphone. The Ubuntu logo on Super is also clearly visible.

UltraLap SR (open)

These folks think of everything. To go along with their Open Hardware Warranty, they include a little screwdriver that says ZaReason on the side and has a clip so you can carry it in your pocket like a pen, if you're a guy and thus have clothes with the necessary pockets. There's also a nice little microfibre cloth to deal with the candy screen and glossy top. The bottom panel (though I haven't opened it up yet) takes up the whole bottom of the laptop, right up to the battery, giving access to the whole board.

This is a great machine. It'd be better if the webcam and fingerprint reader worked, but I'm very happy as-is. I ordered it on 19 June, it shipped on 21 June, and I got it on 27 June, 8 days total. Configured like this, with a 2yr warranty and their current $100 off sale, the total is $1254. Using the student discount, it comes out to $1191.30 plus shipping—not a bad price at all.

Given my feelings about the quality of this hardware, it almost seems an insult to do this, but here's as close as Dell's Ubuntu laptops get:

Dell laptop configured similarly

That's configured today (29 June), so the time it takes them to give it to UPS or FedEx or whomever is nearly 3 weeks! Differences between that and mine are that their webcam and fingerprint scanner do work, mine has 802.11n, and my hard drive is 1.5x the size of theirs. Oh, and Dell's is $218 more without any options to configure any aspects of the install.

Disclaimer: I know that the CEO of ZaReason reads and comments on this blog, has linked to it, and is a member of LinuxChix. Her comment on a post was how I learned that ZaReason existed.


Raseel said...

Wait are you saying (from the last few lines) that your webcam and finger-print reader are NOT working ?

Mackenzie said...

Correct. That's why they are not listed in the specs at the top or on ZaReason's site. As it says, I knew from my friend having a similar model and from looking close at the photos that the webcam was there, but since they didn't list it, I also knew it was non-functional. The fingerprint reader was a surprise I noticed after I got it, and it's not listed in the specs here or on the site because it doesn't work. The fingerprint scanner's driver is under active development at the moment, though, so I don't imagine that'll be long.

matthew said...

That was a great review. Thank you! This has pushed the ZaReason up on my list of laptops I will consider later this year when I look to replace my current one.

Marc Carson said...

Excellent writeup. This has steeled my resolve to purchase from Zareason in the future. I bought Dell's first Ubuntu laptop and it's been a fantastic feeling to use it. I'd rather support a local vendor in the future, though.

I was looking for a ~$550 laptop from them for my wife, but I ended up buying from my local Staples since Za didn't have anything around that price. :-(

BTW, I looked at one of your large photos and thought, "her laptop is so dirty already, wow," until I realized that what I was seeing was stuff that had accumulated on my OWN screen, lol.

che said...


Jeff said...

I know this is unrelated, but I'm curious what nick you go by when your in the #ubuntu IRC channel? I'm wondering if I've run into you there... :)

Mackenzie said...

I'm maco.

zmjjmz said...

Wait, no middle click?
That's a dealbreaker for me :/

Mackenzie said...

Middle click for me has always meant pressing both buttons at once since I don't have 3 buttons. This just means I do it with my fingers farther apart instead of smacking the center. You can still middle-click paste.

Kevix said...

Congrats MacO on the new lappy! A bit bigger than my xo-1 ;-) but cool nonetheless. Use it in good health! Can't wait to see it laden with all manner of free software stickers! Strutin' your geek cred! Happy Hacking, Kev

Jeffrey said...

Great review. It's a great reminder that I shouldn't complain when a feature on my Dell laptop doesn't work.

According to recent news stories, the TSA does inspect computers at the border, they also confiscate them while they defeat the encryption. You do get the hardware back, but I've read it can take a few weeks. They will also inspect any digital media, including cameras. You might want to store important stuff some other way, perhaps online somewhere, or on a flash drive that your "forget" to mention.

Mackenzie said...

It's too pretty to be stickerized

Freaktech said...

Great review. I will definately be looking at ZaReason for my next lappy. I just bought my wife and Asus Eee PC and she absolutely love it.

Bryan said...

The only problem that I see with this laptop is that it's 1 1/2" thick. After working on friends' MacBook Pros, that just seems so thick! I haven't been able to find a laptop that's as thin as an apple laptop that's not an apple. That's the dealbreaker for me :(.

Marius Gedminas said...

My experience with Intel wireless suggests that if you wait a while (at least 60 seconds) after reenabling wifi, it will come back up. No guarantees, but, well, it might. :-)

Many touchpads also allow you to emulate a middle mouse click if you tap them with two fingers. This may sometimes be more convenient than pressing both hardware mouse buttons.

The laptop sounds sweet. The only downside (for me personally) would be the extra row of keys on the right, with Home/End/PgUp/PgDn squished in there. I suppose you can get used to it...

Mackenzie said...

Hmm, I'll have to play with synclient a bit and see if it's in there to put into GSynaptics...

Ada (my old laptop) has that column over there as well, but it has a bit over an inch of plastic added to each side of the keyboard to compensate for its 15" screen.

Mackenzie said...

Also, I don't just mean the interface doesn't come back, but the light doesn't even come back on either.

Marius Gedminas said...

IIRC the two-finger tap is enabled by default, and it's the hardware itself that does the detection, the synaptics driver can only tell the hardware to turn the feature on or off.

My Asus EeePC has an Elantech touchpad, not supported by the stock synaptics driver (there's a patch somewhere that makes it work, but meh). I can use two and three finger taps, but don't get mouse wheel emulation on the right edge.

Regarding the wifi LED, don't rely on it too much. I've heard in many places that the Intel wireless driver sometimes forgets to turn the LED back on, even when wifi is on. I remember seeing on my Thinkpad (Intel 3945ABG) that after pressing Fn-F7 twice to turn wifi off and then back on, I'd get wifi working, but the LED would be off.

The thing with the 60 second wait before getting my wireless back was when I used the hardware wifi kill switch.

Take all this with a grain of salt: I experimented with wifi a while ago, and human memory is fallible. Also, back then Ubuntu (7.10) used the ipw3945 driver instead of the newer and free-er iwl3945.

Nevertheless, a blank LED is not always a reason to assume the wifi is gone until you reboot.

James Gray said...

Thanks for the review. I'll keep ZaReason in mind for my next purchase. :-)

Counterdutch said...

ux is nice, just browsing flash sites is boring... you need to set up chrooted 32 bits linux :(

Mackenzie said...

You can use 32bit Flash on 64bit Firefox using nspluginwrapper or on Konqueror with no issues. You an also use Swfdec (as I am) for 64bit, theoretically just fine. In reality, 0.6.0 (or is it 0.6.2?), which is default in Hardy, is not compatible with 64bit audio drivers, so you have to install 0.6.6.