Back to the future

Unbeknown to my daughter Mimi — and being the Ubuntu user that she is, sadly I don’t think she reads what her Dad writes in this blog (and if she does, well, consider the surprise spoiled) — she’s about to inherit yet another of Dad’s hand-me-down computers.

First things first: I currently use a ZaReason Alto 3880 laptop, which is a remarkable machine that, sadly, ZaReason doesn’t make anymore — time and improvements march on, and ZaReason has advanced this laptop series to the current Alto 4330.

My daughter, though, has been using for the past few years my old ThinkPad R40, a very sturdy, utilitaran and well-traveled laptop judging by all the stickers on the cover.

Enter a new development: Steam and Valve are ramping up gaming in Linux, and the old R40 — great for her artwork and creating 8-bit music, which takes up most of her digital life — has, well, performance issues when it comes to the higher horsepower needed for games. Her interest in games goes beyond playing them, and with this in mind, I’d like for her to have the better hardware when pitching in on the projects she wants to explore.

Personally, I blame Gabe Newell for Mimi wanting newer hardware, but never mind. Also, for those of you keeping score at home, shelling out for a new ZaReason laptop is out of the question until, at least, Christmas (especially after last week’s $600 car repair which we will not discuss. Ever).

So after saving a ThinkPad T42 from recycling doom recently, I’ve put Waldorf on it — the CrunchBang-11-20121015-i686 version, which works flawlessly (with one caveat, mentioned below) — and I’ll hand down the ZaReason to Mimi.

Now, you go girl.

In the past in other blogs, I’ve said that I am a ThinkPad guy and I have always loved the form factor. That hasn’t changed, and though I’m turning over the keys to the sports car to my daughter and relegating myself to the station wagon, I feel at home with almost any model of ThinkPad.

So back to the hardware I love while looking to the future.

One more thing: There have been installation issues in the past with Waldorf — and, for some reason, it seems to be happening mostly (if not solely) on ThinkPads — where the installation will hang at the “detect disks” point. It came up again yesterday with this current install, and while there’s an extensive discussion involving solutions here, my solution was more simple and straightforward: Disable floppy in the BIOS.

This blog, and all other blogs by Larry the Free Software Guy, Larry the CrunchBang 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 has just started developing software at Redwood Digital Research (RDR), a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment. RDR is based in Felton, California, USA.

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ZaReason Alto 3880: The honeymoon continues

[Note: This item is being resposted from the Larry the Free Software Guy blog. Because it mentions CrunchBang, it is included in this blog as well.]

When I reviewed the ZaReason Alto 3880 earlier this year, I liked it so much I got one, and I told Cathy and Earl Malmrose of ZaReason that I’d write my impressions of the Alto three months later.

That was in February and now it’s May — three months hence — and I have to say that I have not had one bad experience with the laptop.

To recap: Until I gave the Alto a test run, I was a dyed-in-the-wool ThinkPad guy, utilitarian to the core. All my ThinkPads — and there are several — look like NASCAR entries with their sticker-laden covers displaying the best of FOSS programs.

Since February, though, I’ve been using the Alto for hours on end on a daily basis, giving it the rigorous workout that the ThinkPads normally got when I was using them exclusively. The Alto 3880 has proved to be a very tough machine going step-for-step, measure-for-measure with the ThinkPad in all categories.

The advantage that the Alto has over the ThinkPad is that it looks good — no, it looks great — doing it.

Which of course brings me to the keyboard: As I wrote earlier, I thought the keyboard in the Alto 3880, at first touch, was a little light. With the pounding I normally give the sturdy ThinkPad keyboard, I openly worried about my heavy fingers and not-so-gentle touch on what I thought might be a less-than-sturdy keyboard. I was completely wrong about this — the keyboard is tougher than the first impression lets on, and it is one of the Alto 3880’s outstanding features. If it handles the range of tapping I give it — and it has — then it passes that test with high marks.

As I’ve written before, I’m running CrunchBang Statler on this machine and it runs flawlessly on the Alto. In the original blog, I mentioned that I had also run other distros on the Alto as well, but I choose to run CrunchBang for a variety of reasons I write about in another blog. For the unenlightened, CrunchBang — which is on the verge of releasing another version soon — is a Debian-based distro running the Openbox window manager. On the Alto, the combination of Openbox with Debian rumbling under the hood makes this laptop a digital rocket.

The ZaReason Alto 3880 is an outstanding machine that continues to earn my highest recommendation. The specs are here and, as I mentioned in the original blog item, the price is higher than you’d pay for something off the shelf at a big box like Best Buy (and, in a word, don’t!). But the Alto is worth every bit of the extra cost, and one of many features that ZaReason offers is that they provide a wide variety of distros to choose from on their hardware — though I don’t use it often, I understand Linux Mint would be a good off-the-shelf choice — and they even will install a distro at your request.

Like — oh, I don’t know — CrunchBang, if you ask for it.

This blog, and all other blogs by Larry the Free Software 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 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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What’s that?

Among the plethora of things that have kept me busy the last week or so was preparing for and giving the SCALE Linux Beginners’ Class last Saturday at the Hilton Los Angeles Airport, the site for SCALE (and, if you’re prepared to mark your calendars, SCALE 11X will be the last weekend in February).

I had an interesting thing happen while giving the “History of Linux” presentation at the class. Well, two interesting things: The first is that I’ve never given a presentation using this new machine that I’m regularly using (the ZaReason Alto 3880), and when I plugged in and set up, I couldn’t see my screen on the laptop screen, but it projected fine on the projector. Navigating while doing this is sort of disconcerting, and I’ll look into why it did that (I have a feeling it’s something simple).

The second thing was that someone noticed that I was using something different — they were installing Fedora 16 — and after my presentation, which ended right at lunchtime, someone asked me, “What’s that?”

“What’s what?” I asked, and when he pointed at the projector, I realized he was talking about CrunchBang.

So I got to talk a little about CrunchBang and introduce this new user to the distro and the concept of window managers like Openbox and how they work, et cetera. I just did it for as long as his eyes didn’t glaze over, but I think I may have planted a proverbial seed.

(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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High on the Alto 3880

[Blogger’s note: This is today’s Larry the Free Software Guy blog item, reprinted here because it talks about CrunchBang. –LC]

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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Passing the test

In my capacity as the blogger commonly known as “Larry the Free Software Guy” (at least to those who like me; the others . . . ?), I get to test hardware from time to time to review. To be honest, I hate doing reviews because, when the last period is put into place and I push the “publish” button on WordPress, I get a barrage of “How can you like this . . .?” or “How could you not like that . . . ?” Ad nauseum.

But still, coming in the next few days to the Larry the Free Software Guy blog will be two reviews: one of ZaReason’s Alto 3880 laptop and the other a review of ZaReason’s Strata 6880. Spoiler alert: Though I had some minor issues with both of them which stem from personal preferences rather than technological shortcomings, both machines are top notch laptops well worth the price.

But I digress. What I wanted to mention here was that during the course of putting these laptops through their paces, I used Linux Mint, Fedora and, of course, CrunchBang. As far as the latter is concerned, CrunchBang soared on these laptops, and it’s quite heartening to see CrunchBang perform so well on brand new hardware (as opposed to the old hardware I’m used to using on a regular basis).

Looking at the disparity of hardware on which I use CrunchBang this particular week — the IBM ThinkPad T30 that accompanies me everywhere to these newer ZaReason laptops — it never fails to astound me that the range of hardware on which CrunchBang works is wide, and this flexibility is a testament to the great versatility that CrunchBang offers.

I will suggest to ZaReason that they include CrunchBang in their roster of distro options to be installed upon purchase. As it stands now, the options are Linux Mint, various ‘buntus, Fedora, “Tell us what you want,” or no distro installed.

(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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