Father Ruler King Computer

Posted on 11th May 2008

A few weeks ago I was approached by Talk Toshiba to review one of their laptops. As I had already been thinking about getting a new laptop for myself, and have previously liked the Toshiba laptops, I took them up on their offer. However, the Toshiba Qosmio G40 that arrived wasn't anything like what I was expecting. The problem with my expectations was that I was hoping to use it like a regular laptop. The Qosmio is a big beast both in its dimensions (440mm x 230mm x 45mm) and its weight (4.4 kg), and wouldn't fit in any laptop bag I had, or my rucksack. I came to the conclusion that looking at it as a laptop is perhaps misleading. Anyone using it as a portable computer, which is effectively what the term "laptop" is used to imply, is going to have problems. Using it as a replacement high-end desktop in the home or office, or as a media centre is more likely to get the best use out of the computer.

Before receiving the Qosmio for review, I investigated a few sites to get a feel for what the machine was about. The specifications on Toshiba's own site give the basics and an idea of the hardware inside, but I wanted to see what tests and trials it had been through, as I wouldn't be able to do any like for like comparison tests, but look at it more as a working machine. Several of the web pages I found referenced various games, including Quake 4, so I decided I would dust off my copies of Quake 3 Arena, Rollcage and Revolt, plus a few other racing games, to see how it faired. I also wanted to see how well it worked as a replacement development machine, and planned to install a LAMP stack and set up a local dynamic website. Lastly, or more acurately firstly, I wanted to see how it faired installing Linux on it. What follows is both my experience of these attempts and some further aesthetic observations.

On its arrival, aside from its size and weight, the first thing about the look of the machine was the keyboard half of the computer. The bottom half has a glaringly shiny white surface, with bright blue LEDs inlayed into the side controls, as well as along the front edge and back panel to illuminate what features (Caps Lock, Wifi, Bluetooth, etc) were active. When you first look at all the white and LEDs, I get the sense that its meant to look flashy and impressive, and it does until you start to use it. The LEDs end up being far too distracting, and while the edge and back panel illuminations are needed, the brightness isn't. My current laptop uses a lower light (and probably wattage) green LED, that can be easily ignored. The LEDs around the controls is purely cosmetic and becomes irritating.

The screen looks like it would be about 20" widescreen from the case size, but with the speakers inlayed either side, we get a 17" widescreen, which is still big compared to many laptops. I've been used to standard screens for so long, widescreen does still seem a bit odd, even though it is pretty much the standard these days, especially for watching movies and the like. The quality of the screen is fantastic, and if you don't want to buy a new HD ready TV, this is definitely a suitable alternative. Both for movies and games the quality was extremely impressive.

Looking at this machine for it's Media Centre qualities, the LEDs and the white keyboard top are a really bad idea. One of the first try outs for machine was to watch a DVD. The reflectiveness of the white and brightness of the LEDs meant we had to use a thick black cloth over it so we could watch the screen. I'm really surprised that Toshiba haven't had any feedback about this aspect, as it would seem to be an obvious flaw. Following recent announcements, the other aspect of the Media Centre sales point for the Qosmio, is no longer the selling point it could have been. It claims to be the first laptop to have a HD-DVD player built in. Thankfully it plays regular DVDs and CDs too, so it isn't completely redundant. I don't own any HD-DVD movies, but I'm sure they play wonderfully, as the quality of regular DVDs was great. One nice aspect about the Media Centre qualities, was that the laptop comes with a remote control. It was quite handy to sit back and watch DVDs and use the remote to click through the menus or adjust the volume without having to reach over and touch the laptop itself.

I did briefly try the 2MP onboard camera, which looked to be a pretty decent webcam. Despite only being 2MP, the quality looked great on screen, and I was surprised to see that the picture looked really crisp. I don't know anyone I would use this facility with, and never got to try it over a internet connection, so I have no idea what the refresh rate would be like, although these days with all the broadband rates increasing, it's likely to be pretty good. Plus that sort of thing is down to the connection not the laptop, so if you're looking for this sort of feature, then it's definitely a plus.

A big downer for me personally though, was that it come pre-installed with Windows Vista. I did ask whether I could install a Linux distro before I got the machine for review, as any laptop I buy now must be able to run Linux. I have both Ubuntu and Fedora disks, so I was eager to see how they faired. All Linxu distros seem to suffer installation problems with brand new laptops, so I was curious to see whether where an issues here or not. As there didn't seem to be any reports on the web I was hopeful. Unfortunately both Ubuntu and Fedora suffered with TTY issues. After searching on the web for specific issues with Linux on the Qosmio, I drew a blank and reluctantly gave up. Had it been my own laptop, I would have made more of an effort to find the problem, and possibly fix it. I suspect the nVidia graphics card, as they usually are the cause of many installation issues with Linux, but I was a little disappointed with Toshiba, as normally their machines are very good at installing Linux and just working. My old Toshiba Satellite is still going strong after nearly 10 years. However, the TTY issues leads me to think that the latest nVidia graphics card inside, hasn't currently got any working Linux drivers for it, and given time this may not be a problem.

Despite not having tried Vista personally, the changes I knew of and what I'd seen on other laptops hadn't impressed me, and now having tried it, I can't find anything about the OS particularly inspiring. In fact, I really hope I never have to suffer Vista again. Vista tries too hard to out think you, fails and ends up being irritating to the maximum. The Qosmio has a big silver volume control to the left of the keyboard. If you turn the volume down you would expect, like every other volume control on every other laptop I've ever used, that ALL noises would diminish in volume, and mute if I turned it far enough. However, Vista assumes that its own annoying pips and squeaks don't count. Finding how to turn off the pips and squeaks is annoying in itself, but I shouldn't have to jump through hoops to turn the volume down for anything. If I don't want noises, I don't want noises! Admittedly this is not a fault of the Qosmio, but hopefully Toshiba will put pressure on Microsoft to make their OS work correctly with their laptop and not be a nuisance. This was just one irriating feature that could be tied to the laptop, there were several others, and I would prefer to see Toshiba invest some time working with some of the Linux vendors and see about getting them to work out of the box on it too.

As I use all my laptops as development machines, I decided I would install a small dynamic website and see how easy it would be to both set up the website and make changes, running a LAMP stack (albeit without the L (Linux) and replace it with W for Windows). I downloaded the latest copies of Apache, MySQL and Perl for Windows, and I started get really irriated with the obstructions that Vista puts in your way. One of the first things I downloaded on getting the laptop was Firefox, so using that to download and and launch the installer, already pops up a clear warning. However, Vista additionally blocks you from running any application twice further. Like once wasn't enough, because like you're using Windows so you must be really stupid. Despite the user I was running as, and installing with, is the Administrator, Vista doesn't care and insists you are stupid and really don't know what you're doing and insists on getting confirmation twice that you aren't stupid and really do know what you're doing.

So I finally get Apache, MySQL and Perl installed. The next step is to fix the configuration files. Now Apache has changed since v1, and uses a main configuration file and then separate files for specific areas, one of which is the vhosts configuration. It makes it easier to keep logical sections separate. However, initial setup means you first have to play with 2 files. Vista again, despite being the Administrator user, thinks you are too stupid and locks you out of changing the file. The ONLY way to change the file is to save it to a temporary directory then drop down to the explorer (more of THAT in a moment) window and manually copy, jumping through the two pops asking whether you really aren't stupid. This included changing the /etc/hosts file to add a local domain! All this took over an hour to sort out, and I still wasn't finished. With every other laptop this takes about 10 minutes to set up. I gave up in the end as I had better things to do.

One aspect of using a Windows machine for development is that I use both Explorer (not IE) and the command line a lot. Some are surprised to learn I used the latter almost all the time. However, Vista has seen fit to hide these away. Anyone used to using a Windows machine, particularly a less experienced user, is going to have difficulty finding them, seeing as both were immediately available from the Start button. In fact the only thing about the Start button they have got right is that it is smaller and has changed to an icon. The start menu is radically different to any other, and ends up being confusing and irritating trying to figure out how to find what you want. I wasn't planning on Vista bashing, as this should be a review about the Toshiba Qosmio, but it really spoiled my experience of the laptop and meant I wasn't able to enjoy using the laptop as much I potentially could have. It's only served to ensure that any laptop I buy in the future must NEVER have Vista on it.

An aspect of any laptop produced these days is how it's builtin wireless hardware performs. I'm pleased to say the Qosmio's networking features worked without a hitch and really quite smoothly. I noted that the builtin Wifi automatically set itself to talk 804.11g, rather than the 'b' or 'a' variants that my other laptops seem to choose. The bluetooth detected my phone as soon as I enabled it on the phone too. Although as yet there isn't any bluetooth control features available, which would have been nice, but I guess that is something that is specific to the type of phone you have.

As mentioned earlier, I dusted off some of my PC games. Unfortunately, some didn't install due to requiring Windows 98. I found this a bit of a shame, as I suspect it was only some software detection that was stopping it running, not the actual game software. Quake 3 Arena, Rollcage and Hedz all installed fine and it was great to play them all again. I used my personal USB mouse, which justed worked (as it should do in this day and age) together with the keyboard and was very pleased to see the responsiveness of the games. having a larger screen and not being restricted to sitting at a confined computer desk, meant I could play on a large table and have room to move and perhaps more importantly not have to sit so close to the screen. Again the screen quality was fantastic, with both the vibrant colours standing out and the non-reflective element making it much easier to see everything that was happening in the game. The speed of the games was much more realistic, which I guess is more due to the Dual Core CPU in use, so that the game can run uninterrupted on one core and the OS and other processes running on the other. Quake was definutely a joy to play again and I'd forgotten how much fun Rollcage was. My very first desktop was bought for gaming, and online gaming in particular, and the Qosmio is a great upgrade for both now.

All in all I wouldn't recommend this as portable laptop. As a Media Centre or a high-end games machine, then it fairs much better. However, with a price tag of over £1,600, it doesn't come cheap. For me personally I wouldn't choose this machine for a new purchase. I don't play games like Quake often enough, and we already have a new HD Ready TV and DVD player, so it isn't really a must have, plus I really want something that is portable (can I use it on the bus) and can it run Linux (preferably Ubuntu or Debian). If you're a gamer and want to be able to set up round your friends house, or just don't want to have a bulky desktop taking up room in the house, or want something that is part computer/part DVD player, then the Qosmio would be a reasonable purchase. However, I would temper that with the fact you have to have Vista on it. I really hope Toshiba invest some effort getting other OSs working on the Qosmio or getting Microsft to write a decent OS, although I doubt either will happen soon, and suspect the latter is an impossibility.

If you're interested in reading more about the laptop, check out the official Toshiba Qosmio G40 page online.

File Under: computers / laptop / review / toshiba

Crash! Boom! Bang!

Posted on 12th March 2008

DanDan might be a little more dynamic than myself or Nicole, but the current state of his laptop does make me wonder whether modern day computer devices are built well enough to withstanding the abuse that a child can inflict on it, especially when more and more of them are aimed at the education market. In several of the games DanDan plays online, he needs to use the arrow keys to get around, particularly the racing games. He has a habit of bashing a little too hard and as a result the left arrow key has fallen off and I can't repair it. I am now looking at buying a 'spares or repairs' item on eBay with which to use as a spare parts machine should anything further go wrong.

With all these cheaper computers being released recently, I wonder just how robust their keyboards are? If they were sturdy enough I might even think about getting a family one so that both DanDan and Ethne can use it for more educational purposes and then let DanDan carry on bashing the hell out of his own laptop until we run out of parts to replace it with. By then hopefully he won't be so eager to break it. The alternative is to get an external USB keyboard, which has keys that are easier and cheaper to replace, but then that won't be so portable.

Gone are the days when things were built to last. If only Tonka would venture into the kids computer market ;)

File Under: computers / laptop

Hot For Teacher

Posted on 11th March 2008

After last week's post about the Asus EEE PC, I thought it worth mentioning a local company (to me) in Redditch who got featured on last Wednesday's Bromsgrove Advertister. Elonex have released the first laptops for under £100 in the UK. The laptop, called The One, like the Asus EEE PC is aimed at the education market. However, I can also seeing it being a very attractive purchase for anyone wishing to buy a cheap laptop, so that they can use to browser the web, edit documents, manage their photo collection and play music. Particularly if they aren't too interested in the details and wouldn't classify themselves as a technical user.

It sounds an ideal purchase for kids to learn how to use a computer, as they are not power users and are unlikely to notice the slightly slower of the 300MHz processor. It's often annoyed me that PC and laptop manufacturers heavily promote the processor speed, how much RAM they have and how many Gigabytes their hard drives are. However unless you're playing top end games or getting a million hits a day on your web server, you rarely need that much power. In fact the user is often the blocking point, as browsing the web and editing documents rarely find the local computer maxed out on CPU, Memory or File IO. DanDan's laptop is not much faster and he happily plays flash games, although admittedly he is using Firefox on Ubuntu, so is less encumbered with bloatware that you find on every Windows machine now.

If the current trend of cheaper laptops for kids and the education market keeps going, I think a number of the major manufactures may want to re-evaluate some of their offerings. While there will always be a demand for high spec machines from developers and businesses, I can imagine that the home market will start to see a shift in it's desire to buy something more affordable and reliable. As such I see Linux and Open Source featured more and more as a viable alternative to Windows. The Linux desktop may just get a notable share of the lucrative market that Microsoft have held onto for so long.

File Under: computers / education / laptop / linux / opensource

All Moving Parts (Stand Still)

Posted on 7th March 2008

What a breath of fresh air. A comedian, actor and presenter, who actually has an interest in things in the computer world, beyond a source of writing inspiration. I recently came across a post by Stephen Fry (for those American readers, Stephen is the other member of the comedic duo, Fry and Laurie, with Laurie being Hugh Laurie currently making a name for himself in House), in his blog. The blog post that I picked up on is entitled "Deliver us from Microsoft". Reading back through other posts it appears he is quite a strong supporter of Open Source software, and to my mind, for all the right reasons.

The article in question looks at the Asus EEE PC, which was also recently (December 2007) reviewed by the LUGRadio presenters in their "Inspirational Muppetational" episode (Season 5, Episode 7). Both Stephen and the LUGRadio guys all came out praising the machine, and although they all found some form of critism for it, their view was healthy put into perspective by the fact that the aim is to provide a cheap machine for educational purposes. It isn't aimed at power users, such as myself, but those who want a laptop that can connect to the internet, enabling them to browse the web, chat to friends, edit or write office documents.

However, the most significant thing about the laptop, which is hinted at in Stephen's blog post title, is the fact it runs using Open Source software. From the Debian base (although tailered to the Asus EEE PC), through to OpenOffice and Firefox applications. The machine is perhaps the first to ever be sold commercially from the outset, where Linux is only version available, with no Microsoft product installed. Vendors are starting to realise that users are buying their machines and installing Linux on them, wiping any hint of Microsoft off, as has been apparent by the news reports of people contacting them for refunds. The choice isn't perhaps as wide spread as some of us would like, but it is getting better.

Stephen thinks that the change will happen within 5 years, and I would certainly welcome a change in the balance, with many more people running Linux as their Operating System. Linux on the desktop, has long been a challenge that Open Source developers have been making many dramatic changes to improve. DanDan and Nicole both use Ubuntu on their laptops, and I have heard of many people getting their parents, spouses, siblings and offspring to use some flavour of Linux with great results. There are still lots of gains to be made, particular in the area of closed source drivers and getting many devices (especially wireless network devices) working out of the box, but credit where credit is due, we have a lot to thank those developers of all the Linux distributions and Open Source applications. We have come a very long way in the last 5 years, and now perhaps more than ever Linux on the desktop has a real chance of challenging Microsoft's dominance in the market. I don't expect a complete take over, as I think Stephen was hinting, but I would like to see consumers being given a better, more considered option to buy an operating that works for them.

I do accept that Microsoft can be better in some areas, particularly with games, but I can see that advantage disappearing once games developers realise that a large portion of their current geek market will switch to non-Microsoft platforms. It might even challenge Microsoft to finally listen to many of the opponents and actually evaluate their security and product quality, enabling them to release more stable and reliable products. For myself, I choose Open Source partly because I find it more secure and reliable, but also because it gives me the freedom to investigate and hopefully fix problems, and potentially give back to the wider community. I already contribute to Open Source and I'd like to think that offsets all the benefits I've gained by using Open Source software.

I don't read the Guardian, but I think I'll be reading more of Stephen Fry's blog in the future. It's been an enlightening read.

File Under: computers / laptop / lugradio / opensource / technology

Back On The Chain Gang

Posted on 2nd January 2008

First day back at work. I was dreading it a little as on the Saturday before Christmas my laptop screen broken and was unusable. I could plug it up to an external monitor, but that isn't all that useful to have sitting on your lap. Thankfully the laptop is under warranty, so our IS guys are going to send it back. In the meantime I've got a new chassis.

The laptop is a Lenovo R61, and although it's a wide-screen, I have finally got used to it. However, the biggest disappointment has been trying to get Linux, specifically Ubuntu and Fedora, running on it. I've given up for the time being, but I plan on having another go at some point. I've seen someone else with Ubuntu running on it, so it is possible.

Yesterday Nicole's laptop (a Dell Inspiron 1501) also suffered problems. The touchpad failed to respond and seeing as there is no other mouse pointer type device on it (apart from plugging in my USB mouse), it was a bit difficult to actually do anything apart from shut it down. I was expecting to be able to use CTL or ALT keys in combination with other keys to get access to the administration tools (this is Ubuntu 7.04). While there probably is some key combination, it wasn't obvious and I didn't have internet access to find out.

I opened up the laptop and couldn't find anything wrong with the touchpad itself, so put it all back together (plus a bit of cleaning) and it worked again. However, the sigh of relief was short lived. The touchpad now works but the onboard wireless now doesn't. I can't tell whether the mini-card or the antenna is at fault, and have now discovered that the side panel where a regular PCMCIA card goes is acutally an ExpressCard slot.

Seeing as a wifi ExpressCard costs over £50, I'm not sure whether to shell out for a new mini-card (about £20) or a USB wireless adapter (less than £20). Seeing as the Broadcom mini-card seems to be having a lot of problems keeping hold of the network, I think the USB wireless adapter might be the better bet.

When I bought the laptop originally, it was going to be mine to use at conferences and work on various Perl projects. After it arrived the annoyance of it being a wide-screen meant Nicole got it all for herself. I've learnt a few lessons from the purchase and is one of the reasons it's taken me so long to fork out for another.

DanDan got his very own laptop for Christmas, and last night was the only one fully working in the house. Considering it was the lowest spec of the three, it's stood up quite well. He's pretty good at navigating to his games sites and doing some basic admin stuff. It's got Ubuntu installed and yes Perl is on there too, but I think it'll be a while before I get him programming.

Looking at the Ubuntu WifiDocs pages it would seem the USB wireless adapter isn't as easy a choice as I thought it might be. Still it has to be better than another temperamental Broadcom card.

File Under: computers / laptop / linux

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