samedi 15 septembre 2007

Wow: more than 1000 visits!!!

Against all odds, I have crossed the 1000 visits mark a few days ago!
It is still a small blog, but I am happy that people come to visit it.
When I look at my Clustr Map, I even see people visiting from places I don't even know!

From now on, I will try to update my blog more regularly, but not next week since I am leaving for one week to Egypt!
Hopefully, I will have some pretty pictures to upload when I am back. However, I am going to Taba, which seems to be far from pretty much everything, so that I guess I won't get to see the pyramids.
I will focus on landscapes pictures then.

samedi 8 septembre 2007

Review of the new Toshiba Portege R500


I have recently got the new ultra laptop by Toshiba, the Portege R500. I got it in Japan, and it is a non-standard version since its only a 1.06 Ghz processor, with no bluetooth, and no DVD writer. That way, it is the lightest 12" notebook available at under 1 kg (i.e. 2.2 pounds). It is even lighter than the 11"1 Asus U1F or the new Sony Vaio TZ!
As you can see in the pictures, it is also quite thin, at least as much as my former Asus U1F. It is also, of course, a bit bigger.
Compared to the U1, the packaging is quite scarce; you only got one battery (vs 2 for the Asus), no case...But, it only shows that Asus has really outdone itself with the packaging of the U1F.
In my opinion, the R500 is not as pretty as the U1, but it is of course, subjective. The biggest advantage of the R500 is that it does not have this glassy-style coating on the top, which, albeit very cute and styly, attracts fingerprints as much as honey attracts bears. The R500 is still a nice-looking machine.


This is where the R500 shines compared to the other ultras and to the U1F in particular. Indeed, more subnotebooks such as this one use a 4200 rpm hard drive, which tends to reduce performances a lot. In the R500, there is a 5400 rpm hard drive, and boy, what a difference it makes!
It boots more quickly (around one minute for linux), applications open up more quickly, transfers of files are quicker...
Even though the U1F and the R500 have the same processor, the R5OO just feels faster.
As to battery life, I have to admit that at first, I was a bit disappointed since with the Wireless on (no BT and no DVD drive), brightness set to 50% and while doing some light editing and web browsing, the battery lasts around 4 hours and 15 minutes under Linux. I guess it is a bit higher under Vista without Aero and the widgets.
Of course, more than 4 hours is a lot, but I was expecting more. However, one has to remember that this is only the so-called lightweight battery. Thus, I guess I will have to get the large battery when it is available if I want to be able to use it for one day of work without the need for the ac adpater.

The downside of having such a thin laptop and using a 5400 rpm HD is that the R500 tends to heat up rather quickly on the left-hand side (I guess where the hard drive is), but it remains ok. Consequently, the fan is almost always on, but is not too noisy. Still, in a quiet environment you definitely hear some noise.

On to the screen, which has received a lot of attention in different reviews. First, note that this is a mat screen and not a glossy one which means that it is easier to use outdoors, but that it is less appropriate for watching movies. Moreover, the lateral viewing angles are pretty limited, meaning that no more than 2 people can watch the screen at the same time; given the size of the screen however, I think it is ok all the same.
To conclude on the screen, I must say that it is not as bad as some people had it: I use my R500 a lot, and I have never had any problems with the screen yet. As I said, watching movies might be a bit difficult, but I have been able to watch a few without difficulties; the key lies in a good positionning of the screen.
I have not really experimented with the special "outdoor feature" of the screen since I am using Linux, and it does not work on Linux.
This is a great transition ta talk about Linux on the R500.


As I have just said I use Linux on my R500. Why Linux over Vista?
One great asset of Linux compared to Vista IMHO, is the more efficient use of RAM. Indeed, under Kubuntu Feisty, the starting memory usage is around 180 Mb, out of my 1000. With Firefox open (a few tabs and a few extensions), Thunderbird and emacs it rises to 310, and with a 760 pages pdf, to 360 Mb. It means that, indeed, under Linux, 512 Mb are quite enough for a reasonable use. Moreover, note that there are lighter desktops than KDE, and Firefox and Thunderbird are both memory hogs, which means that using Linux on old computers is really a good idea. With my R500, Linux is a lot faster than Vista.
Moreover, Vista is just XP with a new GUI (Aero) basically, and XP is quite an old OS. It does not stand the comparison with Linux. Even the 3D Aero is really laughable compared to the real 3D effects one can get with Compiz Fusion under Linux. So, even though

How does Linux fare on the R500? Quite well I must say. The beginning has been a bit rough, since I have tried many distros before finding the one that most satisfies my needs. I have tried Kubuntu Gutsy beta, Open SuSe 10.3 Beta, Fedora 7, Linux Mint 3.0 (I used this one on my U1F, but strangely, the installer crashed every time I tried to install Linux Mint on the R500...), Sabayon Linux 3.4e, PCLinuxOS2007...Each of these distros had something that I disliked, or didn't worked the way I wanted it to work. Sabayon was quite good, but it is Gentoo-based, and compiling from source is just tooooooooooo slow for my liking: I erased Sabayon when the install of Thunderbird took more than 30 minutes. Finally, I settled on Kubuntu Feisty 7.04 which does a good job at recognizing the hardware: the only things that do not work from scratch are the fingerprint reader, the outdoor button, and the SD card reader. I also have some issues with the brightness buttons that do work, but behave strangely. I don't really care about the fingerprint reader, the lack of SD card reader was a pain when I was in vacation, but it is not very important. I forgot to say that the little button on the left side of the R500 that allows to increase and decrease volume does not work from scratch, but I have been able to make it work thanks to xmodmap and xbindkeys...and some help!
This is THE weakness of Linux IMHO: it does a good job at recognizing most of your hardware, but when something does not work, it is a pain to make it work. I mean, even though I am not a Linux expert, I don't think I am an average computer user, and still, I have had some difficulties solving those problems. For instance, I haven't yet found how to make my SD card reader work. Of course, there is a lot of help available over the web, above all for ubuntu, but still, I think it remains a bit complicated for the average Joe (lot of command line involved...).
To conclude on Linux, I must add that I have a problem with my Vista partition, so that I can't access it now. But it's ok, I don't really care.
In any case, I am going to install Virtualbox and have a virtualized version of XP directly in Linux for stuff like Illustrator of Excel (yes I know there is Open Office, but the Spreadsheet does not handle VBA well, and I will need VBA next year) or chess programs. Maybe iTunes also.


Overall, I am happy with this purchase. The U1F was a lovely machine, and the R500 is a worthy replacement. The only thing I might want now is a SSD drive to improve performance once again.
But I will wait prices have gone down a bit, since I will need at least a 64 Gb one, which costs something like 900 dollars right now!

EDIT: A few additions

First, After using the Toshiba for watching movies during my holidays, I can confirm that the angles of vision are pretty limited. However, it is still possible for two persons to watch a movie end enjoy it.

Second, I have just discovered that I can adjust the brightness of the screen by hovering over the Knetworkmanager icon (under Kubuntu) and using vertical scrolling. Since I had some issues with the Fn+F6 and F7 keys, this is great discovery for me.

Third, I still have a few issues with my keyboard, since, when I type very fast, it tends to behave erratically. For instance, sometimes, if the insertion point of the mouse is not located where I am typing (that is, pretty much all the time) instead of typing where I want to, it types at the insertion point, which is generally located somewhere else in the text I am typying. This is very annoying, and I really don't understand why it is behaving this way.