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The Raiders of the Next Laptop

Working freelance, alone, is generally a good experience; I can handle my workplace, I can write off as expenses most of the stuff I buy since (lacking a social life) most of my expenses are computer related. There are, though, a few menial tasks that get bothersome. This is why I take Monday as the “Menial-tasks day” and cut it out of the work week, minus emergencies and urgencies.

Beside recording invoices, the most menial task is finding the needed hardware resources; today the objective was to secure my next laptop. Right now I’m writing on my (oldish) MacBook Pro; while I have been mostly happy with it up to now, it’s growing less useful for my use: Aquamacs is not too bad, but it’s not the best when you want to work hard on Emacs; the keyboard has only four modifiers in the left area, and their function in OSX are tightly bound so that they cannot be remapped properly for Emacs to work… and in general customizing Aquamacs is not overly simple.

Unfortunately my latest try to using a Linux laptop ended badly when the Fedora 12 update messed it up. While Fedora was party at fault, the hardware was also to blame; I got a very cheap Compaq laptop, with a bad keyboard, no expansion ports, slow network and, most importantly, a nasty touchpad.

Somehow, the touchpad driver used by OSX is tremendously good to ignore false touches while writing, but even Linux on the MBP has trouble ignoring them; on the Compaq, it totally failed, and I ended up with the cursor going everywhere but where it was meant to stay. It made it very bad to work with.

So this time, I decided to go with something with a Trackpoint, first obvious choice the originators of the device, Lenovo’s ThinkPad. Thanks to Thomas, I was able to pin down a model and a configuration I could be very happy to use; thanks to Doug, I know that the video card should work fine with Gentoo (unfortunately, it’s an nVidia not an ATI, but still better than last time). Having an internal smartcard reader would also make it easier to use the FSFe card that I use as my sole GPG key nowadays.

Unfortunately, Lenovo started with a bad foot: the Italian website does not have a “configure a custom build” option, while the UK site has; the UK site, though, does not ship to Italy; and I obviously need a VAT invoice for this. Second step was the banner “Want to order now? Call $somenumber” that camped on the bottom of the list of Lenovo laptops. Obviously I couldn’t call Sunday night when I decided to get the laptop.

So this morning I call the number, it’s not a toll-free number, so I expect Lenovo to allow me custom-order from them… nope! A middle-aged woman (with all the respect for middle-aged women) gives me an unclear-purpose phone number (also non toll-free), and then proceed to… explain me where to find the page with the Lenovo dealers on their site, starting from giving me the URL. Well, duh… I found the number on the site!

Okay, with a company this uncertain on getting my money for their hardware, I decided to look for alternative firsts; unfortunately the only other alternative I could find is the Dell Latitude E6510. Dell would also be quite ready to get my money for the hardware, also has the smartcard reader, basically has all the same hardware as the Lenovo, and a similar price (slightly higher, but with the 3-years warranty included), but I say “unfortunately” because Elias told me that the chassis is not well-designed and thus of bad quality.

At the end, I asked a quote for the laptop to the nearest dealer (about 50km from here, but they ship, I don’t have to pick it up), but they warned me that to get the US keyboard (which at this point I’d rather get), it’ll take about 20 days, and until I see the price, both options are on my table. So if you have suggestions or experiences to share, please…

Comments 5
  1. Dell laptops are decent quality IMO, as long as you remember they’re computers and not textbooks (i.e. don’t throw them around the room). Dell also seems to be cheaper for the specs than their competitors, at least in the U.S.And FWIW, I’ve had good experiences with Gentoo on my Dell Inspiron 6400 (a.k.a. E1505), or at least it’s way more stable than Windows on the same machine.I once had an IBM Thinkpad that lasted 8 years, but that was well before IBM sold their laptop business to Lenovo, so I can’t say what they’re like nowadays.

  2. I recently purchased a Dell Latitude 620 on ebay. I have not tried to run a Linux on it though. Dell has nice walkthroughs to replace or add parts. For less than 300 US I got a dual core 1.8 GHz cpu (32 bit) DVDRW and 100G HD with 1 GB of memoryBattery life sucks though and the keyboard was so worn I replaced it. I also found and installed a bluetooth adaptor for it for $6.05 New is just too expensive. Graphics aren’t much though. I see a lot of these on there in the around $250 range

  3. As promised I’ll give you now some more details about the flaws of the E65xx:*Display frame*The display frame is made of a thin and extremely flexible layer of plastic. At some points one can easily bend the frame so far, that one can put a finger between the frame and the display. I don’t feel like this frame is actually protecting my display in any way.*SD card reader*To insert a SD card into the reader, remember to keep a long finger nail on your left thumb or have something like a pen around.The “dead point”, where the card is locked by the slot is that deep, that it is really really hard to reach.It took me quite a while to discover first, that the card reader isn’t broken but just needs a deep + hard push to accept the card.*Touchpad*The touchpad is a very cheap one. According to synclient it neither supports multi-finger events nor really accurate pressure detection.It is ok for simply moving the mousepointer up and down, but that’s actually all – I’d even wouldn’t use it for tapping as the pressure detection is really bad.*Trackpoint*The trackpoint comes with a builtin hardware-design issue.When moving the mouse pointer using the trackpoint and releasing it afterwards, in most cases the pointer just keeps moving for a while (2-20 seconds) slowly towards a direction.According to a hardware site (sorry, don’t remember the URL anymore) this happens due to non- or badly isolated contacts of the trackpoint device which are connected as soon as there’s some pressure caused by your hand lying on the palm-rest area.This issue is IMHO one of the most annoying issues of the E65xx.*Chassis sounds*The chassis is built very cheap. In every corner it makes some groaning sounds when touching it.The worst one: when laying my right hand on the palm-rest area, the area where the rubber-foot is on the bottom of the chassis makes some squeaking noises.Realized this when sitting for 3 days in a workshop last week while I was taking notes during presentations.Causing such noises in silent moments gives you astonished looks by your colleagues ;-)*Display lock*The button for unlocking the display when it is closed feels really cheap.It moves ~5mm up and down without doing anything. There’s no solidness at all here.*PCMCIA slot*The PCMCIA slot comes with the same design issue as the SD card reader.To push the eject button back in its place, it takes a pen or something else like this.Enough ranted for now.While the overall hardware features are really nice – the case is that bad that I actually wouldn’t recommend buying it.I for myself would probably go for Lenovo.

  4. I got a ThinkPad T500 in September 2008 calling Lenovo Canada directly and ordering a custom build that way. The guy on the phone found several discounts for me, and it was shipped about 2-3 weeks after I placed the order (it was a custom build).So far my experiences with the laptop have been nothing but positive, all the hardware works 100% with Gentoo. I have had 0 problems with the hardware failures. I only ordered the integrated Intel graphics with no discrete graphics as I wanted battery life and vga_switcheroo() wasn’t anywhere even remotely on the horizon at that point.The BIOS on the ThinkPad is excellent and allows you to disable just about any feature on the laptop that you don’t use in such a way that it doesn’t even get power. I was also happily surprised by the ease of updating the BIOS without a Windows installation. The Lenovo website provides an ISO that you download, burn and boot from to do the update.The 802.11 antennas are way better than most other laptops, I can frequently see and connect to networks that MacBooks can’t even see.

  5. I personally tested the recent dell e6510, and I have a few comments to leave for eliasp:the backpanel area, as the chassis of e6510, are made out of magnesium, and there’s not a single flex, especially in the backpanel, avoiding very high pressure that flexes the magnesium itself.But, above all, there’s not a single rattling noise pushing areas all over the palmrest, i suggest eliasp to contact dell tech support immediatly if his system is in teh described condition.

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