Archive for the ‘Computers’ category

Toshiba’s latest slim tablet

January 22, 2008

Convertible tablet PCs always get a lot of attention, even if we don’t know anyone who actually uses one. It’s not surprising–in a world of commodity products, where one gray laptop looks much like the next, having a swiveling touch screen is at least something a bit different, even if you’re not one of the handful of media professionals, note-taking students, or graphic artists who actually need the dual tablet and laptop modes of one of these systems.

 

Toshiba unveiled a new tablet this Monday, the company’s first Tablet PC to incorporate a touch-screen LED-backlit display. The Portege M700 offers a 12.1-inch screen, both fingertip and active stylus control, and an LED backlit display (which are generally thinner and lighter than traditional laptop screens) with an anti-glare coating, suitable for outdoor use. We were very fond of Toshiba’s R400 tablet, released in January of 2007, and unlike that model, this new tablet offers a swappable drive bay, which can be used for an optical drive, extra hard drive, or nothing at all, to cut down on weight. 

 Toshiba’s default configuration includes an Intel Core 2 Duo Processor T7500 CPU, 2GB of RAM, and a 160GB hard drive for $1,799 (or $1,699 for a 1GB version with Windows XP). If you’re itching to buy a new convertible tablet, online rumors say Dell’s new tablet will also debut this week, so stay tuned.

 

The Internet fridge is back

January 22, 2008

The Internet fridge I saw at CES doesn’t do what I want it to do. It does not know when I am running out of milk. It does not sniff out the moldy cheese hiding behind the mustard to tell me it’s time to throw it out. What the Internet fridge does is this: It has a mounting bracket and a power port on its front so you can install fridge-centric devices.  Stay with me here.

 Whirlpool makes the refrigerator in question. I really don’t expect you’re going to buy one. Another company, Data Evolution, makes a module that snaps onto the bracket and that holds its slim convertible tablet notebook ($800, as I recall). Since Whirlpool isn’t going to sell a whole lot of fridges with docks, you’re probably not going to buy one of those PCs, either. So where does that leave the software, Cozi, that was running on the CES demo? Cozi is worth looking at. Sure, you can run it on your fridgetop if you have one, but even without one, it’s a good Web-based application for families. Cozi is a simplified group calendar. It lets you schedule things for yourself and see other family schedules, and block time for group activities. As a corporate slave, I like Cozi because the installed version syncs with my Outlook calendar, and the sync is under my control. I can have Cozi read only the appointments that keep me away from home in the evenings; my wife doesn’t see the family calendar crowded with my meetings during work hours. If you don’t need the sync you can use the Web-based version of Cozi, which, CEO Robbie Cape told me, is where Cozi is investing most of its development resources. Cozi is also a super-simple hub from which you can send text messages to family members’ mobile phones.  

On the downside, it doesn’t sync with other calendars real people might be using, such as Google, Yahoo, or iCal.  

If you are looking for a good way to keep a simple family schedule online, I recommend Cozi. But put it on an ordinary cheap laptop that you stick in the kitchen; the PC-on-a-fridge thing is silly.

by Rafe Needleman

 

Dell tries tablets with Latitude XT

January 22, 2008

Tablet computing is a very small pond, and it’s now home to a very big fish: Dell.  The Round Rock, Texas-based PC maker on Tuesday is introducing the Latitude XT Tablet PC, its first product in the category.

Though it’s just one notebook, Dell’s entry is sure to cause a stir. It’s a modest niche of computing that hasn’t really gotten off the ground yet. And the interest of the second-largest PC maker in the world can’t help but have an impact on the market

 “It puts the product in limelight,” said Richard Shim, PC industry analyst with IDC. “It has potential to bring down pricing on key components that are being priced at a premium.”  

Currently tablet PCs comprise just 2.4 percent of the worldwide notebook market, according to IDC. That’s about 2.5 million units shipped total. But as Dell joins other high-profile tablet makers like Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba, Gateway, and others, the category is expected to grow to 12.3 million units and 6.3 percent of the notebook market by 2011, IDC said. And as volumes go up, prices are sure to go down.  

That Dell would delve into tablets was one of the worst-kept secrets in the PC industry over the last year. The company confirmed the rumors in May and then briefly showed the product during Michael Dell’s keynote speech at Oracle Open World in November.  

The Latitude XT is aimed chiefly at commercial markets, and Dell says it initially tried to address several of the key complaints expressed by typical tablet users: that they’re too bulky, the screen isn’t viewable in direct sun, poor handwriting recognition, and inadequate battery life. 

 Although tablets in general are not marketed toward consumers right now, Dell’s entrance could bring component prices down enough to make building and buying tablets affordable for, say, students one day, noted Shim. “Lately we’ve been seeing manufacturers start to look at the consumer market as an audience for this type of tablet,” he said. Particularly because the profit margins are much higher for consumer devices.  

For now, the price is not what you would call friendly to the mainstream notebook buyer. At the starting price of $2,499, the Latitude XT has a 12.1-inch LED-backlit screen, a 1.06-gigahertz Intel Core 2 Solo processor, 1GB of memory, and a 40GB hard drive. It comes with Windows Vista Business edition or XP Tablet Edition. The whole device weighs 3.57 pounds, and has about 5 hours of battery life. It uses capacitive touch input, which recognizes both fingers and an included pen for inputting data. The pen also comes with a right-click button.

To target outdoor, all-day commercial users, the Latitude XT comes with upgrade options of an extra bright outdoor-viewable LCD display (which adds to the thickness of the notebook), an extended battery, which clips on the bottom of the device, as well as the option of an Intel Core 2 Duo processor and a 32 or 64 GB solid-state drive.

Dell calls its capacitive touch technology, which picks up on the electrical current in a person’s hand, the “breakthrough” in the device. It also recognizes the difference between the touch of an errant palm or a purposeful press of a fingertip on the screen. 

 Touchscreen interfaces are a technology area with huge potential, and mainstream interest in multitouch technology skyrocketed this year with Apple’s iPhone and Microsoft’s demonstrations of its Surface PC technology. Dell has its cooking up its own multitouch technology, which it showed at Oracle Open World, in which all five fingers can be picked up

 

Meet the cheapest laptop in the world

August 25, 2007

From credit card debt and school loans to rising gas prices and adjustable mortgages, there are plenty of reasons why consumers in the developed world can’t afford a laptop. Not to mention the fact that underfunded schools and underprivileged kids also exist in the developed parts of the world. Enter the Medison Celebrity laptop. It’s a $150 laptop from Swedish company Medison that’s available through the Columbus, Ohio-based online reseller 2Checkout.com.

With Nicholas Negroponte’s OLPC hovering around $175, and Intel’s Classmate PC expected to cost more than $200, the Medison Celebrity laptop can lay claim to being the cheapest laptop in the world. And it boasts an impressive feature set for the money. For starters, it features a large, wide-screen 14-inch WXGA display and weighs a reasonable 4.8 pounds. Powering the Medison Celebrity is a 1.5GHz Intel Celeron M 370 processor and 256MB of memory. You may scoff at such a meager memory allotment considering all the reviews out there that complain whenever a PC serves up less than 1GB these days, but the Medison Celebrity doesn’t have to power Vista or any other flavor of Windows. Instead, it uses Fedora Linux, which requires less muscle to run than a Windows OS and no Microsoft licensing fee. Rounding out the specs are a 40GB hard drive, an integrated Via PN800 graphics chip, and 802.11g Wi-Fi. You also get stereo speakers, three USB 2.0 ports, and a PC Card slot. Medison backs the laptop with a one-year warranty but offers little detail about the terms.  

Medison takes orders in a variety of currencies, and it claims it will outfit the laptop with the appropriate keyboard. The company estimates it’ll take four to six weeks to ship, but “availability of the Medison Celebrity model depends on how many orders we get per day.” It also lists additional charges above the $150 price as $6.45 plus 5.5 percent “and extra” for its partner, 2Checkout.com.

 Is this $150 laptop too good to be true? Could be–I’ve tried all morning to place an order, but I keep getting an error message before I can even enter my credit card info and address. I’ll keep trying, but it looks like Medison isn’t quite ready to bestow Celebrity status on anyone with an extra $150 kicking around. I’ll update this post should I get my order to go through. 

UPDATE: I successfully completed an order. And wouldn’t you know, the $150 laptop ended up costing an even $150. Shipping was free, and no taxes or other charges were applied. I’ll let you know when it arrives.

 

Fujitsu LifeBook T4220 (Core 2 Duo 2GHz, 1GB RAM, 80GB HDD, Windows XP Tablet Edition)

July 16, 2007

With four tablet models in its catalog, Fujitsu offers something for every potential tablet user. The LifeBook T4220, a Centrino Duo update to its earlier T4215 model, is targeted at users who want all the performance and features of a full-fledged laptop with added handwriting functionality. In that light, the LifeBook T4220 largely succeeds: it offers nearly every feature you’d expect on a thin-and-light laptop plus a sizable display for writing and lengthy battery life. However, its performance on our benchmarks was mixed; its paltry allotment of RAM held it back on one of our tests–though the fault is easily fixed with a $150 upgrade. While not as elegant as the Lenovo ThinkPad X61 Tablet (which lacks a built-in optical drive), the highly configurable LifeBook T4220 is a solid choice for business users who want a tablet PC without compromise.

While the LifeBook T4220 falls in the middle of the weight range for a thin-and-light laptop, it is a bit hefty for a tablet; we were able to cradle it in one arm, clipboard-style, but never for more than a few minutes. Like most tablets larger than a UMPC, the LifeBook T4220 seems best for those who want to take handwritten notes while sitting at a desk or conference table.

The LifeBook T4220’s 12.1-inch display offers a native resolution of 1,024×768. That resolution and its standard (4:3) aspect ratio are rather ho-hum compared to the wide-screen displays found on most thin-and-light laptops, but we appreciated the T4220’s larger type and icons while we were navigating with the stylus. Our review unit’s price includes an indoor/outdoor display that provides excellent off-angle viewing and is readable in a variety of different lighting conditions, including summer afternoon sun. (If you’re likely to only use your tablet in typical work environments, you can save $150 by opting for a standard display finish.) While most tablets include a small slot in the base so you can tuck the stylus out of sight, the LifeBook T4220’s stylus sits in full view on the left side of the display bezel–a somewhat unattractive design that nevertheless keeps the stylus within easy reach. A number of other features around the bezel help you navigate when the computer is in tablet mode: a fingerprint reader for quick and keyboard-free log-ons, plus buttons for Alt, Fn, page up, and page down.

While its predecessor featured a bidirectional swivel, which let you twist the screen in any direction you like, the LifeBook T4220’s display swivels in only one direction. When you rotate and fold down the display, the computer automatically locks the laptop’s optical disc drive and rotates the screen 90 degrees into portrait mode. A button alongside the display also lets you manually adjust the screen orientation, though only two ways; other systems, such as the ThinkPad X60 Tablet, allow you to choose any screen orientation. We found this to be oddly limiting, until we noticed that the LifeBook T4220’s vents could get quite hot–the two screen direction options ensure that you don’t try to hold the vent side against your body.

Writing on the LifeBook T4220 was comfortable enough for quickly scribbled notes but not ideal for writing a lengthy document: the stylus lacks heft, and we wish the writing surface offered a little more resistance. We found the stylus responsive, however, and loved the eraser feature on top, which works exactly like a pencil eraser; though the eraser isn’t unique to Fujitsu, we consider it a key feature for any tablet stylus. When not using the system in tablet mode, the amply sized keyboard and rectangular touch pad function well, although the keys are somewhat loud. We appreciate that even the heaviest key strokes weren’t enough to make the LifeBook T4220’s display wobble. We also love the scroll button, located between the laptop’s two mouse buttons, which let us coast through long documents and Web pages with ease.  

The Fujitsu LifeBook T4220 has a more or less average selection of ports and connections for a thin-and-light laptop, though it does lack a mini-FireWire jack. An ExpressCard slot would have been nice as well, especially if you want to add mobile broadband later on (Fujitsu does not offer a built-in WWAN radio, even as an option). We do like the LifeBook T4220’s integrated smart card reader, which lets you add a level of security beyond just passwords. And we appreciate the port covers that keep dust and debris out of some (but, strangely, not all) of the laptop’s ports. As would be expected on a work-oriented tablet, the LifeBook T4220’s stereo speakers produce extremely tinny sound.

As befitting a laptop built on Intel’s latest Centrino Duo platform, the $2,249 Fujitsu LifeBook T4220 performed well on CNET Labs’ mobile benchmarks. Its performance equaled or exceeded that of the $2,102 Gateway E-265M and the $1,499 Lenovo 3000 V200. One notable exception: the LifeBook T4220 trailed far behind both systems and even a previous-generation Dell XPS M1210 on our Photoshop test. The most likely culprit is the Fujitsu’s paltry allotment of RAM–half as much as the competing systems. If you’re likely to do resource-intensive tasks beyond Web surfing and pounding out memos, you should consider upgrading to at least 2GB of RAM, which will add $150 to the price.

The Fujitsu LifeBook T4220 lasted an impressive 2 hours, 41 minutes on our resource-intensive DVD drain test; this test is especially grueling, so you can expect longer life from casual Web surfing and office use. The Dell XPS M1210 managed to last longer than the LifeBook T4220, but the Dell also included a much larger battery. The Lenovo 3000 V200 included similar components (with the exception of a slightly slower processor) and lasted only 2 hours, 16 minutes.

Fujitsu covers the system with a one-year warranty. Support is available through a 24-7, toll-free phone line, and technicians can connect to your computer over the Internet to diagnose problems. Standard Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and driver downloads also are available. Adding an extra year of service costs $100, and upgrading to next-business-day on-site service is an additional $50 per year. Fujitsu is also unique among laptop vendors in offering a no-questions-asked Screen Damage Protection Plan that costs $150 for one year and $383 for three years.

Velocity Micro Raptor DCX (ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT)

July 12, 2007

We’ve given Velocity Micro plenty of good reviews in the past, but this might be the best PC we’ve ever seen from the midsize vendor. True to its specialty of building powerful, smartly configured gaming desktops, this Raptor DCX comes in at $4,020, but it feels like you’re getting a remarkable deal given the performance you get for that price. Featuring a pair of ATI’s new Radeon HD 2900 XT graphics cards and an Intel quad-core processor, this system delivers a very strong bang for the buck in terms of today’s gaming. We wouldn’t blame you for holding off until we know more about actual next-generation games, but in terms of current-day performance, the Velocity Micro Raptor DCX performs as well as systems that cost several thousand dollars more. That alone makes this an Editor’s Choice winner.

The configuration of this system is close to other high-end PC’s we’ve reviewed over the past six or seven months, but a few key differences help it stand out. Where others in its class have sent us Core 2 Extreme quad-core CPUs, Velocity Micro sent this Raptor DCX to us with a 2.4GHz Core 2 Quad Q6600 overclocked to 3GHz (a $25 upgrade). That’s faster (on paper, at least) than the stock 2.93GHz Core 2 Extreme QX6800 in the $3,940 ABS Ultimate X Striker Elite and the $4,570 Maingear X-Cube. It also likely accounts for the Velocity Micro’s strong scores on the Cinebench test, which measures raw processing power.

Application performance isn’t tied explicitly to CPU speed, though. The 2GB of 800MHz DDR2 memory in the Raptor DCX should be fine for current games and any mainstream application you want to use. But as you can see from our Photoshop test results (and likely our iTunes results as well), systems such as the Dell XPS 710 H2C and the ABS that have 4GB of system memory will benefit when dealing with memory-intensive tasks such as image editing.

Of course, you don’t spend $4,000 on a PC with $800 worth of 3D cards to encode MP3s. For a complete breakdown of the ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT (announced today), you can check out our Crave blog on it, which links to various reviews around the Web (we’ll have our review up shortly). In brief, it competes well against Nvidia’s similar 640MB Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTS card, with the two trading wins on various current-generation PC games. We’re eager to see each card’s performance on next-gen gaming titles, and we’re also curious about how each card’s Vista drivers develop. In the context of this PC, the two Radeon HD 2900 XT cards give the Raptor DCX a distinct gaming-performance edge, although we should add that we don’t have a comparison system with two of its Nvidia counterparts to line it up against.

All that said, our gaming charts illustrate the sheer value of this PC. The only system that’s consistently faster (and not even on every test) is the Dell XPS 710 H2C that costs almost $2,000 more. The Raptor DCX also makes Maingear’s X-Cube, which costs $600 more, look especially overpriced. Our only wish is that we had a PC with two GeForce 8800 GTS cards in it for comparison, as those are the main competitors to the Velocity’s Radeon cards. We don’t feel too bad about not having them though, since we have a feeling as both ATI and Nvidia’s Vista driver development progresses, any conclusions we make about the cards today will go out the window in the coming months. Velocity Micro informs us that it will be shipping specially picked, overclocked versions of the Radeon HD 2900 XT cards in this system, so you can expect even more performance from this system than we’re showing here.

In addition to the Raptor DCX’s test scores, we’re also enthusiastic about its core features, although just a bit less so. In addition to the parts mentioned already, Velocity includes a dual-layer LightScribe DVD burner, a standard DVD-ROM drive, a Creative Sound Blaster X-FI Xtreme Audio sound card and two hard drives–a 400GB, 7,200rpm drive for mass storage and a 150GB, 10,000rpm drive for speedy application access. That’s a solid collection of parts to be sure, especially compared to the ABS, which gives you only a single 10,000rpm drive.

When we look at our comparison ABS system, which has a very similar price tag to this Raptor DCX, two questions come to mind: Why did Velocity Micro put Windows Vista Home Premium on here instead of Vista Ultimate? And where’s the media card reader? We know that Velocity was trying to keep the price down on this model, and we’d rather have the raw performance than spend the extra for Vista Ultimate. This is also not the first time we’ve complained about Velocity Micro leaving out a card reader. As long as it continues to send us systems without them, it won’t be the last. Fortunately, the Raptor DCX offers a lot of configuration options, a card reader among them, although we were surprised not to see an HD drive option.

We haven’t mentioned much about the design of this system, simply because there isn’t much to say other than the fact that it’s as neat and tidy as you’d want a PC to be. Velocity Micro has stuck with Lian Li cases for several years, adopting an “if it ain’t broke” approach that we appreciate. Expansion gets a little sticky, as the two double-wide graphics cards leave you with only a single PCI slot for expansion, occupied in our system by the sound card. The uppermost 3D card also presses up against the memory brackets, and you’ll likely need to remove the card in order to add or remove RAM. None of those issues are deal breakers, though.

 Finally, we have to give Velocity Micro kudos for its service and support offerings. Included in the price of this system is three years of parts-and-labor coverage and one year of on-site service. We thought Maingear was the last vendor to offer a three-year plan, and we were glad to see we were wrong. Velocity Micro’s Web site offers a comprehensive selection of resources with FAQs, a glossary, links to vendor Web sites, drivers, and other features. And while it’s not 24-7, Velocity’s phone support extends from a reasonable 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday, and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. 

 Reviewed by: Rich Brown 

Samsung Q1 Ultra

July 9, 2007

The Samsung Q1 Ultra (Q1U-V) improves on Samsung’s original and much maligned UMPC effort, but it still finds itself caught between two worlds. It can’t replace your laptop as an everyday productivity tool because it’s still too underpowered, and, despite the addition of a small keyboard split across the screen, text input becomes a chore for anything more than typing a URL or the briefest of e-mail responses. So, let’s view it as a portable media player.

The Q1 Ultra’s 7-inch screen is far larger than anything you’d find on a smart phone or other handheld device, but its meager specs struggle to power Windows Vista and even simple tasks such as smoothly playing video. At $1,199, it’s cheaper than other UMPCs we’ve seen, but that price is harder to justify when you see everything the iPhone can do for half that amount. Given its flaws, we found ourselves enjoying the Q1 Ultra when used only as an on-the-go Web-surfing machine. If browsing Web sites and playing media files when out and about is your main priority, the Apple iPhone (or a Wi-Fi enabled PMP) is a better way to go. 

Despite shaving about a quarter-pound off the weight of its predecessor, the Samsung Q1 Ultra is on the large side of the UMPC scale at 1.5 pounds, but it weighs only a few ounces more than the Sony VAIO UX390, the OQO model 02, or the Vulcan Flipstart. It’s a bit larger than these other models, which makes the Q1 Ultra feel lighter than it looks. It’s easy to tote around, either in its cloth slipcase or by the included wrist strap. (The tie for the wrist strap seems suspiciously similar to the one on the Nintendo Wii remote’s wrist strap, however, which is infamous for snapping at inopportune moments.)  

Aside from being a bit lighter, the Q1 Ultra’s overall design hasn’t changed much from last year’s model. A bright, clear 7-inch widescreen display dominates the glossy, black plastic chassis and features a native resolution of 1,024×600, which is higher than the original Q1’s 800×480 native resolution. The screen might be the Q1 Ultra’s most appealing feature; it’s perfectly capable of displaying Web pages properly and giving you plenty of room for the Windows desktop.  

The face of the Q1 Ultra is covered by a sometimes confusing array of buttons and controls, which require a little trial and error to use properly. Half of a QWERTY keyboard sits on each side of the display, positioned for thumb typing, as on a Blackberry or Treo. The buttons are even smaller than the Treo’s–although not by much–and since they’re made of the same slick plastic as the rest of the system, they can be hard to get traction on. Rubberized keys would be welcomed. Typing on the Q1 Ultra is a chore, but it does become easier with practice. But in practical terms, as discovered by writing part of this review on the Q1 Ultra’s keyboard, lengthy text input will never be the system’s strong suit. 

 Fortunately, there are other input methods, including a touch screen with stylus and a ThinkPad-style mouse pointer. The mouse pointer is located under your left thumb, while the left and right mouse buttons are under your right thumb, along with a four-way input that works like the arrow keys on your keyboard. That’s the opposite of the setup on the Sony VAIO UX390, OQO model 02, or Vulcan Flipstart, all of which have the mouse pointer on the right and the mouse buttons on the left. Since we generally use our right hand to mouse, the Q1 Ultra’s setup seemed odd at first, but we quickly got used to it. 

The touch screen works with both the included stylus or a fingertip, and while it likely won’t be your primary input method, being able to reach over with your thumb and click the submit button on a Web form after typing something in a text field is a huge help. As with the other UMPCs we’ve looked at, having multiple input methods is vital to making these machines even somewhat useful. 

 Additionally, a few touch-sensitive buttons sit above the screen, next to a Web cam. These include volume up and down buttons (but no mute control) and a button for bringing up Samsung’s custom onscreen menu, giving you control over screen brightness, the Wi-Fi connection, and other options.

The ports and connections on UMPCs in general, and the Q1 Ultra specifically, are sparse but functional. With two USB ports, a headphone jack, an SD card slot, Bluetooth, and a VGA out, most of your connectivity needs should be covered, save for the occasional FireWire device. In addition to the built-in 802.11 a/b/g Wi-Fi, we think a UMPC should offer cellular broadband for times when you and this highly mobile device aren’t sitting in a HotSpot. A higher-end model, the Q1 Ultra-CMV, is scheduled to arrive next month with a mobile broadband chip from Cingular. 

 While we could see ourselves coming to terms with its various input options, the Q1 Ultra’s deal breaker is its performance. While the Sony VAIO UX390N uses a 1.3GHz Intel Core Solo CPU and the Vulcan FlipStart uses a 1.1 GHz Pentium M, the Q1 Ultra features a relatively new 800MHz Intel A110 CPU. Although specifically designed for pocket-sized devices, the Q1 Ultra’s processor simply can’t keep up with the laptop CPUs in the other UMPCs. 

With its large display and touch screen controls, we thought the Q1 Ultra would make an excellent portable media player, but we found its performance in playing back media files–either streaming online or straight from the hard drive–to be spotty at best, with frequent stuttering, making the system less useful by far. The system also struggled to run Windows Vista–accessing OS menus regularly slowed things to a crawl.  

The new processor, however, did help with battery life. The Q1 Ultra ran for two hours and 16 minutes on our DVD battery drain test, using an external DVD player hooked up to one of the system’s USB ports. This is an especially grueling test, so you can expect longer life from casual use. We got a little more than three hours of battery life in our hands-on testing, which is still not acceptable in a device that can rightly be expected to stray from a wall outlet for long stretches. 

Samsung includes an industry-standard, one-year, parts-and-labor warranty with the system. Support is accessible 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. (EST), seven days a week, through a toll-free phone line, and the online knowledge base has a specific section for the Q1 line of UMPCs.  

Reviewed by: Dan Ackerman
Edited by:
Matthew Elliott