Lenovo and Best Buy team up for a $149 laptop this year

Cheap laptops are nothing new this time of year–they’ve been practically a holiday tradition since 2002 when Sotec released a decent laptop for $900, which was jaw-droppingly low for the time–but this year, Best Buy is selling a Lenovo Ideapad 100s for $149.99, which, while not jaw-droppingly low given the number of $199 laptops that were available last year, is still the cheapest name-brand laptop I’ve seen. Note: Best Buy has since raised the price to $199, but Ebay has limited stock of the same item for $129.

I’ve seen some reviews, but there is one thing I haven’t seen anyone bring up yet: This is a netbook in every way, except I think we’re supposed to call them cloudbooks now. So keep that in mind. The machine is probably worth $149.99, but it made some compromises to reach that price point.

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What to look for in a cheap laptop in late 2014

So the sales fliers for the 2014 Christmas shopping season are out, and I’m seeing tons of cheap laptops. If you only have $200 to spend, they have something for you.

Some of them look like they’re even worth having. Yes, I’m shocked too. Here’s how to figure out which ones are worth taking home, and which ones are best left for some other sucker. Whether you’re shopping for yourself or someone else, you’ll probably want to keep the following in mind.

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Living with a past-its-prime computer

I’m playing catch-up a bit. This weekend, Lifehacker ran a guide about living with a computer that’s past its prime.

I’ve made a career of that. One of my desktop PCs at work (arguably the more important one) is old enough that I ought to be preparing to send it off to second grade. And for a few years I administered a server farm that was in a similar state. They finally started upgrading the hardware as I was walking out the door. (I might have stayed longer if they’d done that sooner.) And at home, I ran with out-of-date computer equipment for about a decade, just this summer buying something current. Buying something current is very nice, but not always practical.

So of course I’ll comment on a few of Lifehacker’s points.

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Microsoft: No x86 apps for ARM

So, The Register reports that Windows on ARM will not have compatibility with apps compiled for x86. Intel has been saying this for a while, while Microsoft has been mum. So now we know.

There are arguments both for and against having an x86 emulation layer.
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How to decide if a computer upgrade will pay for itself in power savings

I occasionally read an offhand comment where someone says he or she just bought a new computer, and the new computer is so much more power efficient than the old one, it’s going to pay for itself.

I wonder if they did the math, or if that’s what the salesperson told them. Because while I can see circumstances where that assertion would be true, but it typically would involve extremes, like replacing an aged Pentium 4 computer with, well, a netbook. They probably didn’t do that.

Part of the reason I got into computers professionally was because I was tired of hearing lies from salespeople and technicians. So let’s just take a look at this claim.
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The "good enough" PC

PC World has a treatise on “good enough” computing. This isn’t actually a new trend but it’s never stood still for as long as it has now.Jerry Pournelle used to describe cheap CPUs from Cyrix and IDT in the late 1990s as “good enough.” Running at 166 and 200 MHz, they ran Windows 95 and NT4 and Office 97 just fine. They weren’t good gaming CPUs, but for everything else, they were great, and you could build a computer with one of those and save $100 or more over using a comparable Intel CPU.

Trouble was, the mainstream moved. Intel knocked off all the upstarts by starting a megahertz war, and AMD came back from a near-death experience to compete. The requirements to run Windows increased nearly as rapidly, and it wasn’t all that long before 900 MHz was pretty much the bare minimum to run Windows comfortably.

But chips kept getting cheaper, and today you can buy a 2 GHz CPU for pretty close to what a Cyrix or WinChip CPU cost. But you get more than 10 times the power for that money. And Windows XP runs perfectly comfortably on a 2 GHz CPU, whether it’s a new Intel Atom or Celeron or a 5-year-old corporate discard. So does Office 2003, which is the very last version of Office that any sane person would want to use.*

*Besides being the evil spawn of Windows Vista and Microsoft Bob, Office 2007 also crashes more often than Windows 3.0 did. The only way I can go a week without losing work from Office 2007 crashing is to go on vacation.

The PC World author claims that Linux and Open Office running on Intel Atom CPUs will be the undoing of Microsoft. I think that’s a bit of a stretch. Netbooks running Linux got returned to the vendor a lot. I suspect the biggest reason is because they probably couldn’t figure out how to get their USB mobile broadband cards–I’m talking the stuff that cellphone vendors offer for 50 bucks a month–working in Linux. That, and they probably couldn’t get Flash working so they couldn’t see Facebook and other popular sites the way they could on their regular PCs.

Frankly, the two things that keep me from buying a $200 Dell Vostro netbook this weekend are the price of mobile broadband ($50 a month), and my concerns about the reliability of anything sold by Dell in the last 5-6 years. I work with a lot of Dell equipment, and once the warranty goes, their machines do not age gracefully at all. But I think Dell will sell a lot of these units, because the price is absurdly low, they weigh two pounds, and they run anything but 3D games and intensive graphics apps nice and fast. Sure, a dual-core system with its memory maxed out and a solid state disk will outrun it, sometimes even running circles around it, but that system will also cost 10 times as much.

I do think Office 2007 is the best thing that ever happened to Open Office. Open Office’s interface is a lot more familiar and doesn’t hide anything, and while it may not be as fast as Office 2003, it’s certainly faster at most things than Office 2007 is.

Linux has been usable for basic computing for a very long time, but getting it installed and configured remains a challenge at times. A netbook that connects painlessly to the wireless networks in restaurants and to cellphone makers’ mobile broadband cards while running Linux probably stands a chance. Giving some automated, easy means to synchronize application data and web bookmarks between the netbook and a desktop PC would probably help a lot too–something that does the same thing that Activesync does for moving data between Windows PCs and Windows Mobile PDAs. Will these things happen?

But I do think an era of “good enough” is upon us. There was a time when the top-of-the-line PC would be entry level within a year or two, and that’s not really true anymore. The entry-level PC of today is comparable to the mid-range PC of five years ago. For most of my lifetime, basic computing on a five-year-old PC was always painful, no matter how good that PC was when it was new. That’s not the case today.

Graphic designers, video producers, and scientists will always need ever-more powerful systems for their work, so they’ll continue to drive the cutting edge. But everyday computing is stabilizing. I don’t think Intel wants the future of everyday computing to be the cheap Atom CPU, but at this point it may be impossible to avoid it. If Intel decides to quit playing in this space, AMD can design something comparable to replace it in the marketplace. The Geode won’t cut it, but something based on the Athlon XP architecture and built using a modern process certainly would.

And frankly I’m glad about this development. It’s been nice not having to buy a new computer every three years or so.

How to make a really nice $500 computer

Steve Jobs: “We don’t
know how to make a $500 computer that’s not a piece of junk.”

Steve Jobs is either lying or lazy. I’m guessing he just doesn’t want to play in that space. Of course, you probably
already knew that.

Here’s how to make a really, really nice $500 computer. All prices are
from Newegg.Intel Atom 330 motherboard/CPU combo: $82
Kingston or Crucial 2 GB DIMM: $20
OCZ Vertex 30 GB SSD: $129
2.5″-3.5″ HDD adapter: $19
Lite-on 22X SATA DVD burner: $23
Foxconn MicroATX case with 300W power supply: $40
Windows XP Home OEM $90

So there you have it. $403 before shipping. You still need a keyboard
and mouse, but there should be enough after shipping to get something,
assuming you don’t already have one. While this system won’t burn the
house down, the dual-core Atoms are surprisingly quick and more than
adequate unless you’re heavily into gaming or media production. But if
you’re into those things you aren’t in the market for a $500 computer
anyway.

The Intel board is unglamorous but very dependable. It also draws very
little power and runs very quietly. It’s great for word processing and
e-mail, adequate for multimedia, and it’ll play non-3D games just
fine. Other companies are making Atom boards, but I’d stick with Intel this time. ECS doesn’t have a history of producing top-quality boards, and I’ve never heard of the outfit making the other Atom boards Newegg sells. Plus, I think the non-Intel boards have Atom 230 (single-core) CPUs in them. It’s worth paying the extra $15-$20 to get that second core.

The SSD will make this computer outperform many more expensive
computers. But more importantly, it won’t crash. Anyone who’s gotten an
untimely phone call from a relative wondering why the computer won’t
start up and where all those digital pictures went will appreciate that.
A conventional hard drive would cost as little as $40 and gives more
space, but 30 gigs will last a while with a casual user. And the lack of
disk crashes is probably worth the extra money. Between the SSD and the
Intel board, the system will be very quiet, which is probably worth
something. In this era of PCs that sound like wind tunnels, you don’t
really appreciate whisper-quiet PCs until you have one.

The memory probably isn’t totally critical, but when you can get Kingston or Crucial for 20 bucks, it makes sense to do it. They’ve both been around forever and have a long history of making quality memory. There’s no reason to put anything other than a 2-gig stick in this board’s single DIMM slot. The system will take 2 gigs, and 2 gigs is cheap.

The rest of the parts are nothing special. Lite-on makes reasonably good
optical drives and has been for some time now, but if something else happens to be on sale for under $20,
or something else happens to be available with free shipping, that’s fine. You
won’t lose anything by using it. Foxconn cases look reasonably
professional without costing a lot of money, and their power supplies
are decent enough. An Atom board with an SSD won’t tax any power supply very hard anyway. You can buy a
cheaper case if you want, but be sure to read the reviews. Some cheap
cases are made of really light-gauge metal and are prone to cut you.
I’ve never had that problem with Foxconns.

The other trick with cases is to watch shipping prices. For whatever
reason, Newegg charges more to ship some cases than others, so it could
very well be worth your while to look at cases that cost $5-$10 more.
Shipping could actually make them cheaper.

You can get the proper mini-ITX case for boards like this, but you’ll pay more for it. Unless you need the really small form factor, it makes sense to just use a cheap and common micro-ATX case. The bonus is that you get some expansion space if you want to add another optical drive, card readers for your digital camera memory, or stuff like that.

And XP Home is XP Home. Vista may run on this system with 2 GB of RAM
and an SSD, but seriously, does Vista do anything that XP doesn’t?
Especially Vista Home vs. XP Home? I’ll stick with the old reliable. I
happen to know from experience that XP Home runs very nicely on a system
with 2 GB of RAM and an SSD.

This particular system will perform nicely, will be extremely reliable
(it wouldn’t surprise me if it still functioned perfectly fine 5 or 10
years from now), and depending on the case, can be easy on the eyes. And
if you want to get swanky, you can skip the cheap case, get an $80
Lian-Li and a separate sale power supply, and have a great-looking PC
while still staying south of $600.

Any way you do it, this system will cost more than a $399 mass-market PC. But I think it’s more than worth the $50-$70 premium.

Second impressions: Intel D945GCLF2, aka the dual-core Atom desktop board

I finally got Windows XP installed on what’s going to be my mother in law’s dual-core Intel Atom computer. I’ve spent some more time with it, and it’s a good board, as long as you’re willing to live with its limitations.First of all, if your Windows CD doesn’t include SP3 (or possibly SP2), slipstream it. SP1 or earlier won’t boot on this board. I used nlite to slipstream SP3 and all the updates. A good way to download all the updates easily is to use CTupdate. Since installing updates can take nearly as long as installing the OS itself, it’s nice to have a CD that’s completely up to date. And while you’re at it, you can remove some useless Windows components like Windows Messenger and MSN Explorer.

Intel's dual-core Atom boardSince I don’t play 3D games and my mother in law doesn’t either, I have no idea what the gaming performance of this machine is, but I doubt it’s very good. That’s fine; it’s not what this board is designed for.

For productivity apps, it’s a perfectly reasonable PC. I can switch back and forth between my 2 GHz P4 and this Atom and not feel like I’m missing anything.

Due to the D945CLF2‘s size, it has some limitations. It only has two SATA and one PATA connectors. Hooking up her PATA hard drive and CD-RW got interesting. I managed to do it, but it isn’t pretty. If I’d known this was going to turn into a system rebuild, I would have bought a SATA hard drive instead of the PATA drive I got. If you’re thinking of one of these boards to upgrade an old PC, keep that in mind, especially if the 3.5″ bays aren’t very close to the 5.25″ bays.

There’s only one PCI slot. That’s less of a problem than it sounds like, as it has onboard video, audio, gigabit Ethernet, and lots of USB ports. But if you want to add a TV tuner or Firewire ports, you can only choose one or the other.

There’s also only one memory slot, and it can only take 2 GB. So there’s no dual-channel memory, although the chipset and BIOS support it. The CPU is AMD64 compatible, but the main reason people go 64-bit is to be able to run 4 GB of memory or more. It would have been nice if Intel could have crammed one more memory slot in there somehow.

Nvidia is talking about releasing a chipset for the Atom that will give better performance than Intel’s. Intel pairs the Atom with a very old chipset, and Nvidia says they can make it perform better. Intel doesn’t want the Atom to compete with the Celeron, so they’re not making performance a top priority. Even still, it’s not bad. I would imagine Nvidia could make it an even nicer setup.

But at any rate, this is a nice board. It’s reliable, cheap, and fast enough. If I decide to modernize any of my computers in the next year, I would consider one of these. They run cool and quiet and consume very little power. Lately I’ve been a big proponent of buying off-lease 2 GHz P4s, but I think an Atom rig is also worth considering. It’ll cost a little more, but its power usage is so low, it’s likely to more than make up the difference over the course of its lifetime.

SSDs come of age?

Intel released its first-generation SSDs this week. I haven’t seen one and I don’t plan on rushing out to buy one just yet, but what I’ve read makes it sound like this is going to be big. Not big like the release of Windows 95 was, but frankly if what people are saying is true, it should be as big of a deal. This is the first disruptive technology I’ve seen in years.The best analysis of this drive and other SSDs is this Anandtech article. It doesn’t just discuss the Intel SSD; it also goes into detail talking about earlier SSDs, and, to my amazement, it talks about what’s wrong with them and does in-depth analysis as to why.

Frankly it’s been years since I’ve seen this kind of objective analysis from a hardware site. I’m used to hardware sites being shills for vendors, so this is exceptional.

The problem with inexpensive SSDs like the Supertalent Masterdrive and OCZ Core is that they’re usually fast. Blazing fast. But under certain circumstances, they just sit there and hang. Not for milliseconds, but a full second or more. Usually the problem happens when writing small files.

So when you go to Newegg and see the customer reviews of these drives and you see people giving them either 5 stars or 0, this explains it. The people who are just using them to load game levels or Photoshop CS3 love them because they mop up the floor with even a 15K conventional drive, so they give them five stars. The people who can’t get Windows to install on them because it hangs when writing some small but critical system file give zero.

Intel seems to have solved most of these problems, mostly with buffering and command queuing. The result is a drive that beats conventional disks in performance almost all the time, and when it doesn’t win, it’s close.

The problem is price: about $600 for 80 gigs. Some enthusiasts will pay that for their video subsystems, but that’s a lot of money considering one can build an awfully nice computer these days for around $200 (using a $70 Intel Atom motherboard, 2 GB of Kingston or Crucial memory for $30, a $40 hard drive, a $40 case, and a $20 optical drive).

But I think Intel made the right bet. The people who won’t pay $159 for a 32 GB drive from OCZ won’t pay $159 for one from Intel either. So crank up the capacity to 80 GB (pretty much the minimum for any enthusiast to take seriously), crank up the performance, and market it as an enthusiast product at an enthusiast price and wait for the technology to make it cheaper. It’s the same strategy Intel has been using for CPUs for nearly 25 years (since the 80286), and it’s worked.

I see a lot of criticism about the capacity, but it’s pretty much unfounded. The people who need capacity are the people who have large collections of JPEGs, MP3s and movies. None of these uses of a computer benefits at all from the SSD. Pretty much any conventional hard drive made in the last decade can stream that kind of data faster than the software needs it. So store that mountain of data on a cheap conventional hard drive (500 GB costs $70). Meanwhile, 80 GB is enough SSD capacity to hold an operating system and a nice selection of software, which is where SSDs excel.

Before I saw this review, I was pretty much ready to pull the trigger on a first-generation OCZ Core. Newegg has the 32 GB model for $159 with a $60 rebate. But now I know precisely what’s wrong with the Core and similar SSDs (and pretty much all of the similarly priced SSDs are based on the same Samsung reference design and have nearly identical characteristics). I know what I do tends to generate small files from time to time, and I know those 1-second delays would be maddening because avoiding delays is precisely the reason I want an SSD in the first place.

Intel has fired its first shot. Now Samsung and anyone else who wants to play in this arena is going to have to answer. Once that happens, prices will come down. Meanwhile, performance-minded people will buy the Intel drives, and increased demand will mean increased production, and therefore driving prices down.

It’s going to take a little while for SSDs to gain mainstream acceptance, kind of like LCD monitors. But I really think in five years, we’ll wonder how we lived without them.

Intel\’s Atom mini-ITX board has some interesting possibilities

A story on The Register tipped me off to a small motherboard using Intel’s new Atom CPU. A UK data center is using the chip to power servers, and The Reg asks if it’s madness or genius.

More on that in a minute.It’s an interesting minimalist board. It has a single PCI slot, one DIMM slot, PATA and 2 SATA connectors for storage, and the usual complement of I/O slots. The CPU runs at 1.6 GHz. Newegg sells it for about 75 bucks.

One could use this board to build a minimalist PC, but it would also work well as a cheap upgrade for an old PC. It can bolt into a case designed for an ATX or micro-ATX board. It’s made by Intel, so its quality is likely to be comparable to any board it replaces. And the board consumes about 25 watts of power.

Paired up with some sort of solid-state storage, be it a compact flash card in an adapter or a proper SATA SSD like the OCZ Core, it would be a very quiet, low-power system. Performance-wise, it wouldn’t be a barn burner, but it has more than enough horsepower for word processing, e-mail, web browsing, and other productivity apps. At 1.6 GHz, the Atom doesn’t outrun a Pentium M or even a modern Celeron at comparable clock speed, but it should outrun a sub-2 GHz P4.

I think this thing would be awesome in many business environments. Tasks that would bog it down are the kinds of things you don’t want going on in the office anyway–stuff like 3D gaming, ripping and re-encoding DVDs, stuff like that. The power it would save would be tremendous, especially when paired with an LCD monitor and an SSD.

But I even think it has a place in the server room. For example, my first employer used desktop PCs for domain controllers. The logic was simple: DCs don’t work all that hard most of the day, and by their very nature they are redundant, so if a DC were to fail, it’s not in the same league as your mail server failing. You can grab another desktop PC, stand it up as a domain controller, then start asking questions.

In 1997, when a server cost $4,000 and a desktop PC cost $1,000, this was an obvious place for a college with budget problems to save some money.

I think Intel Atoms would make great domain controllers. They have enough CPU power to do the job, but they sip power, which is increasingly important in datacenters. The PCI slot would limit the type of gigabit NIC you could install, but it should still be OK.

They’d make fine web servers too. They might get bogged down on high traffic sites, but they would have little trouble serving up most corporate intranets, and let’s face it, most people’s web sites aren’t nearly as busy as they would like to think they are. You could always use more than one and load balance them. Besides, it’s typically the database servers behind the web servers that do the heavy lifting. Serving up static web pages isn’t all that difficult of a task, and a 1.6 GHz CPU ought to be up to it.

None of these uses are what Intel had in mind when they designed the Atom–I really think their ultimate goal is to end up in cell phones and PDAs, which was why they sold off their ARM-based Xscale CPU.

But if some enterprising company (or struggling behemoth *cough* Dell *cough*) wanted to build business PCs around these, it would be an easy sell. For that matter, they could stuff two of these boards into a 1U rackmount chassis and sell it as an inexpensive, power-saving alternative to blade servers.

Call me crazy, but having actually administered blade servers, I’d much rather have a bunch of 1U systems with two computers inside the case. Besides costing a lot less money up front, they would be more reliable and consume less power while actually saving space–an HP blade enclosure gives you 16 servers in 10 Us, while my crazy scheme would give you 20 servers in the same space.

Maybe instead of posting this idea where anyone can see it and run with it, I ought to buy a couple of motherboards, take them into my basement and start bending some metal myself. Hmm…

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