Tag Archives: laptop

HP Spectre 13T

Since giving my Lenovo Yoga 13 to my parents (a great machine, by the way, and v2 looks even better), I’ve been on the lookout for something to replace it. My primary considerations were battery life, display (inc. touchscreen), touchpad, weight, build quality and reasonable future-proofing for the machine to last 2-3 years. I’ve really liked the 12-13.3″ range, since it usually results in a laptop in the 3-3.5lb range, which is highly portable, while providing enough display real estate to be truly productive.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I considered several MacBooks, particularly the MacBook Air 13 (gosh, the 10-12 hours of real-world battery life is mind-blowing) and the MacBook Pro Retina 13. The build quality, battery life, and touchpads are absolutely fantastic, and frankly, even pricing isn’t outrageous, when looking at comparable options across the ecosystem.

However, I landed on the HP Spectre 13T, because:

  • Nice build quality, aluminium used throughout and positioned as a premium Ultrabook, so I hoped for the best in terms of manufacturing tolerances and the visceral feel in-hand
  • Great display options (in both colour gamut and resolution)
  • Includes both a gigantic touchpad and a touchscreen; most importantly, the touchpad is smooth and tracks well, almost as well as the MacBooks
  • Approximately 3.2lbs with 8-9 hours of real-world battery life
  • Configured with a Core i5 4200U, 8GB memory, 128GB SSD, 2560×1440 touchscreen, and included 2 year warranty was just under $950 (cheaper than a base MacBook Air 13)

I’m only a week in, so more detailed thoughts will have to wait. Initial impressions are positive; it feels reassuringly sturdy, the design is simple, but the aluminum colouring makes it a bit less generic than every other black or silver laptop out there, and the display is stunning in both colour as well resolution. Given how close it is to a melange of the right elements of each of the MacBook Air and Retina, in a package that cheaper than either, is a very good thing.

ASUS UX21 – A Few (Critical) Mistakes from Great

It was all looking so good. The feel of cold, smooth, brushed aluminum. The solidity of a thin form factor. Beautifully sleek design. Keys painted to match the brushed aluminum chassis. A large clickable trackpad. Good build tolerances all around. Sub-2.5lb weight.

And then I turned the thing on, and everything went downhill.

I’m writing about the ASUS UX21. I really wanted to like this fantastic looking “Ultrabook”, and it’s a really convincing rendition of a Windows-based MacBook Air-compete. However, a few critical components crippled the user experience of this unit in particular. Here are the specs of the version I picked up at the Microsoft Store.

  • ASUS Zenbook UX21E-DH52
  • Intel Core i5-2467m, dual core HyperThreading (1.6GHz – Turbo 2.3GHz)
  • 4GB DDR3
  • 128GB ADATA XM11 SSD
  • 11.6″ 1366×768 (TN)
  • Intel HD 3000 integrated video
  • Atheros AR9485 802.11b/g/n
  • 1 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, mini-VGA, micro-HDMI, 3.5mm headset
  • Trackpad – Sentilic
  • 35WHr battery

As I alluded to at the beginning of the post, the design of the UX21 is gorgeous. Although the dimensions and components used in this machine are almost exact replicas of the 11.6″ MacBook Air, the build quality is as good, if not better, and the execution of the design makes this a striking laptop. The radiating circular brush design on the lid works well, and even the two tones of aluminium for the lid and chassis complement each other, very well. The keyboard deck is firm, is nicely coloured to match the rest of the visual style, and even the display bezel seems to be aluminum. Closing the laptop produces a confident “thunk”. Once closed, the entire laptop feels like a solid chunk of metal, with little-to-no flex anywhere. Overall, the PC is stunning to look at and hold.

The first hints of trouble are seen when setting the machine up, for the first time. The trackpad isn’t sensitive all the way to the bottom edge – I think this is so you can rest your thumb/other finger on the “click-area”, without impacting cursor movement. But that’s a lazy way of getting around the real issue; other than in a MacBook, we still haven’t seen a good driver implementation of a clickpad, which can parse the difference between contact for moving the cursor and contact intended for clicking. While the trackpad looks awfully large and feels like one contiguous surface, you can’t tell at what point the trackpad will no longer be sensitive to your finger, as you move around. In that sense, ASUS would have been better off with separate buttons. ASUS says an updated trackpad driver should solve most issues, but I have the latest version they recommend (9.1.7.7), and there are still problems.

Fortunately, performance, even with a low-voltage Core i5 is very snappy, and the solid state drive (which uses an SF-2281 controller) is extremely quick. Boot up times are astronomically low. From a cold boot, the Windows 7 start up orbs don’t even have time to group together before we’re off to the Windows desktop. Resume from sleep is essentially instantaneous. It’s a superb experience. Given ASUS’ claim that this will last 1 week+ on standby, we’re getting pretty close to consumer-electronics experience.

After setting up Windows in the first boot, I connected to my home wireless network and opened up Internet Explorer and waited for the homepage to load. And waited. And waited.

Sure, MSN is not exactly the lightest-weight page in the world, but on a 20mbps downlink internet connection, it really shouldn’t take upwards of 20 seconds. I flipped over to Engadget, only to find that it loaded just as slowly. I thought it might be a temporary slowdown in my internet connection, but everything was still very speedy on my desktop. Speedtest.net showed I had download speeds below 2mbps. Fortunately, with a USB wireless N adapter lying around, I had an easy way to isolate the issue. I plugged that in and tried browsing again. Everything was near instantaneous and Speedtest.net showed ~16mbps down.

I searched the web for issues with Wifi on the Zenbooks and quickly found numerous users having the same problem with the built-in Atheros solution. For some, installing an older version of the Wifi driver helped. For me, it didn’t. Transferring files from my Windows Home Server became absurdly slow, to the point of unusable. This is a deal-breaker.

And the rest is mostly history. The laptop is, for the most part, pretty quiet. The fan rarely spins up (although my UX21 came with the 206 BIOS – some folks have said the update to 207 runs the fan more often: bad). The display is mediocre, but gets the job done; viewing angles aren’t great, but neither is the likelihood that I’ll be sharing an 11.6″ display with several other people or needing to fit it in some crazy angle on an economy seat tray table. Battery life is right around ASUS’ advertised mark. I get in the range of 4-5 hours of browsing, before the computer wants to hibernate.

The keyboard, which some have complained about, is okay – it’s a bit stiffer and has shallower travel than most keyboards, but you quickly get used to that. The keys seem smaller than a full-size though, particularly in the length dimension, so sometimes I overshoot. I’m typing this review on the UX21, and I’m already pretty used to the layout and firmness.

This laptop is going back, and with the combination of wifi (deal-breaker), touchpad (nearly deal-breaker) and a number of smaller issues, it’s not something I’ll try another unit of. The external design and construction of the UX series is phenomenal. Now they just need to choose the right key components for a good user-experience. The UX21 is a almost a great PC, but a few mistakes were made on critical components, which completely undermined the potential of the system.

HP EliteBook 2540p

I’ll get some photos up next week… I seem to have lost the few I took when I first got the machine.

Microsoft provided me a generous budget for my work laptop, which I used on an HP EliteBook 2540p. Specs:

  • Intel Core i7 640LM (2.13GHz – turbo 2.93GHz)
  • 4GB DDR3
  • Intel 160GB SSD
  • 12.1″ WXGA LED
  • Intel integrated graphics
  • 6 cell battery (62Whr)
HP EliteBook 2540p

I also had the option of larger, 14″ and 15″ laptops, but I knew I’d also have a desktop with plenty of grunt for running VMs. My laptop would to take to meetings, work on the road, at home, etc. I wanted something small and light, with good battery life. It really came down to the 2540p and the Lenovo X201. However, only the 2540p could be had with an SSD within budget, and knowing the difference one makes with my personal laptop and desktop, I had to have one for my work machine as well. One note: if you want an optical drive in this laptop, you’re stuck with 1.8″ form factor drives. Fortunately, Intel makes a 1.8″ SSD – otherwise, I would have been saddled with some slow as molasses 1.8″ spindle drive. That’s just no fun. Then again, I now have an optical drive I haven’t used yet.

Build and Design

Business machines haven’t exactly prioritized aesthetic design, but the EliteBook doesn’t do a horrid job here. It has a nice brushed metal texture on the lid and a two-tone color scheme when open. Brushed metal also adorns the palm rest. The combination of a standard 16:10 display, thick top and bottom bezels and thin side bezels could make one mistake it for a standard 4:3 laptop, but who makes those nowadays, right? Even the 6-cell battery protrudes out the back about 2/3rds of an inch, but ends being a fair hand-hold when the laptop open or closed. (I end up walking with my laptop open, reading email more than I’d like.) Overall, it’s a little more sprightly looking than a ThinkPad, but there’s certainly also something classic about the ThinkPad look. We’ll see if the EliteBook design wears well over time.

In terms of build quality, the thing is tank-like. The lid feels very good, the heavy-duty metal display hinges are tight as day one, there’s no flex anywhere you’d touch. The lid is held in place by a strong clasp, which is disengaged by a large metal button on the front. Unfortunately, it’s a bit easy to push it and open the lid. ThinkPad’s sliding lid mechanism is much more fool-proof. The chassis is supported by a magnesium alloy shell underneath metal (or plastic around the keyboard). The laptop also meets some military standards for environmental conditions, tested for a wide range of temperature, vibrations and shocks, and moisture. Long story short, this thing is designed to survive in the elements, so surviving a typical office workday probably isn’t asking much of it. After 6 months, the only sign of use is a slight bit of a mark on one of the left mouse buttons. There’s absolutely no marks anywhere else, and I certainly haven’t babied it in the least. Not bad.

On the downside, the laptop is nearly 3/4lb heavier than an equivalent (6-cell) Lenovo X201. I’m okay with the near 4lb weight overall.

Input/Output

The keyboard is one of those hybrid-chiclet types, with flat keys. It feels pretty good to type on, although not as good as the ThinkPad keyboards or the Logitech Illuminated Keyboard I used with my desktop (quite possibly the best keyboard I’ve ever laid hands on). There’s a slight bit of rattle when typing quickly, but no flex is evident. I think the travel distance could be a bit longer. Above they keyboard are touch-sensitive buttons for volume, wireless and some quick-boot options. Personally, I’d be just as happy with tactile buttons. Touch-sensitive buttons are always a bit fidgety, not 100% responsive.

The touchpad is small, but acceptable for a 12″ laptop. Nice rubbery-textured touchpad and pointer buttons have good travel. The pointer comes with an indented cap that I’ve become very accustomed to. In fact, I simply never use the touchpad anymore. When I’m home with my MacBook, my hand defaults to where the track pointer should be, only to realize there isn’t one.

The display is of the 16:10 variety, matte, with typical viewing angles for a TN panel (e.g. decent horizontal, terrible vertical). It can be turned up pretty darned bright and colors seem fine. Then again, I use it for web, email, Word, and the occasional training video. The display doesn’t have the most stressful job to perform in my day to day.

There’s a smattering of ports – 3 USB 2.0, DisplayPort, VGA, SD card reader, FireWire, single headset 3.5mm, gigabit ethernet and (importantly!) a smartcard reader built in. That last input is fantastic for working remotely, as I don’t need to carry around an external card reader.

In Use

I’m not going to run the laptop through a gauntlet of performance benchmarks, since no, I don’t spend my days running PCMark or calculating the x millionth digit of Pi. However, I do launch Outlook quite often and that’s essentially instantaneous now. The combination of four threads of Intel Core i7 power and the Intel SSD does wonders for system responsiveness and performance. There are no hesitations between action and response, except for the human ones. It’s generally a pleasure to use.

Here’s what happens during a normal day. I get into the office, pull the laptop out of my backpack, plunk it into the dock and snap in the dock connector. My Logitech MX Anywhere’s mini-receiver is perpetually plugged into the left-hand side USB port of the laptop, so once the 2540p resumes from sleep (about 2 seconds) I’m ready to go. The dock is connected via DisplayPort and VGA to two 20″ 4:3 Samsung displays, one in portrait and one in landscape mode. I have Logitech Z-5 speakers connected to the dock and a Microsoft Natural 4000 keyboard. Outlook fires up and I’m ready to start with my morning email browsing.

A couple hours later (or perhaps immediately, depending on the day), it’s meeting time, and I simply pop the dock connector button and my laptop’s good to go. I sit down at the meeting, open up my laptop, and a few seconds of the laptop figuring out that it’s no longer connected to two desktop monitors ensues. Then I’m back at my desktop, except with a 1280×800 resolution desktop. Doing the regular tasks at work, writing, emailing, browsing SharePoint, gives me 5 hours or so of battery life on the 6 cell. That’s plenty to get me through the day, since I rarely sit through any string of meetings longer than that (in which I’m actively using my laptop, especially).

I come back to my office, plug the 2540p back into the dock and my monitors pick up the picture again, without any input required on my part. It’s all really pretty seamless. My mouse and keyboard haven’t left their original positions and I’m ready to work again.

And really, that’s how a business laptop should be, in my opinion. Portable, good battery life, easily able to survive being bumped around and virtually invisible (from a reconfiguration point of view) to the user. I don’t want to think about reconfiguring my multi-monitor setup every time I get back to my desk or need to explicitly ask to undock my laptop before I do so (which, from what I understand, you need to do with the ThinkPad docking solutions).

Conclusion

As you can probably tell by now I’m pretty happy with my choice of the EliteBook 2540p. It’s built well, performs great, has good battery life, and fits seamlessly into my day-to-day use cases. It’s a bit heavier than the equivalent from Lenovo (X201), looks a bit nicer as well (in my opinion), and has a fantastic docking solution. It should easily last me our typical hardware upgrade cycle.

Pros

  • Built like a tank (essentially no signs of use after 6 months)
  • Blazing fast with the SSD
  • Portable and good battery life
  • Full-size keyboard
  • Looks pretty nice for a business machine
  • Great, seamless docking experience

Cons

  • Keyboard is only good
  • Heavier than the competition (X201)
  • Display is middle of the road in terms of quality (but bright)
  • If you don’t get an SSD and want an optical drive, you’ll be stuck with a slow 1.8″ hard drive

ASUS UL20A 12.1″ CULV Laptop Review

Introduction

Even at a time when I was looking for maximum performance out of every computer I purchased, ultraportables always caught my eye, for one reason or another. Perhaps it was their cuteness, or perhaps it was the jet-setting lifestyle that they were associated with. Whatever the reason, they’ve held a soft spot in my heart, but prices have always been a hard knock for my wallet.

Intel became a victim of their own success in the Atom processor. Although margins on the product are pretty high, they cannibalized sales of more expensive processors, especially during the economic downturn of late. Sure, they’re still making money from Atom, but less revenues equals (=) bad for most companies.

Intel launched the Consumer Ultra-Low-Voltage (CULV) lineup of processors to help combat falling ASPs, starting with single core SU2700 and SU3500 processors. Since then, they’ve broadened the lineup to include dual core Celeron SU2300, Pentium SU4100, Core 2 Duo SU7300, and more. I always thought it would be AMD that forced ultraportables into my price range; it’s ironic that Intel’s own upselling strategy put the ultraportable within my budget.

ASUS launched their CULV notebook products in early September 2009, and a couple months later, the UL20A began shipping in North America. The smallest of the bunch, the 12.1″ UL20A brings decent dual core performance down to something not much bigger than the larger netbooks, which range all the way up to 11.6″. In fact, one of the “netbooks” I’ll compare the UL20A to, the Atom + ION powered HP Mini 311, is less than 0.1lbs lighter and 0.4″ narrower and shorter.

ASUS

Purchased configuration

Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 (1.3GHz)
1x2GB DDR2-800 RAM (1 open slot)
250GB 5400RPM HDD (Hitachi 5K500.B)
12.1″ LED-backlit display (1366×768)
Intel GMA X4500MHD
10/100Mbps Ethernet
0.3MP webcam
Intel WiFi Link 1000 802.11bgn
6-cell battery – 4400mAh (47.5Whr)
Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions:  11.8″ (W) x 8.4″ (L) x 1.0″ (H)
Weight: 3.3lbs (6-cell battery)

Price: $599 CAD

Reason for purchase

My choice of laptop would paint a pretty accurate picture of my interests and hobbies over the last five years. When I entered university, I went for a desktop replacement for power and gaming, an ASUS Z71V. Two years later, I downsized to a Dell XPS M1330, albeit with the discrete NVIDIA graphics, as I realized absolute performance was no longer the most useful asset of a laptop, with portability starting to trump. And now, as I wrap up my university career, I’m moving further down the size and performance food-chain with the ASUS UL20A. Without space limitations, a powerful desktop takes care of all my high-end photographic work.

Despite some drama around the time of the Dell-NVIDIA GPU issues, the M1330 has served me quite well for 2.5 years. That’s about as long as I’ve held onto any one piece of technology. The combination of portability and performance is not lost on me, and it served its purpose quite well. However, 2.5 years is a long time for the lithium-ion batteries, and both the 6 cell and the 9 cell started to wear out. To maintain portability away from power outlets, I needed to look for something new.

With a desktop holding down the performance fort, I went on the lookout for a small laptop, with good battery life. Cheap was also a bonus, as my place of employment would provide me with a laptop for business use. Really, this would be a toss-around for trips and lounging at home. Think netbook, but marginally more powerful.

I wanted something smaller than the M1330, so I juggled the Acer 1410T, 1810T, the ASUS UL20A, and the Dell Inspiron 11z.

  • The Dell was struck from the list, after I found out even with the tumorous 6-cell battery, it only gets slightly over 5 hours of battery life.
  • I’m still a sucker for aesthetics and design, and well, the Acer isn’t exactly a pretty face.
  • The Acers all come with bilingual keyboards in Canada, which I haven’t had much luck adapting to in the past.
  • The 1410T (SU4100) was $50 less than the UL20A, with similar battery life
  • The 1810T (SU7300) was $50 more than the UL20A, with better battery life.

In the end, I compromised with the prettier option, an English keyboard, and decent battery life in the UL20A. The laptop was purchased from NCIX.com for $599.95.

Performance for Photography

I came down to the United States without my desktop, only my Dell XPS M1330, which is going on 2.5 years. Since purchasing it, I’ve done some upgrades to keep it performing at an acceptable level. The original floppy keyboard was replaced with a firmer version, the RAM was upgraded to 4GB and perhaps the key, the Hitachi 120GB hard drive was swapped out for a Patriot Warp 32GB SSD, and then a Kingston 128GB SSD.

I always thought it would be games that would be the thing that forced upgrades down the road. Quite unexpectedly, it turns out that photographic work brought my computer to its knees far before any games did (which I really don’t play anymore).

Intel’s Lynnfield launch gave me the perfect opportunity to get some great performance at a much lower price than the Bloomfield i7’s. For under $500, I put together an i5 750, 2x2GB DDR3, Radeon 4350, GigaByte mATX P55 board, and an Antec NSK1380 case. I repurposed the Kingston 128GB SSD for the desktop build, and stuck the old 120GB hard drive back in the M1330. For $500, I now have a substantially more suitable platform for photo editing. Next up will be to get another 4GB of RAM. Photoshop and Capture NX2 take up a heck of a lot of memory.

To take advantage of all that power, I picked up Scott Kelby’s Photoshop CS3 book for photographers. I’ve dabbled with Photoshop here and there, but never truly learned any formal techniques. Getting great out of camera photos is a wonderful thing, but I have to admit, most of my shots need some form of post-processing help. I’ve already tried a couple things from the book (very effective tips), and I now have one image post processed on the new computer with some new techniques. This photo is from a few weeks ago.

Upon further reflection

First Reviews of the Acer Timeline

I recently wrote about the upcoming Acer Timeline series laptops, eagerly awaiting official reviews to ascertain if the 8 hour battery life claims were actually true. Now that two UK publications, The Register and Trusted Reviews, have released reviews of the 14″ version, it looks like the boasts were…

TRUE.

Granted the 8 hours+ was hit under very light load, it still translates into a sub 7W power consumption, with the 6 cell 56Whr battery. Very impressive. Extrapolating based  on system specifications, the 13.3″ version, which I am more interested in, should do just as well. Even with moderate productivity work and web browsing, 6 hours+ should be doable, all at 3.5lbs. That’s tasty.

NCIX has started listing a few of the Timelines for pre-order. Unfortunately, prices are inflated, in the range of $1000 for the single core versions. Realistically, I think the dual core versions need to be quite a bit below $1000CAD, since for less than $1200CAD, one can get a Lenovo X200 with a 9 cell battery, which gets 6-7 hours of battery life, at around 4lbs.

HP Pavillion dv2 – For a Market That Doesn’t Exist

I had a few things to say about Patrick Moorhead’s comments on the impotency of netbooks last fall, and I thought that would be that. But Mr. Moorhead obviously didn’t agree and served up another classic on his ‘blog’ in an article entitled ‘The Magical AMD Yukon-based HP Pavilion dv2 Ultrathin Notebook‘. Taken in context with his article I spoke about a few months ago, it clearly shows Pat’s care for the consumer, something he tries so hard to portray, is in reality next to nothing, instead pushing his company’s products at every opportunity.

When HP first presented the dv2, I thought, Wow, finally something cheap and useful like the Dell Mini 12, but less ugly. The new AMD Yukon platform even sounded decent, although watching high definition content isn’t anywhere near the top of my list of priorities when it comes to a cheap mobile computer. Unfortunately, after digging deeper, the whole package (at least in HP’s initial implementation) is severely lacking.

Battery Life

Power consumption is a big deal. As my mentality towards computers changed more and more towards being a tool as opposed to a hobby, I’ve placed more emphasis on portability and autonomy. Under light load, web browsing/word processing, I can get almost 4 hours of battery life with the 6 cell in my Dell XPS M1330 (with a discrete NVIDIA GPU). Meanwhile, the dv2 is rumoured to provide over 3 hours of autonomy with the integrated graphics option. Not impressive at all, given the lack of an optical drive, a much lower performance processor, smaller display, and no discrete graphics in this option.

Netbooks may have limited use cases, but with a 6 cell battery, they’ll almost universally allow 5 hours+ of productivity work before requiring a recharge. If the dv2 is intended to be extremely portable, it simply needs better battery life.

Size/Performance

There’s a very legitimate reason why most netbook displays have been in the 8.9″ to 10″ range. Much beyond that and you run into full-sized notebook territory. Furthermore, the HP dv2’s 12″ display is surrounded by an absolutely giant bezel, pushing the overall footprint of the notebook to 11.5″ x 9.5″, which is only 1″ narrower than my XPS M1330. In terms of portability, absolutely nothing is gained by dropping down to less than half the performance of just about any regular dual core 13.3″ laptop. Even weight is only down by 0.5lb, nearly negligible in the overall scheme of things. Plus, you’re losing the optical drive.

Although AMD is showing higher performance for its Neo processor than Atom, that only means it’s only faster than slow. Tech Report did some tests on an Atom, Nano and Pentium M processor a while ago, and results showed the Pentium M 760 to be at least twice as fast as a 1.6GHz Atom overall. Expect the Neo processor in the Yukon platform to be at most as fast as the single core Pentium M.

In the end, dropping down 1″ in width and 0.5lbs for the dv2 nets you a dramatic drop in performance (and an optical bay) from a regular 13.3″ laptop. Perhaps the only thing that could save it at this point is price, which brings me to my next point.

Price

HP announced a $699 entry price point for its dv2, but that’s for the integrated graphics version with only 1GB RAM. Factoring in the exchange rate and you’re looking at the $800-900 range in Canada. In comparison, at the $999 price point, you can get a Dell XPS M1330 with a 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM, a 320GB 5400RPM HDD, and a DVD+/-RW. That thing offers 3 hours+ battery life, a footprint barely larger than the dv2, an optical drive and performance that is way out of the dv2’s league. It’s a no-brainer which option I’d go with. Even HP’s own dv3 comes in at only $799US, but gives a dual core 2.0GHz AMD CPU, 2GB RAM, and an optical drive. Again, barely larger or heavier than the dv2. Pricing simply doesn’t make any sense when portability is no longer a major advantage with the dv2.

There absolutely is a place for a higher performing, small, cheap, and portable laptop that AMD is targeting. However, with the HP dv2, it has missed the mark. It’s too large. It doesn’t perform well enough for the price, and battery life is at best normal for a full-sized laptop. I think there’s a higher probability that Atom will scale up to this market than an AMD K8 derivative can scale down to it.

Dell XPS M1330 – A Year In

Product reviews are always a double edged sword. They are mostly written after a short amount of time (relative to the useful life) with the product, in order to inform interested early adopters. On the other hand, the short time also means there are things that can’t be thoroughly tested, like reliability. After over a year with the Dell XPS M1330, loving the laptop, blundering through a GPU failure, and having people tell me that my review should be updated with the developments of the NVIDIA GPU defect, it’s time to provide the entire ownership experience.

The M1330 was one of the most talked about Dell laptops pre-launch and even today, it remains quite popular. However, many discussions of the M1330 of late labour over the NVIDIA GPU die-packaging defect and its effect on the M1330. While Dell and NVIDIA are adamant that the defect is contained and relatively rare, my experience has indicated otherwise. Two friends own M1330’s with the 8400M GS and two friends own M1530’s with the 8600M GT. Over the past year, those two M1330’s, along with mine, have all had their mainboards replaced due to dead GPUs. The two M1530’s haven’t run into any problems thus far. I certainly don’t mean to imply that there is a 100% defect rate for 8400M GS equipped M1330’s. It simply points to some bad luck and coincidence, but also indicates a wider-ranging problem than Dell is letting on with the laptop. Statistics demands it.

When Dell first acknowledged the GPU defect via the Direct2Dell blog, it was towards the end of my summer university semester. Hoping to avoid any problems associated with the GPU, I preemptively called Dell support to see if I could purchase a warranty extension. After my explanation of the NVIDIA defect, and hoping I could get a cheap extension as a result, perhaps around $100 for a year, I was quoted $300 for a single year or a ‘promotional’ price of slightly over $550 for two years of standard coverage. Unable to control my laughter, I asked how much an out-of-warranty repair was: $250. I decided to take my chances.

My next step was to attempt a replacement of the possibly defective GPU with a defect-free one. Citing standard warranty procedures, technical support informed me that the GPU would only be replaced if it could be diagnosed as defective within the warranty period. No amount of explanation (or Direct2Dell references) was able to change their mind.

Now, fast forward to the middle of final exams, and literally two days after my warranty had expired. Poof. My M1330 boots to a screen filled with colorful vertical lines. Dell technical support forwarded me onto out of warranty repairs, despite pleas to make an exception, both due to the defect as well as being so close to the warranty window. But seeing as I was up the creek without a paddle, I decided to tough it out. I was in the middle of exams and I wouldn’t have the repair completed before they ended in any case. In the meantime, I found myself in a seriously awkward position. Being a computer engineering student, well, my computer was a priceless tool for my studies. I was fortunate enough that a friend had a laptop he could loan me, allowing me to continue studying. Clearly frustrated with Dell, I posted a stinging but professional comment at Direct2Dell, stating my displeasure.

As a result of the comment, I was contacted by a community liaison, who informed me that he would set me up with someone who could help me with my issue, despite being out of warranty. I was pleased by the turn of events and thanked him profusely.

That is, until a week passed and I had heard nothing back from anyone at Dell.

Shortly afterward, Direct2Dell posted some information about a 1 year warranty extension for systems affected by the NVIDIA defect. I was absolutely relieved that I hadn’t purchased the exorbitantly priced warranty extension and would soon have my laptop repaired through normal channels.

With warranty extension information in hand, I called technical support, and despite pointing out the Direct2Dell post, I was again denied warranty service. Technical support knew nothing about the warranty extension and would not repair the laptop under warranty. Some more emails to the community liaison turned up the fact that he’d been on vacation and hadn’t realized that nobody had contacted me yet. He assured me he’d ‘track down’ who was responsible. Then more silence.

I was seriously stuck between a rock and a hard place. It was nearly three weeks without a working laptop and I still had no indication that anyone was even willing to help, despite two potential solutions. It was at this point that I did something I promised myself I wouldn’t.

Since purchasing my M1330, I had been in contact with a product manager at Dell, who took interest in some things I’d written about the laptop. We built up a friendly relationship over the past year, which I valued. It was based on mutual respect and I didn’t want to jeopardize it by using him as a backdoor resource. Yet, given the situation, I saw little alternative. I contacted him in his official capacity as a Dell employee, voicing my displeasure.

Not expecting any less from a person of his character, I received a timely response. He had personally contacted some resources to see what was happening. Not long afterward, both the community liaison and an executive support representative contacted me regarding repairs.

There was still one more obstacle. Even several weeks after the acknowledgment of the GPU defect, it still wasn’t clear if the defective NVIDIA chips had worked their way out of Dell’s supply chain. Questions to that effect to Lionel Menchaca of Direct2Dell fame were either curiously sidestepped or simply brushed aside, with an explanation that the warranty extension would cover any issues with the GPU. The non-denial certainly sounded like the replacements would still be with possibly defective parts.

I attempted to ascertain from the support representative whether the replacement parts were defect free. All I got in response was some nonsensical explanation that GPU errata were common and that this one had been fixed. As a note, an erratum is a logic error within a computational device, something that is indeed fairly common, but causes only computational errors (which can lead to system instability and corruption). The weak die and substrate packaging material was a hardware defect that could cause physical, hardware failure, not an erratum. I was disappointed that even an executive support representative was either misinformed or thought they could slip one by the customer. Not having much choice regardless (I couldn’t even downgrade to the integrated Intel video if I wanted to), I went ahead with the repair.

Really the only bright spot of the experience was the surprisingly quick turnaround time for the return to depot repair service, which took less than a week, round trip, with both to and from shipping paid for by Dell. I’m now using the still functioning system to write this update. It’s held up okay so far and I’m crossing my fingers for the next year or so that I’ll use this laptop.

When everything is said and done, the main point here is that Dell is treating the situation as if everything were business as usual. Unfortunately with the defect, that’s simply not the case. I’d like to hear a confirmation that parts being used in new systems are defect-free. Otherwise, even with the warranty extension, the 8400M GS could still be a ticking time bomb in the M1330. I also would have liked to avoid the 4+ weeks without a laptop. I asked for a reasonably priced warranty extension due to the defect and was rejected. I asked for an in-warranty replacement of the stated defective GPU and was denied on the basis that it hadn’t yet showed symptoms. This would be acceptable under normal circumstances, but not when there’s an acknowledged manufacturing defect. Those 4 weeks without a working M1330 worked out to 8% of the ownership time of the laptop at that point. If a new car had to spend 8% of its first year with a mechanic, I’d be livid.

I’d like to see better communication between the different branches of Dell. While communications can be difficult in a large company, the disconnect between Direct2Dell, which is supposed to be an official voice of Dell, and technical support was simply unacceptable.

Finally, it’s time for Dell to stop hiding behind the problem. While there were numerous frantic bouts of finger pointing in NVIDIA’s general direction, the customer purchased the finished product from Dell. Dell needs to be responsible for the ups and downs of the product life cycle. I don’t go knocking on Synaptic’s door if the touch wheel on my iPod dies. I go to an Apple store. It’s the same thing here. One of the advantages of ordering a pre-built computer is that there’s a central point of contact for any problems. I expect that support system to be there when issues occur. Of course, it’s important to note that Dell isn’t the only manufacturer affected. HP and Apple have both acknowledged the issue as well.

The Dell XPS M1330 is a great laptop, unfortunately affected by the NVIDIA GPU defect. While I’d like to believe that the defective GPUs have worked their way out of inventory, there’s been no official confirmation either way. With the warranty extension well established at this point, you can be pretty certain that any issues will be resolved; however it doesn’t eliminate the fact that you could still run into hardware issues in the first place.

Acer Aspire One Netbook Review (XP)

Note: I originally took a bunch of unboxing and detailed photographs of the Acer Aspire One, but lost them all due to some carelessness on my part with SD card formatting. To be honest, I was too frustrated with myself to retake them all, but there are tons of photos all around the web if you want to see the Aspire One. I’ve included some press photos simply to break up the mass of words that is this review.

The Aspire One

The Acer Aspire One is an 8.9” netbook, competing with the likes of the ASUS Eee 900/1000 and the MSI Wind. It is designed as a very portable computer priced at a point that it can be purchased as a travel companion when even regular sized notebooks may be too large or bulky. It may also be used as a companion to a desktop in educational settings, with the Aspire One taking its place in the lecture hall.

Acer Aspire One

The reviewed Aspire One was purchased with the following specifications.

Intel Atom 1.6GHz
1GB RAM
120GB WD 5400RPM
8.9″ WSVGA (1024×600)
0.3mp webcam
5-in-1 card reader
Storage expansion SD card reader (flush)
3 USB ports
3 cell battery (23Whr)

A Temporary Fix – Decisions

With my Dell XPS M1330 out of commission and a lot of commuting by train on the docket for early September, I needed a small but usable computer that wouldn’t add too much weight and fit on the small fold out trays.

Since I didn’t want to buy another full sized laptop that would render the eventually-to-be-fixed M1330 useless, I went looking for a cheap temporary machine that would still have a use after I had the M1330 repaired. The logical choice was a netbook, something that expanded the possibilities for computing on the go.

With a netbook in mind, I narrowed my choices down to the MSI Wind, ASUS Eee 901/1000 and the Acer Aspire One. Immediately the Aspire One jumped to the top of my list, solely due to price. After a repair, my M1330 would be completely usable, so I wanted to spend as little as possible. However other factors also came into play. The Eee 901 and 1000 offered significantly better battery life than the Aspire One, but were terribly expensive, to the tune of around 1.5X the price. The MSI Wind was more attractive, with a (in my opinion) better design, better keyboard and a slightly lower price than the Eee 901/1000, albeit only as the 3-cell battery version, making battery life no better (if not worse) than the Aspire One.

However, with power plugs available at every seat on the train and models readily available at both Future Shop and BestBuy locally, I decided I could sacrifice the poorer battery life for the additional savings. Furthermore, I had a chance to briefly try out the Aspire One before purchase. At the time, the only thing that made me hesitate was the bilingual keyboard. An HP Mini-Note was also on display at BestBuy, and side by side, the Acer’s keyboard was no match for the Mini-Note. MSI also seems to be shipping a bilingual keyboard on their Winds in Canada, so it would seem like with a slightly weaker channel program in Canada, Acer and MSI are both trying to keep a cap on their netbook SKUs for our bilingual country.

Acer Aspire One
I wish the keyboard were like this and not bilingual…

Netbooks at… Big Box Stores?

The purchase was made for $379 from BestBuy. I might have been able to get a better price elsewhere, but would have had to wait for shipping. For example DirectCanada has the 6 cell version for $429. On the other hand the price also wasn’t bad; Canada Computers has the same model I purchased for $420. Pricing is hovering around the $400 MSRP currently.

In terms of pricing, the $399 price of the Aspire One is very reasonable, especially compared to the $500-$600 pricing of the MSI Wind and the ASUS Eee 901/1000. Furthermore, with the 6-cell version of the Aspire One at $429, it makes the Wind Eee look absolutely expensive in comparison.

In terms of absolute cost, we’re still nowhere near the announced $199 price that got ASUS so much, in retrospect undeserved, attention when it first spoke about an ‘Eee PC’. However, the current pricing, especially by Acer will drive competition and hopefully get MSI and ASUS’ pricing more in line with reality.