Archive for the ‘hardware’ Category

Product review: Acer One netbook

June 5, 2009 Comments off

This refurbished Acer One netbook from Tiger Direct arrived just before I was hospitalized a month ago, so I haven’t had much chance to look at it until yesterday.  For the $230 I paid, it’s a darned impressive little computer.

It’s so light – two pounds with the 3-cell battery – that it just about disappears in my backpack.  The keyboard is dinky but not difficult to type on.  I’d hate to write a novel on it, but it’s fine for blogging, note-taking, and email.  Battery life seems to be about two hours, which is fine for meetings and casual use. But you’d want the 6-cell battery for extended use without the (very small) power adapter. 

The screen is bright and clear.  At 1024 x 600, there’s not a lot of room for superfluous junk. This is significant because it seems to ship with every toolbar known to man already enabled, leaving you about eight pixels for content.  As Edward Tufte said, “The scarcest computing resource is not CPU cycles or hard drive space, but screen real estate.”  So you’ll be turning off toolbars and hiding the Start bar and stuff like that.  And remember, the F11 key is your friend.

It came with Windows XP home, but with a 106gb hard drive, you just know I’ll be dual-booting it with possibly Ubuntu Netbook Remix or Moblin, which is optimized to work with the Intel Atom processor. 

It also has a gig of ram, an SD card reader and a multi-card reader.  The wireless works fine and it seems to handle going to sleep and waking up easily.  There’s a little switch in front for turning off the wireless, so you don’t waste power connecting when it isn’t needed.  It has an external VGA output for presentations, an RJ-45 Ethernet connection, headphone and mic jacks, and three, count ‘em three USB ports, all on the right and left sides. 

It took me a while to get the trial version of Microsoft Office uninstalled – who needs it? – and all my favorite apps installed.  These include: Firefox, Google Chrome, FileZilla, Notepad++, Open Office, Foxit Reader, McAfee Antivirus, JKDefrag, the Cisco VPN, our university drive mapping utilities, XnView and Picasa. It runs all of them OK, not blazing fast or anything but not objectionably slow either.

Some irritations: it’s too easy to accidentally brush the trackpad and misplace your cursor; I sure would like an option to auto-disable it when an external mouse is plugged in. The fan runs all the time, though there may be a bios setting for that.  You might want to get a shorter cord for the tiny power adapter. Is it a substitute for a Thinkpad X-301?  Well no, but at something like one-eighth the price, I can live with that.

Categories: Geeky, hardware

Man, that was weird

August 25, 2008 5 comments

I just tried to log into a secured system, and my keyboard suddenly took an unscheduled vacation.  Only an occasional keystroke would ‘take’ and then it would produce the wrong character.  I restarted several times, with different keyboards, and couldn’t even enter my system login, or even get into BIOS setup on POST.  Then, it started working again.

Takeaway lesson: I have way too many keyboards lying around.  I still don’t know what the hell happened with the keyboard.

On an unrelated note (several thousand notes, actually) the awesome big-band jazz number that accompanies the extended credits sequence on the DVD Incredibles makes great cardio workout music.  Or, music to get speeding tickets by, if you prefer.

Categories: Geeky, hardware

A Macintosh keyboard for my PC

May 23, 2008 4 comments

No secret my hands have been giving me trouble.  I needed a keyboard with a lighter touch and a lower profile and thought I’d try this one from Apple.

It was fifty bucks but I like it a lot. It plugs into the USb port, has an aluminum frame with large flat plastic keys, has a super-light touch, and the top surface of the ‘G’ key is only about 7mm above the table.  That’s really flat.  The Apple ‘Command’ key automatically becomes a ‘Window’ key when connected to a PC.  Seems to work OK in Linux also.  Have not tried customizing any of its functions though.

But it has a phantom NumLock key!  No big deal but did take me a few minutes to figure out.

Update:  I’ve been typing on it a couple days and although it has a light touch, my fingers are still bothering me.  Trouble is my hands are super-sensitive but I can’t seem to stop typing the way I learned back in high school.  On a huge Smith-Corona manual typewriter with 15mm key travel that you had to strike pretty hard if you wanted an impression on the paper.  Next step (and I have been trying to do this for a while) is to somehow re-train my typing to take advantage of the lighter touch.  Gotta stop pounding the keyboard, but how?

Categories: Geeky, hardware

Wood-based computation technology

May 10, 2008 3 comments

I wonder how large an Intel dual-core processor would be if you used this technology?  (Considerable expansion of the concept would be required)  If you ran Vista on it, how long would it take to redraw the screen?

(Hat tip to Greg Laden, a frequent finder of Very Cool Stuff.  And if you want to build your own marble computer, here’s more.  And there’s much more at WoodGears.  Sometimes it just astounds me how clever some people are.)

Categories: Geeky, hardware

Why I like SanDisk MP3 players

April 11, 2008 4 comments

I don’t pirate music or other licensed content, but when I pay for something, I damn well expect it to stay paid for.  The thought of having to figure out a license scheme for music that I’ve bought and make sure it doesn’t get corrupted in the transfer from one device to another is… foreign to me.  At least.  So when I rip music from a CD, it goes to plain-vanilla mp3 format.  I am so not interested in any format that watches whether I fasten my ethical seat belt.

So as wondrous as iPod players are, their main format strikes me as a major annoyance waiting to happen.  Yes, I know they can handle plain mp3 files but there’s another problem: I don’t install software unless I’m forced to.  New digital camera?  The CD that came with it languishes in the box; it will never know the warm embrace of my computer’s drive.  This is because in my experience the software that comes with digital gadgets is usually awful, because it always tries to do your file management for you.  This is great (I suppose) until it fails and your files are a mess.  I have my own software and I’ll manage my own files, thank you very much.

OK, I realize most consumers are more trusting than that.

Anyway, here’s how it works for me: say I download a bunch of MP3 files from the Skeptic’s Guide Archive to listen to at the gym.  Then I plug in my SanDisk Sansa C250 (catch one for about $45 on sale) to my cheap Linux computer and a device window full of folders automatically pops up.  I double-click on the one marked “music” and now can see my .mp3 files.  Then I copy the files I just downloaded and paste them into that “music” folder.  Add 15 minutes charging on the USB port and I’m ready!  No special software needed.


  • Yes, I know iPods can play plain mp3 files.  My cheap Sansa is also an FM radio and a voice recorder.  And it has a little screen to help me pick the mp3 I want to play.  The comparably priced “Shuffle” doesn’t do any of that.

  • Skeptic’s Guide podcasts are free.  Enjoy!
  • Sansa auto-recognizes perfectly well in Windows XP also.
Categories: Geeky, hardware

Quick review of MacBook Air

March 16, 2008 1 comment

My son got his hands on a macBook Air and sends this brief review:

I’m using a friend’s MacBook Air.  This thing f*ing rocks!  The keyboard is great, the screen is crisp and bright.  I can lie on my back and hold it over my head, while still using it.  Of course, this is the one with the $1000 add-on of the 64GB HD.  A bit out of my price range, but Apple really did a great job on this thing.  It comes with a “manilla envelope” facsimile made out of vinyl-coated fabric. It fits inside quite nicely.  A little too cute…

Just in case you’re wondering what 2-lb laptop would be good for, it has lots of uses!  Seriously, I’ll make a prediction that five years from now nobody will buy a laptop that weighs more than three pounds and most will weigh half that.

Categories: Geeky, hardware

In which I do my damndest to win a free laptop contest

December 16, 2007 6 comments

Don at Life Cycle Analysis is gunning to win a very nifty laptop.  The ThinkingBlog has a Big Giveaway Contest running through the 20th and the winning blogger gets a free Ruffbook ‘Tech’ laptop computer.  It’s an exceptionally tough laptop, with a water-resistant keyboard, magnesium frame, power-saving system, and everything you want if your laptop goes where you go.

He says: “If you are a “thinking” blogger, then you might be able to win a new Ruffbook Tech in the Big Giveaway running through December 20th. All that you have to do is write about this computer in your blog. Hurry up, though. I got here ahead of you, and I do play rough!”

OK Don, the really important question about any hardened laptop is; “How well does it keep up with the star of a cheesy disaster movie?”  The hero needs to be able to prevail in part by his courage and rugged good looks, and in part by his rugged, good-looking laptop.  That’s a shameless contest-entry post.  :coolsmirk:

“Keep the pictures coming!  This stuff is pure gold!”

Jeff Wells knew what was coming; he really shouldn’t have stopped to take pictures.  But his journalist’s lizard-brain had fed the words “Top Story” to his frontal cortex, and he ran out onto the pier.  From there he snapped images of idiots standing where only minutes before had been eight feet of water.  Some people on shore were trying to warn them; he got pictures of them as well.

But as he snapped an image of the horizon he knew it was time to run.  Stuffing the camera into his backpack he turned away from the wave.  It occurred to him that the main difference between him and the sightseers was that if he survived, he would receive a journalism award…

He could not outrun a tsunami, but if he could get to the second or third story of a strong building he might stand a chance of living to see his byline picked up by every newspaper in the world.  As he sprinted off the pier toward an apartment building, he could hear screams.  The sightseers were realizing their mistake; he was too intent on surviving his. 

The building was locked by a security card system.  Two blocks away the wall of water and debris crashed down the street toward him.  He surprised himself by shinnying up a power pole to the second story, only to see another problem: the water was pushing a pickup truck toward the pole.

Just before the impact he jumped, landing on a balcony with his feet in the water.  The pole splintered and cracked as he hauled himself over the railing.  Water swirled around his feet again and the balcony began to sway and make cracking noises.  He swung his backpack against the patio door; it shattered and he fell in.  For an instant he thought about his camera and laptop, but he threw the pack over his shoulders again. 

He could hear the apartment building groaning and cracking under him as water and debris forced its way into all the rooms below.  The flood stopped rising at his knees; it was strange to look out through the balcony door and see churning water all the way through the apartment and across the street.  The balcony itself was gone.

He remembered everything he had ever read about tidal waves.  Perhaps a chunk of the Greenland ice cap had slide into the North Atlantic, or an underwater avalanche had slid off the US continental shelf.  There was, he recalled, even an island off the coast of Africa with a large volcanic shelf that could have fractured.  If that were the cause, the entire East coast would lay in ruins.  In any case, the little seaside resort would not see help while nearby Manhattan island had certainly also been hit.

He also remembered that tidal waves are seldom solo.  From the rooftop he watched as three more waves caught those who remained on the street.  Each time the building swayed, but remained standing. 

The rooftop was full of refugees, all crowding around the edge.  He unzipped his backpack to see what equipment had survived.  His Nikon D70 camera looked all right but the lens was jammed.  Amazingly, his Ruffbook Tech computer still worked.  It was an extra-tough laptop; water resistant, magnesium frame, hardened keyboard, shock mounts, the works -  but no one could have expected it to survive a day like this one. 

He had a couple energy bars and a small first-aid kit, which he gave to a medical person who was tending refugees with injuries worse than his few bumps and cuts.  There was nothing for him to do but get to work.

With some sense of amazement he sat down on a box, set his RuffBook on a ventilation duct, unfolded his solar laptop charger, and connected his cellular internet card.  It worked. In spite of the bright sunlight, the Ruffbook’s screen was clearly readable.  In a moment he sent an instant message to his Chicago editor Bill Levy:  “Survived tsunami, pictures to follow.”

Though his Nikon was ruined the memory chip was fine; he inserted it into the laptop’s card reader and uploaded all the pictures.  He began to interview people, attaching pictures from his Ruffbook’s built-in high resolution webcam.  A momentary office party erupted as Levy and the entire bureau newsroom saw the images on screen.  Staff members began to forward the pictures and brief messages to each person’s relatives.  “It’s journalism with heart,” said Levy, holding his hand over his heart in mock respect before breaking out in a grin.

Journalism is a goulish profession, thought Wells, but maybe not without its virtues.  He had a working laptop, a net connection, and as long as the sun shone a full day of journalist celebrity lay ahead of him.  He interviewed nearly everyone on the rooftop – sent pictures and messages for them, too – and imagined dozens of relatives and friends weeping with relief to receive them.  More importantly – to him – around the world his pictures were ending up on news websites and old-style print media.  Not such a bad day’s work, after all.

Categories: Geeky, hardware

OK, this is the phone for me

June 29, 2007 1 comment

I like durable stuff, and I want one of these Casio ruggedized phones.  Thing is, I hardly ever use my cell phone anymore.  But it’s so damn cool!

Categories: Geeky, hardware

Her “new” $170 computer

June 24, 2007 11 comments

Operation “swap-out MrsDoF’s computer” went very well yesterday as I decomissioned her 4-year-old generibox running Windows 2000 Professional and put in an IBM ThinkCentre mini tower running Windows XP professional.

Her computer desperately needed rebuilt which presented me with a couple options:  scrounge up an XP license, or install Ubuntu.  Having used the Uuu on my laptop for a while now (and less than enamored of it) I was pretty sure I didn’t want to have her navigating that learning curve.  And the time required for a reasonably secure XP rebuild meant she’d be computerless for several days at least – no thanks.

eBay to the rescue!  For $145 and $25 shipping, I got an off-lease IBM ThinkCentre P4 2.4ghz with 512 ram… including an XP license.  So I could take my sweet time and make a sweet build with all her favorite, familiar software.  I may pop some more ram into it later, though she says it is very fast and smooth already.

Her software includes OpenOffice, Firefox, Filezilla, Notepad++, and XnView, plus McAfee antivirus. I do lots of little tweaks and customizations to the OS and apps.

The ThinkCentre is a very well-built computer – it runs Windows with a solidity that you only get from a motherboard that is engineered several notches above average. It has so many USB-2 ports one would never need to purchase a hub. The power supply is excellent and the case is as solid as they come.  The case can be opened and serviced without tools and has a carry handle on the top front.  The front panel is securely mounted but there’s a latch to release it for vacuuming.  But I do have a few criticisms.

The plastic front of the computer slants backward a little.  I suppose this is intended to be stylish but it necessitates the CD/floppy drive cage is mounted in the case at a nonlevel angle.  This means you can’t install an extra hard drive in that cage – hard drive spindles need to be horizontal or vertical.  The hard drive is mounted vertically in the metal front of the case, which is fine, but there’s nowhere to mount a second hard drive, so we have a mini tower that can only hold one hard drive.  That’s just dumb.

Most of the USB ports are on the rear, but there are 2 on the front of the case.  OK, fine, except they’re recessed three quarters of an inch into a the channel at lower-right Still accessible, not as bad as the insane, downward-pointing USB ports on some Dell computers, but what’s so damn hard about making the USB ports flush with the front of the case?  Compaq, Dell, and IBM all try to hide them, which is just dumb.

The power button is flush with the front panel – sort of hard to find by touch alone, and when you push it in, you are in contact with very small-radius plastic corners.  I made this same criticism of an Apple notebook – what’s so damn hard about smoothing parts that come into contact with human fingers?  Style over ergonomics, which is dumb.

The keyboard and mouse were excellent but MrsDoF uses a Microsoft Natural Keyboard which worked fine with this box.  I will probably install some Linux distro on her old computer, stuff a giant hard drive into it, and put it downstairs as a backup server. 

All in all, the ThinkCentre is a very good computer for < $200.

Categories: Geeky, hardware

Idiocy in electronics packaging

June 5, 2007 3 comments

You know how electronics’ stuff always comes with thin plastic film over its shiny parts?  This is to make sure they stay shiny until the consumer takes them home, where they can begin to look scratched-up and shabby.  By then, the item is sold so it does not matter.

Here we see a brand-new Gateway laptop with some of that plastic film on it.  The manufacturer has thoughtfully provided a hole in the film for the ventilator opening of the Core-Duo machine, so it won’t overheat on display.  But the hole is too small – covering 40% of the vent area.  Guess what?  The laptop overheated.  This is a non-trivial problem.

I have seen the plastic film still on 5-year-old consumer items, never removed by the consumer.  It is a simple fact of technology life that consumers do not usually buy a computer for the computer, but for the content they want to move into and out of the computer.  It may be hard for the designers and the company to understand but it is true.  They’re just not that focused on the hardware itself, or on the operating system that is so endlessly fascinating to geeks like us.

I mention this because I recently unpacked a brand-new Apple iMac from the box.  The packaging was so perfect, and so well thought out, that it just boggled the mind.  It was impressively designed to get the product smoothly from the box to the desktop ready to work – no detail was overlooked.  One might think it is a heedless waste to pay that much attention to packaging, until you think about idiot packaging design mistakes like this.  The devil really is in the details.

Categories: Geeky, hardware