Posts tagged with “fun”

Tale of Two Laptops

Last night, I traded my iPad Pro for a Huawei MateBook X Pro (2018) (hereafter "matebook") and now I'm going to spend some time comparing this laptop to my current laptop, a Panasonic Let's Note CF-SV8 (hereafter "SV8"). Both machines are very similar in some ways and incredibly different in others, so I thought I might take the opportunity to write a little bit about this. This is not a review of either machine and is probably a bit premature as I've had the SV8 for a few months and the matebook only a few hours.

Lets start with the objective boring stuff, the specs.

CPUi5-8365U 4c/8t 1.6GHz Base, 4.1GHz boost, 6MB L3, 15wi7-8550U 4c/8t 1.8GHz Base, 4.0GHz boost, 8MB L3, 15w
RAM8GB LPDDR3-2133 (soldered)16GB LPDDR3-2133 (soldered)
GPUIntel UHDIntel UHD 620 & Nvidia GeForce MX150
SSD256GB m.2 NVMe 2280512GB m.2 NVMe 2280
Other StorageDVD-RW & SD XC slot-
Ports3x USB3.0, USB-C Thunderbolt 3, HDMI, VGA, 1GbE Ethernet, Headset, 16v power1x USB3.0, USB-C Thunderbolt 3, USB-C 3.0 (data & power), Headset
NetworkingIntel I219-LM Ethernet, Intel Canon Point-LP CNVi Wireless-ACIntel Wireless-AC 8275
Screen1920x1200, 12.1"3000x2000, 13.9", capacitive multitouch
Dimensions283x204x25mm (11.1x8x1in)304x217x15mm (12x8.5x0.6in)
Weight1Kg (2.2lbs)1.3Kg (2.9lbs)
Battery43Wh (5900mAh 7.2v) removeable56Wh (7410mAh 7.6v) fixed
OtherIndicator LEDs, Windows Hello camera support, full magnesium chassisBacklit keyboard, fingerprint reader
Retail Price (Approx.)$2,200$1,700

So, what does this tell us? Well, these are both "thin and light" medium/high class machines from 2018, though their target audiences are very different. The SV8 isn't even sold in the US, and is targeted squarely at Japanese businessmen wanting a high end and very practical Windows laptop with good connectivity and great battery life. The matebook, on the otherhand, is sold worldwide and is targeted at people who want a Mac but want to run Windows on it for slightly less than Apple prices. It's a high end machine, but not really suitable for "traditional business use" and it suffers from the port-deletes found on most similar thin and light laptops today.

Aside from the differences in CPU and RAM (which, I think it's worth mentioning - the SV8 is available in an i7/16 config, and the matebook is available in an i5/8 config) the largest difference between the two from a hardware perspective is that the SV8 has an integral full-size optical drive, which, for a 12" laptop in 2018, is nothing short of incredible. It's not something I need or use, and in fact I have it disabled in the BIOS, but I can understand how some see the appeal. Optical drive delete models exist and are approx. 100g lighter, but they don't seem to be very common. Additionally, the matebook includes a dedicated Nvidia MX150 GPU. This is a GPU suitable for "light gaming" (eSports Titles and the like) and something I would just as soon not have. It's not possible to disable entirely in the BIOS, but it's trivial to do so in both Windows and Linux. Doing so, of course, increases battery life. Personally, I find the inclusion of a dGPU for occasional 3D tasks to be more beneficial than an optical drive. I can plug in a USB optical drive, but eGPUs are decidedly more of a pain.

I don't use a laptop as my primary machine, so lots of RAM and a powerful CPU are much less relevant to me. The SV8 has performed every task I have cared to throw at it handily, and while I haven't done as much on the matebook, I expect it to perform just as well. I have benchmarked both machines, both with Geekbench 5.3.1 and an xz compression test if the reader is interested in raw numbers.

Both machines have beautiful screens. The matebook's panel is glossy, however, because it's also a touch screen, which is not something I care for. I don't mind glossy panels, but I know that some hate them. I rarely, if ever, use a computer outdoors, and I try and avoid situations with bright overhead lighting when I can. 3000x2000 at 13.9" on the matebook is far too high a DPI for me to use at 100%, but 200% is too large. 150% feels just right in windows, but fractional scaling suffers considerably under linux, and may even be impossible when using the Nvidia GPU. I would prefer to run my display at 100% under all circumstances, but on the matebook it's just not possible for me without reading glasses. The SV8's panel, by comparison, is 1920x1200 at 12.1", and I find it very usable at 100%. There are times when my eyes are a bit more "tired" and focusing on the smaller characters is a bit of a struggle, but this can quickly be resolved by blowing up my web browser or terminal to 125-150%. Both panels are better than a typical 1920x1080 display due to the added vertical height. The matebook is 3:2 and the SV8 is 3.2:2. Both are wonderful, but the added height on the matebook wins for me.

On the question of input devices, it's no question that the matebook wins for me. The keyboard is wider with larger keys, and it has a more standard American layout that I am used to elsewhere. The keys have good travel and feel, and nothing wobbles or bends when typing. It's not the SV8's fault for having a JIS keyboard, as it is a machine primarily sold in Japan, rather it's my fault for using a JIS keyboard in an American layout. The SV8's keyboard has many keys that are specific to inputting Japanese text, which are unused by me, and I would prefer they not be there at all to make the other keys larger. There is a configuration of the SV8 that is sold in Singapore which has an American style keyboard, but I have not been able to find one of these yet. I also suspect if I had smaller hands I would like the SV8's keyboard more. The SV8 keyboard does win out in a few ways, though: it has a contextual menu key, which I use daily, it has dedicated Insert/Delete keys (the matebook only has delete), and the arrow keys are in the "normal" inverted-T configuration, rather than the mushed macbook-style that the matebook adopted. The feel of the SV8 keyboard is "fine", on the mushier side but not bad. It also feels very rigidly affixed to the case. The matebook's is also backlit, which I appreciate; the SV8's is not.

I almost always use a bluetooth mouse when using a laptop on a table, but I'll use the trackpad plenty around the house or when traveling. The matebook has a gigantic glass covered trackpad, much in Apple's style, and it feels great and is very responsive. The SV8's trackpad is also very responsive, and it's unique circular shape is interesting, but it is very small, which can be frustrating at times. The dedicated buttons of the SV8 are nice, but missing them on the matebook isn't a dealbreaker. Something I wish both had was the ability to turn off the trackpad from a function key. If I'm using a mouse, I often don't want any input from the trackpad.

The matebook's thinness causes it to loose the I/O battle without question. A single USB3-A, two USB-C (one of which is TB3) and a headset jack. That's it. Not even an SD card slot. The SV8 on the other hand comes in with a full compliment - three USB3-As, a USB-C for TB3, HDMI and VGA, ethernet, and a dedicated barrel jack for power. The SV8 also has a full compliment of indicator LEDs: power status, lock keys, and activity of HDD and SD while the matebook only has a charging LED on the side. USB-C charging is an option for both machines - the matebook requires it with no alternative, and the SV8 supports it as long as the machine is either running or in standby. For some reason it won't charge from USB-C if it's powered off - I haven't figured out why. Both support Windows Hello if you're into that sort of thing - the SV8 has the IR camera while the matebook has a fingerprint reader on the power button. I don't use either. The webcams on both are good, though the SV8's is clearly better, full 1080p. The matebook's is 720, and it pops up out of the keyboard between the F6 and F7 keys, which is a very peculiar feature. It does enable the screen area on the matebook to completely fill the lid, which is very attractive. The matebook has fairly full-sounding speakers which can be incredibly loud, which is something I find frustrating. In Windows I find the 10-15 volume level to be appropriate. The SV8's speakers are "fine" but definitely not something I would want to use for listening to music, contrary to the matebook. I haven't used the microphones on either, but I imagine they're both pretty bad, but acceptable in a pinch.

I don't know how Huawei's batteries track over time, but I don't have a tremendous amount of confidence in it's long term capacity. The SV8, on the other hand, I expect to retain near-original capacity for years, as has been reported by other Let's Note owners. Panasonic is just really good at batteries, go figure. I have never needed to go more than about 5 hours on a charge, and both machines will do so easily. The 43 watt hour battery in the SV8 is reported to last up to 13 hours under light duty loads, and I can believe that. The matebook is advertised as lasting 12 hours, which I do not believe. Reviewers have placed it at the seven to nine hour mark, which as I have stated is plenty enough for me. I don't know if I will be able to get a replacement for either, should I ever need one.

So, aesthetics. The matebook is boring. Lots of people will probably find it to be very sexy and attractive, but it's just a 13" MacBook Pro clone. It does a good job being a MacBook clone in that it feels very solid and the fit and finish is excellent. Pretty, but boring. The SV8 on the other hand is a cute little pragmatic powerhouse that many people find to be tremendously ugly. It's true that the aesthetics of Let's Note laptops haven't changed significantly in 20 years, but Panasonic is clearly taking a "if it ain't broke don't fix it" approach to their laptop design, and I am thoroughly okay with that. The chassis is composed entirely of magnesium, so it's very strong and light. The lid has an interesting wavy design in the top that is designed to distribute weight that might otherwise crack the display. When you pick up the SV8 you are immediately surprised at how light it is, and you suspect it's made of thin plastic like a netbook, but it's not! The SV8 also has a top mounted hinge, which I greatly prefer to the matebook's macbook-style wrap-around hinge. The matebook is "sleeker" though - thinner with no protrusions. The SV8 is much thicker, and the way the battery and feet stick out from the bottom causes them to often get caught on something when taking it in or out of a bag. Additionally, the strange footprint and thickness of the SV8 makes finding a suitable small sleeve or case a challenge, whereas the matebook is much more of a generic 13" laptop.

Conclusion? I don't have one yet. They're both good laptops, and for the foreseeable future I'll continue to use both in varying roles. I look forward to traveling with both when Global Pandemic is over as I would like to have more time with each on the road. I can see the SV8 being more of a desk queen, living beside my desktop in a very dignified role. The matebook, on the other hand, is a beater - if it falls off a table or my daughter spills chocolate milk on it, well, that's why I have an accidental damage rider for laptops and tablets on my homeowners insurance. I do not know if it would be possible for me to get another SV8.

SV8 and Matebook

The Dome

A couple of weeks ago I found a very reasonably priced iMac G4 being sold locally, and having always been somewhat interested in them (and having never had one before) I decided to get in touch with the seller and go pick it up. What I ended up getting was a fantastic condition first generation iMac G4/800. It has a few minor scuffs and marks on it here and there, but nothing a couple of alcohol wipes couldn't take care of.

What has kept me away from iMac G4s in the past has been the fact that, by and large, they are OS X only machines. I have very little interest in PPC OS X as it largely still feels too new to be "retro" and yet is too slow and incompatible to be used for much. I tinker with it from time to time, but System 7 and Mac OS 8 and 9 are where most of my interest lies. Only the first revision of the first generation of iMac G4 could run 9, and even then only it's special version of 9.2.2 (which is not hard to find), but that is good enough for me. I decided to take a gamble on this particular machine because 1) it was very cheap, 2) it looked to be in good condition, and 3) it was a 15", and all of the first gen iMac G4s were 15", so there was a chance that this one was a first gen. Reading the service manual I also learned that not only is the first gen the only generation to be able to boot natively into 9, but only machines with serial numbers less than xx305xxxxxx will as well. This machine is in the xx200 range, so it should boot 9 just fine. It's also the highest end first generation model sold - with the 800MHz CPU, 60GB HDD, and Superdrive. It was also factory upgraded to 512MB with a single PC133 DIMM, leaving the SO-DIMM slot vacant. The airport slot is also surprisingly empty, but that's not really a problem for me as I have little interest in WEP encrypted 802.11b.

Now, the bad news. Unfortunately this particular machine has screen issues. Particularly, the "white screen of death" that seems to be not entirely uncommon when researching these machines. This one in particular boots as one would normally expect when the power button is pressed - it chmes, the fan spins up, if an HDD or CD with OS loaded is present you can hear it begin to boot - but the screen is forever white. When it first kicks on the screen is more of a gray, in fact it's the same gray that you would expect for a machine of this era's first image (all of my G4s do it too) but instead of showing a happy mac, or the "OS not found" symbols, within a few seconds it transitions to a bright white. One way I know that the machine is booting is that I am able to enter open firmware and use commands to shut down, reboot, and eject the optical drive tray. This is good news, as it tells me that the motherboard works properly, and when I hear it booting from the HDD or optical drive I know that the IDE bus works as well.

I don't know which part is causing the problem, but I have been able to narrow it down to one of three things: the video connector on the motherboard (very unlikely), the video cable that runs from the board, up the neck, into the screen (somewhat likely, but I would expect flickering when the screen is articulated and wiggled), or it's the LCD panel itself - most likely, I believe, and frankly also probably the easiest to replace. The second easiest would be the logic board, but the video cable is contained within the neck itself, and getting a new neck with wiring harness so far seems rather difficult. I would also like to avoid replacing the logic board because there is little certainty that I would get another 800MHz first-gen board, which is what I very specifically want.

The Neck

Now, this machine does actually have video output. It's one of the few macs (along with a handful of iBooks, PowerBooks, and other iMac G4s and G5s) from the early 2000s to use "Mini VGA" which, aside from having a weird connector, is exactly what it sounds like. On this machine it doesn't allow for adding a second extended display - it can only mirror the primary display - but in this case that happens to be exactly what I want to do. Enough macs used Mini VGA that there are a plethora of the adapters available, and I was able to pick one up for about $4 shipped. So you may be able to see where I'm going here.

What I have chosen to do is remove the neck and screen assembly entirely, and what remains is what I have chosen to name "The Dome". The Dome is, obviously, the bottom half of an iMac G4 - a white plastic hemisphere driving an external monitor. It looks a bit strange, sure, like a mac mini about to pop, but it is a more compact G4 running OS9 than either the Quicksilver or Digital Audio, so that's a plus. And at 800MHz with 512MB RAM, it's no slouch either. Granted the GPU is fixed (GeForce2 with 32MB) but seeing as it's only ever driving 1024x768, that's not really an issue. No potential for a SATA card either, but I plan to at least get it upgraded with a 7.2k hard drive - the original superdrive will stay.

The process for removing the neck and screen is fairly trivial. Remove the bottom case, disconnect all the wires, and set it aside. Remove the drive carrier, power supply, and fan from the upper housing. The hardest part is removing the extraneous wires from the blind mate connector. This connector carriers a number of signals - power/sleep LED, microphone, display inverter voltages, fan, and speaker. Everything but the fan and speaker is in the display, so I removed those pins from the connector. The fan could be powered from the drives' molex connectors, and you could forgo a speaker, but I didn't want to do either. I also took this opportunity to clean out the fan and top of the case, as well as the peculiar two-part power supply. The neck is secured to the base with five screws, and once they are removed it pops straight off, and the various wires are fed through the hole left behind. I may 3D print something to cap this hole, but for the time being I am going to leave it as is.

As mentioned earlier, I do plan to upgrade the hard drive to a 7200RPM unit. The costs of PC133 SODIMMs are also so low right now that, at $8 shipped, there's really no good reason to not upgrade it to 1GB RAM. The fan is a standard 92mm PWM unit, so I plan to upgrade that to a Noctua as well. There's no real need for this - the included fan works just fine - but I would like something with greater airflow at lower speed. I would also like to find something that allows me to monitor the temperature and fan speed in OS9, though I don't know that such a utility exists. I have also noticed, in a couple of days of using it, that it is far more stable than my Digital Audio. This will require some further followup and investigation, and perhaps a future post.

Fun Little HP Tower

While there isn't a whole lot I like about living in Charlotte, having easy access to a place called "The Grid" is really awesome. The Grid is a store run by Goodwill, and unlike your typical Goodwill, The Grid only sells tech - computers, TVs, game consoles and games, lots of accessories - if it plugs into a TV or Computer, it'll show up there. Quite a few of their donations come from local corporations and businesses, and often really interesting hardware shows up there - it's actually where I found the then bare-bones ML350 G6. Lots of machines they get still work fine, and so they get tested and have windows installed on them, and while they aren't too poorly priced, they are priced higher than I'm interested in, especially given that I don't care for a licensed OS, RAM, or storage devices. Back in the far corner there's a series of shelves for the "as-is" laptops and desktops - stuff that is either too old to bother testing (rarely older than a core2, granted) or obviously heavily damaged. I have gotten a lot of good finds out of that "as-is" pile.

Every once in a while I have noticed these little HP consumer desktops in the fray, but often they're in too bad shape to consider. Today, however, they had two almost identical units - each for $10. A very reasonable question to ask is why on earth would I be interested in some junky $10 consumer HP desktop? Well, it's because of just how junky and low end they are. This machine is a member of the HP p2 line, likely HP's lowest-end consumer desktop - I've come to understand that they could often be found new for $200-300 or less. My machine is a p2-1334, and one could almost describe it as a netbook in a MicroATX case. The motherboard is actually Mini-ITX - no PCIe slots (not even for WiFi!), absolutely no socketed processor, and no standard 20pin power. It runs off a standard 65w 19v HP laptop power supply, which I have a few of (yay hoarding?)

It's pretty good looking from the front, if a little plain.

No power supply or slots - it's a normal MicroATX case otherwise. I find it surprising that they opted for DVI over HDMI - perhaps newer models use HDMI? Normal audio jacks, four USB2.0 on the front, two at the front, headers for two more are unpopulated. Ethernet is only 10/100 - super cheap Realtek chipset. I do appreciate that the I/O shield is a knock-out variant, I may move this board into a Mini-ITX case someday.

This should give you a good idea of how empty the case is inside. There's a single exhaust fan at the rear, and just a void where the power supply and MicroATX slots would be. The optical drive is actually part of why I decided to purchase it in the first place - I'm running low on drives that can burn DVD-DLs, and believe it or not, this one can - so I figured at the most I was playing $10 for an optical drive. I added the SSD once I got it home, it's mounted just to the left of the motherboard, on the underside of the brace. There are screw holes for both 2.5" and 3.5" drives - clearly suited for whatever was cheapest that day. Both drives are powered directly from the motherboard, and I imagine it can't handle much current - no 15k drives here. There are no mounts for additional drives, but there are a few spots where one might have mounted other accessories. One version of this case held a card reader by the front panel USB ports, but it's not populated here.

While removing the board, one of the plastic brackets around the SATA power connectors decided to come off with the cable. It did slide back on easily enough, but it goes to show that these things were not meant to be disassembled. This is a total throwaway computer.

Not surprisingly, this is a very bare board. I decided to pop it out in order to clean off the bit of dust present as well as to at least do the CPU and FCH the honor of replacing their thermal paste, which was horrendously caked on. The RAM, DDR3, is the users' only option for expandability, and apparently the AMD Hudson-D1 FCH supports up to 32GB RAM. HP's docs for the board say it caps out at 8, but I have tested it with as much as 16 myself, so I am assuming it could handle 32 - though why someone would put $150+ of RAM into something like this is beyond me.

The CPU is an AMD Fusion E2, this one specifically is an 1200, though they are apparently sold with up to an E2-1800. The TDP is less than 20w, thus the passive clip-down heatsink. I haven't benchmarked it yet, but my expectations are low.

Update: For giggles I threw Windows 8 on it this morning and ran Cinebench. Performs about as you'd expect.

Right now I have Arch installed on it, because that's sort of my go-to for new x86 machines these days. Eventually I will try Windows 8 (as it shipped) on another drive, but I don't have the patience for that right now. For what I have done on it so far (which, granted, has been very little) it feels just fine, snappy even. I imagine even with Windows 8, as long as it had 8GB RAM, this machine would be perfectly suitable for basic day to day tasks.

For reasons that are beyond me, I have already developed a very peculiar attachment to this machine. Expect to hear more about it in the future...

PS - I love that the board was manufactured by "PEGATRON" - what is that?