Lifebook 420D Notebook Computer

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It is neither fancy nor overly innovative in its design (interior or exterior), but so far it appears to be a solid, stable machine, difficult to beat at its price point.
  • Manufacturer: Fujitsu PC Corporation

  • Phone: 800 8FUJITSU

  • URL: http://www.fujitsu-pc.com/

  • Price: $1599.99 US

  • Reviewer: Michael Scott Shappe

The Fujitsu Lifebook 420D is the newest and least expensive addition to the Lifebook line of notebook computers. It is neither fancy nor overly innovative in its design (interior or exterior), but so far it appears to be a solid, stable machine, difficult to beat at its price point. Perhaps more importantly, the Lifebook makes a good, inexpensive Linux laptop machine, with a couple of comments.

A Compact, Not a Sports Car

The Lifebook reminds me strongly of my first new car, a Pontiac Sunbird. It has a solid feel to it, with keys, latches and components that click appropriately when used. Its outward styling is not very fancy, looking pretty much like most of the other models in its class. For its size, it's a little heavy, at 7.3 pounds. It's not capable of going extremely fast, sporting a Pentium 120 as its CPU, non-MMX processor. It has adequate headroom and leg room, but not lots of it, at 16MB of RAM, expandable to 72 (The model is actually advertised as having only 8MB of RAM, but current models are shipping with a “free upgrade” to 16. My guess is that Fujitsu realized at the last minute that supplying mere 8MB was simply not adequate.) and a 1.08GB hard drive. It does not get superb mileage, having a nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) battery of only two hours duration, although there is an advertised option for a lithium-ion battery.

On the other hand, for a relatively low sticker price, it comes equipped with many of the things people have come to expect in a personal computer today. Fujitsu preloads Windows 95 (fear not, dear reader, I'll fix that problem shortly), Microsoft Works, Intuit's Quicken PE and CyberMedia's FirstAid suite. In a moment of lucidity, Fujitsu decided to include both the Windows 95 and the bundled software on CD, so there's no need to make backup floppies just to have a pristine copy of the bundle. There's a floppy drive and a 10x CD-ROM, although as shipped they share a single multi-function bay; an optional cable allows you to hook up the floppy drive externally.

Fujitsu gave the Lifebook the usual array of ports: serial, parallel, SVGA, an IrDA-compliant infrared transceiver, a port-replicator dock, headphones out, microphone in and two PCMCIA slots in the typical two-of-Type-II-one-of-Type-III configuration. The screen is a 11.3 “ Dual Scan” that is fairly readable. Directly underneath the screen is a status panel, with indicators for power, suspend-state, charging state and disk access. The “suspend” button is right next to this panel, large enough to be obvious, but out of the way enough to be impossible to hit by accident. This means that you can not put the machine to sleep or wake it up unintentionally—a definite plus.

The keyboard has about 80 keys, including almost all the typical PC-keyboard keys and the more recent Start and Menu keys. Finally, it sports two speakers (one on each side of the status panel, right beneath the screen's hinges), a condenser-microphone hidden on the left side near the front of the unit, and SoundBlaster-compatible audio hardware.

Great. What about Linux?

The most difficult part of getting Red Hat Linux 4.1 up and running on the Lifebook 420D was getting it physically installed. But as an experienced user, even that wasn't a big problem. Quite honestly I made it a little harder on myself than it had to be by making some of the specific choices I did.

For one thing, I wanted to keep a “minority” Windows 95 partition, primarily for playing games. I bought the machine primarily as a writing utensil (Emacs may well be as bloated as MS Word, but at least it's free and doesn't crash), but I do like my diversions. Most of the games I'm interested in aren't even out for the Macintosh, let alone Linux.

For another thing, I acquired neither a modem nor the optional external floppy adapter. In the first case, I decided against it because my wife and I already own a modem (although I didn't acquire a serial cable at first, either), and I wanted to wait out the modem speed wars before buying another. In the second place, I decided that I simply would not require both the CD-ROM and the floppy drive at the same time all that often, if at all, which so far has proven correct.

The result was that, to accomplish all my goals, I had to rely on the ability to swap the CD-ROM and floppy drive while the machine is suspended. First, I cleaned out all the bits of bundled software I was fairly sure I would never, ever use, which included MS Works, Internet Explorer and a number of other odds and ends. I then copied Red Hat's FIPS utility from the CD to the hard drive, suspended the machine and swapped the CD-ROM out for the floppy drive. I woke the machine up, built a simple DOS boot floppy and copied FIPS over to it.

Before rebooting, I ran the bundled disk defragmenter to make sure everything was well “packed down”. This done, I rebooted using the floppy disk, and used FIPS to non-destructively shrink the Windows partition to about 400MB, leaving 600 free for Linux (which so far has proven adequate). I then shut down, swapped back to the CD-ROM, rebooted from the hard drive into Windows, and ran Red Hat's “autoboot.bat” to boot off the CD. (Red Hat could have made this even easier by making the CD directly bootable; the 420D's BIOS can boot from CD-ROM.)

From here, the installation was as easy as any Unix or Unix-like install I've ever done, and I've done quite a few, including Ultrix, SunOS 4.1 and Solaris 2.5. I used Linux FDISK to set up five partitions, one primary: root (50MB); and one extended with three logical: /usr (300MB), /home (230MB) and swap (16MB). I installed most of the typical packages, including TeX and XFree86, although I later wound up pruning some of the documentation and games to gain back extra space. In the end, however, I was able to load what I wanted and needed and still have room to spare.

In retrospect, since the /home partition is going to be entirely for me, and primarily for storing text files, it could have been smaller, and /usr a bit larger (perhaps 350MB for /usr and 180MB for /home). As it is, I wound up migrating X11R6 (44MB) over to /home and putting a symbolic link back to /usr/X11R6, which works fine and balances out the disk space adequately. The result leaves me plenty of room for the Linux kernel sources and with room to grow.

Once in place, everything more or less worked with one glaring exception, which I'll get to in a moment. The track pad appears as a PS/2-style mouse (and is touch-sensitive so you can tap instead of click the left-button), the keyboard as a standard PC-101 keyboard and the screen appears as a typical VGA screen. The Lifebook's BIOS is APM (Advanced Power Management) compliant, so the kernel's APM extensions are able to work perfectly (although Red Hat 4.1 did not include the APM utilities). I even tried suspending the machine, using the suspend button, while in the middle of compiling a program; the system resumed when I told it to without any problem.

All the standard ports are recognized, and the PC Card slots appear to work fine with the pcmcia-cs drivers. (Red Hat 4.1 shipped with the pcmcia-cs 2.8.25 drivers and the 2.0.27 kernel, which may well work adequately; I had upgraded to 2.9.5 and kernel 2.0.30 before testing the PC Card slots, however.)

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