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.
Minor Quibbles

I do have a few minor quibbles when comparing this unit to what might be my more “ideal” machine. On the other hand, I recognize that most of what would make up my “ideal” machine would result in a price that was well outside of my range. Looked at in the larger picture, the trade-off of features for availability represented by the Lifebook 420D is an excellent one.

The Dual Scan screen is fairly good as such things go, but nothing quite compares to Active Matrix. Even this DS screen suffers from ghosting and a little bit of cursor “submarining”. However, it is fairly fast and pretty crisp. Once I got X-Windows to run correctly (more shortly), I was greeted with surprisingly sharp color. Given that Active Matrix would probably add $1000US to the price tag, I'd say that this particular trade-off is well worth it.

The lack of either a built in SCSI port or a modem is a bit of a bother. A SCSI port, in particular, would be useful for hooking up my Jaz drive so that I could do backups (1.08GB hard drive, 1GB Jaz platter). The modem's absence is less important to me, personally, but seems very strange in this age of Internet madness, particularly since they do bundle various on-line service programs by default. The inclusion of these two things, however, would probably have added $300-$400US to the sticker, and since I do already have a modem, and PC Card SCSI adapters can be had for just over $100US, this trade-off, too, is one I think I agree with.

The Lifebook comes with a “port replicator” docking port, but the existing port replicator product for the Lifebook 500 series does not work with it, and Fujitsu has yet to release the “mini-docking station” that will. They have not even announced what the docking station will include, or at least, if they have, I haven't seen it anywhere on their web site. The annoying part about this is that the Lifebook 500 series replicator sells for $189US, but the docking station will, according to a salesman at Computer City, sell for $369US. For that price, the docking station had better have the two things I just griped about: a SCSI port and a modem.

The Big Quibble

Everything I've described so far falls under the heading of acceptable trade-offs in a budget notebook computer. My largest complaint does not. Fujitsu has made one particular design decision which, despite all the great things about this unit, makes it very difficult for me to give an unalloyed endorsement to this product.

The Lifebook 420D uses a NeoMagic 128v model 2093 graphics chip to drive its LCD panel and SVGA-out port. This has become a very popular choice with a number of portable manufacturers, including Dell, Toshiba, IBM and DEC. From what I can gather, this decision has been taken in part because NeoMagic has succeeded in squeezing the entire video works, including hardware acceleration, onto a single chip, rather than a set of chips, a major win for price, packaging and power consumption, no doubt.

Looked at without concern for specific operating system support, this is a perfectly good trade-off. The NeoMagic chip produces excellent results, and I have little doubt that part of the reason the Dual Scan screen is so usable is that the NeoMagic chip is so good at what it does.

Unfortunately, according to folks at the XFree86 project, NeoMagic has chosen to keep the programming specifications of their chip proprietary. The result is free software authors such as the XFree86 group cannot obtain the specifications to write and release drivers that will take full advantage of the chip without compromising on the principle of free software. This seems to be a very backward policy on NeoMagic's part given that larger competitors such as Diamond and Matrox have begun working more openly with the free software community.

What this means for the end user is that they're left with two not-so-great choices. The first is to run XFree86's VGA16 server, which has a good enough “generic” driver to run even the NeoMagic chip at 800x600, but in only 16 colors. The second is to run Xi Graphic's Accelerated X LX product, which does have a complete driver for the NeoMagic chip, but costs $200US—twice the cost of the more common AX desktop product. MetroLink has informed me that they are considering supporting the NeoMagic chip in the near future, so you may eventually be able to use Metro-X as a commercial alternative, as well.

With either current solution, a “trick” is required either in the kernel itself or in lilo.conf to force the video system into “graphics” mode immediately at boot-up. Without this trick, the 800x600 image shows up offset by an inch to the right, leaving a black gap on the left and cutting off the rightmost portion of the desktop entirely. Unfortunately, using this solution means that you lose the ability to track boot-time messages as they happen. This isn't a big problem for me; I've used Macintoshes, which have no boot-time messages, for years. I've also left an alternate, text-mode configuration in my lilo.conf for emergencies. It also means you have to use the X Display Manager to present a login screen, but most current Linux distributions, including Red Hat, provide an easy means of doing so in the form of a special “run level” in /etc/inittab.

The details of how to configure these programs and lilo.conf are beyond the scope of a review. If you want more information, take a look at http://www.publiccom.com/web/mikey/lifebooklinux.html, a page I've set up specifically to cover these issues.

Accelerated X is a good product. However, I prefer free software. The whole point of my buying this particular model was that I didn't want to shell out a lot of money, so spending another $200US after purchase doesn't thrill me. Fortunately, for my own uses, 16 colors is plenty, so for now, I'm content with using the XF86_VGA16 free server.

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