TuxTops Obsidian N30W

Every TuxTops laptop comes with Linux pre-installed.

Having a laptop fail is not only more expensive than the same failure in a desktop computer, but more likely: you carry laptops around and what gets carried gets dropped. Or, if not dropped, mistreated in other ways. A laptop lives a dangerous life.

A real laptop test would involve a few well-staged drops from tables or small office buildings. A real test would...but I'm a coward. Cheap, too. I didn't do anything to intentionally damage the TuxTops laptop, but I haven't been gentle either.

What I have done is carried it almost everywhere for the last month or so. It has traveled over 1,700 miles (I counted) over six-lane highways and dirt roads, shared table space with dozens of hamburgers, been lugged in and out of office buildings, houses, shopping malls, public parks and anywhere else I could safely go. It has been opened and closed, demonstrated to strangers, shoved haphazardly into its carry bag to allow quick escapes from coworkers and other undesirable associates, been tossed into trunks, loaned to friends and generally abused as much as I could abuse it without actually, officially, trying to harm anything.

I have given it the workout that a truly laptop-enchanted geek would give their computer if it wasn't going to be their computer forever and if they didn't have to pay for repairs. I've done my best to put a year of use into a month of time—and the result has been enlightening.

The worst problem is that the display is difficult to clean. I have learned that laptop displays and fast food don't mix, which says more about the American diet than the reliability of this laptop, though.

There has been an assortment of little problems, some trivial, some preventable and some troubling, but none critical. Perhaps the most trivially bothersome problem has been the little rubber feet. They come off if you try to slide the computer across a desk or tabletop. So far, they have always reattached themselves when pushed back into place, but it would be easy to lose them. Several of the screws securing the various access covers on the bottom of the case showed a tendency to come loose, though that may have been caused by my surreptitious opening of each cover after receiving the laptop. The most troubling problem isn't really a problem, but it could become one: there seems to be a loose screw or another small part rattling around in the case, near the floppy drive. Whatever is rattling around hasn't caused any damage yet, but the laptop wasn't rattling when I received it.

Is It Cool Enough?

Cramming a 650MHz or faster CPU into a tiny case without paying careful attention to getting rid of the heat modern CPUs produce is a recipe for melted plastic. Modern laptops get hot—sometimes very hot. The TuxTops Obsidian uses a flow-through heat sink with a thermostat controlled fan that draws air from the side and pushes it out the back of the case when the CPU temperature climbs. The fan is very small, and in a quiet office or home environment the sound it produces can be very noticeable. In a restaurant or car you'll probably never realize it has turned on, though. Perhaps literally—the first person I loaned the TuxTops to, returned it after less than 20 minutes of use, citing a fear that the unit would melt if left on. It does get hot (hot enough to keep it off your lap, unless you have thick pants) but not hot enough to melt. This is normal. The designers chose to use the bottom of the case for heat dissipation, helping them reduce their dependence on the power-wasting fan.

Running the computer with a blocked air vent is definitely not advised, though. After an hour or so the smell of hot plastic will probably give you a headache.

Battery Life

The single Lithium Ion battery provided about three hours of normal use when using the SpeedStep feature to reduce the CPU speed to 500MHz and using the automatic power management in the BIOS. The life was a little longer in some cases, with the longest being about three and a half hours. It was significantly shorter with heavy disc use or when the CPU was turned up to full speed.

For extended use, you can easily install a second battery by removing the DVD/CD-ROM drive and hot swapping the batteries to keep the computer running as long as you have charged batteries. The system will automatically fully deplete the first battery before starting on the second, so you can easily manage your battery use.

The batteries are, at $100 to $200 each (depending on when and where you buy them), priced similarly to other batteries of the type. In other words, they are very expensive. The extra price is well worth it for the long run times these batteries provide. Each battery has its own microprocessor to monitor the charge status and control the charging appropriately for the particular battery. There is a built-in charge indicator that will, at the touch of a button, light an LED bar graph to indicate the charge state of a battery that is not installed in the laptop, so you can keep track of which batteries you've used and which are ready for use.