TuxTops Obsidian N30W

Every TuxTops laptop comes with Linux pre-installed.

Buying a laptop computer teaches you all about confusion and sometimes about yourself too. Nothing brings out anal-retentive dithering like considering spending thousands of dollars on something you can tuck under your arm. Nothing sparks confusion like going through dozens of nearly identical but critically different specifications, searching for some clue about how you should spend your money.

It seems simple enough when you start: maximize the features, minimize the price. Simple does not describe the details, though. The details can drive you insane. Screen size, CPU type, DVD/CD/CD-RW drives, hard drive capacity, battery life, weight, mouse substitute, expansion ports, video capabilities—just describing it is enough to make a person hyperventilate. Not only is it an immense list, every item represents a trade-off. Want the best battery life? Be prepared to carry a couple of extra pounds or have a weak processor and few features. Want the biggest screen? It won't look as good. The fastest CPU? The batteries won't last as long. Lots of expandability? Everything gets bigger.

And the safe shortcuts that people fall back on aren't always reliable. Buying by brand is a good way to donate an extra thousand dollars to a big company for the exact same product. It is not unusual to find three laptops, each supposedly from different makers, which are exactly the same unit: the same OEM, the same expandability and the same hardware capabilities. But not the same price—far from it. Just to confuse things, sometimes supposedly identical laptops sold under different brand names seem the same, but do not have exactly the same features. The display available from one vendor may not be sold by any of the others, though all are the same core unit.

Adding Linux compatibility to your requirements list only makes matters worse. Virtually every laptop has something that Linux can't quite take advantage of. Maybe the power-saving suspend feature won't actually suspend; maybe the sound is difficult to get working; maybe everything will work fine once Linux is installed, but you can't install unless you have a network because the CD-ROM isn't recognized by any of the standard Linux boot floppies.

Whatever mix of requirements you have, finding a laptop that does what you need can involve a lot of Net time, a lot of searching and a lot of faith in the manufacturers. Even when your requirements seem simple, it is seductively easy to start out looking for a $1,200 economy laptop and end up buying a $3,400 full-featured desktop replacement. Every step seems so reasonable that you hardly even realize what you are doing until the bill comes. Car dealerships could learn a lot from laptop manufacturers about up-selling their products.

But, after your nervous breakdown and before the credit card bill arrives, there is something really wonderful about a great laptop. It may have cost more then a nice used car, but you can't take a car into a restaurant either. Knowing that you are carrying around enough computing power to cause a gadget freak from ten years ago to pass out is a pleasure that extends beyond pure geekdom: anyone can understand it.

The TuxTops Obsidian is exactly that sort of machine. As close to a no-compromise laptop as you can buy, it combines battery life, performance, display and video capabilities and even ergonomics in a package that will make most people happy—if anything will. Most importantly, every TuxTops laptop comes with Linux pre-installed. Yeah, that other desktop OS is available, but Linux is the main deal here.

So, What's It Got?

The TuxTops Obsidian is a top-of-the-line laptop, and the test unit was configured to prove it. Start with a 650/500MHz SpeedStep Pentium III, 256 Megabytes of RAM, an 18 gigabyte hard drive, 8MB ATI Rage mobility LT video chip set, 6 speed DVD drive, a 15-inch 1024x768 display and all of the usual features like sound, dual PC-CARD/Cardbus slots, a floppy drive, a built-in Lucent Winmodem, IrDA, serial and parallel ports, a port replicator connector for desktop use and more, most of which are ready to use the first time the system boots into Linux.

In laptop jargon the TuxTops Premium is a three-spindle design, meaning that the floppy drive, hard drive and CD/DVD drive can all be installed in the laptop's case and used at the same time. The CD/DVD is actually in a quick-release media bay that can accept a CD/DVD ROM, ZIP, CD-RW or even a second battery.

Physically, the TuxTops Premium is about as no-nonsense and as tough as you can get without resorting to titanium. The case is a tough black plastic that seems immune to casual scratching from watchbands, keys and just about anything else. The age-old problem of break-off dust covers that weren't meant to break off has been solved by leaving the covers out entirely. The only part that really seems vulnerable is the large display. It twists noticeably if adjusted by holding only one corner. If you have a diskette in the floppy drive, the eject button extends rather far, preventing you from storing a disk in the drive while the computer is in its carrying case.

The keyboard has an above average feel, but in my opinion the key layout is a bit strained in places. For example, the home, end, page up and page down keys are at the top of the keyboard and the regular cursor controls are at the bottom. I prefer laptops that use the FN key to merge all of the cursor controls into the same four keys. The FN key is in general rather under-used, with only five or six functions, mostly related to controlling the hardware. Of the standard keyboard keys, only SysRq, Scroll Lock and Break require the use of the FN key.

The mouse is a two-button touch pad, which can be a critical issue for some users. Emotions run strong. People either love them or hate them, and arguments about the most appropriate laptop pointing device have been known to degenerate into fist fights. You should spend a few minutes using a laptop with a touch pad before you make up your mind, but if your thumbs tend to drift around below the space bar, you may find your mouse pointer bouncing around when you least expect it. When used in X, the two buttons must be chorded—clicked at the same time—to emulate the third mouse button. A minor inconvenience for normal use, but tedious with software that makes extensive use of the third button.

There is also a selection of connectors and buttons that aren't used in Linux, such as the single USB connector, the push-button style external volume control and, depending on your kernel version, the Lucent WinModem.