Lifebook 420D Notebook Computer

by Michael Scott Shappe
  • 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.)

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.

The Bottom Line

The Fujitsu Lifebook 420D is a solid, dependable (so far), and above all affordable notebook computer. While not endowed with all the latest gadgetry or the fastest hardware, it has more than enough power to run Linux well, in large part because Linux takes such good and efficient advantage of the hardware. While not designed for very high speed or for very great range, it's an excellent and inexpensive selection.

The only thing that prevents me from giving this product a complete endorsement is the NeoMagic chip issue. I have politely expressed my opinion of their proprietary attitude to both Fujitsu and NeoMagic. I can only hope that some heed of the Linux market is taken by either or, preferably, both companies.

If this particular issue doesn't bother you or if, like me, you're willing to work around these problems if it means you can have a portable computer without taking out a second mortgage, then by all means check out this product. If, on the other hand, you decide against the Fujitsu 420D specifically because of the NeoMagic issue, then I suggest you express that decision in a politely worded letter to both Fujitsu and NeoMagic. It's a market-driven world; the only chance we have of getting respect is to demonstrate that we are a market worth considering.

Michael Scott Shappe is a senior programmer for AetherWorks Corporation, a technology startup in St. Paul, MN. He's spent the last 10 years hammering on Unix systems of various stripes and addicting the unsuspecting to the Internet. You can peruse his personal web at http://www.publiccom.com/web/mikey/ or send him e-mail at mshapp19@idt.net.
Load Disqus comments