TuxTops Obsidian N30W

by Jon Valesh

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.

Reliability

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.

What about Linux?

Linux support is where TuxTops really shines. The folks at TuxTops are real-life Linux users, not just suits who saw some advantage to offering “Linux for the weirdos”. The folks at TuxTops know and use Linux, and they know and use their own products, so when you ask a support question they can answer it from personal experience. The test laptop came with an unofficial Red Hat 6.2 release pre-installed and configured to take advantage of the Laptop's hardware. All of the hardware drivers are pre-installed, as is the XFree86 configuration file for the LCD display. The first time you boot your TuxTops Obsidian, you are asked to supply some basic information to configure features such as networking. After that, the system will always boot into an X11-based login screen.

Also included was a bootable CD-ROM with Red Hat and several laptop-specific RPM packages ready for installation. Reinstalling Linux is as easy as booting from the CD and acknowledging the repeated warnings that you will lose all Linux files on the hard drive. Unfortunately, there is no way to specify how the hard drive will be partitioned, or which partitions will be formatted, so you will always have a large /home partition with new files on it. This reduces the value of having a /home partition at all.

The biggest problem with the Red Hat installation was actually the lack of choices when installing it. TuxTops installs the software you need, and the result is a laptop where everything that can work, works, but a lot of the choices have been taken away. The default desktop is GNOME, and while KDE is installed there is no option to make it the default-user environment. Likewise, there are very few choices about how the rest of the system is installed and what software is used.

The folks at TuxTops report that by the time this article is in print they will be offering a wide range of Linux distributions pre-installed on the Obsidian and all of their laptops. I didn't have a chance to try out any of the other distributions, but if they are as well configured as the Red Hat installation, TuxTops will make a lot of people who want or need other distributions happy.

And the Other Operating System?

The review laptop came in a dual boot configuration with Red Hat and Microsoft Windows98. The Windows installation was about as bare bones as you will find in a computer. The operating system was installed, but there was no user software—no office suite, no DVD player software, nothing but Windows. This makes sense from a company that really isn't trying to sell Windows at all, but you should be aware that if you buy a dual boot system, you will need to add your own software to make the Windows installation useful.

Summary

The TuxTops Obsidian provides top-of-the-line performance, great expandability and great support at a price that is a lot lower than nearly identical hardware from other vendors. If you are looking for a desktop replacement system or a highpowered laptop, it is hard to go wrong with the TuxTops Obsidian.

The Good and The Bad

Born at the beginning of the microcomputer age, Jon Valesh (jon@valesh.com) has pushed and been pushed by computers his entire life. Having run the gamut from games programmer to ISP system/network administrator, he now occupies himself by providing technical assistance to ISPs and small businesses whenever his day job doesn't get in the way.

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