View Full Version : Computer & Related Equipment Wee Little 'Puters

03-10-2008, 01:28 AM
The New Age

In the digital photography age, a computer is an essential item for any digital photographer. Most make do with a desktop PC or Mac, but others have a need for a road going version that is relatively lightweight, yet capable of doing most things one can do on a PC//Mac. But size always infers advantages and disadvantages when it comes to performance (Iím talking about computers now!). So where do you draw the line? A few years ago I bought a Fujitsu Lifebook S7011 (http://asia.cnet.com/reviews/notebooks/0,39050489,39080360p-0,00.htm), a fairly lightweight and reasonable performance 14Ē screen notebook to take with me when I had to travel. It went far and wide with me on my journeys, but I soon became frustrated with its overall size, as it just took up too much space, rather than weight, on airlines (when combined with carry-on luggage), and the fact that I couldnít run it off 12V power sources through an Inverter. It also has a very poor keyboard. So it ended up not being used much at all.

Fujitsu S7011

Move forward a few years and Ultra-Mobile PCs (UMPC) and tablet PCs have finally progressed from the rocky road they were on a while back; though not completely out of the wilderness just yet, they are now a big part of the mobile phone/Internet device revolution. A number of manufacturers have started to produce both UMPCs and very small form-factor tablet/notebook PCs for the road warriors and others. These UMPCs and tablet PCs are capable of running Windows Tablet PC/XP/Vista Business and, as the processors increase in capability and require less power; no doubt we will see full blown Vista Ultimate versions in the near future. But this is now and the options are not so extensive. So last year I had my mind set on getting the HTC Shift UMPC (http://www.htc.com/product/03-product_htcshift.htm); a 7Ē little powerhouse of a PC that runs Windows Vista Business, with incorporated SIM card capabilities. By the way, HTC is one of the largest manufacturers of OEM handsets in the world.

http://www.australianimage.com.au/images/ftp/HTC Shift.jpg
HTC Shift

However, HTC has been incredibly slow in getting the product to market and that gave me idle time to look at what else was available. Iíd already spotted the Fujitsu P1610 (http://www.trustedreviews.com/notebooks/review/2007/06/20/Fujitsu-Siemens-Lifebook-P1610-Ultra-Portable-Tablet-PC/p1) and put it aside as being larger than I wanted. But as I waited, I kept going back to the Fujitsu and one day made some Origami models of the HTC and the Fujitsu. Surprisingly, the Fujitsu wasnít all that much bigger than the HTC and the weight difference was negligible. The brain cells began to tick over and I started to look at the specifications of both devices in more detail. I finally went to a store to look at the Fujitsu and get a feel for the unit itself and that was when I made my decision. The only thing that the HTC had in its favour over the Fujitsu was the integral SIM card capability and a slightly lower price. The Fujitsu provided greater HD capacity, full Ethernet/modem functions, a larger screen, bigger keyboard, a port replicator, optical mouse and was generally a more powerful system.

Fujitsu P1610 (with extended battery)

http://www.australianimage.com.au/images/ftp/P1610-2.jpg http://www.australianimage.com.au/images/ftp/P1610-3.jpg
Fujitsu P1610 (with standard battery)

The New Gear

Well, I have to say that Iím quite pleased with the P1610. It performs very well when it comes to general stuff like e-mail, Internet, Word and so on, and easily beats the S7011 running on XP Pro. Its form factor is about the size of half an A4 sheet of paper and 25mm thick and is just so easy to carry around. This is a PC that you can take anywhere. It also comes with a neoprene (wetsuit) pouch for carrying around, but thatís not entirely ideal; more on this later. Is it all milk and honey? Not quite. And Iíll qualify what Iím going to say next in that itís from the very basic level of owning such a device and has nothing to do with how it actually performs. The first thing that becomes obvious with such a device (and this applies equally to the HTC), is that you need power, lots of it. The standard battery that comes with the Australian version of the Fujitsu is good for about 2.5 hours of use (generally less). So power becomes the first issue with owning Ďanyí portable PC. But what options do you have?

The first and most obvious is to take your AC power supply everywhere with you, but that can become a pain (always disconnecting the one power supply), so usually one starts to look for additional power supplies for work, home and on the road. If you are travelling on an aircraft and want to use your PC, often the only option might be battery power. Some airlines offer on-board power, but this may only be available in certain classes. And if on the road, the only power source may be 12V. So you essentially end up with at least one additional AC power supply for general ease of use and an extra battery for when AC power is not readily available. I did just that and got the extended battery that is supposed to at least double the working time of the unit. So I now have somewhere in the order of 6-8 hours of use from the two batteries. When on the road, I can use the AC power supply with my inverter.

The other thing about these very small form-factor PCs is that they donít come with an optical drive, so this is another necessary purchase, if you want to download software or watch movies etc. You can do all of this by downloading the software onto a thumb drive or the like, but using CDs/DVDs, as they come, is a lot easier and Iím not sure that you can install all software by copying onto a thumb drive. So a portable USB optical drive was my next acquisition (I actually bought it at the same time). I had the option of a Sony (nope!) and an Asus. I got the Asus SDRW-0806T-D, slim DVD burner. The good thing about this unit is that it comes with an AC power adapter, as well as a USB power adapter, which had dual USB connectors, for PCs that donít have a dedicated powered USB port. The P1610 seems to be able to run the burner off one USB port. The optical drive is not something that Iíd carry around much, but if I needed to do so, it doesnít take up much space.

Asus SDRW-0806T-D DVD Burner

So the next issue is carrying all of this stuff around. The idea of getting an ultra-portable PC is that you donít have to lug around a large laptop bag and accessories. As I already mentioned, the P1610 comes with a neoprene carry pouch, but this is not big enough for anything but the unit and barely the wireless broadband dongle (Iíll talk about that later). So the next thing was to try and find a case that was lightweight and just large enough to take the P1610, the wireless dongle and the extra battery; this proved to be a difficult assignment. When manufacturers create these little marvels, they just donít seem to think that users will need to take along a few accessories and so provide a suitable case that allows for such. Even aftermarket case manufacturers donít seem to get this.

But what I eventually found, was a lightweight case made for the Sony Vaio 11Ē notebook (I said Iíd I avoid anything Sony with a barge pole, but in this case I made an exception), which gave me a case that was 2Ē wider and 1Ē deeper than the P1610. It wasnít ideal, but it gave me enough room to fit the P1610 with the extended battery, the standard battery, the wireless dongle and a USB thumb drive. If I need to take along the AC power supply, I can throw that into my main bag along with the mouse in a separate small carry case. This combination also allows me to easily put the whole lot into one of two carry-on bags that I use, depending on the length of stay. The Sony case is almost exactly the same size as an A4 sheet of paper, but because the P1610 is about ĹĒ wider than the width of an A4 sheet, it canít go sideways into the case, which would have given me a good deal of room.

The Technical Stuff

So, now a few words about the P1610. Firstly, I was very surprised when I opened the packaging and found that it came with a port replicator, a mouse, a carry pouch and a pile of CDs that included XP Pro (if I wanted to go back to that version) and Acronis True Image backup software (www.acronis.com), as I was only expecting the unit and a power supply. I decided to leave the installed Vista on the unit, as there are things that I like about the Vista interface and Iím not going to need programs that I use on my desktop that wonít run on Vista. Some of the reviews Iíve read on the P1610 with Vista suggest that it slows things down considerably, but my experience is that the P1610 runs faster with Vista than my S7011 with XP Pro. Maybe one can conclude from that that the P1610 would be even faster if it ran on XP Pro, but Iím not overly concerned and Iíll stick with Vista.

The unit came with 1GB RAM (the maximum it will take), and an 80GB hard drive, preformatted into two 40GB partitions. The screen is an 8.9-inch Transflective WXGA TFT, 1280 x 768 pixels, one of those shiny screens that can sometimes be a nuisance as they reflect everything, but the quality is excellent and even the small text, as a result of the resolution, is easy to read. Iím very impressed by the quality of images displayed on the screen, truly fantastic. It also comes with a plethora of ports, connectors and wireless modes, which was one reason I opted for this over the HTC Shift. The nifty fingerprint reader actually works as advertised and I havenít had to use the manual password at all (now Iíll probably forget the password). On another note, the P1610 feels solid. Thereís nothing flimsy about it and everything works well. The keyboard is actually quite functional, well laid out and not at all too small for typing, but it does have the same annoying issue that I have with my S7011. While typing, the cursor position will for some inexplicable reason jump from where you are typing to a point earlier on in the text and you end up typing in-between previous text. I have no idea what causes this.

The P1610 is also a true tablet PC, in that you can use the included stylus for input and allows you to easily change the screen orientation to landscape or portrait. That said, my few attempts at using the stylus were quite frustrating, as I just couldnít seem to get things working as expected. I guess Iíll have to RTFM and figure out how things work. Most of the reviews Iíve read consider the touch screen excellent, so clearly Iím the one having some problems. One other thing of note is that the P1610 can run large, high resolution screens (I believe up to 1600 x 1200), via the included VGA port. It certainly runs my 22Ē without drama and it looks quite good.

The P1610/Vista allows you to set the power scheme of the unit to various levels to conserve power, but Iíve got mine at max, so that will account for the battery usage. But itís easy enough to change if you really want to extend the battery life. Vista also provides a neat feature that allows you to put the unit into Ďsleepí mode, which means that it uses very little power, but can fully activate quickly, compared to the usual start up routine. One thing about the P1610 is that it can get quite hot underneath, somewhat similar to my S7011 and when the processor gets going, the fan does tend to get somewhat noisy, probably because everything is kind of cramped and thereís a lot of air moving around in the case without many exit points.

In daily use, the P1610 is mainly a pleasure to use. All the controls come easily to hand and I especially like the fact that it has a mouse button, rather than a mouse pad as you find on most notebooks. I really hate the mouse pad style cursor tool; as Iíve never found them to be precise, your fingers have to be perfectly dry, and some can be overly sensitive and invoke key clicks if not careful. To date, I havenít explored the full functionality of the unit, as Iíve been more than happy using it like a regular notebook, but hopefully Iíll be able to give some time to this in the coming weeks.

Other Rubbish

One of the main tasks the P1610 will be doing is giving me Internet access while Iím away and, to do this, I required a mobile wireless broadband account. Australia has several options for this, but most providers charge an arm and a leg for the privilege. Our main service provider (Telstra) goes even further and takes both arms and legs, and a few internal organs for good measure. Not that the names of the carriers matter much for our overseas colleagues, but I ended up going with Optus, as I could get 1GB of broadband access a month for $30 (I get mine for $20, because I was able to bundle it with other services), compared to $85 through Telstra for the same amount, both at the same speeds. Note also that if you go over your allocated download (which included uploads), Optus charge 0.15c/MB, Telstra charges 0.30c/MB. Thatís what we get with the great competition and world class standards for Internet in Australia.

How does the wireless broadband work? Very well indeed, not that itís faster than my home broadband, but it is way faster than the dialup that I previously had to use, when I get HSDPA. The good thing is that I can also use this anywhere there is a phone signal and not be tied to any cables. Some of the most frustrating things that I have encountered in the past are hotels with digital phone systems, so modems wonít work, or broadband cable/wireless access, but only if you sign up to some provider of their choice. Australia is so far behind most of the developed world when it comes to wireless access, that itís not funny.

Because the P1610 only has a PC card slot and not an Express card slot, I had to get a USB wireless dongle. Thatís not necessarily a bad thing, as it gives me greater flexibility to use the wireless with other computers, but it is a tad larger than a PC card would have been. This is another area where we lack support. I understand that overseas, one can purchase wireless broadband cards and install any carrierís SIM card, rather than having to stick with the service providerís options; but here we are stuck with using what the service provider gives you. Telstra is generally better with reception throughout Australia, so greater speeds, but at the prices they charge, the often slower speeds are just fine for e-mail.

I was away this weekend camping, but not quite in the boonies and was able to get GPRS speeds where we were camped. That equates to around the high end of dialup. I was also able to surf the net, but I could not get Four Thirds, as the system simply bogged down with the download. Oddly enough, that other place downloaded fine, not that there was anything for me to contribute over there. Local news sites also worked reasonably well.

The Optus Modem (nothing with Optus is subtle)

A Gripe about Power

I simply donít understand why manufacturers canít make all notebooks etc run on 12V. The S7011 requires 19V, the HTC requires 12V and the P1610 requires 16V. Yet the battery for the P1610 is actually 10.8V. This makes the broader utilisation of these computers so much more difficult. You can by universal chargers, but there arenít any that provide both 16V and 19V, for example. I also have a 150W inverter, yet it canít run the S7011 for long before the inverter starts to howl, even though the power is going to the inverter through a very thick and short length of cable. The P1610 appears to work with the inverter, but I havenít had a chance to do an extended test.

So why do manufacturers do this? I think that this is much akin to camera makers and their batteries. Every battery used in a DSLR, ostensibly has the same form factor (like the BML-1), yet the terminals are all different so that you canít inter-change batteries from one camera to another. Itís just plain dumb, but some marketing gurus must think that theyíll make oodles of extra money selling lots of power adapters. All it seems to do is foster a bigger aftermarket industry that probably takes away sales.

We'll see how this jigger goes long term.