Article posted on Aug 13
My first ThinkPad was a T60 14.1". I had heard good things about the T40 series from friends, and was in the market for a new laptop, as I have a tendency to go through about one laptop per year. The T60 was released shortly after IBM sold the ThinkPad line to Lenovo, and you got that sense by looking at it. The main logos on the cover and keyboard tray still said "IBM ThinkPad", and the only place Lenovo was mentioned was next to the status lights and on the underside stickers.
I loved it. It was light by 14" laptop standards (5 lbs with a standard 6-cell battery) and very well designed. The LCD cover had an internal magnesium coating to prevent press damage from the top, and the entire laptop had an internal roll cage that increased stiffness and decreased the likelihood of damage if it were dropped. Indeed, I did drop it a few times, and it still looks new, even today. I could pick it up with the display open and hold it with three fingers on the corner of the palm rest, and the chassis would not flex at all. And a trademark of the ThinkPad line, the keyboard had no flex whatsoever, with a deep travel for a laptop keyboard.
Of course, you pay for quality, and the ThinkPad line isn't exacly known for being inexpensive. Unfortunately, I cheaped out on the processor and picked the lowest one (a T5500 IIRC), and that ended up being the impetus to replace. After about a year, I bought a new ThinkPad. (Remember, the T60 still basically felt new at that point. On a normal laptop I go through, it's usually falling apart within a year.)
I went with the X61, thinking I'd give the X series a shot. A 12" laptop with a full-sized keyboard, 10 hour battery life with a 9-cell battery and only 3.2 lbs? Sounded great! Sadly, it didn't turn out as well. The keyboard's letter/number keys were indeed the same size as the T60, but the side keys were chopped off to about half-size. The keyboard itself flexed (not as bad as a normal laptop, but still noticeable), the travel was shallower than the T60, and the key presses themselves would wear out, especially when hit from the corners (backspace and \ were the worst). In 2 years, I had RMA'd the keyboard twice.
The entire build quality wasn't great either. It did not include a magnesium screen backing or a roll cage, and the entire chassis would flex a bit. The PCCARD slot cover broke off, and plastic pieces broke off the corners during a fall. One of the hinge clasps broke off (though only one, so it still closes and stays shut correctly). The palm rest would get rather hot. Still, it survived 2 years. The final straw wasn't actually the laptop falling apart (it was still decently usable), it was the battery when it could no longer last for more than 30 minutes. I don't blame Lenovo or the battery for that; 2 years of active battery use is a pretty good lifetime. But the idea of paying $100 for a replacement battery got me looking at whole laptop replacements.
With trepidation, I started looking at Lenovo's site. They've added some more lines since the acquisition, but since I'm more interested in build quality than performance or screen size or whatnot, I didn't know how well a "W" or "R" or "IdeaPad" would stand up to the test of... me. The T201 and X201 series had just been released, but were rather expensive. I remembered the Lenovo Outlet site and went there, and found a bunch of T200 and X200 laptops that were on clearance. Some of them were refurbished or unopened returns, but most were new order cancels. After a little browsing, I came across an X200s that had everything I wanted if I were to custom configure one myself: C2D SL9400 (one down from top of the line), 4GB memory (maxed out), no trackpad, LED-lit LCD display, all-Intel chipset configuration, upgraded WiFi chipset, Bluetooth, cheapest hard drive (I'd just swap it out with my SSD), and 9-cell battery. And it was $820, over $1000 off retail (a similarly configured X201 with the proper coupons could knock it down to about $1500). Again, with hesitation, I ordered it.
Lenovo, you are forgiven. And I'm sorry for any offhand "Chinese quality" remarks I may have made in the last 2 years.
I've been using it for 3 days now, and I can honestly say this is the best laptop I've ever had. Every gripe I mentioned about the X61 has been fixed with the X200s. The keyboard is, as far as I can feel, identical to the T60. Same travel, same sized side keys, no flex. The top is reinforced with a carbon fiber composite, and the laptop once again includes a roll cage, so everything is sturdy. As touted by Lenovo, the internal thermals have been reworked to cool down the palm rest and keyboard, and you can feel it. The SL9400, despite being a low-voltage CPU, is plenty fast. Hell, they even brought back the red IBM stripes on the mouse buttons that were removed from the T61/X61.
The X200s is a "more mobile" version of the X200. It uses low-voltage CPUs and a LED backlit screen to crank out even more battery life, 10 to 12 hours on a 9-cell battery. (By the way, even though the 9-cell batteries do hang off the back of the laptop, I found that actually makes a nice grip for walking while the display is opened.) With a 9-cell battery, the laptop is still only 3.4 lbs, .2 lbs more than the X61 with a 9-cell battery. And the X200s includes a composite top and roll cage, while the X200 doesn't.
(From bottom to top: T60 14", X200s, X61)
The 12" (16:10) X200s with its full size keyboard is about as wide as the 14" (4:3) T60, but the same depth as the 12" (4:3) X61. Working on a 16:10 display is a little odd after all this time, but it's easy to adjust to. It's thicker than an X301 (or its main rival, the MacBook Air), but still thinner than most other laptops, including the T series.
One thing that is really nice about ThinkPads is the accessory consistency. All three laptops use the exact same power supply (65W, 20v, same connector). All three use the same SATA drive sled. Because of that, I was able to take my aftermarket SSD (OCZ Vertex 60GB) out of the X61 and immediately put it in the X200s. Kudos to Ubuntu as well, my 10.04 installation went from X61 to X200s perfectly without any user intervention. Display resolution changed, new wireless card was recognized, Bluetooth was set up.
There is... one downside to the X200s. The color balance on the LED LCD is atrocious. Many LCD manufacturers weight the color distribution toward blue (the practice is known as "showroom syndrome" since more blue makes the picture look more "vibrant" in a showroom), but this was just plain horrible. Unfortunately, this being a laptop, there are no hardware color adjustment controls. Thankfully, I have the tools to correct for this, namely a Spyder2 at work. (I mentioned this while reviewing a Dell monitor.) Gnome now also has a color manager that supports the Spyder2, so I was able to profile the display completely within Ubuntu. I was able to get it to a decent balance, and published the ICC profile. So if you also have an X200s with LED backlighting, I'd recommend this ICC profile. Unless you like blue.
Article posted on Oct 21
I long ago gave up on keeping DVD packaging around, instead keeping everything in CD binders. However, I've been starting to amass a decent number of Blu-ray, HD-DVD, Xbox 360 and Wii games in full DVD keep cases. (Well, the HD-DVD collection is no longer growing.) I didn't really want to go to CD binders on those, but recently I came across DiscSox media sleeves. They're disc sleeves, but they also allow you to keep everything but the keep case: multiple discs, covers, manuals and note cards. They lay nearly flat, and take up between 1/4 and 1/3 the height of a normal DVD keep case.
That's 50 DiscSox sleeves (25 Blu-ray/HD-DVD, 25 Wii/Xbox 360) containing 78 discs, and nearly all of the packaging that came with the original media. The cover is folded so that the entire front cover and spine are visible on the front of the sleeve, and is slid inside so the back cover is visible on the back. If the cover is printed on both sides, the front inside cover is visible on the inside of the sleeve, but the back inside cover is hidden. Manuals and other inside material can be slid inside the front cover, and are kept relatively secure.
There are two protective cloth sleeves (the special cloth you see in CD binders) inside for holding discs. One disc can be a dual-sided disc, as the inner sleeve has cloth on both sides. You can actually fit up to four discs in a single DiscSox sleeve with a little creativity. A third disc can be placed behind the rear cover, as there is protective cloth there, but it will slide around a bit. I had a few sets of four discs, and used a regular dual-sided cloth sleeve for the third and fourth discs, and simply inserted that sleeve behind the rear cover of the DiscSox sleeve.
Here is an Xbox 360 game, complete with manual, in its DiscSox sleeve, both closed an open, with its original keep case for size comparison. The DiscSox sleeve is a little wider than a keep case, the same height, and of course much thinner. Most of my sleeves have a little bump from the spines, as each one has spent all of its life wrapped around a keep case. However, I'm anticipating they'll further flatten out as they settle.
The manufacturer claims you can fit 66 sleeves in one of its trays, but as you can see above, I fit 50 mixed-media sleeves in there, and it would be tight adding any more. But again, that includes all materials from the original keep cases. (For example, first-party Wii games tend to come with massive manuals.)
Overall I'm very happy with this system, but there are a few drawbacks. The discs are loaded in from the right side, so it's possible a disc could slide out while carrying a sleeve. This is a vendor-specific solution, so once you're committed to this solution, you better hope they stay in business. Also, the sleeves are (slightly) wider than any other type of case out there, so you're limited in third party storage options. (You may be able to use them in cases designed for CD jewel cases, as they're only a few millimeters wider than a horizontal jewel case.) They're also rather expensive; a kit containing 50 sleeves, a metal tray and some dividers is $52 + shipping. (They sell cheaper plastic trays, but don't look very good in my opinion. The metal tray, on the other hand, looks nice and has a very good build quality.)
How much space have I saved?
That pretty much speaks for itself. The stack would be much higher if it weren't for the TV series sets that are rather tightly compacted. (The DiscSox sleeves are still less than half the height of even the most compacted TV series box set.)
One thing I am incredibly impressed with is their customer service. I emailed their sales address to ask a question on a Sunday evening. (I wanted to buy a kit containing both a "Game Pro" 25-pack and a "HiDef Pro" 25-pack, but their site only lets you build kits containing two 25-packs of the same type). Vanessa from GameSox replied within an hour, on a Sunday night, and explained I could build a kit with either type, and to just say I wanted one of each in the order notes. She even emailed me after I placed the order to warn that I had ordered HiDef Pro dividers, and that I should switch to the taller Game Pro dividers so they would be visible between the games as well as the HiDef media.
I ordered on Sunday night, they shipped out on Monday, and it arrived on Tuesday. (They shipped out of the Bay Area, which almost always arrives overnight to Reno.)
Unfortunately the order wasn't perfect. 3 of the 25 HiDef Pro sleeves did not contain a middle cloth divider and could only hold one disc. I wasn't mad, as I had plenty of single-disc movies to use them with, but I still emailed Vanessa to let them know to look out for that. She immediately replied that they were sending out 3 replacement sleeves to me, even though I explained the situation and didn't require replacements. Again, excellent customer service.
By the way, I may have only used this system for Wii/Xbox 360 and Blu-ray/HD-DVD media, but it will work for regular DVDs, PS2 and PS3 games as well. In fact, even though they have multiple SKUs for different systems, they only seem to have two types of sleeves for modern systems (under the "Pro" line): DVD/Wii/360/PS2, and Blu-ray/HD-DVD/PS3.
Article posted on Apr 15
As part of my previously-mentioned Second Life-ish semi-addiction, I bought a 3Dconnexion SpaceNavigator 3D mouse. It's a $60 USB device about the size of a small fist, with a heavy bottom and a manipulatable knob. It supports three axes of spatial rotation plus movement in three dimensions. That is to say you can pitch, roll, yaw, move up/down, left/right and forward/backward, or any combination of these at the same time. For example, grab the knob and pull up to rise. To lower while barrel rolling to the right, push down on the knob while applying rotational pressure to the right. You basically have six axes to play with. (Yes, I know dimensional movements aren't considered axes, but just drink the Sony kool-aid for a moment.)
The Second Life client (and any client based off it, such as the Hippo OpenSim Viewer) natively supports the SpaceNavigator, and supports three modes. While in normal avatar mode, it controls your avatar: dimensional movement to walk/fly around, and roll/pitch/yaw to control where you look. When in edit mode, the SpaceNavigator controls the movement and rotation of the object being manipulated. Personally, I don't like using the SpaceNavigator for either of these modes. Movement with the SpaceNavigator is OK, but can get tiring pretty quickly. Yes, physically tiring. You're actually applying a significant amount of pressure to get it to do what you want it to do, and it can wear down your hand pretty quickly. As for building, using the SpaceNavigator is way too imprecise. More often than not, building is a much more mathematical objective than just moving stuff around. I would like an option to be able to use the SpaceNavigator while in build mode so I could manipulate the camera relative to the object, but that functionality does not appear to exist.
The third mode is where it really shines. Press the left button on the SpaceNavigator, and the SL client goes into Flycam mode. The camera is now detached from the avatar, and you now have complete control over the movement and rotation of the camera. This is what you can do with almost no practice:
That video was controlled entirely by the SpaceNavigator in Flycam mode, and was basically me tooling around Undef Lagoon randomly. One thing I should point out is that in that video, you'll notice that I was going forward at a constant pace while moving around. You'd be tempted to think that Flycam mode operates like a plane, with constant thrust, but no, I had my thumb pushing forward on the knob for most of it. Toward the end I do fly backwards for a bit. It's also a bit easier to understand the controls in this next video I made, as it starts out with a pull-back, while moving up and pitching down:
That video had a bit more jerky movement, because as I said, it takes a fair amount of pressure to manipulate the SpaceNavigator. So if you're not going full-bore (as I was throughout most of the first video), it's harder to maintain a constant pressure. Still, it has a lot of potential for machinima, and is just plain fun to use.
Article posted on Apr 12
A few months ago, I got a set of four reusable grocery bags from Walgreens, on sale for $0.25 each. Look for deals, but even at full price (usually $1 to $2 per bag), they are well worth it. Before that, I was downing in plastic grocery bags. My not-so-little IKEA plastic bag dispenser was filled years ago, and I seemed to find plastic bags thrown in pretty much every corner of the apartment. But these new reusable grocery bags combine the best attributes of both plastic and paper bags.
They're much bigger than plastic bags, mine at 1.3 cubic feet each. I can't find any info about the volume of your average plastic bag, but I'd guess one of my reusable bags is just shy of twice the volume of plastic bags. They're rigid enough to keep upright, but still flexible, and most importantly, foldable. The handles are sturdy and comfortable, and do not bind up and cut off the circulation in your hands like plastic bags do. And since you're carrying almost half the number of bags per trip, it's even less of a bind on your hands.
They're economical, too. I spent a whopping $1 for 4 bags, but they'll end up paying for themselves eventually. That's because Save Mart (formerly Albertsons) and WinCo give credits for every reusable bag you use: Save Mart at $.05 per bag and WinCo at $.06 per bag. Presumably Safeway and Whole Foods do as well.
My Walgreens bags are bit larger than your average bag. The bags I've seen for sale at Save Mart and Wal-Mart have the same floor space, but are slightly shorter. But don't limit yourself to what your grocery store offers! There are many different styles available on the Internet. For example here's a much larger model designed for bicyclists. Whatever bag you do decide on, look for that little loop on one side of the top of the bag. It hooks onto the plastic bag dispenser at grocery stores, and makes loading groceries easier. Your checker will love you for it (unless you bag your own groceries, in which case you will love yourself).
So comfort, economy and, oh yeah, that whole Earth thing. The only downside is actually remembering to bring them to the grocery store.
Article posted on Apr 7
If you're a frequent reader of my blog, you know that the Dell 2005FPW 20" LCD was the best LCD made. Ever. It was an S-IPS display, and used the same LCD panel as the $1400 20" Apple Cinema Display (2004 model), but at better than half the price of the Apple, and with more peripheral features. For 4 years, I've had the 2005FPW as my primary desktop monitor, and I've been struggling to get something to complement it ever since. I bought a cheaper Dell SP2008WFP (TN panel), but ended up returning it within a week Last December I bought an HP w2408h 24" that, while still a TN panel, was supposedly one of the best TN LCDs on the market. I made do with it.
Earlier this year, Dell released the 2209WA, first in Australia/New Zealand, then later in the US. The 2209WA is a 22" widescreen matte LCD, E-IPS 8bpp panel, 1680x1050 maximum resolution, 300 cd/m2 brightness, 1000:1 (up to 3000:1) dynamic contrast ratio, 6ms grey-to-grey response, and a 178° horizontal/vertical viewing angle. It currently retails for $279; I picked it up for $207 during one of their sales.
(If you are NOT a frequent reader of my blog, let me remind you that I am NOT a graphics professional. I am a Linux geek and amateur monitor snob, who happens to work at a marketing and design company. Graphics geek by proximity, you could say.)
First off the bat, I'll explain a bit about what an IPS panel is. 99% of the LCDs sold today come with TN panels. TN panels are fast, usually have better contrast controls, and are above all, cheap. However, they suffer from bad viewing angles (the point at which the picture washes out or inverts) and low NTSC color gamut. And often, cheap TN displays are manufactured in cheap ways unrelated to the panel technology; a common occurrence is uneven backlighting. (Display a black image and look around your LCD. You can often see where the CCFL tubes are, and where they radiate light unevenly.) Many TN displays are also badly color balanced out of the box, usually preferring blue. (This is particularly bad in the LCD TV market, known as "showroom syndrome", where excess blue makes images look more "vibrant" in a television showroom.)
IPS displays have better viewing angles (often 179° horizontal, and 170° to 179° vertical) and high gamut, but at the expense of a higher response rate, and of course, higher prices. S-IPS was the standard for high-end displays, but the 2209WA is an E-IPS display. E-IPS includes the same features as S-IPS, but a slightly lower viewing angle (178° versus 179°) and a lower gamut than S-IPS (but still much higher than TN).
The 2209WA features a square design with sharp lines. The base includes tilt, swivel and raise ability, and includes a hole in the back to route cables through. All three adjustment methods are relatively easy to do by hand, and stay in place well. The viewing area is matte, as is the outside of the bezel. However, the inside of the bezel (closest to the panel) is glossy for some reason, and as a result, it tends to reflect bright objects on the display that are close to the display edges. It's minor, but can be distracting.
The menu/adjustment buttons are square, the width of the bezel, from the bottom-right corner of the bezel. While this breaks the flow of the otherwise continuous bezel, it is useful, as the on-screen display's control legend lines up with these buttons. A chrome mirror Dell logo is at the bottom center of the bezel.
The 2209WA accepts d-sub VGA or DVI inputs, and can be configured to auto-sense signal from either port. It has a USB B (uplink) port to your PC, two USB ports on the underside, and two more on the left side of the monitor.
I borrowed a Spyder2PRO from work and calibrated the 2209WA. Out of the box, the 2209WA was set to 6500K, though it doesn't actually list the color temperature, just modes like "cinema" and "gaming" that adjust the individual RGB ranges, and also fiddles with the brightness and contrast. Since I had the Spyder, I opted to start with the factory default settings, and adjust RGB by hand.
The 2209WA was fairly well balanced out of the box. It was a bit heavy on the green, but was easily adjusted. My final numbers at home were 100 red, 92 green, 96 blue, to get an even balance, and the final color temperature measured 6506K.
On the left is my 2005FPW, on the right is the 2209WA. Color representation is pretty well matched, but notice that luminance matching was NOT performed, and using default brightness settings, the 2209WA is noticeably brighter than the 2005FPW, though not overpoweringly so.
The backlight is excellent. Out of the box, I saw some barely visible vertical discolorations about 1/3 and 2/3 of the way down the display when on a black background, but after I calibrated the monitor, I couldn't find them again. There is virtually no light bleed from the sides, tearing is non-existent during full motion video, and ghosting is barely perceivable.
One of the biggest feature omissions is the lack of 1:1 pixel support. This personally is not an issue to me, but could be a deal breaker for some.
The behavior of the built-in USB hub is also a problem. With the 2005FPW, the USB ports were always powered, even if the monitor was off. Every Dell monitor I've seen since then (SP2008WFP, and now 2209WA) has switched to a model where if you power off the monitor, the USB ports are also powered off.
The bezel looks a bit clunky; I still prefer the rounded bezel design of the 2005FPW. The lack of 1:1 pixel mapping and the USB issues are annoying, but not deal breakers. Also keep in mind that there is no composite/s-video/hdmi ports, nor any audio support. This is a monitor for graphics work, and is quite well suited for that task.
It's no 2005FPW, but hey, what is? But this is, hands down, the best value in IPS displays you can get right now, so I definitely recommend it.