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Buying A Laptop

By Joel Jaeggli

Having just read Micheal Shappe's review of the Fujitsu Lifebook 420d in the Nov issue of LJ I thought I would relate a similar experience I had in purchasing a new laptop for my organization. Academic User Services at the University of Oregon provides support for end users on timeshare systems running Digital Unix, VMS, Solaris, and Linux. We have a wide variety of desktop hardware including PC's running Linux, FreeBSD, NT, 95 as well as DEC Alphas, Sparcs, SGIs and Macs. We needed a portable computer to send with people to do workshops, attend conferences and demo software for people. Because our members use a number of varieties of Unix but only a little better than half of them use Windows in the course of their work, solid UNIX support of some variety was imperative.

Our requirements were that it should have sufficient space to dual boot Windows95 and Linux, more over all the subsystems should work equally well under either Windows or Linux. The Laptop needed to provide support for an external display at 24-bit color depth as well as have support for an external keyboard and mouse. It should above all meet those goals and be relatively inexpensive as well as reasonably compact and durable.

We eventually settled on a Toshiba Satellite Pro 220cds. The Toshiba has a complete compliment of ports on the back, PS/2, serial, parallel, IRDA, VGA, docking station and interestingly enough, a USB port. It comes with a Pentium 133 processor, 16mb of ram and 2mb of dram to drive the 12.1" passive matrix display at 8, 16 and 24 bit color. It has a small but sufficient 1.4gb disk. The audio jacks and the volume control are located on the front of the case. The satellite pro 220cds is over all similar to it's more expensive cousins the 440cds and the 460cds which will undoubtedly replace it eventually. They are distinguished by having active matrix displays, larger hard disks and in the case of the 460 an internal modem.

The keyboard is quite large, the feel is closer if anything to a desktop keyboard than anything that you would expect to find on a laptop except for the travel of the keys which is fairly short. The Toshiba laptops have a ThinkPad style trackpoint-pointing device rather than the ubiquitous trackpads that seem to be on almost all portables these days. It does not regrettably have a third mouse button like the new and very expensive ThinkPad 770; but the buttons are located on top of each other rather than adjacent to each other as on most trackpads. This makes them easier to press and hold down with your thumb while moving the trackpoint with you index finger, so you can drag a scrollbar in X for example without using two hands.

Once I got over the fact that windows95 osr2 uses a fat/32 filesystem which cannot be modified by fips, I used partition magic, a utility by Powerquest to resize the windows95 partition I was able to install Redhat 4.2 without trouble. The alternative would have been to repartition the disk by hand using fdisk and then reinstall Windows off of the supplied CD-ROM. I choose to partition the disk 800MB for Windows and 600MB for Linux since I needed to install some large Windows applications such as Adobe Frame and Microsoft Office. Rather than have separate var / and home filesystems I opted for a single large Linux partition. A 64MB slice reserved for swap, this made sense since I didn't expect var to grow too much. The computer wouldn't be serving to much and that everyone using the portable under Linux would be logging in as the same user.

The Toshiba 220cds uses a Chips and Technologies 65555 chipset for the video display. While AcceleratedX and MetroX support this chipset it is also well supported by XFree86's SVGA X server. If you choose to run the free server you can expect to get 640x480 or 800x600 on the internal display at 8 16 or 24 bits per pixels. Because it has 2MB of video memory you can drive an external monitor at up to 1280x1024 in 8-bit color.

Networking was actually easier to configure under Linux than it was in windows. The 3com Elink 3 ethernet card and megahertz 33.6 PC-card modem that we purchased were detected by Redhat's install disks which was fortunate because I installed Redhat 4.2 via NFS using the network card. Because It is a portable I haven't configured it with a static-ip, rather I DHCP the portable under both Windows and Redhat which facilitates dragging it back and forth between subnets on our campus a great deal. The python based Redhat network control panel is particularly well suited to adjusting your network configuration on the fly.

Configuring sound support turned out to be a pretty interesting exercise. I chose to use the commercial OSS-Linux sound driver to support the Yamaha olp3-sa chipset that the portable has. OSS-Linux could not auto detect the settings of the sound chipset as it had done with my desktop Linux machine. It worked fairly well once I figured out which irq's and memory addresses were in use by the sound chipset, which was pretty easy using the windows95 system control panel.

The Toshiba 220cds is not by the standards of the current high-flyer in the laptop world an exceptionally fast machine, It is however full featured and even given all the accessories that we added extremely cheap. The laptop itself can be had for as little as $1600. The cost of a 3com network card and a Megahertz modem were $120 and $220 dollars respectively. A spare lithium-ion battery an additional $199 and an additional 16MB of ram was $90. In all the fully configured laptop cost less than $2300.

I have been very happy with how well the new laptop has worked out. It is a compact and elegant package, which is similar in function and design if not performance to the cream of the Toshiba notebook crop such as the Tecra 740. The moderate sacrifice in performance results in a great machine at a fraction of the cost. I would recommend such a device to anyone looking in to run Linux on a laptop.

Copyright © 1998, Joel Jaeggli
Published in Issue 24 of Linux Gazette, January 1998