Review

Discussions about the Alpha-400 sub-notebook

Review

Postby Trygve » Fri Jun 20, 2008 3:52 pm

This is written on the Alpha-400 after having used it for 24Hours, so...

Out of the box, this machine does NOT lok like the picture on the box, which is pretty lucky as the one on the box doesn't have a touchpad...
The theme(icons/background) is also different from what is available on the machine.
There's another reason the manuacturer should change the box, too; they've used the Apple iChat icon rather prominently...
The box itself is sturdy, and the padding is solid, so there's very little danger of anything damaging the machine, unless somenoe drives over the box.

The machine looks nice, with shiny, black plastic on top of the lid, but that won't last as all owners of black MacBooks or iPods can tell. Fingerprints shows up immediately. Will still look nice on a desk, though.
The PSU is the size of an older Nokia cell-phone charger, and might be mistaken for it unless you're careful.(The plug is thicker than on modern Nokias) and is rated at 9V/400mA
It should therefore be possible to run this of a cheap 'cigarette lighter' type adapter as long as it's a 'regulated' model with adjustable voltage settings.
Plugged in power and let it sit for a little while.
Used the wait to remove the screws on a cover underneath to look at the battery. It's 2100mAH/7.4V, and probably Li-ion. Because of screws and a fiddly cable/conector it's not worth the bother to have two batteries for 'extended periods' away from power.

Underneath there's a sticker with his text:
Important Notice! Please read before using!
* Unit uses Linux 2.4 platform, as this isn't an Intel CPU, you
cannot download and install other applications / games from
the internet that re not specifically written for this machine.
* Always reset unit first if you experience any and difficulty.
* To reset unit, press the reset button underneath the unit. Then
power on again.
* Closing he lid does NOT turn unit off or hibernate unit, and
will therefore consume battery power unless you turn unit off.
* Always save your data regularly.
* Supports data files up to 8MB.
* Battery life will be affected by Wi-fi and running applications.
* Battery charging time is about 4.5 - 5H.
* Working time with Wi-fi is 2.5-3h. Working time without Wi-fi is 3-4h.

Nice to know.
What wasn't as nice was the transparent sticker WITH THE SAME TEXT glued to the LCD. And yes, it was glue, not just those clingy foils often used as screen protectors.

Time to switch it on..
It took a few moments before it reacted to the power switch, but booting was reasonably fast.

I would now normally advice everyone to read the manual before progressing, but it's not that much of a manual.
In fact there are TWO included on a CD, one is a BIG MS Word file, which gives some pointers as to how to use the installed programs, and also a few .html files.
The .html files contains the most useful info and also most frustrating...
According to that, you can press F3 during boot, to get into a 'System recovery' menu, but as the image file needed to actually DO the recover was absent from my CD, all I can use it for is to check the status of the FLASH drive, something which is over in the blink of an eye.

Customizing it consists of clicking twice on the arrow pointing to the right(at the bottom of the screen), then setting the clock and owner information.
Then it's time to try out the Wi-fi...

You slot in the Wi-fi dongle in one of the three USB-ports
(One in the rear, two at the righthand side)
A small icon with an antenna should appear at the bottom of the screen, next to the power icon.
Click on the WiFi icon to start the connection program.

It'll take a few second to scan for networks, then you'll be presented with a list.
What you do now depends on your network, but if you're security-conscious and use WPA encryption you're up the creek as it seems this unit only supports WEP.
It is possible to set it up to connect automatically to certain networks, but I haven't tried that, yet. Also, you'll notice that there's not always that much difference between active and inactive buttons.

The browser 'Bon Echo v2.0.0.1 as it's called is in reality FireFox, so runs pretty OK.
Sometimes a bit slow on rendering, but as someone who has tried Opera 4.15 or even Web 2.0 on the old Psion netBook, it's more than good enough for portable browsing.
It will not display YouTube videos, though, but as this is FireFox, it's the work of a moment or two to download an add-on.

That brings us to a little trap...
To download add-ons, use the Tools menu, in the browser.
In the dialog you have a link 'Get Extensions' which you have to click ONLY ONCE to open a new tab(yayyy! tabbed browsing) with the official download page, then minimize the dialog with the '-' button in the upper righthand corner.
The first time I tried to download add-ons I clickd, didn't see anything happening, and after a little while clicked again... and again... When I closed the dialog I had at least 10 tabs open, busy downloading that page...

Media player.
This is he Xine player and while the Alpha-400 manual doesn't list it, it WILL play the .flc files you get when downloading from YouTube. ;-)

Calendar...
Every Psioneer like me (and many Palm owners also) will invariably ask 'How god is the Agenda program?'
It's both good and bad...
I can't find any About page, or other hints to the creators, maybe someone can recognise it?

Anyway, it offers Day, Week, Month and Agenda views, of which the last is just a list of the next tasks.
It does NOT have any alarm functions, and it will not let you attach notes to any appointmens, either. (That was very nicely done on the EPOC range of Psions)
What it will do, though, is allow you to define appointments that spans several days, and may be repetitive.
When repeating, you can specify as 'Forever', a number of repeats, or 'until when'.
As for intervals, you have Daily, Weekly, Monthly or Yearly.
Select Weekly and you get to specify how many weeks between occurences, and also which weekdays.
Monthly lets you specify how many months between offucrenses, and day..
In fact you get a drop-down 'Every' with the choice of First, Second, Third, Fourth, Last, and Second to Last. In addition you get a drop-down with weekdays.
It is then very easy to set it to occur 'Every Second Tuesday' in the month. And THAT brings us to the next surprise. As soon as you've selected the day, you GET ANOTHER LINE with the same possibilities. So the same appoinment can also be on 'Every Third Thursday' and then another line... Maybe 'Last Friday' this time...
Not certain how many lins can be added to a single appointment.
Daily and Yearly appointments doesn't seem to have anything special, though.

It also produces(and probably also reads) .ISC iCalendar files which can be imported into other Agenda-type programs.
Entries are sorted into 'Calendars' and it seems you can have more than one. They're all stored in the same file(hidden somewhere on the FLASH disk it seems).
There's no sign of any 'ToDo' functionality, though, which is a real downer.

There's no Contacts or generic database application on the machine. Maybe the spreadsheet can be used?

More about the HW...
The battery seems to last 2.5H when 'powersurfing'(downloading and surfing at the same time, using multiple tabs... )

It doesn't seem to have any automatic hibernation system.
Also, I have been unable to put it to sleep with the 'Sleep' key.

A few other keys also sems to be non-functional, like the one with the picture of the pop-up menu you get when you right-click inside a document, the 'PrtScr / SysRw' key, and a few others.
There is ONE key combination you MUST avoid at all costs, though; the [Fn] + [F5].
The [F5] key has a picture such as those used to switch between internal and external screens on laptops, and will black out the screen and make the unit unresponsive.

The screen seems OK in daylight, but I still don't know how it behaves in direct sunlight...
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Re: Review

Postby Trygve » Fri Jun 20, 2008 4:14 pm

Quick update...

It will NOT let you run more than 3 user program at the same time.
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Re: Review

Postby Trygve » Sat Jun 21, 2008 6:25 pm

Today, it's AbiWord 2.4.5 which is the center of attention.

This is a well-known free software package (http://www.abisource.com), so it should be OK so I won't bore everyone with the details of how to use all the formatting options, layouts, mail-merge and whatnot, just how it behaves on this specific machine.

It started up in a couple of seconds(would probably start faster if you could get rid of the splash screen... I hate splash screens! ) which isn't too bad.
Since a 'user manual' in AbiWord format was included on the FLASH disk(374KB, feel free to delete it) I decided to time how long it took to open it. That took about 10 seconds which isn't too bad for such a document since it has graphics in it.
(Graphics is rendered correctly.)
A pity that the file is in Chinese, though.
This version also supports several open documents at one time, which is nice.

Now to STRESS TEST it...
I have a 'small' document, which in .RTF format is about 840KB.
OK, I didn't expect it to import in the blink of an eye, exactly(Office XP on my WinXP machine tends to crash completely... ), so I was pleasantly surprised when it finished the import in around 5minutes.
What wasn't as nice is that some of the formatting got screwed up, and it indicated that the entire document would fit on about 30 pages(PAge indicator in the bottom lefthand corner). I checked, and it had set paper size to a custom 36" width...
This may be because there's no printer defined, and anyway, it was fixed by setting the size to A4. (The real pagecount is 280... big document... )

So I decided to save it in native format, just to be nice...
The file grew to 2.6MB...
Loading the native format document isn't appreciably faster, so I'd recommend sticking to .rtf if you tend to move between different machines and word-processors a lot.

Word count...
After 2m25sec, it started presenting the Word Count dialog box, but nothing more happened.
The 'x' in the dialog didn't work, but the one for the main window did...
(According to M$ Office, the word count is 114880, and there's about 3300 paragraphs.)

Note: This document was started on my Psion S5(8MB model), then moved to my Psion netBook where it stayed until it was about 700KB and 200pages. By then it was a pain to work on it (Psion netBook: 190MHz StrongARM, 18MB free RAM), particularly if you needed to edit in the middle, as this would cause 'repaginations' throughout the document. Writing at the end was slow, but tolerable, though, and just reading was OK.

Browsing the document works OK if you scroll slowly, but holding in 'Down' or 'Page Down' will cause lots of 'Artefacts'. As the artefacts disappear almost instantly when you stop scrolling, though, it's not a big problem.(This is probably caused by a less than 'impressive' graphics capabilities in the HW)
Inserting or deleting a few paragraphs in the beginning went without a hitch, too.

All in all, I figure that when I get rid of the toolbars I don't need and the rulers, it should make for a pretty decent notetaker.
Probably NOT the tool to finish up your PHd or Masters thesis, but it shouldn't be a problem to do all your notes and getting started on the big document itself.

Printing...
I'm given the choice between two printers:
'Create a PDF document' and 'Generic Postscript'
The postscript printer driver allows for LPR, File and Custom.
As I don't have a Postscript-enabled printer, that is something that will have to wait until later.
Creating a .PDF, though...
For the first 4 minutes it seems like nothing is happening, then it starts counting up through the pages on the status bar, and is finished with that when the clock passes 5m15s, then it 'hangs' again until about 8m15s when I get control back.
Afterwards, the OS feels 'sluggish'.
The sluggishness disappeared after I quit AbiWord.
(Probably a hanging process thread or something?)
There was no sign of the output file, though, so I loaded up the document to try again...

When I tried to print, it asked if I wanted to overwrite the file 'Output.pdf' so I checked with the file manager, without finding anything.
Just to make certain, I used the browse function to select a place to store the file.
This time, after the 8 or so minutes, and quitting Abiword, I found a 5.5MB .PDF where I had selected.

The PDFViewer loads the Output.pdf file in seconds, and it looks OK, so AbiWord - or rather, the print driver - is capable of producing good output to at least one popular format.
A pity that the driver seems to have those flaws;
making output files where they can't be found, and leaving hanging processes.
The first requires a couple of clicks to awoid(You have to click on the 'Save as' button, then the 'Save' button), and the second is solved by quitting the word processor.

The Spreadsheet seems to use the same printer drivers, and probably have the same problems.
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Re: Review

Postby Trygve » Sun Jun 22, 2008 12:50 pm

Finally, sunlight!

And yes, you can read the screen in direct sunlight. It's not very good, but it's readable.

On that note, it really wouldn't hurt if the machine had a BRIGHTNESS control...
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Re: Review

Postby Trygve » Mon Jun 23, 2008 4:57 pm

Did a bit more experimenting with the Word processor...

Took my file and split off the first 55pages as a separate file, ending up with one at about 500KB and one at 2.1MB.

Since I'm currently editing in the latter part(the 2.1MB file), I focused on that. I noticed that the styles hadn't survived the import into AbiWord, so I changed all the text into the 'Normal' style(which I changed to .15 Linespacing and Times New Roman), block by block.
When I now save it, the result is about 860KB, and scrolling now works without 'artefacts'.
Loading takes about 3 minutes, though, so not much change in that field.

The dialogs for editing styles, though, really suffered through the compilation for this machine, and are exactly user friendly.
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Re: Review

Postby Trygve » Thu Jun 26, 2008 10:16 pm

Focus today is on the spreadsheet, which is Gnumeric 1.6.3
See http://www.gnome.org/projects/gnumeric/
For user manuals and all that stuff...

I'm not much of a spreadsheet user, I only have two spreadsheets I use(one to keep track of exercise, and one for my home economy. Both are disasters...), and I don't use anything more advanced than SUM and COUNT functions, so...

Anyway, I fired it up to take a look...
First tip, which should be pretty evident, is to close down any toolbar you don't absolutely need. really...
(If you can do without, get rid of the status bar, too. )
This kind of program really need as much available screen space as possible.

According to the 'File Open' dialog, it can read these formats:

Applix (*.as)
Comma or Tab separated values (CSV/TSV)
Data Interchange format (*.dif)
EXPERIMENTAL SAX based Gnumeric (*.gnumeric)
GNU Oleo (*.oleo)
Gnumeric XML (*.gnumeric)
HTML
Linear and integer program (*.mps) file format
Lotus 123(*.wk1, *.wks, *.123)
MS Excel(tm) (*.xls)
MS Excel(tm) SpreadsheetML
Multiplan(SYLK)
Open/Star Calc (*.sxc, *.ods)
Plan Perfect Format(PLN) import
Quattro Pro (*.wb1, *.wb2, *.wb3)
SC/xspread
Text import(configurable)
Xbase (*.dbf) file format


Whew... Long list...

The Save as dialog, though...

Comma separatedvalues (CSV)
Data Interchange Format (*.dif)
Gnumeric XML (*.gnumeric)
HTML (*.html) fragment
HTML 3.2 (*.html)
HTML 4.0(*.html)
LaTeX 2e(*.tex)
MS Excel(tm) 5.0/95
MS Excel(tm) 97/2000/XP
MS Excel(tm) 97/2000/XP & 5.0/95
OpenOffice OASIS_UNFINISHED_
TROFF (*.me)
Text export(configurable)
XHTML (*.html)


And no, I have no idea why MS Excel is listed 3 times...

A changed document will get an '*' before the name in the title bar.
(Same also happens in AbiWord)

One problem I noticed is if you want to keep more than one 'WorkBook' open at one time, and that is that there's no easy way to select which workbook you want to see. (Workbook as in 'book of spreadsheets' It seems to default to creating books with 3 spreadsheets.)
When you want to switch from one to another, you minimize the one you're currently working on, and hope that the one you want is the next in line. If it's not, you have to minimize the next, too, and so on.
And to get back to the first?
Minimize until you end up back at the system screen, then maximize it again. That will bring you to the first woorkbook in the chain.

Tinkering and messing about, I found the 'Tools' menu...
It has Auto Save, which is a really big plus.
(Even better, it seems to work, too... )

Whatever the 'Goal Seek...', 'Solver...', Scenarios>', 'Simulation...' and 'Statistical Analysis>' menu choices do, I have of course, no idea about...

The 'Auto Correct...' is spell-checking. Always handy.

That leaves just one menu item.
'Plug-ins...'
Since AbiWord had an empty list, I didn't expect to find much here, either...
Yeah, right...

Applix - Is the reason it can import Applix sheets.
Charting: Bar/Col/Line/ara - Line/Area/Bar and column plots.
Charting: Box-Plots - Box Plots, whatever that is...
Charting: Pie/Ring - Pie and Ring plots
Charting: Polar/Radar - Polar and Radar plots.
Charting: XY/Scatter/Bubble - 2D Plots
Complex functions - Functions for Complex numbers.
Data Interchange Format (DIF) module - Read/Write *.dif files
Database Functions - Functions for looking up values in databases.
Date and Time Functions - Functions manipulating dates and time.
Engineering Functions - Functions for Complex numbers, base conversions and more.
Erlang Functions - Functions to help Erlang Analysis.
Financial Derivatives - Functions for financial derivatives
Financial Functions - Interest rate calculations
GNU Oleo - Import of GNU Oleo documents.
HTML & TEX - Import/Export of HTML, TeX, DVI, roff
Information Functions - Functions for inspecting values, cells and more
Linear and integer program expression format (MPS) module - *.mps...
Logic Functions - Functions for manipulating truth values.
Lookup Functions - Functions for looking up values in ranges.
Lotus 123 - Import Lotus 123 files
MS Excel (tm) - Import/Export MS Excel (tm) files
Math Functions - Mathematical functions.
MultiPlan (SYLK) - Imports MultiPlan files
Number Theory - Several basic utilities for prime numbers, pi, phi, sigma. Also some bitwise operations.
OpenCalc/StarCalc - Import/Export...
Plan Perfect - Imports Plan Perfect documents.
Quattro Pro(tm) - Imports Quattro Pro(tm) files
Random Number Functions - Functions for generating Random numbers.
Regression Curve: Linear - Linear regression curves.
Regression Curve: Logfit - Logarithmic fitting curves.
SC/XSpread - Imports SC/XSpread files
Sample Datasource - A proof of concept external data source - NOT ACTIVE
Statistical Functions - Statistical functions with naming conventions from the R Project.
Statistical Functions - Also Statistical functions...
String Functions - Functions for manipulating strings.
Surface Charts - Surface charts, whatever that is...
UI Hello - Hello World plugin using UI Service. NOT ACTIVE
XBase - Imports XBase files


I haven't a clue what much of that is, and no idea of how to use a lot of the rest, so please don't ask...
I do suggest that yuo examine the list and deactivate those you don't need.
(May result in faster startup of the program and less memory usage. Not that I have any idea how much memory is in use at any time anyway)

The Plug-ins dialog also gives a little peek into the innards of the file system, as it tells us that it will look for plug-ins in these folders:
Code: Select all
/opt/mipsel/mipsel-linux/lib/gnumeric/1.6.3/plugins
/root/.gnumeric/1.6.3/plugins
/opt/mipsel/mipsel-linux/lib/goffice/0.2.1/plugins


I did find a bit of info about that "Linear and integer program expression format (MPS) module" and what it's all about...
http://www-unix.mcs.anl.gov/otc/Guide/f ... g-faq.html

All in all, it looks like a slightly dated version(this is 1.6.3, the latest stable version on the net is 1.8.3, and 1.9 is available for testing), of a fast and very capable spreadsheet.

I don't know how good the user manual on the net is, as it's for 1.8, though.
If anyone find anything too different, or have a version that is more appropriate, feel free to post in a separate topic.

Edit: According to a FAQ on the Gnumeric website, the standard version doesn't support more than 256columns, and that if you needed more, you'd have to change a parameter in the source and recompile.
That is either a recent change, or someone whave done just that with this version because it seems to allow me to scroll all the way out to a column marked 'IV' (not Roman numbers...) which I get to be something like 468 columns.
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