Custom PC, Issue 220

Custom PC Issue 220This month’s Hobby Tech dedicates a whopping four pages to one of the most interesting devices I’ve ever had on test: the MNT Research Reform open-hardware laptop. If that weren’t enough, there’s also a look at a classic book of early personal computing history: Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines.

The meat of my latest five-page column is a relatively straightforward review of the MNT Reform, a laptop that’s anything but straightforward. The brainchild of MNT Research, and the second-generation of the core design, the MNT Reform is open – from the design of the chassis with its eye-catching transparent base to the electrical designs for the motherboard, system-on-module, and even the 3D-printed trackball which sits below a mechanical keyboard.

As a laptop, though, it’s easy to find the Reform wanting on a number of fronts – from lacklustre performance to the absence of niceties like having it suspend when you close the lid. I then dive deeper into the project itself – and reveal something both unique and absolutely worthy of celebration, with an enthusiastic and growing community boding well for its future.

Two of the biggest issues highlighted in the review have since been resolved for future production runs: the trackball has been greatly enhanced by the addition of steel bearings, and the troubling power drain while “off” which can empty the batteries has been addressed with a firmware update to put the system management controller into a low-power deep-sleep mode.

Computer Lib/Dream Machines is, despite having been published in 1974, a publication with a very similar ethos at its heart: the idea that computing not only should be accessible to all but must be accessible to all. Long out of print, despite Microsoft’s efforts to publish a professionally typeset and updated version of the eclectic original in 1987, the book manages to be both of-its-era and yet somehow entirely relevant – and that’s even before you flip Computer Lib over to reveal Dream Machines as a second book bound as one.

The original version of the book has been preserved at The Internet Archive, and is well worth a read – though its format means you may spend quite some time zooming in and out.

All this, and more, is available now at your nearest supermarket or newsagent, online with global delivery, or as a DRM-free PDF download from the official website.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 173

Linux User & Developer Issue 173This month’s Linux User & Developer includes a rare laptop review, my first for the magazine since the Hewlett Packard 455 G3 in Issue 158, courtesy Newcastle-based Nimbusoft: the Aurora.

The Nimbusoft Aurora is the Ultrabook entry in a range of products the startup company is offering for sale, designed to offer portability at a reasonable price. Based on a chassis from original design manufacturer (ODM) Topstar, the Aurora can be tweaked at the time of ordering: the review sample sent across came with an SSD instead of a hard drive and an upgraded wireless card, both of which were reflected in the slightly raised price in the review.

The hardware’s not the star here, though: Nimbusoft is one of the only companies in the UK not only offering Linux as a pre-installed option on its devices but offering Linux exclusively. You’ll find no option to buy Windows on the Nimbusoft website, nor a PC Specialist-style option to buy the devices without an operating system installed; instead, all laptops come equipped with Ubuntu 16.04.1 LTS and you choice of officially-supported desktop environments.

As a Linux user myself, it’s a great feeling knowing that the laptop you’re firing up is fully supported and won’t run into any strange errors as a result of not-quite-ready wireless drivers or a badly-supported LCD backlight circuit. Accordingly, I was thrilled when the Aurora booted up in to an absolutely stock Ubuntu install with no bloat or branding, ready for me to give the device a name and create my user account.

While Nimbusoft may not offer Windows machines, the same can’t be said for other Topstar customers; as a result, there’s the usual workaround for the Super key being emblazoned with Microsoft’s Windows logo: a sticker, with a range of replacement logos available at the time of purchase or the key being left stock if you’d prefer. The same can’t be said of the Internet Explorer logo on one of the shortcut keys, though, and I was disappointed that this didn’t trigger Firefox when pressed – but that, the relatively poor keyboard, and a slightly sub-par battery life of five hours, were pretty much the only negative points I encountered during the review.

If you’d like to read my full analysis from a Linux user’s perspective, Issue 173 is on shelves now and also available electronically from Zinio and similar distribution services.

PC Pro, Issue 268

PC Pro Issue 268My review for this month’s PC Pro is on a topic dear to my heart: hardware which not only fully supports the open GNU/Linux operating system, but even comes with it pre-installed. Specifically, it’s the Aurora laptop from Newcastle-based Nimbusoft.

Based on a Topstar Ultrabook chassis, the Aurora is designed to appeal to those who like Apple’s MacBook Pro and MacBook Air range. Though not as powerful as the former or slim as the latter, it’s a comfortable little laptop with a slick aluminium chassis – albeit one I would discover during dismantling is rather thinner than you might expect.

The hardware isn’t the main feature of the Aurora, anyway. Nimbusoft’s claim to fame is in being one of the few companies offering a range of hardware with a Linux distribution pre-installed. the company even goes further than its competitors in offering a choice of desktop environments, and I’m pleased to say that the review unit – specced with Ubuntu 16.04.1 running the stock Unity DE – proved to be entirely without bloat or branding, in stark contrast to Windows laptops I’ve looked at in the past.

Reviewing the laptop for PC Pro involved running it through a standardised battery life test: the looping of a film with the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios disabled and the display set to a brightness of 170cd/m². This makes my result of five hours exactly – give or take a couple of seconds – directly comparable with the magazine’s other reviews, even of tablet-style machines. Getting the display to exactly the right brightness, though, is always a challenge.

While the battery life proved slightly disappointing and the chassis rather thin, I came away from the Aurora rather pleased – but to get my final verdict on the machine you’ll have to pick up a copy of PC Pro Issue 268 from your nearest emporium of glossy print or digitally via Zinio or one of the many competing digital distribution platforms.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 158

Linux User & Developer Issue 158As always, you’ll find two pieces of mine in this month’s Linux User & Developer magazine: the four-page news spread, and a review of Hewlett Packard’s latest Ubuntu-based entry-level laptop, the HP 255 G3.

Based on low-power AMD accelerated processing units, there are three devices to HP’s Ubuntu-powered laptop range: the entry-level 255 G3, as tested; the mid-range 355 G3; and the top-end, yet still budget-friendly, 455 G3. Prices increase by £50 each step up the ladder you take, jumping from just shy of £200 for the 255 G3 to £300 for the 455.

It’s fair to say HP’s hedging its bets with the x55 G3 family: while the model I tested arrived with Canonical’s Ubuntu installed, all versions are also available with Microsoft’s Windows on instead – a fact telegraphed by the use of the Windows logo on the Super key across all models, including the Ubuntu variants. That’s not something I can hold against the company, though: Linux on desktops and laptops has always been a hard sell, though in my opinion it would do better concentrating on higher-end models for developers – as rival Dell did with its Project Sputnik.

Supplied by nearby e-tailer Ebuyer, I had a blast reviewing the laptop – it made a real change from the usual teeny-tiny microcomputers, and photographing something with a back-lit screen is always a fun challenge. I was also surprised to see just how capable the entry-level model was, although it was disappointing to find the now more than three-year-old Ubuntu 12.04 LTS as the operating system of choice.

For my final conclusion on the device, my regular four-page news spread, and a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, you can pick up Linux User & Developer Issue 158 in your nearest newsagent or supermarket now, or grab it digitally from Zinio or similar services.