The cheapest 15.6 inch laptop ever?

I recently discovered the joys of Chinese online distributors. It’s not really my fault, but Germany’s leading technology magazine “C’T” featured one of their yearly robotic vacuum cleaner tests in last month’s edition, and for some reason the best girlfriend ever suggested contributing to the test’s best performer, the (admittedly amazing) Xiaomi Roborock S50 2. While it unfortunately sends architectural schematics of my groundfloor and my network details back to China, it really does an excellent job of cleaning the place and swallowing the crumbs and garlic pieces I seem to be distributing around the place. But vacuuming is beside the point here. Now that I am on the books of the Chinese distributor of the contraption, they keep sending me offers of more delicious technology, so I obviously had a look at their laptops. Browsing brands I’d never heard of, I came across the T-Bao Tbook R8.

The ad promised me a 15.6″ screen laptop for £156 pounds, with another 20 quid for shipping and insurance. A 15.6″ inch laptop for under 200 pounds? “Hell yes”, to quote Ed Milliband, so I pulled the trigger, and less than one week it’s here on my lap. First impressions are what I expected: a bigger version of my Pinebook, with a very similar feel to the plastic, keyboard and trackpad. A tiny ‘welcome’ piece of paper, no manual and a far too short AC adaptor cable with a universal plug. So far, so expected. Its hardware specs make it clear that this is no gaming laptop: 4GB of RAM, 64 GB of EMMC storage, an Intel Cherry Trail X5-Z8530 CPU (a recent Atom, as far as I understand), Intel HD 400 graphics, one 2.0, one 3.0 USB slot, a rubbish webcam, a micro SD card slot and headphone output. Nothing to be excited about. Have a look at an unboxing ceremony by those lovely people from OSReviews here:

64GB storage is – I am sorry to say – not a biggie anymore. While my Sinclair ZX-81 had 1kb ram -which I was perfectly content with for ca 1 week – 64GB pretty much covers your cousin’s wedding in pics and movies these days, so I was a bit sceptical whether I could turn this into a work – laptop. Nevertheless, it seems to work out ok: Windows 10, Office 2016, various small tools and – most importantly – my work related files on my iCloud drive – seem to need exactly 40GB. That leaves me enough space for potential updates and any additional media (Music/Movies) that can be stored on a SD card.

   

How does it feel working with it? Surprisingly good: the keyboard is a step up from the terrible Pinebook keyboard (though it does look remarkably similar) and is generously sized, though the keypad is, as expected, not great. This is not going to be such an issue for desktop work, as one would use an external mouse, but it will need some adaption to not impede workflows. Speedwise, I can’t complain: with Spotify streaming to my AVR, Outlook downloading bits and bobs and Firefox having 3 windows open, the CPU reports 63% load (though 80% memory in use). It nevertheless feels super-zippy and the display is very comfortable on the eyes. The Cherry Trail CPU has a very modest power consumption, so battery life is pretty good and will last you at least 4 hours while doing routine stuff. I have to admit that I haven’t tried any graphics – heavy applications (though I might give the GIMP a go later), but this is not what I bought the laptop for. The built-in WiFI is pretty rubbish, but a small a/c/n 3.0 USB wifi adapter has dealt with this beautifully. The DAC seems to be ok as I had loads of fun with my headphones on, listening to Spotify.

So, in conclusion:

Pros

Price, Keyboard, Screen, Power Consumption, Speed, Silent

Cons

Keypad, Connectivity, Storage, RAM

Is this the perfect low cost laptop? Undobtedly, yes. Find me a similarly handsome, zippy machine for this price, and I will eat my Pinebook. Is this the perfect laptop? No. It’s certainly no Power Mac (still my go to machine for all ‘professional’ work’), nor a Thinkpad, but for 156 quid with its great keyboard and limited, but acceptable functionality it’s a no-brainer.

 

The Interstellar Age

Since my first encounter with Star Trek in the early seventies, Astronomy, Planetary Science and Astrophysics were all academic careers that I secretly coveted. Wouldn’t it be amazing to slowly but methodically entangle the secrets of the universe with a bunch of like minded people or continuously improve the technology needed to assess the necessary data. In other words, become a boffin.

It unfortunately turned out that I was far too lazy to put the work in to become adequate at either physics or math, so by the time I was ready for university I knew that this was not a realistic career to pursue. Today I know that it that it takes ages to get through grad school, that it is pretty tricky to become a PhD student in the necessary field and that you get paid peanuts as a post-doc (if you can get a job at all). So, probably the right decision to rather watch sci-fi and read about space exploration than actually be involved with it. I rather pay my yearly dues to the Planetary Society, listen to the right podcasts and marvel at the work the boffins crank out.

With the remaining members of Voyager 1&2’s science and engineering team celebrating 40 years since the two probes blasted off, the New York Times featured this event quite prominently in its science section, with a particularly lovely article about the remaining engineers by Kim Tingley. I have been following the fate of the two probes for decades as well (the advent of the internet has helped) and thought recently it would be nice to get a nice roundup of their history, so I bought Jim Bell’s book ‘The Interstellar Age’ . Bell is an accomplished academic and heads his own department at Arizona State University (and is the president of The Planetary Society), so you’d think he’d make a top notch author for a book on the Voyagers.

Well, unfortunately, he isn’t. I have no idea why, but rather than focusing on the scientific wonders and engineering issues that such a project discovers, he uses the book to frame his own personal academic career within the timeline of the two probes. Hell, it takes him 41 pages to begin the actual story. Interspersed with the history and some of the findings of the probes there are semi-funny anecdotes of him being a helpful grad-student, but then he omits the story around Voyager1’s faulty radio receiver before the Jupiter flyby. He also spends far too long on the design of the golden records.

I got increasingly frustrated by this book. While without question a nice chap, I really wasn’t particularly interested in Bell’s career, even if it touched Voyager from time to time. I’ll now have to hunt for somebody else’s account of those two technological marvels.

Recommendations welcome.

Matt Bianco: Gravity

It’s only been 7 months since Mark Fisher’s death, and we already have new Matt Bianco album. I didn’t know what to think about that. For me, Matt Bianco meant Mark Fisher’s catchy keyboard harmonies and Mark Reilly’s characteristic voice (I know, there was a different Matt Bianco with Danny and Basia, but that never did it for me). My favourite MB tunes were all Fisher/Reilly collaborations, so with him gone it was difficult for me to imagine what a Fisherless MB album would sound like.

While Fisher was ill, Reilly already collaborated with the dutch alternative jazzers New Cool Collective. I quite liked what they came up with: the album had some cracking tunes and I liked the New Cool Collectives idiosyncratic melange of brass and rhythm. So for the next Matt Bianco album Reilly again switched musicians: out are long time collaborators and studio heroes such as Tony Remy, Andrew Ross, Nick Cohen, Simon Finch, in are Graham Harvey (him of Incognito), Magnus Lindgren (Scandinavian Sax wunderkind), Dave O’Higgins (ditto, just not Scandinavian and already on Gran Via’s ‘Victim of Love’) , Geoff Gascoyne (British jazz bass legend) and Martin Shaw (Trumpeter extraordinaire). Elizabeth Troy – who got the background vocals job after Hazel Sim left) was allowed to stay.

So, all new personnel, new sound? Definitely, yesyes.

Out are the sequencers, the drum computers and electronic percussion. No more layered synthesizer harmonies, appregiatos and funky rhythm guitars. This is Reilly accompanied by classic acoustic jazz band, doing a Kurt Elling impersonation. This is not meant as a slight, as it works really well. A longstanding joke between the three remaining Matt Bianco fans is that you usually get two or three cracking songs per album (that’s ten pound per song if you order the Japanes import), and Reilly and his collaborators don’t disappoint: ‘Heart in chains’ and ‘Before it’s too late’ are excellent, and up there with the best of 30 years of Matt Bianco.

The album has been on heavy rotation at Chez Fordiebianco’s for 6 weeks now (tolerated by the best girlfriend ever – some sort of compliment, I’m sure) and I am still enjoying it. If you think about it, becoming more jazzy was always on the cards as Fisher and Reilly became more mature. HiFi Bossanova was already halfway there, so it feels natural that Reilly and the Jamie Cullen Band (which is what his marry men apparently are) have just progressed to where they should be.

This is a beautiful album that is beautifully produced and as such deserves a first class hifi system.

Nice one, Mark.

Unboxing the Pinebook64

So last week a package was delivered to my work place. It came in a padded envelope and was addressed to me from someone in Hongkong. That’s usually a good thing. As it turns out, is was.

Mmmmh. What could it be?

Aha! The long awaited Pinebook64. As the team from PINE sensibly only orders the hardware to be built once enough orders are in, I had to wait 4 weeks for my particular  unit to be built, but for this price was happy to be built.

 

Certainly a new take on packaging a laptop for a 9000km journey, but it worked, as the plastic minicase was broken, but the Pinebook arrived in perfect shape.

 

 

Pretty thing, innit?

All connectors present and accounted for.

Two USB2 connectors, headphone connector, micro ssd slot and power. What else do you need?

 

The unit came with a completely depleted battery (which we were warned about on the Pinebook forum – apparently an issue during quality control), but after two hours it happily started up. It immediately booted into this special Ubuntu remix, running on a board supported package (BSP) linux kernel, making it possible for this Allwinner board to run this OS. Hardware specs are not particularly exciting, as you would expect from a machine for £75.

It’s got a 4 core Arm A53 CPU on an Allwinner board with a Mali 400 MP2 graphics unit, a 16GB EMMC and 2gb DDR2 Ram. It’s pretty much a low-specced mobile phone in a (well designed) plastic laptop case. But, the display is gorgeous, it looks and feels pretty sturdy, and it’s perfectly usable.  The GUI is responsive and easy to use (previous Ubuntu use will help), Libre-Office runs well and Chromium is acceptable to use. Even that terrible slog on browser resources, Apple’s iCloud website, is usable. Youtube and Vimeo work well on Chromium. The speakers are very very tinny, but the DAC is of acceptable quality, so headphone use is ok. I haven’t yet checked battery performance, but I’m expecting good results from a solid state machine like this.

The PINE community has  a few different OSs you can try, but at present I’m quite happy with the current OS. Only bugbear is the inability to switch GUI’s, as I’m pretty sure at these specs would benefit from using LXDE instead of MATE, but I’ll be happily tinker away until I got it sorted. For this price (it’s actually more 160£ with import tax and postage) you can get a used chrome book or modestly specced used Windows laptop, but what’s the fun in that? The future is definitely in low priced, low specced machines like this. Will it replace my Macbook Pro for day to day use? Of course not. Would I take it on holiday for some light browsing, emailing and watching movies? Yes.

Jazz Under The Dome

It often astonishes me how much good music is out there, lying around in charity shops, often for sale for a pittance. I often wondered what it must feel like as an artist to find the product of  years of hard graft in a bargain bin in a charity shop, for sale for 50 pence. Probably a bit dejected, I would assume.  A few weeks ago I purchased about 20 or so Jazz records from a charity shop (paying a few bob more than was expected of me) and took them home for sorting. The vast majority turned out to be the usual dixie albums by various pop and mum’s cousin from down the road bands that somehow scraped enough money together to make a record, but a few where genuine discoveries. One of them is the impressive ‘Jazz Under The Dome‘ by the Freddy Merkle group. Stylistically to be found around Miles Davis’s ‘Birth of the Cool’ (though harmonically a bit more conservative), this is a collection of songs composed, arranged, conducted (from the piano, which he plays on the sessions) by one Bill Potts. An excellent feature on Bill Potts by Eddie Dean in the Washington City Paper gave me a bit of background and led me to discover a whole range of amazing jazz from the late fifties: Lester Young’s sessions with Pott’s trio in some dingy nightclub in D.C. Potts recorded with his own gear, and ‘The Jazz Soul of Porgy and Bess‘, a commission from United Artists. The guy had some serious jazz chops, and as I’ve been listening to his music for the last 4 hours I can thoroughly recommend his oeuvre.

That’s where the true fun lies when taking old second hand vinyl home: one album will open up a narnia of cool new stories, biographies and much more music. So for tonight the house is swinging to the tunes of Bill Potts and his various co-conspirators.  And thanks to the much maligned Spotify I didn’t even have to go through baskets of second hand vinyl to find them.