The T-Bao TBook R8 – 5 Weeks On

It’s been 5 weeks since that nice gentleman from DPD delivered the epitomy of chinese computing to my doorstep. Since then it has aquired a few scratches, admiring looks in the office, and I have a bit more experience with it. So far, the experience has been 80% positive. As expected, it’s not particularly a powerhouse. While zippy in most applications, it seems to struggle with large pdf files (audibly giving MusicBee or MediaPlayer a hard time while playback), it’s file transfer rate between devices is atrocious (max speed 15Mbit/s) – I am sure there is a connection somewhere. If I had any clue about its hardware architecture, I would probably be able to comment on it, but its motherboard is as obscure as they come and google resistant (if you’re interested in this sort of thing, here’s its dmesg). Which brings us to the next point: OpenBsd/Linux installation seems to be a genuine slog due to its -ahem- idiosyncracies, so I didn’t even attempt it, although I am sure it would benefit from a leaner operating system such as LXDE. The built in wifi is atrocious, as are its speakers, but this is remediable with an external USB wifi dongle and an audiocable.

Ok, enough moaning.

On the plus side, it runs an up to date Windows 10 (currently 1803) and Office 2016 without any issues. Unsurprisingly it doesn’t like more than 3 or 4 resource hungry applications running at the same time, but it’s perfectly usable. I have used it as a base station with external keyboard, mouse and monitor quite happily, and after some research found that the official Intel update software will keep its drivers up to date. Both my VPN and Anti-Virus software seem to be needing only a few CPU cycles, making it not the quickest, but certainly the most cost-effective laptop I have ever owned. It would be nice if T-Bao released a tool to control the mouse pad (the usual windows drivers seem to ignore it) to address its sensitivities, but these are minor quibbles. Most importantly, the MacBook Pro has been replaced by the T-Bao as my ‘on the road’ laptop: I can’t afford an uptodate MBP, so it’s nice to not expose it to the rough and tumble of mobile working for the moment.

This blue wonderlaptop continues to deliver. Long may it be so.

Buying recommendation: idiot proof.

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.

 

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.

Adventures in Mid-Fi Valve Goodness

As you undoubtedly know and vividly remember, I purchased a rather unwieldy and monstrous early nineties power amp last year: the glorious and terrribly powerful Marantz SM-80. Remember the beast? P1030333

Serviced and repaired by the impressive Mr Phil Good from PG Electronics (email me for the contact details) it turned out to be a veritable and lovely sounding chunky piece of rather uneconomic electronics. All it needed was a pre-amplifier.

Ha!

The choices are of course endless. One could go for a modern digital pre/pro and prepare ones household for Dolby Atmos, THX multiquadular systems or whatever modern home cinema sound setups are called these days. Or go back in time/back to your roots/back to life to re-introduce some stereo enjoyment in ones life. Having dabbled with tube harmonics before, I thought it might be a good idea to pair the SM-80 with a straightforward valve/tube pre-amplifier.

Boy, was I ignorant.

The current choice for people who don’t want to spend thousands of pounds on a tube pre-amp is ebay, who currently has literally dozens of choices of different chinese copies of classic tube-amps. DoukMall seems to be the current provider of choice, but you can of course spend thousands (and indeed tens of thousands) of pounds/euros/dollars on tube audio of your choice. But having read a few reviews of these clones of famous tube preamps of the past, I wasn’t sure whether I want to have one of them explode in my living room.

Here’s the moment were the lovely Aric Kimball comes to the rescue. Owner, proprietor and sole engineer at Aric Audio, he produces tube gear for people with slim wallets, all hand soldered on his workbench in Brimfield, USA. I have to admit that I was rather disinclined to prop up the American mid-fi industry due to their current obnoxious commander in chief, but Aric’s reviews were excellent and he was a pleasure to communicate with.

Ordered via email and paypal, the ‘Expression‘ arrived in time and on budget with a transformer adapted to UK’s 230V electricity. It has 4 RCA connects for line input and two RCA stereo outputs, giving you lots of choices for both inputs and outputs.

outside
That’s mine, during its testing phase. Picture by Aric Audio
innards
Proper point to point soldering here. No PCB boards. Picture by Aric Audio

So, out does it sound?

Impressive.

A buddy of mine and myself chose 8 tracks and compared it to my all digital audio chain, a Denon DBT 3313 and AVR-X5200 (good, solid japanese made mid-hifi). The analog and digital chain were seperated by a Beresford switch and hooked up to the very mid-fi Klipsch RF-52 II. We chose chamber music, symphonic classical music, electronica, acoustic pop, rock, female voices, male voices and jazz. Most of the tracks were from SACDs, but it didn’t matter what we played: the little tube pre-amp and the SM-80 blew the all digital audio chain out of the water. The biggest difference was soundstage: switching to the tube gear, the whole performance jumped forward into the room, with a much more palpable 3d aspect to the music. Highs were much more defined. I was a bit upset by that, as I genuinely thought that my Denon gear would much more hold its own.

Oh well, that’s psychoacoustics for you.

Summary: I am ecstatic with the new addition to the setup. It just shows that for a truly amazing piece of audio kit you don’t have to spend thousands of (insert Western currency here) to reproduce music to an utterly enjoyable level.

 

 

Douk Audio Mini Valve Tube Phono Turntable Preamplifier MM Stereo Class A Preamp

Quite the title, innit? This is the official (well, the seller’s) title of the newest piece in my one of my audio chains. Do I have more than one? Embarassingly, yes. I know. The best girlfriend ever fortunately has never been able to identify the small black boxes that appear and disappear on the IKEA shelf next to the TV and usually doesn’t notice when there’s one more or less. At present there’s one more. The “Douk Audio Mini Valve Tube Phono Turntable Preamplifier MM Stereo Class A Preamp”. Which it, I can reassure you, it is what it says on the tin. I wasn’t aware that there were class A preamps (with tubes no less) but a quick Google search confirmed that this wasn’t a marketing gag. On the other hand, I have seen catchier pre-amp names. Saga or Lync come to mind.

Anyway, the above mentioned piece of kit has been available for on ebay and various retailers of Chinese Hi-Fi and for £54 is not so expensive that when it explodes it leaves a particular bitter taste in your mouth (apart from the chemicals and the small glass tube pieces in your chin) but dear enough to be moderately reassuring. Douk Audio is one of the  brands of Shenzhen Cavins Technology ( Nobsound [yes, really] being the other one), and they seem to be flooding the market with affordable tube gear for tube-curious . Read the classic audio geek/nerd/anorak sites like DIYaudio or Audiokarma , and you get the impression that these things are walking, er, delivered death traps, full of unsafe soldiering, incomplete grounding, dodgy contacts. Well, this one didn’t have point to point soldering but – as far as I can see – comes on a PCB board. Delivery took reasonable 5 days and after unboxing, this was what I found in the little package:

p1030925

…which, after a bit more unpacking, revealed this (sorry, didn’t have a banana available):

p1030926

p1030929

The tubes are 2 small 6J1 (apparently not the bee’s knees in the audio world).  p1030928

Putting the little pre-amp together and hooking it up between my turntable and my amplifier (the lovely Musical Paradise MP-301 MkIII) suddenly gave me an all tube audio chain.

First impressions: it works. And it’s silent. Having had issues with noisy tubes before, the little preamp was completely quiet, and even turning the amp up to max didn’t reveal any extra noisiness. So far so good.

Second impression: listening to my vinyl test panel (ABC: Show Me; Matt Bianco: Summer Song; Donald Fagen: Century’s End) it turns out they are bit bright. Not in an unpleasant way, but you can definitely tell they favour the upper frequencies. This improved after a few hours (and with higher volume) but according to the lore web one is supposed to exchange them with some higher quality tubes which I will do. For the moment the thing works and I have no qualms about the purchase and the best girlfriend is happy because she likes tubes (she likes the glow).

Phew.

p1030931