HP 840 G1 vs. Dell E7440 vs. Dell E5450

HP Elitebook 840 G1 vs Dell Latitude E7440 vs. Dell Latitude E5450

A visual comparison between three 14″ business laptops that may be of interest to some of you. My Dell Latitude E5450, my Dell Latitude E7440 and an HP Elitebook 840 G1. These are the sort of laptops that are about two to three years old and are sold as used items on eBay. I received the E5450 as a new item though, otherwise it would probably be in a worse shape as the body is not as strong as the one on the e7440.  Continue reading “HP 840 G1 vs. Dell E7440 vs. Dell E5450”

s/HP/Dell

I have recently upgraded my main computer from an HP EliteBook 6930p to a Dell Latitude E6430. After 7 years of using HP business laptops, the transition to the Dell range is a welcome change. Here’s why:

1. LED screen
Both machines are 14.1″ laptops with a slightly higher screen resolution than the usual (and rather horrible) 1366x768px. While the HP is from 2009 and still came with a 1440x900px screen, this new Dell laptop has 1600×900. A lot of programmers / web workers actually prefer higher screen resolutions, and I meanwhile also, but in the beginning the tiny font was a problem. Since I usually only go for business laptops with docking stations, my main screen is an external 22″ monitor at 1680×1050 – so this screen issue is secondary to me.

What matters though is the illumination technology – which is based on cold-cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFL) on my old HP. As mentioned in my 2009 review of the HP 6930p vs. the Dell E6400, even the E6400 already had a nice LED screen, just as about half of all Lenovo T400 laptops sold. Of the 6930p sold since 2008/2009, most models only came with the CCFL version – and the few available LEDs only had a WXGA / 12800×800 resolution. It is only recently that someone came up with a hack to install a WXGA+ (1440×900) LED screen from a Lenovo T410 into an HP 6930p. I once thought about doing this hack and already bought the cables, but such 14.1″ LED screens usually sell for ~ 140 EUR alone. These days, second hand 6930p laptops sell for around 200 EUR, so any such investment would be rather stupid.

New laptop, new screen, issue solved.

The bitter truth may be that I should have picked a 14.1″ laptop with a WXGA+ LED screen in 2009 (e.g. the E6400 or the T400). The WXGA++ LED screen on the E6430 is an instant LIKE (even though the CCFL version had better colours).

It seems there are no 14.1″ laptops with really good screens. It’s either 12.5″ (Lenovo), 13.3″ (Apple) or 15.x”/17.x” if you’re interested in something like IPS panels.

Continue reading “s/HP/Dell”

the tablet alternative

Intro
I have about 20 GB of water & sanitation (watsan)-related publications on my computer. Most of them are in PDFormat, and most of them I’ve just opened once and then archived out-of-sight. With some I’ve also only read the abstract (if available) because relevance is important and I feel there are a lot of policy blabla papers out there that don’t get me anywhere. Still, I actually need to read them.

I work from my home office and don’t have any IT department I can call when I have an IT problem. Which means I have to have a backup solution in place for when there’s a problem. Like a 3G modem when the cable modem is on holiday. Or a second computer, ready to be used in combination with my 22″ TFT and external keyboard + mouse combination.

In the past, I’ve used an Asus eeePC 1000HGo (1000HG with a 3.5G modem) netbook ex 2008 (which I’ve blogged about here) for this task and liked this litte machine:

eeepc1000hgo

It’s a very nice netbook with the typical 10.x” setup, matte display, 160 GB HDD, 2 GB RAM, 1.3mpx webcam and a 3.5G Huawei modem (which surprisingly works well and out-of-the-box with Linux). The best part about these eeePC netbooks certainly is the tiny power supply. I don’t like the bulky cords (the cords!) that come with 90W power supplies. Eh.

I’ve also been using it as a mobile DVB-T receiver (TV) and while travelling + on holiday. My other, main machine is an HP EliteBook 6930p on a docking station, so I am “mobile computers” only. This eeePC also has a button to switch screen resolutions within Windows between the default 1024x600px to 1024×768 (compressed view) and 800×600. That’s something very handy when you’re dealing with apps that need more than 600px vertical height.

The problem

Now, I’ve been wondering how people actually read all these PDF publications? Do they print it out? You know, some of these publications are well over 100+ pages, also with a lot of graphics. And then I just can’t see myself reading these documents on my main computer. My eyes already hurt and balancing a laptop on your…well…lap… isn’t a long-term solution.

Yes, tablets. The Apple iPad or modern Android Honeycomb tablets. Both still kinda expensive and also limited, but very good in what they do. I am actually waiting for Amazon to launch their 7″ Android tablet later on this year. And eBook Readers? I’ve thought about buying an Amazon Kindle (also because it’s affordable), but a) eBooks in Germany are often as expensive as the printed version and b) the current eBook Reader is too small for displaying readable PDFs in vertical mode (I think). The Kindle DX would have been an option, yes.

I also did this little survey via FB and some of my friends voted as followed:

ebook-umfrage

Most of my FB friends, it seems, are using their notebook/laptop to read these PDFs. Also, eBook readers seem to be very popular. I also use an eBook Reader / PDF reflow tool like GoodReader (on iOS) or ezPDFReader (on Android) to read PDFs directly on the phone. But even though my Motorola Defy mobile phone has a very nice screen resolution, trying to read longer text on a small device is just an interim solution.

The solution
I’ve often been dreaming about using an IBM ThinkPad X4* or X6*. Fellow blogger Steve had at one point in the past already recommended HP tablets to me and also is an avid user of an X61s. I like ThinkPads for two reasons:

a) you can set the recharge level of the battery and leave it on the machine, so it won’t overcharge. Not possible with HP laptops.

b) Fan intake is at the side of the laptop body, not underneath. It’s not that they are cooler than those who suck in air at the bottom, but it’s a matter of overheating because most ppl will keep the laptop on a table or, even worse, balance it on their lap, so the intake may be covered. ThinkPads are smarter in this regard.

The other – important – fact to mention is that I realized how crazy this miniature thing actually is. I am tall and don’t want to balance a small 10.1″ netbook on my lap. Makes me look even taller and there’s no need to use a small machine when I can also be a bit happier with a 12″ device. In fact, I think my next main machine should be a ~ 13″ device. Perfect size, imo.

So I sold my netbook and bought this HP Compaq TC4400 instead. It’s a 12.1″ XGA tablet notebook with a Dual Core CPU (albeit 32bit), 2GB of RAM and some old-fashioned stylus thing. It’s my first tablet, my first Wacom pen tablet (my last + cheap drawing tablet was from 1999 and never really worked) and I am very curious how I will use it. Also, it was cheap. 97 EUR + a used 250 GB HDD + another keyboard with EU-layout (US-keyboard misses one key) + new battery = about 160 EUR. Not bad, given that I received a similar amount for the sold netbook :-)

tc4400-drawing

Buying 2nd-hand / refurbished items sometimes is like gambling – you never know what you’ll end up with. Of course with a dealer you can return the item (12 month in Germany!), but I didn’t want to return anything and actually enjoy fixing stuff myself. I had to glue a broken display bezel, but to my surprise the rest was very much ok as the vent (often reason for overheating) had already been cleaned by the previous owner.

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opened-tc4400

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Note : it’s recommended to refasten all screws on a computer, even the internal ones because the “grade B”-rating that made this one cheaper was upgraded to “grade A” after disassembling it, cleaning all parts with isopropyl alcohol and then reassembling it again.

I am currently running both Win 7 and LinuxMint LXDE on this tc4400 and already love it. Sure, it’s a pen-controlled tablet with a keyboard pre iPad era, but with Win7 a lot of cool stuff is already supported out-of-the-box. Battery runtime seems to be 3.5h (and the battery is really small). I also like it because:

  • It’s compatible with both HP docking stations in our home office (HP nx8220 and HP Elitebook 6930p).
  • Caps lock keys suck and unfortunately there’s no keyboard light / illuminated keyboard available. What it does have, though, are yellow led lights next to the key so you’ll instantly know if you’ve activated the caps lock key. Smart design, imo.
  • I dig the XGA screen resolution. Yes, it’s only 1024×768, but you know what? My 14.1″ Elitebook is WXGA+ 1440×990 which results in about 128 dpi. 128 dpi is tiny! My eyes hurt. Also, it does not have an LED screen (hey, the machine was cheap and is from 2006!), but it has good viewing angles. My main machine does not have such good vertical viewing angles.

That next thing I will need to figure out is why the touchpen (PL800A) has to be so expensive as a spare part (update: i found this one via eBay). The pen has a circuit inside and while drawing a sample picture on my tc4400 today, I often acidentally clicked on the right-mouse-button of the pen. Maybe it’s just me but I’d also like to try out some alternatives here. Any recommendations?

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And the best part? It’s both a laptop and a reader. Kudos to Steve for recommending this one to me!

I am very curious how I will make use of this (cheaper) alternative to the netbook and how or if I will use it as a reader for the many PDFs waiting to be read. After all, I can still sell it if it doesn’t work out for me and my needs. But going by other reviews online, especially by what HP tc4xxx owners have said about their tablets, this one seems to be one of the best tablets out there.

my vision of a perfect laptop

Recent news about an updated range of HP EliteBook (laptop / notebook) computers made me realize that I should compile a list of things I’d like to see on future laptops.

My list, or should I say: wishful thinking (but not utopia), does not include things that I don’t want to see on a laptop, and isn’t limited to material issues. Instead, it’s my own realistic approach to that “good-guy”-thing they’ve been talking about in IT since the very beginning.

Also, most of my observations are based on the business ranges from Dell, IBM/Lenovo, HP and also Acer. Some, if not all desired changes are already possible and available in some parts, others probably limited due to licensing or marketing reasons.

First: I’d like to see a leasing approach on most laptops so that they can be recycled and be made out of better materials.

You as a user / customer only pay for the use of these computers. The manufacturer shall use this relationship and consequently use materials of higher value which can be recycled (not downcycled). This c2c closing-the-loop concept is the basis for me on any product I like to purchase. I am not asking for “biodegradable” materials on my computer, but a good mixture of pollution-free materials that also won’t be toxic to any creature. This is important. There’s already so much toxic waste out there and we spend a great amount of time in front of a computer every day. So the computer should be made of non-toxic, recycable/reusable materials.

Having said that, the following is my list. I consider the display and the keyboard/touchpad the most important interfaces on a laptop.

  • Display: very bright, should be readable in direct sunlight without problems, high contrast, energy consumption should be very low, very good vertical and horizontal viewing angles, matte (not glossy) cover, ratio 16:10, ~ WXGA+ is ok. Probably also with a touchscreen option, which includes that it can be turned 180° around and flipped over (~ tablet computers).
    If this tablet option isn’t included, it should be possible to open all displays up to 180° (or similar).
  • Keyboard: manufacturer should offer the choice between chiclet and traditional keyboards. Keys should have a unique pressure point, enough width and no stupid layout “specials”. But since opinions on keyboards differ a lot – some ppl still prefer the ThinkPad layout – there should be different keyboard designs for the same machine. So those who prefer the “FN” key in lower left corner (instead of “Ctrl”), should be able to change it. Either via a hardware swap, or by using illuminated icons on the keys – similar to Art Lebedev’s Optimus Maximus keyboard.
    The keyboard should also be illuminated. But not via an external keyboard light like the one found on Lenovo ThinkPads or HP EliteBooks, but instead an illumination from beneath the keys – backlit keyboards. See DELL Latitude and Apple MacBookPro keyboard illumination – that’s the style I prefer.
  • Touchpad and / or Touchstick: users should have the flexibility to pick what they like best. I personally never use the touchstick, others love it. Also, the availibity of three buttons for those who need it (Linux users) is important – either virtual within pre-defined areas of the touchpad or physical. And not only on 15″+ laptops.
    It’s so easy to include another, third button, so I am wondering why not all laptops already have three mouse buttons.
  • Size: I like the 13″-14″ form factor best! This way they are often light enough to be carried around, accomodate a full qwertz/y keyboard and can still be balanced on your knees. 15″ is also ok with me for programmers who need the space on the screen.
    I used to believe that smaller computers are better and easier to carry, but in the end it doesn’t make a big difference if you have a 12″ or 14″ laptop to carry around. It’s the extras that matter here.
    I also believe that A LOT of people prefer a solution like the Mac Book Air where they’ll have the comfort of an OSX computer in a very light bundle with an attached keyboard. Also because more computing power often isn’t required. This may apply to those who do their conference hopping. Others who need their laptop as their “main machine” certainly require a real laptop (hence my post here).
  • Body: the “HP Duracase magnesium alloy chassis” on my current HP EliteBook is very nice and imo better than most ThinkPads or Latitudes. I would not want to compare it with the unibody aluminium chassis of recent Apple Mac Books because that’s a different approach to manufacturing, not worse or better. I think the ideal chassis stability depends on all other requirements. It may appear that the unibody structure is the best (as recent EliteBooks also come with a unibody-styled top cover).
    The aim for a durable laptop frame/chassis also includes details like the clam shell design introduced with ThinkPads back in the days where the display cover would not only sit on top of the keyboard (when closed), but also close the gap between the mainboard and the display, thus preventing any obstacles from entering into this area. I’ve seen that modern Elitebooks (i.e. 8640p) have some sort of rubber lip that’s supposed to do that. Interesting design.
    Some smarter engineering should also be applied on the display lock. I had to repair the one on my EliteBook – twice. After the second repair, the lock now works very fine. This is so basic yet HP messed it up on my machine.
    Likewise, all hinges on all laptops should be as stiff as the ones found on all recent business laptops. No complains here.
  • CPU & GFX: any Dual CPU is fine with me. I’d like to have an option where I can either choose between the internal or a dedicated gfx chip (both on the same machine, like some ThinkPads T400 had with hybrid gfx chips) OR a modern solution that already does that for me automatically so that I can play the occasional game on my laptop but will not complain about this battery drainer for the rest of the year.
    RAM and HDD can be swapped, so I won’t mention them any further.
  • Connectivity: This is a big one. Of course, USB 3.0 ports. Three or four would be nice (my current laptop has three USB 2.0 ports). Firewire? Never needed it. Express/54 cards? Why? Who needs them? How many business users actually need it? Fingerprint reader. Yes. SecureChip thingy for business users? Yes. Audio-OUT, Audio-IN _AND_ LINE-IN? Yes, so you can use these audio ports on a professional basis and don’t have to add another external audio card (e.g. I use Line-In for Software Defined Radio audio sampling). Oh, and the sound from the internal speakers should also be loud enough for most users. Some professional laptops that cost more than 1500€ are still sold with horrible speakers. Microphones? Of course, stereo. Webcam? Yes, but with a simple hardware cover.
    CD/DVD/BlueRay….hmm… yes, but always make it swapable so that those who don’t need it can insert a 2nd HDD instead. Card-Reader: yes, of course, and not only SD/MMC. RJ-11? :-) RJ-45? of course! Display ports: if possible – all of them. If not, VGA & HDMI? Bluetooth? Min. 2.1, if not higher. Wifi? Yes, a/b/g/n. InfraRed? No, outdated.
    WWAN, yes, all antennas and a modem that will work with all operating systems (i.e. not this Qualcomm Gobi thing). GPS? Is included with modern Gobi modems. GPS should be accessible. All components should be lockable and unlockable on BIOS level from all operating systems (= you won’t have to boot into Windows just to unlock your disabled WiFi to be used in GNU/Linux).
  • Docking station: all laptops should have a connector for a docking station (not just USB dockings, but real ones). This is so basic but still my main reason why I am not using an Apple MacBook. No docking station, no fun. And please, this “docking” is a bad joke.
  • Battery: Minimum battery runtime on the default battery with surfing and wifi on should be 6h. Period.
    Batteries should also be removable/serviceable by the user, also because they don’t last as long as the machine.
    I don’t know if battery technology will change that much during the next 3-4 years, and my hope is that we find a technology which would enable the production of energy the moment we need it – which would then elliminate the need for high capacity batteries. But as long as we haven’t achieved this, I’d like to see less heat on computers. The generated heat is where all that wasted energy goes to. Imo, optimize the energy consumption and you’ll also fix the heat problem. Regulate much more components, make them use only as much energy as they need. Use more sensors to double check that. Really, there are ways of achieving this and it’s not that hard. But it’s a buying decision. And it’s not about buying spare batteries. If you think the average customer spends around 150€ on spare batteries, just improve your energy management and add this as a surplus charge on your product. Any customer will pay more (see Apple!!) if runtime is improved. I will depend my next buying decision on a) display quality and b) battery runtime.
  • Heat: as mentioned above, heat is a problem with most laptops. I like the fan intake on ThinkPads (my main reason for ThinkPads) which is located at the side of the chassis. On Dell and HP, it’s both at the bottom. This is stupid. And on MacBooks? You don’t get to hear the vents most of the time but ask any MBP owner on heat problems. Yes.
    I would also like to have a computer I can take to work in a dry, hot and sunny African country without having to worry about any components. Cooling, as a start, should be excellent. Again, there’s so much potential on the heat dissipation thing.
  • Power Supply: Power supplies shouldn’t weigh more than 300gr, should be as small as possible, should NOT come with these really thick 230V cables even if the law still says so (ha! – but the cable weighs more than the transformer…), they all should have magnetic plugs as found on MacBooks (Apple, PLEASE licence this to others) and they should all have an LED indicator light (yes, some still don’t have this!). An LED on both the transformer and the plug.
  • Operating Systems: I like Windows. I like Windows because it works fine on my laptop. I like OSX because it works fine on MacBooks. I like GNU/Linux on desktop PC because it doesn’t give a damn about battery runtime. Honestly, I don’t care about the used OS as long as it is adjusted to the hardware I am using.
    It’s the details. Hardware that will only work on Windows, not in GNU/Linux even though the machine is certified to be compatible with SUSE Linux. Yeah, right. Software that will *know* how to address my hardware and will make proper use of it. This actually is one of those 1:0 situations for Apple. I prefer their approach (but they don’t have serious docking stations, etc. etc.).Instant-On-OS: a second, simple OS that may be switched on when the computer is offline. Many tasks are web based these days, some just require a quick check on computer data. It would be nice to have this on my “good laptop” (my EliteBook has this where it’s called “QuickLook” and “QuickWeb”…. but HP, well…., HP is a big bureaucratic company with no clear vision on things, it seems. It still does not work as beautiful as it should probably do).Also, as this often depends on the OS the laptop came shipped with: a clear policy on user data. Create a second partition, find a way to easily backup your home directory. Give users more flexibility in securing their data. After all, the hardware may die but your data should survive. It’s almost like asking manufacturers to have an extra HDD just for the static user data, and an SSD for the OS and programs only.

I think that a lot of the mentioned details above will still not be possible because of:

  1. marketing reasons (because they want to sell more, because their product managers are salespersons and not end users)
  2. technical limitations (the heat problem, smaller power supplies)
  3. licensing issues (patents on technologies such as the magnetic plug, and maybe also the fan intake on the side?)
  4. companies, who are the main customers of business laptops, don’t have such requirements and prefer machines that provide a controllable IT environment instead of any desired flexibility
  5. there’s still no such good + open + secure operating system that will play very well with the attached hardware.
  6. The design is done with a short product cycle, planned obsolescence, no dedicated C2C policy and in regions where quick wins are more important than overall achievements and happy customers (that’s why I suggested the leasing model, btw, because it would help a company to extend the product cycle and so much more).
    You can see this with the Qualcomm Gobi WWAN (UMTS/EVDO) modem which is a very nice piece of hardware, but was designed only once and all manufacturers then adopted this design to their needs. Probably licensing issues and the lack of human resources that limit the availibility of proper GNU/Linux drivers for this modem. Not good.
  7. Who designs these laptops? Engineers in the US, in Europe or China? Does each company have their own engineers? I don’t think so. Are these engineers paid to define what users/customers need and want? Who sets these targets? And what kind of relationship do these companies want to have with their customers? Are they interested in a relationship that goes beyond selling hardware and spare parts?

If there’s any serious manufacturer out there who would like to build THE perfect laptop: I am available. :-)

What I don’t like about Apple MacBooks…

Interestingly, you’ll find quite a few “10 reasons why I dislike my MacBook Pro” posts on the internet, but you won’t find blog posts titled “10 things that I hate about my HP Elitebook xyz” . While that’s pretty amusing, it’s about time to add my own reasoning. Also, I need to find out why people love their MacBooks so much.

Continue reading “What I don’t like about Apple MacBooks…”

HP Extended Life Battery AJ359AA

It’s strange to see how my blog has turned into a tech-blog, where I am often documenting my love for gadgets. After almost 5 years of blogging, I think it’s safe to assume that I am geek who loves to bring his gadgets to perfection* – only to quickly realize that there no such thing as “a single truth” or even “the perfect computer”.

One of those attempts at improving my IT hardware is the recent purchase of the extended battery pack for my HP 6930p laptop.

This particular machine…..well….*sigh*…. is very peculiar, and not what I expected when I bought it (2nd hand) a year ago. The issues I am having with this computer are the following:

  • The WXGA+ display has good colours, but it drains the battery like any other CCFL screen. Too much, I think, while the competitors already come with modern LED screens. Plus, it is only really bright when screen brightness is set to a maximum (ambient light sensor turned off). Not good.
  • The internal EV-DO/UMTS modem (HP un2400) may be able to work with many different global mobile networks due to the fact that it dynamically loads its firmware on each start, but this also means that it’s a pain to get this working within GNU/Linux. Also, it may only be activated while the main battery is inserted. WTH?
  • Faulty display lock – as mentioned earlier (which I’ve meanwhile fixed myself to some extent).
  • Thermal design. My laptop actually never overheats, but I’d love to see fan intake being on the side instead of at the bottom. I think I’d only see this with an IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad though.
  • Battery runtime. As mentioned above, I get about 2-3 hrs on the standard 6-cell battery with about 60% screen brightness and one wireless adapter (Wifi OR WWAN) activated. The HDD is also optimized via HDDScan + some other tweaks to save on battery power. I should, however, mention that my laptop has a dedicated ATI graphics card and no internal Intel gfx solution (my previous notebook was an HP nx8220 with 15,4″ display, 8cell battery but also ATI gfx card and had a standard battery runtime of about 3.5-4hrs).

I think when it comes to power saving, the best method is to use an operating system that was optimized to run on this laptop and consequently comes with a good power management. With a standard Ubuntu 9.10 installation, you won’t find this comfort for different reasons. I *think* it’s against this background that the default setting on a Ubuntu installation is to quickly dim the screen while the computer is idle because the screen often consumes the most energy next to the HDD and the (often obsolete) DVD drive. Win7 adopted a similar approach and now comes with an improved power management which I am yet to explore and compare to my previous WinXP experience.

Last week, I found this really cheap offer (30,- instead of ~ 120,- EUR) for an HP AJ359AA 8-cell extended battery pack that directly connects to the bottom of this laptop and is also compatible with the docking station I am using at my home office:

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The extended battery pack may cover some parts of the vent / fan intake, but this really doesn’t make any difference for the machine.

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With both batteries connected, the laptop now weighs 2.867 gr – which may sound quite a lot for a 14,1″ laptop, but it doesn’t feel too heavy and also due to the good materials used on this HP, there’s no flex on any parts. Single weight is about 446gr for the 2nd battery. (+ ~ 500 gr for the power supply AND it’s heavy power cord !).

HP power supplies actually deserve their own blog post. Seriously. These bricks also come with thick & bulky power cords in most regions which may be required by law but also suck tremendously. Plus they don’t have an active LED like most other competitors and are very sensitive to irregular power sources. The Kensington power supplies aren’t an alternative, btw.

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It’s not as bulky as it may look like from the pictures.

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HP also eventually included an indicator on the battery for the charging state – good! You’ll also find this on DELL laptops from 2004, though… what took them so long?

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The lifted bottom in the back not only adds a convenient angle for typing – it also improves handling of the computer while balancing it on your knees. Also, for those who aren’t using their computer on a docking station, this also eliminates any heating problems with the fan intake on the bottom as it lifts the computer up and provides a better circulation of air.

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One important detail is that the laptop uses the energy coming from the extended battery pack first – and then switches to the primary battery. Smart!

My preliminary verdict: for only 30,- EUR, this was a very smart purchase as it not only improves overall battery runtime, but also adds handling comfort and an improved heat management. For any owner of an HP laptop, this is a highly recommended add-on (not only for those who require that extra battery runtime).

I am sure you’ll get about 10-12h out of these two batteries with an LED screen and SSD drive. But then, even the cheaper Acer Timeline consumer notebooks will achieve that… (that is: I am not sure if my next notebook will be a business machine when I get a similar or even better performance with cheaper consumer hardware).

*perfection: I am always looking for the BEST laptop that will provide a perfect keyboard, a bright LED screen with great contrast, at least 3 USB ports, an iluminated keyboard, good weight below 2,5kg, 12,1″ – 14,1″ screen size and standard battery runtime of at least 5hrs. Sounds like a MacBook (Pro) to me, or an IBM T410s. Hmm…. still too expensive atm. My gf does not understand why I am so picky on this, but she’s also never been in charge of IT in a government institutions in Kenya where productivity depends on a perfect mixture of hard- and software. Or in other words: I choose my hardware for a scenario which would also enable me to use it in an internet café in Nairobi as well as taking it to Lake Turkana – or a conference in Europe.

3x 3G modems

I recently bought a new notebook (HP 6930p) and made sure it also comes with extra antennas (next to the WLAN antennas on top of the display) so that I could install a Wireless Wide Area Network (WWAN, pictured below) adapter which I had to buy separately.

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HP un2400 wwan adapter on the HP 6930p

The good part about this wwan adapter – an HP un2400, also known as Qualcomm Gobi 1000 – is that it supports different frequency bands so it can work in many different parts of the world. This, however, and maybe that it is hidden under a cover inside this computer so you don’t have to carry extra gadgets, is the only good part about this modem.

My other computer is a netbook which also has a wwan modem – an Asus eeePC 1000HG. Just slip in your SIM card (underneath the battery), boot into WindowsXP or Ubuntu and you’re ready to go online, simple as that.

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HUAWEI EM770 Mobile Broadband modem on the eeePC 1000HG

The HP un2400 modem on my HP notebook, though, will ONLY work when the (main) battery is inserted. HP names “carrier certifications” as the reasons for this requirement as:

  • This prevents SIM fraud
  • This prevents any possible corruption if the SIM is removed while the notebook PC powers on

Yeah…right.

Just to remind you: the 3g modem on my Asus eeePC will work either way – whether the battery is inserted or not, it just works.

And then there’s this thing called “Firmware” – which also is a very peculiar process on the HP modem. Whereas most gadgets will normally come with their own (preloaded) Firmware (which may or may not be updated by end users), this Qualcomm Gobi modem requires an initial load of the firmware prior to its use (HP’s Connection Manager will take care of this under Windows XP). Once you restart your computer, you will have to reload the firmware. The only possible reason for this – to my understanding – is that it enables the modem to adjust to different wwan environments. But that’s about it. Needless to mention that you won’t find any drivers for this device for Win7, and I’ve only come across a few users who managed to get this device working under Ubuntu after lots of fiddling.

And again, no problems with my netbook & its Huawei EM770 3g modem. Real plug & play, regardless of the operating system.

“So where’s the problem?”, you may ask, “aren’t laptops/notebooks and netbooks designed to be run from battery power anyways?” – Well, yes, BUT! I always remove the battery on my notebook when I’m about to connect it to a stable power supply for a longer period. Like when I plug it into the docking station at home, I always remove the battery. I do this to save it from being constantly charged. It’s a precaution that helps me keeping the battery at ~90% initial charging capacity after three years usage (as seen on my old HP nx8220 notebook). It’s a proven method that worked for me and saved me from spending another EUR 80,- on a spare battery.

And the worst part about this wwan adapter is that HP locked the BIOS to _ONLY_ use these modems. It wouldn’t be possible to use the 3G modem from the eeePC on the HP notebook.

Alternatives

Now, this is the part where I actually want to talk about alternatives to these internal solutions, which are often still considered to be the optimal solution. As described above, it’s a not-so-perfect solution for those who want to use other operating systems then Windows XP and/or Vista. It’s an epic fail that HP still needs to realize. An epic fail on all of their “EliteBooks” as HP calls this series (HP 2530p, 6930p, 8530p).

The eeePC I have is also available without such a 3g modem – the price difference used to be EUR 100,- less. People (not me, I got it cheaper :-) actually paid this difference in order to get a netbook with an internal 3g modem. As for the eeePC, the price difference is (was) justified as you had to cough up about the same amount for an external modem some time ago.

However, now, in September 2009, things are a bit different. Be it Germany or Kenya, you’re actually able to get an external USB-based 3g modem for something like EUR 20,- to 30,- – which is a decent price, I’d say. Sure, you could even get it for less (in Germany) if you go for a 24month contract with a network provider but I am only talking about prepaid solutions here.

E169
the popular Huawei E169

And these USB sticks are the very reason for blogging all this. I think that these external 3g modems are still the best solution for the following reasons:

  • they are supported by different operating systems & often well documented on the internet
  • they often come with their own software so you won’t have to worry about that part
  • power consumption on these devices is moderate, also because they are easier to remove (and wouldn’t require a software switch on the OS) – just unplug them
  • some of these sticks come with an extra socket for an external (UMTS) antenna
  • some of these sticks come with an extra flash memory capacity
  • they are relatively cheap these days
  • they can be used on more than one computer – just unplug them and hand them over to your friends (provided you have an unlimited data plan)

The disadvantage of course is that you’d have an extra device at the side of your notebook which blocks one of the often limited USB ports.

In the past I’ve also used thethering my Nokia phone to the computer and using its 3G capabilities to surf the net; and on my old & beloved (and now sold) HP nx8220 notebook I had used a PCMCIA (PC-Card) version of these 3G modems which I blogged about earlier. The PCMCIA version worked fine, albeit the PCMCIA port being known for quickly draining the battery (which also became obvious as it heated up pretty quickly). My new HP notebook has an ExpressCard slot, so this could also be an alternative if USB ports are really limited and already used for other devices.

To be honest, with this limitation of the internal 3G modem on my HP 6930p to Windows XP & Vista (and probably also Win7 one day), I’d probably go for another machine in future. I actually don’t know about the 3G modems on a Dell E6400 or Lenovo T400(s) – all of them seem to come with a Gobi device these days -, but I hope they aren’t as crippled as this Qualcomm Gobi? HP uses on their EliteBooks.? And signal strength (RX/TX ratio) actually isn’t so much better with the internal antennas which have to compete with the WLAN antennas for the limited space above the display. However, I understand that it isn’t the modem which sucks (some websites claim it even comes with an internal GPS chip?!) but rather HP’s policy which prevents us from using alternative operating systems and even locks the system down to this device only.

And with my policy of drawing a clear line between user data and the operating system + hardware, the external USB modem is just so much more convenient. It’s a plug & play device that adds modularity & flexibility to the system.