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Scott's Column
Laptop Troubles & The House

July 1, 2001
By Scott Lewis

This month has been heavily spent keeping tabs on the house. However, we did get a new laptop to replace our 6 month old HP Pavilion... because is was failing miserably.

The Laptop

If you remember, we bought a laptop in January. It was a HP N5190 Pavilion. The basic specs were: 700 MHz PIII, 128 MB RAM, 10 GB Hard Drive, DVD-ROM, 14.1" TFT Screen & Built-in Ethernet. Those were the major features. One extra feature that was critical to us was a TV-Out jack. This allowed us to watch DVD movies on our bedroom TV with the laptop.

Unfortunately, the laptop starting having problems. At first, we noticed the battery life was shrinking. We mostly used the laptop plugged in, but the few times we did run off the battery it would seem to need the cord sooner and sooner. It was almost like we had a NiCD battery with their memory problems instead of a LiIon. I tried to exercise the battery, but that became futile when battery life dropped to under 30 minutes.

The next problem was with the screen. It would flicker from bright to dim and back, repeatedly. It was annoying. After a couple of weeks of this I thought it was the A/C power connector. If I wiggled it I could simulate the problem. The difference between bright and dim was about the same as the difference in brightness the laptop gave to the screen when it was on battery power vs. A/C power, so I assumed the jack was getting loose. 

This diagnosis didn't hold water. The screen would flicker even when it was running off the battery... while the battery was still useful for about an hour at a time. (BTW, the battery use to last about two hours when the laptop was new.) I discovered that closing the laptop almost all the way then opening it would clear the blinking for a few minutes, but only a few minutes.

The final straw came when the left mouse (mouse pad?) button stopped working. It would work, then stop, then work. That lasted for a couple of days. Then it stopped working all together. After doing some testing I determined it would only work if you pressed on it very hard. It was not usable. As a work around I configured the scroll buttons to perform left clicks. This was barely acceptable, but necessary because my wife needed the laptop for her school work (she is a teacher). We decided to wait until the school year was over before taking the laptop in under warrantee. After all, we didn't know how long they would keep it to make the repairs.

While we were waiting for the school year to end I discovered a fourth problem with the laptop. The CD/DVD buttons on the front of the unit stopped working. I could no longer press the pause button to pause a movie. I had to press the escape key and go into the DVD Player software. This turns off the full screen mode, so I had to go back to that when returning from the bathroom or kitchen. A real pain.

I wish I had known what they were going to do with the laptop a couple of months ago. When we brought it in they just said they would exchange it for any laptop in stock that had the same features. Very Cool!

The only HP that had all the features that our old one had also had 850 MHz PIII, 256 MB RAM, 20 GB Hard Drive, 15" screen and a DVD/CD-RW drive. It was $300 more than ours was, and we didn't want to pay the difference. So we "settled" for a Compaq Presario 1800T. Its basic specifications are:

  • 750 MHz Pentium III
  • 128 MB RAM
  • 20 GB Hard Drive
  • 15" TFT Screen
  • DVD-ROM
  • 10/100 Ethernet Port
  • TV-Out

So we got an extra 50 MHz of speed, twice the hard drive space (sort of, more in a moment), and a bigger screen. Not Bad!

So far I have three complaints about the Compaq. 1) The Home, End, Page Up and Page Down keys are located in a vertical line along the right of the keyboard. On the HP those keys, along with the Insert and Delete keys were in a small group in the upper right corner of the keyboard. This will take some getting use to. 2) The left mouse button wraps around the scroll button to the right. The HP had the left mouse button on the left, and the right mouse button on the right. I have to look to see that I don't hit the left mouse button when I mean to hit the right, and the right button is pretty small. This is wrong. 3) Although the laptop has a 20 GB hard drive, it is partitioned into two drives. The C Drive is about 15.8 GB, and the D Drive is about 4 GB. The D Drive is used by Compaq's backup software. I would rather they just gave me one partition. The way it is configured I will never use the D drive. I feel a little cheated on drive space. A simple reminder that we originally had a 10 GB drive makes up for the loss. Also, I share my 60 GB D drive from my desktop and leave very little on the laptop except the installed applications. I have about 14 GB free on the laptop, so I will probably never notice (and never would have noticed) the drive partitioning if it weren't for seeing the extra drive letter in Explorer.

I really like the Compaq. It is supposed to be 0.4 lbs. heavier than the HP it is replacing, but I can't tell. I would probably have to hold them side by side to feel the weight difference. The Compaq seems more ergonomic. The bottom edge is sloped. This makes wresting your hands more comfortable. Also, I swear the Compaq is more than 50 MHz faster. My wife and I both think the Compaq is noticeably snappier at launching applications. It just feels faster. The screen is beautiful. I love the extra size. It seems a little brighter, but considering the problem we were having with the HP this might just be the impression a steady screen is giving us.

The lid to the Compaq is much smoother than the HP. The HP had a single release switch front and center to open it. The Compaq has two, one on each side of the lid. They are much easier to work. I almost never opened the HP with one hand, it was too stiff. With the release catches on both sides it is a more natural way to open the laptop, and it opens with very little effort. I like it!

The lid is also very cool looking. It is silver on the outside. It looks sleek compared to the HP. It is also thinner than the lid on the HP giving the impression that it is more modern. This is subjective, but my wife swears the screen it flatter.

Overall we are very pleased with the Compaq. When we bought the HP we got Best Buy's protection plan, essentially an extended warrantee. This is only the second time I have bought an extended warrantee (the first was for my big screen, 65" wide screen, TV). I am glad I did. With a desktop if some part went bad I could easily replace it, but with a laptop it is nearly impossible for the average person to perform even minor repairs.

BTW... when Best Buy did the exchange, their register spit out a rebate form for the Compaq. We already got a $200 rebate on the HP, now we get another $100 from Compaq. If this keeps up we could almost have a laptop for free. I still have 2-1/2 years left on the warrantee, so here's hoping that I can keep getting replacement laptops and rebates for another 2-1/2 years.

Compaq Laptop

I wrote the above section the day after getting the Compaq laptop, which was at the beginning of June. After using the laptop for a while I wanted to tell you a little more.

For starters this thing is fast. I cannot imaging that we only have 50 more MHz than the HP laptop. Everything seems noticeably faster. I realize speed is not that important in word processing, but Word 2000 flat out halls ass on the Compaq. The HP ran Word about the same as my desktop (450 MHz). 

I don't know why there should be such a speed difference. I think part of it had to do with the keyboard repeat rate. I noticed that the repeat rate of the keys seemed a bit slow with the HP. I remember setting them to the fastest setting in the Control Panel applet. The Compaq had a much faster repeat rate out of the box. However, after I installed all my software I noticed Word slowed down. I checked the repeat rate, just to be sure. It was only half way between slow and fast. I set it for full speed and that did the trick. Word will scroll like a speed demon. Like I said, I have no idea why this feature is so different between the computers, but the experience is very significant.

Regardless, I love the Compaq. I remember saying the HP was nothing special... it just had the features we needed. Well, the Compaq has the features we want (the TV-Out is a new feature for Compaq, so that's why we didn't consider Compaq when we originally were in the market) and it is a speed machine to boot. Highly Recommended.

Bad CD-ROM or Bad Windows Me

A couple of weeks before we took the HP laptop back, my wife wanted to play You Don't Know JACK... in the bedroom. (Note: Currently we are playing the 4th in the JACK series. I have 1-4 as wells as the TV edition. Highly Recommended! I may get the 5th soon, maybe not. #3, JACK The Ride, was the best... I hope they do another like that.) Anyway, that meant installing JACK on the laptop. When I inserted the disc the program that offers you the option to install or go online came up. I clicked to install and got an error. I reboot the laptop (something I don't do much with Win Me, but not because it is any good, just that the laptop does what we need it to do without too much fuss), but got the same error.

I remembered getting a similar error when I tried to run the installation for Paint Shop Pro 6. For PSP I slipped the disc into my desktop, shared the CD-ROM drive, mapped a drive on the laptop to point to the desktop CD-ROM, and low and behold... it installed PSP fine.

I tried the same trick with JACK. It worked... in fact it even ran JACK that way. Apparently it was able to realize the disc was present... even though it was in another machine. This was cool.

I blamed this funky behavior on Windows Me. I couldn't even install my Rio Port software that came with my Rio 600 so I could use the laptop to load the Rio with music. Even after downloading the software from Rio's site it wouldn't install on the laptop.

But when I put the JACK disc into the Compaq it installed fine. No problems. Now I wonder how much of the trouble I was getting was Windows Me or the CD-ROM drive in the HP laptop. Unfortunately I don't have the HP to test anymore, so I will never really know. I do know that I did not have to do use the trick to install PSP of the Compaq. My guess is that the HP's drive was a little flaky.

The House

The foundation was finally poured on June 14th. They started about 5:30 in the morning and poured 135 yards (15 trucks) worth of concrete. BTW... in case you didn't know... the phrase "the whole nine yards" comes from the concrete business. Concrete is measured in yards and the trucks hold 9 yards. When a builder needed 7 or 8 yards of concrete it was typical that he would tell the concrete supplier to "just send the whole 9 yards."

They finished pouring about 10:00 in the morning. Although it was hot, it was cloudy and humid which are supposed to be good for the curing concrete. The foundation guy said the weather was perfect. O.K.

20010614.jpg (34955 bytes)I headed out to the house around 11:00 AM to meet my wife. We had to wait until about 1:00 PM to put our handprints and carve our names in the floor of the garage before it got too hard. I know, it was a long lunch break... just don't tell my boss.

The framing is well under way. I expect to take a week off in July to do the roofing. My wife already bought me a hat to help with the summer Texas sun. Traditionally I hate wearing hats, but my thinning hairline lets me get sun burnt on the scalp way to easy as I drift into my old age (37). I figure I will start wearing hats a lot, especially since my next car will (hopefully) be a convertible.

Rio

I said I would make a brief mention about the Rio every month.

I still don't see any decent memory expansion for the Rio 600 yet. Just before Father's Day Best Buy had the Archos Jukebox 6000 advertised for $200 with instant discounts and mail in rebates. Damn... I was soooo close to asking for it for Father's Day. The house is going over budget and our monthly budget is very strained to save money, so I couldn't ask for it.

There is a chance we may move in with my in-laws when the lease runs out on our apartment at the end of July. With the extra money we will save during this 4 month period of time before the house is ready, I will probably do something toward the MP3 player issue.

SonicBlue... if you are reading this be prepared. If you don't have a decent memory expansion available by August I will buy something else and be asking for some kind of refund based on false advertising. You told me I could expect the 340 MB backpack for Christmas 2000, but I still don't see it. DataPlay doesn't list Rio or SonicBlue on their web site anymore for products that will use their 500MB discs. Oops, big Mistake!

SonicBlue, you have had plenty of time to get promised expansions out for the Rio line instead of building new versions. Support your existing customers before the word gets out that you don't care about people after you make the initial sale.

Conclusion

That about covers it. I spent way to many words on the laptop than I expected to. That's OK, this is a technology oriented column. Keep following the house project with my picture calendar to see the progress. I try to get pictures at least twice a week. I usually post them within one or two days of taking them, so it is your best chance to see things in a timely manner.

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