UPDATE: I’ve contacted Cathy Malmrose in regards to some of the questions that arose in the comments sections below. It seems that the invoice that came with the machine was not completely representative of the device I had received. This unit does not have nVidia graphics.
Look and Feel
At first glance, the Alto 3880 will not strike envy into the hearts of any. Like any standard PC laptop, it’s dressed in glossy, molded plastic pieces. The design decisions here are almost certainly OEM driven as the laptop takes a 3-tone neutral color scheme that presents itself in a bit of an awkward way. The lid emulates a brushed metal look with an attractive ZaReason screen-print right in the center. This is the first of a couple nice touches on ZaReason’s behalf. If this unit is closed on your coffee table, your guests will probably ask you, “What’s a ZaReason?”. In this respect, I think it’s quite effective. The brushed metal look for laptop lids is a little dated now, so this will not trend well in the vanity department.
This guy is a little bit of a beefcake, and it feels like a 15.4” laptop even though it’s not. At 14”, it fits comfortably in a lap, and though it’s a little on the hefty side, I wouldn’t call it unwieldy; though this much weight is a little awkward on a unit this size. Considering the specs on this machine, I’m not surprised by its girth, though if I got the basic configuration, I would not be pleased and might consider some thinner options. Overall, it feels like a PC, right down to the points of access on the bottom. There is a hatch for easy upgrading of the RAM—though this unit was maxed–, hard-drive and mini-PCI. It’s a nice site to see such a plain surface too! No pesky, ugly Windows 7 COA to get in your way, and no stickers that will only become heat-damaged over time. Personally, I find comfort in these little compartments, and if you’ve ever had to upgrade a unibody Macbook’s hard-drive, RAM or other, then you will probably appreciate it too.
When I opened the lid, I was greeted by what is probably the best mousing surface I’ve ever used. Several thousand little dimples run the width of the laptop below the keyboard and give a slightly rough, but pleasing texture. Most laptops picked up on the trend of textured track-pad surfaces in the mid-2000s with HP leading the charge. The problems with these however, were the glossy finishes. After a few months of use, the oils and grease from your fingers would eat through the finish and leave a permanent blemish in the most travelled area of the trackpad. Once the finish is gone in that area, you can’t smoothly traverse the surface any longer, affecting usability to a great degree. Obviously, I haven’t had months to spend with the unit, but I think this surface might be immune. No glossy finish to be eaten away, just a nice medium between rough and smooth. It’s perfectly consistent and miles ahead of some of the competition.
[two_third last=”no”]At 1366×768 @ 14”, this display isn’t going to win any awards. That’s not to say that the display is bad; it’s just nothing to write home about. The pixel-density is on the low side for this size display, but the image is razor-sharp and might fool you into believing that it’s an IPS panel. If you’ve used an iPad, then you are probably accustomed to being able to scrutinize images pixel-by-pixel, and you may be fine with it. I’ve always had a hard time viewing devices with low-pixel densities and I’m a bit of a pixel density enthusiast—click the link if you don’t get the reference—so for me, this display is a curse.
As an entertainment laptop, which is what this feels like, it’s a great value and the screen makes sense. As a production machine, I don’t think I could get used to this. The only reason that I call attention to the possibility of this being a production machine—to make things with or be productive on— is because of the configuration that I was sent. Check the specs on the right. My review unit is completely maxed out. Moreover, it came with an Nvidia GeForce 590GTX graphics chipset, which is the fastest thing on the market right now. I was able to open 40 instances of a 1080p movie trailer, The Avengers, and the machine didn’t drop any frames whatsoever. I could have kept going, but I didn’t see much point. What I’m trying to say is, the machine is too powerful for an entertainment laptop, and the screen resolution is too low to be productive with. That said, things could be worse. If you fell victim to purchasing a 13.3” Macbook Pro, maxed-out, you will have spent $1699.99 and would only get a maximum screen-resolution of 1280×800. I’m really not sure how Apple is able to sell these little guys, but I can’t imagine doing anything but writing on such a low-resolution screen.
I should also mention that by default, Ubuntu 11.10 was installed on my review unit, and the standard configuration renders text with offensively large fonts. This is not ZaReason’s fault however.[/two_third]
The keyboard is fine. I know that’s sort of a lackluster term, but I should say that it is about what you should expect from a $599 laptop. There was a strange familiarity about it when I first started to type on it, and I’m almost certain that they are ising the same OEM as Acer for these. They keys are huge, with wide, flat surfaces that almost meet flush with one another. My typing accuracy is pretty bad and this keyboard, at first, was a little difficult to get used to. Fat fingering is easy, but after I got the hang of it, I was OK. No real complaints.
I mentioned earlier that I had opened up 40 instances of a 1080p movie trailer for the move The Avengers. That’s immediately a good indicator of what kind of performance you can expect from this device. Also, I never even attempted to install nvidia-vdpau to offload video decoding to the insanely fast Nvidia 590GTX Video chipset. It was all CPU. 8gb or RAM is plenty of breathing room for a laptop, though given the processor installed and the video card, I’m disappointed that this is where it maxes out to. In a more reasonable or more realistic configuration, 8gb would be more than enough. So, there is really not a lot to be said here. It’s has one of the fastest Intel CPU’s around, and the fastest Nvidia graphics chipset. That said, performance is about what you might expect—about as fast as possible.
In this respect, the unit that I reviewed is very unique. If you are in the market for something this size and you absolutely needs to be faster than everyone else, this is your laptop! The only laptop that I could find that even comes close to this configuration is the HP ENVY 14 series laptop, which only offers an i5 processer and comes with a less sophisticated Radeon 6630 discreet graphics card. This unit also has a meager 1366×768 display resolution and is .5” larger. So, I guess that while I have my complaints about the display on this unit, they are only partially valid since it seems that the competition is not offering anything more competitive than this.
At $599 for the base model, the Alto 3880 trumps all other Linux laptops as far as I can tell in terms of bang-for-buck. It’s closest competition is the Lemur Ultra from System 76. These 2 units are pretty evenly matched point for point, but the Lemur Ultra’s $649 price tag makes it a little less attractive that ZaReason’s offering.
All in all, I think that this is a great laptop. I just think that I was sent the wrong one. Something more along the lines of a typical configuration would have made this a lot easier to review and even easier to compare to the competition. If I were in the market for a laptop this size, it would probably be a shootout between the Lemur Ultra and the Alto 3880, and I would lean towards the Alto mostly because of the seemingly immortal trackpad.