May 7, 2001

Review: Compaq Presario 12XL4

Author: JT Smith

- By Jeff Field -
If you're like me, sometimes you need to get away from that desk you have been writing (or coding) at for hours, or you just want to work outside because it is a nice day. I decided, after reviewing a few laptops over the past couple of years, that I needed to be able to join the masses of people living part of their lives outside. It's been a nice spring here in New Jersey, a good time to get a laptop. So I did a little research, looked up models and prices, and
finally ordered one over the phone from Compaq.

The first thing I needed to do while researching which model I wanted to buy
(something you really should do when making a big purchase such as this) was
find models that I was interested in. I looked at Toshiba, Dell
and Compaq, then decided on a price limit, under $1,800.

After using price to narrow down the field to a few models from Compaq and
Toshiba, I did research to determine which of the models would work best with Linux. There was a good amount of success
recorded with Compaq laptops at the Linux
on Laptops
page. Also, I have a friend with an earlier model of the
Presario 1200 series, on which he was successfully running Linux. So, I went with the Compaq Presario 1200 series.

The purchase
Once I had decided on a model, I went to
Compaq's Web site, Compaq.com, and customized my laptop. The first
thing I needed to upgrade was the harddrive -- 6 gigabytes is not
enough in today's world of DivX videos and MP3s. I decided to go for the maximum
size Compaq offers. I also got the biggest screen offered -- 14.1 inches. For
the CPU, I picked the Celeron 766. For $150 more I could have gotten the Pentium
III, but I do not plan to do many strenuous things on my laptop -- IRC, Instant
Messenger, writing and playing MP3s. Occasionally I will compile a kernel, but
that's something I do in the background, and I'm fairly patient with it. As a bonus, the Compaq included a USB scanner for $1. It doesn't function under Linux, but for only $1, why not? Seems like Compaq has similar offers almost every week--the
last time I looked it was a $1 laptop case.

For the RAM, I choose 128 MB, but as it turns out, I use the laptop a lot more than I thought I would (truth be told, I rarely touch my desktop now) and need more RAM. However, to upgrade
to just 192 MB of RAM at purchase, it would have cost me $150, but a search at Pricewatch turned up a 256 MB SODIMM for only $110, which would bring me up to 320 MB total. If you are wondering about the
strange configurations, the laptop has 64 megs of RAM built into it, and only one
SODIMM slot.

I found the laptop I wanted for $1,603 before tax and
shipping; The
person I talked to at Compaq transfered me to a bank, which approved my loan in a couple
minutes. Within a few days of the
order, both the scanner and the laptop shipped by second-day air, for a final price of
$1,700.

The laptop
The unit I got, a Presario 12XL4, was slightly different from the model pictured
on the Compaq Web site, as well as from previous models. First, the buttons Compaq
includes for quick access to things such as Compaq online support, or Internet
access, are moved to be up near the screen, instead of down by the touchpad.
Also, the configuration of the LEDs is different, with the number and caps lock
LEDs moved above the keyboard, and the battery charge, power and AC LEDs under the
touchpad. Interestingly, the hard drive LED is not present, something that can be
a little annoying at times, especially during testing. Also, the lid
is silver instead of black, which is annoying because the silver material shows
wear much easier than the shell on a black laptop -- but that is a minor issue, because
this thing will soon be covered in nice geeky bumper sticks from ThinkGeek.

Input devices
The keyboard layout is close to the configuration of a full-size keyboard and was my main reason for selecting the Compaq.
When buying something like a laptop, your foremost concern should be if you can use the input devices comfortably, because it is not like a desktop PC,
where you can just replace the keyboard or mouse. You have to live with this
keyboard/touchpad combo for the life of the laptop. Of course, you can attach a
PS/2 or USB mouse or keyboard, but that nearly defeats the purpose of a portable computer.

The touchpad is easy to use. The "shortcut" strokes you are
supposed to get under Windows do not work in Linux, but that is to be expected.
In X-Windows you can do the standard things -- click, drag, etc. -- with either the
touchpad or the buttons. If you want to drag something
using just the touchpad, you have to quickly double click, but on the second click
leave your finger on the pad, and drag what you want around. It's a fairly easy
process to get used to.

My only complaint about the touchpad/keyboard combo is that it is a bit too easy
to tap the touchpad while typing and suddenly be typing in a totally different
paragraph.
On other laptops you can use "tpconfig" in order to adjust the tapping
sensitivity, but for some reason the touchpad on this one does not support sensitivity adjustment.

The display and video
The display on the laptop is a 14.1-inch TFT LCD. It is bright, clear, and
easy to read in most every environment. If there is a
glare, it can be slightly more difficult to read. My only
complaint regarding the display was that, as of XFree 4.0.3, I could not get power
management in xscreensaver to powerdown the display. It would blank, but the
backlight would remain on. According to the person who wrote the XL403 page on
Linux on Laptops, the current CVS version of X will do this, so I would assume it
will be in X 4.0.4. As for console blanking, I have the same problem, but I did
not pursue the issue because I spend most of my time in X.

The video in the machine is a Trident Cyberblade AGP graphics card that uses the
system RAM, for either two, four or eight megabytes of video memory. From that, you can
tell that it is not going to be the fastest chipset in the world. For what I do,
it seems perfectly adequete, I have yet to wait for it to draw the screen, and I've had no
problems dragging windows. 3D support for the card does not exist in Linux, and even
if it did, I would not expect much out of it. The main problem with using system
RAM as video memory is that if you have, say, 128MB of RAM, you'll have an
effective 124, and if you want eight megs of video memory, it goes down to 120. I
could not benchmark the 2D speed because for some reason I could not get X11perf
to run without locking up, although I have yet to experience a lockup on the
machine otherwise.

Power management and battery life
Power management, excluding the display issues above, worked perfectly. I used
HDParm to set the sleep time on the hard drive to 20 minutes, and sleep mode
worked flawlessly in both X and console mode. Monitoring the battery was fairly easy to do, either by typing "apm" on the console, or using the battery
monitor applet that comes with Gnome.

Battery life on the unit was a respectable two hours. To be precise, it took 2
hours, 11 minutes for the battery to drain to 1%. To get down to 10% took 8 minutes
less. This was while having the PCMCIA NIC
installed, accessing the network, compiling a kernel, listening to MP3s and doing
other normal work. I ordered the laptop with an extra battery so I can spend more time on the road. In fact, I'm on my way home (roughly a two-hour
drive) right now, someone else is driving, and I'm typing this
review, and I'll be typing on the way to a concert tonight on the other battery.
My only wish is that I had some way to charge the other battery; this laptop
can only accept one battery at a time, and the only way to charge the battery is
to have it in the laptop while plugged in.

Storage devices
The laptop, as I configured it, came with a 15 gigabyte Hitachi UltraDMA hard
drive. The buffered, but uncached speed, (meaning the speed of the drive using its
internal buffer without the system cache), was 15.69 megabytes a second (via the
command hdparm -t /dev/hda). That's impressive, considering I did not expect
much out of a laptop hard drive. Its cached speed (via hdparm -T /dev/hda) came
in at 87.07 megabytes a second. The results of these tests reflect my usage -- I
found the only time I was waiting on the hard drive was when the laptop started
using its swap space. This is why I am upgrading the RAM, because, while also
reducing performance, swapping takes more power.

The DVD-Rom, a Toshiba 8X DVD/24X CD SD-C2502, was a decent performer, coming in
at 1845 KB/second, or roughly 12x, pretty good considering most drives that
advertise 50x barely get that kind of performance.

Expansion
The Presario comes with several means of expansion. It, like most laptops, comes
with a Cardbus expansion slot, able to accept one Type II or III device, such as a
PCMCIA/Cardbus NIC. The particular NIC I used, a Linksys 10MB PCMCIA NIC, worked
perfectly, and I was impressed how well it was supported under Linux. Having
used a couple laptops for perhaps a week at a time under Windows, I had the chance
to experience how annoying they really can be under Windows. Under Linux, I can
eject my NIC without having to do anything and reinsert it, and it will disable
and re-enable the network without trouble. Just try doing that on Windows.

Also present for expansion are two USB ports, which were supported by the usb-uhci
driver, and worked perfectly. At present I do not have any USB devices to use on a laptop, although I do intend to obtain and test several USB NICs
under Linux. As for standard expansion ports, the laptop only offers a VGA
connector, a parallel port and a PS/2 port for a keyboard or mouse -- interestingly,
no serial port was included, somewhat annoying for those who need one for functions
such as a serial port-based Palm device, or other such devices. The laptop also
comes with a 56K modem that seems to be supported by Linux, but I did not have the
opportunity to test it. It was detected, however, which is more than any
Winmodem in a laptop has done under Linux.

Sound
The sound on this laptop is the VT82C686 sound included in the VIA Apollo Super
Chipset. I rarely use the sound for anything but MP3s, but it works fine, and the
speakers are good enough when I have nothing else. If
you can hook it up to larger speakers or headphones you will probably get a
significant increase in sound quality. The speakers were not great but were far better
than I expected. The sound was picked up and configured by the Mandrake
installer automatically, which was impressive.

Linux on the Presario 12XL4
I installed my current distribution of choice, Mandrake 8.0, with a bootable CD
before Windows ever saw the light of day. Unfortunately, I was not able to
get the laptop without a Microsoft product. It seemed the people I talked to at
Compaq were startled that anyone would want a PC with Linux. Anyone out there
want a license for Windows Millenium? Installation took roughly an hour; I did
an expert installation and installed a bunch of extra packages, including ReiserFS as my filesystem. Nothing is worse than five minutes of battery
life being eaten by an ext2fsck, and Reiser alleviates that problem quite nicely.
Mandrake detected all the hardware flawlessly, which was a nice surprise. I've
heard people complaining about this laptop under Windows 2000 because there is a
lack of support for the hardware the laptop uses, and Compaq tells them if they
wanted Windows 2000 they should have bought a higher model. Instead, those people should
just run Linux, and enjoy full compatibility with this model out of the box.

Once Mandrake was installed, I logged in via GDM and was up and using XFree
4.0.3/Gnome 1.4 in a matter of minutes. Network access was fully functional from
the first boot. I was highly impressed. The laptop supported resolutions in XFree
up to 1024 by 768 by 16-bit, a nice surprise because the specs listed on Compaq's site
say it only supports 800 by 600 when on the LCD, but that probably assumes a
smaller screen size.

Kernel compile times
I use kernel compile time benchmarks in this review because they stress the speed
of the disk, memory and CPU all at once. The CPU, a Celeron 766, runs a good bit
slower than its Pentium III counterparts, simply because it has half the cache of
the Pentium III. That said, I bought this laptop to do my normal work, which
consists of writing, programming, and listening to music -- none of which are
particularly CPU intensive tasks. Linux multitasks so well, and I do not mind longer
compile times because I can easily do other things while compiles are going on. The
kernel version I compiled was 2.4.0, just to make it easier to compare to my past kernel compile times. Compile times between minor kernel revisions do not
tend to change much, however. In order to configure the kernel, I used all of the
default settings.

Using the command "time make bzImage", the kernel compile took exactly 11 minutes.
Not quite as speedy as my Pentium III-933, but a decent score. Again, if you
intend on using your laptop for heavy compiling or other CPU intensive tasks, make
sure you go with the Pentium III CPU, because it has much greater performance. If you don't use terribly CPU intensive programs, save yourself $150 and go with the Celeron.

Final opinion
Since I got the Presario 12XL4, I have barely used either of my desktop systems.
I never really saw a need for a laptop until recently, but now I see every reason
in the world for them. I'm hooked
on this thing. I will always have a desktop PC, but my main machine from now
on is going to be a laptop. As for the 12XL4, I am pleased with my purchase, and
feel it was definately worth the money. You get a good screen, a good keyboard,
and great Linux compatibility. What more could you ask for? The 12XL4, as well
as all other 1200 series Presarios, is available at Compaq.com.

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