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Review: ZaReason Strata Pro 15 Laptop

With the exception of my netbook, I have never owned a new laptop. In the recent past I’ve tinkered with the beloved old Pentium 2 Inspiron 7000 series laptops, of which I ended up with 3 of in varying states of disrepair, and my current laptop is a Pentium 3 Compaq Presario, which primarily runs Debian with fluxbox and I use for testing (most recently drop-kick testing of DRBD and even managed to get Ubuntu 10.04 installed on it for fun, even though it’s a bit slow). But none of this helps me when I want to give someone a spiffy Ubuntu demo at an event or for work, so when a work opportunity presented itself where I needed a demo system, I was fortunate enough to be in contact with the folks at ZaReason who were happy to loan me a review and demo version of their Strata Pro 15 with the specs I requested.

I went with all the basic specs you see on the product page, with the exception of going with a 40G SSD drive rather than the 160G standard SATA disk. It came preloaded with Ubuntu 10.10 which I used in this review.

Since I live just 20 minutes from the ZaReason Berkeley office I was able to pick up the laptop myself and have a lovely chat with Cathy Malmrose about ZaReason itself. The company has really done an amazing job of selling Linux laptops and the passion for the business of putting Linux systems in the hands of everyone shines through when you speak with her. They really strive for affordable, high quality hardware that will last and superior support to back up all their products. If you call ZaReason for support with your system you’ll be sure to talk to someone who can communicate with you on your level (new to computers, no problem! experienced? they won’t make you wait through some useless troubleshooting script), you probably will even be able to speak with the person who built your actual machine.

First Impressions

The CPU is an i3-330M which has virtualization (a must for any systems I buy now, with the exception of netbooks). The 2G of RAM has been more than sufficient and so far the 15.4″ LCD display @ 1366×768 pixels has proven to be nothing short of stunning. The size of the laptop is unusual for me, as I’m so accustom to my netbook which is less than half the size, but I am quite liking the full size keyboard – complete with a number pad, which I love already (I used to do accounting work so I’m a number pad wizard, inputing numbers via the regular number keys when doing budgeting at home is painful so I simply don’t do it on my netbook). Number pad aside, I found the keyboard layout to be easy to get used to with no unpleasant surprises and I found it to be a pleasure to type on. I’ve already made use of the hibernation, sound and image brightness keys, which all work as expected. The single button below the touchpad took some getting used to, you just press one side or the other for left or right click.

Keyboard:

Twice the size of my mini9? Yep!

While on the topic of size, the laptop is pretty slim. In a comparison it’s actually a tiny bit thicker than the thickest part of my mini9, but my boyfriend’s 15 inch Mac Book Pro certainly is slimmer (from top: mini9, macbook pro, strata pro 15):

Battery Life: Test 1, standard usage

Now, one of the questions I see raised most often during reviews is battery life, so I figured I’d do a couple tests related to that. My first test had me doing what I feel is pretty typical usage, which includes:

  • Wifi (WPA) on
  • Screen brightness all the way up
  • Always running: Standard Ubuntu Gnome desktop w/ compiz cube, terminal w/ ssh, Google Chrome
  • Put an SD card into the internal reader and copied over 50 images into ShotWell
  • Played 10 minutes of a DVD (was doing a trial to see if DVD playback worked)

Standard usage, which on this trial included: chatting on IRC over ssh, tweeting, reading blogs, writing emails in gmail, editing Google Docs, editing Ubuntu Wiki, updating a couple websites

Results: Predictably playing a DVD kills the battery life, but even with that 10 minutes of play and all the rest, I ended up with 2 hours and 45 minutes of battery life.

Battery Life: Test 2, DVD playback

  • Wifi (WPA) off
  • Screen brightness all the way up

I decided to go with wifi off in this test because my use case would be something like wanting to watch a movie on an airplane without power or wifi. So, did I get through a movie?

Results: Test it with Raiders of the Lost Ark, at 115 minutes. The battery lasted for 91 minutes. Spinning up of the drive, plus increased power required to handle all the DVD decoding is no doubt to blame here, playing a ripped movie would probably be far more successful. An extra battery may also be a worthy investment if you intend to do this, and ZaReason makes that pretty easy to do when you buy the laptop with an “Extra Battery” drop down on the ordering page.

Conclusions

While I love the number pad, my only major gripe with this laptop is the size. I am accustom to curling up on the couch with my tiny netbook and hacking away, which was tricky with this. I’d probably go with the 13″ if I were to buy one myself. I never quite got used to the single button for the mouse, but given the size and work I ended up being able to do on this laptop I frequently just plugged in my little USB travel mouse. The hardware itself has the solid feel of my old Compaq that I’ve found lacking in a lot of sub-$1000 laptops I’ve tried in the recent years.

So, will I buy one (well, the 13″ version) for myself? My daily computing life is spent between my super powerful desktop and my little netbook. My desktop is used for work, virtualized installs, major image manipulation with inkscape and photo editing with the gimp. My netbook works well as a “sit on the couch and IRC + internet + email + minimal hacking” machine, which is much of what I do in my off-work hours. That said, I do have a hole in my computing world which influenced borrowing this laptop in the first place – nothing to really show off Ubuntu on for customers or at Ubuntu events, nothing to burn CDs on at events, and I have to admit that it would be nice to have a second machine with virtualized hardware so my development machines were more portable. We’ll see where my needs and budget lead me.

Questions? I should have this laptop for at least another week so if you have questions or want me to take some specific pictures, ask away!

17 Comments

  • iheartubuntu

    This looks like a beautiful computer. Are the keys flat (google chrome os style)? The price is around $800… does ZaReason offer any holiday savings? Coupons? Discounts? Checking the photos, all of the audio plugins, card reader ports, etc all seem to be in very smart locations making this laptop easy and usable. My dad has a Dell Inspiron laptop and everything is poorly laid out on it.

  • pleia2

    @iheartubuntu

    Yes, the keys are flat, very nice to type on.

    The Strata Pro 13 actually came down in price since I last looked at their site. I don’t know that they have specific discounts or holiday savings though.

    As for layout, I was very happy with it. I used the card reader a couple of times and that was fine, the location of the USB ports was fine when I needed to use my mouse, in general it was all very comfortable.

  • pleia2

    A few notes that came to me directly:

    You could note that ZaReason has 6 “laptops” in their lineup ranging from $499. (netbook) to $799.

    Right! They also have a $1,299 model and it’s worth noting that the ones under $799 don’t have an optical drive (burning ISOs at events is a requirement for me, so this was important for me).

    You are used to it, but the fast boot time with Ubuntu 10.10 is worth spelling out. If the SSD drive makes it even faster than usual (probably) then the target boot time from a hard drive would be good to note.

    There are a few things in this review I neglected to note because they were more on the Ubuntu side rather than hardware – but you’re right, the boot time is 10.10 is exceptional. In a vanilla install a reboot only took about 10 seconds.

    Regarding the SSD I also received another comment:

    I am very interested in the SSD and how that effects performance. I am also interested in how the SSD effects durability. Does the SSD have any limitations? How many writes can it take before it wears out? How does it effect the “feel” of the machine when the machine is running? Does it create any special issues for Ubuntu installation?

    One of the techs at ZaReason recommended I go with SSD because he said it would be faster, but I don’t have benchmarks to prove this. I prefer SSD because it has no moving parts, so the laptop can take a beating more than your traditional machine – vital for my mini9 which I toss into my purse when I go out, and I quite liked the option in a laptop. The major limitations of SSD these days are size and cost, while you can get 160G SSDs, they are hugely expensive, the upgrade from 160G SATA to 40G SSD was $99. Unlike older flash drives or the kind you’d find on USB, these modern SSDs are not impacted by the number of writes so as the prices begin to come down they’re even being deployed in servers. Anecdotally, the one in my mini9 is now 2 years old, has had heavy constant use, and is still going strong. The only “feel” differences is that you don’t hear or feel a hard drive spinning up when you do a lot of reads/writes and I suspect the machine was quieter because you don’t need extra fans to cool the disk (my netbook has no fans). There are no installation concerns, the OS just sees it as a regular harddrive.

  • Debianero

    Nice machine, I’m green with envy ;-)

    What’s file system is running in that SSD?

  • pleia2

    It’s using the Ubuntu default of ext4.

  • Debianero

    OK, thanks.

    I was wandering if it’d be running some brandnew-almost-magic SSD file system all people are talking about as the-new-revolution.

  • sagaci

    Did Zareason add any other software to the base install or is it just stock 10.10? In any case, did/do you feel the need to reinstall to meet your own personal settings/tweaks?

  • pleia2

    No need to tweak the install at all, it was pretty vanilla. That said, I’m sure ZaReason would configure custom partitioning schemes to fit your needs if you asked when you place your order. They also have the option of Kubuntu rather than Ubuntu.

  • Sumana Harihareswara

    Thanks for the review, pleia2. I myself have a ZaReason Hoverboard (SSD, no optical drive) and like it just fine. Light, runs Ubuntu natively, fast, yay! My only tiny complaint is that I wish I had a mousenubbin like on my old ThinkPad, instead of a trackpad that … wait, I should probably be able to lower its sensitivity in software and get rid of the scrolly behavior when I tap its right edge. *googles*

    My Hoverboard did arrive with some bad memory, so I had to ship it back to Berkeley to get that fixed, which was a pain. But now it’s fine. And then we got a Teo netbook from ZaReason and it had a bad power supply, so we had to ship it back to get fixed, and that was a pain too. But the next thing we got from ZaReason hasn’t had any trouble so I hope future customers won’t have trouble, either.

  • korbe

    Hello. Thank you for tis review. ^_^

    I have some questions:
    – What is the quality of the Webcam?
    – What is the noise level of the fan?
    – Is it hot?
    – Have you a strata pro 15 with nVidia GPU?
    – What is the manufacturer and model of the touchpad?
    – Can you make more photos, or better, a video?
    – Do you think it’s possible to reach 4 hours of battery life if we juste take notes, listen music and use a web browser without flash (similar to the Test 1 but without Wifi and DVD playback)?
    – What is the quality of the screen (brightness, contrast, color, etc)?

    However, I have some criticisms about the Strata pro 15:
    – Screen resolution: With 1366×768 on a 15.6″ we have a DPI to small. :( This resolution is good for 13.*” or 14.*” but not for 15.6″.
    – «ło USB 3. :(
    – A numeric pad. We lost some space for the rest of the keyboard. :(
    – It’s on dark plastic. I prefer alluminium.

    But without these points, it’s seems to be a good laptop.

  • pleia2

    Fan noise – not too bad but the optical drive certainly made its presence known when it spun up. Not enough to really be a problem as far as I was concerned though.

    It doesn’t get that hot.

    As far as the graphics card went – I had the default Intel, not nVidia.

    I think the screen was quite nice.

    As for the rest (webcam, more photos, touchpad specs), I’ll do some tests and reply soon :)

  • korbe

    Thank you very much. ^_^

  • Laptop Charger

    Thanks for sharing this detailed article about this cool laptop….

  • pleia2

    I have uploaded some additional high-res photos, including one taken with the webcam (taken indoors), here:

    http://princessleia.com/images/journalpics/122010/zareasonstratapro15/

    The touchpad, according to /proc/bus/input/devices is:

    N: Name=”FSPPS/2 Sentelic FingerSensingPad”

    Regarding the battery, I think you could easily get to 3 hours if you shut off the wifi, didn’t use the optical drive and turned down the screen brightness (I had it at the brightest during my tests), but I think more than 3.5 would be pushing it.

    And finally, not sure if these vary by shipment but for what it’s worth, the lspci output:

    elizabeth@r3a2:~$ lspci
    00:00.0 Host bridge: Intel Corporation Core Processor DRAM Controller (rev 12)
    00:02.0 VGA compatible controller: Intel Corporation Core Processor Integrated Graphics Controller (rev 12)
    00:16.0 Communication controller: Intel Corporation 5 Series/3400 Series Chipset HECI Controller (rev 06)
    00:1a.0 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 5 Series/3400 Series Chipset USB2 Enhanced Host Controller (rev 06)
    00:1b.0 Audio device: Intel Corporation 5 Series/3400 Series Chipset High Definition Audio (rev 06)
    00:1c.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 5 Series/3400 Series Chipset PCI Express Root Port 1 (rev 06)
    00:1c.1 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 5 Series/3400 Series Chipset PCI Express Root Port 2 (rev 06)
    00:1c.2 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 5 Series/3400 Series Chipset PCI Express Root Port 3 (rev 06)
    00:1c.3 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 5 Series/3400 Series Chipset PCI Express Root Port 4 (rev 06)
    00:1d.0 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 5 Series/3400 Series Chipset USB2 Enhanced Host Controller (rev 06)
    00:1e.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801 Mobile PCI Bridge (rev a6)
    00:1f.0 ISA bridge: Intel Corporation Mobile 5 Series Chipset LPC Interface Controller (rev 06)
    00:1f.2 SATA controller: Intel Corporation 5 Series/3400 Series Chipset 4 port SATA AHCI Controller (rev 06)
    00:1f.3 SMBus: Intel Corporation 5 Series/3400 Series Chipset SMBus Controller (rev 06)
    00:1f.6 Signal processing controller: Intel Corporation 5 Series/3400 Series Chipset Thermal Subsystem (rev 06)
    01:00.0 Network controller: Intel Corporation WiFi Link 5100
    06:00.0 Ethernet controller: Atheros Communications AR8121/AR8113/AR8114 Gigabit or Fast Ethernet (rev b0)

  • korbe

    Thank you pleia2, you are my goddess.

    Do you use a 6 cell or a 4 cell battery?

  • pleia2

    You’re welcome! This is the 6-cell battery.

  • korbe

    The touchpad is multi-touch?