Category Archives: Moneypits

Dell 15″ Inspiron 3000 Ubuntu review

I recently bought a Dell 15″ Inspiron 3000 laptop with Ubuntu. It’s pretty good!

Since Dell’s not tremendously good at disclosing exact model numbers, this review is about the Inspiron 3552, from December 2015. Well, it’s hardly a review, just my impressions. In no particular order therefore:

  • The build it’s constructed from a matte black plastic with a stippled surface. The unit is lightish at just over 2kg, and slim maybe 16mm closed. It doesn’t feel too sturdy, indeed the screen is very flexible and the base does have some give if twisted. I’ve already dropped it a couple of times and its survived OK.
  • Ports On the left hand side there’s power, HDMI, USB and an SD-Card reader. There’s also a vent. On the right hand side, there are two USB ports a headphone socket and a Kensington lock point. First unhappy surprise – no ethernet port!
  • Charger and power The charger is wee, about 20x40x120mm and light, around 150g. The mains lead is separate and uses a cloverleaf plug. On the laptop end there’s a jack that mates with a port on the back left-hand side of the laptop. The protrudes perpendicularly about 30mm and has a crap strain-relief spring. I expect this will be the first thing to break.Charging is quick – around 2h to full. I’m currently getting about 5h of active life from a full charge, with the screen at a low brightness setting.

    The BIOS has a setting for different charge profiles. I’ve selected “mostly on mains” to reflect my use, but it’s not clear if it will have any impact that will have on battery life or longevity.

  • Screen A generic 15.6″ panel, 1378×768 in resolution. Nothing special. Bright enough to read in (winter) sunlight, though the viewing angle isn’t great. Happily, though, it is matte and isn’t touch!
  • Keyboard and touchpad The keyboard’s of the now ubiquitous chiclet / Scrabble-piece design. Not much travel, but fine to touch type on. The touchpad is ok. It’s just left-of-centre so might be inconvenient if you are a left handed mouser.If you upgrade the OS, you’ll need a tweak to make the touchpad work – see below.
  • Wifi is a cheap RTL8723BE chipset thing. In use I’ve found it slow to connect to my home network, and flakey after a resume from sleep. It’s on a NGFF expansion card, so I might whip it out and replace it with something less bargain-basementApparently it’s also got a Bluetooth 4.0 radio but I haven’t even bother trying that because 15 years of Bluetooth disasters have taught me something.

    Bad news for you tin-foil hat types, there’s no physical wifi-off switch.

  • Sound and camera There are two speakers on the front underside of the unit (there’s a bevelled edge, so they don’t face down). They are a bit tinny. Likewise the camera and mic are nothing special but perfectly serviceable for Skype.
  • CPU is the new Braswell Celeron M3050 dual core processor. This is a derivative of the Nehalem core (SSE4 but neither AVX nor hyperthreading) on the latest 14nm process. The basic clock is 1.6GHz but ”’cpupower”’ shows it anywhere between 500MHz at idle and at the full boost of 2.25GHz under load.
    It’s fast enough. There’s a vent on the side and an internal fan, but I almost never hear it on, only under prolonged heavy load.
  • Memory It comes with a single 4GB DDR3L-1600 SODIMM. Both Crucial and the Dell website claim that 4GB is the maximum supported, though the processor does support 8GB. I’ll likely try an upgrade soon as 4’s a bit too miserly.
  • Hard disk the basic 500GB SATA disk is as slow as you might imagine. I immediately replaced it with a Crucial 500GB MX200 SSD. The swap is very simple to do – there’s a removable panel on the underside of the unit which covers the memory and hard disk.

  • OS It comes with Ubuntu 14.04 LTS. There’s some Dell branding when the thing boots for the first time, but thereafter it seems to be stock. The default browser is Chromium.

    I swapped the hard disk for the SSD from my old laptop, and so have been using the newer Ubuntu 15.10. Everything works fine, with the exception of the touchpad which required the addition of the kernel command-line option i8042.nophp .

    To add this, append it to the definition for GRUB_CMDLINE_LINUX_DEFAULT in the file /etc/default/grub, run the command update-grub, then reboot.

    Other than that, the only OS-related niggles are iffy Wifi, which I put down to the generally parlous state of the RTL driver, and the occasional failure to restart after a soft reboot.

  • Price Ooh, I almost forgot the best bit: it’s only 200 quid! for that price, I’d forgive many more faults than it actually has.

Update: Official specs notwithstanding, I’ve successfully upgraded the memory to 8GB using a Crucial CT102464BF160B DIMM and BIOS 4.0.3 (may work with an earlier version).

Cubot S208 Android phone review

Just bought one of these to replace a slightly knackered Huawei Ascend Y300.

The Huawei isn’t a bad bargin-bucket handset, but it’s a bit underpowered – there’s not enough memory to run the BBC Radio app and web browse at the same time; the UI is often a bit laggy and there’s just not enough built-in storage. Probably the most annoying aspect is that it’s single SIM – this is seriously annoying as, until the EU knocks the right heads together, I have to maintain two seperate numbers.

Looking around for a new one, I found the Cubot s208 (warning: comedy Engrish). Never heard of them, but it’s as cheap as chips so I thought I’d take a punt. Here’s what I found.

  • Appearance
    • Comes with a cheap plastic, leather-patterned cover that has a window exposing the top 40% of the screen. Makes the phone look like an old iPod. Sticks on to the phone with an adhesive strip, so not removable once fitted. Folds back, so can act as a(n unstable) stand.
    • Volume buttons are on the left, and obscured by the cover. Power button on the right; it’s bit small
    • Micro USB on the bottom, headphone jack on the top.
    • It’s thin and light! About 8mm thick, and about 120g. Thinner and lighter than the old Huawei (about the same width too, but longer).
  • Screen
    • 5″, pretty bright, good viewing angle, just about readable in bright sunlight
    • Enabling automatic brightness makes the screen flicker a bit during a brightness change – the fade isn’t terribly smooth.
    • The automatic brightness function leaves the screen too bright in low-light conditions.
    • No oleophobic coating – it gets gunky with grease very quickly
    • Screen auto-rotation won’t rotate the screen 180 degrees, only +/-90. If rotation is turned off when the display is in landscape orientation, it will return to portrait.
    • The resolution is modest by contemporary standards: 920×540. Half the pixel density of somethign like the HTC One. However, the contrast is high and the definition very sharp. I’ve no problem reading Kindle books from it.
  • Operating System
    • Android 4.2.2, with — thankfully — hardly any vendor customisation.
    • Truly awful power-on jingle that plays at ear-splitting volume. No checking this phone during intervals. (This can be trned off by enabling “quick boot” in the settings).
    • The three Android soft buttons have a reversed order relative to every other handset I’d owned. guess I’ll get used to that.
    • There was an over-the-air update ready for it: Kernel 3.4.5, CUBOT_4041C_V12
  • Dual SIM
    • SIMs are fitted internally, behind the battery. No tools beyond a finger nail are required
    • Takes one mini-SIM (normal-sized SIM to you-and-me) and a micro-SIM. I’d previously cut down my SIMs to micro-sized with one of these:

      It came with some inserts to restore the cut-down SIM to full size.

    • The UI always shows the status of the two SIMs, can keep putting up a warning if any slots are empty.
    • There seems to be very good control over the SIMs – you can allocate the default SIM for voice calls, video calls (what?) and data; enable roaming per-SIM; and disable a SIM entirely.
    • Contacts can be associated with a SIM, and calls out directed automatically.
  • Speaker
    • Mono speaker, bottom of handset. The stick-on cover has an aperture to leave it exposed.
    • It’s loud, but a bit tinny. At maximum volume it’s fine for speach, but often gets raspy and distorted for music

What about the rest of the Cubot range? As with every other manufacturer, the model numbers give no clue about relative ages and specifications. I found this video that summarizes the relative merits (presumably) the most recent ones. The chap agrees that the s208 wins. Clever man.

Update Dec 2014 Having owned this thing for three months, I’m less enamoured of it. Here’s what’s gone wrong:

  • Duff SIM holder. The lower SIM card holder broke. The handset now only sees the micro-SIM not the larger mini-SIM. This is damn annoying, as it’s one of the main features that attracted me to it. Might be that I was using an adapter slightly too wide, which stressed a contact, not that that makes it any less frustrating.
  • Crap KeyboardThe default keyboard is really very annoying, persistently failing to interpret my fat thumbs. Despite installing the Google keyboard from the Store, it doesn’t seem possible to force its use – I always get the built-in one.

Update April 2015The battery has progressively lost its ability to hold charge, barely lasting a couple of hours now. Replacements don’t seem to be obtainable from Amazon. I’m now the owner of an HTC One m8.