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My review: Pagan Wanderer Lu - The Independent Scrutineer EP

2007-01-06Finding a convenient way to watch Torchwood and MCoG

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I don't watch enough TV to justify one taking up space in a bedroom, besides which a fair amount of the stuff I'd like to watch is retro that's not available on DVD or VHS, is fansubbed DivX content, etc. Long story short, I was considering a portable DVD player and got a laptop instead.

A portable DVD player such as the Matsui PL700 is currently £60 inclusive via eBay or ten quid more at Argos. The auction listings promise multiregion playback, MP3 and DivX support, but information on whether the latter feature includes generic MPEG-4 playback is hard to come by — does it include the old 3.11 Alpha hack that a lot of TV series were encoded with, for example?

The main drawback in my view, apart from the small screen, is that a portable player is limited to the video format support embedded in its hardware. I still might consider one, provided I can guarantee the thing would allow me to burn folders of MP3s onto DVD and navigate them on-screen, but I'd rather wait until they're available for peanuts if I'm only going to use it to replace an MP3 CD player — perhaps get an old Proline or Venturer model with a screen that's less than 5" as long as it could read DVD-R and DVD+R discs. (Some have remote controls, so they'd be perfect to plug into an amp.)

Anyway, I went looking for laptops on eBay. There's a big range of seller expectations, including some selling ~300Mhz machines for about a hundred quid + p&p for people who just need something to type on. Finding machines with the spec I was looking for — DVD and about 800Mhz for reliable DivX playback — is trickier than it seems, since you obviously can't just grab one without a DVD drive and easily upgrade it.

What I settled on was a Thinkpad X23 bargained to £145 + VAT from the asking price of £185 + VAT. That included an ex-demo base machine (866Mhz, 256Mb RAM, 30Gb hard drive) plus docking station with DVD/floppy drives, delivery and a new case, so I was quite happy. In general Thinkpads are robustly put together (titanium lid and decent hinges) with a popular keyboard build; the pointer interface is a nipple (trackpads have only recently become an option on Thinkpads) but the hardware does include a middle button to invoke scrollwheel functions.

I lucked out with the DVD drive. It initially would handle DVD-R media but not DVD+R, Nero Infotool confirming that it wasn't just the quality of the media I was using that was at fault. DVD burners to fit the Ultrabay 2000 bay in an Ultrabase X2 (who picks the terminology for these things?) run to about fifty-five quid, which would severely take the shine off the price of the laptop itself. Fortunately, the Leveno-supplied firmware update for the drive (from a 1025 revision to 1027) seems to have fixed things; the drive still reports it isn't compatible with DVD+R, but reads it along with multi-session discs and DVD+RW media. Fingers crossed it'll continue to do so for a long time to come. I doubt it's multiregion, but I have a desktop system I can always convert stuff to region-free with if necessary.

Back in 2002 when I was buying an old Compaq Armada 7400, the X23 went for upwards of two thousand dollars and was a very nice machine. It still is, its ATI Mobility Radeon graphics card appearing to have dedicated instruction sets for handling MPEG-4 video. Connectivity is provided by standard modem and LAN sockets, which I haven't tested, though there's also a PCMCIA slot which would make adding wireless LAN straightforward — some X23s had this built in, but I'm fairly sure this one uses its internal interface(s) to supply the modem/LAN. Also of curiosity are the built-in Compact Flash slot and proprietary Ultraport on top of the screen area, the latter basically being a flattened USB 1.1 connector supplementing the two normal USB ports. Battery life is about two-and-a-half hours under Windows 2000, although I'm sure the WinXP install that was on there before claimed more, possibly because it was using SpeedStep instructions to slow the processor down.

An added bonus is that with the dock, the laptop is heavy enough to stabilise on a bed.


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