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2010-04-24My review: Zoostorm Freedom XL 10-270 netbook

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Short version: okay for a bit of light browsing, typing or personal media watching, but terrible for VoIP because of the non-variable-speed fan.

I'm finding myself increasingly less inclined to spend time at a desk in the evenings. Blame preferring to curl up with an ebook, something residual festering in my head that refuses to completely die (apparently my sister has no pneumococcal antibodies and this is often hereditary... it would explain a few things) and not wanting to leave a full system powered just to poll email, surf a bit and Skype with my other half.

However, I also didn't want to dabble with netbooks until newer models appeared; i.e. with Windows 7 and a price-point below £200, which this does courtesy of eBuyer. I considered holding back until they came as standard with a resolution wider than 1024 x 600, but am guessing that'll really take a while. 1024 x 600 itself only seems to exist to artificially segment the market into netbooks and laptops, plus Microsoft place quite harsh restrictions on licensing for their entry-level OS (Windows 7 Starter) — maximums of a 10.2" screen, 1Gb RAM, 250Gb HDD, etc.

The FreedomXL (as it's known in some quarters) hits all of those limited maximums, only the 250Gb drive seeming luxurious compared to a current standard of 160Gb for cheap netbook models. Beyond that, the spec is fairly normal, with an Atom N270 processor, a USB port on each side, built-in webcam and mic, wi-fi, network socket, an alleged 3-4 hours battery life depending on which site you read (it says up to 3 on the back of the box, though, so shame on eBuyer for lying), SD card reader, touchpad, speaker, and VGA out. In actual fact, Windows reckons that at 99% charge the battery has 2.5 hours of juice, and that's with the screen somewhat dimmed... I realise manufacturer specs often exaggerate, but it may not be entirely their fault — even with eye candy turned off Win7 is a thirsty beast, it seems. With this type of processor, you should also expect the fan to come on at least some of the time when rendering complex web pages, Skype calling or anything else even slightly intensive. Roughly speaking it seems to start below 30 degrees, idle at about 36-40 once it's been on for a while, use the fan when it sustains 43 or above for any length of time, and shut it off when the temperature dips to about 38 again. You can reduce the effect by using the 'Power-saving' power scheme and turning down video quality, maximum processor state settings, etc. and a gel cooling mat or extra fans will take a few degrees off, but it's not really enough if fans are a deal-breaker for you.

Zoostorm are a UK company better known for desktop systems, whose previous forays into this market include an earlier Freedom model with an 8gb solid-state drive and the 8.9" screen Fizzbook aimed at kids. It seems the XL was initially an Argos exclusive before arriving at eBuyer and a few other places, or possibly they got the overstock. Whatever the case, I'd expect to see more netbooks with this type of spec at the same price-point this year. You could upgrade the provided 1Gb memory with a single 2Gb DDR2 533 SODIMM for about fifty quid, but that's taking us out of bargain territory. Windows 7 performs well enough with 1Gb.

I was reassured by another review mentioning that this had decent hinges, something I've always liked about Thinkpads, and they do feel sturdy here. The viewing angle on the screen is decent and the size adequate for one person to watch streaming TV or a DVD rip. 600 pixels in height is a bit cramped for web browsing, but after you've moved the menu bar onto a dropdown off the main toolbar there are Firefox extensions to display link destinations on the address bar and to hide the menu and title bars. It's quite usable, although I can't emphasise strongly enough that widescreen is an optimum size ratio for video, not for any application that involves vertical content.

Windows 7 is closer to XP than Vista in terms of install footprint and performance, even if nowhere near as svelte as the former. Microsoft's goal, now that very cheap laptops are the norm and it can't get away with charging such a large percentage of their sales tag price for an operating system (though upgrading from Starter to Home Premium has a ridiculous RRP of £70) was to get a product out that wouldn't embarrass them and concede the market to Linux. In actuality much of it is Vista under the hood, it's just largely done right this time... and Vista itself wasn't horrible if you were the type of user that doesn't alter anything on their system, even if was a waste of resources compared to running XP on the same hardware. But with XP headed towards forced obsolescence in 2014 (although I'm sure Microsoft will be arm-twisted into extending patches for security holes for longer, or risk unleashing further botnets on the world and burning their remaining PR credentials) it isn't a good investment for those sticking with Windows for the time being.

One of the things I was curious about was boot/resume times, and Windows 7 borrows from Mac OS X in offering a hybrid sleep mode — effectively it hibernates, copying the contents of memory to the hard drive, and then goes to standby. If power is removed whilst on standby, the PC will resume from the saved RAM state. It's hard to believe this wasn't a standard feature by the time XP was released. In any case, the resumes are snappy.

Starter edition is notorious for removing basic personalisation options such as desktop wallpaper... however, it's a good deal more customisable than may be obvious, as detailed here. Personally I still prefer the Classic theme and a Windows 2000 blue background, so it's a moot point, but various workarounds can be googled up if you can't live without wasting memory on wallpaper.

The other thing it's important to get sorted early on is backing up the OS install, since there's no optical drive and only a recovery partition provided — an easy way is to use free utilities from Paragon to repartition the drive (I'm going for about 25Gb for OS and software, with 200Gb for data) and image the main partition onto the second before transferring it over to my desktop system for backup. The initial install, including crap such as a trial version of Office, compresses down to about 6Gb. The easiest way to restore if necessary is to take the hard drive out of the netbook and hook it up to a desktop system via USB or just by plugging into modern desktop SATA drive connectors. For more common file transfers without fussing with intermediary flash drives, I've picked up an XP/Vista/Win7 suitable USB data link cable; this is both simple and ingenious, requiring no drivers because it shows up on each system as a small drive containing an executable to run to get a split Explorer-style interface for transferring files. Wireless file-sharing is a possibility, but sluggish for large volumes of data.

In terms of security, the NT6 model is a bit more robust than its predecessor... so I'm going to give the Windows Firewall and Windows Security Essentials a try, as they're rated as light on system resources, and with only a gig of RAM to play with this is relatively important. Generally I intend to keep the whole install light and maintain the Thinkpad as a more disposable portable environment until I'm forced to install Ubuntu on it by lack of XP patches, or it keels over. (It's underpowered by the minimum specs of Win7, plus a 1GHz processor from almost ten years ago has a very different architecture to a current 1GHz processor.)

For the moment I'm sticking with Office 2003, but I'll have a quick look at the ad-supported Office 2010 Starter (Word and Excel only) that's due for release later in the year. Depending on how configurable the toolbars are in 2010, I may eventually be persuaded towards it after the step backwards and waste of vertical space that was 2007. Or maybe OpenOffice will get better at importing documents, you never know.

The webcam is fine for Skype purposes... the built-in speaker and microphone, less so. The speaker tends to distort playing music or at louder volumes, and the mic is likely to be woefully insufficient if you're not leaning into it. Logitech do excellent USB ones, and plugging one of those plus a pair of USB speakers into a hub with a long cable is one possibility. The limiting factor with noise-canceling analogue ones tends to be the sound card failing to amplify input sufficiently to get enough volume. USB mics include a preamp, which makes all the difference. However, as a VoIP device this netbook is rather a failure due to fan noise. Hopefully someone will figure out how to control the temperature settings associated with the fan, since the processor itself can cope with a greater range... but unfortunately, not being a popular Samsung/Lenovo/EeePC model means fewer people will be actively BIOS hacking.

Another annoyance is the absence of Home/PgUp/PgDn/End keys. Well, technically they're there as Fn + arrow keys, but the function key is on the left side of the keyboard, making them impossible to use quickly. I use the Home and PgUp keys a lot when browsing web pages and documents, and having a trackpad with multitouch scrolling features isn't an adequate substitute. My preferred solution is to use AutoHotkey to map AppsKey + Pause/PrtSrc/Insert/Delete to Send the equivalents, and to have a few hotkeys to control volume and run main applications. Whilst I was tweaking, I looked up registry hacks to remove the space-wasting Shortcuts and Libraries branches from Windows Explorer, and tidied up the Start Menu by removing unnecessary items and pinning my most frequently-used apps to the main menu.

Addendum: Classic Shell not only provides an XP-style Start Menu, but restores the filesize count for multiple files to the status bar in Windows Explorer. That'll make switching to a desktop system with Windows 7 far less of an imposition in a few years. Also, you might like to take a look at this for access to more Windows 7 config in one place.

So that I don't miss new email whilst the desktop system is off, I'm using POP Peeper to check for new messages. This is almost a full client, permitting messages to be sent as well as polled, and optionally password-protected for extra security. It can pull down messages from a range of webmail providers if that's your bag.

But to get back to the machine itself and summarise, this is a decent netbook for around-the-house use or in other places you'll have access to a plug socket, with what's effectively a generous UPS built-in that allows for switching it on to show people things without having to unpack the power adaptor. It should also be suitable for hooking up to a VGA input projector provided you're happy to use the projector's native resolution in single display mode rather than try to clone the netbook's, since 600 pixels height would be rather limiting for presentation work. For low volume video work, I'd suggest looking at a Dell Inspiron Mini with passive cooling (i.e. no fan) — it's likely to be worth the extra.


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