Tuesday, September 15, 2009

HP Pavilion tx2617ca Review

Raison d'etre

I'd been in the market for a new laptop for a while, but was holding off until the end of school to get one. I first spotted the tx2617 in December at Staples Business Depot, but spent some time considering other options, eventually picking it up in April 2009.

The tx2617ca is a "convertible tablet PC". The machine functions just like a normal notebook: but the screen has the ability to swivel 180 degrees and fold down over the keyboard to be used as a "tablet": A pen-input based computer.

I wanted a tablet computer for a number of reasons: Mainly, I am constantly taking notes and have a hard time keeping track of them: they either get lost, ruined or eventually buried in a binder in a box who-knows-where. And when I need to reference one again, I'm forced to dig though the myriad of papers dotting my apartment floor to find the one I need. I also loved the idea of reading web pages, e-mails, and e-books like actual books, doing digital drawings, and wanted a small form factor for high portability.

Being a computer scientist (and all around geek), a digital solution seemed right up my alley. I'd actually first seen Tablet PC's in Grade 10 (around 7 years or so ago) and was obsessed with them since then (Penny's computer book from Inspector Gadget anyone?). But buying one was hardly in my price range then (or now for that matter, but more on that). When I did purchase my first laptop in my first year of university, I strongly considered getting a tablet: but they were still pricey and underpowered compared to other machines on the market: I needed something more powerful, essentially a portable desktop replacement to replace my clunky (but reliable) Dell machine tower that served me through out high school. Although I was attracted to a slate-style model, I really need a keyboard for coding if nothing else. So I held off on the tablet for a few more years.

Fast forward to 2009. School was ending and I had some extra cash in my bank account. I had committed to buying a tablet PC. But a quick look at what was available left me in the dust: the majority of tablets I'd seen were still in the whopping $2000 price range. I did manage to find a online few for thirteen to fourteen hundred, before tax/shipping/warranty's/etc. Then I remembered the tx2617ca I'd seen and did some research.

The price according to Staples website changed significantly over the few weeks I'd been checking it out: from $1049 to $999 to $849. Online information and reviews seemed scarce at best, which could be a good or bad sign. I'd figured the machine was still decently new, and so there hadn't been too much comprehensive testing, yet. I did find its feature list however, and they were sending me to that geeky place known as "specification heaven":

Product Name tx2617ca
Microprocessor 2.10 GHz AMD Athlon X2 QL-62 Dual-Core Mobile Processor
(the marketing jazz says Turion but the system itself says Altlon)
Microprocessor Cache 1 MB L2 Cache
Memory 4096 MB (max)
Video Graphics ATI Radeon HD 3200
Video Memory Up to 1982 MB
Hard Drive 250 GB (5400 rpm)
Multimedia Drive LightScribe Super Multi 8X DVD±R/RW with Double Layer Support
Display 12.1" WXGA High-Definition HP BrightView Widescreen Integrated
Touch-screen, Convertible Display (1280 x 800)
Network Card Integrated 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet LAN
Wireless Connectivity Wireless LAN 802.11a/b/g/n
Sound Altec Lansing speakers
Keyboard 101-key compatible
Pointing Device Touch Pad with dedicated vertical and horizontal Scroll Up/Down pad
PC Card Slots One ExpressCard/34 slot
External Ports
* 5-in-1 integrated Digital Media Reader for Secure Digital cards, MultiMedia cards, Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro, or xD Picture cards
* 3 Universal Serial Bus USB 2.0
* 1 VGA (15-pin)
* 1 S-video (7-pin)
* 1 RJ-11 (modem)
* 1 RJ -45 (LAN)
* 2 headphone-out
* 1 microphone-in
* 1 notebook expansion port 3
* Consumer IR
* Integrated Stereo Microphones
Dimensions 8.82"(L) x 12.05"(D) x 1.23" (min H)/1.52" (max H)
Weight 4.56 lbs
* Integrated Fingerprint Reader
* Kensington MicroSaver lock slot
* Power-on password
* Accepts 3rd party security lock devices
* 65 W AC Adapter
* 6-cell Lithium-Ion (Li-Ion)
Operating System: Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit with Service Pack 1

Perhaps not the top of the market, but considerably more juice then my previous machine, and easily passing many notebooks at the time. With my previous machine getting on its last legs (at least until I give it a planned overhaul later in the year), I really liked that this machine had potential to replace it, not just supplement it. My first worries however were screen and keyboard size. I wasn't sure if 12.1 inches would cut it, coming from a 15.4 inch screen. And smaller screens usually meant smaller keyboards: something I dreaded from those nasty looking "netbook" keyboards.

When I went to have a closer look: there were none there! The machine was listed on the shelf, now for $899 on "clearance". But there was no machine there, so I had to ask. I was in luck: one left (probably the original demo machine). I asked to have a look at it: the screen really didn't feel small and I was pleasantly surprised to find a very full sized keyboard most of the alpha numeric keys actually being larger then those on my 15.4 inch notebook, at the expense of some smaller function and specialty keys. Since this was the last one left, I knew if I didn't buy it now I wasn't likely to find another any time soon, so I rang it up and it came home with me. I still had 14 days to return it if I felt the screen size would be a deal breaker. Finally, on to the heart of the review!

External case:

The machine itself feels very strong and well built. No flex on the case, and the swivel hinge feels very solid and doesn't seem to have loosened much at all in three months. No odd noises or clicky-ness, I'd be lying if I said the fan was silent, but its not too bad, it just gets loud when doing something processor intensive... The screen also feels very strong, its recessed in a bit from the case:

There are enough ports to keep you going: Gigabit Ethernet, 3 USB, SD card reader, 15-pin D-sub, 7 pin S-video. I really like the S-video since I only have an older standard definition TV set, it works great for watching movies, DVD's, etc (hopefully if I ever get a higher definition TV I can use the VGA). The optical drive works well, though I haven't used the Lightscribe functionality:

Also, the machine comes with a small media remote, which works great (especially when connected to a TV for watching DVDs, etc), though I'm still trying to customize its functionality a little more. It also has a finger print reader that you have to enroll your finger prints to use, though it only seems to pick mine up once every 3 tries or so, though I believe that's more my own fault. The stylus has a perfect resting place at the bottom of the keyboard, which is easily accessible no matter what orientation you're using the computer in.

It comes with a lanyard connecting it to the computer, but I don't use it since I found it got in my way when writing. Nevertheless, it's spring loaded and can fly quite the distance if you're not careful. One thing I don't like about the case is how the air vent and power connector are on the left and right sides of the machine (facing the screen) respectively:

Although fine when in landscape mode, when using my machine as a tablet, I'll most often have it in portrait mode (like a piece of paper), which means that you are either blocking the power connector, or partially blocking the air vent. Chalk this one up to poor choice on the part of the designer, though I tend to have the machine on the battery when I'm using it in portrait mode, so I use it with the connector facing me. Secondly, although quite light at about 5 pounds, I find the machine just a tad heavy to hold in portrait mode for too long (like a book). I find myself having to balance it against my legs, arms, or chest (hence why blocking the port or the vent is a problem). The screen has media keys which work good, as well as quick keys for screen rotation and Windows Mobility center. There are also "DVD" and "Quick Play" keys, but these only work if you use the HP Quickplay software (I don't), nor have I found any way to reprogram them. There are also media keys on the screen which function the same as the "FN" media keys on many laptops:

The memory, wifi card, and hard drive are all accessible from the bottom. The optical drive also snaps in and out with the flick of a switch: this came in very handy a few days ago when the tip of a 3.5 mm jack broke off in the audio out and rattling around inside, I was able to get it out simply by taking out the optical drive and guiding it through the slot:

The screen and video:

The 12.1 inch screen actually runs at the same resolution as my 15.4: 1280x800. The means I get the same screen real estate as on my old screen, albeit things being are a bit smaller. After a few hours of using though, I hardly noticed the screen size: it was plenty big for email, web browsing, and standard work (e.g. coding). I haven't done significant gaming on it, but it works good for our Stronghold Crusader and Civilization 4 LAN parties. Movies play no problem, and the ATI video card handles video output and dual desktop without issues (important for me). The screen is bright, but difficult to see in sunlight, even at maximum brightness, which is one thing I don't like. The second thing I dislike about the screen is the viewing angle. The horizontal viewing angle isn't too bad (from a standard notebook point of view), but the vertical angle is terrible. I would like to be able to see what's written on the screen in portrait mode when its just laying on my desk to the right of me, but you pretty much have to have it directly in front of you to see, and even then, your head needs to be tilted almost directly over it. I suppose it could be argued a good thing for privacy reasons, but I'd personally prefer the better angle. This is fine for a regular notebook, but not a tablet.

Comparison of viewing angles:

It also attracts dust and smudges like a magnet: be sure to have a cloth with you for cleaning readily (one was provided in my box with the machine). Note that the screen is not multi-touch, unlike the newer TX2's (something I'm afraid I'll regret with Windows 7).

The keyboard:

As mentioned above, I like the keyboard a lot, the keys are all plenty large for use. I do have some issues with the specialty keys, at the top right of the keyboard are the "pg up/dn/home/end/insert/del" keys. I find myself having to memorize the location of these keys because its impossible to read the text on them at a standard use distance. The F-keys are little easier to read than the other keys, and I do understand this choice so that the alpha numeric keys can be larger. I would have liked to see more shortcut keys on the screen itself, specifically for scrolling documents when reading them, since using the on screen scroll bar in tablet mode can be awkward.

Stylus and Touchpad:

The touchpad is completely covered in recessed dots, I'm not sure if this is supposed to make it more comfortable or easy to use, to be honest I hardly notice it. There's a button at the top to turn the touchpad on or off, as well as a vertical strip for scrolling. The touch pad works fine and is easy to use, but there's nothing spectacular about it either.

The stylus is awesome. It's thin and light (about the size of a mechanical pencil), easy to write with. The screen can pick up the stylus' location when hovering above the screen, same as a mouse's "hover function". The right click button is a bit hard to use, since I rarely pick up the pen in the right orientation to push it (you can also right click by holding the pen on the screen for a few seconds). You can also "erase" by using the opposite side of the stylus, which is neat though sometimes you have to press a bit hard.

The speakers and audio:

I'm impressed with the output from the Altec Lansing speakers, though I don't use them on a regular basis, most of the time I use the audio out, either hooked up to a pair of headphones (once again, a great pair of HP headphones came with the computer), or my TV. There's a third "HD" audio port, but I rarely use it. I'm honestly not sure what's its supposed to be used for (I don't think it supports 5.1 or anything that I can find).

Microphone and Webcam:

The computer has duel microphones built in above the screen, along with a webcam. The microphones pick up sound okay, I use it to chat on Skype with little issue, but you can't keep your mouth too far away. The webcam has a good picture, though I can't figure out if there's a way to "rotate" the image, otherwise you appear at the wrong angle when using it in other orientations.


The machine is quite speedy, the Athlon X2 is a desktop level processor. I usually keep it throttled with Vista's power options to about 35% with no noticeable degradation in performance (except for some movies and games, for which I'll put it up closer to normal). The machine has 4 GB of ram, and a 250 GB, 5400 rpm drive which I haven't had any trouble with. I have two partitions of roughly equal size (not including the recovery partition), one for Windows + software, and one for documents (I prefer this setup to protect data should I need to reformat the software partition). Visual C# is a tad slow compiling and running, though no slower then my old machine (I blame it more on .NET). I of course removed all the unnecessary bloatware from the machine as well as start up programs, and run CCleaner on a regular basis.


The wireless works good and has great range (better than my old machine), it's draft-N though unfortunately I haven't had the opportunity to a connect to draft-N router to see just how much faster it is. Curiously, the range on the WiFi is considerably smaller when it tablet mode, it doesn't seem any slower, but you have to be closer to the access point to connect (preferably in the same room). My guess is it has something to do with the placement and orientation of the antenna getting less signal when in tablet mode.


The heat from the machine is something that concerns me and I'm keeping an eye on. Although it doesn't get nearly as warm as my old laptop, it still gets a little warmer then I'm comfortable with. Although the case itself doesn't feel too warm, Speedfan tends to read between 55-60 degrees C, which seems quite warm. When the fan comes on, it pumps considerable waves of hot air out of the unit. The case also seems to get hotter when the processor revs up, such as during a virus scan. When in tablet mode, the screen also gets noticeably warm around the fan to the point it can be uncomfortable to rest your wrist on, which worries me (likewise the keyboard is warm going back to notebook mode). My guess this is due to the processor in the machine, and I keep the processor throttled even when plugged in to try to manage this. I have a few cooling pads, which I use if it's doing something processor intensive, but prefer not too so as to keep the smaller form factor (it's awkward to write on in tablet mode with the cooling pad because of the height raise).

Battery life:

My battery usually gives me about 2.5 to three hours of light use with the processor throttled. Obviously more would be better, but as mentioned the Athlon X2 is a desktop level processor so it sucks down a lot of juice, even when throttled. I also stretch this out by going to standby whenever not in use. So far, I've been happy with the trade off, though I might consider buying a second, stronger battery, I've also heard Windows 7 is getting more juice out of the batteries which I'm looking forward to trying.

Software and Tablet usage:

As mentioned above, I removed the bloatware upon installation, leaving mostly just Windows Vista Home Premium installed, along with the software I use. I was nervous about Vista at first from what I'd heard and having only used XP on my previous two machines. I was pleasantly surprised though, I've had few issues with Vista itself, though I am considering getting Windows 7 when it's released (having unfortunately missed the "grace" upgrade period of course), specifically for its touch screen features (even without multi-touch). One issue I did have is with Windows Media Center: it likes to crash a lot, so I've since switched since to Boxee, which works well expect I can't figure out how to get it on the external display without cloning. To be fair, I it would be cool to get a rockin' custom Linux distribution running the whole thing (I'd totally make it look like LCARS...), but since I do use it for mild gaming, that wasn't really an option anyway. Plus, my research indicates that touch support for Linux is barebones at best, especially with handwriting recognition (something which Vista absolutely shines at). Instead, I'm using VirtualBox to do Linux work, which even lets me use the stylus in Linux with no problems.

Using the machine as a tablet is pretty much everything I hoped it would be, in no small thanks to Vista's touch support. Vista comes with Windows Journal for hand writing documents, which works well enough, though I use tend to use Office OneNote instead because of its organizational abilities.

It's easy to write notes, diagrams and keep them all together. I'd like to set up some sort automatic note backup for important documents though. I love reading PDF's and E-books, I switched to Foxit reader over Adobe though, I find it works better with the touch screen and Adobe was crashing on me a lot. I also frequently use it in tablet mode just for general browsing, if I don't have to do a lot of text input. And even for text input, you have a couple of options. Usually, when the focus is in any sort of text box, an icon pops up allowing you to use the tablet features to enter text. I was quite shocked how easily Vista could recognize my (considerably bad) hand writing, without even running the training samples. There's also an on screen keyboard which I'll switch too from time to time, though to be fair for any long amount of typing, I'll convert to notebook mode.

I prefer hand writing when jotting and working though ideas so I can incorporate diagrams, etc, but prefer typing more formal notes (such as summaries, etc). Now, I can have both together and well organized. I could pick up using the stylus for touch input almost instantly, though I find using my finger a challenge and needing some practice: scroll bars for instance are hard to use unless you use your fingernail, as is anything small like tray or tool bar icons. Nevertheless, I do find myself often using the touch screen controls instead of the touch pad even in notebook mode, especially if I'm sitting up and its on my lap. In addition, it can be hard to "drag" things with your finger since you have to press a bit hard which creates more friction, thus it's tougher to move your finger. Note that there are two ways you can calibrate it: either for finger or stylus. Unfortunately you don't seem to be able to use both at the same time: if you calibrate for touch, your stylus is less accurate, and if you calibrate for stylus (like I usually have it), your touch is less accurate.

Here's some handwriting in Onenote:

Viewing a webpage (my blog! :)

Vista does do a few odd things with the screen: the rotate button always rotates counter clockwise, though I'd prefer it to rotate clockwise. It's also always trying to enforce what orientation it thinks it should be in instead of what I want it in (for example, I'd like it to automatically go to portrait mode when converting to tablet, instead of landscape like it insists on). It should either be controllable, or just let me choose the rotation by hand. Another quirk is that sometimes one of my "power/network/volume" icons will mysteriously disappear on boot and I have to restart to get it back. When turning on the external display, sometimes I have to click the command twice for it to actually activate, which I find odd. I do love that the remote simply sends KeyPress messages to the WndProc, so I can easily write support for it into my own programs such as my media player.


Main Pros:

* Sturdy build
* Powerful machine for all around use
* Touch/Tablet features are fantastic
* Gigabit Ethernet and wireless N
* Media remote/video out

Main Cons:

* Heat issues
* Poor viewing angle
* Heavier than I'd like for use in tablet mode

I am mostly happy with the machine so far and hope I'll get a lot of use out of it. I'll keep my blog updated on new information about it if I have any to share! Thanks for reading, hope this review might help some people out in the future. Take care!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Microsoft Office deal for university students: just $64 purchase price

Hi everyone,

For the last several years now, Microsoft has had a promotion on called "The Ultimate Steal": Basically, if you're a student a participating university (including my alma mater STFX), you can purchase complete Office 2007 Ultimate (not crippled in any way) for just $64. After verifying your attendance (which in most cases seems to be simply automatic with a valid school's email address), you can enter your payment information and get a download of the installer file along with a license key. I purchased this last year and have been happy with it ever since. Personally, I shelled out the extra $13 for a backup CD that came in the mail: and I'm glad I did as I lost the installer file, haha. Office 2007 has a lot of great features to get school work done: for me, the scripting abilites in Excel make for a great way to write quick data crunching programs and you can't forget Powerpoint for printing off those lecture notes. I think it's a great piece of software in general, and though I might not think it's worth anything close to the suggested retail price ($679.95 USD, ouch), it's definately worth $64, if it's a piece of software you think you'd like (and/or like bargins).

But wait! If you are thinking of buying it, you might do yourself a favor by checking out some of the great, free alternatives including OpenOffice.org, Abiword and Google Docs. I've used all the free alternatives, each of which has their own strengths and faults (as does Office of course). It won't cost anything to use them and you might just end up liking them enough to save the money all together. But if you feel they just won't cut it for you, Office is ready for your download (note: I don't think the Mac version is available in the offer, but I'm not sure so you should double check if you're an OS X user). I also wouldn't suggest trying this unless you can prove your enrollment if necessary, lest you end up with a much larger charge then you expected! I was fully enrolled at the time though and was never asked to send anything in.

Have a good year everyone!