Monday, 30 September 2013

Gigabyte P34G Ultrablade laptop

Key specifications

  • Gigabyte P34G Ultrablade laptop
  • 14 inch 1920x1080 AHVA (IPS) matte display
  • Intel Haswell Core i7-4700HQ CPU with integrated Intel HD 4600 graphics
  • NVidia GeForce GTX 760M discrete graphics with Optimus support
  • 16GB DDR3 1600MHz RAM
  • 256GB mSATA SSD
  • Space for a 2.5 inch x 9.5mm SATA HDD (I purchased and installed a Seagate 1TB 5400rpm SSHD)
  • 21mm thickness
  • 1.76kg weight (including HDD)

Reasons for choosing it

This laptop is replacing a 5 year old Lenovo Thinkpad T61 which has a brilliant keyboard and touchpad (including middle mouse button) and average 15.4 inch 1680x1050 TFT screen with poor viewing angles and quite dull display.  With its slow (by today's standards) Core 2 Duo CPU, slow 256GB HDD, only 4GB RAM (with no possibility to upgrade) and pretty much dead battery (lucky to get 5 minutes out of it) it was time to upgrade.

I was originally tempted by the 15 inch Macbook Pro Retina, but ruled it out due to the price.  Next I considered the new generation of Haswell Thinkpads, which have been announced, but have not yet been released.  I have only ever owned Thinkpad laptops before (previously an IBM T40) and have always been very happy with them, in particular build quality, keyboard and touchpad, so was a bit hesitant to go for something else.  The models I was considering are the T440s and T440p.

I decided to go for a 14 inch model rather than 15.6 inch because I wanted something a bit thinner and lighter than my current Thinkpad.  Also it seems to have become almost impossible to get a 15 inch laptop without a numeric keypad, even the new Thinkpads have them.  I want to have my right hand on the right-hand side of the keyboard when typing, not over on the left with my wrist twisted into an RSI-inducing position.

Requirements for my ideal laptop

  • 14 inch (at least) 1920x1080 (at least) matte IPS display (with good viewing angles and reasonable colour gamut, suitable for photo editing)
  • Haswell Core i7 CPU, preferably quad core
  • Preferably at least 16GB RAM
  • At least 256GB SSD and preferably option for an additional HDD or larger SSD
  • No numeric keypad
  • Reasonably thin (prefer < 25mm) and light (prefer < 2kg)

Reasons I chose the Gigabyte over the Thinkpad models

  • Decent quad core CPU (T440s has a ULV dual core CPU, T440p will probably have the 4700MQ which is not much different to the 4700HQ on the P34G)
  • 16GB RAM standard (T440s maxes out at 12GB, T440p supports up to 16GB, but at extra cost)
  • Similar size and weight to T440s (T440p is a fair bit thicker and heavier)
  • Option for 256 GB SSD and 1TB HDD (in the Thinkpads you have to choose one or the other and 256GB seems a bit small if you're doing lots of photo editing and want space for virtual machines and/or Windows/Linux dual boot)
  • It's available now, Thinkpads not expected to be available until at least November.
  • At $1700 it's probably about $1000 less than I'd expect to pay for one of the new Thinkpads with similar specs.

First thoughts

  • Case feels very solid, despite being so thin and light.  Seems to have very good build quality and no noticeable flex.
  • Display is bright and crisp with good viewing angles.  There is some backlight leakage along the bottom and in the top right corner, but only noticeable when looking at a very dark screen in a very dark room.  There is one bright green stuck pixel in the centre-left of the display, but again is only noticeable when looking at very dark images (although I never noticed any stuck/dead pixels on either of my Thinkpads).
  • Keyboard is not nearly as good as either of my previous Thinkpad keyboards, but then I don't think anything is these days.  I'm sure it will be ok, although I've noticed that occasionally pressing letters near the centre (e.g. N, M) will result in a double press being registered.  Page Up, Page Down, Home and End keys are only accessible by using the arrow keys with the Fn button pressed.  I think that is pretty typical these days (my colleague's new Dell XPS is the same), but it seems strange given how essential these keys are for navigation.  I think Page Up and Page Down can be emulated via 3-finger swiping on the touchpad, so maybe I'll get used to it.
  • Touchpad seems unresponsive at first, especially for two-finger scrolling.  However, after some adjustments it seems to be ok.  I miss the middle mouse button on the Thinkpad, but it can be emulated with a three-finger tap.  Something else to get used to I guess.  The touchpad is huge compared to what I'm used to.  I keep accidentally touching it while typing, which leads to unexpected and annoying behaviour.  Will need to do some tweaking to the palm detection settings to avoid this.
  • Windows 8 starts up very quickly and feels snappy, but how do I actually use it?  They seem to have made the most useful functionality deliberately hard to find.  Will need to get Linux on here ASAP.
  • Despite having two massive fans, with two massive air vents at the back (one each for the CPU and GPU), the machine is almost silent when idling.  I suspect the fan noise will pick up when I put the CPU and GPU to some serious use.
  • The hard drive was very easy to install: remove about 15 screws and take off the back cover.  Plug HDD into the SATA cable and slot into place.  Replace the cover and screws.  I plan to use the HDD as secondary storage for my photos and a Windows VM or two so most of the time it's not spinning and the machine is quiet.  You definitely know when it spins up though – it's quite noisy.

Still to come...

I plan to write a follow-up post on my experience installing Ubuntu GNU/Linux on this machine.

Update 2013-10-3: Blog post on Ubuntu installation is now available

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Running E-tax 2013 on Ubuntu 13.10

E-tax is the Australian Tax Office's antiquated Windows software for completing and filing personal tax returns. It's possible to run it under Linux using Wine. Here are the steps for Ubuntu 13.10. It should also work on older versions of Ubuntu and possibly other Debian derivatives.
  • export WINEARCH=win32
  • sudo apt-get install winetricks
  • winetricks msxml4
  • wget
  • msiexec /i etax2013_1.msi

Update 14/10/2013

When filling out my spouse's details I noticed that the radio buttons for spouse's gender were disabled.  At the time I just assumed they no longer considered the question relevant and didn't think more of it.  However, when I went to lodge my tax return I got the cryptic error
V2357 - Spouse's ATI amount for income test purposes is incorrect.
I couldn't work out what the problem was so eventually ended up booting up an old laptop with Windows Vista, installing e-Tax on it and copying my tax file across.  That didn't resolve the error, but at least I could view the error description in the help docs, which basically just said call the ATO personal tax help line if you get this error.

Of course I was doing this on a Saturday afternoon and the help line is only open 8am to 6pm Monday to Friday so I had to wait until Monday morning.  I called the help line, got transferred to e-Tax technical support then back to the help line before I got someone who was able to help.  After 45 minutes on the phone, we eventually determined that the problem was with the aforementioned spouse's gender radio button.  It turns out that on Vista the buttons do work and once I entered the correct gender the error went away.

Note to the ATO's e-Tax developers: would it have been so hard to supply a meaningful error message so I didn't have to waste so much of my time and your help desk's time on this trivial issue?