My old Inspiron 1525 laptop (bought second-hand) has served me well over the past few years, but now has a host of symptoms which, collectively, mean imminent retirement (the hinges are loose, the fan is terminally noisy, the “h” key and space-bar are both intermittent, the battery is dying again and, worst of all, it occasionally crashes with memory-related errors). I’ve been on the lookout for a replacement for a while and, rather than paying inflated prices for a low-end machine, I thought I’d take a chance and pay next to nothing for a very low-end machine. The T-bao R8 15.6″ laptop is available through GearBest (and a few other on-line retailers) for less than $200 and sometimes for as little as $182~$185 (usually with a special discount code).
I should note here that I bought this machine for my own use and I am in no way affiliated with GearBest, other than being a customer.
The T-bao was on a “special offer” sale when I bought it and there was also a valid coupon code available for a one-time purchase which bought the price down even further (note that you have to enter the coupon code at the check-out stage and only the final price changes, not the displayed price for the actual item). If you’re interested in getting a bargain deal like this, it’s worthwhile doing a web search for “GearBest coupon codes” -and- regularly checking back with the main GearBest site, as the price for an item in your cart will vary by quite a bit over time, depending upon what special offers are available (along with the coupon codes); the difference can easily be $20~$30.
As far as I can tell, there is no difference between the T-bao R8 and the Chuwi 15.6″ LapBook. Looking at the photographs on the web page, it appeared as though the T-bao had a symmetrical screen bezel (whereas the Chuwi has a very obvious asymmetric design, with the right hand bezel being slightly thicker than the left). However, having received the machine, I can confirm that the T-bao is also asymmetric, with a 5mm left-hand bezel and an 8.5mm one on the right. The T-bao is also available in both blue and white versions (although the “Sapphire Blue” version is the one most frequently discounted). Both machines seem to have pretty much identical hardware specs (as advertised on the sites where they’re sold), but it’s worth noting that the stated specs aren’t always correct (see the note on USB 2.0/3.0 below).
-Update 7th Sept 2017- It looks as though this same model is now being sold as a “Deeq Z156 Notebook” on some sites. The specs (and pictures) look pretty much the same, but the price is somewhat higher (note that, on GearBest at least, the Deeq includes a USB to ethernet adapter as part of the deal).
One of the reasons I decided on this type of laptop (either the T-bao or the Chuwi) was that at the end of last year I purchased a Z83-II mini PC system as a replacement for an older, standalone home server and I’ve been really impressed with its performance, despite being a lowly “Atom” Z8350 processor (it’s actually quad core and holds up remarkably well under load). Both of the laptops seem to be adaptations of the same basic design and, like the Z83-II, they’re both fan-less, which is another major plus for me.
Anyway, the T-bao was a slightly more attractive colour than the Chuwi (and the prices were within pennies of each other), so a couple of weeks back I took the plunge and ordered it, resigning myself to a two or three week wait (the norm for things coming to Japan from the Middle Kingdom). A week to the day after I’d ordered, a courier delivered the package to my doorstep (so top marks to GearBest for prompt shipping). The laptop was well packed in a type of strong, light, corrugated plastic former which I hadn’t seen before, but which is obviously ideal for this type of shipment. My heart sank when I saw that the package had been opened (visions of a faulty returned unit being re-shipped), but it’s just as likely that customs had opened it.
The laptop was neatly boxed and the white cardboard, minimal “UltraBook” logo and profile, black and white photos of the laptop on the exterior reminded me strongly of Apple packaging. Inside the box, the laptop had plastic protective sheets both top and bottom, with an extra (super-reflective) sheet across the screen. The power-supply and a (fairly superfluous) leaflet were included in a separate, boxed-off area to the rear of the laptop itself. I don’t have any sapphires to hand and I’m colour-blind enough to be fairly useless at adjusting a colour CRT (if anyone other than Jenny List and me still remembers doing that), but the R8 is definitely blue. The uniform swath of blueness is unbroken, except for the “T-bao” logo in the centre of the top panel. It doesn’t look too bad for the price and the build quality is surprisingly good. It has a nice heft to it and it doesn’t feel as flimsy as some, all-plastic laptops that I’ve used. It’s light enough to be easily transportable, although I don’t suppose the majority of people who buy a 15.6″ screen are going for the portable option.
The good, the bad and the not-so ugly
Even before plugging the laptop in, there are a few obvious things which scream built-to-cost. The cable on the power supply is short and will barely reach from floor to table-top. In addition to that, the connector is a minuscule “barrel” type, of a size (3.5mm) which is normally associated with USB hubs (which generally remain permanently connected and get very little stress). It’s a fair bet that this flimsy plug (or rather, the socket on the laptop motherboard) is going to be the major point of failure for anyone (like me) who unplugs their laptop once or twice every day for untethered use. The PSU plug does get noticeably warm (not hot) in use.
One oddball thing which I noticed after plugging in that tiny plug is that there’s an even tinier red LED between the power socket and the back of the laptop which appears to come on when the battery is discharging and (maybe) when it is connected to power but not fully charged. The LED is in a position which is difficult to see when you’re using the laptop, so I’m still not entirely sure what its purpose actually is (other than to further deplete your battery).
While we’re on the subject of LEDs, I have to mention that I’m surprised just how much I miss a “disk activity” indicator. Without the noise of a spinning disk, there’s nothing on this machine to indicate that it’s doing anything at all. I wonder how difficult it would be to convert the numeric-lock indicator to display disk accesses instead?
The keyboard and touch-pad also show their (lack of) pedigree, with somewhat jerky key movement and a noisy, “clacky” spacebar which doesn’t always register presses, unless they’re near to the centre of the key. The one-piece touch-pad has physical key-switches underneath it at the bottom left and bottom right (there are no separate buttons), so you can use either tap selection, or press selection (or a mixture of both). Using a physical press to imitate left and right mouse buttons is surprisingly noisy as the flexing of the touch-pad and the noise made by the key-switches seems to reverberate through the internal cavity of the laptop. The noise is loud enough to wake a dozing person on the other side of the table (“Watchoodoowin?!?!?”), which is much too loud for me. Having said that, the keyboard is definitely usable (although not as comfortable to type on as the older Inspiron) and the touch-pad can be used in tap mode and with some basic gestures, such as two-fingered scrolling, zoom and pinch.
The key-tops on the keyboard are black, with white lettering, so very legible. The additional functions (such as numerics, volume control, etc) are marked in blue, which is also very legible under normal lighting conditions (and far superior to the terrible red-on-black which is so common — and so totally illegible — on most laptop keyboards). One obvious missing function though, is brightness control for the display; you need to use on-screen control to control screen brightness (am I the only one to see a problem with that?).
The display itself is actually very nice. Removing the super-glossy protective sheet reveals a matte screen with excellent contrast and brightness and minimal reflection. I found the colours to be bright and (bearing in mind my comments earlier about colour-blindness) accurate. The wide aspect ratio makes it pleasant to use and the high definition means that there’s tons of space available for multiple windows. One of my only reservations with it is that the hinges on the laptop lid limit the vertical viewing angle a little too much for comfortable use on your lap; it really needs about another twenty degrees of (backwards) travel.
Sound — So far I’ve been unable to get sound working, so this one will have to wait. I will note here though that the positioning of the speakers under the bottom of the laptop body means that the sound is undoubtedly going to be muffled when the machine is sat on your lap.
WiFi — You don’t have the option of an hard-wired Ethernet port on this laptop, so you will be using WiFi (unless you buy an additional dongle for one of the USB ports). My experience so far is that the WiFi seems to be less sensitive than the other machines in the household and I have seen very occasional drop outs where I lose signal completely. This is actually a little worrying, as I live in a log house, with no brick walls anywhere and I don’t normally have any problems picking up a signal anywhere indoors, or even outdoors within a few metres of the house. If you happen to have a brick or concrete built house with solid walls, I’d guess this may be a fairly major issue for you.
There seems to be some confusion between different web sites advertising this product about the capabilities of the USB ports. I can confirm that one port is indeed a USB 3.0 port and plugging in a 3.0 device shows a speed of “5000M” (as opposed to the “480M” for the USB 2.0 port and camera), so the GearBest is correct in this respect and the sites which show USB 2.0 only are incorrect).
The Bottom Line
Okay, reading back over this, it all looks a bit negative, but I’m trying to give an honest impression of what you’ll be getting if you order one of these systems.
At the end of the day, the main question is, is it worth $185? If you’d have asked me this two weeks ago, you would probably have gotten a simple “No”, mainly because of the keyboard and touch-pad. After loading, booting and configuring Linux on this beast many, many, many times over the past few days, I’ve naturally started to get used to the keyboard quirks and have consciously modified my own behaviour to work with the touch-pad, instead of against it (helpful hint: use your two middle fingers for scrolling, instead of index and middle – it works much better. Oh, and keep your palms off the touch-pad when typing, too).
So at this point in time I’d actually give it a qualified thumbs-up and say yes, it is worth $185. If you’re a Windows user and can work with the version which comes pre-loaded, then it’s probably a huge bargain (be prepared to give yourself a couple of weeks to get used to the keyboard and touch-pad, though). If you’re a parent looking for a cheap laptop for one of your children for school, this one looks good, runs Windows and it won’t give you a heart attack if they drop it on the first day.
If you’re not a Windows user, then you need to be prepared to go through some extra steps (over and above the normal Linux install) to get this laptop working. The UEFI boot and Atom processor mean that this isn’t a particularly easy machine to get running (see the next article for details), but the good news is that bootable (and mostly usable) images for the latest Ubuntu-based Linuxes are available on the ‘net (but you might have to live without sound and Bluetooth until some issues with those are solved).
Update as of Nov 3rd 2017 — Okay, after struggling with this beast for many tedious weeks, I’m going to change my opinion for non-Windows users to a definite thumbs down for this machine (again, see the follow-up article for more details on all of the shortcomings I’ve encountered so far). I’m hopeful that Linux/BSD support for Bluetooth, the SD card and sound will improve in the near future, but the current problems with those drivers, combined with all of the other issues (especially the trackpad), currently make this a very frustrating laptop to try and use as your main machine. Save your money, pay a little more and get something usable from one of the mainstream makers, instead.
And for anyone interested, the output from “dmesg” on the T-bao R8 while running ElementaryOS 4.1 is available here.
Next, we’ll look at getting Linux (Elementary OS) onto the T-bao R8…