Review: Tadpole SPARCLE
Product Review: Tadpole SPARCLE
by Bill Bradford, November 2003
|Manufacturer: Tadpole Computer
Distributor / Reseller: Marathon International
(click image for actual review photographs)
In early November, Jim Hall and the guys at
Marathon International were kind
enough to send me a brand-new Tadpole SPARCLE laptop for a review.
Back in 2000, I
took a look at Tadpole/RDI’s UltraBook portable SPARC workstation. The
first UltraBooks were basically Ultra AX motherboards stuffed into a portable
“laptop” style case with an LCD display attached. While good machines for
the time, they were power-hungry and heavy. The SPARCLE was
designed from the ground up to be a “real” laptop, with decent battery life
and an excellent display. “Commodity” laptop parts have been used when
possible, to keep prices affordable.
My review unit was a SPARCLE 500SX with a 500Mhz UltraSPARC IIe
CPU, 256 megabytes of RAM, a 40 gigabyte IDE/ATA hard drive, combination
DVD-ROM/CDRW drive, 802.11b wireless networking, and a 15″ SXGA LCD display.
SPARCLE systems now ship standard with Solaris 9 loaded; this
unit had Solaris 8 preinstalled along with StarOffice 6.0 and the optional
GNOME 2.0 user interface.
Contents of the shipping package:
Out of the box, the SPARCLE feels solid and well-built. There is no “creaky”
or mis-fitting plastic parts, the screen hinge opens smoothly, and the screen
latch “clicks” shut when you close the screen. Lifting the top of the system
does not feel like it is bending the LCD screen – the frame around the LCD
is solid. The system
itself is visually appealing, “Sun Purple” with silver highlights. This
is a welcome change from boring all-black portable systems.
On powerup, you get a normal OpenBoot screen, and a standard
Solaris system boot. The preinstalled operating system (Solaris 8 2/02)
uses a default Solaris partitioning scheme (with a 128M root slice), but
that can be easily reinstalled. The SPARCLE User Guide has details on installing Solaris using the
I had no problems connecting the SPARCLE to my wired
10/100baseT ethernet network and transferring files to other PC and Mac
systems on my network. Connecting an external monitor worked without
problems as well.
The keyboard and trackpad on the SPARCLE are
well-designed and laid out, with decent sized keys. CONTROL is next to the
A key (as it should be, in my opinion), cursor keys are an inverted T, and
the backspace key is large. My only complaint with the keyboard is that the
escape key (at top left) is small and is the same size as the function
keys – users of the VI editor will find this to be a very slight annoyance.
One very nice feature on a SPARC laptop is a dedicated “stop” key (aka L1 on
older Sun keyboards), useful for when a user needs to get into OpenBoot by
using the STOP-A key combination. Trackpad response was smooth and non-
jerky, and all three trackpad buttons had both audible and
tactical feedback, a good satisfying “click” when used.
I used a SunBlade 100 system from Sun as my main desktop every day for
a year and a half. The 500Mhz SPARCLE, with the same main CPU as the
SB100, feels “about the same”. The graphics chipset in the
SPARCLE is equivalent to the PGX64 graphics onboard a
SunBlade 100, and performed identically.
One of the most impressive features of the SPARCLE is its
liquid crystal display. The standard SPARCLE comes with a
14″ screen and a resolution of 1024×768. My review unit had the 15″
screen, running at 1400×1050. The display was bright, with good contrast
and viewing angle. I could not find any “dead” or “stuck” pixels.
Running software like Mozilla, the SPARCLE performed
admirably, with fast screen updates and no “ghosting” of moving images
on the display. Streaming MPEG video over the local network or playing
DVD movies (using VLC) looked just
fine. I also had no problems burning CD-ROM discs using the
cdrecord tools, and the resulting discs were readable
on other systems I tested them on (PC running Windows XP, a Sony laptop, and
a PowerMac G4).
I was able to import and export Microsoft Word and Excel documents using
the included StarOffice
I had no problem running precompiled binaries from SunFreeware on the SPARCLE. Solaris 8 patches
and maintenance updates from sun.com also installed without a hitch. The
system uses an UltraSPARC-IIe CPU and runs “normal” Solaris (with added
drivers for the video display and wireless networking features), so there are
no worries about “custom” patches for the OS. I did not try to install
any alternate operating systems (Linux, etc).
I found battery life to be fairly close to the advertised three hours.
Tadpole includes some great tools for controlling the system and adjusting
power consumption (display brightness, CPU speed, etc). I was particuarly
impressed with the battery monitoring software, which shows estimated battery
time remaining and the number of charge/discharge cycles on the battery.
Fans in the case will come on and turn off automatically as needed to cool
the system, which has
vents in the back to aid airflow.
I did not have the opportunity to test the wireless networking features
during this review, as I do not have a wireless network at home.
Did I like the SPARCLE? Yes. This is a very well-built
laptop, a completely different monster than the “portable Ultra 1” I looked
at three years ago. It performs as well as the Sun desktop system I used
for a year and a half, offering a better screen and more features (wireless
networking and CD writing).
The only thing I did not like about this system was the fact that the
user manuals were in electronic (PDF) format rather than printed and bound.
If a user is not familiar with the operating system (admittedly, not likely
for buyers of the SPARCLE), they will have to read the user guide on a
secondary computer. The driver CDs and included Solaris were on CD-R
discs, but this is a good thing – as drivers and manuals can be updated
easier and cheaper so that each SPARCLE system has up-to-date drivers and
operating system when it ships.
I would highly recommend a SPARCLE system to anyone who needs to have
mobile SPARC computing power available, or needs to be able to develop or
demonstrate Solaris software applications while “on the road” or traveling.
Price As Reviewed: $4,415.00
Configuration As Reviewed:
Dimensions: 1.5″ high, 10.5″ deep, 12.8″ wide
Weight: 7.1 lbs fully-configured with battery, CD-ROM drive, and
one hard drive.
Processor: 500Mhz UltraSPARC-IIe, 256KB L2 cache
Memory: 256MB ECC SDRAM
Mass Storage: 40G ATA-5 IDE disk (12ms Avg. Seek Time, 66MB/sec)
Media Bay: Integrated CD-RW/DVD-ROM (DVD 8x, CD-RW 8x write, 24x read)
Networking: Integrated 802.11b Wireless, 10/100Base-T Ethernet
Display: 15″ SXGA+ (1400×1050) color LCD. External monitor
supported via DB15 VGA connector.
Graphics: 24bpp 2-D equivalent to (or better than) Sun PGX64
Input Devices: Sun-compatible keyboard, touch pad with 3 buttons,
four programmable function keys
I/O Interfaces: Three USB 2.0 type-1 connectors, one PCMCIA/CardBus
Type II slot, one IEEE 1284/Centronics Parallel port (DB25), two PS/2
(keyboard and mouse) connectors.
Multimedia: Internal stereo speakers; 16-bit 48Khz stereo audio.
Mono microphone-in, stereo line-in, line-out, and headphone out (two 2.5mm
Software: Solaris 8 (loaded), Solaris 9 standard
Window System: CDE (standard), GNOME 2.0 (loaded)
Network Support: Tadpole Software Tools, NTP, NIS+DHCP, NFS, DNS
Java Tools: Java Virtual Machine / JDK 1.3.1
Productivity Software: Sun StarOffice 6.0 (preinstalled)
Power Management: Tadpole Software Tools
Battery: Standard Li-Ion, approximately 3 hour battery life
DC power: AC-DC auto-sensing power adapter, 90-264 VAC, 47-63Hz