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:

  • One SPARCLE Portable workstation
  • Nylon carrying case
  • AC adapter and power cord
  • Battery pack
  • Removable DVD/CD-ROM drive
  • SPARCLE User Guide on CD-ROM
  • Tadpole Support Software installation CD
  • Solaris Operating Environment CDs (Solaris 8 2/02 1 and 2)
  • StarOffice 7 RTU license and software on CD-ROM
  • First Thoughts

    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
    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
    provided CD-ROMs.

    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.

    Ongoing Use

    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 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).

    Power Consumption

    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.


  • Fast performance
  • Excellent display, no dead pixels
  • Good battery life
  • SPARC binary compatibility – runs unchanged Solaris from Sun
  • Cons

  • PDF files on CD-R instead of printed documentation
  • Low-end nylon carrying case
  • Slightly heavy at 7 lbs
  • Final Thoughts:

    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
    audio jacks).

    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