Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Red Fort & 1857

Last week, I took a day off work, went to the Red Fort and sat there from 10:00AM to 4:00PM, reading a book.

Nothing unusual about reading a book all day but I just could not imagine a better setting for William Dalrymple's "The Last Mughal". I sat on one of the green benches lined up for the Sound & Light shows at the Diwan-e-Khas, and as the crowds tricked into the open space to enjoy the cool winter breeze and warm sunshine and as squirrels darted about my feet looking for bits of chocolate, I flipped the pages and my mind wandered away to the summer of 1857.

What a mess this place would have been! An old, weak, vacillating 'Emperor of Hindustan' roamed these marble quarters worrying about a his orchards and Urdu couplets; whining about thousands of Hindu and Muslim soldiers who had poured into the city expecting decisive leadership; tossing away initiative and valuable time while an army of Brits with their freshly recruited hordes of Punjabi and Pathan mercenaries bombarded the city day & night.

Over the last decade, I've visited the Red Fort and the streets of Old Delhi innumerable times - mostly for the second-hand books at Daryaganj, followed by the mandatory meal at Karim's or Jelebi-Kachori's at Chandni Chowk. All this while I had assumed that the predominantly Baniya flavor of the walled city was an aftermath of the Partition.

Little did I know that until the spring of 1857, this was the largest and most cosmopolitan city between Istanbul and Peking, priding itself as a center of learning and urban refinement. And that soon after the - entirely avoidable and pathetic - fall of the city, its entire population of over 200,000 was looted, slaughtered, hanged, raped or driven out; that Muslims were turned into scapegoats for the rebellion and not allowed back into the city without special permission; that large section of the city and the fort were demolished to make way for a drab cantonment-town.

No doubt the Mughals, and other dynasties before them, had done much the same thing to numerous cities while consolidating their rule in India. So the observation of Maulvi Mohd. Baqar's son, Azad (who escaped imminent execution by swimming across the Yamuna), seems rather timeless:

"The important thing is that the glory of the winner's ascendant fortune gives everything of theirs - even their dress, their gait, their conversation - a radiance that makes them desirable. And people do not merely adopt them but they are proud to adopt them."

I guess the survivors of Quila Rai Pithora thought the same about the Sultanates, as did the armies that were routed on the battlefields of Panipat. Sanskrit was shoved aside by Farsi and Urdu, which in turn was knocked out by English. And now, more than 60 years after independence, we continue to seek our bearings from lighthouses in the West. I guess it takes time to wash away assumed notions of self-respect.

How many Dalrymple's will it take before we start thinking for ourselves?

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Buying A Laptop In Delhi

I've been hunting around for the "right" laptop for the past few weeks.

I need a sturdy, general-purpose machine for a forthcoming two-year sabbatical in Japan. It is going to be a lifeline of sorts and is meant to help me keep in touch with folks back home; for my photographs, music and movie DVD's and for helping me improve my Japanese.

Considering how laptops have evolved over the past few years, my requirements were quite basic. The desktop I use now has a rather obsolete configuration - Intel Pentium4, 632 MB RAM and 100 GB HDD running a tolerable XP Professional-2002. At home I borrow my wife's laptop (HP 520 - Core L2Duo T2500, 0.99 GB RAM, XP Pro) for checking my mail and for some occasional blogging.

This was the first time I was buying a laptop with my own money. So apart from the budget-limit of Rs.50k, my VFM priorities were -
  • Sturdiness: I would be traveling around quite a bit.
  • Weight: not too heavy but I would prefer a cheaper-sturdier-heavier machine to a costlier-delicate-lighter one.
  • Service & warranty coverage in Japan
  • Ease of use: I could not handle cramped keyboards and tiny screens.
  • Battery life: Normal - about 3-4 hours. I did not expect to wander too far from a plug-point.
  • No Frills: I could manage without a fingerprint reader and face-recognition software.
After three weeks of trawling the internet and harassing showroom executives, I have finally decided to buy a Dell Studio-14 online.

Why did I choose this brand & model? How did the other brands compare? Here are my thoughts for those who may walk down this path later -

SONY VAIO (Sony showroom, Rajkot)
I started my search with Sony-VAIO's at a showroom in Rajkot and I loved the look and feel of this series. I also liked the open WYSIWYG sales approach - a detailed brochure with a useful comparison-table and a common no-discount policy across India. However, the models I really liked (Z series) were way beyond my budget and the affordable ones, on second thoughts, looked like chunky slabs of gleaming plastic.

TOSHIBA (X-cite, Select Citywalk Mall, Saket - Delhi)
If I could give a prize to the best salesman it would go to .Tauseef at Xcite. He patiently explained the features of a beautiful black model M800 D3310 (C2D T5550 1.83GHz, 2GB RAM, 250 GB HDD, 13.3" TFT, Vista Home Premium, 1.9kg) at Rs.50,990. I almost decided to buy this one until the guys at Dell pitched in.

LENOVO (Landmark Infonet PL, Regal Bldg, CP - Delhi)
A halfhearted salesman pointed to some laptops lined on a shelf and handed me a photocopy titled "3000 Y & G Series". These machines looked unexeptional but a friend working with Lenovo (USA) enthusiastically recommended the X and T series but neither could be located in the showrooms here.

HP (Asian Infotec, 18 Palika Parking, New Delhi)
These guys knew what they were talking about. They suggested that I go for a HP-Pavilion DV 2910TX (3GB RAM, 320 HDD, 14.1 TFT, 2.4kg) at Rs.50,800. My questions did not lead to blank looks -- Why did HP laptops continue to have VGA cameras? Because images from VGA's transmit images faster than MegaPixels; Why did the screens have that glazed mirror finish? once the machine is on, they give sharper images...etc., The Presario's also came with a "Free Home Theatre system worth Rs.10,500" if you paid them "just Rs. 1500 extra for the shipping charges". However, there was no option for international warranty.

SAHARA- Multibrand Store
The salesmen here were completely clueless on product features. The laptops looked equally uninspiring, with assembled-without-much-care look about them. I guess these were targeted people who were seeing a laptop for the first time.

so, finally...

DELL - Telephonic / Online
This was an interesting experience from the outset. To begin with, it was great to deal with people who knew their stuff rather than putting up with blank-faced showroom salesmen. Kartheek Kondapalli responded to my email enquiry with a quick telephone call. He asked me the why's and what's of my requirements and sent me quotation for Studio-14. In terms of VLM, the specs were superior to anything I had seen so far - C2D T6400 2GHz, 3GB RAM, 320 GB HDD, 14.1" TFT, built-in 2MP camera, Vista HomeP, 5 color options, free blutooth mouse, free noise-cancelling earbuds...all this for Rs.43.8k!

The laptop weighed 2.66kg which was heavier than competition (Toshiba M800 and HP Pavilion 2910) but this was easily explained ("Dell machines are built tough"). So, ultimately there was only one fly in the ointment - Vista - and I did not want it.

I tried my best to persuade them to give me the same specs with an XP Pro. But no, everything was flexible (RAM, HDD, screen-size) but not the operating system. They just could not put XP into a Studio 14 -- Microsoft had apparantly signed some deal with them to push their much reviled RAM-hogger.

There was another hitch - I had never seen this machine before. So today morning I went over to the 'DELL Exclusive Store' at Nehru Place for a dekko. The showroom was crowded and the colorful Studio 14's seemed to be the centre of attraction. It lacked the finish of a HP Pavilion (especially the front speaker/button panel) and, yet again, the uniformed salesguys tried to brazen it through basic questions like, 'why does this laptop have a CD/DVD slot instead of a tray?' (Ans. - "Aise hi aata hai" - translation - 'well, thats the way it is'). The price? - Rs.46,500 for the same machine! :O

Luckily, two people from DELL tech-support - Priyanka and Somnath - happened to overhear my questions and volunteered to help. They were not working at this store and had just dropped to see the crowds. Between the two of them I got pretty solid answers to all my technical questions. If I needed any more convincing about the Studio-14, it came from their own conviction and enthusiasm about the product.

So, as soon as I got back home, I sent an email to DELL confirming my order. The delivery is expected within seven working days.

One thing is clear - I would have never purchased a Dell machine based on a showroom experience. And it makes a lot of sense to have a laptop tailor made (well, almost) to your requirements, at a competitive price, rather than pick something fancy off the shelf, with snazzy features you are not going to be using anyway.

SOUR NOTES - 18 Feb., 2009

It is nearly two weeks since I ordered my Dell Laptop and I'm already disappointed. At first they said it would be delivered within 7 working days, by 18 Feb.. Then came an automated email from them saying that the delivery would be by 19 Feb..

Eager to get my hands on the machine ASAP, I kept checking their - much vaunted - 'delivery status' webpage but even as of now it shows that my order is still "under production". Since there was no feedback or update from the customer-service office in India, I sent an email to Dell-India. The response - the usual, vague auto replies (Investigation in progress). Then I called up Kartheek and he said, "I checked our internal system today morning and you'll definitely get your machine, latest by 20 Feb."

So it came as a big surprise when I got a call today morning from a CS lady who tells me that the machine has just left the production line today! Why? Because there was a shortage of some parts. Did they realise this one day before the promised delivery date?? Well, um...we're sorry but.. So when will the machine reach me? Maybe on 25 Feb..

This is so frustrating!

Maybe I should have just picked that Toshiba or HP Pavilion off the shelf.


VERY SOUR NOTES - 27 Feb., 2009

My Dell experience has turned out to be a complete disaster!

The courier finally arrived on Saturday, 21 Feb.. Dell had told me to inspect the contents before accepting the package but the courier (BlueDart) insisted that I could open the package only after accepting it! Chicken & Egg story...and as soon as I signed the acceptance, the courier promptly disappeared.

Anyway, I opened the carton ("Yours Is Here"), laid out the contents, read the user's manual (a tiny booklet) and plugged in my brand new laptop. After a few minutes, Vista came alive on the screen, and then I discovered that the cursor-arrow was frozen in the middle of the screen - the touchpad just would not work.

I tried restarting the machine using Alt+Tab buttons and noticed that the DOS screen momentarily flashed a message - "Error 8602 - Auxiliary Device Failure" (??). I called up the Dell Helpline but a recorded message informed me that they work only Mondays to Fridays. I guess nobody has problems with Dell machines during weekends.

I then tried to activate the Bluetooth Mouse hoping that at least this could circumvent the problem. This too was a dud. By now it was amply clear that Dell had sent me a machine without even bothering to check if everything was in order.

On Monday morning, I called up Kartheek. He sounded genuinely distraught at the way production & QC guys had screwed it up ("only 1% of Dell customers face such problems"). I was promptly put in touch with TechSupport but after running me through a series of tests, and even after re-installing the Driver's and rebooting several times, the cursor remained frozen. The problems was "escalated" and another techie from Delhi called up to resolve case no. TQ181008045 / 10556380 / Journal ID 090524WB9F for Service Tag 97MX2BS.

No luck.

By now I was at the end of my tether. I just didn't have the time to sit at home all day breaking my head over a faulty machine. And when a Customer Service exec told me nonchalantly that they could replace the laptop in "maybe three weeks", I screamed that I was through with Dell, and that I wanted a full refund ASAP!!

Enough time had been wasted already, so I went to Nehru Place today morning and picked up a Toshiba Satellite-M300 for Rs.40,500. Compared to the Dell Studio-14, the config is modest (Intel-Centrino C2D T-5550, 2GB RAM, 160GB HDD) but it comes with international warranty, it is cheaper, lighter (2.34kg), has better speakers (harman/kardon) and the best part of it all is that the cursor actually works! :)

BTW, I'm still keeping my fingers crossed on the full refund from Dell. I hope they don't goof-up on this as well.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Deciphering Laptop Specs

Planning to buy a new laptop?

Here is an attempt to see what all those acronyms and terms actually mean -

Base Systems:

Base systems refer to the heart of the machine - the processors. This area is dominated by Intel, with AMD having a small but growing share of the market. At Intel the evolution of processors started with the four-bit, single chip 'Intel 4004', and has now moved to Itanium - Xeon - Celeron - Pentium - Dual Core - Core2 Duo - Core2 Quad - Core2 Extreme - Core i7. Within each family, processor numbers are not a measurement of performance. They are merely to differentiate product features.

For instance 'Core2 Duo T6400' offered with the laptop Dell Studio-14 is just one of the 58 in the Core2 Duo family. And this is not even listed among the list of 'All Core2 Duo Processors' at the Intel website! Neither is T5800 used by many Sony-Vaio models.

Comparison of Intel Processors

All Core2 Duor Processors
Core-2 Duo T6400

xGHz = Refers to the Clock Speed of the processors

Operating Systems:

This is where you meet the arm-twisters from Microsoft. These days they are pushing the Vista series so its every difficult to find laptops that give you the option of picking tried & tested systems like the XP, compared to which the Vista sits like a overweight gorilla on your RAM.
If you can't afford a mimimum of 2GB RAM, stay away from Vista (if you can).


Usually described as something like "14.1 Widescreen WXVGA CCFL (1280x800)". 14.1 refers to the diagonal length of screen.

WXGA = Wide eXtended Graphics Array. Evolved from a display standard (1024x786 pixels) used by IBM in the 1990's. In laptop machines the density of pixels is extended to 1280x800 making the images 27% wider and sharper.

Wiki - WXGA

CCFL = Cold Cathode Fluroscent Lamps. Used for Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) backlighting.

TFT Display = Thin Film Transistor Display. A type of LCD in which each pixel is controlled with its own transistor switch. This not only prevents voltage from leaking away but also results in better control of contrast and color.

Memory - RAM:

Random Access Memory (RAM) is usually described as something like "3GB (1x1 GB + 1x2GB) DDR2 SDRAM".

GB = Giga Byte or 1000,000,000 bytes. In binary terms this is bigger than on billion bites becasue it is calculated in multiples of 1024 Bytes. So 1GB is actually 1024x1024x1024 = 1.073 billion Bytes.

DDR SDRAM = Double Data Rate Synchronous Dynamic Random Access Memory. An integrated circuit that achieves double the bandwidth of SDRAM without taking extra time. DDR2 achieves double the speed of DDR by improved bus signalling and by operating the memory cells at double the speed.

Hard Drives: -

"320GB SATA Hard Drive"
SATA = Serial Advanced Technology Attachment. AT Attachments are interface standards for connecting storage devices that were first introduced with the IBM PC/AT in 1984. Earlier the connections used to be with Parallel (P-ATA), ribbon like cables encasing parallel wires terminating in 40-pin connectors. Since its introduction in 2003, S-ATA has been preferred for its higher bandwidth and transfer speeds.