Friday, April 1, 2011

Sell Me A Computer?

I do everything as a geek would do it, because I am a geek. This extends to buying a computer. I'm picking out my next home-wherever-I-am now, and I'm wanting to ask questions that nobody answers. Here's what I'm about:
  1. Does it come with a non-shiny screen? I don't know how "glare" ever became a feature.
  2. If I'm just reading and editing text files, will the battery last all through a 6-hour flight?
  3. How much battery life can I get if I'm programming in python with autonose running? 
  4. When I put Ubuntu on it, will it find drivers for everything? Video? Wifi? Camera? 
  5. Which extended function keys won't work in Linux?
  6. Will the oversensitive touchpad register a mouse activity when I come within 1/2 inch of it? Can I shut it off?
  7. How badly will I get burned if I put the laptop on my knees while compiling a .NET project? 
  8. Is there enough RAM for me to run my OS, a windows virtual box with VS.NET and resharper in it, a browser on the side?
  9. Can I use it comfortably on a train or on an airplane, even if the inconsiderate jerk in front of me slams his seat back against my knees like usual?
  10. How long is the fan going to last? Is it going to die after a measly 4 years like my previous two full-sized laptop computers? 
  11. How much does it suck battery when suspended? How much does it eat on reboot if hibernated?
  12. Can I hook it up to digital video? HDMI?
  13. How water-resistant is it? If I spill one drop into the keyboard, is it gone forever, or is there some hope? 
  14. How sturdy is the hinge? I've seen too many laptops gone forever when the hinge weakens.

I know that's not the normal set of questions, but that's why I'm so much fun to shop with.

I've had great luck with Thinkpads and my Asus EEE PC is just wonderful with Ubuntu. I don't have the battery life I want, but a guy makes compromises. We're pragmatists.

My only problems with the Asus EEE PC have been the oversensitive touchpad, lower battery life than desired (2 hours + with Ubuntu), smallish hard drive (160G), small RAM (1G originally), and being vga-only (later models solve this). For the money, I can heartily endorse these little netbooks. Actually, despite these problems, I've come to love the little beast. It's just underpowered for my needs now.

I'm thinking about a Thinkpad T410s, loaded with RAM, 500GB drive, and 9-cell battery. I'm betting it will come as close as anything to what I want.

I'm still considering a Mac, though. I don't like OS X as much as Ubuntu, but if it is solid and my windows VM runs okay, I bet I can comfort myself with a real *nix file system and a good bash shell. Last time I was frustrated by not having a great APT/YUM repositories (ports was not as good) and the whole issue of native app updates. Either each app checks for itself, or you have to go check for them and download new versions. On OS X, I had to do a lot more manual system management, and Windows was worse than that in addition to being slower and buggier.

On the other hand, OS/X had some great power management and ergonomics and the MBP had some really stellar hardware. It did work well, only crashing maybe twice in the year I had it (far better than windows, not as good as Ubuntu). The only thing I would consider superior about windows is its power management. My son's Asus EEE is identical to mine, but windows stretches the power use over a much greater period.

Well, unless someone talks me out of it, it will either be a MBP or a Thinkpad when I place my order. It will be either Ubuntu or OS/X and windows in a VM.


  1. I <3 my MBP. Virtualized windows XP drains my battery almost as fast as playing Flash videos. I've heard virtualized Win7 is worse. Virtualized Ubuntu is a dream.

    Glossy screen's the only option, but I adjusted. Trackpad smarts to avoid accidental palm taps works pretty good, better than the thinkpad I use for work.

    Every Mac I've owned has needed service within 3 year time frame; just buy the Apple Care and be done with it.

    Time Machine backups make for great demo, but use SuperDuper and have a backup you can boot from or use to reimage a disk.

    My MBP is 2008. Battery life has gotten better since then. Unibody case is dynamite. Slid off table onto wooden floor and survived with cosmetic injury only.

    SSD greatly speeds cold boot time, reduces battery drain somewhat. Avoid faster RPM HDD, drains battery faster for negligible perf gains.

    The MacBook Pros were recently refreshed so it's a good time to buy.

  2. Figured I'd do a better job of answering your exact questions regarding MBP:

    1. no^H^H. Actually, looks like Apple brought this option back.

    2. yes. My 2008 MBP almost does, and I have faster RPM HDD sucking more juice, and a lower capacity battery (last model to have user serviceable battery)

    3. don't know

    4. assuming this is n/a for MBP, but Ubuntu runs nicely under VMWare Fusion. I've run 2 Ubuntu 10.10 server images simultaneously to simulate a small grid setup. Based on Google searches, driver for camera stills seems spotty. As a replacement OS (non-virtual): don't know

    5. don't know

    6. Rarely. I think you can disable internal trackpad if another mouse is attached, but not otherwise.

    7. Mine ran hot. I had the fastest CPU of the generation I bought. Also, as battery cycles increased and performance degraded, recharging while working compounded heat problem. Replaced battery after 2.5 years and ran cool enough to be comfortable, but still hot.

    8. 4 GB is barely enough for me to run Windows XP under VMWare Fusion. Windows runs nicely, but switching back to Mac apps I notice poor performance. I presume this is from swapping and would be alleviated by additional RAM. Latest model can have 8 GB.

    9. 15" or larger, no. Or barely. I'm 6'4" so I need screen open relatively wide when it's on my lap. Packed like sardine on an airplane, can't use it comfortably. I think the MacBook Air model would work better in this regard. I had the original MB Air briefly at work and it was barely powerful enough for a development machine. Newest generation surely performs better, but likely isn't well suited to virtualize windows. Extrapolating from how fewer resources virtualized ubuntu uses on my MBP, it might run reasonably virtualized on the Air.

    10. This is my 3rd Mac laptop since 2001. Never had a fan failure. Though as mentioned in my previous comment, each has required service.

    11. I think I could suspend 2-3 days on full charge. Recent version of OS X introduced automatic hibernate if battery almost depleted. Newer models, esp with SDD, restore from hibernate rapidly. Mine takes a minute or so. It only hibernates if battery is low, otherwise it's just waking up from suspend. I'll also note that one of reasons I switched to Mac was that "suspend just works". Close lid, suspend. Open lid, wake up. Rarely does this not happen. Today, my Thinkpad still refuses to suspend when I close the lid about 25% of the time, usually requiring a forceful power down because it's stuck in "suspending". After nearly cooking it twice when putting a closed, but non-suspended Thinkpad in my laptop bag, I now have to watch it go into suspend before I stow it away. PC manufactures and Microsoft have had a decade to get this right and catch up to Apple, but haven't. Maybe linux on PC hardware is up to par.

    12. yes

    13. don't know. In theory, new unibody enclosure with fewer seams and holes could be more spill resistant, or it could act as a really good funnel onto the main logic board.

    14. my friend's Titanium PowerBook from early 00's suffered hinge problems (widespread problem in that model). Never seen or heard of models since then having hinge problems. My models never had a hinge problem.

  3. Tim,

    A couple things to note, matte screens are available in the newer MBP models, and there is a package manager called Homebrew that works very well (i.e., doesn't require sudo acess to install application, simply install/removal with symbolic links, ruby based 'recipes', updatable through git). I prefer Homebrew over MacPorts or Fink. It's available here:

  4. I'm going to give OS X a second shot.

    Last time I had a mac for a while and happily went back to Ubuntu Linux. I still love my netbook, but it will probably be turned over to my wife or my church when I transfer all my stuff to the new mac.

    Factors leaning me toward mac:
    * battery life,
    * hardware quality,
    * developing for apple devices,
    * common config with coworkers,
    * common config with ppl I may pair with
    * does not look like I'm running windows
    * HomeBrew should relieve pain of not having apt.

    Primary disincentives:
    * community is less FOSS-oriented
    * being lumped with trendy fanbois
    * darned sealed box: can't upgrade/replace battery
    * X Windows remoting won't be so easy now.
    * My computer/soulstuff is owned by a corporation
    * shiny software, shiny screens, shiny shiny shiny

    If I could match battery life and overcome the network effect, I would happily go with a well-loaded Thinkpad T510s running Ubuntu and vbox. As is, though, these are compelling reasons to switch. I'll let you know how it goes.

    I'm on a platform with a good bash/zsh and a form of unix underneath at least, and that's helpful.

  5. In answer to your question: When did glare become a feature?

    Glossy screens pick up less ambient light, resulting in a darker black and better contrast ratio. Of course that's at the expense of directly reflecting light sources into your precious precious eyes if you have it angled wrong.

    If you do a lot of graphics work you probably want the glossy screen.

    If you work with text and have little control over your work environment you probably want matte.

    I think you will ultimately be happy with the Apple system. Keep us posted though. I tried to like my wife's shiny iMac. The placement and use of the Apple key drives me bonkers. No XCode for me thanks. Vim has warped me beyond repair.

  6. You have very unique list of questions for buying a computer. I really like your creative thinking. Its going to be very difficult to sell any computer to you still I want you to visit my showroom as I have answers of few questions.