With the upheaval I’ve been through recently, I needed to get a new computer.
Even as a starting point this seems daft: recently I built a new machine using an Intel Atom “net-top” board to consume the minimum amount of power. We have a netbook which my wife annexed the day it arrived, and in the study there is a 7 year old Dell which does the usual mail, web and letter writing, as well as running Vista media center to feed the Xbox.
But I can’t cope without a laptop, and I last bought one in about 1997. All my laptops since (A Toshiba, a Lenovo, and a succession of Dells) came from Microsoft purchasing with plenty of memory ,the highest resolution screen and indifferent battery life but without the Sherpa needed to move them. After this sheltered existence I had to source my own and wanted something which
1. Runs the software I use – including the ability to run Hyper-V
2. Has a big, high resolution screen for working on photos when away from home.
3. Has a full size keyboard (large screen implies large keyboard, so that’s OK)
4. Is truly portable
5. Has good battery life
6. Doesn’t cost a fortune
(2) and (3) say this isn’t a job for a netbook. Right now there seem to be a lot of machines with 1366×768 screens, and beyond that means higher cost and either shorter battery life or a bigger, heavier battery. Over the years, I’ve notice when designers are able to reduce power consumption the battery shrinks to keep life constant at about 2 hours.
Here it might be worth not merely acknowledging the elephant in the room, but giving its trunk a robust pull. Apple’s iPad is – like anything else to have come out of Apple in the last decade – a fantastic piece of design; and its designers didn’t say a battery was too big when it lasted more than two hours. Apples view contrasts with Microsoft’s which is that portable computing is carrying your computer (your office) with you – if you don’t want lug a desktop replacement around to achieve that, then a tablet PC or a netbook is a better way. If you want to run office, accounting software or Adobe Photoshop, you can – though the netbook experience might be well behind what you’d get on a desktop PC. Microsoft started using the name and in some places Windows Mobile 6.5 uses that term to identify itself – and with a modern skin it looks just like Pocket PC 2002. But these devices could never run Photoshop or your accounting program “Pocket PC” was an aspiration, not a description. I’ve written before that Ray Ozzie’s vision of “Three screens and a cloud” recognises the difference between the screen in your living room, the one on your desk and the one in your pocket; one can choose to see Windows Phone 7 as Microsoft’s realization that the “Pocket” device never was a baby PC, it can’t be one, and shouldn’t be treated like one. When senior Microsoft folk have been asked to comment on the success of the iPad they’ve opined that when the hardware allows a real PC to have the form factor of an iPad it will be great and dodged the point that the iPad has proved the market exists for something that is neither personal computer (and a Mac is a personal computer in this context) nor pocket sized. I might have a use for such a thing in the future, but the only thing that does the job I need it to do is a PC.
Point (1) of my requirements above would rule out just about every netbook on the market on RAM and CPU grounds if form factor had not already done so. Going through the Intel processors used in laptops (never mind the AMD ones) I began to long for the 1990s when you got a 486 or a Pentium in one of a handful of speeds. I’ve taken virtualization support for granted over the last few years, and it was a surprise to find the Intel processors in many current laptops don’t support virtualization (the Pentium T4500 is one of the most popular and it doesn’t) Generally if it is named “Pentium” it doesn’t and if it is a Core2 it does- but there are exceptions to both, Celerons are about 50:50. At the time of writing the i3/i5/i7 family all do. Eventually I gravitated to the Intel I3 chip. One has to weigh up the option of the Half-the-speed/Double the battery version against the standard version, and designs which use Intel’s integrated graphics against those which use ATI or Nvidia – how much better is a separate chipset, and what cost to battery and wallet.
Having found a model which meets the requirements, comparing prices needs you to keep your wits about you: I found one retailer selling the Brand-X model Y much cheaper than another, only to find from the small print that “Model Y” is a vague term covering different processors and memory sizes. 2GB machines never come with a single, more expensive 4GB SIMM so upgrading to 4GB always means throwing memory away.
I never expected to write I bought my laptop from Tesco, but that is what I did. It’s a Dell and met all the requirements: it was delivered the hour Tesco said it would be and within a couple of hours I had it just how I wanted it. And after years of black or battleship grey the most notable part of the spec is that it’s red.