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Laptop: Temptations vs. Needs

The Temptations...

Acer have a lot to answer for. You can now quite easily get a Shiny Thing containing an Athlon64 or Turion64 for very few sheckles. Not only that, but they have nice big screens, silly-quick hard drives and various form factors (ranging from "oh, I mistook it for a deck of playing cards" to "yes, it is a laptop! Look - I can nearly lift it on my own...").

So, to the temptations.

  • Athlon64 / Duron64 - nice big processor to match my desktop machine. After all, I want to do the same things with the laptop I do with the desktop.
  • Large screen - when you use a computer you look at this bit the most, so it stands to reason that bigger is better.
  • Huge hard drive - again, I want to be able to do everything I do with my desktop machine.

The Reality

After the standard techie knee-jerk of more is more and hence better, I decided to spend a few moments thinking about what I would end up actually using this thing for.

The list turned out to be rather uninspiring: I spend most of my day working with text editors in one form or another - Quanta for script editing, nedit for miscellaneous writings, Thunderbird for e-mail and a half-dozen console windows to various machines at different sites. I do a fair amount of web work, but none of this needs a huge amount of horsepower. I occasionally watch movies too, but my old PIII/500 could keep up with that task without breaking a sweat.

As most of my work involves a lot of typing, I want a decent keyboard. That means a full-size shift key and decently proportioned backspace and enter keys, too. And if PageUp, PageDown, Home and End can be got without having to use a function-shift, so much the better. Just for the record, Sony's Vaio range have the best keyboards on the planet bar none - desktop, laptop or otherwise!

Moreover, I perform regular on-site checks with our network of Plasma screens around Birmingham, which can sometimes take a while if the site is experiencing network problems. In this case, video content needs to be uploaded to them manually, which can take more time. Most of the screens are in odd locations where power is not readily accessible (at least not without removing large quantities of ceiling tiles!) and so a decent battery endurance is a must.

A fair amount of video work is undertaken by me too, but when I think about it that happens simply because my workstation happens to be one of the more powerful ones! This task should really be undertaken by another member of staff and hence the laptop shouldn't really need to deal with it.

I burn CDs and DVDs here and there but not approaching anything like an industrial scale, so a standard DVD burner will do fine.

I'm also starting to wage a war on noise. My home office is quite small but is stacked to the gunnels with various test servers and networking gear, all of which I very rarely actually touch. I use it all fairly regularly, but this is all done over the network. As such, I feel I should be able to banish the majority of the machines to some remote part of the house and have a nice, quiet (read "nearly inaudible") machine on my desk.

Both home and work are WiFi enabled, hence so too must the laptop. And I can be clumsy as hell, so no danglements sticking out of PCMCIA slots, please! Having said that, wired networking is also a must as I regularly need to hook up to client networks for debugging purposes.

I fscking HATE the IBM-style navi-nipples or whatever they call those crap little joystick-things that they wedge rather unceremoniously in the middle of the keyboard.

Speaking of networks, the majority of stuff I use on my workstation(s) comes over the network anyway: local storage is mainly used as a temporary store and for the host OS. As such, vast quantities of drive space is not essential.

As far as external storage goes, I occasionally use FireWire drives, so a FireWire port would be a nice addition. This is not too regular, though, and not having one wouldn't be the end of the world.

Linux (specifically Gentoo) is my OS of choice, and as such the damn thing needs to be able to work with this. Modems I can live without, but graphics drivers, sound cards, wireless and wired networks etc. must all be Linux friendly.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, I'm a stingy git and don't like spending my own money. As such I've set a budget of around 600, give or take fifty quid.

The Needs

So, after that bit of self-analysis, I have some requisites for the machine:
  • Machine must be as quiet as possible
  • Long-ish battery life (3 hours or more)
  • Integrated WiFi
  • Integrated 10/100(/1000) networking
  • DVD-R drive
  • FireWire if possible
  • Decent keyboard
  • Trackpad - NOT a navi-nipple
  • Needs to be reasonably light and portable (although this is not a primary concern)
  • Linux compatible components
  • Wallet-friendly components
From past experience, this immediately rules out the Athlon64 notebooks simply on the noise and battery life points. While incredibly powerful, the AMD notebooks practically cook themselves whilst dragging the guts from their batteries quicker than you can possibly imagine. The huge heat dissipation also means fans - and noisy, large volume fans at that.

A bit of 'net trawling soon reveals that the Athlon64 and its mobile-bias stablemate the Turion64 are both a bit heavy-handed when it comes to the power situation. While they run rings around Intel's desktop processor grunt-per-watt figure, they are slightly lacking in the mobile arena. The chipsets they use, for example, were not concieved as a mobile chipset, more as a one-size-fits-all solution that happens to work OK in a laptop environment.

This is where Intel do gain an advantage. Quite a few moons ago, they created the Centrino platform (see What Is Centrino? for more info) and, as such, have a coherent idea and a set of standards that provides a harmonised, low-power-consumption platform specifically for mobile applications.

While not generally an Intel fan, in this case the numbers speak for themselves. The Centrino-badged notebooks, without exception, gave much greater runtimes compared to their AMD counterparts. Yes, the AMD machines appear to be appreciably faster, however from the logic above - and I never thought I'd hear myself say this - for my needs raw performance was not a primary concern. They also appear to have generally less agressive cooling, meaning that peak noise figures are also universally lower than the AMD offerings.

As I had worked out above, the laptop needed to be reasonably transportable. Some of the laptops available now have screens big enough to allow a full-size keyboard - complete with numberpad - to be fitted in to the chassis! Obviously this is a bit silly for my needs, so to reduce this, a smaller screen is necessary. Also, choosing a widescreen aspect display should (in theory at least) reduce the overall depth of the machine.

The Conclusion

This means the laptop must conform to the following:
  • Centrino platform laptop
  • Extended battery
  • Widescreen display
  • Trackpad
  • FireWire
  • 30GB+ HDD
  • Full-size keyboard
Now all I need is to find one that fits the spec AND my budget!

This page was last updated: 31st December 2005 at 3:44am GMT
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