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Legend of the Laptop

I'm pretty picky about my hardware. I'm not sure what caused this state of affairs, as I don't recall being horribly offended by the state of laptops when I got my original Dell C640. Or when I later upgraded to the D600.

But these days when I look at laptops, I have a bit higher expectations. I expect a 1080p screen. I like it glossy, not matte. I like it to have 400 nits of brightness. The keyboard should be backlit, and I do like the chicklet style. The keys need to depress easily and should respond joyfully. The trackpad should be expansive, have no physical buttons, be smooth as glass, and support multi-touch gestures, like two-finger scrolling out of the box on linux. Oh, and did I mention? All of the hardware should work out of the box on Ubuntu.

So with that in mind, here are some of my misadventures in laptoping for the last few months. Hopefully this post will be helpful to others hunting that elusive perfect laptop. If you've found one that you are happy with, and you have similarly high standards, please comment with information about it!

Samsung Series 9

A beautifully curvaceous and svelte laptop, I was charmed by the Samsung Series 9 when I discovered that my old macbook had a cracked screen the night before I started a new job. I had known something of this laptop before, and had intended to purchase it as a Windows laptop to play games with. Due to the state of my macbook though, I purchased it as a work machine instead.

My woes with this laptop started when I tried to install Ubuntu 13.04. The laptop refused to boot my usb with linux, and when it did, it would quit 3/4 of the way through the installation. I've come to believe in the days since that part of this was BIOS settings, and the other part was a shoddy microSD card.

Once I got linux installed, I was deeply saddened to discover that the clickpad, while otherwise satisfying all of my other constraints, only worked as a PS2 mouse in Ubuntu. While there were clickpads of an older model that properly supported multi-touch gestures, mine was apparently recognized incorrectly, and this required a new driver that hadn't been written yet. While I have compilation skills, my few hours at attempting to get it working did not result in a functioning drive, so I resorted to using a mac magic mouse instead, which basically worked fine.

I also have bluetooth headphones that worked pretty much fine with this laptop.

Two weeks in, my laptop developed a white line across the screen. I went to take it back to Best Buy, and was informed that because my laptop did not have the original restore partition present, they could not take it back under any circumstances. This is because all Windows 8 laptops ship without disks. I had no choice in wiping the restore partition, because my primary disk had to be encrypted, and the only way to get this with the ubuntu installer is to wipe the entire disk. I called Samsung then from Best Buy, (from the Samsung station, to be a dick cough), and explained the situation. They laughed and said that Best Buy was high, and of course my warranty was not voided. I just had to ship it back to them and they would fix it. I agreed and promptly put it back in its original box and shipped it to them.

Now at this point, you may be recalling that the reason I'd bought this laptop is because my old Macbook (from 2007) was broken and no longer worked. So I don't have another laptop to use for work. At this point, I decided to buy a Macbook Air 13" as a replacement for my home laptop that was kaputt.

I'll come back to the Air in a minute.

So the Samsung comes back from the shop, a month later. (This is ridiculous in and of itself.) I put it back to work, and am happy for a while, but as the needs of my job increase in complexity so does the memory usage of the software I use. We imagine it something like this:

  • Vagrant/Virtualbox: 1GB
  • IntelliJ: 1GB
  • Chrome: 1GB
  • Pidgin, terminal, operating system processes, etc: 800-900MB

At this point I don't realize this. I just assumed that the samsung is being crazy because its heretofore mentioned trouble with linux compatibility. Meanwhile, I upgrade to 13.10, which fixes the touchpad problem. Woot! But my system is still hanging on a fairly regular basis. You might have expected that I would have known that memory was the problem, but due to the amount of file pre-fetching that modern kernels do, I was unable to successfully determine that this was a contributing factor.

So I decided to solve my problem the old-fashioned way, trading it to some random guy on Craigslist for a Lenovo X1 Carbon with almost exactly the same stats: 4GB of memory, about 3lbs, and core i5.

I'll come back to the Carbon shortly, but meanwhile, it had exactly the same problems with freezing and hanging when things get too busy. I determined that I could successfully abort an oncoming hang if I pkilled the largest process, which tends to be chrome or intellij. So I've been doing that. But no love, I just need more memory.

Both the X1 carbon that I now have and the Samsung Series 9 (np900x3e) have their only memory slot soldered to the motherboard. So I hunt down yet another laptop.

The good:

  • The screen, 400 nits of glorious brightness at 1080p with a tiny bezel. The screen also folds almost all the way flat which can be really nice when working from a couch or recliner.
  • The backlit chicklet keyboard
  • The overall form factor and look. And texture. It's good to look at and good to touch. Soft and smooth with no sharp edges. And it comes in my favorite color, blue!
  • It's fast, yeah, it is fast.

The bad:

  • No attempt by Samsung to get any of their laptops certified on Ubuntu, meaning newly released laptops will constantly face exactly what I did. My laptop was released by Samsung 1 week before I bought it. The clickpad was working in Ubuntu out of the box about 5 months later.
  • Ram soldered to the motherboard.
  • MicroHDMI instead of mini display port for video output. HDMI 1.3 (which most monitors have) doesn't support output signals above 1080p, so I wasn't able to drive my fancy 2560x1600 monitor. There are no cables converting microHDMI to DisplayPort that don't cause the downgrade to HDMI 1.3 at this time.

Macbook Air 13" July '13 edition

The good:

  • Battery life, holy shit. 12 hours typically, and I'm not even trying to conserve here.
  • The keyboard is nice.
  • It's a Mac, so no time spent tweaking operating system kernels or playing with themes or anything.
  • The weight. It's light.

The bad:

  • The screen. Yuck. At 1366x768 it is old-style. I should have sprung for a retina macbook pro, but I didn't realize I'd been so spoiled by the Samsung Series 9 until I took this baby home.
  • The bottom layer of the laptop is..sharp. I don't like it. It's uncomfortable to use.
  • The bezel on the screen is huge. It's a 13" screen same as the Samsung, but almost an inch bigger due to the screen bezel.
  • Has a miniDisplayPort port, but the displayport drivers wouldn't correctly drive my 2560x1600 monitor either. Apple was completely worthless. They suggested I buy one of their monitors instead.
  • It's a Mac, so I can't configure themes or anything. And more importantly, I have to spend a bunch of time trying to get crappy cross-compilers to work so my go binaries work in vagrant, since it is a different platform. Did not work, was not worth it, burned my time.

This laptop is going to be sold soon to my lovely roommate, who is learning how to program from the Ada College program.

Lenovo X1 Carbon

The good:

  • The form factor is really reasonable. It's the only Lenovo I've actually seen in person that doesn't make me cringe with its ugliness.
  • It's light.
  • The keyboard is nice, and backlit.
  • Fingerprint reader! Nice touch, but in practice pretty worthless in linux since it won't unlock your keyring.
  • The buttons and all that stuff just works in Ubuntu.
  • Has a miniDisplayPort port instead of microHDMI. Haven't tried it with the 2560x1600 monitor yet.

The bad:

  • The touchpad. Ugh. Hanselman complained about it but I didn't believe him since he wanted buttons on the bottom, and where we're going, we don't need buttons...but the trackpad really is bad. It is finicky and the surface is an unpleasant material that makes mousing similar to fingernails on a chalkboard. Just, no. Ugh.
  • The screen. 300 nits brightness max, so pretty dim compared to my samsung. The resolution is 1600x900, but the Mac screen actually looks better than this one due to the way that the macs designed their pixels. This one looks truly awful. I can see lines of pixels on it even on perfectly flat textures. It may be due to the matte coating. I'm not sure.
  • The ram is also soldered to the motherboard with this model.

My new plan is to carefully consider the purchase of a Yoga 2 Pro with the proceeds from the sale of my Macbook Air. If you know anything about the Yoga 2, please comment!

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