[Info] A Journey Into Laptop Regression, and Linux Laptops

These are my thoughts on the transition from Windows PCs, to a Macbook Air, and somehow, back onto PCs again. It’s also about the sad and frustrating state of planned obsolescence of today’s hardware, and how I miss the old days of fiddling with computers. There are an increasing number of things manufacturers are doing right, but also a host of baffling decisions which litter the well-intentioned road.

Nearly two years ago, when Windows 8 first reared it’s hideous hydra-like facade, it was the final straw. At least on a personal level, I made the staunch commitment to OS X after discovering the barren wasteland of capable Ultrabooks, leaving behind a world rife with random annoying oddities, constant reboots, registry issues, never-ending security holes and relentless virus scanning in Windows. I still dealt with enterprise Windows Server issues during the day, but they tended to be less frustrating. This was no way to live.

Things were great on OS X, inputs were responsive, many of the apps had as much, or more functionality than their Windows counterparts (notably the Adobe suite) and OS X very rarely had issues. Under the hood, OS X’s BSD roots were rock solid, and useful GNU tools were either readily available, or one homebrew away. Things just kept chugging along. I didn’t have to re-install OS X one single time, over multiple OS updates (originally from 10.7 up to 10.9), a feat nearly impossible on Windows. The price of time, effort and cost in switching OS’s was justified in the functionality of the device. A skeptic had been converted, from the basics to the fine details, I had appreciation. The hardware was next to perfect.

macbookair

The Macbook Air, used by miillions to slice bread.

Then over time, the quirks with OS X began to surface. Not show stoppers, but still head scratchers, and always with software. Things like wifi difficulties with AP requiring the radios be toggled, or the odd failure to resume, or issues with NFS/SMB mounts, AD quirks with write permissions, or the lack of attention Apple was paying it’s built-in Mail app, iWork suite or App Store searches. I justifiably stayed away from all additional Apple services, including the noxious iCloud. As for OS X, even VMware dumbs down Fusion, removing genuinely useful features in the process which Linux/Windows has, like the ability to connect to a remote ESXi/vCenter server. Outlook in Office 2011 could double as a cruel torture device, though in hindsight, this makes perfect business sense for Microsoft.

I’m being nitpicky of course, these things still pale in comparison to the eternal nightmare that was Windows, but who doesn’t want to improve their tools? I use CentOS/OS X/Windows Server/Ubuntu on a daily basis, often juggling them all at the same time, so I wanted something simpler. I remembered back to when I was laptop shopping through various consumer level notebooks at the time, when the terms ‘Ultrabooks’ and ‘Macbook Killers’, cringe-worthy titles if I ever heard any, were being bandied about with abandon. I thoroughly tested many, and none of them had the right combination of keyboard/trackpad, screen and physical form which piqued my interest – they couldn’t hold a torch to the relentlessly iterated and polished form of the Air.

But now things are different – We’ve reached the point where consumer PC hardware is not appreciably increasing in speed. From Intel’s Sandy Bridge generation, to Ivy Bridge was a die shrink and marginal improvements. Haswell also saw minimal performance improvements, instead the focus was on getting more bang per watt, to which they measurably succeeded. In other words, we’ve reached the point where an older laptop can perform the job just as well as a brand new machine for most people. Manufacturers now lock down components to prevent user upgrades / repair, use far more proprietary components, and chase ever fashionable form factors. Try and replace a battery which naturally wears over time in today’s sealed and glued machines, and it will often end in tears.

sony-vaio-pro-11-03-640x426

Sony Vaio Pro, the last flagship laptop Sony makes.

This time, post-Snowden, I wanted a machine that natively ran Ubuntu Linux, and ran it well. As seamlessly and solidly as a Mac runs OS X, which is actually a big ask. Linux in it’s various forms can be run on just about anything, but often some intensive tweaking is required, or the hardware is not supported by open-source drivers and is janky for profit-driven reasons. There aren’t many off-the-shelf Linux options available, and when they are, like from System76 or Emperor, they’re rebadged second-tier brands, well-intentioned but lacking manufacturing chops. The exception is the Dell XPS 13 Dev Edition, which comes with 12.04 LTS, all verified and working out of the box. Counter-intuitively, it’s exceptionally expensive and difficult to obtain.

Which then leaves the most famous make of laptop which people associate with slapping Linux on, Thinkpads. Lenovo purchased the proven Thinkpad entity from IBM back in 2005, and to everybody’s relief, didn’t immediately butcher the features which make Thinkpads great. They tend to run Linux of all flavours exceptionally well, with fantastic kernel support, have extensive peripheral support and lots of community development and readily available HCL’s. The only question was, which Thinkpad?

x1carbon2014 Lenovo X1 Carbon, looks good if you use your laptop fully open, sideways in space.

I browsed around in furious research for a while, poring over in-depth reviews of various Lenovo models and compiling the information on a spreadsheet. My requirements were simple – moderate to good performance, long battery life (minimum 8 up to 20+ hours), and an exceptional keyboard. Price was not a big issue. The icing on the cake was if it was thin and light, or had a glorious screen. I thoroughly detest touchscreens on a laptop for so many reasons, so this made the choice easier.

I ended up narrowing it down to the ultra-sleek X1 Carbon (2nd-gen, the first one had a rubbish battery), T440s (though it was somewhat bigger than I wanted) and the minute X240, the mini-me of the bunch. The last two options had an extended battery option which promised up to 20-hours of real world use. Juicy.

In part two, a surprising choice is made, DIY modifications, and how it compares to the Macbook Air.

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