New laptops

My old Pismo powerbook was slowly debilitating — battery giving the ghost, cd/dvd drive dying, panel developing serious jaundice and also white spots. And there’s no Java for Linux/PPC that works well enough to do my job on, and OS X isn’t any too comfortable. But my laptop woes were nothing to those of Irina, whose laptop had always had the nasty tendency of running at one degree centigrade below the maximum temperature the CPU was prepared to allow, meaning that it shut down whenever you took the beast on your lap, or took it outside in the summer, or didn’t keep it perched high up some support that allowed free airflow — but the screen died, too, after only a year and a half of faithless and noisy (that b*****y fan) service. So we needed new laptops…

What I would have liked was a 17″ Powerbook, never mind that it wouldn’t run Java any better than the old Pismo. But the looks — the screen — the chic — the… The price. For the price of one 17″ powerbook, one can buy three Dell laptops. My second choice, the 15″ Powerbook is still as expensive as two very well decked-out Dells. And the fact was that we needed two laptops, not one, and that we could — barely — afford the price of one 15″ Powerbook. We also did look at what was available in brick & mortar shops, but the results were not encouraging. Correct, a big hardware store in Rotterdam, has a nice selection, but everything under, say 1500 euros has a desktop processor or is really old; our home-town computer shop where we get all our supplies and where we trust and like the staff (Calcifer, the computer that’s serving you with this bit of html, was bought form them), Paradigit, only sells their own line of laptops, and those are heavy, expensive, and again, don’t have a mobile processor but a desktop one.

So, we ended up at Dell. Two choices presented themselves to our minds: the Dell Inspiron 510M and the Dell Inspiron 5150. The former has the advantage of being reasonably light, fully decked out with ports and being very cheap. The 5150 has the advantage of having a really high resolution panel, a fast chip and a real video card.

That, of course, translates to converse disadvantages: the 510M has a Centrino design, the video chip snatches a chunk of working ram to store the pretty piccies and is only a little bit faster in terms of Ghz than calcifer, and the 5150 doesn’t even have ps2 ports, let alone a parellel port, and it is heavy. Actually, the laptop itself is luggable, but the power supply adds another pound or so.

Anyway, since we were both going to use Linux on our computers, and I didn’t want to figure out the best tweaks and installation things twice, we decided to buy two 5150s. The 5150 has an NVidia video card in Europe (ATI Rage in the USA, I fancy), and that works well enough with the free nv driver from XFree86. I like the fast CPU, Irina likes the great screen (which I rather like, too, I’m not ashamed to admit). Installing SuSE Linux was a breeze; we’ve got our wireless PCMCIA  cards working, Java works, playing DVD movies (Robin Hood with Errol Flynn is a great movie, and we enjoyed it very much, and that includes the kids), burning CD’s, coding, writing, reading mail, and even lugging about.

Sure, the design looks like a fifties American car — oversized, overweight, tinny, tinselly, gaudy — plastic incarnate. Sure, it won’t be as durable as a real Powerbook — or perhaps it will be, seeing that rumour has it that it’s made by the same factory as Powerbooks. But the keyboard is right, the screen is wonderful, better than anything Apple offers. It’s reasonably silent — the fan makes a noise when  compiling Krita, and there’s a funny high-pitched whistle now and then that seems to come and go in cycles. But to come back to the refrain — the screen is good enough to sit around with a family of five and watch a movie with as much ease and pleasure as I remember we had way back, when I was a kid, and we had a television set. Which we  don’t own at present.

So, totting up — on the plus side, a great screen, good keyboard, plenty of power, the cat likes sitting on it (Tabbies for Laptops!, Linux runs like a charm. On the minus side: ugly, heavy, whistling noise, no suspend (but that holds for all PC laptops, come on — people, just license PMUD or something like that; even Windows cannot work with ACPI as well as Linux uses PMUD. ACPI is a disaster. Anyway, I can suspend, but not resume yet…). I guess the pluses outrun the minuses, especially when you consider that laptops that do better in the minus points would have been so expensive I couldn’t have afforded them, and that there are plenty more expensive laptops that would still have had the minuses, and missed out on quite a few of the pluses.

As an envoi, something more philosophical. It turns out it’s hardly possibly to buy a laptop and not get Windows. Dell has this nasty clause in their customer agreements that say that, yes, you can return your copy of Windows if you don’t agree to the license, but they’ll only take back the whole package they’ve sold you: that includes the computer. And Xtops.DE is a very friendly outfit, but they only sell Apple and Asus laptops, and I couldn’t afford the first, and neither could I affort the second. Mark Wielaard bought an Asus from them, and is very satisfied with the thing, with their service, and the fact that he didn’t have to buy a copy of Windows with the thing. On the other hand. it’s got a German keyboard layout and is pretty expensive, compared to a Dell. We just said ‘no’ to the licence, popped in a SUSE CD, and tore off the license sticker from the bottom of the Dell. I wavered for a moment, thinking to install Windows XP in a small corner on the HD, just because I’ve paid for it anyway, and there’s the tax software to consider, but the package, the instructions, it all was so icky, so lacking in basic trust and decency that I decided to forego it
and put Debian in that corner.