Last year (2013) my laptop died. I tried replacing it with an Android
netbook/tablet, but that required a major change in the way I use the
machine, and I've finally decided that the change has not been successful.
The new machine is good doing netbook and tablet things, but for a software
developer and system administrator, it's not working out.
Therefore I'm going to get a real laptop.
What are these activities that gave the netbook so much trouble?
Here is an example from one day, which is a little bit extreme but illustrates
what the new machine will be expected to cope with. I had simultaneous
sessions doing the following activities:
- Local shell session as myself interacting with my home directory.
- Editor with windows editing a file that documented the work I was
doing for later reporting, and another for generic notes.
- Local shell session (SSH in xterm) as root with remote execution
credential, propagated from the original local shell session, for all
the remote hosts mentioned below.
- Web browser with tabs for reading webmail and for playing music
on the audio playback machine. Also for web searches about software
- Shell session on the master site at work, with remote execution
credential for the work machines.
- Shell sessions on six hosts at work that I was upgrading to a new
version of the Linux operating system.
- Editor window on the work master site for updating the configuration
control master copy.
- A dumb card game, while I waited for upgraded software to be
- No software development or website editing today, but these are
- Cutting and pasting between windows is an important low-level
component of the work.
So to summarize: I use a lot of windows working together, but not a lot
of specialized software, and multimedia happens on a machine other than the
laptop. In truth the Android machine is able to do every one of these
activities individually, but teamwork among the windows is the killer that
Android does poorly. To say it another way, Android's window manager is
designed for a cellphone or a tablet. I gave it a good try, but it could
not handle the desktop replacement role I threw at it. I have made some
progress toward installing a real Debian distro on it, but I've decided that
pushing the netbook to the bitter end into a role it's poorly suited for,
is not the best use of my time.
We have an idea of what the laptop will be used for. What hardware is
required to support these activities?
The machine will be used a lot, many hours per day. for complex
tasks. This implies:
- A largish screen. The old Xena had 1920x1050px 15.5in (395mm)
diagonal, and this was quite good. The 1366x768px screens are
rejected. I do graphic arts sometimes but
not as a major part of the work.
- Responsive and comfortable keyboard. The 92% size keyboard on
the Asus Transformer has proven to be satisfactory.
- An agile pointing device. The old Xena's trackpad was satisfactory. A
trackball would be nice (builtin, not on a separate table). The
J-mouse is nice as a supplement but not as the primary pointing device.
I'm not sure that a direct touch screen would be convenient because of
the need to lift up my hand far from the keyboard, speaking from
experience on my tablet. Clickable corners in place of mouse buttons:
if this means a specially interpreted gesture in the corner, it
probably will not work out, but the kind that you press down like
a button will probably be OK.
- A flat bottom that doesn't get too hot. The old Xena had a row of
batteries across the bottom, which was a disaster, and it dissipated
Battery life: There are two modes of use: plugged in to wall power,
and on battery. The tablet is very nice, being able to run
on battery. The old Xena could do 3 hours (when new); the CPU burned
30 watts. That was not satisfactory, and I used it on wall power.
CPU power: The faster the machine runs, the more it eats battery. Most
of the activities I do require very little CPU. Nonetheless, slug-like
performance is not appreciated. I will need to compromise very carefully
in this area. Given that the RAM will probably be 4Gb, I will want to run
it in x86_64 (64bit) mode. On Linux, i686 has a small speed advantage,
0.5% to 1% on a matrix inversion test. Microsoft Windows is said to
benefit significantly from 64bit mode.
Disc: Software fits in an honest 10Gb; my home directory currently has
450Mb of which 237Mb is web browser caches (oink). Disc choices:
- Rotating disc: 250Gb is just about the smallest you can get these
days. Total overkill. However, if I want to work with a virtual
machine on the laptop, it's useful to have large amounts of
- Solid state disc: The extra expense of a 250Gb SSD is probably not
justified. However, the SSD does use less power. Nonetheless the
rotating disc frequently goes to sleep once all actually used
software is in the memory cache.
- SD card: A 64Gb card is inexpensive and is a real possibility.
- mSATA: This is a SSD on a mini-PCI card with a special connector.
I'm not familiar with this type of device but it would not be rejected
if it seems appropriate on other grounds.
RAM: I doubt that I use even 500Mb out of 4Gb available, but 4Gb
is currently the minimum available for laptops.
Virtualization: This is a fairly important plus. All AMD CPUs have
virtualization. No Intel Atoms have it. Some mainline Intel CPUs have,
some don't, particularly CPUs intended for laptops. I actually used
virtual machines on the old laptop, for development work: if you trash the
OS it's not a big hassle to recover, as it would be on a physical machine,
and the physical machine has its own work to do that should not be
The mass of the old Xena was 2.5Kg (5.5lb). Jimc can handle this and
is not bothered, but Alice hates it. Let's consider 2.5Kg as a hard upper
bound on the mass. A lighter machine would be nice, though. Along the
same lines, thinness is not a major selection criterion.
Do I require an optical drive? It's a nice feature but in practice
I don't use it for playing media, and for software installation I can
use a network installer on USB storage -- or the whole installation DVD
- WiFi: Required, and must be reliable. 802.11bgn is available at my
A band is a nice addition but I don't have a NIC for it.
- Wired Ethernet (802.3): Required; 100Mbit/sec is what's available
- Bluetooth: A nice addition. On the old laptop I used it for audio
playback to headphones. Just about every laptop has Bluetooth.
- Wired headphone jack: 3.5mm required, no proprietary connectors.
- Webcam and mic: A nice feature, but in practice I have rarely
- Backlighted keyboard: On the old laptop I was surprised to find that
the backlight is not just a bourgeois affectation, but helps me to
use the machine at night. It's a plus feature but not required.
- Card slot: If a small SSD is used, the card slot can be very useful
for expansion space if it turns out to be needed in the future. With
a rotating disc on the old laptop, I rarely used the card slot, and
it will be sufficient to use the one I have on a desktop machine.
- USB ports: It's important to have one for unexpected uses, but I
rarely plug in an external accessory. I have no USB-3.0 clients, so
I don't care if the port is 3.0 or 2.0.
- Video ports: In the future I might unexpectedly need to give some kind
of presentation. Probably a HDMI port is the most versatile for that.
I have never actually used the video port on my laptop, except once
for testing a new TV.
- WiDi (Wireless display interface): I don't have, and very likely
will not get, the server.
- Dock: I would not use it, unlike for the tablet, for which the
dock (separate keyboard) is essential.
Ben's Surplus Laptop
It turns out that Ben has a surplus laptop. This information is from
Amazon's product page, from a review on Amazon by Booshi (2012-12-29), and
from Intel's product page on the CPU.
- Model: Sony Vaio SVS1512ACXS
- Display: 15.5in 1920x1080px (other hype says 1366x768px but is wrong)
- Display technology: IPS, wide viewing angle (per Booshi)
- Backlit keyboard.
- Keyboard has a numeric pad, meaning a separate area of keys for
numbers, like on a desktop keyboard.
- Multi-touch trackpad with clickable corners. These involve actual
motion of the trackpad, not software interpretation. Update: there is
one physical switch but the graphics driver can interpret this as
several buttons depending on where along the lower edge you press down.
I have X-Windows configured for true three button operation, yay!
- CPU: Intel i7-3612QM @2.2GHz (overclocked? vs. Intel product page
which says 2.1GHz) (other hype says i7-3632; the actual machine has
Intel's product page: 4 cores and hyperthread, AVX instruction set
extension, AES extension, 22nm feature size, 35W max power.
L3 cache 6Mb, L2 1Mb, L1 256Kb.
- This CPU does have virtualization including VT-d (directed I/O).
- IvyBridge chipset. This CPU has a HD Graphics 4000 GPU on chip,
although the laptop uses a separate nVidia GPU. It is not clear
whether you can use the IvyBridge GPU (as if you would want to).
- Graphics: nVidia GeForce GT 640M LE (1Gb video RAM).
- RAM: 8Gb
- Disc: 750Gb, 7200rpm
- Has DVD/CD reader. (Reviewer says it burns discs too.)
- Wireless: 802.11bgn
- Bluetooth-4.0 + HS
- 802.3 gigabit Ethernet
- 2x USB-3.0, 1x USB-2.0 with
charging capability (charge
- Video out: HDMI and VGA
- Has WiDi client.
- Card slots: 1x Memory Stick Duo, 1x SD/MMC
- Audio: headphone and mic, looks like 3.5mm.
- Has webcam.
- Has TPM.
- Battery: 4.0 amp-hr (other hype says 4.4Ah) (battery itself says 5.2Ah)
- Battery life 5hr (other hype says 3.75hr). Booshi says 4hr in Win8
and 3hr in Linux. Update: I get nowhere near this life.
- Mass: 4.4lb (2.0Kg)
- Provided OS: Windows-8
- First on Amazon: 2012-10-12; discontinued before 2014-03-15.
- Price when new: about $1200.
- Linux issues: Per Booshi, it works well and needed only the usual
tweaks for a laptop.
He uses legacy boot (set it in BIOS); it can also do UEFI boot.
- Booshi and other reviewers say it feels more fragile than the
heavier Dell competitors.
Comparison with jimc's requirements:
- Display: Correct size, and is said to have good viewing angle.
- Keyboard: Reviewers do not complain about it.
- Trackpad: Looks OK.
- Flat bottom: yes, it's flat.
- Battery life: This is not an all-day machine, and will require
- CPU power: Has even more than the old Xena, but with the same (or
possibly slightly less) energy use.
- As with any rotating disc, the capacity is overkill.
- 8Mb of RAM is also overkill.
- Virtualization: has it, good.
- Mass: 80% of the old Xena. That one was built like a tank, while
reviewers say the Sony Vaio feels fragile.
- Optical drive: has it, good.
- WiFi: 802.11bgn, good. (Actually appears to do A-band also.)
- Wired Ethernet (802.3): 1Gbit/sec, good.
- Other non-required miscellaneous features: it has all the ones
I care about.
Vendor Product Offerings
Ben's laptop looks like it closely matches my requirements. Nonetheless,
for completeness I'll quickly review other product offerings.
reputable vendors that sell through Amazon. Here's
a list of the first few items of Amazon's 45,000 hits, with these selection
- Format: Laptop (vs. ultrabook or tablet with keyboard)
- Display size: 15 to 15.9in
- Display technology: Backlit LCD (vs LED, touchscreen, etc.)
- Display resolution: 1920x1080px (vs. 1366x768px)
- RAM: any
- Condition: new
- CPU: any; Cores (1, 2 or 4): any; Speed: any
- Graphics: any (Radeon: 2; nVidia GeForce: 13; nVidia Quadro: 3; unspecified: many)
- Disc: any
A few hits with these criteria:
- Lenovo IdeaPad Y510p, $1030; i7 (how many cores?) @2.4GHz, 8Gb RAM, 1Tb disc, Win8
- ASUS N550JV-DB72T, $1019; with touchscreen, i7-4700HQ, 8Gb RAM, 1Tb disc, Win8
- HP Envy 15-j150us; on sale vs. $1250; with touchscreen, i7-4800MQ @2.4GHz, 1Tb disc, Win8
- Sony Vaio SVF1532BCSW, $650, i3-4005U @1.7GHz, 6Gb RAM, 500Gb disc, Win8; touchscreen models available at extra cost.
- Sony Vaio SVF15323CSW, $720, i5-4200U @1.6GHz, 6Gb RAM, 750Gb disc, Win8
It looks like the selection process has concluded early and successfully
by the appearance of Ben's laptop.