Modern laptops

Volume 10, Issue 27; 03 Apr 2007; last modified 08 Oct 2010

Chewing on the idea of a new laptop.

Now that the idea of a new laptop has bubbled up and entered my conscious mind, I had to poke around a bit and see what the state of the art in desktop replacements is these days.

In the cases where I'll have to buy a license for an OS I don't want, the state of the art appears to be an Intel Core 2 Duo processor running at about 2GHz, 2GB of memory, 100 or 200GB of 7200RPM SATA disk, a WSXGA (1680x1050) display, wireless, CD/DVD+/-R burner, and an ATI Mobility or NVIDIA GeForce graphics card.

In that class, with warranties and beefy batteries, I find the HP dv9000t, $2,612.98 (with 512MB on the video card, 200GB of disk, and Bluetooth); the ThinkPad T60p Widescreen, $2,673.00 (with a TrackPoint™, 802.11N wireless support, and a 15.4" display, but only 100GB of disk); and the Dell Precision M90, $3,485 (with 160GB of disk and a WUXGA (1920x1200) display).

I haven't investigated the Linux compatibility of any of these models, but on the whole, I think the TrackPoint and slightly smaller size gives the ThinkPad the edge. (I'm not willing to sacrifice resolution for size, but I'm quite comfortable with 1600x1200 on my current 15" display, so I think 1680x1050 would be fine too. But 1920x1200 sure would be sweet.)


As I've hinted before, the real dilemma is whether or not to switch.

The same hardware in the Mac lineup is the 17" MacBook Pro, $3,107.00 as I spec'd it.

  • Commercial applications. Mostly Photoshop but, to a lesser extent, other applications related to digital imaging and interesting software like SubEthaEdit.

  • The Mac UI. There's a certain polish in a commercial desktop that the open source alternatives haven't quite achieved. And one measure of how good a desktop is, free or otherwise, is the extent to which it's like the Mac.

    That said, the differences are off in the margins I think: there's nothing about the Gnome UI that interferes with me getting work done.

  • Novelty. There's significant appeal in trying something new.

  • Under the hood it's a real Unix OS. That means all the applications I really care about can be expected to work in roughly the same way. I'm thinking in particular of Emacs and DSPAM, but I'm sure there are others.

  • For its size, it's deliciously thin and light.

  • It's not open source. This is a personal, emotional point, not a technical one. I'm a fan of open source and I've written a fair bit of it. Using open source, reporting bugs, and requesting features, improves it for the betterment of all.

  • One mouse button. I've just about gotten used to the idea that I might lose the TrackPoint, but I'm having trouble imagining a single mouse button.

    I won't use an external mouse. One of the most irritating aspects of using a desktop machine (while my laptop was being repaired) was the fact that I had to keep taking my hand off the keyboard to move the mouse.

  • Novelty. Getting used to a new desktop is going to be hard. I have been using Fvwm for roughly a decade, I'm sure I do lots of things without thinking and they all just work. That won't be true on a Mac.

I'm definitely tempted.

Comments welcome, naturally. I'm not actually planning to write a check for another few months, at which time everything will have changed, so of course this analysis was all nothing but what I said: mental mast…ication.


In your position, I'd stick with Linux. Familiarity is worth a lot. I'm stuck using Winblows at work for the nonce (long story), and aside from the general horribleness of it, the loss of habituation really, really hurts.

I love me my new Buffle (who isn't even a Pro, just a regular MacBook), but I don't see enough advantage even in the shiny, shiny Mac OS for you.

—Posted by Dorothea on 03 Apr 2007 @ 09:33 UTC #

Personally, I'd go with the ThinkPad. I've had the T21, T30, T41 and now a T60. All have been VERY stable and reliable...I just upgrade for performance gains when new hardware comes out. Also, Linux support is pretty good on these, though I have had problems in the past with WiFi. Nothing a little googling won't fix though. The keyboard and the TrackPoint are the best you can find, IMHO.

I have an HP dv9000 as well, but not as tricked out as your specs. It's running Ubuntu with no problems at all. Though I find the keyboard kinda mushy and my fat digits tend to get caught under the keys when I type fast.

My two cents...

—Posted by Brian on 03 Apr 2007 @ 09:47 UTC #

I currently use a HP nw9440 (1680x1050, didn't get my boss to pay for the better display) and am quite satisfied with it.

The only issues I've had so far are Bluetooth problems (apparently an extra driver is needed) and I haven't played around with suspending yet. Otherwise it's worked really well.

It even has a trackpoint (although I hardly use it).

Just my .02 €

—Posted by ramin on 03 Apr 2007 @ 09:48 UTC #

Hi Norm,

Ask anyone you know that has a Macbook. I'm one of them and couldn't be happier. I bought a copy of Parallels and I have Ubuntu and Windows XP running as well. Once you switch to a Macbook, you'll never look back. And for screen size, the 15" is fine but I still use 20" flat at home with an external keyboard --my whole set is probaly still cheaper than a 17" inch Macbook and the 15" is much better for travelling.

—Posted by Santiago Pericas-Geertsen on 03 Apr 2007 @ 09:57 UTC #

Dell Latitude D820 comes with a trackpoint (they call it a "track stick") and optional WUXGA.

I've been using 1920x1200 on a Dell Inspiron 6000 (no longer sold, and no Inspiron model currently supports WUXGA) and would hate to settle for less.

—Posted by Mike Linksvayer on 03 Apr 2007 @ 11:33 UTC #

linux is fantastic, but be careful about video drivers - get one with Intel video, or at least avoid ATIAMD since their drivers are extremely slow, buggy, and will make your firefox take 5 seconds to render a page.

both thinkpads i had fell apart, so far the MSI barebones is very sturdy (magnesium i think) and nothing has gone wrong with it even after 1.5 years, being jostled around in backpacks on subways etc..

also emacs runs great on winXP, as does bash, rxvt, ssh, scp, gcc, gtk, etc. mingw is a great project

—Posted by carmen on 03 Apr 2007 @ 11:34 UTC #

Santiago, I just got a nicely appointed 15" MacBook Pro for work. This is my first mac, I'm mainly coming from the linux/windows world.

I have to tell you, I really dislike this thing. It is amazingly unresponsive - switching between windows actually takes several second, and it often lags behind keystrokes! There is very likely something wrong in the setup - I've chatted with several others from work with the same laptop that have the same problems.

So far I'm extremely disappointed. Hopefully it's a setup thing and can be fixed, but as it stands it's almost unusable. If I don't find a solution in the next week I'll be wiping off OSX and installing windows or linux on the thing.

To top it off it doesn't have a standard pcmcia slot, which means I can't use my verizon broadband card for nationwide internet access.

—Posted by Parand on 04 Apr 2007 @ 04:26 UTC #

I paid 1100 euros (ex. sales tax) for my Dell Inspiron 6400. It’s about a year old now and got an Intel Core Duo @ 2GHz, 1GB of memory, 100GB 7200 RPM HD, WSXGA, wireless, DVD burner, and an ATI mobility X1400 graphics card (with which I can run the games I’ve played so far at native LCD resolution). And the thing has a 4-hour battery life.

That was pretty much the latest and the greatest you could get then (Intel Core 2 wasn’t out yet). Now, one year later, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect that for the same money you can get the same specs with Intel Core 2 Duo and 2GB of memory.

So, those numbers you throw around, $2,612.98 or more? That seems waaay more than is necessary.


p.s. I put 2GB of memory in the laptop about a month ago, to serve my Vista-and-WoW needs.

—Posted by Laurens Holst on 04 Apr 2007 @ 05:53 UTC #

I have an HP dv6000, and it also had a larger (120G) disk than its obvious rivals. However, it's not a fast disk, or at least it certainly seems slower than the smaller (60G) disk in the VAIO that it replaced, and much slower than my desktop, which has a more-or-less similar processor and RAM spec.

The biggest issue that I have when buying laptops is that it's hard to know when extra money buys you real performance gains, or not. There may be something to be said to not buying the very latest, but only laptops that have been reviewed and benchmarked.

Cheers, Tony.

—Posted by Anthony B. Coates on 04 Apr 2007 @ 09:45 UTC #

There is only one mouse button, true, but if you have two fingers on the trackpad when you click, you get your second mouse button.

Re: Parand, your problem with lag and delay -- how much RAM do you have? I bought an MBP with 1GB of RAM, and noticed some lag here and there, particularly with a number of apps open. Parallels was also nearly unusable. I added a second gigabyte of RAM, and magically everything works as I would expect, with no lag, including Parallels. OS X is known to be greedy for RAM.

—Posted by Peter Herndon on 04 Apr 2007 @ 02:12 UTC #

I've got a Dell D620 and stuck in the MS world for work. At home, however, I've got an iMac w/Panther and love it! If I had a choice, I'd get a dual core MacBook Pro. That way I could multi-boot OS X, Windoze or linux as desired. I'd much prefer to have more options and rock-solid hardware.

—Posted by Scott Hudson on 04 Apr 2007 @ 02:34 UTC #

Peter, I have 1G, I'll see if I can add one more.

I've noticed the problems seem to get much worse when I use Firefox. Using Camino keeps things more under control. But I strongly prefer FF - I need my extensions. Chatzilla, Firebug, QuickNote, etc.

By way of comparison - I bought a Vista laptop with 1G Ram 3 days after I got the MBP (a Toshiba A135-S4467). Despite having a less processor it's much snappier than the MBP.

—Posted by Parand on 05 Apr 2007 @ 05:40 UTC #

I'm a Linux sysadmin at work, and have had various machines running various distros over the years. But when it came time to get a laptop, I got a 12" PowerBook. It's relatively small, but still reasonably powerful. It runs all the shiny commercial apps, plus lots of good free and open-source software. And in situations where people with Windows machine or Linux machines have had all sorts of problems or even failed completely (I'm thinking here especially of anything involving doing a presentation), the Mac just works.

It has a really nice X server, the terminals are good, and it's easy to set it up so that your SSH keys get loaded in for you the first time you need them, but also get dumped when your machine goes to sleep or you lock the screen. The networking stuff is really nice, too -- it's easy to set up different profiles for different locations, you can turn your Mac into an instant wireless access point if all you have is an Ethernet connection and a bunch of other laptops, and even if you leave it on auto, it usually just works.

The new machines are way faster, and, annoyingly from my perspective, bigger, but still very nice. When I'm trying to figure out what's wrong with another machine, it's nice being able to pull out my Mac and have it just work. I do think that the 17" one is insanely huge -- the 15" machine is pretty big, but can still be used on a plane or on your lap without going crazy. As the 15" model can support up to the 30" screen, I'd say adding an extra monitor for desktop work would be easier (and cheaper) than having the huge screen.

As for the single button trackpad -- it's not that big a deal. All you do is hold down the Control key, and you get used to it very quickly. To be fair, when I'm doing something where I really need to see what I'm doing or to spread out, I hook the machine up to a larger monitor and I usually also swap over my USB keyboard and trackball (and run the machine closed), but most of the time I don't miss the extra button at all. (I do think that using a single-button mouse is a real pain, but the current Apple mouse with multiple virtual buttons works quite well.)

I love Linux, but no way would I trade my Mac laptop for a Linux laptop.

—Posted by Claire on 05 Apr 2007 @ 06:12 UTC #

Funny you would ask. I was in the same situation, and just ordered a MacBook Pro yesterday. No rational reason. After so many years of using PCs, I thought it was the time for something different.


—Posted by Alessandro Vernet on 05 Apr 2007 @ 04:35 UTC #

Parand: I'm not quite sure what's the problem with your laptop. Not enough memory maybe? I know several Macbook users and I've never heard such a complain. I've switched to Apple about 3 years ago, before that I had Linux and Windows laptops. And as I said above, I'm not going back.

Here are the flaws that I have found using all these 3 OSs:

o Windows XP: dated UI, viruses, can't-get-rid-of-DOS file system, no native command line interface (Cygwin comes close, but there are still many "path" issues). In other words, it isn't Unix

o Linux (maybe outdated comments!): monolithic kernel (recompile or die), flaky wireless and bluetooth support, limited fonts, good-luck 3D drivers, suspend-and-but-not-always wake up mode, as many commercial applications as IBM's OS/2.

o Mac OS X: not-so-Unix-configation files, could-run-faster Java VM, bring lots of RAM.

In summary, I really like Linux too, but I can still run it using Parallels and it's worked fine for me so far. I haven't yet tried Vista, but I can't see myself switching to a non-Unix-based OS.

—Posted by Santiago Pericas-Geertsen on 05 Apr 2007 @ 07:46 UTC #