Bigger is better

Volume 10, Issue 80; 03 Aug 2007; last modified 08 Oct 2010

Does size matter?

Death is the supple Suitor
That wins at last-
It is a stealthy Wooing
Conducted first
By pallid innuendoes
And dim approach
But brave at last with Bugles
And a bisected Coach
It bears away in triumph
To Troth unknown
And Kindred as responsive
As Porcelain.
Emily Dickinson

(Laptops, folks, we're talking about laptops. I don't accept any responsibility for what you thought I might be writing about.)

Several months ago, I hinted that I might switch. I saved my pennies and when the time came to actually make the decision, the pennies went into the home reno fund instead, conveniently saving me from having to actually, you know, decide.

But the warranty on this ThinkPad is just about to run out and I have another collection of pennies, so I think it's time.

I'm about 99% sure I'm going to switch. Mostly for the novelty, I think. And for a few commercial apps that I want to try. I have some reservations about moving to a “closed source” platform, but realistically, it's not going to make that much difference. I'm going to run the same few dozen open source programs I've always relied on (Emacs, Perl, Python, rxvt, NetBeans, etc.). There's an enormous universe of free software out there and shifting platforms isn't going to change the miniscule fraction of it that I use, and to which I sometimes contribute, in any perceptable way.

And, although I don't use very much commercial software at the moment (Saxon is the only thing I can think of; I have an old license for VMware, but it never ran fast enough to tempt me to upgrade, probably because I don't have enough RAM), there's a universe of that, too, so my using Photoshop or Lightroom (instead of, or in addition to, GIMP) or OmniGraffle isn't going to be a perceptable change either.

The trackpad's going to suck, and one mouse button is stupid, but I'll get used to it. The thing that really worries me right now is focus-follows-mouse. That could be a show-stopper. (I suppose, worst case, I can scrap OSX and run Linux on it.)

And, coming back to the title of this essay, the size. Do I go for the 15” or the 17”. (Yes, I know, the little 13” is wonderful, but I want a laptop I can work on without an external monitor and I want a desktop replacement; small and light are nice, but I'd carry a sack of bricks if it gave me more horsepower.)


The cardboard underneath my Thinkpad in that photo is the size of a 17” MacBook Pro, the black line on the cardboard marks the dimensions of the 15” MacBook.

Everytime I pick up a 17” MacBook, I'm reminded of a tray table. But realistically, it's not that much bigger than the 15” which isn't much bigger than my ThinkPad (smaller in one dimension, bigger in the other).

And I can get a 1920x1600 display on the 17 incher. So I fret about the size, but really, I'm going to get the big one, aren't I? Yeah, probably.


Hi Norm-- Don't forget to factor in the bag in which you intend to transport the laptop. I know someone who's been having a terrible time finding something really nice-looking that will comfortably and safely fit the 17" version -- none of the high-end laptop bags or briefcases do the trick. (If you know of any, I'll pass the info along!)

—Posted by Eve M. on 03 Aug 2007 @ 02:25 UTC #

Good point, Eve. I did check that. The MacBook 17" will fit in my tamrac laptop/camera big. But only because it's very thin. Deb's 17" Dell is much thicker and really doesn't fit.

—Posted by Norman Walsh on 03 Aug 2007 @ 02:31 UTC #

Buy your copy of VMware for the Mac now, while it's on a half-price offer. You never know when you *might* want to run Linux, but without giving up the good things (like fully featured VOIP and IM applications that work smoothly).

It's a pity that I didn't get a picture of you at the XML Summer School balancing your coffee on top of your Thinkpad. At least with the 17", you will have room to balance the coffee pot as well, plus cookies.

Cheers, Tony.

—Posted by Anthony B. Coates on 03 Aug 2007 @ 02:36 UTC #

I've just learned how much easier a small laptop makes my life since I bought an old Toshiba Lifebook off of ebay. I had it with me last week, and saw that Jeni Tennison has the latest and greatest Lifebook.

A recent Tim Bray posting mentions one of the great advantages of having a small laptop: airplanes. When the person in front of you leans their chair back, the Lifebook doesn't get jammed into my ribcage, like the "normal" sized laptops always did. And, I can type on it without putting my elbows in the face of people next to me.

It also lives up to the name laptop: I can type with it on my lap for over an hour without getting cramps or too much annoying heat. (Of course it gets hot, but being smaller, it gives off less, and a manila folder seems to provide enough shielding to keep me comfortable.)

And, when I want to get up and walk away from it, instead of using my special laptop chain thing to keep it from being stolen, I just take it with me.

It's not something to look at and type on all day long, but an extra monitor and keyboard at home will take care of that.


—Posted by Bob DuCharme on 03 Aug 2007 @ 03:59 UTC #

If you're comfortable with more than one machine, with a laptop when you're on the road and a desktop when you're home, I guess that's one thing. I used to live like that. One of the most productive decisions I ever made was to have exactly one machine. My laptop is my desktop. Everything is always on that one machine. (I can scrape together an equivalent environment on a desktop machine at home, if I really need to, from backups in about a day; er, at least I used to be able to, I suppose that will be less true if I get a Mac.)

So, my laptop is the machine I use at home and on the road and I want that to be a real desktop replacement that I can use for hours at a time, comfortably, with all my windows open, without an external monitor.

I obstinately refuse to use an external keyboard or external mouse. Switching keyboards is a PITA.

—Posted by Norman Walsh on 03 Aug 2007 @ 04:18 UTC #

I'm not necessarily comfortable with more than one machine, but (a) I find that switching platforms every time I travel keeps me honest, and (b) computers are so unreliable that it's important to have a hot-standby.

I get a few messages a month of the form "my disk crashed; I'm out of commission for a few days" or even "Jim's disk crashed; he can't send mail now, so I'm sending it for him".

I don't expect to persuade you, but I'm interested to hear about any tangible/specific ways that make you say the decision to go to one machine is "One of the most productive decisions I ever made."

For example, you spend some time doing back-ups, right? I don't. If it's important, I put it in email or commit it to cvs/svn/hg; i.e. I stick it in the cloud that's backed up by the sysadmin gods and/or the google cache.

I guess I do back up the family photo archive, but that's on a different machine.

—Posted by Dan Connolly on 03 Aug 2007 @ 10:54 UTC #

I dearly love my 15" macbook, and I'm a +1 on on the plane thing Bob mentions (I've seen the 17" get hooked under the little screen on some flights with the seat back). If you get a Mac, stuff it full of as much memory and disk space as you can manage and make sure you get 3 years of applecare.

—Posted by Libby on 04 Aug 2007 @ 11:45 UTC #

Four gig and the biggest disk, no question. Well, actually, the 200G drive is (on paper, at least) quite a bit slower than the 160G drive, so I might go with the 160. That's twice what I have now.

—Posted by Norman Walsh on 04 Aug 2007 @ 11:53 UTC #

To be honest, when I went from trackpoint to trackpad, I thought I was going to hate it, but ... I got used to it very quickly and rapidly ended up not missing the trackpoint at all.

The single-mouse-button, backspace/delete and home/end things are what bother me the most about switching. Good luck with it.

—Posted by Geoffrey Wiseman on 06 Aug 2007 @ 01:49 UTC #

Actually, the 17" is a lot bigger -- I've had the opportunity to play with both, and the 17" is, at least for me, too damn big. (That said, I'm 5'3" and already hauling a lot of crap (books, papers, etc.) back and forth in addition to the laptop. YMMV.)

I finally got a new machine last month, as the AppleCare on my 12" PowerBook was up and I needed a newer machine to keep up with the faculty I'm supposed to be supporting. The 15" machine is appreciably bigger, but mostly in a good way. It's not that much heavier (an advantage of waiting a few years), and the added screen real estate is much appreciated. The fact that it can drive a 30" display is also attractive, although I suspect my next monitor will only be a 24" or 27" (to be shared with other machines running Linux).

Note that one huge difference between the MacBooks and MacBook Pros are the keyboards. Again, I had the opportunity to use a MacBook for a few days (while setting it up for its owner), and while it's usable, it's not nearly as nice a keyboard as the MacBook Pros have.

Getting 4 GB of RAM is definitely worth while -- the machine is very snappy, and even things like OmniWeb (in which I generally have lots of windows, each with lots of tabs) are very responsive.

I can also vouch for the Tom Bihn bags. I had an Id for my 12" and upgraded it to a Super Ego for the new machine (with appropriate Brain Cell inserts). Both bags are well made, reasonably attractive, and pretty damn tough. Had I known it would take so long for the current machines to come out, I might have waited a bit, and gotten the slightly smaller Ego bag, as it's very, very easy to load up the Super Ego to the point that it's too heavy for me to carry safely.

Finally, Apple has a Mac-related event scheduled for Tuesday. While the safe money is on updates to the iMac line, there are also rumors floating around about changes or updates to the MacBook/MacBook Pro line, so it's probably worth waiting 'til after Tuesday just in case....

—Posted by Claire on 06 Aug 2007 @ 02:18 UTC #

Hi Norm,

I have the latest 15" Macbook Pro and it's working great, however I have one chief complaint you may want to consider, since you're pretty tall. The thing doesn't open up wide enough, i.e., the screen doesn't tilt back far enough. It does not promote good posture, to say the least. My brother has the same complaint about the 17" MBP. (What I'm unsure about is if the non-Pro Macbook does any better.) I haven't switched fully to it for my main work laptop yet. I'll have a better idea then of how adaptable I am to it... At least the high heat levels will help prevent prolonged bad posture...


P.S. My favorite Trackpad feature is 2-finger scrolling (vertical or horizontal).

—Posted by Evan Lenz on 06 Aug 2007 @ 11:18 UTC #