Laptop wishlist

The time has come where a biennial urge for a new laptop device has shadowed my good senses, intermittently diverting me from all the things that make a young spring so enjoyable. In keeping with previous patterns, I have decided to go with a Linux approach after a wonderful MacBook experience. I don’t like to spend much on laptops. The most I’ve ever spent is on a Powerbook Titanium: a lovely machine, but still a bit steep for a laptop.

I do however tend to use them as my primary machine since I like having my setup go with me places. Fortunately, the file management and backup system I’ve chosen is quite portable whether I’m on a Mac or Linux system so long as it supports decent permissions and a UNIX-like semantic (e.g. ext3, HFS, …). Moreover most of the software I use is either a web application or open source and available on all 3 major OSs.

I’m not one to join flame wars on laptop brands or concern myself with how to get everything working just right on a Linux laptop, but at the same token, experience with a variety of them has built a sort of rough “wishlist” over the years–not so much what a laptop can or should be able to do (you can get laptops to do anything these days), just more on some general themes that would seem to improve my experience, but also things I don’t necessarily have the time to work on myself. My views are biased to Linux and OS X since I stopped using Windows (for no principled reason whatsoever) years back.

Apple is officially the epitome of great laptop and software design that “works out the box” for me. They make great machines, and the MacBook series has super hardware for the price. Since everything is sold as a package, they’ve intertwined their hardware and software in very intelligent ways that leaves me typically very pleased and impressed. There are noticeable things like the snappiest sleep-wake process that I’ve seen: this makes it super-easy to jot notes down and tote the top away in seconds. And perhaps less appreciated things such as how all the audio/multitrack mixing/soundfont midi synthesis/etc works seamlessly (much more than I can say for Linux). Over the last few years they have made strides in making open source Linux-like scientific computing programming more possible and transparent (given that you have XCode installed with a little Fink or DarwinPorts).

Yet with all this, there are times I feel a little trapped in the Apple world. Though software like Gimp and Inkscape is available for OS X, it’s usually a clunky X11 version that isn’t in keeping with good OS X software design. That being said, there are many great OS X specific programs like TeX-Shop or OmniGraffle that do the job just as well if not better than a well-known open source alternative (sometimes at a price). If I can avoid proprietary standards and commitments to a single company/possibly ephemeral software life, I’d like to. This tends to lean me towards using well established open source software that writes files out to simple formats or standards.

The first wish is not directed to Apple so much as the open source community making OS X ports. For the programs written in GTK, moving towards something like GTK on OS X, like Windows did years ago would go a long way in making some heavier-duty open source programs look good and feel snappier on OS X. Speaking of which, the second wish is harder to describe. Things are typically not that snappy feeling and configurable on OS X in general. I can’t pinpoint exactly why, though I’ve brainstormed several possible reasons. I used to attribute this flaw to an intentional design constraint imposed by Apple. While this may be the case for some things, I’m becoming more and more convinced that a bit more gracefully placed configuration settings and some window manager snappiness could go a long way for the next generation of OS X power users. A third wish is that the MacBook Pros would very much benefit from higher screen resolutions for the prices they’re sold at.

Linux has come a long way in making their distributions work out of the box on laptops since my first experimentations with them. The community has done a great job at letting each other know how to resolve issues with Linux in general or with particular distributions (shamelessly). The fourth wish is for the sleep-wake functionality in Linux and laptops to work better (this is a long shot). I’ve had some luck in the past but, for the most part, the kernel always needs to modprobe something again, reload some service, etc., leaving me to a “just boot the computer every time you transport” heuristic. A fifth wish is for companies to continue the growing efforts to support general web apps and software resources (hardware drivers, Flash, legal DVD playback, etc.). The sixth and possibly most practical wish is to have a distro’s community help contribute to a metapackage and post-install scripts that tailor configure settings such that the hardware and software are the most compatible with the machine.

Do it yourself for laptops, unlike desktops, has pretty much been a joke (other than an alright attempt at barebones laptops). The parts are surprisingly standard these days, except it appears you must buy the parts in bulk and invest in manufacturing chassis en masse before an earnest attempt at a barebones laptop company can be made. I sincerely think that a business along these lines could go a long way if marketed minimalistically, carefully, and in large enough quantity to wholesale the parts. Coat some decent utilitarian chassis designs with an elegant web-based ordering system (or reselling through something like newegg or mwave) and I would have a seventh wish satisfied: I would be able to piece together a high-resolution LCD laptop of my own with swappable motherboard, hard drive, and CD rom, all in a solid, hand-picked framework. Finally wish eight, Dell, though your designs and laptop quality has improved over the last few years, the machinery that is your customer service needs to strive for sending their customers along a directed acyclic path.

As far as the current purchase, I’ve gone for a very inexpensive deal on a pretty decked-out high resolution Inspiron 1720, since I feel comfortable developing on a Linux laptop and testing scientific computation programs on some decent portable processing and RAM.

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