The New Laptop Game -- Late 2013 Edition


Since my last post, I still have yet to buy a new laptop.  I'm still relying on the one provided to my through work. Since then, the Dell E6410 has developed a habit of overheating, and the battery that came with the unit had seriously degraded in running time. I've since bought a new battery, and replaced the thermal paste throughout the motherboard. The system is due to be replaced sometime in the first half of the year. When it is, I'm certain work will have locked it down in both OS and BIOS. This is to say nothing about how the system will likely be UEFI based, thus making installing Linux a serious pain. 

Meanwhile, additional thought and changes in the market have resulted in a new selection of choices. As I suspected, touch screen devices are becoming much more the standard thanks to Windows 8. Unfortunately, most tablets remain ARM based or with heavily restricted bootloaders and bizarre hardware. This is not as bad as I would have thought 6 months ago. Intel's new Haswell architecture might level the power consumption field between x86 and ARM. Since my last post, I've also become heavily involved in the Drupal community working on module code and Drupal 8. For this reason, reluctantly, I should focus on devices with built-in keyboard. Sorry, Surface Pro 2

The Sure Thing: The System76 Darter UltraThin

​System76's new Darter UltraThin looks like a solid and attractive machine. While the machine is configured as an ultrabook class device, it includes a touchscreen at an nice (but not impressive) 1920x1080 display. The Darter comes in heavy for its class, almost 5 pounds. Even so, this gives you a full selection of ports including USB 3, Ethernet, HDMI, and a media card slot. A key advantage of this device over others is that it runs Linux out of the box. System76's preferred distro is Ubuntu, but I'm sure Arch would work with little issue. Compared to my other options, the Darter also has the option of having two internal drives -- a normal 2.5" device and an mSATA SSD.

One of my partner's previously purchased a machine through System76. It operated admirably until it took a tumble from a table due to a snagged power cord. I really shouldn't hold that against them. The amount of time for System76 to assemble a new system, and the fact that it is done so overseas does take away from the buying experience. I was hoping that ZaReason would be able to do better on that, but another partner of mine recently went through them. While that turned out okay in the end, it was a very trying month of waiting, testing, emails with support, and paying for shipping. 

There are a few problems with the Darter, unfortunately. The case is likely plastic, and not aluminum or carbon fiber (like Dell's now discontinued Project Sputnik). The keyboard is not back-lit. Given I like to code in low-light conditions, a keyboard lacking a backlight is a serious mark against. The Darter's running time is also 6 hours. Not bad for a Linux system, but my next choice does that better.

The Luxury Car: The Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro

Lenovo's updated Yoga 2 Pro is something I came across from the Drupal community. There's a small number of people there that use Linux as a primary OS, and prefer to avoid Apple branded hardware where possible. Several Linux users have argued that the Thinkpad serves as Linux's "reference hardware" and enjoys excellent compatibility. I've come to enjoy Lenovo's sense of design as one that's focused on practicality and performance rather than appearance. In particular, the keyboard experience is second to none. Playing with the earlier model Yoga in my local Microcenter, I was enchanted by it's lovingly sculpted chicklet keys. I could imagine coding for hours easily. As a bonus, the 2's keyboard is backlit and specifically designed for use in low-light conditions. 

While the Yoga isn't a Thinkpad in the brand sense, several bloggers have pointed out that with some tweaking, the Yoga 2 Pro runs Linux decently. The wireless drivers, touchscreen, and screen rotation functionality used when the Yoga is in "tent mode" don't quite function. The massive 3200x1800 screen also causes some issues with XOrg and may not be able to run at native resolution. The running time is advertised at 9 hours, but that is most certainly for Windows 8. There's no indication on how much that time would change for the good or ill when running Linux.

The Yoga 2 Pro is the Luxury Car choice for this post simply due to the base price. Unlike the Darter, the Yoga 2 Pro requires quite a bit more investment up front. The difference is about $300 for a similarly speced machine. It may be worth it, but only if I can get it to run my preferred OS.

The Now-For-Something-Completely-Different: A Refurbished Macbook Air

Surprised? I've been thinking about this for a while, actually. Since I began to become more and more involved with the Drupal community, I've increasingly found myself the sole PC user in a room full of Macs. I, myself, was a Mac user for many, many years. I started with a Mac+ on System 5, and went through 6, 6 with multifinder, 7.0, 7.1, 7.5, 8, and even 9 before I finally had enough. As a result, I've barely used OS X. This is a liability if I plan to make Drupal my day job. It's unlikely I will be only a developer if I were to succeed; my experience is in IT education, and Drupal students would likely use Macs. This gap in my knowledge is uncomfortable and otherwise unfillable without a substantial hardware investment. 

The problem, unfortunately, is me. I have what would best be described as "moral" objections to buying Apple hardware. I find the way they design and license their machines to be anti-user and monopolist. Their most recent line of Macbook Pros have no user upgradable parts with the exception of the hard drive. Even that requires purchasing "Apple Compatible" parts that are only available through a blessed number of suppliers. Even so, I cannot deny Apple's industrial design. Their machines are attractive and scream premium. The Macbook Air, in particular, is the ultimate in the ultrabook category. The newest models boast 12 hours of running time at under 3 pounds of weight. If stuck with a proprietary OS, I could do worse than OS X. Even so, many intrepid hackers have installed Arch Linux with only moderate difficulty.

Since I would really prefer to not give Apple money, I was considering purchasing a refurbished machine from early 2013, or even 2012. The battery life would not be as good, but it would give me the ability to triple boot (Windows, Mac, Linux), and would rob Apple of much of their profit from the device. 


I'm still unsure which I will get, or when. The Air is an interesting possibility if I could get over my objection's with Apple's business practices. The Yoga 2 Pro would be fun provided my preferred OS would run. The Darter is a safe bet.