Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Need a New Computer

My laptop computer - a Let's Note R6 from Panasonic - is breaking down on me. It's small, light and rugged, and I use it all day long, almost every day. Simulations and games are right out of course, but it's good enough for programming, writing and things like that. My previous machine - the Panasonic R3 - lasted me for four years of heavy daily use, by which time the screen was growing dim and red, the battery life was down to half an hour and you could no longer reliably type 'P', return or backspace1. The R6 is a little less than three years old.

It started about six months ago: when I plugged in an external monitor, the screen would go blank, forcing me to reset the screen. Later, it would not only go blank, but actually crash the computer; if I want to use an external screen I now need to reboot with the screen attached2. There's also been occasional graphics glitches - disappearing lines, garbled text and the like. Some software bug, I thought, and perhaps some electrical problem with the external monitor connector.

But about two weeks ago the screen started to freeze randomly, once or twice a day. The static screen image is visible, but frozen. Sometimes the mouse pointer will still move. Sometimes the screen is completely frozen. A few times I've gotten an immediate reset and reboot. There is nothing at all in the log; as far as the OS and applications are concerned the graphics system is fine. I can log in remotely from another computer and all software is still obviously working and displaying stuff. Restarting X does not help - the screen image is frozen no matter what you do. It seems pretty clear to me now that the graphics hardware on this machine is dying. The machine runs pretty hot, so I guess thermal damage could be the culprit.

This is very inconvenient. While I don't use this machine for simulations, I do use it for just about everything else. Whenever the screen freezes I need to reboot, and lose the last bit of work I've done. Worse, it completely derails my train of thought. The computer desktop is my short-term memory, with all the open documents reminding me of what I'm doing. After a reboot it takes a long while to get back up to speed again, and some stuff, like writing blog posts, I may completely forget about for days. I need a new computer.

As it turns out, this is a pretty bad time for the computer to break. I use it a lot for work, but the project doesn't have a budget for big-ticket items at the moment, so I'll have buy the new machine myself. The question is which one. My current machine is small - 10.4" screen, and just under one kilo - with decent memory and ok speed. The battery was rated at 7.5 hours, which was about five hours in practice when new (it's down to 3.5h or so now). I'd like to keep the low weight and good battery life, but this time go for a wide-screen model. That would give a bit of much-needed extra screen space without making the computer much larger. Whatever I get needs to be compatible with Ubuntu Linux.

I'm inclined to get another Panasonic, since they're rugged and good quality (my problem notwidstanding). Perhaps an N9; it's the wide-screen version of my current machine but it's a fair bit faster, and has as good or better battery life. It'd be a little heavier at 1.26 kg, but not so much that I'd be bothered by it. The Let's Note series are rugged - they handle drops, falls and heavy weights, and the keyboard is water/coffee-proof. It's got good wireless connectivity with Wifi, Wimax and Bluetooth; there's both analog and hdmi video ports, and an SD-card reader.

Someone suggested a Thinkpad X201 as an alternative. It's about the same type as the Panasonic and it'd be a bit cheaper - though not by that much once you configure it similarly. It has a trackpoint in addition to the trackpad, and of course it's black, not painted silver. On the downside, it'd be heavier, have shorter battery life and not be nearly as rugged. I'd also feel better about buying a machine designed and assembled locally here in Osaka rather than get an import brand. And of course, I know that Ubuntu works fine on the Panasonic; I'm not as certain about the Thinkpad.

Whichever I get, I'm getting it soon. It's distracting - exhausting - to mentally look over your shoulder as you work for any signs of the computer freezing up on you. It's scary in a way, to be so reliant on a piece of equipment.

#1 Backspace and Enter I understand, but why 'P'? I have no idea.

#2 Last time this happened when I was giving a short presentation at a project meeting in Tokyo. A good reminder not to be too dependent on your presentation software.


Brunzine said...

Or why not an Macbook Pro (http://www.apple.com/macbookpro/)? Very good build quality, battery time and (lack of) weight. Seems Ubuntu-friendly enough, too (https://help.ubuntu.com/community/MacBook). I switched to mac 5-6 years ago and haven't looked back. True story.

Janne Morén said...

Why not a Mac? The smallest one is still bigger than I want, almost twice as heavy as the Panasonic and uses a Broadcom wireless chipset with a flaky closed-source driver. The macs we have at home haven't impressed me with their build quality either (the trackpad surface is glued on fairly lightly and can come loose if you're not careful, for instance).

But irrespective of all that, Macs have a glossy screen and that alone disqualifies them for me. I don't want to see myself in the screen when I work. And the glossy screen is really bad for picture editing; anything in the background reflects in the screen and changes the perceived contrast and color. It's the perfect example of form over function.

Matt Holland said...

Interesting timing - my principle-use computer (coincidentally a Macbook Pro) essentially bit the bullet a couple weeks ago when the screen died, after 4 years of use though I wasn't too sour about it. Of note - I also hate glossy screens and my Mac was a non-glossy (not sure of the technical term for that).

In a past life of mine as an office worker at an oil company, I used various IBM Thinkpads almost exclusively, hauling them every which way I needed to, and I never had any issues. Really nice, solid machines.

For the new rig, I went with an all-in-one desktop type setup, which leaves me lacking a portable laptop, but provided far better performance for the price, wireless keyboard/mouse, and the same number of total wires (2) as my laptop - great as I'm sure you are aware for non-gigantic Japanese living spaces.

Janne Morén said...

...my Mac was a non-glossy (not sure of the technical term for that)

I think the technical term is "usable" ^_^

Actually I have a 4-core desktop at home too. A laptop just doesn't cut it for my work-related simulations, and a desktop is pretty nice for film scanning and editing.

Anyway, I'm inclined to go with the Panasonic, but it's unfortunately only available in that hideous government office-style grey-painted plastic designed to make the computer look as non-wasteful and cheap as possible.

Am I missing some machine other than the Panasonic and the Thinkpad? I want a machine no larger and no heavier, wide screen, no optical drive (I use them only once per computer, when I install Ubuntu) and with at least 4Gb of memory available.

februaryfour said...

Stumbled across your blog: hello from Tokyo! My fiance reads your blog and I am currently looking at netbooks, so he pointed me to this post.

I went to Yodobashi Camera today to try out some laptops and I have a few recs, though I don't know whether or not they run 4GB of RAM.

1. Thinkpad X100e, very lovely, might be better than the 201? Lighter, anyway. Alternatively, the S10-3.

2. Vaio X-series, or Vaio G-series. Both under 1kg in weight, and configurable (they're really pushing the owner-made angle.)

I don't know if you're looking at netbooks. If you are, Asus UL20A and EeePC 1201T are also nice. If they're too underpowered for you, take a look at those Vaios?

I'd be interested in knowing which one you buy! The keyboard is paramount for a writer, so the Thinkpad X100e gets my top billing, but if the keyboard is not as important as the machine, the Vaios really do look very appealing (they are SO LIGHT).

Janne Morén said...


I'm writing up a post on the machine I bought right now.

The netbooks you're looking at are nice and excellent companions if you have a desktop for normal use, but they're just not powerful enough to work as a main machine for me. If I'd choose between the ones you list, I'd go for the Thinkpad.

As a tip, the Panasonic Let's Note R is the same size and weight (less than a kg), but with a really good keyboard and powerful enough to use as a real computer. In fact, for the past six years I've had two such machines, and up until last autumn no other computer. I've used them for all my work-related writing and a lot of my software development too. That said, they are a fair bit more expensive that what you suggest.

februaryfour said...

It's true those netbooks are great companions if you already have a desktop, which is the case here: we have a Dell Inspiron that's somewhat tricked-out and runs all our games and does the heavy number crunching. This computer is also my main computer, which is why I have the luxury of going cheap when portable.

It's a pity one just can't get the right convergence of lightweight + good battery. *sigh* Even the Thinkpads make me pause because the battery's just not quite enough for me (I want at least 5 hours to be safe). I look forward to your post!