Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The laptop hunt

Laura's old laptop is nearly kaput; the battery no longer functions, it's old and slow, it's not upgradeable, and it doesn't have enough ram or processor power to run some of the apps she needs (specifically VectorWorks Spotlight 12.5 -- the newest version of the CAD program she uses for lighting design). She's about to go on tour for a few weeks, and it would be seriously convenient for her to have a functioning laptop to take with, so we're searching for a new one.

The laptop hunt is a little complex. We're not sure about which brands are reliable and which companies offer the best technical support. The only thing we're sure of is that we're avoiding Toshiba; I had too many bad problems with my ancient Toshiba laptop, and the company was borderline evil in dealing with the problems. Two of the tech issues required a class-action lawsuit to resolve, and my biggest problem (the mouse would function intermittently, and even an external mouse wouldn't work) was never resolved. And apparently their customer service has gotten even worse in the decade since then. I've heard HP makes decent laptops, but that they preload them with around 800 megs of spyware, adware, and irritating garbage. I had a computer salesman tell me that half of their HP returns are because people can't deal with all the preinstalled ads and crap. Laura's really happy with Sony, and they make nice laptops as far as I can tell, but they're about 30-50% pricier than Dell for comparable hardware. I'm liking the Acer laptop at work, and I like the Fujitsu laptops I was playing with at Fry's, but again I don't know much about their customer service. The Acer is having pointer issues, and I can't find any hints about it on the website. And I don't know if I want to take a stab at a more obscure company like Lenovo or MSI. They make laptops that look good on paper, but I can't find much about their customer support or long-term hardware problems.

Another complexity: whatever laptop we buy is likely to have some variation on the theme of Vista installed (I'm thinking Vista Kenny Loggins). The expensive, specialized programs Laura uses don't necessarily run well on Vista, and we're fairly sure that the portable printer doesn't have Vista drivers. So our first criterion is that XP drivers have to be available for whatever laptop we buy, in case we find out that we need to be running our software in XP. This is more complicated than it seems; as far as I can tell, only one manufacturer -- Fujitsu -- makes XP drivers conveniently available, and then only for their 17" laptops. And nobody will tell you in advance if they still provide XP drivers for their hardware; it's apparently in their Vista license agreement that they're supposed to pretend that Vista is their only supported operating system.

I'm a little irritated with this. For one thing, Vista sucks. This is apparently true in general, but it particularly applies to RAM and processor cycles. I was at Fry's last week scoping out laptops and saw the system monitor running on the desktops of some of their demo machines. Vista was using about 50% of the system resources while idle, not running any programs. I mentioned this to one of the sales staff; it turns out that they left the system monitors running on purpose, to show how system-intensive Vista is. They all hate Vista. I get the impression that a new laptop with 2 gigs of ram and a dual-core processor will run programs in Vista about as well as our old work laptop runs programs in XP on its meager 512 megs of ram.

I can't believe that I'm the only person with a bunch of expensive, proprietary XP software in need of a new laptop. I'm surprised that Microsoft (and PC manufacturers) haven't caught on to the deeper ramifications of this problem; sure, they want to push Vista as the new and only option for OS. But if they aren't going to pay attention to their huge customer base who are chained to the older OS, they're forgetting that there's still an easy, relatively convenient way for people to run XP-only software on a new machine: buy a Mac, and run Parallels. It's what we're doing at work, and we're having relatively few problems with it. It's just a shame that Mac hardware is so darn expensive; for similar capability, you pay roughly double for a Mac laptop. Sure, they're well-designed. But their bottom-of-the-line notebook starts at around $1100; you can't find anything with a dedicated graphics card for under $2000.

At the moment we're leaning towards a Sony Vaio CR series, or a Dell Inspiron 1521. They've got similar specs, both look like reliable machines from companies we've had good dealings with in the past. And, they both come in red. This was one of two criteria Laura gave me when I went window-shopping at Fry's. I think her exact words were, "See if you can find me a nice laptop. Preferably a Vaio, ideally a red Vaio." But I think she'll like the Dell too.

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