- March 1, 2016
One of the terrible habits I have is the inability to leave things be. Later this month I'll be officially changing roles at the day job and, as a result, have been promised a pretty beefy computer. It's yet to arrive, but the unit in question is a Lenovo ThinkPad W541; a beast of a notebook if there ever was one.
The ThinkPad W541 is essentially the exact same unit as the W540, but with hardware buttons atop the touchpad. As someone who enjoyed using the little red nib on previous ThinkPads, this will be a nice addition. Typically the touchpad on non-Apple devices are incredibly over-sensitive and cause a great deal of problems when someone is doing a great deal of typing. While I typically disable the touchpad with a quick keyboard command when typing, I'll be able to keep the touchpad disabled for most of the day as a result of having the hardware buttons.
One of the things that I am most looking forward to with this device is its raw power. With an Intel Core i7-4710MQ processor and Nvidia Quadro K2100M under the hood, it's bound to rock the clocks. A total of four SO-DIMM slots are easily accessible, too, allowing for a maximum of 32GB DDR3L RAM. Naturally, the device does ship with SATA3 connectors as well as a handy little M.2 SSD slot. I plan on putting these to great use with some extra hardware I picked up.
Employers tend to frown when employees upgrade hardware, so I'll hope that none of them ever visit this website. That said, once the upgrades are in place, the notebook will have 32GB of memory and a terabyte of SSD. The original hard drive will have its partitions imaged and thrown into a VM, while the base operating system will be Ubuntu 15.10 this month, and 16.04 when that drops next month. This notebook, in addition to the MacBook Pro I'm currently writing this on, will be wonderful little machines to run Linux on as I continue to make the transition from Apple's ecosystem to Canonical's.
Now I just need to release an application ...
After months of deliberation and see-sawing, a decision has been made with regards to what hardware I'll replace my MacBook Air with, and what software will power the machine. This wasn't an easy choice, as there are always a hundred variables to consider when thinking about whether to leave one software platform for another, but this post will hopefully walk through some of the mini-decisions that lead up to the big decision: buying a nicely-loaded display-model MacBook Pro and migrating to Ubuntu.
At the start of this journey, I wanted to move away from Apple's insistence that I never open or otherwise upgrade my hardware. Not being able to add RAM at a later date or throw in a larger SSD drive grated on my nerves. If anything happened to the notebook, I'd be completely at the mercy of Apple or dependent on people selling function bits and pieces from their broken Macs. Months of research has shown that a lot of hardware manufacturers are also making their notebooks into appliances. The models that are not appliances require making compromises in screen quality, keyboard comfort, or general build quality.
Here are some of what I was looking for in a portable machine:
There are a couple of really good notebooks out there from Lenovo and Hewlett Packard but, like Apple, the best units were appliances. Lenovo's X1 Carbon notebook meets every requirement, but is completely closed. The same can be said about Hewlett Packard's Spectre X360. Lenovo's ThinkPad T450s and the newer T460 have a lot to offer despite being wrapped in plastic but, at the end of the day, there were two things that swayed me towards the MacBook Pro.
It's this second item that really pushed the point. While it's certainly possible to run OS X in a virtual machine, there is a lot that can go wrong during a software update. It's better to have a proper Mac to run the software natively when working on projects that cannot easily be done with Linux software ... just yet.
So with the decision to pick up yet another Mac out of the way, next comes the question of what software platform to run. It's true that I can do everything I want to do on OS X, and it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to return to Windows. As I've said on numerous occasions, I do like Windows 10 quite a bit. It's the best OS Microsoft has put out. That said, I do not like the sheer amount of information that silently leaves my computer to feed a server somewhere in the cloud. I want greater control over this. With OS X I have routed a lot of traffic to specific servers to 127.0.0.1, but that's not enough. There is still too much data going elsewhere. I want it to stop ... as crazy as that may sound.
After testing a number of different versions of Linux, including the standards (Red Hat, Debian, SuSE, Cinnamon, PureOS, and the like), I've settled on Ubuntu. Canonical's OS has had it's share of concerns with regards to data leaving the system, but updates have been making the platform much less dependent on external services. Ultimately, I plan on locking the system down and having it only use my own servers for data synchronization and other useful features. Anything that requires a third-party server, such as software updates, will need to be explicitly granted permission to run.
As one would quickly surmise, this will create a number of problems right off the bat. Without using the common tools that are trusted by millions around the world, I'll be taking a step back from modern computing and intentionally giving myself a hard time. Ubuntu has a lot going for it, though, so the pain points will really come down to doing the creative things. Podcasting and image editing being two items that spring immediately to mind. That said, where there's a will there's a way, and I've already started developing some tester Ubuntu applications to see just what the platform can do.
So after everything is said and done, I've decided to go with the following setup:
Over the next year or two, I'll make the transition from a commercially-supported software platform to an open one, and the software I develop will be freely available for others to download and contribute to.
This is the plan, anyways.
Every notebook that I've considered on this site so far has been a new machine with some of the fastest processors and storage devices available on the market. But is this an absolute necessity? Sure, having something close to top-of-the-line is a lot of fun and can open new doors when it comes to accomplishing more demanding tasks, but does it make sense to invest in something new for a "what if" that might happen just a handful of times per year?
My primary machine at the moment is a 2014-era 13" MacBook Air. Its processor has been able to keep up with 95% of my demands thus far, and the storage is certainly fast enough to handle a lot of what I throw at it. Perhaps something a year or two older would work just as well for me. One benefit of going with an older unit is the instant cost savings, as used machines typically sell for a lot less than a new unit.
I've had my eye on a few used machines at the local Sofmap, a retail store that sells used machines. As one would expect, the machines do show some signs of wear on the keyboard and the screens might even be a little less clean due to their contact with the keyboard when closed. There are some store display model notebooks available, though, which have never actually left a retail store and are in immaculate condition. This may be the better way to go.
My first MacBook was bought like this. It was a store display model that had been touched and played with by thousands of people over a few months. The machine was never asked to do anything even remotely taxing, and it was given a thorough cleaning afterwards before being put back into its box for sale at the other end of the store. I saved 40% off the price of a new unit by going this route and was quite satisfied with the decision. What sort of advantages would I have by buying new?
The pros that immediately come to mind are:
Are these three things really worth the extra money that would be spent to acquire a brand new machine?
When thinking about switching platforms it's important to think about hardware. In fact, hardware is one of the most important elements when it comes to making the leap from one type of system to another. Two months ago, when I was just setting out to research machines that might make excellent Linux notebooks, a friend of mine recommended I take a look at the Lenovo ThinkPad x250. Having already looked at three other Lenovos beforehand, I figured there was nothing wrong with examining a fourth. This was the smallest of the bunch, and one that I've had some experience with in the past: the Lenovo ThinkPad X250.
Now, by some experience, I mean that I had used a rather sluggish X210 many years ago. The notebooks have come a long way since the days of Core2Duo processors and spinning disks. The X250 models are nothing like the earlier devices I remember.
I had the chance to examine one of these up close and personal today. The display model had an i7 processor and 8GB RAM, which meant that the bare Windows installation was snappy and ready to respond without a moment's notice. The FHD (1920x1080) screen was pretty good and, while the colours were dull and muted compared to the HP Spectre x360 Limited Edition that sat 5 meters to the right, the few minutes I spent navigating the text editors and typing rows upon rows of text at high speeds were not at all hindered. I'm typically quite picky about contrast ratios and brightness levels, so this might be a good sign. That said, the notebook was awash in the harsh fluorescent lighting of a big-box retailer. Actual usage might be better.
When I was first asked about the 12" notebook, I had scoffed at the idea of using such a small device. The 11" MacBook Airs are potent machines, but everything feels far too cramped on the screen. I figured the same would be true for the X250 as the specifications show it's narrower than the X210-series machine I had used in the past. That said, with the FHD screen installed, the notebook actually feels pretty good. The keyboard is what one would expect from an X-Series ThinkPad, being solid and responsive, and there's no noticeable flex when hammering away on the keys. This last bit is quite important as keyboard flex is one of the main reasons none of the Microsoft Surface devices made it on my list despite having the same physical screen size as the Lenovo unit here.
After-market expansion of the ThinkPad X250 isn't great but it's not too bad, either. A single RAM slot can support up to 16GB of memory and, like the T450s I examined a few days ago, there are two M.2 SSD slots in addition to a standard 7mm 2.5" drive bay. This gives the little unit a heck of a lot of potential when it comes to storage. That said, just like the T450s, having two M.2 SSDs installed means ditching the internal wireless card. This isn't too bad if you rarely use WiFi. Some other nice additions include the fingerprint reader and an option for a backlit keyboard, something that I value despite not needing to look at my fingers while typing.
This notebook really does comes across as the little machine that could so, just to see how much a nice upgrade would cost, I picked a model that ships with an i7-5600U CPU, 8GB of RAM, a nice FHD screen, fingerprint reader, better WiFi card, a backlit keyboard, and both a decent front and back battery. Total damage worked out to 143,078円 (about $1,250 USD as of this writing). Going with an i5-5200U instead, which is plenty for most of my current needs, would lower the price to 116,122円 (just over $1,000 USD), leaving some cash left over for some after-market upgrades ... an M.2 SSD and better 2.5" storage device to be specific.
All in all, Lenovo's X250 is quite the capable little unit that packs a mighty punch in a tiny package. I was mostly impressed by what I saw in the store and would likely get a lot of use out of this machine so long as it shipped with a FHD screen rather than the WXGA travesty that the lower-end models are equipped with. While I haven't yet made a decision about what kind of computer to buy next, this unit here is a strong contender.