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Laptop(s) of Doom

By on Jul 8, 2011 in advice, HP, JVC, Panasonic, Sony, Toshiba, Vaio | 2 comments

Everyone’s computer setup is really a personal thing – much like hairstyle or choice in clothing. We also all have different needs. Me? Until recently, my needs (“must haves”) have always been at odds with my wants (“nice to have”).

Hi, My Name Is Allan … and I’m a Power User (Hi Allan!)
Feels good to say it. Unfortunately, it’s the truth. I’ve been pushing the boundaries of portable hardware for over 10 years now, going back to my days at Microsoft before the bought Connectix and had Hyper-V. I first started virtualizing cluster configurations with Vmware Workstation probably in 2001 or so on a machine that had if I remember correctly 256MB of memory. My domain controller VMs alone now are more than that. I remember lugging around these huge external hard drives not only for space but speed because in those days, 5400rpm was blazing and most drives were slower than that. 7200rpm was a revelation when it hit the portable space. I’ve rarely been processor constrained, but I always run out of memory and disk space.

If you’ve seen me present over the years, my needs to run more VMs has driven my need for more power. For example, to show the combination of clustering and log shipping/database mirroring, I need a minimum of four (4) VMs: domain controller, two nodes, and a standby. Sometimes I will have a fifth to show the effects of a witness. Since I usually give 1GB of memory to each VM, a standard 4GB laptop is out of the question because virtualization also has overhead, not to mention the needs of the underlying OS and anything else you may have running on it. Needless to say, even 8GB of memory is tight for me.

Then there’s the disk space. Realistically, a whole setup will consume anywhere from 100GB – 300GB for me depending on what I have configured and possibly how many snapshots I’m using to be able to roll the entire configuration to a certain point in time.

SSDs have really changed the game, but the cost to storage ratio is high. There are also crappy SSDs that are worse than traditional HDDs. Let me also dispel another myth: SSDs have not significantly changed my battery life on my laptops. Maybe 15 – 30 minutes, but I haven’t seen a dramatic increase because of it. I’ve had SSDs going back to about 2006 or 2007 on my Vaio G where I think I could only get 16GB (maybe 32GB). And that was like a $2000 option! I dual boot my laptops these days with both Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 and Windows 7, so more drive space is always welcome in addition to what I need for normal space.

Unlike some of you (including my fellow consultants), my laptop is my main machine. I don’t use (or like) multiple monitors. So it’s all got to work in one package for me.

That’s Heavy, Man
I’ve been a consultant and on the road (with varying degrees of frequency) for over 10 years now. I’m not the tallest or biggest guy in the world. At a statuesque 5’6″ and height/weight proportinate (I’ve been lucky to have the same waist size for quite some time), I’m not looking to lift a ton of weight every day or schlep it around with me. When I first got into the consulting end of thing where laptop was standard issue and desktops you only have at home (and you bought yourself), it was a bit of an eye opener for me. These were better than the luggables of the 80s and 90s (they were usually between 5 and 7 lbs), but battery life was terrible (you always had to have a spare) and you carried a bunch of other crap (cables, drive caddy, power supply which added weight). After a few years of that added with the abuse my frame has taken over the years sclepping bass amps (some of which probably weighed more than me!), my back was not happy with me.

Before you all start having a pity party for me or make brilliant suggestions like “why not just get a rolling bag?”, don’t. I don’t need a pity party and I tried nearly everything to make it easier on me before going the route I have. Here’s a truth: that rolling bag (whether briefcase style or backpack) still needs to be lifted at times. No thanks.

Welcome to Allan’s Technology Graveyard
One day around this time in I think 2004 I had an epiphany after I started work at Avanade and struggling with the heavy, POS Dell they gave me which was often broken: lighten your loadand get what you want/need. And I’ve never looked back. It’s been a grand, expensive experiment … and one that usually involves Japan. Why Japan? Besides the home of all cool gadgets, they are different than here with different trends. Smaller is usually better, and even if, say, Sony has the same laptop here it may have better specs here. Plus, I’ll be honest: it’s sometimes nice to get something that looks kinda cool vs. say a Thinkpad (which may have what I need – but not in all cases), and the wow factor is fun. I’d be lying if I claimed otherwise.

My real love with ultraportables started with the Sony Vaio TR series. To this day I love everything about that line. The subsequent T series that Sony produced never really got me, and at times I have flirted with getting one. It’s almost odd that Sony ended the run of the T series with the TT which stuck around in Japan longer than it did here. Another series I loved for its style was Sony’s original S series (not the new derivatives of it they are calling the S now such as the SR or SA; the SZ was somewhat close and was its direct replacement).

My first ultraportable (sometimes you’ll also see UMPC which stands for ultra mobile personal computing or somthing of that ilk) was the (at the time) Japanese-only Sony VGN-U70P purchased from Dynamism. Over the years I’ve bought from both them as well as Conics. There have been a few other importers over the years, but those two have stayed around and still provide good service. I’ve learned how to navigate the Japanese websites with the options, so even if they don’t list it, I can get them to order it. Trust me when I say that ability is a blessing and a curse. When you get a laptop from them, they’ve done the conversion to an English OS and installed the basic utilities and such. Price-wise, both are somewhat eqivalent.

Another advantage of buying from an importer like Conics or Dynamism besides better/different/cooler is that you send the laptop back to them and they then send it to Sony, Panasonic, or whoever in Japan. I’ve had to send some of mine in over the years and they always come back quick. The repairs are top notch as you would probably expect in Japan.

There are two things you need to get used to when buying a Japanese laptop:

  1. Sony Japan usually gives you a US English keyboard option often, but most manufacturers don’t. The keyboard layout is slightly different, and even more different when you have a US English OS. For example, a standard Japanese keyboard has the ‘ key over the 7, but it is the & for me.  I’ve adjusted and these days I’d argue I’m more used to a Japanese keyboard. The swaps are ingrained in me.
  2. You learn to navigate Japanese support websites for drivers and updates.

You never forget your first, and I loved the U70P. Way underpowered to be honest, but cool as hell and to this day would still get looks if I dragged it out. I lusted after the X505 (video and review), but wound up with the U70. Truth be told, I would still probably buy one just to have it but I need it like a hole in the head. And no, this is not the modern Sony X, but the old, thin one that to this day people forget was the thinnest computer made before some fruity company made thin laptops (and probably still bests the MacBook Air  in thinness - sorry Brent!).

The love affair with the U70 was short lived because running VMs was painful on it. I stepped up to the JVC MP-XP741 which would still probably be more powerful than today’s netbooks (and the same form factor, ironically enough).  I actually got Avanade at the time to get me one, but everything else I’ve owned I’ve purchased myself and no company has owned. The JVC was a good travel companion, but not as cool as the Sony Vaio PCG-U1 (the Sony Vaio PCG-U101 was the last in its line) another person on the project had (yes, there were two ultraportable geeks on duty). I never liked the UX variant of the U series which my U70P is part of, and is why I never bought one.

Through these, I always looked at the Panasonic Let’s Note series in Japan. They are the “consumer” versions of the Toughbooks. One in particular – the R series – has always caught my eye but Panasonic always seemed to have a limiting factor somewhere (not enough or less max memory, smaller storage capacity) vs. some of the other contenders. Everything is a tradeoff somewhere.

After the JVC, I went through a series of laptops:

  • Sony Vaio VGN-SZ90 (Japan) – I wrote most of the book Pro SQL Server 2005 High Availability on this laptop. It was a bit heavier than I like (just over 4lbs with the extended battery) but had the power I needed. It was also a bit larger at 13.3″ for a screen size. This one served me well except for the time someone cracked the screen while on a plane back from a customer.
  • Sharp PC-MW70J (Japan) – This was more of a lateral move, and basically the same as the later M4000 Sharp briefly released here in the USA. It also had 13.3″, but equivalent battery life and lighter than the SZ. Plus I could get it in blue. Whatever Sharp did, it always seemed slower than my SZ and I never loved this one. I wanted something smaller and lighter again which led me to …
  • Sony Vaio VGN-G1 (Japan) – Sony’s G series was their answer to Panasonic’s R in Japan. Fabulous build quality in a nice dark brown color. 12.1 4:3 aspect ratio screen, ULV (1.2GHz), not much memory (3GB), a 32GB SSD., and just around 2lbs. Yowza! Love that size and weight. This one didn’t last too long due to storage issues. It was quickly replaced with …
  • Sony Vaio VGN-G2 (Japan) – Same basic specs but with 4GB of memory and a 64GB SSD. This was my main laptop for quite awhile and a great road warrior. Not a bad thing to say about this. I just outgrew it and needed more power.
  • Sony Vaio VGN-Z90 (Japan) – Ah, welcome back a bigger machine. This was a 13.1″, 2.53GHz beast with Sony’s proprietary SSD RAID (failed me once and had it repaired). However, it clocks in at under 4lbs and was a good machine. While I did like it, I yearned for something a bit smaller. Crazy, I know. Plus, I ran out of space. Later versions of this (and the later redesigned VPC-Z series) could have up to 512GB in drive capacity with the RAID.
  • HP 2530p (USA) – This was a very brief but failed experiment which ended up with me sending it back. The build quality was terrible compared to what I was used to (sorry HP … I do like your company, but didn’t love the laptop). I don’t agree with the review I linked, as it didn’t feel solid to me and I would have chewed up that keyboard. I wound up getting …
  • Toshiba Portege R600 (USA) – This one was very cool and had a 512GB SSD. Because of the ULV processor and lower memory, it was a bit of a step down but the 512GB SSD somewhat made up for it. As expected, it didn’t totally and I was left wanting some more power. Wanderlust, why must ye haunt me?
  • Panasonic Let’s Note CF-S9 Premium/High Performance Edition (Japan) – Power, portable, and under 3lbs? Check – that’s the Panasonic S, a 12.1″ widescreen notebook. As I mentioned, I had flirted with Panasonic for quite awhile (I had considered the R and W series), but took the plunge here. Panasonic also makes the N series, which is the S minus the DVD drive. This one had a Core i5-540, 8GB of memory, 256GB SSD. However, it still did have a PCMCIA slot (wha?!?!). I got mine with a lovely blue color exterior. Finally – a laptop with power, good battery life, and under 3lbs. My only real issue was that Panasonic – part of the consortium supporting Blu-ray – didn’t put a B-R in. The S10 still doesn’t have one, either.As an aside, one thing that drove me to the Panny is that with all the travel I do, there’s wear and tear that happens no matter how much you pamper them. The first thing that struck me about the S9 was its build quality. Solidly built with no creaks. The best build quality I saw up until this was the G, and the S9 just blew the Sony away.
  • Panasonic Let’s Note CF-J9 Premium/High Performance Edition (Japan) – Like clockwork, I was tempted late last year by the smaller relative of the S9. It was about the same weight, but oh, the power vs. size - 10.1″ widescreen, Core i7-640M, 8GB of memory, 256GB SSD, no optical drive. Hello, nurse! It may look like a glorified netbook, but it isn’t. Trust me. As someone said to me a few months ago, “You can power a small company [or was it country?] with that thing!” It’s a bit chunkier than most notebooks but don’t let that deceive you – it’s still under 3lbs. I get anywhere from 6 – 10 hours of battery life depending on what I’m doing. This little thing is nothing short of amazing and the build quality – hoo boy! This thing is SOLID – even moreso in my opinion than the S9. I don’t know why I didn’t go Panasonic sooner than the S9, and I’m not sure I’d go back to a Sony or something else. Panasonic Toughbooks are road worthy machines that do balance everything.

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 11 laptops since 2004, for an average of 7.7 months of service. And most of those are sitting in my closet. I think it’s time to sell some. Anyone need to buy a laptop? Make me reasonable offers.

What Would Be My Ultimate Laptop?
I honestly don’t know because the specs would change, but below is a stab at a core list. Most of you would not need this spec.

  • 12.1 or smaller wide screen (love ya Sony G, but 4:3 is SO early 2000s)
  • 3 lbs (give or take)
  • 1366×768 resolution
  • Full processor (no ULV if possible)
  • 7 – 12 hours of battery life under normal usage (less if doing things like Vmware or Hyper-V)
  • 512GB SSD
  • 16GB+ of memory
  • Easy to swap out memory or drive (Usually NEVER easy on small Japanese laptops; let’s just say I destroyed one years ago and learned my lesson the hard way. With memory, often times you only have access to one slot.)
  • If possible, swappble bay for extra battery/HDD or SSD/optical drive
  • Can survive the road
  • USB 3.0
  • Drivers compatible for Windows Server 2008/R2 and not just desktop OSes (often times most, but not all, of the drivers work)

The Moral of the Story
First, I acknowledge I’ve spent a lot of money on laptops but it is the main tool of my trade. In any profession if you don’t have the right stuff, you can’t be effective. Those needs come at a steep price (and growing graveyard), but I also realize my needs change quicker than the average user. I may outgrow a laptop in less than 2 months. The worst part is the depreciation on these things. Oy! Now keep in mind I’m a guy with a basic cel phone and don’t want a smartphone … I know, weird, huh?

Panasonic Japan has an update to my CF-S9 (CF-J10) that fixes the few “problems” I have with it.

  1. It adds one USB 3.0 port in addition to two USB 2.0 ones (the CF-J9 has 3 x USB 2.0).
  2. It can have a maximum of 16GB of memory
  3. Sandy Bridge architecture, so a new Core i7-2620M
  4. Up to 13 hours (!) of battery life (which means 8 – 10 real life in my experience)

The new S10 Premium can get up to 17 hours of battery life (probably 12 real world) and is still sub-3 lbs. Crazy!

The new Sony Z (due out at the end of July) looks intriguing since I can get up to the 512GB with RAID, but I think I’ll stick with Panasonic since I can probably change out the drive (or go external if need be) and get 16GB of memory guaranteed.

I just realized when I started looking without even thinking about it: it’s been 8 months (damn those statistics!) since I got the CF-J9 I’m writing this post with. I really am trying to hold out longer and keep this one in use but the need to demo some stuff may push me to a new laptop sooner rather than later. We’ll see, but by PASS I may have caved. Let’s find out … when you see me at PASS, you’ll most likely know.

    2 Comments

  1. WOW, you have an amazing graveyard over there. Suddenly my gadget habit feels cheap by comparison! I gotta admit that R600 has me thinking about buying it as a portable iSCSI server for demos.

    Brent Ozar

    July 8, 2011

    • It’s somewhat like a “who’s who” of top and/or cool laptops. And I wish laptops were my only gadget habit (sigh). The R600 is a nice machine. Ping me if interested. Arguably, as I did, you’ll pay more for the drive than the computer part. But it could make a nice portable iSCSI server that’s lightweight and has capacity.

      Allan

      July 8, 2011

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