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:
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:
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.
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.
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.