The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

You are standing by a silo with brushed-metal walls. Its door is ajar . . .

I’ve been thinking some about my next laptop. I already have a great personal laptop, but I am thinking that I should buy one for work. I would then move work off the personal machine and keep the two on separate tracks. The tablet PC that is my personal machine will still be great for teaching – the writing surface means I can annotate talks in real-time. For work, though, I would like to off-load data analysis to a business machine.

This has made me think about what my needs are for the business of physics. First, there is data analysis. Any modern machine will have the chops to do this. Second, there is communication. Any modern machine can run the tools of communication – primarily, a web browser. Third, there is travel. This is where distinctions become more stark. The difference between a 3lb and a 7lb notebook adds up when you feel the shoulder or back pain developing during travel. Fourth is battery life. This is related to travel; on a plane, I sometimes need to survive 8-12 hours. A 4-hour battery is fine, as long as I can buy two and swap them in and out as needed.

For the first time in a long time, I started thinking about use cases involving Apple hardware. Jodi purchased a MacBook Air to replace her old, power-pc Macbook Pro. The Air is the height of design simplicity and portability. I knew I could install VirtualBox and run Ubuntu Linux and Windows. Ubuntu would give me the desktop I want, without having to install Linux as the primary OS. Windows gives me the Microsoft Office tools I need for SMU business. Mac OSX gives me the tools I want to edit photos, video and music.

Jodi let me give this a try. She gave me an account, and I installed Virtualbox. I created a virtual machine for Ubuntu 9.04 and installed the OS. The first annoyance I encountered was the memory allotment for the VM. Since the Air only has 2Gb of RAM, and since you should not give more than 50% to the VM, I could only give 1Gb of RAM to Ubuntu. This seemed woefully inadequate.

The natural next step was to see if I could add more memory to the Air, should I purchase one. I cannot. Quite apart from the fact that replacing/swapping the battery on this will be impossible without surrendering it to Apple, you cannot change the amount of memory in the Air. 2Gb is the only choice. Of course, this is the feature of the Apple silo. You are locked into a set of predefined choices. In the truest sense of “The Matrix: Reloaded,” this hardware is the illusion of choice. I’ve come to realize that Apple is WYSIWYM – “What you see is what you meant.”

So I started thinking outside the silo. I looked again at articles on the lightest  laptops. The Air scores lots of points, but not on hardware features. It wins on aethetics and weight. The Lenovo X300 series weighs almost as much, gets the same battery life, but can be loaded with a much better processor and 4Gb of RAM. The price is nearly the same, the protection plans nearly the same, and the aesthetics much lower. But, I can make Linux my primary OS, install a Windows VM, and have everything I want except photo, music, and video editing tools that don’t suck.

So after spending some time in the doorway of the silo, I’m not going any further. I’ll be looking toward a Lenovo or a Lifebook. The Air just isn’t what I need in a computer.

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