Monday, 23 July 2012

Computer slugfest

It's time to bite the bullet.  Sometime in the next few weeks I'm going to have to replace this computer.

It's a Toshiba Satellite A200 laptop, and it's getting sluggish, poor thing.  Whenever you ask too much of the processor it just throws its metaphorical hands in the air and says "This job's too hard!", and switches off.  To be honest it's always had cooling problems - and for the last six months I've been using a cake cooling tray under it, to ensure it doesn't just shut down when I least expect it.

For example, I just tried to Google the model number for this laptop, to find out how old it really is, and the thing shut down.  (And yes, why would I dig out the documentation when I can Google the result?)  

Enough is enough.

The Google result (when I restarted the computer and restored the browser) reports that this laptop is at least five years old.  Sounds about right, I know I had it two houses ago.  It came loaded with Windows Vista and, according to online documentation, 1GB of RAM (in two wodges of 512MB).  It also came with two hard drives, and until the day overheating completely cooked one of them, I didn't realise that the other was completely unused.  Oops.  

(In the same way that it's not a good idea to put several heirs to the throne on the same flight, the threat of catastrophic failure should motivate one to separate the storage of software and documents, if circumstances allow.  They did allow, I just didn't take advantage, and thus lost everything in one hit.  Lesson learnt.)

There followed several months of hand-wringing, because the thing was less than two years old at the time.  Then I took it for diagnosis by Dr Carl, and he advised that the only thing really wrong with it was the cooked hard drive (and the aforementioned cooling shortcomings).  So we tossed out the crispy drive, loaded an open source operating system (Ubuntuonto the functioning drive, and we've been relatively happy together ever since.

The open source OS was necessary because we didn't really have the dollars to fork out for a new copy of Windows.  Ubuntu is a very user-friendly version of Linux, but any version of Linux is a double-edged sword.  You can get it for nothing, and you don't have to be a super-genius to install and run it, but there are bunches of programs that nobody bothers to adapt for Linux.  Sure, you can get Windows emulators for Linux, but the emulator lag in a machine with a single gig of RAM is wall-smashingly, eye-rollingly, shoulder-twitchingly irritating.  Don't get me wrong - I love the fact that Ubuntu and similar things are out there, and I would certainly recommend it as an alternative operating system.  I'm just completely over having to do things the exotic way all the time.

So, the question is - what's next?  Here I need a little crowd-sourcing, if you please.

I would so love to put a Macbook Pro on the desk.  (It has to be the Pro, because I like laptops but the Macbook Air doesn't come with an optical drive, and I'm not ready to forego that.)  I note Mrs G's four year old iMac is going strong, so that's a good indicator.  However, in addition to replacing this aged laptop we're going need to kit the elder minions out with computing hardware in the near future.  So it would seem to be a choice between one Rolls Royce and several Mini Minors.  Am I wrong?

For the price of a Macbook Pro we could buy up to two reasonably powerful little laptops, or three fairly average ones.  I just wonder whether I would regret that decision really quickly.  I mean, I already have a respected manufacturer's product in front of me, and it's been limping for 60% of its life.  With a drive missing, a CPU that runs too hot and a completely different operating system to the one it started with, it more closely resembles a war veteran missing one or two important limbs than a productivity device.  How much worse would it be going downmarket and lower spec?

Is it really fair to pit an Apple against a lemon?  Does such a battle only result in fruit that oxidises more slowly? 

Tips and advice gratefully received, not necessarily heeded.


  1. The problem with both major platforms at the moment is that 64 bit computing is relatively new. There aren't a lot of 64 bit drivers out there for any peripherals on USB2 or Firewire so, you wont just be buying a new computer. You may also need a new printer/scanner/camera/.……….
    There is also a battle going on between Thunderbot and USB3 as a new high speed peripheral interface. And you might have trouble networking between the last generation of computers - 32 bit (like Mrs G's) and new 64 bit machines. Even though the protocol hasn't changed something else fairly fundamental must have (either that or Windows 7 has an anti-apple firewall. That wouldn't surprise me.). Mrs P has a new Windows 7 64 bit machine and I cannot for the life of me get my 32 bit Snow Leopard Macbook to talk to it.
    Apple computers come with a lot of very useful software installed that Windows machines don't but no "productivity" suite like Office. Open Office Org is a good, free suite that will work on both platforms and allows compatibility between Windows, Star Office, PDF's and a few other document formats. Office is a good, native suite on Windows but it costs extra so, does the extra cost make up for an Apple machine if you can get student prices for the software? ….hint hint.
    Apples are good for producing multimedia but working with copy protected material is supposed to be hard or impossible while Windows machines can be made to ignore DRM fairly simply if required for some reason. Since you've already had experience with open source software you may find Apple is a different, slightly challenging environment sometimes but research to find a program to do something in particular can be very rewarding.
    With either platform I'd advise to get a RAM upgrade before you start. At least double the minimum requirement of the operating system, more if you can afford it. With Windows portable machines make sure there is separate RAM for the video processor so it's not flooding the standard RAM available to your OS and applications, therefore slowing the machine down. Remember, both current platforms are new and are subject to many patches and upgrades as time goes along. These bloat the OS so it needs more RAM, flops and disk space as the programmers try to perfect it, finally giving up and moving on to something else, leaving us all with redundant machines much sooner than we'd hoped. I hope this helps!

  2. Yes, Rod, it certainly does help. The thing I actually *do* like about Ubuntu is that they revise the OS completely every six months or so, and that's supported for about a year or two. Alternatively, every 2 years they bring out a "long term support" version, which they undertake to support for three years or more. For a free OS, that's great. The end result is that the whole OS is lean to begin with, and avoids bloat by being rebuilt from the ground up every year or so (if you use the regular updates, every six months) or every couple of years (if you use the LTS versions). What I *don't* like is the isolation from the multimedia mainstream.

  3. Well said, Rod.
    My mac experience (and I've never had any other) has been lumpy. I've replaced and upgraded in alternating rounds for the last 20 years, and one thing has become alarmingly apparent: the cost of the new mac is only half of the bill, the other half is the cost of upgrading all the software that no longer runs on the new mac. The subsequent personal cost is the time required to rejig all the saved documents which no longer work with the new software. Apple takes away as much as it gives. Microsoft seems finally to have learned that from Apple. Still and all, when it crashes I'm glad it's a mac and it's able to start again.
    Thought recently that I'd get a new mac. Bought a television instead.

  4. Thanks Andrew, and also thanks for reading!

  5. Rod, check smb workgroup settings on your Mac and make sure it is the same as on the windows box. (It's in the advanced network settings/WINS tab). I think the Mac defaults to WORKGROUP, while Win 7 now defaults to "mshome".

    Andrew, not every OS upgrade demands a new suite of apps. Snow Leopard to Lion removed the ability to run PPC apps. But there hadn't been a PPC mac released in over 5 years. I'm running Lion on my early 2008 Macbook with iWork and iLife 2008. It's not much different in the Windows world either as there were plenty of machines usable for XP, that won't run Vista, or Win7. The real problem with documents is closed proprietary formats. My boss at work has asked me to try and recover some data files from Cricket Graph III, which ran under System 7.5. It's a proprietary binary file format that almost nothing now reads. LibreOffice is probably the best (and cheapest) bet now to counter that problem.

    Glenn, I would second Rod's statement about RAM though. Get as much as you can afford, no matter what platform you eventually end up purchasing. BTW, we probably could have upgraded the RAM in that behemoth of yours to 4GB for about $70.

  6. Thanks Carl, appreciate your input. May yet give you a ring if/when I'm setting up a network including NAS ...


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