A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To The Beach

Out of the blue (as such things are wont to) the 64GB SSD I upgraded my ex-Chromebook with gave up the ghost, so I’m on the hunt for a new laptop again (obligatory sponsorship link).

Update: Oh, goody. Now my (somewhat battered) Nook’s battery has given up the ghost, too, so no books, either. This is turning out to be a pretty eventful Summer…

Fortunately, no important data was lost – Dropbox preserved everything I was working on, up to and including the last file saves and git commits1, so the morning after I dug out the original 16GB chip, installed the latest Lubuntu and began the fairly tedious process of setting up a usable Linux environment again (which, thankfully, is mostly a matter of restoring configuration files).

It’s Cramped In Here

However, 16GB is hardly enough room to do anything of consequence in in an age where your average Docker container easily tops half a gig, and even considering I run a pretty minimal environment, the machine is now effectively useless for anything except writing pithy blog posts (ahem), doing some lightweight JavaScript development (until npm goes to town on dependencies) and remoting to other machines.

Now, I may work in cloud services and even code on an iPad, but there’s a limit to what can realistically be done in terms of hardware connectivity and low level stuff on such a setup, and I need a physical Linux machine to hook up to development boards, re-image SD cards, and do some Android stuff that my ancient Mac mini simply can’t do – especially during summer break, when I can’t be tethered to a desktop.

So I started scouting for options, which quickly boiled down to:

  1. Get another SSD, thereby investing around Eur. 100 on a relatively old, banged-up machine
  2. Scrap this and get another low-end laptop, starting at Eur. 200 or so
  3. Stop slumming it, move upmarket and splurge on a “proper” laptop

Obviously, #3 is just not gonna happen until Apple gets new MacBooks out the door – if I’m to do some serious investment on a personal laptop, that will be it, period. I’ve been eyeing the Surface Pro 4 now and then, but no matter the committment to my employer, it makes absolutely no sense for me to get one for personal use. It also wouldn’t obviate my need for having a physical x64 Linux machine in the house.

The difference between #1 and #2, though, is worth exploring and expounding upon a bit, because I’m actually quite surprised that the low-end notebook market (at least as seen through the distorted lens of Portugues retail) is such a shitty mess.

The Netbook Experience, circa 2016

It bears mentioning at this point that until recently, the only Windows machine in the house was an Acer E11 that we bought for the kids a couple of years ago, near the Eur. 200 mark (I forget exactly how much, and it doesn’t show up on my hardware ledger offhand).

Its specs were unremarkable at the time: aside from the piddling CPU, it has 2GB of RAM, 32GB of solid-state storage and a 1366x768 screen. It’s “unapologetically plastic” (ha!), sports a decent-sized, functional trackpad and is light enough to pick up and toss around without much concern (in fact, it feels slightly lighter than the C720, and the trackpad is way better).

It’s also responsible for some of my most deeply frustrating Windows management experiences, since there’s barely enough room for Windows, let alone Office and some of the kids’ apps. I keep spending late evenings fixing problems due to the amount of shoehorning involved, but I digress.

Entry-Level Crapputing

The point here is that two years later, all entry-level laptops I can find here are still almost exactly like it. Different CPUs, some variations on the trackpad theme, but mostly the same 2/32GB combo and (what’s most puzzling) the same washed-out 1366x768 panels.

And, of course, none of them are upgradable (we can thank the “computer as appliance” ethos for that, I suppose, while we hang it by its toenails above the burning coals of consumerism). Based on my experiences with the E11, I shudder at the amount of pain and frustration these stunted turds are wont to inflict upon unsuspecting buyers that might attempt doing something else on them that goes an iota beyond casual websurfing and drooling at pictures of (furry) kittens on Facebook.

Dwindling margins are sure to blame for this, but I have trouble understanding why the industry hasn’t moved things up a notch near these price points – 4GB or RAM, 64GB of storage and a 1080p screen (even if not all in the same package) do not seem impossible (I’d have to work out BOM, production and shipping costs, but it feels feasible), and I’d drop Eur. 300 on something like that without much hesitation. As in, right now.

Waiting for Godot

But after a couple of visits to shops and poring through online listings, it seems that I either have to spend north of Eur. 400 to get halfway decent RAM and storage (but am still stuck with crappy screens).

Clearly not an ideal situation, so I’m clearly going to have to cut down (ha ha) on some of my coding projects until ‘back to school’ campaigns come round and shelves are re-stocked.

  1. Yep, I keep all my current checkouts in Dropbox – it’s probably a couple of zillion files too much, but being able to switch machines and having the current working tree right there and (near) instantly available is simply wonderful. ↩︎