My Last Laptop

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my x301

The last time a laptop wasn’t my primary computer was 1999. Or maybe 2000, I can’t really remember. Either way, it’s been a while. At the time the machines were bricklike, had appalling 800×600 displays and measured battery life by tens of minutes.

And I loved them. Would ask what laptops were issued to employees in interviews, even.

Apart from a few Dell bricks along the way, and the occasional flirtation with alternatives, I’ve been all Thinkpad, all the time. The X23 screen cracked and gave way to an X40, which was temporarily replaced by loaned X60s and X300s because compiles took me six hours, and in September 2008 a shiny new X301 arrived. Which, while the processor is a bit anemic and the battery underwhelming, has been a really excellent machine. The best I’ve owned, easily.

It could also be the last laptop I buy.

Like a lot of people these days, a subset of my computing needs are now serviced by a smartphone. An iPhone, more specifically. Checking email, getting directions, Twitter, listening to Red Sox games: all of this, the iPhone – or an Android, if I was to go that route – can handle. Which leaves writing, browsing the non-mobile websites, watching video, downloading music and a million other jobs better suited to a full size machine. But what kind of full size machine?

The appeal of a laptop, for me, has always been the single experience. Everything’s in one place, and I only have to get used to one keyboard and mouse setup. I’ve had desktops, usually: some even had nice large and multi-monitor setups. But moving from laptop to workstation and back was frustrating, because I have no interest in having files, applications, and configurations asymmetrically distributed across machines. So while the workstations were useful for certain heavy compute or visually intensive tasks, I still worked mostly off my Thinkpads.

The gradual transition from desktop applications to web based alternatives, loosened the grip the laptop had on me, but then I’d hop on the workstation and my bash completions wouldn’t be there. Or my emacs theme. And so on: the friction in moving from machine to machine was still substantial.

Enter Dropbox. Synchronization’s not a new invention, even on the desktop: I’ve been using rsync based tools for years. But Dropbox makes synchronization absolutely painless, and throws copies up into the cloud as a bonus. All of a sudden, then, my client side files and settings are pushed around to my various machines, seamlessly. With no effort or intervention required. Seriously, it’s magic.

Hence the question I’ve been asking myself: with my settings and files available, then, and most of my applications browser based, what’s the point of a laptop, again? Sure, I need a mobile keyboard for travel, but wouldn’t a netbook suffice? Or actually, be a superior option? What if I, for the sake of argument, went from a laptop configuration to a netbook/workstation combination? Lighter machine on the road, more horsepower while I’m in the office? Both of which can be acquired for less than the cost of a single high end notebook? Sign me up.

The transition to using strictly the workstation at the office, begun a month or so ago, has been uneventful. I’ll need to replace it sometime in the next year – the 4 GB max on the RAM is tough and the Opteron inside barely outruns my laptop – but the 30/24 dual monitor setup has not been difficult to adjust to. Nor has, for obvious reasons, the keyboard. What’s less clear is what I do about a netbook? I’ve gotten a variety of recommendations, from the Dell Mini to a few Acer machines. But the Chromium machines are yet to arrive, as is the fabled Thinkpad netbook. I’m going to try out a bunch of them in the months head, but honestly, I’m waiting for the holy grail of mobile computing: sunlight readable screens. Pixel Qi says they’ll be going into mass production in Q1, which means that we would see their screens on netbooks sometime in Q2. Just in time for boat season, in other words.

Have I really bought my last laptop? I’m not sure. But that, by itself, says a lot. It says it’s the end of an era.