Friday, November 27, 2020

The Homer Car, But It's leinir's Laptop

Or alternatively "But Why Don't You Just Get A Different One?"

We are now into week three of me sitting in a virtual machine on my better half's laptop, while we wait for my replacement Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 (2019) to arrive, after Dell conceded that they could not fix the old one. Short version: The graphics fan went wonky and stopped spinning, so they sent an engineer out to replace the mainboard (because everything is soldered on, including the fan assembly), and then it stopped booting. So they sent out another, and that also immediately failed to post, and then decided that wasn't worth trying again, so they would send me a replacement laptop. Three weeks later, and i have a tracking number, with no updates for a couple of days, though it also isn't past the estimate they gave me for getting it (two weeks for an in stock item, from Ireland to England, nice...).

Now, the above might sound like a perfect reason to just cut my losses and switch to a different machine but here's where it all gets a little more silly: This is literally the only laptop on the market today which has the set of requirements i have for a laptop. They are not, i think, particularly terrible ones, but it turns out that there is a significant gap in the market between this specific laptop, and everything else out there. 

Here's a quick little rundown of those requirements:

  • 360-degree hinge Basically, a way to turn my laptop into something that works like a screen for use at a my desk, where i plug in a proper keyboard and a trackball. In essence, this means a 2-in-1 design of some type, with the yoga-style 360 degree hinge design coming out on top for basically being able to turn the laptop into a display with a built-in stand. Acer's Ezel hinge design also works reasonably well for this, though it does put the display further away as a result of the design.
  • High-resolution display My optimal resolution at the 13 inch size would be 1440p, but that's not an option on Dell's 2-in-1 offering, so 4K it is - but 1440p would be better at this size, then i wouldn't have to deal with fractional scaling (i run the system at 150%, fine in most cases, just a tiny bit odd in others, but entirely fine for the vast majority of situations). If there was a 15 or 16 inch 2-in-1 with a 4K display, that would be neat, but no problem, 13 inches works fine as well.
  • Touch screen with pen support Yes, really, i do use this. It might seem like a gimmick if you've not spent time with it, but i use it for a variety of purposes. The touch screen is just one of those things that comes in handy for just... using a machine for casual consumption of stuff, and well, the convertible mode thing above means such a laptop also works not only as a display with keyboard and mouse plugged in, but also as a passive consumption device when you just have it in pure tablet mode. The pen? Yes, sure, i could just sketch ui stuff with a finger, but a pen is just so much more pleasant to use. Doesn't even have to dock, magnets work fine for me.
  • Proprietary driver go away Hoping i don't need to explain this one too much, don't think there's all that much to discuss about how those aren't great ;)
  • Recent-gen Core i7 or equivalent Similarly, hoping this will come as no huge surprise. Writing code, you kind of need crunch those numbers a bunch, and an i3 or (sorry Pine64, but maybe that's something that could be fixed) current arm options aren't going to cut it.
  • At least 32GiB of RAM Simple enough, lots of laptops with those. But wait, that first requirement up there means that apparently there isn't. It turns out that, of all the requirements that one might have for a laptop today, any amount of memory that allows you to open KDevelop and throw, say, a couple of our larger frameworks at it (or, dog forgive me, the giant that is Calligra) means that you are in workstation territory, which means that you suddenly have no options that are not either experimental creativity monsters, or something you can't have in any form that is not... just a laptop.

The requirements list above means that out of all the available machines on the market, there is precisely one that fulfills them all. Oh what a luxury problem to have, yes, most definitely. I just have no choice but to buy a stupidly expensive piece of Dell sculpture which, while of course there are no expansion options and the only connectivity is two type-c ports, headphone socket (yes, what a crazy world), and a micro-sd slot), just feels amazing to me to type on when i'm away from the desk and is so light i barely feel when i  put it in a backpack.

"Why Are You Talking To Me?!"

Why am i writing this here on Planet KDE and friends? Well, it turns out that we have some friends in the KDE community who build hardware and ship it with KDE software. I would greatly like to have the option to buy one of your piece of beautiful hardware, but as you can see from that little rant above, that currently isn't really an option.

But, before you tell me that there's no way you can compete with Dell in creating such a heavily designed, ultra light weight, super thin device, I would ask you to look through those requirements again: I am not after a thin-and-light. I am after a productivity machine. I am after something which will both let me do my job (which requires me to work with fairly large, occasionally convoluted and interdependent codebases), and also allows me to enjoy it in a more casual fashion.

 So with the requirements above set out, here's a list of nice-to-haves:

  • 15 or 16 inch display 13" inches is a little squinty-vision at times, and a 4K display at somewhere around the 15 to 16 inch size would be the sweet spot.
  • RAM slots Please just pop a couple of those in there. One is good, two is better. With that, i can fit 32 gigs in, or perhaps even 64 for that OTT level thing at some later point, without the initial outlay
  • Expandable storage M.2 nVME doesn't seem like a stretch these days, one slot will do. Just don't solder the storage on.
  • Good keyboard As in, a keyboard worth typing on. Not asking for a mechanical keyboard, i guess, but something that isn't squishy, and which doesn't require me to always need to hit the key in the perfect centre to get letters to happen. If you want to test this for yourself, poke the corners of the keys on your laptop, and see whether they move uniformly, or whether they just kind of bend over.
  • Thunderbolt 3 Yeah, not even asking for 4 here, though sure, that'd be nice. Really just need something so that my docking connection for when i scamper from the desk at the end of a day is just the one cable, so i'm not plugging and unplugging a bunch of cables all the time.
  • Fans Sure, go right ahead and pop some of those in there. Seriously, as long as they don't sound like a jet engine and their tone isn't fingernails on a chalk board, it's all fine, and given this is a workstation? Yeah, fanless isn't really an option.

Hoping that running down that list makes you go "Hey, that doesn't look too bad", that's why i wrote this blog entry :D i've tried to make this seem like perhaps it's not a Homer-car, and instead it's more a kind of... light modification on systems that are already out there.

Oh, and that elephant over there with currency signs painted all over it: First, why would you paint it like that, poor thing's got enough to worry about without you getting out the brush, and is that paint even skin safe? Second, I hope you noticed the brand and name of the laptop i already have up in the first paragraph. That thing is not a cheap device. Dell sells the configuration i have for GBP2500, and that's not even counting the pen which is another almost a hundred quid on top. Full disclosure, i bought my one second hand and did not pay that much for it, but that is what these things cost, and if it were someone not a huge, multi-national company, but rather a small outfit with a track record of supporting KDE and free software in general? Sure, i'd pony up the cash for something like what i've described here.

The word of the day is: choice, because i would really like one of those...

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Blogger Pointedstick said...

There is one more 2-in-1 with 32 GB RAM that I know of: the Dell Latitude 5300 2-in-1. It only offers a 1080p screen though and its CPU it from the old Intel 8th gen line though.

If you can stand 16 GB of RAM, your options open up quite a bit. FWIW I don't find 16 GB to be an impediment for my typical software compilation activities (everything KDE at least once a day). But I don't use KDevelop, I admit. If it's a lot more RAM-hungry than plain old Kate-and-Konsole, that seems like an avenue for improvement. :)

Anyway here are some options, with the biggest drawbacks (other than not having 32 GB of RAM) in parentheses:

- ASUS ZenBook 13.3" 2-in-1 UX371EA (Nothing???)
- Acer Spin 5 13.5" 2-in-1 (Nothing???)
- Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 (Nothing???)
- Lenovo Flex 15.6" (Nvidia GPU)
- HP Envy x360 15.6" (1080p only)
- Dell Inspiron 14 5000 2-in-1 (1080p only)
- Dell Inspiron 15 7000 2-in-1 (1080p only)
- LG gram 14" 2-in-1 (1080p only)
- Dell Inspiron 14 2-in-1 (Weaker construction, 1080p only)
- Lenovo ThinkPax X1 Yoga (weak Intel 10th gen CPU and GPU, miserable battery life, iGPU underpowered for a 4k screen)

The Acer even has a 1440p-ish 16:10 screen (2256 x 1504) and the latest 11th gen Intel CPU and GPU, which are much better than the 10th gen versions. It looks really nice.

27 November 2020 at 16:37  
Blogger Dan Leinir Turthra Jensen said...

Thank you for the rundown there! :) I did spend some time searching before landing here, though, and i did not end up with these requirements just on a whim. Each of them has come from trying hard to make do with less, and... it turns out that i am very picky in what might perhaps seem odd places ;)

One point, perhaps even an interesting one, is that i in fact an typing this on a Thinkpad X1 Yoga Gen3, or rather a vm on said machine, and the reason i switched away from this less than a year after buying it was precisely the 16GiB of RAM, which it turned out was... just not enough. I tried a great deal to get along with that, but it was just not enough. And so, here we are, me suggesting that someone out there should notice a hole in the market and request the creation of this new subclass of devices ;)

27 November 2020 at 18:48  
Blogger Pointedstick said...

I hear you abut being picky. :)

For me it's very nearly a dealbreaker if the keyboard doesn't have a column of Home/End/PgUp/Pgdn keys on the right. I grudgingly accept those keys being present elsewhere, but it is a hard no if they're not all there at least in some capacity.

Out of curiosity, what problem do you see with only 16 GB of RAM? I'm typing this on an X1 Yoga gen 3 with 16 GB RAM myself, and RAM isn't my bottleneck when it comes to compiling software; it's the CPU.

By way of illustration, it takes me about 11 minutes to compile KWin from source with a clean build on this machine, whereas on the KDE SlimBook with a Ryzen 4800U and only half as much RAM, I can do the same thing in 5 minutes. The Intel CPU's very poor multi-core performance are the problem for me. On top of that, the machine gets an order of magnitude better battery life, so I'm pretty sure my next machine is going to be a Ryzen one. :)

27 November 2020 at 19:07  
Blogger Dan Leinir Turthra Jensen said...

For me the feel of the keyboard keys is much more important than the layout (which i guess is also why i can deal with things like the arguably odd layout of the Planet devices), but i can see how not having physical versions of that set of keys would end up awkward.

Literally, i end up filling up the memory with browser tabs and KDevelop du-chain data (the magic code knowledge thing), and while i don't perhaps need it to be 32 for that, i do need more than 16 (at which point there's an odd seeming middle point of 24 that you can get on a small number of devices). However, and that is perhaps not the most common part of my workflow, but i do occasionally need to spin up a vm for one thing or another, and there you very quickly run out of memory if you're doing anything else. And then, of course, there's the video editing, which tends to be... kind of hungry as well.

Oddly, for me the speed of building just isn't a huge problem - though we are looking at adding a chunky desktop machine here as well, which will nominally be a gaming machine, but when it's not doing that it'll also double as a build node. However, yes, Chris just got a new laptop (when the dell xps 12 we have had for many years suddenly developed that screen delamination issue that they all eventually end up with), and it's amazing what kind of power fits into the Lenovo C340. It very nearly does what i need, and who knows, they might make another version which scales up far enough for what i need. We shall see what happens with that :)

29 November 2020 at 11:01  
Blogger Pointedstick said...

I feel ya, I'm a snob for keyboard feel too. The situation seems to be pretty decent these days though. In addition to ThinkPads, most higher-end laptops have what I would call very good keyboards these days. Dell XPS and HP's Spectre and even Envy keyboards feel quite nice to me, and even Lenovo's consumer-grade keyboards are what I would consider good. Asus's offerings feel nice to me as well--at least, the ones I've been able to touch in the last few years.

What's rarer is for laptops to ship with a halfway decent touchpad. Thankfully that situation is improving as well, slowly...

29 November 2020 at 15:16  

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