About my next computer: insert words in mouth, commence chewing

Since I wrote about how I have been moving to a desktop setup, I have been telling everyone that my next computer would be a Mac Mini. The specs looked good, and it would force me to walk away from my computer instead of lugging my computer around with me. Despite being on the computer more than half the time, I pretend to appreciate reality as well and want to step away from computers as much as possible*.

As of Monday morning, however, I feel as though I can no longer do that. That morning, all of the engineers were following live blogs of the WWDC keynote as they announced the new hardware. We moved on as soon as they moved onto software updates, but we were anxious to hear all about the new hardware. Apple announced a new Macbook Pro, a hybrid between the beefiness of the old Macbook Pro and the slim shape and the Macbook Air. The specs are great for a laptop, the retina display is by all accounts amazing, and it is on its way towards manilla envelope size. I admittedly don’t follow non-Apple hardware much, but I haven’t seen anything with the industrial design of this computer, and the specs are almost a kicker.

The skinny kids who didn’t get picked to play on either team during recess, however, were the Apple desktops, including the Mini. A few months ago, I was certain that the specs on it would last me long enough, but there’s truly no comparison with what the new MBP has. The difference in the specs is significant enough to my gaming experience that I think I need to go back on my commitment and get a portable computer.

It ruins my attempt to prove I’m “better” than a computer, but it is clearly the right choice. Except for price, it has the Mini beat in every respect. Thinking back to when I first got my current MBP, it had the slickest case design and the best specs. And it lasted me 5 years. I would give the same opinion of the new MBP and would certainly hope that it would also last 5 years.

The price will be what it is, but the surprising criticism of the new MBP is that is, in some sense, too¬†well engineered. Kyle Wiens, co-founder of the popular ifixit.com that shows you how to do repairs on your own hardware, describes it as the “least repairable laptop” in this opinion on Wired. Read for yourself for some contrarianism against the hype, but his main point is that Apple sacrificed repairability and upgradeability in literally gluing together the most compact internals ever, and by buying it, we’re supporting a future of light, thin computers with planned obsolescence as the battery slowly drains itself. If you don’t like that, the older MBP design is the way to go.

Most of the comments seem to dismiss this opinion, but I have taken it surprisingly seriously over the past few hours. On the one hand, I haven’t upgraded my MBP. If it were truly modular, I would have, but the graphics card alone is too specialized for me to want to swap parts. And of course, the new MBP is very thin and light. On the other hand, my hacker instincts tell me that I want the flexibility, and it actually has been useful. The battery in my model happened to be defective, and it was a simple exchange at the Genius Bar to get it fixed. And earlier this year when I thought my computer was dying, it was pretty easy to open it up and clean out the fan. Most of the wins of the new design don’t benefit my outlook, either. I have since purchased a 23″ external display that makes the retina display unimportant, and I think my desk can withstand the difference of a pound as my computer hopefully spends most of its time immobile.

At the moment, though, I’m having a hard time resisting the specs of the new MBP. The older design is cheaper, but it might need a few additions to bring it on par with the new specs. As Julie helpfully pointed out as she just saw me on the Apple Store, “[I] don’t need to decide by the end of the blog post.” And in truth, I actually really enjoy thinking about what hardware to buy. After waiting months for the newest revisions, I’m still uncertain.

At this rate, I might as well just savor the prospect of a new computer as long as possible and wait for a new Mac Mini.

*At some point recently, I sarcastically said something like, “Well, the physical world is just a substrate for the virtual world we actually live in.” That might be the scariest, most honest thing I have ever said.

My Desktop Everywhere

Back in my high school days, I wondered why computing wasn’t more portable than it was. Although laptops were popular, they still weren’t that convenient. I myself had a 64MB flash drive that I carried in my backpack that I used to sneak prohibited files onto school computers. It got most of the work done, but it wouldn’t be too much worse to carry around an entire hard drive with me if it could maintain the total state of computer between home and school. This clearly seemed like the dream setup to have: carry around, say, a 1 lbs device that could be plugged into any terminal and give you the exact same setup on any hardware.

In between then and now, I found a pretty good substitute in my Macbook Pro. Coming in at 5.4 pounds, I could carry my life around with me between my dorm room, home, class, library, and wherever else I needed it. It was pretty ideal, and for awhile, I believed that the best way to live was with a single machine. No hassle with trying to sync multiple devices or reconfigure anything: just pick it up and go. My dad insisted that I have a laptop for when I went off to college, and I still agree that this was the easiest way to do things.

Having finished my 4 undergraduate years, though, I’m thinking that this is no longer such a good setup. First, it actually isn’t as wonderfully portable as it could be. When I travel, I have to switch out to use my laptop backpack, and it and peripherals dominate what i can carry. Second, it isn’t very comfortable to use. My current setup has it linked up to an external keyboard and mouse with the actual laptop perched on a board game so that the screen is closer to a comfortable viewing angle. Even better would be a larger external display, but at that point, I’m not using any of the built-in input or output functionality of the laptop.

Third, I don’t actually need to be that portable nowadays. Most of my work is done at desks, and I don’t need a laptop to work at a desk. I don’t go home that often, and the only other time I can think of that I really need a laptop is when I’m working with someone else on, say, a group project. Continuing on that note, my fourth reason is that I probably shouldn’t be carrying my laptop around with me anyways. For the first 2 years of college, I almost never moved my computer from my desk. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say it was less than once a month. It was fine because I wasn’t distracted while I was in class. Beginning my junior year, I started lugging it around, thinking that I would be able to do some work at various times. Inevitably, though, I would find another good distraction and never get around to what I meant to do. And fifth and finally, the specs are very good for the price.

Even though the laptop doesn’t seem to fit my needs as well anymore, it’s okay because my original dream has been accomplished, though perhaps in a form I wasn’t expecting: the cloud. It’s a buzzword, but simply, that complete setup on any hardware exists and is even lighter than I thought it would be. Now, I can sit down at a computer, pull up a few online services, and have access to all of my music, documents, applications, files, and everything else I typically use on a computer. And thanks to Google Chrome syncing, my effective “desktop” is the same everywhere as my bookmarks, extensions, and other browser configuration follow me around.

I’ll get to describing the suite of services I use to do that in another post, but the conclusion that I’ve drawn from this is that I don’t need to carry around a physical object with me to make my computer use portable: I just need the internet, and other than airlines and fancy hotels (the cheap ones always offer free wifi; go figure), wifi is pretty much everywhere I would sit down to use my computer.

Still, there are situations where I would like to carry around a device with me, such as plane rides or trips home, and I’m thinking about getting myself a tablet (specifically, an iPad) to cover my bases there. In many ways, it doesn’t have good features that a PC would have, but I don’t think it needs it. My conception is that using a tablet is a fundamentally different method of computing, and I think I’m willing to take the plunge and see if it works when I get one.

In the meantime, I have stopped carrying my computer back and forth to work, instead leaving it at home as my “desktop” here and using another box at work. I couldn’t quite get away from the convenience of UNIX for development and am learning how to use Ubuntu on it, but in spite of a different operating system, I’m using it in almost the exact same way as my MacBook Pro sitting at home. As for portability, I’m carrying my iPod Touch around with me at all times now after basically leaving it untouched for the past 3 years. It’s limited, but it’s unnoticeable to carry and comes in handy in a few spots.

My transformation isn’t complete, but I’m excited to see how I adapt to this new setup over the next few months while I wait for another round of better hardware to come out. It may not be instantiated exactly as I imagined, but it looks like technology has snaked past the road bump of laptops and passed my dream of portability.

Making Life Easy

Last week, I ordered a MacBook Pro from the Stanford Bookstore. With educational discounts, I got a monster of a notebook and an iPod nano (which I’ve yet to play with). Just because I feel like boasting, here’s a rundown of the specs:

Intel Core 2 Duo Processor T7500 (2.2 Ghz)
2 GB DDR2 RAM @ 667Mhz
GeForce 8600M GT Graphic Card w/ 128 MB RAM
120 GB hard drive @ 5400 RPM (Okay, not particularly proud of this)
8X DVD-RW/CD-RW drive
Built-in microphone & webcam
Built-in bluetooth

I think the coolest difference yet is that they replaced some software called “Windows XP/Vista” with “Mac OS X.”
Not that I dislike Windows. I’ve used it on all of my home computers before, and while processes might be convoluted, I’ve managed to do what I need with it.
Like many other people, however, Windows is what I’ve always had, and I’ve gotten used to it. Inured to it. Allegory of the Cave, maybe.
Perhaps I don’t have the mind for using Windows or Linux. While I consider myself technically knowledgable, I’m not the type who feels the need to hack from the command line, or buckle down and go through complicated options in the cases when I need the extra capabilities or power. And so, I have a Mac, and it’s great.

Of course, you get the pictures of me unpacking and opening:
You can see my sister’s HP on the right. Kind of like Godzilla in a cage next to a teddy bear.

I think that’s my mom’s leg in the bottom right.
And it’s alive!

There’s definitely a learning curve to this. Certainly not as steep as switching from a Mac OS to Windows, but definitely some stuff to get used to. Fortunately, there seems to be help and help files for just about everything, so it’s not too difficult to get it to work.
The ads say that these things work right out of the box, which is pretty much true. First time running was much better and faster than setting up Windows, and I instantly had internet connection and everything I needed for basic functionality.
I guess the first thing that I noticed is that it looks really nice. The screen I got is flawless, and with LED backlight, everything looks crisp, vibrant. Even if not familiar, the OS is designed intuitively, and I didn’t have a problem figuring out how to do things.
I probably should’ve written this sooner, since I’m at a loss of what to say now, but overall, it is good.