Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Laptop Envy

Lately I was at a symposium attended by mostly artists. As is usual in that kind of a surrounding I bumped into lots of people toting nice shiny Apple laptops. I couldn't help looking on a little enviously. This made me think about differences between computer platforms for the first time in years.

Now in reality I would not buy an Apple. The reasons are mostly practical and come down to tools. Much of the software I use works only on a Win32 platform. There's lots of quirky little sound generators, effects, sequencers, and assorted doodads that have no equivalents on the Mac. They help make the audio work I produce distinctive.

So hold on, I guess it's not a matter of practicality after all, it's a matter of philosophy. The Mac is designed around the idea that there is only one good way to do things. Mac designers say "We will make it simple for you and then you can just forget about work and have fun." They know best. That's why in most application categories there are only one or two apps on the Mac that everyone uses. On Windows there'd be about six. Or sometimes sixty.

(This is changing all the time, but it's the "classic" scenario I suppose. Also, I am aware that there are some cool audio apps on the Mac that are not available on Windows and that this doesn't even get into LINUX. To top it all, I'd really like to talk about open source apps, but that is another article as well. For now I think the basic point is still valid.)

Now that's just not the way I think at all. I don't want things to be simple, I want them to be complex. And I don't want everything to be fun either -- I like work! This is not to say that I want apps with butt-ugly impossible-to-figure-out interfaces, but I don't want them all exactly the same either. One interface does not suit all applications, and one metaphor does not suit every domain.

Not only that but I want lots of choice. Because often the market-leading app is not the one I like. Sometimes it got to be market-leading by being in the niche first, or being flashiest, or because advertisers lied about features, or because there was some cool Superbowl ad which I never saw but heard repeated as a meme for about three months as I looked about curiously, into the trees and behind the garbage bins, wondering How do I work this? and Where is that large automobile?

Er, so where was I? Yeah, PowerBooks look cool but I want a cool-looking Windows computer instead. I am not sure why only Apple can hire designers that know anything, but apparently it's true. Just like I don't want all my software looking the same I don't want all my hardware looking the same either.

But unfortunately, and incomprehensibly, it does.

It's for practical reasons and reasons of looks that I own a Shuttle. That's a small form-factor (SFF) computer about as big as a toaster. Or at least the kind of toaster that families in the suburbs have, which is to say, a pretty frickin' big toaster.

And no, to answer your next question, the Shuttle does not make toast, though some parts of it get hot enough that they could likely be adapted to that function. There's a mod for you gamer boys and girls!

I bought the motherboard and case from a manufacturer somewhere in the wilderness of the Toronto megalopolis almost exactly two years ago. I picked a video card, a gig of RAM, a hard drive, added a second drive from my then-current system, put in a DVD burner and bingo: a compact computer.

To accompany it is a 17" LCD monitor, the best I have ever seen, from Samsung. To be specific it's a SyncMaster 172B and it is sweet. (It's also defunct. These guys come up with new models like new models wear clothes.)

Not only does the LCD look wonderful, but it has built-in speakers (crap, of course, but ok for testing), a headphone output, and the screen can fold flat against its base. This means it goes into a nice flat-pack box and is easy to transport. Because you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack, and you may find yourself in another part of the world, and you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife, and you may ask yourself, "well, how did I get here?"

Er, sorry, I keep channelling David Byrne.

Added to the setup is a flexible keyboard that can fold inside the Shuttle case, an external modem (because for some odd reason the Shuttle does not have one built in), and a touchpad. So, two boxes and I have my entire computer setup including my audio card which I won't describe right now (another article). That was my carry-on luggage from Toronto to Shannon airport when I moved countries.

Now that is portable but not super-portable. So if I find myself in another part of the world, and if I find myself... Er, no, what I mean is that now that I'm starting to DJ and do location sound work I want something smaller still. And that brings us back to the beginning of this increasingly long article and the subject of laptop envy.

And also it's a place to tie in a comparison I recently posted on KvR. Someone mentioned how Apple laptops are way more expensive that PC laptops. I doubted this enough to do some research. I looked up two laptop configurations in pound sterling, since it's hard to get good info in euro that is valid across countries. These numbers will seem high because prices are insane in the UK. But they are all relatively insane to the same extent, if you get me.

Here's a PowerBook configuration, direct from the Apple store. I'm sure I could trim some cost by buying elsewhere but this is in the ballpark.

PowerBook G4
PowerPC G4 1.5GHz
15.2" display at 1280x854
512MB RAM
80 GB Ultra ATA/100
8x DVD writer
ATI Mobility Radeon 9700 with 64MB
firewire 800 / modem / 2xUSB / gig ethernet
802.11g / Bluetooth (3-Mbps version 2.0)
PCMCIA
backlit keyboard
Mac OS X Tiger
2.5kg


Note very carefully that many PowerBooks do not have a PCMCIA slot, aka PC-Card. This one does. It's particularly good in the area of connectivity features though it has only 2 USB ports. The DVD writer is fast. I won't talk about battery life since it's all so hard to figure out how exaggerated the manufacturer's claims are.

And here's a cool Intel-based laptop with decent styling, though not as neat as the PowerBook. I don't think Samsung sell this stuff in North America, which means you guys over the sea are missing out.

Samsung P40 HZM 750
Pentium M 1.86 GHz
15" display at 1400x1050
512 MB RAM
80 GB UDMA 5400 rpm
4x DVD writer
ATI Radeon X600 with 128MB
firewire / modem / 4xUSB / ethernet
802.11b/g / Bluetooth
PCMCIA
fingerprint reader / card reader
Windows XP Pro
2.7 kg


I'm not sure who thought a fingerprint reader was a cool idea, but at least it's something different. The higher resolution screen is nice and the video card has more memory.

So what do they cost?

It may surprise some that the price in pound sterling came to 1480 versus 1410. That's pretty much a dead heat to me, though the Mac comes with a lot more usable apps out of the box. How you read the other feature differences is up to you.

And what about the relative performance? Some claim that the G4 is half the speed of the particular Pentium chip on display, but I haven't seen anything to convince. Please let me know in the comments if there is some good data out there.

I think the wisest answer to the question of performance is: who knows. You'd have to get some app you care about running some process that's meaningful to you. Do this on both computers and see how they work. Raw processing speed is meaningless in this day and age. There are just too many other hardware factors like bus architecture, bandwidth, memory speed and size, graphics utilisation, and so on.

Not to mention that the most important factor is the actual experience of working in front of a computer. And that is hard to quantify.

But I think it's reasonable to say that any statement about grossly overpriced Apple computers seems more a matter of belief than fact.

Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.

Oh yeah, the lyrics are from "Once In A Lifetime" by Talking Heads, but you knew that already.

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