Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.
– Neils Bohr
The way I use computing devices is currently something of a mess. I regularly work in two different locations and have a desktop machine at each place, plus a high-powered desktop and a lower-powered media PC at home, which all run Windows. I have a MacBook Pro which runs OS X (and, occasionally, Windows through Parallels), plus an iPhone, and I sometimes use my Wife’s iPad (both iOS, of course) and will probably get one myself at some point (or maybe a Kindle, not sure). Plus, there are a couple of desktop machines which I use fairly regularly in different labs for running experiments (Windows). All told then, there are roughly eight or nine different computing devices which I regularly use, with three or four different operating systems. Managing files and data so that what I need is accessible on any particular device at any point in time is a massive hassle. What I’ve been doing for the last two years is an ad-hoc mixture of cloud-based solutions (GMail, Google Docs, Evernote, Mendeley) and carrying around a 500Gb USB hard-drive which contains all my documents and experimental data. Wherever I am, I plug in my hard drive and have everything I need, and I don’t store anything locally on any of the machines.
This solution kind-of works, but is unsatisfactory in a number of ways. Firstly, it’s insecure – I’m reasonably careful about doing regular backups, but I live in constant terror of my USB hard-drive being lost, or just breaking. Secondly, I still have to deal with different operating systems and environments – I tend to take my MacBook everywhere with me as there are some Unix applications I use for data analysis that don’t work well on my (desktop) Windows machines. This pretty much defeats the purpose of having all my data on the (much more portable) USB hard drive. Thirdly, getting data on and off the iOS devices is a mega-hassle because of Apple’s teeth-grindingly-awful sync-everything-through-iTunes system.
A while ago I did a post on how to choose a computer for studying but shied away from making any specific recommendations. This is partly because reviews of specific machines would date pretty quickly, and I didn’t really want to make this site into a load of hardware reviews.* However I recently got my hands on one of these little beauties:
It’s a Hewlett Packard Pavilion DM1-3200SA laptop. It’s basically like a netbook-on-steroids – small enough to carry around really easily, but with enough power under the hood to get the job done. The screen is 11.6 inches – this might be a little small for a lot of people, but personally I find the 12-13″ range to be the sweet-spot in terms of the compromise between portability and usefulness; it’s also only 1.6kg in weight. It’s got an AMD 1.6Ghz dual-core processor and 3GB of RAM (up to 1.4Gb of which can be allocated to video RAM) so it can handle pretty much anything you want with grace and ease. The 320Gb hard drive and 1366×768 screen are pretty standard features, but not bad at all. HP reckons you can get up to 9.5 hours from the battery, but 7-8 would probably be more realistic – still excellent though. The keyboard is near-as-dammit full-size, and pretty comfortable for typing. My only complaint about using it was the trackpad was a little small (understandably, it’s a small computer after all) and the multi-touch implementation (two-finger scrolling, etc.) was a bit unresponsive. It’s possible this will be fixed in a future driver update though, and to be fair I’m comparing it to the multi-touch trackpad on my MacBook Pro which is best-in-class. Actually, having any kind of multi-touch trackpad on a laptop at this price point is pretty impressive.
Which brings me to arguably its best feature – the price. It’s available now from Play.com and a few other places for £319 – an absolute honest-to-goodness, stone-cold bloody bargain! Particularly when you consider there’s a Sony model also available at the moment which has an almost identical specification, but is more than twice the price. So, for my money, I reckon this laptop might be the perfect student computer – light and with enough battery life to make lugging it to a whole day of lectures possible, but powerful enough to handle chewing through editing videos of drunken nights out if necessary.
Here’s the full spec sheet on the HP site, and here’s a more in-depth review from the gadget gurus at Engadget (they gave it 8 out of 10). One last thing – confusingly, there’s an older HP model also called the DM1 with a silver keyboard – don’t get that one, the spec isn’t quite as good – make sure you get one with the black keyboard! Also, if you do get one, the first thing you should do is spend a couple of hours uninstalling all the crapware that HP puts on it as standard – Media players/editors, and Norton trials etc. Ugh – wish manufacturers would stop doing that.
Happy laptopping! TTFN
*Although if any manufacturer wants to send me any of their new sexy gear to review, that would make me very happy. No? Oh well… worth a try.
These days most university departments provide at least some basic computing facilities for their students, but most students also want to have their own computer for all-night last-minute essay-writing sessions and/or illegally downloading episodes of ‘The Only Way is Essex’ or ‘Jersey Shore’ (depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on) outside their university’s firewall. Not that I would ever condone or seek to promote such activity, oh no. Anyway, computers are cheap nowadays, but they still represent a major investment for most students, so here is my advice on the matter. All opinions are mine alone, your mileage may vary etc. etc. Feel free to flame me in the comments if you feel I’ve unjustifiably dissed your favourite OS, or whatever.
The initial decision you need to make is which operating system takes your fancy most – and there are really only two options – Macintosh OS X or Microsoft Windows.* A lot of people get very excited by the Windows vs. Mac issue and Mac users in particular seem to have a genuine and somewhat creepy devotion to their chosen OS. My take though, is that the latest version of both (Windows 7 and OS X 10.6) are excellent, and either one will do everything you could possibly want. I regularly use both and have very little issue with switching between the two pretty much seamlessly. Nowadays, you can even install Windows natively on Mac hardware, so you could potentially buy a MacBook and use it purely as a Windows machine. If you were some kind of pervert. Read the rest of this entry