My Laptop History
In 1998 I bought my first laptop, it was a Thinkpad 385XD, it had a PentiumMMX 233MHz CPU, 96M of RAM, and an 800*600 display. This was less RAM than I could have afforded in a desktop system and the 800*600 display didn’t compare well to the 1280*1024 resolution 17 inch Trinitron monitor I had been using. Having only 1/3 the pixels is a significant loss and a 12.1 inch TFT display of that era compared very poorly with a good Trinitron monitor.
In spite of this I found it a much better system to use because it was ALWAYS with me, I used it for many things that were probably better suited to a PDA (there probably aren’t many people who have carried a 7.1 pound (3.2Kg) laptop to as many places as I did). But some of my best coding was done on public transport.
But I didn’t buy my first laptop for that purpose, I bought it because I was moving to another country and there just wasn’t any other option for having a computer.
In late 1999 I bought my second laptop, it was a Thinkpad 600E . It had twice the CPU speed, twice the RAM, and a 1024*768 display that displayed color a lot better. Since then I had another three Thinkpads, a T21, a T43, and now a T61. One of the ways I measure a display is the number of 80*25 terminal windows that I can display at one time, my first Thinkpad could display four windows with a significant amount of overlap. My second could display four with little overlap, my third (with 1280*1024 resolution) could display four clearly and another two with overlap, and my current Thinkpad does 1680*1050 and can display four windows clearly and another five without excessive overlap.
For most of the last 13 years my Thinkpads weren’t that far behind what I could afford to get as a desktop system, until now.
A Smart Phone as the Primary Computing Device
For the past 6 months the Linux system I’ve used most frequently is my Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 Android phone . Most of my computer use is on my laptop, but the many short periods of time using my phone add up. This has forced some changes to the way I work. I now use IMAP instead of POP for receiving mail so I can use my phone and my laptop with the same mail spool. This is a significant benefit for my email productivity, instead of having 100 new mailing list messages waiting for me when I get home I can read them on my phone and then have maybe 1 message that can’t be addressed without access to something better than a phone. My backlog of 10,000 unread mailing list messages lasted less than a month after getting an Android phone!
A few years ago I got an EeePC 701 that I use for emergency net access when a server goes down. But even a 920g EeePC is more weight than I want to carry, as I need to have a mobile phone anyway there is effectively no extra mass or space used to have a phone capable of running a ssh client. My EeePC doesn’t get much use nowadays.
A Cheap 27 inch Monitor from Dell
Dell Australia is currently selling a 27 inch monitor that does 2560*1440 (WQHD) for $899AU. Dell Australia offers a motor club discount which pretty much everyone in Australia can get as almost everyone is either a member of such a club or knows a member well enough to use their membership number for the discount. This discount reduces the price to $764.15. The availability of such a great cheap monitor has caused me to change my working habits. It doesn’t make sense to have a reasonably powerful laptop used in one location for almost all the time when a desktop system with a much better monitor can be used.
Now that my 27 inch monitor has arrived I have to figure out a way of making things work. I still need to work from a laptop on occasion but my main computer use is going to be a smart-phone and a desktop system.
Email is already sorted out, I already have three IMAP client systems (netbook, laptop, and phone), adding a desktop system as a fourth isn’t going to change anything.
The next issue is software development. In the past I haven’t used version control systems that much for my hobby work, I have just released a new version every time I had some significant changes. Obviously to support development on two or three systems I need to use a VCS rigorously. I’m currently considering Subversion and Git. Subversion is really easy to use (for me), but it seems to be losing popularity. Git is really popular so if I use it for my own projects then I could allow anonymous access for anyone who’s interested – maybe that will encourage more people to contribute.
One thing I haven’t even investigated yet is how to manage my web browsing work-flow in a distributed manner. My pattern when using a laptop is to have many windows and tabs open at the same time for issues that I am researching and to only close them days or weeks later when I have finished with the issue. For example if I’m buying some new computer gear I will typically open a web browser window with multiple tabs related to the equipment (hardware, software, prices, etc) and keep them all open until I have received it and got it working. Chromium, Mozilla, and presumably other modern web browsers have a facility to reopen windows after a crash. It would be ideal for me if there was some sort of similar facility that allowed me to open the windows that are open on another system – and to push window open commands to another system. For example when doing web browsing on my phone I would like to be able to push the URLs of pages that can’t be viewed on a phone to my desktop system and have them open waiting for me when I get home.
It would be nice if web browsing could be conceptually similar to a remote desktop service in terms of what the user sees.
Finally in my home directory there are lots of random files. Probably about half of them could be deleted if I was more organised (disk space is cheap and most of the files are small). For the rest it would be good if they could be accessed from other locations. I have read about people putting the majority of their home directory under version control, but I’m not sure that would work well for me.
It would be good if I could do something similar with editor sessions, if I had a file open in vi on my desktop before I left home it would be good if I could get a session on my laptop to open the “same” file (well the same named file checked out of the VCS).
Configuring the Desktop System
One of the disadvantages of a laptop is that RAID usually isn’t viable. With a desktop system software RAID-1 is easy to configure but it results in two disks making heat and noise. For my new desktop system I’m thinking of using a DRBD device for /home to store the data locally as well as almost instantly copying it to RAID-1 storage on the server. The main advantage of DRBD over NFS, NBD, and iSCSI is that I can keep working if the server becomes unavailable (EG use the desktop system to ask Google how to fix a server fault). Also with DRBD it’s a configuration option to allow synchronous writes to return after the data is written locally which is handy if the server is congested.
Another option that I’m considering is a diskless system using NBD or iSCSI for all storage. This will prevent using swap (you can’t swap to a network device to avoid deadlocks) but that won’t necessarily be a problem given the decrease in RAM prices as I can just buy enough RAM to not need swap.
Eventually I want to be able to use a tablet for almost everything including software development. While a tablet display isn’t going to be great for coding I’m sure that I can make use of enough otherwise wasted time to justify the expense. I will probably need a tablet that acts like a regular Linux computer – not an Android tablet.