Refighting the OS wars - Livre d'Or

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Refighting the OS wars
Tuesday, 21 March 2006 at 10:23 am

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So compilerbitch has convinced me that my life would be better if I finally caved and got a laptop. The question is what to get. If you have any views on the subject, please comment with them; I reckon I can get better information from the collective wisdom of my flist than from someone who's trying to sell me stuff.

My requirements: reliable; not unreasonably expensive; able to run a wide range of software; not too difficult to use; wireless card and preferably normal modem as well; ability to transfer data between machines easily; compatible with the rest of the world (especially work-wise, but in general too); CD rewriter and DVD player would be nice; ability to play games, mostly of the retro kind. I don't really care about the latest ultra-fast processor, or flashy high-res graphics, or fantastically lightweight.

I need to choose an OS, and a make of processor etc, and whether I should look for something second hand or buy new, and once I've made the decision, where is a good place to get it. And I realize I'm basically inviting a huge fight here, but I think I might find it informative, so feel free.

Basic windows machine
+ Cheap
+ Usable straight out of the box
+ I already have software such as MS Office, and would normally get an OS bundled with the machine
+ Familiarity with the Windows way of doing stuff
+ Straightforward compatibility with any peripherals
+ Can continue using all the useful apps I rely on
+ Will play all the games I want
- This kind of laziness is exactly what makes Microsoft so successful despite making crap products!

+ Pretty!
+ I think the lab at the Karolinska are basically Mac people
+ Robust and reliable (is this true, or a false impression I've picked up?)
+ Good security
+ Usable straight out of the box
+ User friendly even if it's different from what I'm used to
- Expensive
- Not many games available
- May have hassle with any peripherals and add-ons
- Would probably have to buy Office for Mac, making it even more expensive
- Most of the software I rely on beyond the basic Office suite would probably not be available
- Possible annoying incompatibilities with the PC-using world

Linux machine
+ Reliable, secure, non-buggy
+ Morally good
+ In theory, OS and software should be free
+ I would feel good about myself if I learnt to use Linux
+ In theory, vastly more options available to configure machine to suit my requirements exactly and do whatever I want to do
- Steep learning curve
- Guaranteed hassle for pretty much anything I'd want to do
- Software is available but I don't know where to find it
- Hard to find a machine that doesn't have a bundled OS
- Incompatibility with the PC-using world, probable incompatibility with my current Windows desktop too eg inability to read my old proprietary format files
- For practical purposes, no gaming.

Dual partition machine
+ In theory, most of the advantages of both Windows and Linux
- Even more difficult to set up than a pure Linux arrangement
- More to go wrong

Whereaboooots: Shelford, Cambridge, UK
Moooood: hopefulhopeful
Tuuuuune: Bowling for Soup: Girl all the bad guys want
Discussion: 22 contributions | Contribute something

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lithiana: lying
Date:March 21st, 2006 10:57 am (UTC)
10 minutes after journal entry, 10:57 am (lithiana's time)
no opinion on OS, but for hardware i recommend IBM Lenovo ThinkPads. they fit all your requirements (extremely well built, built-in modem/gigabit ethernet/.11(a/b/g) wireless, CD/DVD(-R,-RW,+RW,-RAM) burner).

on the downside, they're not particularly cheap, but if you don't need something super-fast, the prices shouldn't be too bad.

i've had a T43p for a few weeks now, and i have no complaints at all. (it also runs Linux well; all the built-in hardware is supported, even the fingerprint reader.)
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Date:March 21st, 2006 04:27 pm (UTC)
5 hours after journal entry
I wholeheartedly agree that ThinkPads (especially the T and X series) are the way to go. I've had my T42 for 1.5 years now and I *love* it. Their next-business-day-anywhere-in-the-world support is nice, too. Oh and I run Linux on it. If you want to run Linux, I'd recommend Ubunutu as it's incredibly easy to set up and use. So, not a steep learning curve at all, in fact.

If you're thinking of getting a Mac, read this. (Though bear in mind that mine had the infamous G3 logicboard failure problems, so you're likely to not have anything this bad. That said, sending the machine away for 3 weeks if it breaks is non-ideal to me.)
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rho: default
Date:March 21st, 2006 11:04 am (UTC)
17 minutes after journal entry, 11:04 am (rho's time)
I have a Mac laptop which I got a few years ago, despite being primarily a PC user. I'd heard lots of good things about Mac OS and wanted to try it myself, and figured it had pretty much the same plus points as what you said. The thing I found is that while it is generally good and reliable and user-friendly, there were still a whole lot of little niggles that I had/have with it, and because I was less familiar with Mac OS it was much harder for me to try to fix them or work around them. That said, I know other PC users who have taken to Macs a whole lot better.

Linux these days is a lot easier to set up than it used to be, even in a dual-boot system. In fact, last time I installed a linux (ubuntu) it was a lot simpler and went more smoothly than last time I installe dwindows (XP). Partitioning is definitely something of a black art, but is a whole lot easier if you do it on a new system, which doens't have a clogged up hard drive with lots of important data to contend with. Depending on whether you buy the machine from a large chain or a small independant, you may also be able to get both OSes installed for you when you get the machine, if you're lucky. It's worth asking about at any rate, I suspect. I also believe, but am not certain, that Open Office can handle most of the file formats that MS Office will spit out, which is a plus.

If it were me, I'd go with the dual-boot windows/linux system, and think of using it to try to familiarise yourself with linux (again, less hard these days than it used to be), while also knowing that you have the familiarity of windows there as a back-up if you need it. That's just me though.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous) (3/21/06 11:14 am)
lethargic_man: reflect
Date:March 21st, 2006 11:37 am (UTC)
50 minutes after journal entry, 11:37 am (lethargic_man's time)
Linux would be fine if you're mostly writing papers with LaTeX, coding or using linux-specific software for some reason. If you need to edit Word documents or Excel spreadsheets as a matter of course as part of your daily grind, it's not really an option.

That's not strictly true; Open Office can handle Word and Excel documents, though the probably somewhat out of date version I have (it came with Red Hat Fedora Core 2) (a) sometimes lays things out differently, (b) annoyingly has a different menu structure from Word, (c) supports bits of word functionality that are impossible to enter through the native interface (e.g. non-Latin-1 UTF-8 characters).

Personally, I'd go for Windows or Mac OS, with the option of a dual boot with Linux if you want to learn Linux at some point in the future (though I too am not entirely sure why you'd want to).

As regards partitioning, Red Hat Linux instalation for one comes with a very good partitioning tool; if you were to install Linux first (though possibly on the second partition) and then install Windows on the partition that's already been laid down for it, that might make the process relatively painless.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous) (3/21/06 11:43 am)
lethargic_man: reflect
Date:March 21st, 2006 11:57 am (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry, 11:57 am (lethargic_man's time)
My experience has been that its compatibility with Word is far from seamless, and I'm a bit unconvinced by lack of stability in some versions that I've tried. I am (always) paranoid about losing documents, or losing the ability to get at older documents. For all its sins, the for-real Word isn't too bad at this,

That's a good point.

although there is little to beat LaTeX source with diagrams embedded in EPS files for bomb proof archival.

Yeah, for real futureproofing (as in decades down the line), you want as close to plaintext as possible. When in 2035 I dig out something you wrote in the twentieth century, I want to be able to read it, and not be stuck unable to read anything in a format older than Word 2019.

I've gone to quite a bit of length to make even the markup my LaTeX files as minimal as possible (for instance, before UTF-8 support, writing macros to allow accented characters to be represented as such, rather than through macros such as \'{a}.)

Looking further back, the documents I wrote in Wordwise Plus on the BBC Micro in the 1980s are (barring high-bit-set characters) still readable today, as they are in plaintext plus minimal markup; the ones I wrote in Impression, which stored files in a binary format, are unreadable. And until I got Star Office for my home machine, anything I had in Word format, which uses uses binary, was unreadable without rebooting my laptop into Windows (I had koffice, but it was crap and kept hanging)—and even then, I had to hope there'd be nothing that the Word 95 on my laptop couldn't deal with.

Which is, of course, another feature of Micros~1 products: continual new features and lack of forwards compatibility to force you to keep upgrading.
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fluffymark: default
Date:March 21st, 2006 11:57 am (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry, 11:57 am (fluffymark's time)
I'm using ther latest version of OpenOffice and it still lays things out differently from Word. I use it all the time anyway, as I'm usually not at all bothered about layout and as long as I can edit the content, I'm happy.

To set up dual boot, is best to first partition the disk, then install Windows first, then linux last. Most linux installers will then detect the Windows partition and set up the bootloader to dual-boot just like that. If instead you install Windows last it will overwrite the linux bootloader, and it's a pain to get it back again.
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lethargic_man: default
Date:March 21st, 2006 12:10 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry, 12:10 pm (lethargic_man's time)
Okay, evidently my memory is out of date. (I don't set up new machines frequently.)
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coalescent: default
Date:March 21st, 2006 11:16 am (UTC)
30 minutes after journal entry, 11:16 am (coalescent's time)
I got an iBook with OSX a year ago. I'm never using anything else ever again. On the other hand, some of your negatives don't apply to me - I don't need Office, and I don't use it to play games. I will say that on the occasions when I've had to transfer documents from Mac to PC or vice versa I haven't had any compatibility issues.
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Date:March 21st, 2006 11:22 am (UTC)
35 minutes after journal entry
I'd be inclined to recommend you stick with Windows... Although a dual-boot setup isn't too difficult, honestly. Especially if you use Ubuntu as your Linux variant - it's actually easier to install than Windows XP Pro, based on my recent installation of both.

re: hardware - I have an HP laptop (um, NX1030, I think?) with which I am very happy. My mother is also quite happy with her Acer.

The one thing I would say is that it's really worth going for something with lots of RAM, because it's hard to upgrade later, and you will probably find yourself wanting it. Oh, and lots of USB slots is *really* useful - I only have two (one of which is used by the mouse pretty much all the time), and sometimes find myself shuffling devices, which is annoying. If you're likely to be using cameras, memory sticks, external hard drives and the like, that'd be good.

Inbuilt wireless is pretty much standard these days, I think, but just make sure.
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emmavescence: geeky
Date:March 21st, 2006 07:50 pm (UTC)
9 hours after journal entry
USB hubs are relatively cheap and very handy! My laptop only came with two ports, but it's a thin and light model. I have more than two USB devices, so I have a nifty little Belkin USB hub.
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Date:March 21st, 2006 12:28 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry
I've seen some very nice IBM Thinkpad machines. I don't think shevek will consider anything else these days; they have the advantage that step-by-step instructions for replacing hardware parts are available online. I've never purchased a laptop myself, only been given them, and I don't know a lot about the hardware.

I ran Ubuntu on purr before it died (of old age or electrical failure or something, it would have happened regardless of OS) and found it mostly very easy to use - the learning curve is not as steep as one might think, although it's difficult for me to gauge that because I have used a variety of different computers my entire life and I tend to just press all the buttons until I've found what I wanted. It coped with the peripherals I threw at it with no problems, found the ethernet connection automagically, and was mostly a pleasure to use. Ubuntu make a thing called a Live CD, too, which you can put into the machine to 'try' using it before committing to a full install. This is something I consider Very Good. There are things like OpenOffice for Linux, which will let you read and write Word and Excel files and so on and is basically an Office lookalike; some of them are buggier than others but most are free or nearly-free, so if it takes a week or two to find one that works well for you, and you have the time to mess about with it, it's worth doing.
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draconid: default
Date:March 21st, 2006 12:39 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry, 12:39 pm (draconid's time)
Re Ubuntu - I have the normal disk and the live CD so if anyone wants copies I can send them out..
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draconid: default
Date:March 21st, 2006 12:37 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry, 12:37 pm (draconid's time)
Linux Software - if you get something like Ubuntu it's really easy to download software - you don't have to know where to get it from because it will do it for you. If you want something specialised then google is your friend. Plus, most decent software can be downloaded from Sourceforge. Gaming-wise you can play a lot through Cedega. Alternatively, get a Windows machine and dual-boot.. this way if you want to play games you can reboot and play in Windows (and since most games b0rk if you have something running in the background, doing this isn't really a hassle). Oh, yes, you mentioned dual partition.

Dual partition wise, Fedora is really easy to dual-boot. Ubuntu less so (I think it's easier to have to hdds). Once it's set up it's easy to use - it's just the initial bit that can be hard. Also, if you are buying a laptop, chances are it will have Windows on it - so you might as well try dual-booting.

If you go for Linux of any variety feel free to contact me - I can try to walk you through some stuff over the phone if you have problems.
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gnimmel: default
Date:March 21st, 2006 12:56 pm (UTC)
2 hours after journal entry, 12:56 pm (gnimmel's time)
How retro do you mean by games of the retro kind? There are plenty of simple games for linux (puzzles, tetris-alikes, civ-alikes etc.) and they're free as well; also plenty of emulators for other systems. Full-on 3D graphics are generally out but 'no games at all' is definitely not true of Linux.

FWIW, my laptop is set up as a dual-boot machine with Windows and Linux and that seems to work quite well; the biggest hassle is making sure anything I may choose to plug into it (and indeed all the components in it to start off with) is also Linux-compatible. I believe wireless in particular can be problematic.
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penmage: queen of narnia (rage_my_darling)
Date:March 21st, 2006 01:57 pm (UTC)
3 hours after journal entry, 08:57 am (penmage's time)
I don't know much about anything but Windows laptops, but we just purchased me a new laptop, and upon consultation with N's brother the computer expert, we got an IBM/Lenovo Thinkpad. Dell has excellent customer service (as long as you have warranty) but their products are really shoddily made. N and I both currently have Dell laptops, but we're sick of the way they break all the time. So, we're switching to IBM!
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hairyears: default
Date:March 21st, 2006 02:26 pm (UTC)
3 hours after journal entry, 02:26 pm (hairyears's time)

Cheap laptops with a guarantee are available at Morgan Computers on New Oxford Street.

Personally, I would bite the bullet and go for an Ubuntu or a Macintosh operating system: there's some work involved in maintaining compatibility with MS-Office documents but it's nothing compared with keeping up with all those Windows updates and security patches. You'l also find that, for older machines, the Linux device driver support is far better.

I have to work with MS-Office: it's my job. But there is no way that I would voluntarily choose to operate a Windows laptop without the resources of a corporate IT department behind me.

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Date:March 21st, 2006 02:54 pm (UTC)
4 hours after journal entry
I have a Mac (PowerBook G4) which is now about 3 years old and which I adore madly.

I did get a friend to give me his copy of Office, and also things like Photoship and Illustrator, so have never spent a dime on software; that probably helps. *g* (I just discovered NisusWriter, though, which is fully compatible with Word and which costs only $75 -- it can open Word files, Word can open its files, and so on. Plus it lets me write in Hebrew from right to left, which let me tell you was worth the seventy-five USD right there.)

Anyhow. Have never had compatibility issues with files made on a PC, for what that's worth. Oh, and my husband carries the same machine and travels roughly two weeks out of every four, mostly to far-away places (around the African continent, some central Asia, Turkey, so on) and the laptop seems to hold up quite well to that kind of lugging-around.
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lumiere: default
Date:March 21st, 2006 07:09 pm (UTC)
8 hours after journal entry, 11:09 am (lumiere's time)
I'm unclear from what you wrote as to what you want to do with this laptop.

able to run a wide range of software

Which software? Software that does what?

compatible with the rest of the world (especially work-wise, but in general too)

What's standard at your next place of work? Will they be providing you a laptop, and if so, will that suffice for your needs?

CD rewriter and DVD player would be nice

Some systems have a built-in optical drive; some have built-in bays that can take optical drives; some have external drives. Almost all laptops will have one or more of the above, in all CD/DVD+-ROM/R/RW/RAM flavors.

How mobile do you want it? Able to shove it in a bag and carry it somewhere vs. able to usefully use it on a moving bus. One handed or two handed use? Pen input &/or touch screen?

There are very small laptops, barely larger than a paperback book, that weigh less than 3lbs. And desktop replacements that weigh 10lbs. and have 17" screens.

How long do you want to be able to use it on batteries alone?

How good a warranty do you want?

For me, I've discovered the joys of the phone/PDA combo. Email, note-taking, document review, games, and connectivity in a device that I can put in my pocket, take everywhere, and runs all day on a full charge. I rarely take my laptop anywhere. It's probably not what you're looking for (poor document editing, no optical drives, etc.), but it's driven home the point to me that my next laptop has got to be dramatically lighter or I'll never want to take it with me either.
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pw201: default
Date:March 21st, 2006 08:34 pm (UTC)
9 hours after journal entry, 08:34 pm (pw201's time)
I got my Powerbook cheaply as it was in the Apple Store's refurbished sale (which is online, but only on a certain day: possibily Wednesday mornings, if I remember rightly). I like it: I can still play with Unix stuff (reading mail in Pine, retro-style) but it plays DVDs without having to recompile the kernel, and syncs with my mobile and iPod.

I've not attempted to use it for games or for word processing (as opposed to text editing, for which there's Vim available, my editor of choice).

You do tend to get lots of stuff bundled with the Powerbook (DVD writer, modem, wired and wireless networking, the market leading Bluetooth chip :-), iPhoto, iMovie and so on), and they look pretty.
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blue_mai: default
Date:March 21st, 2006 09:32 pm (UTC)
10 hours after journal entry, 09:32 pm (blue_mai's time)
cant believe i'm even attempting to comment on this...
but hey - my laptop is a powerbook G3 it's quite old (i think 6 or 7?) and i quite like it. it's a bit irrelevant as i still run OS9 on it, so you wont be wanting that. wont bother you with OS and software comparisons with windows unless you want to know! generally, i think the older macs are pretty reliable, but the new ones i'm not so sure, apple seem to have ditched robustness in favour of prettiness.. mine has been thrown around an awful lot - buses, bikes etc and it's still going.
lots of port is good, and wireless. amazing how some new machines still only have 1 or 2 usb ports. firewire was amazing once, but these days PCs have USB2 and i dont think macs do.

OpenOffice - we use the windows version at work and it's ok. current version (2.0?) much much better than previous (regarding formatting, display probs with MicrosoftOffice), lots of annoying things fixed, so i anticipate it getting even better in future releases. it's available for OSX so if you go with that you dont _have_ to buy Office. I regularly switch from one to the other, and it's fine (in terms of orientation)(Gimp, however, is the devils work. well, maybe only if you're used to Photoshop)

compilerbitch - if you save docs as MicrosoftOffice using OpenOffice (which is what we do - nothing is saved as OpenOffice at work) are they any less futureproof than if you used MicrosoftOffice? (you can save as older Office versions too)
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blue_mai: default
Date:March 21st, 2006 09:34 pm (UTC)
10 hours after journal entry, 09:34 pm (blue_mai's time)
lots of port is good
well yes, and so is lots of ports
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hatam_soferet: default
Date:March 22nd, 2006 01:23 am (UTC)
14 hours after journal entry
If you're using a whole lot of freebie software, don't get a Mac, it's so annoying.

And Dell have really gone downmarket - not very well made AND poorly designed. She says, having recently bought a Dell, but regretting it. Should've listened to Darcy (are you reading this, Darcy?).
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