Friday, February 19, 2010

A change in workflow

So, the wife and I are going to be doing a lot of traveling this year: moving, coming back for JohnOCs wedding a few weeks after we move, visiting family, going to Reno again in September for the Gunblogger Rendezvous, and then across to Boston the weekend after thanksgiving (and possibly the whole week before to have thanksgiving with my family) for my next high school reunion.

Now, traditionally, I've had a top of the line... in fact seriously overbuilt... desktop as my primary machine; and I've used it to play games, rip media, run processor intensive tasks etc... AND a very high end laptop as well; so I would have all the resources I might need when traveling.

And of course, work provides me with their own high end laptop to deal with too.

A few things happened recently that have caused me to re-evaluate that way of doing things, and subsequently I've decided to change it completely.

The first thing is, I have a dedicated media box now. It has a combo HD-DVD, BluRay, and DVD burner on it, 8 gigs of ram, a ton of hard drive space, etc... It does everything I need for media; one quarter the reason for having a desktop at all.

I also have a dedicated 4TB NAS box, and a gig-e network, plus 300Mbps wireless N (though I've never seen more than about 65Mb sustained, it's still pretty fast). That's another quarter the reason for having a high end desktop.

My primary personal laptops over the past five years have had big screens (at least 17" since around 2001, went up to 18.4" in early 2009) and fullsized keyboards... plus docking stations for monitors and real desktop keyboards and mice etc... So I no longer need the big desktop for writing, desktop publishing, and other display and typing intensive tasks. Another quarter gone...

What that left, was gaming. For a long time, only a high end desktop rig could play the games I was interested in, with anything approaching reasonable performance.

So, for the last six or seven years, I kept a good, high end, and reasonably current desktop system, with a nice monitor and good speakers... pretty much just for gaming.

But then hardware dramatically outpaced game development; and for the last three or four years, really the only thing you've needed to update to keep playing current games at near maximum settings, was your video card... and even that was only once in that four years.

So, as it happens, I hadn't updated my desktop in about three years, except for an incremental(and cheap) video card upgrade about a year back...

Up until about five weeks ago, when said desktops motherboard, and video card, decided to fry themselves; and took my rather expensive Dual Link DVI, USB and Audio capable KVM switch with them (thankfully the monitor, PSU, the rest of the pci cards, the ram, hard drives, and the proc are all OK).

So, I salvaged what hardware I could, and packed it into my media box (currently a hackintosh; though I'm getting really tired of having no BluRay... though it IS hackable).

This left me with a very nice, high end, empty, full tower e-ATX chassis (well, I've still got the three hard drives that were in it, plus PSU and the BluRay burner).

Originally, my plan was to rebuild the box using current generation Core-i7, a USB 3 capable MoBo, 6gb of three channel DDR-3, a Radeon 5870, and an SSD boot drive (the current hot ticket for high performance without breaking the bank)... The whole of which would only have cost me about $1500, even splurging on top end bits (thanks to having the case, optical drive, other drives and cards etc...).

Unfortunately, in the same week, my primary personal laptop ALSO decided to die; though to be fair, it was actually dieing for the third time after two previous factory warranty repairs for the same problem (excess heat so bad the system would shut itself down, even when it was at idle).

Basically, the design of my laptop, which was HPs' absolute top of the line when I got it about a year ago; was rushed out, and they packed too much power (and thus heat) into too little space inside a laptop chassis. They discontinued the model a few months after I got mine, because of all the problems they had.

This time, they just replaced the whole machine with a brand new, also top of the line model, with all the bells and whistles; and for my trouble upgraded me to the highest processor, and max memory.

So, here I am with a brand new HP pavilion DV8T-Quad, with a quad core Core i7 3.06ghz (burst speed. It throttles down to under 2ghz for normal use), 8gb ddr3, 1gb GeForce GT230m, 18.4" 1080p screen, built in HDTV tuner and video capture device, blu-ray burner, 500gb 7200rpm hard drive... basically the top of everything you can possibly get in a laptop.


This thing, A LAPTOP... Is the fastest PC I've ever used. It's faster than anything X86 I've run, other than high end multi processor servers. It benchmarks higher than any desktop machine I've ever run. It runs even the newest games (Dragon Age, Mass Effect 2, BioShock 2, all released in the last few months) at their highest settings, flawlessly; both on the internal 18.4"1920x1080 screen, and my 24" external 1920x1200 monitor (too bad they don't support simultaneous dual head).

It beats my old PCs benchmarks in everything; even hard drive performance (which is a notorious weakness in laptops).

The built in speakers are actually pretty good, and the ones in the dock are nearly great... and if I want, I can stick my actual audiophile speaker system with DSP onto my docks optical output (the DSP and amp take coax or toslink audio and run surround sound processing, including DTS, out to the home theater grade speakers).

The point being, this thing is everything my old desktop was and more... by at least 50% in every measure.

So, I've decided that I'm going to go without a primary desktop. and move everything onto my primary laptop; and in general, using the dock, treat it as what it really is, a desktop replacement (the first laptop I've ever owned that could adequately meet that description).

This simplifies my computing life a lot, because between the dropping a box, and the NAS systems; I don't have to maintain and sync multiple copies (or at least, as many, multiple copies) of everything across as many different machines etc... etc...

So, the new laptop is just excellent, and is a total replacement for my old desktop, with no compromise necessary.

Unfortunately, what it ISN'T, is particularly portable or handy.

It does after all have an 18.4" screen, and it weighs all of 11 pounds... plus it's got a full pound 180watt power brick (yes, 180 watts). It's luggable, but it's not really a laptop.

Frankly, it's just a pain to haul around; even from room to room. Hell, I can't even find a laptop bag it properly fits in (I make it fit in my biggest bag, but that's not the same thing).

Which brings me to the third recent development: the high end netbook.

When netbooks first came out, they had 7" screens, and laughable processors, memory, and storage.

I tried a 7" netbook, and to me, they were useless. I couldn't even properly read ebooks on them.

9" netbooks were a bit better; but still totally inadequate for me (great for a lot of folks, but most people dont have 20 programs running at once). The 10"s though.. I could actually browse on them, if not really type.

So, for portability and convenience, I've been using a netbook since early last year.

A 10" notebook, with 2gb ram and a 1.6ghz proc has served me reasonably well, since my wife got me an Eee 1008ha (Seashell) as a gift this past June; but it's still too small. I couldnt fit both my hands on the keyboard at once and still rest my palms or wrists on the wristpad. I was always scrolling... and I do too much multitasking for a single core CPU to keep up frankly.

However, in the past few weeks, ASUS has started shipping their Eee 1201n: a 12" netbook, with a dual core hyper threaded 64 bit atom CPU, an ION GPU with real 3d acceleration (GeForce 9400), and a max of 8gb of ram (needs a BIOS fix and a change to 64bit, for today its 4g maximum).

Mel has pretty much stopped using her 9" netbook because it was too small for comfort, and frequently borrowed my 10". I'd pretty much stopped using my 10" because it was too cramped...

As I said, the wife and I are going to be traveling a LOT this year. I need real computing power, that I can keep handy with me, in the car, or on a plane; and be comfortable with.

So, what the hell, I decided to upgrade to the 12" 1201; and gave Mel the 10" 1008. I'm actually typing this post on the 1201, which I received this afternoon.

It's a great little bit of kit. Big enough that I can comfortably type and relax my wrists; but still small enough to fit in my grab-n-go bag. Most importantly, it's got enough processing power, memory, and graphics power to play ripped HD videos, and to have many browser windows and tabs open simultaneously (which is how I like to work). I can do REAL multitasking with it.

Oh and when I want, having an HDMI port rather than just a VGA; I can hook it up to the HDMI input of the big monitors (I have a couple of 24s for the multitude of computers scattered around the house) and stick on a USB or bluetooth keyboard and mouse; and it's perfectly adequate as a word processing, web browsing, music playing machine.

Hell, just like the "real" laptop, I can even hook it to the big screen TV in the living room, and output at 1080p native resolution if I want.

I have noted however, that this netbook requires a bit of a change in workflow for me.

Because I split my time across mutliple computers, I needed some way of keeping them all synced up.

For the past few years, I have run all my email, my non-confidential docs, my contacts and calendar etc... in the cloud; with syncing tools. Also, whenever possible, I use cross platform tools that keep their account, contact, preference data etc... in the cloud.

I do this using evernote, drop box, gmail, gcal, google wave, google voice, google docs, mobile me, skype, trillian (for windows anyway. I use pidigin on linux and adium on Mac), and firefox with the xmarks extension (among many others of course).

Finally, I have portable windows and portable linux versions of all of the above on one of three filesystems on a thumb drive (along with a number of other tools and utilities of course). The second is a linux live-distro with all of the above ready to run on it. The third is an encrypted virtual drive for secure data storage; with windows and linux encryption clients to access the filesystem.

All are cross platform, store their data up in the cloud or sync through it to the other PCs, and give me my same basic computing platform and data across all of the computers I operate on (except my work laptop, which I deliberately isolate anyway. If I want to use it with personal data, I either use a virtual machine, or I run off the thumb drive).

The new netbook has thrown a monkeywrench in the works however.

As it is a dual core, hyperthreaded CPU, it multitasks much better than my previous netbook. That's great.

Unfortunately, firefox does not (at least not on 32 bit Windows 7. It's a bit better on 64 bit). That's not great.

With firefox, every tab you open is just more resources allocated to a single instance of the firefox binary. Open more than a few tabs, and it's footprint can get HUGE (several gigs, if you have the RAM); especially if there is java or flash involved (and there frequently is).

Compared to other single threaded netbooks, the performance of firefox on the 1201 isn't any worse; but it IS just as bad. When combined with actual multitasking, it becomes awful.

With other netbooks you don't so much notice it, because you can't usefully multitask anyway; but with this one you can, so when you can't because the single giant firefox binary is taking up all your resources and is spinlocked... it's noticeable.

Enter my workflow change.

I'm switching to Googles Chrome browser... at least on the netbook, and at least for now; because every tab (and because I run I tend to have at least a dozen tabs open across several windows at any given time) is its own process, with its own resource management (and if one tab crashes, unlike firefox, it doesn't necessarily rash every other tab and window... though it still does sometimes).

On the older single core netbooks, I never really much noticed a difference between FF and Chrome. On this dual core model... the difference is night and day. Literally an order of magnitude improvement in performance and response time.

With the xmarks extension I can still sync everything I need to; and most of the extensiosn I use for FF have an equivalent in chrome (though generally not as polished)... I just prefer the look and feel of firefox more; and it's weird to change what I've been using constantly for so many years (also Chrome has some oddities in how it handles data that sometimes induce weirdness).

...but if it lets me type multithousand word blog posts, with 5 browser iwndows and over 20 tabs open; with no slowdowns... Yeah, that's worth it.

Oh and just in general, the 1201 is a spectacular machine; and so is the DV8T-quad. For the first time since I started using personal computers, I have not felt unduly constrained by the limitations of my portable computers.