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Laptop: The Next Generation

In my life, few purchases (besides an automobile) are more exciting than a new computer or some other piece of electronic gadgetry. So I was particularly geeked today when I finally pulled the trigger on my new mobile workstation — a laptop for business, in other words. My last laptop purchase was in 2006, and looking back, it seems that most of my machines are bought during the summer months, though not as a result of any conscious design. Perhaps it’s an internal biological clock that still remembers when I spent every summer playing the latest games, pushing my systems to their limits!

Sony Vaio F Series

As with everything these days, I tend to buy the best equipment that I can afford and make use for it for as long as possible, until it either just plain craps out or my needs significantly eclipse its capabilities. Today’s purchase was no exception, as I decided to choose a loaded-to-the-hilt Sony Vaio F Series, a 16.4″ Core i7 beastie that I optioned with enough equipment to stave off obsolescence for a good long while. What’s perhaps most significant about this purchase, for me, is that it’s the first laptop I’ve ever bought from someone other than Dell.

Excluding the first laptop I ever owned — a 486-powered Canon Innova Book — which was a gift, I’ve only purchased Dell Inspiron or Latitude systems for myself. The quality of these machines got progressively worse; the Inspiron 3200 was a solid (literally!) notebook, but the 8600 that came next was creaky, flaky and hot. Worst of all was the Latitude D620 I bought in 2006 for business use, which turned into a complete heap of slag in two years’ time. Its LCD backlight became dim and uneven, the lone monaural speaker blew out, the battery was reporting imminent end-of-life within six months, and the system gradually slowed to a molasses-laden crawl that even a full reformat and reinstall of Windows couldn’t cure. (This makes it all the more ridiculous to read my glowing impressions of the D620 on my first day of owning it…I shall endeavor to remember this and temper my review of the Vaio F accordingly!)

Although I have since heard that 2006 was perhaps a perigee for Dell and that the quality of their current line of notebooks is much better, I honestly just can’t stomach taking the chance. For the last few months I’ve been quietly looking at various notebook manufacturers, from Sony and HP to Lenovo and Asus, searching for the perfect configuration for my needs. I kind of expect my laptop to do it all: It needs to have a high-resolution screen for my design activities, sufficient RAM for heavy Photoshopping, dedicated graphics for gaming and video playback, a great keyboard for speed typing when I’m writing, and good thermal management so it doesn’t turn into a furnace beneath my wrists. Try finding all of that in a notebook, and at an affordable price — it’s not easy.

I think I’ve managed to do it, though. Although Sony’s Vaio F series isn’t without its problems — the screen isn’t LED backlit, the audio output from its built-in speakers is nothing special and it sucks a fair amount of juice — it’s got literally everything else I needed both for work and play. Thanks to a “Back to School” promotion that Sony’s running (I never thought that I’d actually enjoy a back-to-school sale!), I was able to spec it out with the following:

  • 1920×1080 screen that provides plenty of real estate for Photoshoppery and web development
  • Intel Core i7-740QM quad-core CPU with Hyper Threading (for a total of 8 threads)
  • 8GB of DDR3 memory
  • 256GB solid-state hard drive (SSD) to further reduce heat, noise and slowdown
  • Blu-Ray writer
  • LED backlit keyboard with a full number keypad
  • Extended 9-cell battery (provides about 4.5 hours of runtime, not bad for an i7)

Topped off with Sony’s 12 months interest free financing, it was a deal I couldn’t match anywhere else. Sony’s online chat representative even upgraded me to express shipping (2-day service, I think) free of charge.

So why go with the Vaio over, say, the HP Envy 17 or the Lenovo ThinkPad W series? In truth, those machines were my other two top choices. Although the HP’s EyeFinity three-monitor system made it a strong contender for my needs, I was spooked royally by HP’s worst-in-class reliability rating (according to warranty supplier Squaretrade’s reliability study) and the reports that the machines suffer thermal management issues and poor fit-and-finish. The price was also several hundred dollars more than the Sony, with only a 6-month no-interest financing option available. Lenovo, meanwhile, has some great graphic design machines in the W series — that W7xx is amazing with its built-in Wacom tablet and color calibrator — but the price for the configuration I needed was approaching $4,000, and that’s just ridiculous.

And no, I never seriously considered the MacBook Pro — although it would have made a fine computer, it was way too much money, and my job is incompatible with OS X. Who wants to run Windows on a Mac full time?

Sony, meanwhile, offered the most features I needed for a price I could afford, coupled with good reliability rankings and financing options. Also, I was able to actually lay my hands on a Vaio F at the local Best Buy, which really sealed the deal. Yes, I would have preferred an RGB-LED screen, a beefier sound system and multi-monitor support, but these were all things I was either willing to sacrifice or can add later (in the case of the multi-monitor support, via Matrox’s Graphics eXpansion Modules). There simply wasn’t anything else out there that would do the job for the price I could pay — well, maybe from Dell, but I don’t touch them anymore.

Speaking of Dell, I wrote all of the above on my Dell Inspiron 8600 notebook, the one I mentioned back there when I was lamenting about the company’s declining quality. By the time I reached the previous paragraph, the keyboard was so hot that it was uncomfortable to touch and nearly a full second of lag had developed between each keystroke and the corresponding character’s appearance on the screen. When the machine finally started flashing its “battery charging circuitry malfunction” lamp as if the universe was about to explode, I shut it the hell off, unplugged it and went back to my desktop workstation. Screw you, Dell — I am so over you that it isn’t funny. (And I was such a rabid fanboy of yours in the ’90s — what happened? If you ask me, I think you got too close to the cow’s consumer-oriented rear end!)

Anyway, I’ve got about 10-14 days before my new Vaio F gets here. Assuming everything checks out OK with it, I’m probably going to round up all the old Dell laptops I still have languishing around and either donate or recycle them all before we move to Texas. No sense in lugging dead weight halfway across the country.

Believe it or not, rabid posts screaming about the new computer I just ordered are a bit of an Oddball Update tradition. You can go way back into the archives and find tales of my gadget-fueled hysteria from the 1990s, which are seriously laughable when you see what kind of hardware I was getting all worked up about and compare it to today’s standards. Now, because I like nostalgia-fueled histrionics, here’s a selection from the Oddball Archives written fourteen years ago this month — July 17th, 1996 to be precise — in which I listed the specs of the latest Dell desktop rig that I was lusting after:

  • 200MHz Pentium Pro With 256K Integrated Processor Cache and “Venus” Chipset
  • 64MB Parity EDO RAM
  • UltraScan 17HS Trinitron Color Monitor, 15.9inch Viewable Size
  • #9 Imagine Series 2 PCI Video Board With 4MB VRAM
  • 4.2GB EIDE Hard Drive
  • 1.44MB Floppy Drive
  • US Robotics V.34 Sportster 28.8 Data/Fax Modem
  • 1.6GB/3.2GB Travan Tape Backup
  • Microsoft Windows 95

It was basically a server-class machine (I mean, parity EDO RAM?) that I outfitted for gaming and design activities. It was certainly up to the task, but in retrospect I probably should have waited until the launch of the Pentium II the following year.

Perhaps the funniest part of all from that historical entry is this overwrought bit of expository text at the beginning:

Remember the good old days? Summer, 1993? The Dell Dimension 486 DX-2/66 had just hit my desk and I was up at right around this time of night, playing Wolfenstein 3D, and basking in the glow of that hot new power system. Now here we are, almost exactly 3 years later, and that once hot-to-the-touch configuration is dead. NOW, we are tracking the computer industry’s most advanced new system on the market, complete with more super-upgraded components than even Bill Gates could shake a copy of Windows 95 at.

Oddball Update Archives from July 17, 1996 / 12:19 AM

There are so many anachronisms in that paragraph that if you turned them into a drinking game, you’d pass out.

Anyway, I’ll undoubtedly post an update here when I actually receive the new Vaio F and have a chance to assemble my impressions of it. Assuming all goes well, I’m definitely looking forward to using it during upcoming travels. With specifications that significantly eclipse my desktop, it should certainly be a capable mobile workstation.

2 thoughts to “Laptop: The Next Generation”

  1. Ha! I actually meant to include that remark in the post as a cryptic aside, but the issues with the 8600 wanting to blow up made me forget. Thanks to your comment, the post is now complete. 🙂

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