Get off my lawn.

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Un-Mac

This is the "un mac", a laptop I bought last week. My old HP was a reliable machine, but was getting slower and slower with each new Ubuntu release. I figured 4 years was a pretty good run for a machine, but it was time to upgrade.

I suppose someday I'll just give up and get a Macbook Pro, but at this point, it feels like giving in somehow. I decided I would try to find a laptop that didn't have Vista or XP already installed on it, since I inteded to put Ubuntu on it anyway. There are a few companies that sell Linux laptops, like Dell, System76, etc. But I don't know... those machines are either high-priced, or cheap-looking. In any event, I didn't see anything online that I wanted. I eventually decided to just find a cheap Windows laptop and wipe Vista off of it first thing.

Call me crazy, but if I'm going to spend money on something like a laptop, I want it to look cool. Looking for Windows machines at the local Best Buy/Micro Center-type stores, I was surprised at A) how ugly most Windows machines are, and B) how expensive some of them are. Asus machines are nice-looking, but wow. I think they must stuff them with gold coins or something. The run-of-the-mill HP/Compaq/Dell/Acer/Toshiba machines look like they were designed to be as cheap as possible. Some of them look like they were spray-painted, and the paint even has the same kind of orange-peel you find on a low-priced car. Acer makes one that looks like a cross-breed between a laptop and the inside of a toilet-seat cover.

The exception to this seemed to be Sony machines. They have a range of machines that look pretty nice, with magnesium chassis, nice screens, and a keyboard like a Macbook. In fact, they look a lot like a Macbook Pro, except with more curves. Most of them were priced higher than I was inclined to pay.

I happened across one at the end of a display, a discontinued model. It was marked down about $400 off it's original price, had good specs, and the keyboard I liked. I made a mental note of the hard-to-memorize model number (VGN-FW139E), and left to look it up and find out more about it. I liked it, and returned the next day to look at it again. I found they had marked it down another $60, so I bought it.

One universal thing about all Windows laptops is that they're plastered with stupid looking stickers. They're eveywhere; on the lid, on the surface in front of the keyboard, on the back, bottom, etc. They look like cheap boom boxes from Wal-Mart.

Mine was also loaded with Windows Vista, of course. The first thing I did was boot it to make some recovery disks. That's really the first time I'd used Vista. My impression: Wow. I can see why people get annoyed with it. It's like your mom. Well, not yours specifically, but like someone's mom. As soon as it boots, it starts yelling at you. Make some backup disks. Fix your security issues. Make some adjustments. Someone wants internet access, better make sure that's okay. Something is looking at the hard disk. You sure you want to allow that? Clean your room. Take out the trash. Restart. NOW. At one point, it booted, loaded the UI, displayed the "Security Center" or whatever it's called, and immediately popped up a message box saying it was time to restart. Overall, I wouldn't be able to stand something like that every day. It's highly annoying, although it is kind of pretty. (Just like some moms, now that I think about it.)

If there's one thing I've learned about Microsoft, is that whenever you're annoyed by one of their products, all you have to do is follow their instructions and wait for the next version, which will be REALLY COOL. Five years later, when the REALLY COOL product has been released (with 80% of the anticipated features missing), you just wait some more. Simple. Overall, I think Vista will be a lot better once they rename it to Windows 7 and take out the media player.

While I wait, I figure I might as well make the machine useful. So I made some recovery disks, and installed Ubuntu on it. As usual, the installation went well, except this was the first time Ubuntu didn't know what to do with the wi-fi card. I had to actually install drivers for it. Then wireless access seemed really slow. It took forever to get anywhere. The wireless card has an Atheros AR928x-something chipset, and the Linux drivers for it have only been around for about 2 months. I played around with ndiswrapper, but didn't see any improvement. Then I noticed my other laptop's wireless was painfully slow. The problem turned out to be my 6-year-old Linksys router. With that problem fixed, there is no wireless issue.

So, after getting the machine set up the way I like it, and removing a total of 14 stickers from the surface of it, it looks like it's going to make a pretty cool laptop.