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Buy Cheap, Pay More.

27 Apr

As noted in an earlier posting, I got myself a new laptop last August. This cost me the thick end of £1,800, so was a considered purchase by all accounts.

More recently (early this year) my company, after much kerfuffle, eventually replaced my ageing work laptop with a new developer spec machine.

Developer for them…

When I asked about the possibility of getting something with a touch screen the IT department representative laughed out loud with out a hint of irony. The response was something about “There’s only two touch screen laptops in the company, and you have to be on the board to get one. They cost upwards of £2,500”, accompanied by a look that said “you’re an idiot”.

Hmmm…

“Wow!” I said (really, I said “Wow”). “That must have quite a specification.”

“They have an i7 and 32Gb of ram”

“How much do you spend on the normal laptops for developers then? What spec will I get?”

“They’re about £1,900. Core i5 with 16Gb of RAM and 512Gb SSD. You won’t need more than that.”

A good call considering he doesn’t have any idea what it is I actually do… however, I diverge,

“But I purchased this very laptop here, 4K touchscreen, Core i7, 32Gb RAM, 1Tb M2 storage, 3 year extended warranty, additional battery/charger for £1,800. I think you’re being ripped off…”

“Yes, the touchscreen laptops cost £1,800. The one you’ll get is £1,200…”

What?!!

OK. Whatever. If I’d asked for a Apple machine they only seem to supply top of the range MacBook Pro or Air models, depending on your role (not needs) so at least the money is there for them I suppose.

Still at least I got a new machine, similar to those of my peers.

Unfortunately the build time on my current project is in the region of 90 to 120 seconds with one of these machines.

Benchmarking on something more… capable… we’ve seen sub 35 seconds. It doesn’t sound a lot but multiply that by four (now over eight) developers, and add on testers, and you lose valuable time every day. That ultimately cost the client money (and now us money as we move into a fixed price project structure), and us as the users of these machines become that little bit more frustrated.

Still, it’s a step up from what I had, but I can’t help thinking will need replacing sooner than if they spent that little bit more to begin with.

Sounds like a false economy to me, but I dare say there’s some accountancy rule coming into effect here, and not just penny pinching and status protection.

Still, I look forward to when the client asks for the project to become touch aware (as they have before) and nobody is able to test this due to a lack of hardware…

As an aside, here’s the relative SSD benchmarks for the two machines:

E5470

Company Dell Latitude E5470

XPS15

Personal Dell XPS15 (9550)

Back on the Upgrade Cycle

19 Aug

 laptop-xps-15-9550-pdp-polaris-02

Once upon a time it was normal for me to upgrade a computer every two years, alternating between my desktop and laptop. As time and circumstances changed, this has fluctuated in recent years. My dates may be a little out here, but in recent years my updates have followed a cycle similar to this:

·        2006 – Convertible (tablet) HP

·        2009 – New desktop PC

·        2010 – New laptop (Acer Aspire)

·        2013 – Surface Pro 2 (October)

So I should be about due for another upgrade, right?

Well the thing is apart from the small screen size I absolutely still love my Surface Pro 2. It’s powerful enough for most of the tasks I throw at it (with the exception of video rendering, which can never be fast enough) it’s lightweight, the pen is awesome, etc. Sure there are plenty of things that were improved in subsequent models, but overall I loved the package. The point is whilst a newer model would be great and provide incremental performance gains, day to day the SP2 is still a fine device.

Apart from the fact that it started producing a lot of noise from the internal fan, and the replacement cost Microsoft quoted me was close to £600.

Dammit.

So whilst the machine is capable enough, I find I can’t use it outside the house without fear of deafening everyone around me. Essentially the SP2 has been kept safely indoors for the last several months.

I took to using my work supplied Dell laptop. A heavy clunky beast, strangely sluggish (for a mid-range machine) with less than stellar battery life. The additional weight meant that more often than not I’d just stick to using my phone and consuming media rather than creating anything.

This was all a little frustrating. My main single part of my commute to work is a 55+ minute train journey between Colchester and London totalling a little shy of two hours where I could potentially be doing something useful… even if only occasionally.

So I started looking around for my next machine. Here was a part of my wish list:

·        Something that sits on my lap better than the kickstand of the Surface Pro machines.

·        More memory, at least 16Gb. If I’m going to use this thing for work I’d like to have that stuff running in a VM and well away from my main system.

·        More storage. The 256Gb SSD of the Pro 2 was slightly constraining (you learn to live with these things), but again having the work VM would require a sizable chunk of storage for duplicate installations such as Office.

·        Bigger screen. The Pro 2 screen is beautiful to watch HD films on, but for using Visual Studio it’s quite restrictive.

·        Pen input would be nice. I used to use this extensively, although not so much in recent months. Having it there as an option is only a bonus though at it’s very useful when you do need it.

·        Touch screen. Once you start using a touch screen it can be really compelling for certain situations, and for mobile development it really gives an edge.

·        Decent trackpad. I guess I never notice this very often with the Pro 2 keyboard as I tend to either have it in tablet mode during travelling (due to that lapability issue) or connected to a mouse when sat at a desk. But on the occasions I do try to use it the touchpad experience on the Surface Pro 2 keyboard only just sufficies.

·        Something not too heavy. One of the reasons I upgraded from the Acer to the Surface was because the Acer was often being left at home due to its weight.

There were other considerations too, but these were the main things on my list.

So what to buy?

After liking my Surface Pro 2 so much and with the noted wish list, the natural contender was a Surface Book. I’ve been looking at these beautiful machines since they were announced and had they arrived on these shores around the same time as the US release I’d probably have snapped one up almost instantly (after all I got my Pro 2 on launch day).

But I’ve got three children now and that price was just too much. Looking at the 512Gb model it had everything I wanted… but at what cost. As for the model with 1Tb of storage….

Then I started looking at the Dell XPS 15. And the more I looked the more I liked:

·        Large (15 inch) 4K touchscreen.

·        Up to 32Gb memory, double the maximum currently available on the Surface Book.

·        1Tb storage with aforementioned 32Gb memory was cheaper than the 512Gb/16Mb Surface Book.

·        Faster than a Surface Book.

·        Better graphics than a Surface Book (that surprised me!)

·        Very good trackpad.

·        More ports, 2 USB 3.0 and one Thunderbolt (also HDMI and full size SD card slot)

·        Much cheaper!

Of course there were downsides too:

·        Heavier than a Surface Book

·        No pen support

·        Worse battery life than the Surface Book.

·        Supplied with Windows 10 Home only, no option to upgrade to Pro (really Dell?!!)

·        Windows install contains a little Dell Crapware (I’m looking at you McAfee) as opposed to the ‘Signature’ installation of a Surface Book.

This was going to be a hard choice… or at least I thought so.

When it came down to it the compromises of the XPS 15 seemed more than acceptable against the advantages, and the machine looked to be a little more future proof too with the additional RAM and storage I could get for the cheaper price.

I love the form factor of the Surface Book, but the Surface Pro 2 is still working should I need to do any Pen development (although I won’t be taking it to any meetings!!!)

So I ordered the Dell. Despite the order status stating the machine wouldn’t arrive for 4 weeks it actually arrived in a little over 2 weeks, not the instant gratification you hope for but not too shoddy either.

The machine actually arrived a couple of weeks ago, but I’ve been on holiday much of the time since then so I’ve only had limited time with it so far. The first thing I did was upgrade the OS to Windows 10 Pro (fortunately I had a spare key) and force installed the anniversary update (1607).

I’ve not reset the machine down to a clean state now, I figured I’d see how I get on with McAfee and the Dell software installed for a while (can I last the first year) and performance seems to be good, but I can’t help wondering how much better it could be if I did this. Start-up times in particular are acceptable, buy not as good as I’d imagined. Also there’s a strange bug where I need to restart the device after initial power on due to the ShellExperienceHost service becoming unstable.

I’ve set up a VM for work and assigned it 16Gb of memory and 4 of the total 8 processor cores, and whilst I’m yet to push it, this also seems very responsive and should be faster than the work supplied laptop without bringing the rest of the system to its knees.

That 4K screen is lovely, but frankly after the WOW moment on seeing the Surface Pro 2 screen all those years ago, it’s clearly better but incrementally so. I’ve not done anything to push it yet, with the exception of the 4K videos shot on my Lumia 950 XL, and these really do look impressive, but that’s expected isn’t it? Perhaps OLED will be my next WOW! Moment?

One bad side is that the screen is such a high resolution that some Desktop applications don’t scale properly. Surprisingly Outlook 2016 (yes, the very latest patched version) has the occasional dialog box that appears corrupt. If Microsoft can’t get its house in order it’s no wonder third party apps also fail in this situation.

Outlook Scaling Issue Example Image

The laptop is heavier than I’d like, but I’ve got used to this to some extent from carting around my work supplied laptop. Either way it’s not ideal, but at the moment I can live with it.

The keyboard, despite reviews and my pre-purchase concerns, seems OK. It’s not the best I’ve ever used, but it’s nearer the top than the bottom. I’m getting on fine with it and as I get more used to it it naturally becomes more comfortable. But then that would be the case with all but the worst keyboards out there.

Surprisingly, even in Desktop mode I used the touch on the Surface more than I’m currently doing with the XPS. I suspect there’s something wired in my brain that says Laptop = no touch, despite the fact I owned a convertible (that was closer to a laptop) back in the Vista days. Partly that may be down to the touchpad though. I’ve never used an Apple touchpad which are supposed to be the gold standard, but this is certainly the best I’ve used, and the ability to scroll using two fingers has meant that I don’t need to reach out to the screen as often as I used to. However, I still do tap the screen on occasion and would definitely choose to have touch available rather than not, that’s no contest.

One other thing I noticed quite quickly is that the matte silver back of the lid seemed to start getting scuffed almost from the first time I put the laptop into my bag. I quickly purchased a sleeve to keep the machine protected during transit so that was £30 I hadn’t counted on, but it does “complete the package” and looks quite smart.

So that’s my initial impressions of the new kit. Not perfect (weight, battery life) but I’m very pleased so far. I guess time will tell how I feel going forward. Overall though, No regrets. I think I made a good decision for my needs.