DIARY 2013














Sun, Jan 27

<13:50 EEST> Back in the day, things in IT used to be better.

No, really, they did. I came to think about it this week as I got a "new" laptop. Now you might ask, why does this guy need yet another laptop? Besides, he already has a computer. Of course, it's all about upgrades — I want a single laptop capable of almost everything, so I can get rid of some of the old ones. So why do I still feel disappointed in some ways?

To see how technology has progressed, I could start with my first Linux laptop. It had a trackpoint for mousing on the go, something that was common in laptops of the era. It was a time when laptops were starting to expand from expensive business niches to consumer use; they were particularly popular with students who would move between their home and campus a few times a year. In addition, that machine had sensible power management built-in, with suspend to RAM upon pressing a button, handled by the BIOS.

Fast forward to 2005. I had some disposable income/savings as a teacher, and Willow was showing its age. Particularly when it came to music production, as I was starting my first JYT piece. So I switched to a new model with plenty more power. Among other hardware niceties, I later found out it had an SPDIF output for digital audio. On the downside, trackpoints had generally been phased out by touchpads. They did have some benefits like scrolling interfaces (which, like the mouse wheel, are of course unnecessary if you have PgUp/PgDn keys), but in practice they were often annoying to use. The palm of your hand would easily interfere with the pad as you were typing, especially if the pad were not properly centred.

As for power management, there had been a similar paradigm shift from APM to ACPI. This meant that power management was delegated to the OS, which was a fine idea, but the practice was often disastrous. ACPI implementations were often broken, but Windows drivers were of course written to this non-standard compliance. The Linux side was a mess, but at least with proper software you could suspend to disk.

Later I somehow became fascinated with Apple hardware, with the elegant non-x86 architecture, nice industrial design, and all that. In 2010 I switched my laptop to a Powerbook, with pretty much the same computational power, but more of some immeasurable Quality. I did lose the SPDIF output (which would only be found in the best, hard-to-find Powerbook models) but I also gained some connectors like DVI. However, this too became a little flaky over the years. For example, sudden poweroffs while practicing music were not a good thing for a performing artist; it's a miracle that the summer 2012 gigs went OK.

Moreover, Linux support for PowerPC was waning. For a while, getting everything to work was a fun exercise in open source. For example Open/Libreoffice, where I first wrote my own ebuilds for binary packages, and when the binaries were no longer available, I had to compile them. Another heavy package was Firefox, though it does not take a full day to compile. Then there were incomplete drivers, notably for the GPU, where you could try endless tweaks. Then there were times when you just wanted to get work done.

So, here I am typing on a Thinkpad. In many ways, a Thinkpad is the ultimate destination in laptops, something that I should have got years ago. It has a trackpoint, full Home/End/PgUp/PgDn keys, ACPI that works in Linux, and almost everything else technically superior to the previous machines. Compared to the Powerbook, the case is of course ugly, but there are good technical reasons: components like the hard drive have their own access slots. In fact, the Powerbook has been my only laptop in major use that did not have a HD slot. I could get a recent Macbook for more power in style, but they are even more closed systems in that literal sense. Besides, the modern island-style keyboards are crap for touch typing.

Now for the drawbacks — after all, you always lose something nice with upgrades. The display in Thinkpad is pretty bad. I knew the display of a Powerbook would be something to miss. I guess the idea is that these are business laptops, where most of your work is done with an external monitor. Plus, you could probably get a Thinkpad with a proper IPS panel for more money, but hey, it's only my first TP, which I happened to get for a surprisingly low price.

A somewhat minor drawback that happens to affect my work greatly is with the Tascam US-122 sound card. Many people have experienced more or less flakiness with this card in Linux, but this is the first machine where it craps out on me. The technical explanation is probably because it's a USB 1.1 device; in the past, machines had separate chips for USB 1.1 and 2.0 (UHCI/OHCI and EHCI), but this one only has EHCI with some kind of emulation for 1.1 devices. However, people have reported problems with this card on proper UHCI/OHCI too. I have also had occasional glitches with it on Powerbook, but nothing major (again, it was nice enough not to defecate on the propeller during the past gigs).

So, in fact, it is a Linux driver issue that might eventually be fixed, but it might also be a time to get a new, better device. Something with a SPDIF output at least, to get back up to speed with that early 2000s technology.

Risto A. Paju