New Laptop: Windows, macOS or Linux?

I am pondering the idea of buying a laptop and I’m having troubledeciding on the platform. Ultimately, sometime in the future, I’dlike to get rid of my stationary PC and replace it with

  1. a laptop as the center of my data and (hobby) work and
  2. a console for gaming.

The latter is a long term plan because I wouldalso need a better television. Right now, all my gaming is Windowsbased and therefore I’m still somewhat bound to that OS. But that’sa different topic.

I do not explicitly need a mobile computer.There’s nothing technically wrong with my PC. In fact, moving to alaptop would mean to sacrifice a lot of performance. But I really donot like to place myself in front of the desk to get something done.I don’t even play games as much any more. And that’s solelybecause it feels too much like work-work. Apart from it being apretty sleek looking PC tower instead of a notebook hooked up to twomonitors as is the case at work, the act of sitting in a chair infront of a big desk feels too much like being at work. Don’tget me wrong, I like my profession and I even like going to theoffice (again; after switching jobs). I’d even like to tinker athome some more. But, as I was saying, I don’t want it to feel likework. Sitting at the desk is also very constraining. I have to be inthis one particular spot to do some computing. In that regard I’meven more flexible at work because I could just pop out the computerfrom its docking station and go somewhere else. Why can’t I freelychoose where I want to sit with my computer when I’m at home? I amactively procrastinating as a result. I do have ideas for projects tocode and to write and it makes me sad that I do not want to pursuethem.

Now, I am fully aware that this may not change abit despite me removing this (1st world) “obstacle”. Ido need to get over some hump first in order to get going again andultimately also stay with it. To go on a small tangent here, the sameis also true for working out. I’ve been sick on and off for such along time since moving to a different city that I have completelylost my routine. But back to the topic at hand.

In order to change that, I’d like to buy alaptop. And since I want it to be my only computer in the long run, Ido have some requirements regarding the hardware. Although it will bea step down from my current PC, it shall still be fast enough for meto not get frustrated. I just know too much about hardware and theperformance than can be expected from it to not care about it. Luckily, modern notebooks are not only thin and light, but also fastand have a good battery life. The flip side: those computers do notcome cheap. What I’ve been looking at so far ranges from roughly1500 Orens to about 2800 Orens. The specs I’m considering are 16 GBof RAM (non-negotiable) and preferably 512 GB of SSD disk space. Icould convince myself to go with 256 GB and attach an additionalexternal SSD with music and movies when I need it in case there’san unbeatable offer with a smaller hard drive.

You could make an argument that a tablet couldprovide the mobility I’m asking for. Modern devices let you doalmost everything without the need for a traditional computer. Imean, I’m writing parts this piece on my little iPad mini forcrying out loud – with the on-screen keyboard no less. There’sone caveat though. I’m a programmer and serious coding is somethinga tablet cannot do (excluding Microsoft’s Surface Pro line andsimilar devices; they are basically PCs that are spoofing tablets,like the bad wolf is spoofing old grandma in Little Red Riding Hood).But it doesn’t even have to be coding. For instance, my sister iscurrently in the process of writing her masters thesis and I’mregularly reviewing and commenting on it. I don’t want to do thaton the iPad though. It’s just too cumbersome. Yes, part of it isthe size, but I do not want a bigger iPad. The mini is perfect forwhat it’s usually supposed to do. The other part is thediscoverability and the ergonomics of the touch-only user interface.I know there are people out there that enjoy getting work done ontheir iPads but I’m not one of them. As much as I like it as aconsumption device or an occasional writing machine, I prefer aproper computer to be efficient at what I want to do.

So, I have to decide which company I throw mymoney at. As the title suggests, I’m open for three options.Sticking with Windows is the safe route since I’m used to it. Iknow how it works, how to keep it running, how to diagnose hardwareproblems and the like. It’s what I’ve been using since my firstcomputer. There has never been a break in using Windows, either athome or at work. In terms of hardware I found the Surface Laptop 2,the HP Spectre x360 13 inch and the Dell XPS 13 to be the mostinteresting devices. Microsoft’s 2nd generation laptop is the mostexpensive one of the bunch and comes with a 3:2 aspect ratio – goodfor vertical screen space compared to the more traditional 16:9. TheSpectre is interesting insofar that it comes bundled with a pen,something Microsoft used to do on the Surface Pro, and can be used asa 2-in-1 in addition to a traditional laptop. Although I don’texpect the pen to be used a whole lot, the option of just picking itup and sketching some ideas is definitely intriguing. Some codingdecisions are best made based on some diagrams. I also prefer writingnotes by hand instead of typing in a document. It’s lessrestricting (notice a theme?) because I can write anywhere in anydirection, like on a piece of paper. HP’s laptop is also the mostaffordable one, starting at about 1500€ (found at a well knownretailer) for the configuration I’m aiming for. Dell’s PC is justnice all around, a very good computer that also seems to run Linuxjust fine. It comes in second place regarding the price, at around1700 Orens.

Option number two is the most expensive one, butit’s also the most beautiful one. As nice as the previouslymentioned Windows notebooks are, I still prefer the look of Apple’sMacBooks. This clean looking uni-body design is not as spectacular asHP’s Spectre, but it’s nicer. Keep in mind that this is asubjective opinion and very likely does not apply to every person. Iknow that there is some controversy with regards to the currentMacBook’s keyboard. Not everybody likes its feel and they seem tohave some serious reliability problems which is unfortunate for acomputer in this price range. I haven’t (yet) heard anything onthat topic for the 2018 models but they have not been available longenough for long term experience reports. Although Apple doesn’tmarket it that way, but an additional silicone “condom” aroundthe switches not only muffles the sound but the (probably secret)hope is that it also keeps dust away from the very tiny switches.I’ve been to a local retailer recently to get a feel for thekeyboards because I wanted to type on them myself instead of relyingon opinions that can be found on the Internet. I have to say,although there is basically no key travel at all, I kinda like how itfeels. It would definitely require some time to get used to thekeyboard, but the way that it clicks is rather satisfying. If Appleis the go-to company I will also have to decide whether it shall be a13 inch or 15 inch version. Generally I’d like the smallercomputer. The thing is, speccing the 13 inch MacBook Pro to the RAMand SSD that I want, I’m very close in price to a base 15 inchMacBook Pro. Although that only comes with 256 GB of disk space theCPU is a six-core Intel i7 which makes it the better machine withregards to longevity. Not to mention the discreet graphics chip,which would allow for some casual games. All that also comes with ahigher weight of about 1.8 kg. It isn’t much, roughly what a 9.7inch iPad puts on the scale, but since the device is also bigger, itfeels heavier when you hold it by the edge in only one hand. It’lllikely not be an issue as I only want to be mobile in my apartment, but it’s a factor to consider.

Last but not least, there’s Linux as anoperating system. This would allow me to go with a more affordablenon-Apple laptop while still retaining the Unix underpinnings. Asmentioned previously, the Dell XPS 13 does run pretty well. Dell evenoffers Ubuntu Linux as an alternative to Windows. With that in mindI’d probably go with the XPS 13 just to be on the safe side. I haveno intention of tinkering hours and hours just to get the machineperforming as I expect it to. That means that power management has towork to get good battery life and suspend and resume must be stableas well. I want to close the lid to put it to sleep and open the lidand immediately continue where I left off. That’s something ofwhich I can be certain when I buy a Mac or a Windows PC. It’s evenvery likely that I would buy the Windows version, just in case, so Ican fallback to that if Linux just won’t work. In preparation tothis, I have installed Linux on my desktop PC (natively, not in a VM,to get the best experience) to see if I can make do and how muchsoftware and services I cannot use any more. One thing is certainlyMicrosoft’s OneDrive and Office suite of applications. I cancertainly live without the latter, but OneDrive is where my datarests in the cloud. It’s simply the best deal considering an Office365 subscription that you can share with other people. I paid roughly40 bucks for 1 TB of online storage – not that I need that much,but still. Dropbox, for example, cannot compete with that. The mostaffordable plan they offer is 10 bucks a month or a total of 120 €per year. That’s three times as much. Although that would be aninconvenience, I could manually sync the few files I change on aregular basis. It would even be a nice project to write a OneDrivedaemon based on Microsoft’s official OneDrive SDK.

It’s a tough decision. I’d like to get awayfrom Windows for this “project”, but there are several variablesthat need to be considered. It’s not that I hate Windows. It worksfine for me. But it contains so much crap that I don’t need orwant, the high-DPI scaling has issues, or, to be precise, a lot ofapplications have issues with high-DPI scaling on Windows and theendless stream of forced feature updates twice a year with features Ido not care about. 3D Paint anyone? Apart from that, it’s alwaysbeen stable for me. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t considerother options. I’ve been a Mac user before and I was happy with it.I like the OS, I like the hardware and I already own an iPhone andiPad and I also prefer a homogeneous computing landscape (forwhatever reason). Here comes the big but: prices have increaseddramatically over the past few years.

I don’t have a conclusion yet, I’m still inthe figuring-things-out phase while I try to work on Linux when I dothings, instead of using the parallel Windows install. That has beenrelegated to gaming-only for now – as is the mid-term plan anyway.If I do anything other than buying a Windows laptop and using it withWindows I’ll certainly write about my experiences.

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