Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Evaluating a new laptop vs refreshing old – MacBook Air vs ThinkPad X60

Posted by shannonclark on March 13, 2008

If you have been reading my blog for a while you may know that I have a ThinkPad X60 as my current laptop and that I have been seriously unhappy with the laptop and Vista (as well as Office 2007 and related software). At the recent SXSW conference where I mostly went without using my laptop at all (as a bit of an experiment in being highly mobile and not carrying a bag at all) when I did try to use my laptop I was seriously frustrated – in one instance it almost literally took 15+ minutes of work before I was able to actually start doing anything – and I had to shut down 5 minutes later.

While at SXSW I was also emailed an opportunity to purchase a friend of a friend’s MacBook Air – he’s decided to buy the MacBook Pro instead. Buying it from him would save me sales tax and would include the external superdrive. But it is the lower end, 80GB edition. And there are more than a few things I would have to add to the system package (AppleCare more crucially).

So in this post I am going to look at the pros and cons of my current options – and most likely won’t reach a clear conclusion. Please add a comment if you have solutions to any of my issues/concerns or if you have suggestions for alternatives I should be considering.

First note, my laptop is an extension of me – I’ve had a laptop as my primary computer since about 1994. Historically I kept most of my machines until they almost literally fell apart – driving them hard though I also have tended to buy very close to the peak at the time I could buy (not as ‘full desktop replacement” but as best weight-to-performance-to-battery-life. So each time I’ve replaced my laptop I have spent up to about $3000 – that said, I don’t really have the spare money to buy a new computer at the moment – but then neither can I afford to be unproductive or to continue to have serious issues on a daily basis.

My use of a laptop

  • heavy and frequent web browsing and research. I am “online” for many hours every day, much of which is spent with many tabs open in my browser (typically Firefox) in which I am researching, writing, and monitoring
  • syncing my iPhone. Most critically with my full contacts database which is, in turn, also synced up to Plaxo. Slightly less critically (since I rarely use Outlook these days) syncing my iPhone with my calendar (this is an area I hope to improve). And I do sync about 6gbs+ of music and the occasional tv episode or short film to my iPhone for later viewing. Most crucially this must include my most recent podcast subscriptions
  • syncing my iPod, especially when traveling. I have 100gb+ of my music (and a few tv shows I’ve bought) on an external HD, I have about 30gb of podcasts on my local disk, I synch about 30gb of my library to my 30gb iPod Video (3gb of new content such as recent podcasts, 16+gb of content I haven’t played recently, and a careful collection of my favorite content I want to have with me)
  • preparing and giving presentations. I speak at conferences, I pitch to investors, advertisers and partners. While I don’t love PowerPoint, I do have to present on a regular and increasingly frequent basis. I do not, however, do much in my presentations which couldn’t easily be done with Keynote (perhaps even could be done better)
  • manage my digital photos. I don’t take enough digital photos (or videos) but I am trying to increase the frequency with which I take photos – and I have a growing collection of photos I’ve taken. I don’t yet have a Flickr Pro account (probably should do that soon) but even with one, I would still want to retain the full resolution, local copies of every photo I’ve ever taken (perhaps stored on an external drive but everything – or at least the stuff that is good enough I might use it – should be at my fingertips at any time
  • manage my contacts. I have something close to 6000 contacts in multiple Outlook contacts files. While this is far too many and many are generated contacts from the testing of various systems (which analyzed my email traffic looking for people I should have as a contact) I really do know a ton of people. My contacts data about them is one of my most precious resources, in many cases complete with photo, bio, notes on when/how we met etc – and in many cases updated via sync with Plaxo (and in some cases LinkedIn as well)
  • manage my email archives and search them. I currently have email going back at least to 2005 and I think with archives back to 2000 on my current laptop (in a collection of Outlook files). Like my contacts data, my email archives are key data for me – data about when I met someone, what our past interactions have been on etc. Overtime I am slowly weeding and culling my archives of the cruft (old mailing lists, commercial solicitations, spam, updates from various websites etc) but even with that process done (which it is far, far from being so) my email past holds much of my memory.
  • keep up with my current email. I mostly use gmail these days, and almost entirely viw the web or my iPhone. I have multiple gmail addresses I watch (my personal address and various emails aliased or forwarded to it, and my professional email address given to only a very few people at the moment but those numbers will rapidly increase) For this as present I use Thunderbird as Outlook is far, far too flaky for me to rely on it
  • Read PDFs. Mostly as part of my ongoing research and product development, I end up with a lot of PDF files to download and read. With more arriving every day. My preference these days is to “print to PDF” rather than to paper for about the past 2+ years I have almost gone without printing anything – just occasionally a travel document or contract needing a physical signature. On my ThinkPad I have a useful but not great “print to PDF” application, Macs have this feature built into the OS.
  • MindMapping and notetaking. Historically I have used MindManager a great deal (but almost not at all for the past year+). More and more I have just taken notes down in simple text files when offline or when online in various applications (including as draft posts for this blog). This is far from ideal, especially as my needs will be growing exponentially in coming weeks and months. Whether I stay on Vista or migrate to a Mac laptop, I will need to get a great note taking, brainstorming, and task management/project management tool or tools.
  • Offline HTML writing. I occasionally blog for other sites than this blog, when I do that I tend to write my posts in an offline HTML editor and then send the editor an HTML file instead of retyping the post or trying to compose the post online (since many conferences where I might be writing from have poor to non-existent and flaky internet access even for the press). Currently I use Microsoft Expression for this, though mostly out of inertia and from having a full copy (actually multiple copies) given to me by Microsoft at various conferences I have attended over the past few years.
  • Very rarely but likely to increase spreadsheet analysis. I can crunch numbers with the best of them, but I’ve never been a spreadsheet junky. My tools of choice start with text and flow out from there – but as I grow my company I will have to make more and more use of spreadsheets over time. And likely web based alternatives won’t fully do everything (currently at least) which I need to do, though for basic collaborative tasks they are great). At least once a quarter, if not more often, I will, however have to present numbers to my board (currently small but as we close our first round of funding likely to grow). On my ThinkPad I have Microsoft Office, on a Mac I’d likely start with iWork Numbers (which I already have on my iMac) and will only buy Excel if I truly need it.
  • and that is about it really. I don’t have games installed on this ThinkPad (just the basics which come with Vista but haven’t used them in years). I have other software installed but almost never run it (Visual Studio for example). Running at boot I have Skype and Google Chat – but actually rarely use either (and for that matter they are both available for the Mac as well). I have Microsoft OneNote (my laptop is a tablet) but I actually almost never use the tablet functionality – silly I know and a bit of a shame, but also very much the truth. I kinda wish I did use it more often, but in actuality I don’t (and apparently I’m far from alone). I also almost never use video playback on my ThinkPad – I think mostly because the experience even with a local file is quite poor. Instead I watch any videos (including video podcasts) on my iPhone or on my iMac desktop – which is also the machine I’ll use mostly when I buy any video content or when I test/use a service like Joost or Hulu.com or another video service.

So with all that said, how can I decide between my various options.

Scenario One – keep ThinkPad but try refresh/reinstallations

At SXSW I spoke with friends who work for Microsoft. One suggestion was that the OEM installation of Vista, especially on ThinkPads unfortunately, is not very clean or well functioning. His suggestion was to get a full install disk of Vista and do a complete wipe and reinstall everything from scratch.

This would require I backed up all my data. That I made a very complete list of all of the software I have installed (antivirus software, firefox, thunderbird, MSFT Office 2007, MindManager, etc) and made sure I had all the relevant license keys for each product as well as the current installer (or at least how to get the latest versions – or in some cases the versions for which I have a license). Then I would have to reformat my disk completely (likely wiping the IBM special partition as well) and reinstall Vista. Then install MSFT Office 2007, FireFox, Microsoft Expression, Thunderbird, anti-virus software, Skype, Google Pack, some of the key pieces of IBM software (password manager using my fingerprint scanner perhaps, power management software etc) and then migrate back my key data (iTunes, Outlook files, recourses/research, writings, photos etc.

All in all that would likely require 1 to 2 full days between the full backups, reformats and very significant post-installation patching efforts.

But as a result I also quite likely have a much cleaner installation, less cruft, likely a much better performing laptop, and might take the opportunity to structure the laptop to also dual boot with a linux installation (Ubuntu?). If I can use the full license to Vista Microsoft gave me a while back the cost for this would be minimal – but the time and effort could be considerable. And almost certainly there would be one or more issues around licenses with something I want to install.

Scenario Two – I buy the MacBook Air (used) from a friend of a friend 

This would cost me about $1800 for a MacBook Air + external superdrive. On top of that I would probably buy additional AppleCare (another $250 or so) so as to have support into the future.

It would have to be shipped from the east coast to here on the west coast – or I might pick it up in person on my next trip to the east coast in a few weeks.

To make the MacBook Air functional for me I would have to install an office suite (iWork? – which I do have a copy of for my iMac have to check on the licensing for whether I can also use that on a laptop). I would likely buy a small bit of software to help migrate my data from Outlook to formats importable into the Mac built-in applications (though I’m not sure if I want to use those apps or not – haven’t ever used them so don’t fully know if I would like them or not).

I would then have to migrate my iTunes library (always painful) and connect an external drive with my music library to the Air, probably connect via a USB Hub so I can also connect my iPhone and/or my iPod. For the iPhone I owuld have to do this AFTER contacts have been synced and I would have to set up the new connections for data for the iPhone (not sure if I also have to reformat it to work smoothly with  the Mac).

If my iTunes data import works smoothly I should have everything set up, but it not I’ll have to spend a lot of time getting iTunes set up for my use (rebuilding smart playlists etc) and I may lose a lot of key data such as timestamps of when I added data to iTunes, playcounts of files, ratings of songs, podcast subscriptions.

Likely I’ll also need to replace my current, 120gb external portable drive with a much larger but still very small external drive. Ideally at least 300+gb but very lightweight. I’d expect the cost for that will be at least $100, likely closer to $150 but I’d be happy to find that’s high. In setting up my podcast subscriptions as well as my subscriptions to tv shows via iTunes I’ll have to decide where those files come from and are stored (ideally I can do this is in a way usable via my iMac as well – but that might be tricky and some files likely should be local to the Air so I can use them when not online)

Very likely I’ll also have to spend $99 a year to get a .mac account so I can use the “back to my mac” feature to reach my desktop iMac and perhaps use the .mac account to do some data synching (though Plaxo may be sufficient for much of what I actually need done.

I’ll also then need to install a variety of useful Mac software – Skitch for example is a big draw for moving to the Mac laptop, a tool I’d expect to use fairly frequently. I knwo there are dozens of other applications which friends would suggest I use and which I would test out and decide amongst over time – apps for productivity, apps for business/brainstorming/notetaking etc. All told I would like spend a fair chunk of change on new software for the Mac laptop – whether I get an Air or another model. But, for the most part, these would also be tools which pretty clearly would be helping me get more done and be more effienct.

In the case of the Air however I almost certainly won’t install VM Fusion or Parallels as there likely simply isn’t the diskspace to use either effectively. In my current home network configuration this means that I have to give up entirely on using my current printer (for which there are not OSX or Linux drivers). So though I don’t print a lot, likely I’ll have to also plan on investing in a new printer.

Scenario Three – another model of a Mac portable 

I do like the Air’s multi-touch trackpad, I can see myself using gestures frequently. So that rules out (for now) the lower end MacBooks or a used/refurbished MacBook Pro. But I would have to give the other MacBook Pro models serious consideration. The 15″ laptop has nearly the same resolution as my current ThinkPad (one of my major concerns with the MacBook Air is that the resolution there is lower than on my ThinkPad – and my ThinkPad’s resolution isn’t high enough for me – I really like be able to have a lot of information on the screen at once. That said the clarity of the Air’s screen is fantastic and the performance of the graphics is better than my ThinkPad so video etc likely will look much better (be playable in fact).

A 15″ MacBook also weighs around the same as my ThinkPad does with the extended life batteries which I have. However the battery life is a bit lower (3 hours or is what I’ve heard but I’ll be checking with people on that). But overall it would be a great machine and would cost not a lot more than the MacBook Air (less perhaps if I can get a discount from a friend who works at Apple which is a serious possibility).

Scenario Four – another model of PC laptop – running Vista 

Least likely, as there are aren’t many other models I might want to buy but this is a consideration.

8 Responses to “Evaluating a new laptop vs refreshing old – MacBook Air vs ThinkPad X60”

  1. swissfondue said

    From your description, your life is on your laptop. So a MacBook Air would not give you enough HD space. You don’t sound like you want to compromise that much.

    I’d suggest buying a MacBook. They now come with up to 250GB HD, are the same size (except for the thinness)as the MBA and have much more processing power. And these are the cheapest new Mac laptops available.

    I’d only go with a MacBook pro if you really need a 15″ screen while mobile.

  2. doyouneedawebsite said

    Looking forward to hearing what your choice will be, personally I like my MBP (though I rarely boot into OSX)

    ATP Inc – Do You Need A Website

  3. indroo said

    MBA is another MacMini to me… the forms great but they shrink all the power to be the lightest.

  4. Daniel R said

    Shannon,

    Whatever you do, please don’t get a Vista. I’ve almost quit following you on twitter because of your constant complaints on Vista.😉

    If 80% of the time, you do not need your USB ports or +100 GB of space (specifically while you’re on the go), I’d suggest a MacBook Air with WindowsXP running on VMWare. If you really cannot part with USB ports or +100 GB, get a MacBook Pro, again, with WindowsXP running on VM Ware.

    My own set-up is a MacBook Pro with WindowsXP 2SP and Office 2007. Personally, I love Office 2007; next to WindowsXP, this is one of the best software Microsoft has put out in a long time. I dont have the stability issues you’ve mentioned re: Office2007. Maybe it is a Vista v. WindowsXP thing?

    You mention if you had the MacBook Air your “almost certainly won’t install VM Fusion or Parallels as there likely simply isn’t the diskspace to use either effectively”. I’m curious why this is so? WindowsXP can be made to be installed under 1 GB.

    Indeed this weekend I’m going to install WindowsXP on my ASUS eee (which I use for light, on the go use). My eee only has 4gb and some folks have WindowsXP running off of it just fine.

  5. Daniel,

    Heh – sorry about those tweets.

    I do use USB ports fairly frequently – specifically to sync my iPod and iPhone which I do on about a once a day basis (after I update my podcast subscriptions). Potentially I could perhaps migrate my main media library to my iMac desktop and sync my iPod only against that and only put my podcasts onto my iPhone but generally speaking that isn’t how I have used the two devices – I typically mostly listen to podcasts and music off my iPod, only rarely (though most often when traveling) listening off my iPhone – mostly to keep my battery life as long as possible which is most important when I’m traveling. I do also often want to plug in my iPhone to recharge from my laptop batteries when I’m on the road (though potentially I could just always carry my iPhone wall charger adapter but that’s yet another adapter to carry around.

    My media library is growing at a rate that is unlikely to be manageable even on a MacBook Pro. At present my music & video podcast libraries are about 130+ gbs. That doesn’t however include a lot of my media which simply doesn’t fit on my current portable HD (which is a 120gb and nearly full). In the future I anticipate my media collections growing at a rate of multiple GB/month perhaps more (podcasts, purchased digital content, ripped CDs). I don’t even rip my DVDs though I might like having that content available when traveling as well. Since I don’t own a TV, when there are shows I want to watch (Monk for example) I have frequently bought those digitally – and that content can fill disks quickly, not to mention all my podcasting and videocasting friends.

    In terms of using VMWare, for starters I simply do not own a copy of MSFT XP which I could install and use. My last copy of Vista I installed as a Parallels’ installation on my desktop iMac but that now has been failing authorization notices so will no longer update – i.e. is essentially useless. Which is annoying since that was a full license of Vista which Microsoft themselves had given to me at a conference I attended (a full license, not a time limited trial/beta).

    Office 2007 has almost without fail been quite annoying for me. Outlook has been so slow as to be nearly unuseable much of the time. PowerPoint has resulted in presentations I haven’t been able to easily share (couldn’t upload to slideshare for example) and when I needed to couldn’t easily modify (try figuring out how to REMOVE animations between slides = go on, I challenge you = far, far from clear or easy to figure out how to do that). And pretty much every single time I have ever in my entire life opened up Excel and tried to do ANYTHING in it, I have found the experience painful and annoying. From trying to print to something as simple as how to edit a formula I really don’t find Excel very usable – not even in the latest versions.

    Perhaps if I still worked at a company with a site license where I had unlimited licenses for MSFT products I’d consider running it in Parallels or VMWare but not having that luxury I’d have to give more money to MSFT for licenses than I care to do – so if I do end up upgrading to a Mac laptop (though also downgrading in some respects) I’ll probably hold off on any further MSFT spending.

    I may try to do a full data dump off this laptop, take a full inventory of everything I use & have installed, and try a full reformat refresh – haven’t decided if the time and hassles of that might be worth it or not. If I do that, I’ll probably reformat this system into a dual-boot laptop with a Linux and a Vista partition, ideally with some shared data between them (figuring out that last bit is likely the trickiest. If there was a full version of iTunes for Linux I’d migrate in a heartbeat (for all my complaining about iTunes I love it more than I hate it – and especially like it for updating my iPhone/backing up my iPhone, though I know there are open source alternatives that offer similar smart playlist capabilities – though I’m not sure if any could import all my current playlists and play counts, ratings and other metadata).

    thanks for the feedback and for putting up with my tweets,

    Shannon

    ps what’s your twitter handle, I want to make sure I’m following you

  6. Daniel R said

    Hi Shannon,

    Regarding media space. I think eventually you need to make a decision. Considering the rate at which you say your media is increasing, you cannot possible carry around a 500GB laptop around. I understand the need to have immediate access to everything, but that’s simply not practical. A simple 80/20 should be implemented, if possible. At best, you could set-up a home server to access additional files when you’re on the go.

    Re: Vista.
    Considering how even high-level MSFT executives call their Vista laptops “$2100 email machine” (NY Times article from 2-3 weeks ago), I don’t think it’s a wise choice to invest $1,000s on a new laptop, yet be unwilling to buy a copy of WindowsXP (which stops in June). At worst case, you could download a bit-torrent edition of WinXP that has licensing disabled. Obviously, that’s not legally recommended.

    In any case, good luck with your decision. I’m very curious on what you’ll ultimately decide on your laptop decision.

    PS: Regarding twitter, actually we’re already following each other.

  7. mark said

    i like macbook air, Superb quality, beautiful super-bright screen with good viewing angles, doesn’t get hot like most notebooks, fantastic design that slips in between documents and you don’t even notice it, good battery life given the power (I average 3 1/2 hours with regular use and wireless on), light weight, fast wifi connections, tiny power adapter and great feeling full-size keyboard that is backlit for work in low lighting. This is as close to the perfect travel computer that I’ve ever used!

  8. Lynn said

    I’d just like to mention that you should also consider the hard drive speed..as you seem to do alot of moving data/media/etc around. Also consider that Vista uses more RAM just to load/run than XP does.

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