I am in the market for a new laptop. My current laptop is literally falling apart, as some of the case screws have fallen out. I could replace those, but that would only fix one small problem. Also problematic is the fact that my battery only holds about 25 minutes worth of charge. And lately, doing anything remotely CPU intensive causes the system to overheat and shutdown. I’ve taken the system apart several times, inspecting the system fan and looking for obvious problems that might cause overheating. Alas, I’ve found nothing. So I’ve been forcibly setting the CPU frequency to its lowest setting, which makes the whole thing more sluggish than I would like.

So I’m looking for something new. Through the OSU technology store I can purchase a Hewlett Packard 8510w laptop. This is the “workstation” caliber laptop, with a sturdy metal case instead of cheap consumer plastic. It also comes with a high-end Nvidia graphics card – something I’ve really missed on my current laptop (I miss playing Quake, surprisingly). Other features include 2 GB RAM, roomy hard disk, Bluetooth, and a 3-year accidental damage warranty. That last is extremely appealing.

If I get that laptop, I’ll install GNU/Linux onto it. Before I purchase it, I intend to take an Ubuntu LiveCD to the store to try it on the floor model, to get an idea of what hardware works and what doesn’t work. I expect most of the hardware will work. Certainly the NVidia card will be supported by closed-source drivers. Bluetooth should work. The wireless chipset should work (though may require a binary closed-source firmware blob). Audio may require some fussing to make work; though I might be presently surprised. Assuming all the hardware works, after installing Ubuntu I’d have to install all the proprietary audio and video codecs so prevalent today (though I could consider purchasing the Fluendo closed-source GStreamer plugins).

I did use an Ubuntu LiveCD on the HP 8510p – the consumer model of this laptop, with the ATI graphics card instead of the NVidia. Most everything worked just fine: volume control buttons, WiFi kill switch, touchpad – including the scroll portion – and Bluetooth. That was all very refreshing, and helped solidify my interest in the 8510w. This page about Debian on the 8510w leaves me more than a little concerned, though, as it describes considerable more hoop-jumping than I’m inclined to do.

In the interest of comparative research and being an informed consumer, I picked DrBacchus’s brain about his satisfaction with his Apple laptop. A long-time GNU/Linux user, several years ago he purchases an Apple laptop and has been using a Apple ever since. He’s mostly satisfied with it. He came to the conclusion that he was tired of trying to get all his laptop hardware fully supported and properly working with the various GNU/Linux distributions. I share his frustrations on this issue. He’s grown to appreciate most of the iLife products (iPhoto, in particular), and he raves about Keynote for his presentations. I don’t give many presentations, so that’s not too big a deal to me.

My sister has been using a Mac for a number of years, and she seems fairly well satisfied. At least, I haven’t heard her complaining about it lately. She purchased a Mac specifically for the ease-of-use when she joined the Peace Corps: she didn’t want to suffer through system instabilities or application failures when she was literally isolated from any meaningful technical support. This seems to have been a good choice for her, and worked fairly well.

While chatting with Carina the other night, I admitted I was growing increasingly frustrated by all the hoop-jumping required to enjoy various multimedia in GNU/Linux, and that the ease of a Mac had a very strong appeal. She admitted that she intended to purchase an Apple when her current laptop expires. But then I remember that I don’t particularly like OSX; nor am I keen to pay Apple every year for operating system upgrades. I’m also reminded of Mark Pilgrim’s juggling oranges and when the bough breaks essays detailing his dissatisfaction with Apple. His comments really hit home for me, highlighting the subtle importance of “Free as in Freeom”.

I don’t expect to use iTunes, primarily for philosophical reasons; but also because I don’t use my computers to listen to a lot of music (in fact, I don’t listen to a lot of music). I might be willing to try iPhoto, but I’ve been working happily enough to date just making directories for groups of photos based on date, then manually selecting the ones to upload to Flickr and finally burning to DVD when I have several gigs worth of photos. I might enjoy using iDVD, since I find the GNU/Linux DVD authoring utilities to be more frustrating than they need to be most of the time. Time Machine doesn’t interest me much; and the OSX Dashboard and widgets don’t interest me too much, either.

The real value of purchasing a Mac would be the knowledge that all the hardware was absolutely supported by the software. Of course, I could also try running Ubuntu (or another distribution of GNU/Linux) on a Mac laptop, as I know folks do, but it would require time and effort to get everything set up. I expect that the latter would exhaust the former, and I’d be left with something that was almost but just not quite working perfectly. If I’m going to be in that situation, why should I pay the premium that Apple commands for their hardware? Better to save money and get less expensive hardware that is equally poorly supported!

Complicating my decision making process is my intense aversion to spending money. I particularly hate to spend large quantities of money, as I almost always experience buyer’s remorse. I know that as soon as I purchase a laptop it will be largely out of date. I don’t intend to purchase another laptop for at least three years (preferably longer), so I need to make sure that I can be content with whatever I purchase for at least that long. I expect the Apple to work through that time frame, and be well supported. I imagine that the HP hardware would last that long, though I’m not entirely keen on the way Ubuntu has been developing lately, as features and services continue to be added that I don’t use and which will only suck up battery life (things like the Tracker service: I don’t lose files, so I don’t have a need for a file indexing service – yes of course I can turn this off, but that’s more hoop-jumping, dammit!).

And then I keep remembering that the overwhelming use of this laptop will be for low-resource tasks like email and news reading. Occasionally I’ll record something for LibriVox, or produce a DVD of video of the kids. As previously mentioned I would sometimes like to enjoy the diversion of Quake and similar games. I could invest in a (reasonably) powerful desktop computer for these more demanding activities, and then continue to make do with my current laptop for mobility when reading email. I would prefer, however, to minimize the number of computers in my home, and using a laptop exclusively seems like the best way to do that.

This is the first time I’ve ever seriously considered purchasing a computer and not running GNU/Linux on it. In some ways I feel like I’d be selling out, but that’s not a particularly compelling reason to avoid the Mac. I’ve certainly enjoyed the benefits of Free Software for many years, and in that time I’ve almost entirely ignored any benefits I might receive from proprietary software. I wonder if I could be happy using a proprietary system for three years? The fact of the matter is that I’m not a developer, I’m a user. What little development I do do is entirely web-based. So while I appreciate the benefits of Free Software, it’s not something to which I am fundamentally connected.

I had hoped that distilling my thoughts into this post would help me reach some sort of conclusion; but I’m afraid all I’ve done is ramble! I guess that should be indicative of the fact that I’m not yet ready to make a decision. If anyone has any input on the matter, I would like to hear it.

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