Tuesday, December 23, 2003

More thoughts on the computer

Okay, I will get off this soon, but getting a new computer is a big thing in a geek's life. When I was deciding what to buy, the choice ultimately came down to a machine from Dell, or a machine from Time Computers, a sort of British version of Dell - another company who make machines to order on a basic template and deliver them to your door if you order them. I ultimately decided on Dell because their Inspiron 8600 machine (a version of which I got) came with the highest resolution laptop screen I had seen, 1920x1200 WUXGA. The Time machines have good reviews, seem excellent value for money. They also seem to have read where the market is going. WiFi is virtually ubiquitous on their laptops, and they are telling customers that everybody is going to want or need it within a year or two so you should get it on a new laptop. Also they are onto the fact that in the last year or two the entire consumer electronics industry has turned into a collection of different devices that plug into the USB port of your computer, and their machines (for instance this one) have either four or five USB ports, and the USB ports are at various places on the computer, not just at the back. Time use AMD processors rather than Intel, but that really is not something I greatly care about one way or the other.

Dell have pretty much got it about WiFi (although their base models do not have it as standard) but not quite with the USB ports. The machine I got (quite a high end one) only has two of them, they are both at the back, and they are horizontal one above the other. These are slightly awkward to reach, and a cable plugged into one can make it awkward to get a cable in and out of the other. I have a four way USB hub, which I can plug in to use multiple devices at once, but this is awkward considering the other tangle of cables that you will sometimes have behind a computer. (The nature of a laptop is that you are unplugging and plugging in USB devices all the time, as you are constantly moving the computer around). My previous IBM Thinkpad also had only 2 USB ports (more understandable as it was designed before the USB hardware business really took off) but one of the two USB ports was on the left side rather than the back, which was much easier to reach in ordinary circumstances. Plus the one on the back was oriented vertically, which was easier to attach and detach things from than the horizontal orientation of the new machine. So this is a slight downside of the new machine. It isn't a problem in terms of functionality, but it is a little bit of a problem in terms of design and convenience.

The other thing I am struck by is that when I am using the computer at home, I have a slightly clunky USB external ADSL modem that I have to attach, drag after me when I want to use the computer in bed, and things like that. What would be really nice would be a laptop with a built in ADSL modem, so all I would have to do is plug a telephone cable into the back of the computer (perhaps with a filter needed). For a desktop machine, getting an internal ADSL modem on a PCI card is relatively easy, but such things do not seem to exist for laptops. (Or perhaps they do - but I have never seen a PCMCIA ADSL modem).

My first thought was that in a year or two laptops will come with internal ADSL modems as standard, but thinking about it some more this might not be so. Because, if you have WiFi, you don't really need it. What you really want is one of those all in one ADSL modem/router/wireless hub devices to plug into the phone line and then you use WiFi to connect the laptop to the internet. This has the added bonus that the modem/router/wireless hub device can be different for people using cable broadband rather than ADSL broadband. Perhaps this will be the standard way to connect laptops to the internet - even at home. This would have the added advantage of meaning that there is one fewer device to plug into the USB port at the back. I can actually do this now - I just need to buy the all in one wireless hub. But I may wait until I have a little more money.

And if I am willing to spend a little more money, I can actually solve the issue of the number and location of USB ports as well. My laptop does have a single PCMCIA slot on the left side. It is easy to get a PCMCIA card containing two (or three) USB ports. With one of these, I would have a larger number of USB ports in total and some of them will be on the side of the machine rather than the back, which would make things significantly more convenient. But this would mean that my PCMCIA slot would be full, and I couldn't use it for anything else. That said, I am not sure what other things I am likely to use it for. The most common use for them seems to be for a WiFi card, but I got one of those built in with the laptop. (Okay, it's techically an internal mini-PCI card). Still, this is another way in which the new machine is slightly inferior to the old Thinkpad, which has two slots, neither of which I have admittedly ever used for anything.

So, no big deal. A couple of minor shortcomings, both of which are fixable by spending a little money. When I have some income, I might solve the problems this way.

One thing that Dell have got right is the tracking devices. There seem to be two general ways for moving the cursor on laptops. One is a touchpad below the keyboard, and the other is a pointstick, a little moving thing that exists between the b, g, and h keys. Some people like one, and some like the other. (I like the pointstick, perhaps out of habit because it is what the Thinkpad has). Rather than choosing one or the other, Dell have given me both of them. This is excellent, because it means that everyone can keep using what they prefer.

So a couple of little niggles. But on the whole I am very happy with the new machine .

Update: Perry de Havilland (who is a hard core gamer) also tells me that if I had paid the extra £60 to get the ATI Radeon Mobility 9600 Pro graphics card instead of the nVidia GeForce 5200 Go AGP 4x, that would have been cool. Oh well.

Further Update: Just looking at the after Christmas sale catalogue fromMaplin Electronics, I see that they have an all in one ADSL modem/router/wireless hub for £69.99. That is by far the best price I have seen. They also have a Bluetooth adaptor that plugs into a USB port, so this is something that can actually be added without using up my one PCMCIA slot. This is an external solution, though, which may be a bit of a nuisance. (Of course, at the moment I have no use for Bluetooth anyway).

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