Friday, 8 April 2016

Now it's a new laptop!

It might have seemed as if I was getting very obsessed with my next mobile phone! But there was in fact a more pressing matter to address: upgrading my home computing equipment. This was something I was going to give 'deep thought to' and get on with 'during 2016' (see my post Google Chrome withdraws support for Windows Vista, 30th January 2016) but the urgency was in fact acute. I just wasn't facing up to it.

So it's 'time up' for my ten-year-old laptop (still running Windows XP, and used solely for my photo-processing) and my nine-year-old desktop PC (still running Windows Vista, and my main device for using the Internet, and for bulk photo storage).

For the last week neither XP nor Vista have been supported by Google's Chrome browser - a serious matter, rendering Chrome (my favourite browser) liable henceforth to performance glitches or worse. And presumably this lack of support extends (if not now, then soon) to other Google products that I use a great deal, such as Gmail and Blogger. I certainly can't be without them!

And of course, in less than a year ahead Microsoft will be withdrawing their own support for Vista, with some serious security and app-compatibility problems likely to arise straight away (if my experience of the 2014 Windows XP abandonment is anything to go by).

So, the moment has come to buy a 2016-model Windows 10 laptop. I have been studying the many reviews of likely laptops on the Internet. As always when contemplating a purchase like this, you need to think realistically about what you want from the new beast. My requirements will differ from most other people's.

# Whatever I buy, it must last a minimum of eight years. Looking ahead, I can't afford to replace my laptops oftener. There are too many competing demands on my strictly limited pension income. So the new laptop must be strong, well-built, and likely to last. Cheap, underpowered, tacky machines will be no good at all. Although constrained to what I can afford, I'm buying for the future and making a long-term investment. I am not going to settle for a short-term bargain that will soon be outmoded or simply fall apart. It's worth stretching the budget to get something that will do the job very well eight years from now.

# I'm not looking at Apple. Apple stuff is beautifully designed, and clearly works very well, but joining Planet Apple would require a change of culture and an acceptance of different norms. And once in, there seems to be no escape! Despite Microsoft being a lumbering one-eyed giant, I'm used to Windows, and its ways good and bad, and want to stay with what I know.

# I haven't been impressed by the 'tablet experience', and so buying a laptop with a detachable keyboard, so that the screen can be used as a 'handy' tablet, has no appeal. I want a proper laptop, with a stout fixed hinge.

# I've considered what I will mainly use the new laptop for:
- Writing documents (including blog posts) and working on spreadsheets. I do this daily, relentlessly.
- Editing freshly-taken photos, backing them up, publishing some of them, sharing some of them, and then storing them for easy retrieval. I probably devote more screen time to photo work than watching ordinary TV. It's not a mere hobby, it's integral to my lifestyle.
- Looking at the Internet. It's my window on what's happening in the world, and my source for information on all kinds of things. And I am very curious. I love to know.
- Watching catch-up TV on the BBC iPlayer. More and more, I watch TV at my convenience and not when it's scheduled.

All these uses suggest that a laptop with a larger high-resolution screen, and a decent keyboard and touchpad, will be the most suitable. Let's say a 15-inch screen. That's large enough to make working on documents, spreadsheets and photos - and reading web pages - pleasant and easy. And such a screen at arm's length will seem as big as the one on my TV across the lounge. Nor will a 15-inch laptop be too large and heavy, although I don't need ultra-portability. I only need to carry the thing around the house, between lounge and study, and now and then out to the car or caravan.

# I don't do any gaming. But I have similar graphics requirements, as I need to process a large number of photographs as rapidly as possible. In recent years, since 2009 anyway, I've been taking at least 10,000 shots every year. But since buying the Panasonic LX100 last August the yearly average has increased to 16,000. And these recent photos all have somewhat larger file sizes than before. I can justify a fast and powerful machine.

A study of what's available has quickly narrowed my choice down to Dell's XPS 15. But the configuration that will give me the best combination of features will unfortunately cost £1,599. Ouch! And yet it's not out of reach - it will just blow a very big hole in my savings. It can be properly regarded as an eight-year investment, and looked at in that way, the cost works out at a more reasonable £200 for each year. But £1,599 is still a high enough price to make anybody hesitate! Mind you, the gods that assist wavering purchasers are intervening. Booking Fiona in for her annual service and MOT this morning, I discovered to my joy that this year's service will be significantly cheaper this year than I had thought. That certainly helps. Something saved on one thing can be spent instead on another!

That £1,599 will buy me a glossy '4K' screen. I do know what 4K means for TVs; and wandering around Currys at midday (not a place I'd ever buy from, but you do at least see an awful lot of well set-up TVs on display) I was reminded yet again how stunning a 4K picture is - so detailed, so colourful. Definitely gorgeous, and a feature to lust after! It would be great on a laptop too - so far as pictures are concerned. There's a potential snag with text and icons - all those extra screen pixels make them look tiny! Still, there are workarounds. I may end up rescaling all the time, depending on the activity - that is, switching between screen magnifications to select the most appropriate one.

With 4K comes touch. A 4K laptop screen can be touched like a phone screen can. Gestures can be used to do things. Perhaps this is unlikely to be especially useful on a laptop but, who knows, the ability to do something by quickly touching or swiping the screen might have unexpected advantages. A one-prod method of getting up the rescaling menu, for instance?

I could save myself £300 by having a non-touch, matte screen with 'mere' full-HD resolution. That's a screen filled with only a quarter of the pixels you get with 4K. It's still sharp! And being matte instead of glossy means that screen reflections are less of a problem. But a laptop screen can always be angled to eliminate reflections, and in any case I don't do any photo work in broad daylight, nor with bright house lights shining onto the screen. For me, screen reflections are entirely avoidable, and not an issue. So it comes down to whether saving £300 is worth the trade-off of not having 4K resolution. That's saving £37.50 for each of those next eight years: is it enough to care about? 4K is definitely the thing of the future, destined to be a key part of the 'laptop experience' in years to come. 4K would keep my new laptop 'contemporary'. Hmm. I do think I might kick myself if I settled for an adequate, but lesser, screen.

4K combined with great processing power means that battery life won't be impressive. This hardly matters. Whether at home, or in the caravan, I always plug in to the mains, and that won't change. I do not envisage a lengthy holiday in parts where electricity is not on tap!

I don't have to make a final decision today. There's no point. I'm less than a week away from my next caravan holiday, and there's going to be a lot of preparation needed for that in the next few days. Even if Dell could despatch and deliver a new laptop to me before I go, I'd have no time to do more than unpack it. I know from past experience that it can take days to set a new computer up. There are always frustrations. Just getting used to the look of Windows 10, and how to do basic things, will take a while. I really wouldn't be able to throw enough time at it. And I couldn't get Wi-Fi on the farms I'll be staying at, so the vital Internet would be out of reach unless I used my phone as a 4G hot-spot and tethered the laptop to it.

No, I'll wait till I get home. I want to get out and around, and enjoy my holiday, not skulk in the caravan trying to make a new toy work. And if it's rainy and cold, I'd rather get out needles and wool, and start practising my knitting!

Besides, despite all this careful consideration, it's sensible to take a break from the whole thing, stand back, and give myself time to cool off and rethink. Over the next couple of weeks a different laptop solution may come to my attention.

The new laptop, once bought, will enable the honourable retirement of the trusty old one, and the dishonourable dismissal of my crumbling unloved last-legs tablet. I'll be keeping the desktop PC though. It has 190GB of storage space left, and the big monitor is still very good. It will become a big powered hard drive, the physical repository for my entire digital photo collection - backed-up periodically of course to other hard drives. In that way it will remain useful for years ahead. But disconnected from the Internet - and therefore inaccessible to destructive viruses and malware.

As regards the notion of a new phone in 2016, that's now an impossibility. The cash won't be there. It'll have been spent on the laptop. But do you know, I don't mind carrying on with the phone I have. It's excellent. And, if I manage its remaining memory carefully, I'm sure it will last well into 2017. Why should I play the two-year replacement game, anyway?


  1. For those of us who were born in an age of real austerity this constant replacement of expensive machinery hurts. My rolleiflex is a mere fifty years old and works much like new, my Nikon film cameras are from the early 70's and after a lifetime of heavy use could benefit from a quick service, not something you would even consider with an almost new digital equivalent, I could go on...

    I have hardly used my Apple laptop since work away from home dried up almost the moment it was bought in 2009. It can run the most up to date operating systems with up to date backups and still works fine but the battery has never been good and now drains as fast as water from a bathtub and sometimes runs hot enough to make toast! I watch Apple equipment changes and there are always hidden , casually unmentioned bits changed to save a few cents or force a higher spec decision. I used to be a fan based on their design and clean simplicity of the way they worked. Photo file sizes have increased so much that an update of the desktop is years overdue but so much is left out of the new machines to make them look sleek that a whole spaghetti factory of cables needs to snake out of the back for disc reader and memory to compensate for the now hopelessly small built in memory. I shall keep going with what I have but am hardly likely to be a customer any time soon if ever.

    My fund has now gone on improving my darkroom enlarger and some will go on a new bike to get me out to take some more old fashioned photographs...

    I never imagined that the wee soul who long dreamed of the science fiction like devices which are now available would be driven to become a Luddite by those very same devices once they arrived.

    Looking forward to your reports from your voyage.

  2. You are right about the incentives pushed at people to buy a better but costlier device than they intended, simply to secure some feature that matters to them.

    My 2006 Asus laptop would now cost (allowing for inflation) about £1,400. I hoped, relying on a notion that you got more tech for your cash nowadays, that I could get away with paying £1,000 or less. But I now see that I was mistaken.

    The XPS 15 that I have in mind is from Dell's premium range, so I am partly paying for the attractive styling, which adds nothing to what the thing will be able to do, and I am not going to be showing my new laptop off to anyone. But if I particularly want certain features in combination - including a stout build - then it needs to be this very expensive machine. Or something else equally expensive. Dell do in fact make a range of laptops called Inspiring, and I looked at them. But it's like settling for a competent but bog-standard Vauxhall car when you really need the better performance of a high-end Mercedes, BMW or Audi.


  3. Curse word-completion. I meant Inspiron, not Inspiring.


  4. My HP laptop,bought last year, cost less than a third of the one you're contemplating but it does have a touch screen. I would be very reluctant to revert to a non-touch one now as it's so useful, especially when using the computer on my lap,without the convenience of a remote mouse.


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