My view of using a docked laptop as my main machine

December 10, 2016

In a comment on this entry, Claire mentioned, well, I'll just quote:

It's perfectly possible to use a laptop as your main machine with a nice display, keyboard, mouse, and other peripherals. [...]

This is true. As Claire notes from personal experience, modern laptops can have displays, keyboards, and mice plugged into them. In fact, they can generally have exactly the same collection of keyboards, mice, and so on that you (or I) would be using with a desktop. I think the only possible problem here is exotic display setups that require equally exotic graphics cards to drive. A laptop will generally be less powerful in terms of CPU than a modern desktop (as I found when I started looking), and it may have cooling problems if run under heavy load for an extended period of time. But these are probably not problems for me in practice (regardless of what I'd like) and the 16 to 32 GB of RAM that you can get in a high end laptop these days is also not a problem.

(I'd like ECC in my 'desktop', but I've already given up on that too in practice.)

Still, I'm generally not interested, for two levels of reasons; there's a technical reason and then a broader emotional one. The technical reason is straightforward, namely that with laptops you only get one disk. I very strongly want mirrored disks, and until SSDs get much cheaper I need two pairs of disks in my serious desktop machines.

(Yes, really. I have over 750 GB of my own photos stored on my desktop, and that's only going to go up. Photography with RAW files adds up.)

There are workarounds for these issues; frequent backups, a NAS of some sort, and so on. But they add complication to the whole setup. Some of the complication would be good for me even with mirroring (such as frequent backups), but not all of it, and the situation even with workarounds is not quite as good as a desktop that takes four drives or more.

Which gets me to the broader emotional issue, which is that I have a fairly strong negative reaction to the idea of buying a laptop and then using it almost entirely as a CPU in a box. Because that's what a docked laptop is once you plug in a keyboard, a mouse, one or more external displays, a NAS, and so on, and use them instead of the laptop's own versions. This isn't a pragmatic, logical reaction, it's a visceral emotional one; it feels quite wrong to buy a laptop only in order to use it as a black (or silver) compute slab. Tentatively (since the situation hasn't come up), I think I wouldn't want to do this even if I had a reasonable amount of use for the laptop as a detached machine on its own. Right now, my gut would rather have two machines.

With that said, my gut may be flat out wrong here. To some degree I'm clinging to the familiar and so seeing all of its advantages and very few of its disadvantages; it's possible that if I switched to a single machine I moved around with, I'd come to love the setup and wonder how I'd ever managed to live with (eg) a fragmented working environment spread across N machines, all somewhat different from each other. A world where I moved a laptop between home and work would definitely be significantly different but I can't be sure it would be worse overall.

(With that said I see significant issues with aspects of this, like simply the process of moving the laptop around. You see, not only am I a bicycle commuter but I don't like backpacks and I not infrequently do things like go on after-work bike rides with my bicycle club. Hauling an expensive laptop around all the time in my bicycle panniers is not an appealing idea, and if the laptop is also my home machine I simply can't ever leave it behind at work.)

(I wrote a somewhat different take on this back in 2010, which didn't really spend much time on the 'laptop as just the system core' approach.)

Comments on this page:

By Jean Paul at 2016-12-10 04:23:17:

I use laptops due to occasional travel and infrequent moving, although having one for work and one for personal use is sacred I think.

Using one machine for both complicates things in my opinion and makes it harder to unwind after a day at work. This way I can also suspend my work machine to keep most of the environment ready for the next day.

You can also apply different level of cautiousness with a work machine, not plugging in unnecessary devices (transferring family photos from random cameras, etc.), only having just enough software to get the job done and so on.

Also, a system administrator, I don't like the idea of coworkers taking their machines home. In a small trusted team, it works, but as you grow, it's not scalable. It makes on/off boarding harder.

My personal laptop is configured with 2x 2.5" bays, one SSD and one 1TB hard drive for storage. There's no RAID, but for things that matter I prefer to keep a copy on an external disk and/or offsite.

By cks at 2016-12-10 21:55:04:

The work versus personal device thing is definitely an issue. Any laptop I moved back and forth would have to be a personal device, and apart from other issues I'm not all that enthused about basically donating a personal device to work; I feel that work ought to be providing me with my tools, computers included.

I can imagine employment situations where this is not an issue because work says something like 'we'll pay for your personal laptop on the basis that you also use it for work, but it's 100% your device and you own it if and when you leave'. But that still requires work to be okay with a personal device on the work network and so on.

(That is not much of an issue in our university environment because there are already a ton of personal devices on the network and sysadmins wind up doing potentially sensitive things from home with their own home computers. Or for that matter, from personal phones and tablets and so on. And I think we may have a few sysadmins who already prefer to work from personal laptops simply because their work requires them to move around the buildings a lot. A (big) company might forbid this and prefer to fund work devices, even for home use or portable use, but universities are cheap.)

By Miksa at 2016-12-11 14:47:42:

With a docked laptop you also get the worst of both world. An under-powered and expensive desktop with limited upgradeability and a large and heavy laptop. Better option would be two devices dedicated for their purposes, you just need to engineer ways for both of them to have access for any required data.

Docked laptop works best if your needs can be fulfilled with a lightweight, low-powered laptop.

Written on 10 December 2016.
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