Some thoughts about options for light Unix laptops

November 28, 2016

I have an odd confession: sometimes I feel (irrationally) embarrassed that despite being a computer person, I don't have a laptop. Everyone else seems to have one, yet here I am, clearly behind the times, clinging to a desktop-only setup. At times like this I naturally wind up considering the issue of what laptop I might get if I was going to get one, and after my recent exposure to a Chromebook I've been thinking about this once again.

I'll never be someone who uses a laptop by itself as my only computer, so I'm not interested in a giant laptop with a giant display; giant displays are one of the things that the desktop is for. Based on my experiences so far I think that a roughly 13" laptop is at the sweet spot of a display that's big enough without things being too big, and I would like something that's nicely portable.

Synthesized from various sources, I seem to have three decent choices and a not so great one:

  • A Chromebook, either running Chrome OS or reinstalled with Linux. Even after buying a larger SSD myself, Chromebooks appear to be clearly the cheapest way to get a light 13" laptop if I don't need particularly much CPU performance. At least one higher end Chromebook is available with a 3200x1800 'QHD+' display and has options for more than 4 GB of RAM (which could make it more useful as a Linux machine).

    A Chromebook is the low cost option but also the least useful as a standalone machine. As a ChromeOS machine it's probably mostly an Internet terminal (even once you add Android apps). Running Linux it would still be relatively slow and unlikely to be suitable for things like processing photos or doing much in the way of programming. Running a lighter weight Unix and desktop environment (FreeBSD or even OpenBSD) might help a bit, but compilers and photo editors and so on have the same CPU demands no matter what Unix they're running on.

    (According to Passmark, my vintage 2011 machine has a CPU that totally eclipses even the higher end Dell Chromebook 13 CPU. This is not really surprising given the big difference in TDP between my desktop CPU and the mobile CPUs that are going to go into a Chromebook.)

  • A Macbook of some sort. This is the obvious way to get a broadly Unix environment on a laptop that should just work without having to worry about power management, wireless chipsets, graphics support, and this and that and the other. Drawbacks include reports that the keyboard on recent Macbooks is not very nice (although I'm not sure that people are comparing it to, eg, Dell laptop keyboards). Advantages include that it would work well with my iPhone and I could get what is now my favorite Twitter client. Macbooks can be had with Retina displays if you pick the right model.

    This would be the largest change from my current environment. The Macbook command line environment may be Unix but the GUI and the programs I would use there is completely different (and I would use the GUI, because I like GUIs). There might be problems with conveniently using Yubikeys for SSH, too.

    A clear advantage of a Macbook is that it gets me access to the universe of Mac (GUI) software, including commercial software for things like RAW photo processing. I'm fond of my chosen photo processor, but for photography in specific using Linux is definitely taking the harder and generally not as good road.

    (You can argue about whether Macbooks really qualify as Unix machines. My answer is that they clearly do as far as command line usage is concerned and that covers a lot of what I want, and I could also get eg GNU Emacs and thus tools like Magit. My evolving views here do not fit in the margins of this entry.)

  • A (Windows) ultrabook (re)installed with Linux, such as the current Dell XPS 13 model or other similar machines. This is not the low cost option but I would get a pretty capable machine that ran my Linux laptop environment, had a good battery lifetime (although not as good as a Chromebook's), could be had with a high resolution display (beyond FHD), and so on. At least some ultrabooks apparently have more or less complete Linux support, making this the most obvious and straightforward option.

    It's not inexpensive, though. I'd be paying a fair bit to have a light 13" laptop that was merely a decently capable Linux machine (probably with a high resolution display, though, because if I'm going to splash out for an ultrabook I should go all the way to a nice screen).

    (As far as I can tell from Passmark, current higher end ultrabook CPUs approach but don't really pass my 2011 home machine's CPU. On the one hand I guess thermal limits are hard; on the other hand, it's impressive that they're almost managing what once took 95 TDP in a 15 TDP power budget.)

The not so great option:

  • A budget Windows laptop reinstalled with Linux. I call this not so great because I've read that budget laptops are not as slim and light as ultrabooks (as well as not being as powerful). I'd wind up with a bigger, heavier, clunkier machine that worked reasonably well, one that was moderately more powerful than a Chromebook and had more memory and hopefully cost me not too much more. I don't think budget laptops have better than FHD displays and I wouldn't expect the keyboards, trackpads and so on to be as nice as on an ultrabook.

    This is the kind of option that I'd expect work to pick. It's not all that attractive if I'm spending my own money.

If I want a reasonably slim and light 13" laptop, my impression is that the first three (Chromebook, Macbook, ultrabook) are my only choices.

Any of these should handle light travel for conferences and the like, where my main interest is connecting back to 'home' to read email, write Wandering Thoughts entries, and so on. I'd expect only ultrabooks or a Macbook to handle more demanding travel situations such as processing RAW photos or letting me work on personal coding projects of any decent size. And if I was taking a laptop off to some sort of training where we were expected to spin up virtual machines or the like (as happened to a co-worker recently), a Chromebook is not suitable.

(Of course if I'm going off to training that needs a capable laptop, work should be providing it and it might need to run Windows anyways.)

When thinking about things like this, I find it useful to ask myself what I would do if money wasn't a consideration. Given what's available today I think the answer would be 'buy an ultrabook with a QHD+ display'. But if I was even really considering getting a laptop, I think the actual answer would be 'wait, because changes in laptops and Chromebooks are probably coming soon'.

My current view, biased by a long standing desire for high-resolution displays (more exactly high DPI displays), is that spending a bunch of money to get a machine with merely a FHD display seems like a waste. If I had to settle for a FHD display, it would be tempting to minimize the cost by going with a Chromebook. I'm sure I could do things like moderate Go coding even on a Chromebook; I've used slower machines in the past. Heck, my current work laptop is one of the lower end Thinkpad T60s.

(I'm not actually thinking of getting a laptop because I know perfectly well that feeling embarrassed about not having one is a silly reaction to have here. I don't have a laptop in large part for the simple reason that I don't have much use for one today; I don't travel and I almost never do work or other computer stuff outside of my office and home.)

Comments on this page:

Have you thought about the usecase of Chromebooks not as a fully independent machine, but something more akin to a thin-client remote access device? As you said, you'd primarily connect back home (I read that as a VPN) and you're quite used to SSH. I don't know how you'd feel about relying on everything being available either in a remote terminal or via a web-based application. I've done something similar before when I was at school, living 90% in the CLI. (I still launched X11 and used Firefox for a variety of things, like my online classrooms.) It was fairly painless, since I was already using mutt, irssi, and vim. I still kind of yearn for that time; to push all of the extra graphical stuff away and go back to "the basics".

By Ewen McNeill at 2016-11-29 03:57:45:

As an observation I meant to make on the earlier (CPU performance) post: if single threaded CPU performance is the main thing that matters to you (and often it is still the limiting factor for many jobs), then in a modern CPU what you want is (a) as much layer 1 cache as possible, and (b) the largest peak "TurboBoost" (Intel trademark name) as possible. Where "TurboBoost" is the technology that basically lets one core be overclocked at the expense of other cores being either massively under clocked or halted completely -- trading heat generation of one core for heat savings in the other cores, until it hits its thermal envelope. It doesn't really help in the long term as you'll hit the terminal envelope and be throttled, but it seems very useful for short (several seconds) single threaded tasks.

FWIW, my impression (from 7+ years of OS X as a Desktop) is that it's "Unix enough" -- in particular FreeBSD-like enough -- to be a reasonable "pretty Unix". Plus there's, eg, a whole bunch of commercial photography software that is Mac/Windows only. But the direction Apple seems to be heading (USB-C only, few external connections, stealing the Esc key and function keys, etc) isn't ideal for me. So careful hardware selection is needed on the Mac side at present, and I bought a light Mac laptop earlier this year precisely in anticipation of the rumoured (and now confirmed) changes to "lock in" those older, backward-compatible, interfaces for a few more years.

As another commenter said, if you mostly don't need a laptop, and most of your "laptop" usage is of the "thin client" variety, then that's pretty much the use case for a Chromebook. Which could be worth it if you find decent enough hardware at a cheap enough price. I've certainly seen various people using them as "conference only" machines in thin client mode. And it seems to work if you're okay with Google As The Mothership (tm), or a tiny constrained Linux install and "client only" mode for travel. Alternatively the 1.5kg-2kg weight range is fairly tolerable if you're not carrying it around much; the ultra-light weight range only really makes a big difference if you're carrying it constantly. (Battery life is more of a consideration, especially for conference use.)

FWIW I suspect small screen QHD will be a "higher end" feature for a while yet. 1080p on a 13" screen is a fairly good DPI anyway (at least if you don't have amazing vision, and I don't). I think QHD will matter much more on larger (eg, 27" or larger) screens. YMMV if you have particularly good vision. (Some very back of the envelope maths suggests 1080p on a 13" 16:9 screen is somewhere around 175dpi, and on a 1080p on a 27" screen is closer to 80dpi. That's somewhat offset by distance-to-screen changes, and thus changes in field of view, but only somewhat.)


By Robert at 2016-11-29 04:33:17:

I got a Dell XPS13 with Ubuntu preinstalled in June this year and I am fairly happy with it.

By Miksa at 2016-11-29 06:07:26:

My preferred choice has been an 8-inch Android tablet with separate bluetooth keyboard. For most of my use a keyboard isn't needed much and for example in couch use I find the keyboard in a laptop is just in the way.

When I'm going to a meeting I'll just take the keyboard with me. It has a protective case that can be turned in to a pedestal for the tablet to keep it upright on the desk and I have the keyboard in my lap. I feel this is better ergonomics than in laptops, where the screen and keyboard are too close together.

The biggest improvement I would want is a more generic OS. Android can manage a lot, but it does have many restrictions on what it can be used for.

Written on 28 November 2016.
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