Postcards from the Bleeding Edge
Wednesday, June 03, 2009

  looking for a new laptop, fruitlessly

My 1.6Ghz Athlon 64 laptop has finally become unusable. Half the display is permanently washed out, three keys no longer work, the power connector is fragile... and the true killer is that one of the pins on the PCMCIA interface is broken. The laptop has sat on a shelf for nearly a year, serving as a sometime fileserver and CD burner.

It was perfectly adequate for my needs, for years - the sole purpose "mahal" had was basically to be a 12 track 96khz audio field recorder. I have been doing recordings, instead, with a 2 track zoom h4 - which works well but makes it impossible to record individual instruments.

I went looking for a new laptop a few months back.

I am in awe of what I can get from Dell to custom build for about 640 dollars - a Linux 2.2Ghz dual core laptop, 6MB of cache, with 4GB ram, 15 inch screen, 7200 RPM hard disk, bluetooth, wifi card, my own choice of color...

But:

The problem with buying anything new is that I have a 400 dollar 24 track PCMCIA audio card (a RME-multiface), and nobody makes PCMCIA laptops anymore! The world has gone to express card - (and a lot don't even have that) - and the express card version of the multiface costs 500 dollars!!

There are express card to pcmcia card converters out there. They are only 60 bucks or so. The problem with these is that they make something that already protrudes out of a case a lot, protrude a lot more.

I mix, edit and overdub on a hefty quad-core box so I don't need much besides that PCMCIA slot and a fast 40GB hard disk that can keep up with that much audio when I'm at a gig.

My old laptop has a perfectly good 80GB 7200 RPM IDE hard disk I could reuse...

... and nobody is making new laptops that use IDE, anymore, either.

I have a 1GB stick of ram that I could retask, too... if ram standards hadn't moved on...

... as well as a known to work well with linux mini-pci wireless card...

Aside from a PCMCIA slot, working cpu, screen and keyboard, I don't need a working dvd or cd drive, or hard disk, graphics quality circa 1998 would be fine, don't need anything faster than a 64 bit capable processor at 1.6Ghz, and only need a battery that lasts for 15 minutes - enough to get through a power flicker, but not enough to sit under a tree and work...

You'd kind of hope that you could get something like that, cheap, on the used market.

You'd be wrong.

I know my requirements are unusual but I just spent a fruitless hour searching
on the web on various craigslists.

Almost universally, the laptops have slow hard disks...
Almost universally, the ads boast of "freshly installed Windows XP", which I don't give a damn about.
Almost universally, the laptops have minimal ram. Getting more ram of the appropriate type is a pain in the arse.
Almost universally, the ads don't list the availability of the PCMCIA slot (I can look it up if the model number is supplied)
I am the only one, it seems, that cares about 64 bit processing, (and it is a requirement I could drop, but the rest of my machines are all running 64 bit, and have been for over 5 years - I do like having lots of cache - vs lots of clockspeed - however)

And, almost universally, even 3-4 year old laptops are costing 240 dollars and up.

Heck, mac G3s are going for that. I confess to being tempted to get a G3 or G4 mac just because I like having unusual processors around, but haven't found one that had a PCMCIA slot, either!

Admittedly most of used laptops I've seen on craigslist are the nicer ones, like the lenovo T series, that I have always lusted for - (I HATE TOUCHPADS, and in my work environment (a busy music gig) touchpads are actually dangerous to your recording as the slightest brush with one might click on something damaging... I remember my old 486 butterfly keyboard laptop fondly)

I know my needs are unusual. I also know that just about everybody that bought a laptop in the last decade, suffers unnecessarily from inadequate ram, and few bother to upgrade, not understanding that hooking your CPU directly to the hard disk is a bad thing...

So maybe it is easier to just bite the bullet and get a shiny new laptop. But it irks me. Out there, somewhere, I'm sure, are tens of thousands of laptops that are too hard to repair and upgrade, that meet my needs... that someone is planning to put in a landfill.

I tried building a suitable box out of an atom mini-itx - either 64 or 32 bit, it was dismally slow and unusable... I am totally unimpressed with the atom...

What to do? I guess I'll keep searching google and craigslist... and maybe kvetching here will help.

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David Täht writes about politics, space, copyright, the internet, audio software, operating systems and surfing.


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