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The Life of P

Tag: PC

WinBook Pro

My laptop, Daedalus, a stalwart of the old Dell XPS Studio line, has lasted well for nearly six years. That realisation came as a surprise since I generally expect a machine to last me only three to four. In the interim I built a new desktop, JARVIS, but found I now lack the necessary time to diagnose and repair a custom rig like that when things go wrong. As a result, for a while now I have wanted to streamline down just to a laptop with a docking solution that made it easy to use with a full desk setup for long work or photo editing sessions and indie/less powerful games (since I now prefer to play most mainstream games on a large TV in the comfort of my living room). The problem is that consumer docks are still unusual and no one was really making the laptop I wanted.

So Daedalus’ successor, Helios (Deus Ex fans will recognise the progressing AI namesakes), took careful selection. The result, as a Buzzfeed headline would no doubt claim, might surprise you. It transpired that the ideal Windows laptop for me is actually an Apple MacBook Pro. It hit each of my requirements:

  • WinBook Pro13″ for portability;
  • SSD for the OS and total storage of at least 500GB;
  • 8GB RAM;
  • Graphics capability for indie games;
  • Ultra hi-res screen;
  • Slide-in dock — the third-party henge dock.

Some of you might reasonably treat this as a weird hoax, but it is important to understand the reasoning behind my general distaste for Apple products. It is not fanboyism, but a desire for interoperability and freedom. That is, when making any technology purchasing decision, I want a device that will work happily with everything else I own and that will not restrict my choices when later upgrading, because I want to be free to select the best product for my use. In general this rules out the “walled garden” of Apple products and particularly iOS. However, since their decision to switch to Intel architecture, Macs are essentially just PC hardware running different software. The introduction of Boot Camp with appropriate drivers for the hardware means Windows can not only be installed but it can be made the default operating system.

Breaking OutI had not been into an Apple store for several years and was impressed by the experience. After asking a few questions I was handed over to someone more knowledgeable about running Windows on Apple hardware and they already had it set up on a demo machine. Purchasing was slick and easy, running the transaction on a portable terminal with the laptop being delivered down to us while we chatted about software and potential pitfalls.

The only tricky part of the Boot Camp setup process was preparing a bootable Windows installation on a USB stick, since the MacBook Pro lacks an optical drive. Within a couple of hours I had Windows loaded up and ready to take over as the default OS, with OSX relegated to a minimal partition on the drive. Whilst Apple provides Windows drivers, it has little incentive to optimise them. As a result, better results can be received from component manufacturers or even third parties like the Trackpad++ project, which reinstates a host of customisable multitouch gesture controls on the generous trackpad. Another quirk is that the high-res screen requires Windows’ full 150% scaling to be readable, but when connected to a standard resolution monitor that becomes unwieldy. The easiest solution is to have a separate user account for use in docked mode and that also allows me to tweak the applications that launch on startup.

Desktop ModeThe hardware is exceptional as one would expect from Apple. The machined unibody chassis is sleek and incredibly thin, yet is surprisingly good at heat dissipation given that it runs extremely quiet in general use. The screen is stellar and input is as comfortable as the competition. The Apple keyboard layout  differs from Windows but SharpKeys offers an easy way to remap them to something more familiar (like reinstating a dedicated “delete” key or reordering Alt and Command/Winkey).

The metal Henge Dock is a big improvement on the original plastic design and the finish looks as though it could have shipped with the MacBook. It ships with all the necessary cables other than the power adapter (so you really need a second one for travelling since one will be fixed to the dock). Connecting and disconnecting the laptop is as easy as slotting it in the right way round, and a rubber insert protects it from scratches whilst providing a snug fit. The result looks like a ridiculously slim mini tower sitting on the desk. Most of the body is exposed to air which limits overheating and the MacBook’s rear vent is specifically designed to be exposed whether the lid is open or closed, so I have little concern about running it in “clamshell mode”. It was this docking option that really sold me on the MacBook in the first place and I find myself surprised both by how well it works and how few non-business options there are from PC manufacturers.

Meet JARVIS

“That’s nearly the size of my head,” I thought apprehensively as I extracted the large metal cube of an aftermarket CPU heatsink from its box. Looking at the assortment of metal and bolts required just to mount it, I wondered if I had made a huge mistake. But as the screws glinted under the spotlights of the living room, surrounded by a myriad of electronic parts destined to form a greater whole, I smiled. So long as it actually fitted in the case, this was going to be fun. I am left slightly concerned that for me building a PC may be less about the end result and more like a £1,000 single-use Lego kit. At which point I really ought just to buy LEGO 10179.

Some of you will recall that my primary machines (i.e. desktops and laptops) are named after fictional AIs, hence MAX (the onboard AI of the alien spacecraft in the 80s classic Flight of the Navigator) and Daedalus (the mysterious AI that chooses to assist the player in the original Deus Ex). Most readers ought to recognise the origin of my new machine, JARVIS, the name narrowly beating out rival option GERTY.

JARVIS follows my usual design philosophy for computers which means a good but not excessive graphics card to keep things cooler and quieter, coupled with as much RAM as I can get on two sticks for a reasonable price. Currently, I discovered, that means a slightly excessive 16GB. With lower power draw in mind, I have been waiting for Intel’s new Ivybridge processors so under the hood is a 3.3 GHz Core i5, paired with an MSI mainboard and factory overclocked Radeon HD 7850.

What really makes the machine fly, however, is that after experimenting with an SSD in my HTPC, I have been converted and picked up a 256GB Crucial SSD for the operating system and applications. Boot times are negligible and even Firefox launches swiftly! More substantial storage comes in the form of two convention HDDs transferred over from MAX, offering 3TB in total. The build is housed inside a sleek Antec Solo II case, an upgrade to the Sonata line which I used for MAX. It is based on the same silent computing principles, but with improved airflow and sound dampening polycarbonate panels lining the inside.

I decided this was as good a time as any to test out the Windows 8 Consumer Preview but, while I’m still wrangling the new Metro-style Start Menu replacement, I’ll save my thoughts on it for another post.

"Luck is the residue of design."

(CC) BY-NC 2004-2021 Priyan Meewella

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