Switching, back and forth

Posted on Apr 7, 2005

Tim Bray’s recent piece on the possibility of switching from his Powerbook to something else caused some interesting discussion. Most notable is probably John Gruber, who spent some time to rebut Tim’s post.

Personally, I’ve switched back and forth between my Powerbook and desktop PC systems running Ubuntu and Solaris 10 quite a bit over the last year. More recently I’ve also included a desktop system running Windows XP.

I specifically mean that I’ve switched between them, as it’s not been a case of using all of them bitslice fashion - I’ve used one system for everything for a week, then another, etc.

Tim has discussed his new V20z machines, and I wonder if they actually play a part in his worries. A relatively cheap desktop or server PC system will feel significantly faster than even the best Powerbook for many CPU or IO intensive tasks. Tim’s new machines are pretty quick even by PC standards.

My own Powerbook suffers mostly from a lack of memory - 512M just isn’t enough to keep ten different applications ticking over and instantly available. The 800Mhz processor doesn’t help and I’m sure that the laptop disk drive inside isn’t much competition for a reasonable desktop ATA drive (never mind SATA or SCSI).

The desktop Ubuntu and Solaris systems work very well. Gnome looks pretty good these days, with anti-aliased fonts, sensible theming, etc. Ubuntu has good hardware support and both Ubuntu and Solaris have a good selection of applications for my day-to-day use. Windows XP is not so shabby either, with good (perhaps the best) hardware support and a rich portfolio of applications. All take good advantage of a modern desktop system with a gigabyte of RAM, lots of disk space and a recent graphics card.

At this point it becomes obvious that, at least in my case, this isn’t a like-for-like comparison. 2GHz desktop systems and 800Mhz Mac portables are hardly the same thing. Looking at the current crop of x86 laptops is more reasonable, and that’s where things start to fall down. x86 laptops don’t get noticeably faster memory or disks than Powerbooks, so there’s no difference there. In general their graphics chipsets are similar to those in Mac laptops, as are the various IO ports (a notable exception perhaps being that Powerbooks have a DVI port). It is the case that x86 laptops tend to have higher resolution screens. I’m not sure if that means that the screens are by definition better, but my rule of thumb has always been that more pixels is better than less.

Many of the nice features of the Powerbook arise from Apple’s control of both the hardware and the software. It’s truly amazing to plug in an external monitor and have it just work after you’ve used X11 for many years. The speedy wakeup from sleep is also great as is working Bluetooth, FireWire, etc. It’s likely that many of these features are available on x86 laptops with Windows XP as well now, but I haven’t tested. I’m pretty sure that these things are often not available on x86 laptops running some Unix variant, but perhaps we’ll get there.

In reality, Tim’s real worries are about Apple’s secrecy. As he says:

We at Sun and our esteemed competitors up in Redmond are engaged in a grand experiment: what happens when you dramatically increase a company’s transparency?

It’s worth noting that this is an experiment and it’s not obvious that it will turn out for the best. There’s a huge amount of opinion that it’s the way to go, but it is still not decided (perhaps the Cluetrain guys will break down my door and read the whole thing out loud after this). Tim also points out that there’s a difference between selling tools and toys to discerning buyers and selling multi-million dollar long-term roadmaps and product suites to businesses, which is obviously true.

As for me, well, I’d like to buy a newer Powerbook. It would be nice if it has a processor faster than 1.5Ghz and a higher-resolution screen, but those aren’t really the things that would make it more productive than a corresponding x86 machine. It’s the sweet spot between great hardware, great software and clueful engineering. It helps, of course, that we all love to hang on the edge of our seats waiting to see what Steve will announce at the next Expo…