...and about how everything computer-related is shit, and how much better we had it back in the good old days.
I'm typing this right now on my much-hated Toshiba M7 laptop, because my beloved M4 is having graphics problems again. Let me begin with a post that I never completed, from six months or so ago when I was using this piece of shit as my main machine, and looking over jealously at Emily's beautiful 2005 machine:
I've had a post brewing for a while now, about technology and computers and how they've gone all weird these past few years. It's all come to a head this past week, with a fairly simple realisation.
I can no longer tolerate the shittiness of my development machine.
Now, this isn't a hey-guys-donate-so-I-can-buy-a-new-laptop post - in fact, I plan to come out of this situation with a better machine and an extra couple hundred bucks from selling this one. Maybe I should rewind a bit.
The best laptop I ever had was a Toshiba Portege M200. I got it for two hundred quid, in 2009 - at the time I believe it was about four years old. It's quite a small machine - only a 12.1 inch screen - but it had a very high resolution for a laptop, and the display was very good quality. The thing that drew me to it was a Wacom tablet built into the screen, with a pressure-sensitive pen. You can draw right on the screen. The screen even rotates a hundred and eighty degrees and folds down flat, to turn the laptop into a (fairly bulky) tablet. It wasn't until the CPU fan died that I started to really admire this thing, and the thought that had gone into it. You can strip the entire machine down to the point of removing the mainboard in five minutes flat - and you can do it while it's turned on, and be able to see your diagnostics program on the rotated screen. Needless to say, parts are very cheap, and some are even standardised and interchangeable with other laptops.
A beautiful, well-thought-out, rugged, reliable, and fancy little workhorse that does not go wrong, and on the rare occasions when it does go wrong, can be fixed in a jiffy. And then I spilled tea on it and needed a fairly obscure part in a hurry, and it'd be quicker to get a new machine than to get and install parts for this one, and I'd been meaning to upgrade for a while anyway, and I wonder what Toshiba did after this one, and so I got on eBay again and grabbed a very fancy-looking Toshiba Tecra M7, on which I'm typing this post.
It is an absolute piece of shit.
In every single meaningful way, it is inferior to the machine it replaced, the Toshiba Tecra M4 (my M200 was basically a small M4 without an optical drive, and Emily was fortunate enough to find an M4 when her own laptop died not too long after the tea incident). Let's start with the screen.
It's shorter. No, it's not wider, it's just bloody shorter. It's not widescreen unless it's actually wider than what came before. Display technology is the only industry in which you can chop a bit off the top and tell people that you made it wider, and have them believe you. And you know what? I really miss those extra 150 vertical lines. I spend most of the time on my computer looking at things that are taller than they are wide. You know, like websites, or text files, or code, or pretty much anything except films and spreadsheets. Don't get me wrong, I have to use spreadsheets for game balancing sometimes, and it'd be nice to have an extra bit of room at the side - but I don't have extra room at the side, I just have less room at the top and bottom.
That's not where the screen-related idiocy ends, though. Oh, no. In lieu of the nice matte glareproof coating of days gone by, Toshiba applied a glossy finish to the M7's screen mask. I can see my hands, right now, reflected in the screen. Suddenly my laptop is picky about the lighting conditions - I can't work near a window anymore, or outside. In fact, the place where this laptop performs best is in the carefully-controlled shop display that sold it to its previous owner.
But wait, there's more. It gets even dumber.
On the lower right of the machine is a thumbprint reader.
A thumbprint reader. On a laptop.
Let's forget, for now, the fact that if you want to steal data from a laptop, the easiest way to do so is to punch its owner in the nose, then pick the laptop up and run away giggling while they're bleeding into their latte. Let's not even consider that little oversight, for now, and give this feature a fair shake. Okay, so you've got your thumbprint reader, and when you lock your machine, rather than asking for a password to unlock it, the operating system will just ask you to scan your thumb against the wee thingy a few times.
Let's envisage a scenario where you've injured your thumb somehow, and put a big nasty gash in it. The thumbprint scan won't let you in any more. Now what?
Well, fortunately there's a simple workaround - just reboot and hold down F8, and Windows XP will go into Safe Mode, which is a special operating mode where Windows rolls over, shows you its belly and disgorges all of its data, no questions asked.
So if it's useless in every possible fashion, why is it there? Because it's a five-dollar component that can add a hundred dollars to the retail price, of course. Duh.
Let's move on from the screen, and look lower. There's an optical drive in this machine - now, I have no use whatsoever for an optical drive, and the M200 not only didn't have one, it didn't even have room for one, so that's a step up. The M4 - Emily's machine, and the one that the M7 replaced - has an optical drive that you can swap out for a second battery, taking the machine's battery life to an impressive six hours. Can you swap the optical drive for a battery on the M7? Can you bollocks. It doesn't even come out at all unless you strip the whole bloody thing down, at which point you realise several things:
First, that the optical drive is the exact same damn size and shape as the one in the M4 but with different and incompatible connections;
Second, that the CPU fan - which you must clean regularly unless you want your machine to sound like a jet engine and run about as hot - is hidden deep in the bowels of the machine, making a routine fifteen-minute job take an hour or more;
Third, that the panel to the left of the keyboard featuring two buttons actually has four contacts behind it, all of which trigger different key combinations, and the difference in price between the model with four hotkey buttons and the model with two hotkey buttons is dictated by the choice of two different plastic panels, not two different keyboard encoders;
Fourth, that there are traps at every step to try to ensure that you break something while dismantling this laptop - ribbon cables connected behind panels, security screws, flimsy plastic bits that are screwed from in front and behind, a whole bunch of dirty little tricks to ensure that you get the message. The message being, "Repairs are for professionals only."
That's a dangerous message. That's the sort of message that leads us to throw away perfectly good equipment. It takes over a ton of raw materials to make a computer, and it takes yet more to ensure that it's properly disposed of once it's reached the end of its useful life. Discouraging repairs harms the environment, widens the gap between the rich and the poor, and is detrimental to our society and to our species, and for what? Something as mundane as money?
The only step up from the previous model is the processor and graphics card - this one's a dual-core model. Vista was on the horizon when this thing came out, and I think that Toshiba knew that Vista was going to be the sort of bloated, fat, slow, useless operating system that sits on the sofa stuffing RAM into its gaping maw, crying and asking you to tell it that it's pretty. Faster processor, slower computer, that's the way Toshiba wanted to go with this, because it keeps making more money for rich arseholes year after year.
Deep breath. Calm, Dan, calm.
Did I mention it doesn't even have a fucking volume knob? Well, it doesn't. It has a pair of buttons that tell the operating system to raise or lower the volume, because that's cheaper than a properly-insulated potentiometer. What's worse, it designed these buttons to look like a proper volume control - to turn the volume up you turn the knob a little bit to the right, then let it flop back to center, then turn it a little bit to the right again, until it's loud enough. To turn it down, you do the same, to the left this time. To turn it low enough that you can hear it, but the person sitting next to you isn't disturbed - well, the volume goes in steps, so you can't do that. Just plug some headphones in.
So, I never finished that, I never posted that. Instead, I let it brew inside me, let the rage settle in good and deep - and then I gave in, got on eBay and bought an M4.
The M7 has a dual-core processor, running at 1.8ghz per core. My new M4, at the unbelievable price of $168, ran a single-core Centrino chip at 2ghz.
I knowingly, willingly gave away half of my processing power, and paid
for the privilege, so that I could get my hands on a high-quality 4:3 display, a trackpoint on the keyboard so I'm not constantly moving my hands up and down, a real volume control and a spare battery bay.
I knew this would mean some sacrifices, so I traded out my much-loved Ubuntu 10.04 for Xubuntu 12.04, and... loved it! Xubuntu is just like how Ubuntu used to be before Unity came along and buggered things up, only it's faster.
And I was happy.
I can honestly say, the M4 was the best laptop ever, and I've gotten through a lot
of laptops. It's properly built. It's properly designed (save for one minor, but fatal, oversight - which I'll get to in a moment). It's made for doing things,
not just watching films. It was... perfect.
...except that the GPU fan only kicks in when it's at ninety-five sodding degrees, so the solder cracks over time because of the heat...
...and then you have to take it apart and bake the motherboard in the oven to reflow the solder...
...and then you keep meaning to solder one of the GPU fan wires to the 5v line on one of the USB sockets, so it'd run constantly, but you never quite get around to it...
...so when you're in the middle of coding something really cool for the Island, that familiar graphical distortion turns up, and Xubuntu, bless its little heart, it doesn't crash, it doesn't freeze, it just sits there and goes "Huh. Looks like you've just pulled your graphics card's processor out of its socket with a crowbar, while I was in the middle of doing something. Well, I guess you're the boss - I'll thrash for a minute or so, but I'll be fine. Keep on doing what you're doing! I mean, I know you can't see much through this mess of visual noise, but I have faith in you!" (Windows would go "Wait, wha-" and then shit its pants and gibber until you pulled the plug)
...and then it's too late at night to do any soldering...
...and then you end up typing up incoherent rambling posts about how people with more money than you conspire - yes, conspire, damn it - to make your life shittier, so that they can get richer.
Let's talk about monitors.
You know why your television is widescreen? And your laptop? And your computer monitor?
Because it's cheaper. There's the long and short of it. Smaller screens, fewer pixels, smaller manufacturing cost, higher profits. Salesmen don't want to admit this, so they come up with some cocking rifuckulous selling points:
They're better for watching films,
No, actually, that's about it. Except that films aren't shot in 16:9, so even on a widescreen monitor, you've still got wasted space at top and bottom - and a 4:3 telly can show widescreen content a hell of a lot more elegantly than a 16:9 telly can show fullscreen stuff.
Now, as lies go, this was a pretty transparent one. It was a fucking flimsy
way of getting people to buy something that was clearly shittier than what they already had, and my inner cynic wants to say "And the ignorant masses swallowed it up hook, line and sinker," but the truth is that people did not bloody fall for it at all
. I should know, my job at the time was to sell televisions, and I remember quite clearly that when widescreen tellies first came out, no fucker wanted them. Nobody ever
came up to me, the scraggly-looking young fellow in Comet (with a goatee beard that, looking back, did make me look quite a lot like Satan), and asked to buy a widescreen television - and towards the end, they would more often than not come up and ask if we had any 4:3's left. People are smart - they knew that they were paying more money for less picture. So the manufacturers simply stopped making 4:3 screens, and took away the option. This was not the result of the market choosing a format, this was the result of manufacturers opting for higher profits at the consumer's expense.
Some of us have moved on, gotten over it. Some of us have even gotten to like
shorter screens. Some of us are clearly more mature than cavemen who run online games.
(actually, looking back on it, one or two did
ask me for a widescreen, but then they saw the absolutely gorgeous
38" 4:3 Panasonic CRT next to it, and fell in love a little bit, and back then TV was being broadcast in 4:3 so they'd see how people on the telly were playing snooker with egg-shaped balls and change their minds)
But wait - back up, even further. Way back. Why are computer
monitors always landscape-oriented? Even back when we had 4:3 displays, most of us always had them oriented so that they were wider than they were tall, and we used these monitors to look at things that were taller than they were wide. Why was that? How did we get into that habit?
Well, go back further, to the 1960's and 1970's. Back around when computers were word processors and little more. Back when programming was left to women, before blokes got involved. Portrait monitors were much more common back then. But then we invented the computer spreadsheet, and back in those days, women did the word processing and blokes did the spreadsheets and Woe Betide Ye if you were to suggest different, so computers were designed by men and for men, and men wanted more horizontal space to look at spreadsheets.
You look at websites, documents, PDF's, things that are taller than they are wide, through an aperture that's wider than it is tall, because of institutionalized sexism.
...I feel better for having gotten some of this out. But there's more. There's Wirth's Law, there's planned obsolescence, there's security screws and consumer-hostile design, there's even stuff as basic as the common keyboard (holy shit where do I even start with keyboards), there's all the hundreds of ways our computers suck balls for stupid reasons and damn it they are getting worse,
and I feel as if I talk about this stuff enough maybe I'll be able to do
something about it, but it's 4am and I'm clearly not going to get any work done tonight.
Maybe I'll continue this God-awful rant in the morning, get it out of my system once and for all, maybe not. Maybe I'll end up building my own laptop, but I'm pretty sure only crazy people do that.
For now, I'd like to ask for donations for a better laptop, but I'm fairly convinced that there is no such thing.
The M4 had a fatal thermal design flaw, but it had the balls to do some things that, seven years later, other laptops still don't do, or don't do anymore. Can anyone recommend a laptop with:
* A 4:3 screen,
* A stylus and digitizer,
* A method by which to replace the optical drive with a second battery,
* A minimum resolution of 1400*1050,
* A hardware volume control,
* An integrated mic,
* Matte finish on the screen,
* A trackpoint,
which is faster than the 2ghz single-core M4?
I'm going to bed.