Small Laptops vs. Large Laptops

Is portability or performance king when it comes to laptops? Read below to find two Linux geeks’ opposing viewpoints on the matter.

Ever since its inception, the Linux space has been full of contention. From the initial Minix vs. Linux debates to GNOME vs. KDE to distribution holy wars, it seems for any Linux question, people with strong opinions are willing to join the flame fest. In this column, we throw a little fuel on the fire with an article dedicated to promoting two conflicting points of view. This month, Bill Childers and Kyle Rankin tackle an issue near and dear to their hearts—small laptops vs. large laptops.

Kyle: I have always been a fan of small laptops. When I look back, I was probably first inspired by Penny’s computer book on Inspector Gadget. My very first laptop was a Toshiba Libretto 50CT—a 75MHz mini-laptop about the size of a VHS tape (those of you who remember 75MHz computers should also remember what a VHS tape is, and for the rest of you, there’s always Wikipedia). Ever since the Libretto, all of my laptops have had 10.6″ screens or smaller, and that is my personal standard for a small laptop. I just don’t understand the current trend of 15″–17″ Sport Utility Laptops (SULs). Some of these SULs are almost of the size of those luggable computers of yesteryear—so big you have to get a special bag to carry them, and so big that most vendors hesitate to refer to them as laptops and call them notebook computers instead. For me, a true laptop should be extremely portable and should have excellent battery life.

Bill: I used to like small laptops, but then I got better. I had an HP200LX palmtop for a long time—it was the only portable PC I could afford. That thing had an 80186 running at 8MHz and ran on two AA batteries. It had CGA graphics and was the epitome of cool. Then I stepped into the modern era and started getting systems that would let me do actual work. A system with a 15″ or 17″ screen isn’t a luggable unless you’re a little girly-man. It’s a system that’s capable of doing anything from standard office tasks to CAD work to playing the latest and greatest 3-D games—all the power of a desktop PC, except I can hang out on the couch. Or in my hammock. What’s wrong with that?

Kyle: I wouldn’t call what Bill has a “laptop” until he has someone else’s lap beside him. I heard he has a Mac cube too. It’s pretty sad when your desktop is smaller than your laptop.

Bill: Hey, have you seen me lately? It fits on my ever-increasing lap. Let’s see you do any kind of graphics on that single-lung Yugo of a computer. Yeah, that’s what I thought. It’s also nice to have the added heat-generating capacity of the larger laptop in the winter months. Just put a kid by each exhaust fan and no more complaining about being cold. And, no jokes about Star Wars or “exhaust ports”, please. It’s not the Death Star.

Kyle: That’s no laptop, it’s a space station. Sure, he may be able to play video games made in the 21st century, but you should see him deathmatch with me in Quake III. Anyway, when his laptop’s battery runs out a few seconds after booting, he hits the escape latch, and my laptop pops out like a pod full of droids from the Death Star. One advantage to my small laptop is I don’t need a suitcase to carry it around. I use a nice, small vinyl case made for a portable DVD player. Okay, so it looks like a man purse, but it’s small all the same.

Bill: I don’t need a suitcase. It fits in a backpack. Okay, the backpack has an aluminum frame, but that’s just for decoration. Hmm, yours cost the same as mine, yet mine can do twice as much work as yours. Who got the better value? And, I get a workout when carrying it as a bonus. Besides, when a server falls on my bag, the aluminum frame lets my computer just shrug it off like an NFL lineman. What happened when a server fell on your laptop, Kyle?

Kyle: Wow. That was below the belt. Too soon, man, too soon. You don’t have to worry about servers hurting your laptop, because when they fall near it, the laptop’s gravitational pull causes the server to orbit it. You can get an inexpensive tiny laptop too. So what if its specs are the same as your BlackBerry? It can run a Web browser. Don’t get me wrong, I can see some advantages to having Bill’s laptop on my lap, but right now, I’d like to keep my sperm count where it is.

Bill: Hey, that’s not an issue, I’ve had my kids. Plus, I have 4GB of RAM in my system. I may not use all 4GB, but it’s nice to know I have it on tap should I decide that I need it. How much memory can Kyle shoehorn into his dinky box?

Kyle: He needs all 4GB so he can start his mail client. As a mutt user, I guess I just don’t need as much RAM, but that’s for a different Point/Counterpoint column.

Bill: Hey, Gmail doesn’t take any more RAM than Firefox. Besides, I start my mail client only when I need to write a long message or a Linux Journal article. Like you said above, I have a BlackBerry for all other e-mail duty.

Kyle: For me, battery life is the key. I can sit for most of a workday on a single charge. When Bill wants to work from a coffee shop, he definitely needs his power cord. When he wants to work outside, he has to fire up his diesel generator.

Bill: Diesel generator? Hardly. My Precision M90 laptop can run for a little more than an hour on battery. While that’s not your “all day” runtime, it’s plenty of time for me to knock out the work I need to do before hunting for a power outlet.

Kyle: This is ultimately what it comes down to for me: when I have work to do, I don’t want to hunt for an outlet, and when I work on an airplane, I like that I can fully open my laptop on the seat-back tray, even if the person in front of me leans all the way back. Today, you can get a dual-core processor even in mini-notebooks. When you combine that with a solid-state drive, you don’t even have to sacrifice performance to go ultraportable. I want a laptop that fits on my lap, lasts most of the day, yet still has plenty of power for everything I do. These days, a number of laptops fit the bill—even if they don’t fit Bill.

Bill: “Even if they don’t fit Bill?” Wow, man, you said I hit below the belt, yet you bust out a fat joke. My main thing is, I need a system that doesn’t feel like I’d break it if I looked at it wrong. It’s got to have the horsepower to do anything I throw at it and be something I can haul around comfortably. Opening it on an airplane is obviously a non-starter, but I’ve gotten to the point where the last thing on my mind when on an airplane is doing work. Heck, I’m management now. I just fire up my BlackBerry’s media player and put my feet up in business class while the nice flight attendants bring me drinks. You can sit back in coach and “work”, Morlock. The bottom line for our readers is they need to make the decision that works best for them.

Kyle Rankin is a Senior Systems Administrator in the San Francisco Bay Area and the author of a number of books, including Knoppix Hacks and Ubuntu Hacks for O’Reilly Media. He is currently the president of the North Bay Linux Users’ Group.

Bill Childers is an IT Manager in Silicon Valley, where he lives with his wife and two children. He enjoys Linux far too much, and he probably should get more sun from time to time. In his spare time, he does work with the Gilroy Garlic Festival, but he does not smell like garlic.

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