fuzzy notepad

[blog] I bought a new laptop

Wow, where the hell have I been.

That whole “dying cat” thing ruined most of my April, and I spent most of May dealing with various other life crises, and then June scrambling to catch up. I’ve started and abandoned maybe half a dozen posts in that time that I will totally maybe finish someday. In the meantime, here’s something aimless and specific to me about how I bought a thing. Par for the course, then.

The background

I don’t need a laptop; I work from home, rarely go anywhere I’d have enough time/space/inclination to use a laptop (except for visiting work), and am generally pretty happy with my desktop.

That said, a laptop is still nice to have. Mel has been growing increasingly antsy being stuck in her room alone, so she’s been doing a lot of drawing out in the living room lately—she has a hybrid tablet drawing laptop thing—and I’ve subsequently grown increasingly antsy being stuck in my room alone on the other end of the house.

I did already have a laptop. It was a MacBook Pro (late 2011 15”, MacBookPro8,2) provided by my endlessly selfless employer Yelp. I don’t much like OS X, so it’s been running Arch Linux since I got it, which has been a minor adventure. Alas! recently the wireless has been flaking out (again), due to some kind of conflict between the kernel’s seventeen different attempts at making Broadcom cards actually work. I tried a great many things to fix this, but ultimately concluded I was fighting a losing battle.

The Linux community does a fantastic job of cobbling together drivers from lint and twine when the manufacturer doesn’t provide any, and for the most part I’ve gotten along fine with such cobbled drivers. But for once, I would love to have a laptop built entirely out of hardware that I already know has working drivers, perhaps even first-party ones.

And so off I went to find such a machine for myself.

I polled a lot of nerds. Most of them suggested I get a Thinkpad, a sentiment I’d heard many times before and thus trusted. Problem solved! Until I actually looked at Thinkpads, and discovered they haven’t changed much since I first saw them in 1998 or so. Yes, yes, call me vain, but I have a hard time flowing if I’m uncomfortable with my environment—and that includes having hardware I think is ugly.

Thus began several days’ worth of laptop-hunting. Lenovo’s other offerings didn’t have nearly the good reputation as the Thinkpad. Dell’s only reliable-looking offerings were ridiculously overpriced. Acer largely makes toys. ASUS names its laptops with what look like temporary random passwords, and I gave up trying to figure out what the differences were. Most laptops had 768px screens, which are maddeningly small when I’m used to dual 1680×1050. Lots of them used Broadcom wifi or wacky bleeding-edge dual video cards or some other dubious-sounding hardware. And on it went.

I don’t think my requirements were that outlandish:

  • Doesn’t look like it came fresh from an excavation site of a perfectly-preserved 1997 home office
  • Chiclet keyboard that blends with the body, rather than Hair And Lint Trap obvious separate keyboard part
  • 1920×1080
  • Hardware that wasn’t inexplicably created from scratch for this single laptop model and promptly forgotten about

Long story short, I ended up circling back to System76. I hadn’t heard of them before, but they sell only hardware with Ubuntu preinstalled (and do support for it!), which seems like a reasonable guarantee of hardware compatibility.

I wanted their Galaga UltraPro, a $1000 super-light model, but it’s not shipping until late July and I have at least three reasons to need a laptop before then. Alas! So I settled for the Gazelle Professional (currently on its ninth revision). It’s only regular professional instead of ultra professional, sadly.

I ordered it last Tuesday, it got here today, and I’m typing on it right now.

The hardware

I’m pleasantly pleased that it got here in a day and a week, given that they estimated 6–10 business days just to build it. It shipped on Monday, so two of those days were shipping, two were weekend, and four were the actual build.

This isn’t a review blog or anything so let’s get this bit out of the way quickly.

Packaging: It came in a box. Inside that box was another box. Eventually there was a laptop which, when typed upon, caused everything I touched to become a laptop.

Body: It’s definitely a lot more plastic than it appeared it would be, which is a stark change after having used only Apple’s aluminum hardware for several years now. I’m pretty used to it already, and it looks fine. Like a compromise between a Thinkpad and a vain nerd, really. On the plus side, there are zero stickers plastered on it to tell me who made the hardware, though it did come with a tiny sheet of Ubuntu stickers that I might put on my MBP to be ironic or something.

It’s lighter than the MBP, which I didn’t expect (based on alleged weights of both, even—maybe my options lightened it from the base weight) but which is super nice. Not quite light enough to feel cheap, but I think it’ll be quite a bit kinder to my shoulders when I lug it around all day. I suspect it could survive a fall just fine, but I’m in no hurry to find out.

Tragically, there’s no strip of tiny LEDs anywhere to tell me the current battery life. I have to actually open the lid for two seconds to find that out, now. I’m so spoiled.

Screen: Is 1920×1080, and thus slightly bigger than one of my monitors, which I can very slightly notice and which is way weird. 15.6” screen, too, which is a very comfortable size for this res. I paid extra for the matte screen, and let me tell you, it is fucking gorgeous. I could fling this into the core of the sun and still not get any glare. Lit evenly everywhere, no matter how or where I sit. And the brightness range is pretty healthy, too. Awesome.

Naturally I’m using this incredible video technology to render white monospace text on a black background.

Keyboard: This thing sports a more-or-less full keyboard, complete with a number pad and dedicated delete key, something I’ve never experienced on a laptop before. It’s pretty cool. The Ubuntu logo on the Super key is a cute touch.

Keys feel a little cheaper at a touch than Apple’s (generic plastic texture rather than ultra-smooth), but work beautifully when I actually type. They’re spaced a little further apart than I’m used to but I can dig it.

One thing seriously tripping me up: I’ve spent two years training myself to squish my left pinky a bit to the right when typing on a laptop, because my MBP’s lowerleftmost key is infuriatingly Fn. This laptop puts Ctrl in its proper place and Fn next to it, which is great… except the muscle memory is still there so I keep mixing them up. Ah well.

Oh, and with the way the arrow keys are stuffed between the numpad and the rest of the keyboard, there’s no tactile cue for where they are except that they’re right next to the wider Ctrl/Shift. Bit annoying but a minor nitpick.

It’s not backlit, which doesn’t matter at all except when it does. Like when trying to find the arrow keys. Or when trying to find which of the function keys controls the screen brightness (F8 + F9), because they’re printed in medium blue on black.

There’s an airplane-mode key, which is cute. And a Suspend key conveniently positioned between Mute and Volume Down/Up. Hmmm. Interesting choice there.

Wow I care a lot about keyboards.

Touchpad: Felt a little weird at first but I’ve grown accustomed surprisingly fast. Just a different surface texture, I guess. It’s a traditional pad-plus-buttons rather than a full clicky pad, so I’ll have to get used to that again, but at least my middle clicks are more likely to work. (Seriously, pressing a large rectangle down with three fingers simultaneously is trickier than it looks.)

The usual Synaptic shenanigans work: two fingers to scroll, click both buttons for middle-click. Tap to click was off by default! I am delighted.

Fastness: Lots. I opted for an SSD (and only an SSD—living dangerously here) and bonus RAM. Boots to login screen in like four seconds. I think the BIOS splash takes longer than the actual boot process. Last time I booted I didn’t even get the scrolling Ubuntu dots; it was too fast to show them.

Power: I miss the magnetic connector, I admit. I also sort of miss having the only white AC adapter in the house, because fuck if I know how to tell these apart when they aren’t plugged in. Cats seem to enjoy the little velcro thing on the cord.

I haven’t done any rigorous tests, but signs indicate the battery life is actually 3–4 hours (as distinct from marketed as 3–4 hours), which at least feels like way more than I ever got out of the MBP.

Heat: My MBP, being made out of metal, gradually turned into an inside-out oven if I ran processor-intensive applications like ssh or vim for very long. This one has been a little nicer about the heat. The front middle (about underneath the touchpad) is pretty warm right now, but that’s not where it sits on my legs, and it’s not like I have to worry about going sterile. The touchpad itself is warm to the touch but not uncomfortably so; it’s just the bottom.

Cost: Between the upgrades mentioned above, the best wifi card they offered, and swapping the optical drive (haha, what? you used to store music on spinning plastic circles? ok grandpa) for an empty drive bay, the price bumped from $799 to $1142. (Half of that was the SSD, yikes.) Plus shipping made it $1177, which is still less than the base price of anything decent Dell was selling, so I’m happy.

Name: zeruneasu. It’s kind of like an elegant gazelle, it’s brand new, and it… has some orange and purple like Ubuntu I don’t know.

Overall it’s a pretty solid laptop, especially considering it came from a no-name minor player selling Linux machines and actively refusing to support people who install unsupported OSes like Windows. It’s not Apple build quality with sane hardware for half the price, but I enjoy using it and think I’ll be pretty happy toting it around.

So, sure, buy one, whatever. Or wait for their ultra-portable and tell me how great it is so I can be super jealous.

The software

Ah! the juicy bit.

I’d originally intended to nuke this as soon as I got it and put Mint on it. Having played with Mint on our media center over the past few days, it occurred to me that the only things Mint really provides are a different default desktop and some preinstalled cruft like Flash that I may not necessarily want anyway. So at least for the moment, I’m leaving Ubuntu on here. I haven’t used it in a few letters, anyway. (It’s up to R now! R! I last used it at, what, J?)

This is my first attempt to use Unity since it was first introduced. I have some thoughts.

Other window managers

But first, thoughts on other things I tried to use.

I installed Gnome Shell and booted into that, giving me a default Gnome 3 desktop. It’s been a couple years, so I thought I’d give it a chance.

Alt-Tab still switches workspaces. Nope. Chance revoked.

Okay, look. Workspaces exist to separate projects (or “activities”, or whatever you want to call them) from one another. With no taskbar or other persistent indication of what’s running, the only meaningful difference workspaces can make is to segregate Alt-Tab lists from one another. If Alt-Tab still uses one big global list of every window that’s running, what the hell is the point of workspaces?

I applaud the Gnome team for trying to make workspaces more accessible, but in the process they’ve neutralized everything that makes them a feature in the first place. Now they’re just a way to make different sets of windows invisible at a time.

Next I tried out Openbox. This booted me into a wallpaper and a mouse cursor and absolutely nothing else. I had to kill it from a virtual terminal. Rapidly lost interest in Openbox.

I’m pretty familiar with KDE by now and don’t really want to spend three solid days turning it into an environment I don’t entirely dislike.

Back to Unity, then.

Dashboard whatsit

I still don’t like that pressing a modifier key on its own does anything, let alone interrupts whatever I was doing and fills my screen with some obnoxious dashboard. That was one of the minor niceties that had pleased me about Linux in the first place: on Windows I would frequently hold down Alt intending to tab away, reconsider, and let go of Alt some seconds later. Then I’d keep doing whatever I was doing, only to discover too late that my keyboard focus had been stolen away.

Unity now uses bare Super for the dashboard search thing and plain Alt for the menubar search thing, which makes me more sad than anything. Thankfully the options in the Unity plugin in CCSM include picking different keybindings for both, so I rebound the dashboard to my classic launcher shortcut of Super-Space, and rebound the menubar search to who even cares.

I still miss Gnome Do, possibly the greatest launcher I’ve ever used, because it just Launched Things and otherwise got out of my way. I was thus saddened to discover that:

  • Shutdown, logoff, and other power options are not exposed (by default?) in the dashboard search.
  • When there are multiple results, scrolling through them is two-dimensional: I must press Down to select the right category, then scroll with Left and Right.

On the other hand, the searching itself works pretty well, even recognizing when I space out and mash keys far offset from the ones I want to type. Kudos.

Oh, right, the Amazon thing. It shows Amazon search results by default. That’s pretty annoying, not to mention unlikely to find anything useful unless Amazon sells a whole lot of stuff called “terminal”. System settings has a “Privacy” applet now, though, which has a big ol toggle button to turn that junk off.

System settings

There aren’t any. I miss having some. The whole shebang might as well be one big checkbox for “COMPUTER IS ON: [X]”. And the checkbox is disabled.

In the quest to make the default exposed settings simple, it has become remarkably complicated to actually change any settings I suspect exist but cannot see. So far today I have played with:

  • compizconfig-settings-manager
  • gnome-tweak-tool
  • unity-tweak-tool
  • ubuntu-tweak
  • dconf-editor
  • gnome-color-chooser
  • gtk-theme-config (success!)

What advanced technical change was I trying to make? I want the theme to use blue for highlights instead of orange.

Ubuntu One

What is this? I don’t care. Disabled.


I don’t like docks. I’m pretty sure I’ve been over this at length before, but the short version is: they muddy what’s actually running, and they group things blindly with no regard for whether those things should be grouped. An email client and a compose window? Group away. A terminal running irssi and a terminal running NetHack? What the fuck are you doing.

Unity’s dock doesn’t seem to have changed in the slightest. I can delete all the “pinned” persistent stuff to undo the muddying, and that’s about all. At least it shows a number of chevrons next to each icon to indicate how many windows that application has open.

I guess I can put up with this on a laptop where I’m unlikely to be running much more than a browser and terminal most of the time, but on my desktop where I multitask furiously, it would drive me mad.

Desktop effects

Both Compiz and KDE have a feature, disabled by default, that dims (lowers lightness + saturation of) all inactive windows. This is fucking incredible and I’ve been using it since I first discovered it many years ago. So I installed CCSM to try turning it on in Ubuntu.

This led to a state of confusion on both our parts, as the Alt-Tab list suddenly stopped containing any windows but the currently active one, and Firefox windows kept vanishing when I wasn’t looking at them. I don’t know what I did, but logging out and in ultimately fixed it without forcing me to revert the dim-inactive behavior. Glad to see Compiz is the pinnacle of stability it’s always been.

I’d kinda like to turn wobbly windows on, but now I’m scared to.

Built-in social network 2.0 whatever

I reached for Pidgin, and paused.

Surely, Ubuntu has a thing built in by now.

Some brief hunting found me an Accounts thing in system settings. I held my breath and gave it my Google and Twitter passwords.

With a Google account, I could sign into Google Talk via XMPP and talk to people with Empathy, Gnome’s attempt at an IM client.

Here is my story about Empathy.

  1. It doesn’t support contact groups.
  2. It doesn’t support contact collapsing. (i.e., treating two accounts as being the same person)
  3. I stopped using Empathy.

The funny thing is that Google’s shiny new Hangouts client for Android has exactly the same deficiencies. Have the people building these products ever had, like, friends? More than two, at least?

With a Twitter account, I started getting a series of notifications about tweets directed at me. Dozens of them, one at a time, starting from the most recent and going back hours. I removed the account; they kept coming until some queue had emptied.

The Twitter thing is actually neat little integration for a simple concept, which is nice, but I’m happy enough with irssi.


Alt-Tab is fucked up even in Unity. Damn.

See, it tricked me. If I’m in window 1 of an app, and my last-used window was window 2 of the same app, then Alt-Tab works as expected. But if I instead switch to another app entirely, only window 1 is accessible, because windows of the same application are grouped together. So I couldn’t easily toggle between Thunderbird, an email I was writing, and a browser window I was referencing. It was maddening.

Holding Alt while an application is highlighted expands it into the windows belonging to it, so Alt-Tab is still possible, but now it works differently depending on where I start from, whereas I’ve spent the past decade and a half mindlessly shuffling the last few items of a stack.

I think one of these myriad “tweak” tools can fix it, at least. Shame, though; the giant application icons are kinda pretty.


Unity does look pretty, even with my hamfisted replacement of orange with blue. The gradients and highlights are just subtle enough, and I like whatever derivation of Bitstream Vera we’re on now.

Their login manager lightdm is nice-looking, too, though it comes with weird options like some kind of remote Ubuntu account login thing that I need to figure out how to kill off.

The conclusion

As usual, I don’t really have one. It could be blinged out slightly more, but I like this laptop. And for lack of anything clearly and significantly better, I’m going to stick with stock-ish Ubuntu for the moment. In this chaotic world of tablet UI prototypes, it’s less bad than most of the alternatives.

As for the MacBook, I suppose I’ll zerofill it and give it back next time I’m in town. And, er, try to figure out how to revert rEFIt.

Hmm. Now I need to figure out how to encrypt this thing when there’s only one partition and /boot is on it.

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(illus. by Rumwik)