ned Productions Consulting

Technology musings by Niall Douglas
ned Productions Consulting
(an expert advice and services company based in Ireland)

Sunday 23rd February 2014 1.24am

Megan and baby continue to do very well. Spent quite some time with my new daughter today, she may look very like Megan but she's definitely got the cranky "I don't like external change" personality I would imagine myself at age 0 to have - in fact, I still have - so I'm thinking that the child is more or less me in a female body hehe :)

I sadly pulled the trigger on eBay today for a replacement for my much loved Atom 220 MSI Wind netbook - not, by the way, is she even remotely not functioning very well as she's running absolutely beautifully even with the brushes on the fan gone, even though the screen no longer can turn off during inactivity, even though the wifi card spazzes out sometimes and stops working, even though it hangs when turned on frequently, even though the entire right side is cracked and in bits, no, she's still running absolutely fine with Windows 8.1, helped along by the Samsung SSD I added. Best laptop I have ever, ever owned this - and I definitely will never own a laptop with such good value as this ever again: she only cost £260 new back in May 2008 just before I graduated from St. Andrews. I wrote most of a 200,000 word book on this netbook using its absolutely excellent for its class keyboard, and I've even done more than I should heavyweight C++ programming on it. Even its battery still easily lasts 90 minutes. Crazy good value this machine.

No, rather it's simply because she's not got enough L2 cache (512Kb) to run Windows 8 in a reasonable way sadly. I'll explain what I mean: on Windows XP if I were using Google Chrome the web browser then Chrome was reliably slow while you used it e.g. consistent 20 second page load times. That way you got used to the speed, and all was good. With the Windows 8 upgrade forced on me by Microsoft retiring XP from support, the same Google Chrome web browser might take 20 seconds, or it might take 40 seconds, or it might even take longer (I've seen more than a minute). The variance is driving me up the wall frankly. Even though Windows 8 is a miser with RAM, and the 2Gb on this device is plenty, you can't escape that even mobile phone processors come with 1Mb+ L2 cache and that's what Windows 8 was tuned for. With 512Kb L2 cache, you keep throttling the Atom CPU to main memory speed, and because the Atom is in-order, it can only use Hyperthreading i.e. two parallel read strands, so the CPU spends a lot of time just sitting around on Windows 8, while on Windows XP it wasn't as bad.

Just because she's being retired doesn't mean death though. Performance tuning code on an Intel Atom is a very, very useful activity, so she'll be getting a copy of Linux on her which won't stress her L2 cache so badly and living on as a performance tuning machine, possibly as our home internet gateway. She can still max out a 100Mbit connection, and our home internet is only 70Mbit, so that's entirely feasible.

So what am I replacing her with? Due to present poverty, I picked up a second hand ex-corporate Dell Latitude E6310 imported from the United States for €212 all in. This laptop has 4Gb of DDR3 RAM, a 2.53Ghz dual Core i5 Arrandale CPU and a 1400x900 resolution screen in a 14 inch frame - yes, I know that's huge and non-portable, but fourteen inches is the smallest size that lots of ex-corporate (i.e. cheap) machines come in. And the huge advantage, other than there being lots of them on eBay at low low prices, of corporate spec machines is that they are built exceptionally well, to a far, far higher quality than consumer laptops which tend to mostly be plastic and use cheapest possible parts.

To be honest €212 was €12 over my maximum possible budget - I had originally started at €100-€150 ideally. You can actually get a very good ex-corporate 2008-era Dell Latitude D630 or Lenovo Thinkpad T61 with a similar screen resolution and size to my E6410 for less than €100 from eBay delivered, and they're very competent and extremely durable machines with the 2.8Ghz Core 2 Duo models probably not that slow either despite being five generations behind the state of the art. The problem with those really is age: the battery will hold no charge, the DDR2 RAM which is hard to find now will need expanding substantially, the CCFL backlight to the LCD will be dim and yellow, the Wifi will only do 54Mbit and so on.

For €30 to €50 more you  can pick up a much better value buy: a 2009-era Dell Latitude E6400 or Lenovo Thinkpad T400. These tend to come with 4Gb RAM already thanks to Windows Vista being such bloated crap, so no extra RAM needed. Both those models have LED backlights which don't age anything like as badly as CCFL backlights, plus they usually have 2x2 300Mbit Wifi cards and even the battery may still hold a useful charge. Your only real limitation is the same five generation old CPU technology, though the T400 did use DDR3 RAM and it ran it much faster than the T61.

So why did I go for the 2010-era E6410 despite the 40% extra cost over a E6400? Well, most second hand 2010 era corporate spec laptops are still going for €350-€500 second hand (remember they cost about €3000 new) because corporations haven't started to retire them yet in quantity. I grabbed mine for such a low price because the US seems to start a little bit earlier in retiring laptops than Europe, so 2010-era ex-corporates are only just becoming available right now. Obviously, the CPU in my E6410 is just three rather than five generations behind the state of the art, but also there were severe reliability problems with nVidia graphics cards in 2008-era and some early 2009-era corporate laptops, so going with 2010-era is a good guarantee such problems are fixed. The TN panels in corporate laptops are never good, but a 2010-era TN panel is as good as a 2007-era IPS panel in all but viewing angles (i.e. colour reproduction, contrast etc) plus the E6410 has less weird unlucky crap panel problems than the E6400. As the hardware is two generations newer, things like driver support in future versions of Windows will last a lot longer than say the E6400's hardware. My E6410 is guaranteed by the seller to have a battery able to hold three or more hours of charge. All in all I reckoned the 40% extra was probably worth it long term, hence why I pulled the trigger.