Tag: Hardware

The Upgrade Conundrum

I’m in the market for a new computer1, but I have no idea what way to go. I’ve been making do with older kit for the last few years, but all of it is pretty much at the end of its usable life.

I recently set up a new “office” area in the house, and the way I did it allows me to swap between my work-supplied laptop, and a computer of my own, just by plugging into the right monitor input and swapping a USB cable. This setup also allows my son to make use of the desk if he needs to.

Until recently, the computer I used most around the house was a 9 year old Dell Latitude laptop which I had made usable by putting an SSD into it, and building a lightweight Arch Linux installation. This was primarily because a laptop was all I had space for. Actually, I tell a lie – the “computer” I use most is my iPhone, but for times the iPhone can’t cut it (for whatever reason) I used the Dell2. While this arrangement worked, it showed its age, and it was fiddly at times.

I’ve had a 6 year old Mac Mini lying around for a while, doing nothing. It’s only barely more powerful than the Dell3, and the one time I had it plugged into the living room TV, it was just plain awkward to use. With the new office I was able to plug it in to a proper monitor/keyboard/mouse arrangement which made it more viable. So this past weekend I took the SSD from the Dell, put it in the Mac, and made that my “home computer.” It’s just fast enough to not induce rage when trying to do anything more taxing than surf the web and other light duties.

Now I’ve got a “proper” desk and space, I’ve been thinking I should look getting something which will last me another few years. The cheapest upgrade I could do is to spend ~£60 and double the RAM in the Mac Mini, going from 4GB to 8GB. I’m sure that will give a noticable boost to OS X, but it doesn’t really change the fact the system is on borrowed time. It could buy me another 6-12 months, but at some point, likely soon, something is going to fail. The way I see it, my choices are:

  1. Buy a newer Mac, probably a laptop for flexibility (plus that’s where all their non-iOS/Watch innovation seems to be going).
  2. Buy a Windows laptop.
  3. Build a custom PC.

Of the choices, #3 is likely the most satisfying, and would have the most upgrade potential further down the line, though I would be constrained later by choices I made now. It also has the potential to get very expensive; I priced up a high-end Mini-ITX system for a bit of fun, and it came to roughly £1000 before choosing a suitable graphics card. I could definitely price something for less, and would probably have to, but it would have to be weighed against longevity of usable performance and upgradability. I am a little space constrained, so a massive tower is never going to be practical, but there are plenty options between Mini-ITX and mATX nowadays.

A Windows laptop feels like it would be a cop-out, and there’s not much out there I feel inspired enough to part with my money for. There’s a couple of nice laptops I’ve seen4, but none I feel would last as long as I’d like them to.

Getting a new Mac has been the direction I’ve been leaning towards for a while, but I’ve always struggled to justify it vs. other spending priorities. Plus, when you factor in how fast Apple iterate their hardware, the lack up after-sale upgradability, and you’re always hoping to “time it right”. That said, as an iPhone/iPad owner there’s a lot of upside to getting a Mac, for example: close integration through Handover/Continuity (granted, which I can’t currently use with the Mini), and iCloud Photo Library. I guess I could set up something more “cross-platform” for the photo library, using Dropbox, but I found Apple’s solution to be that little bit nicer to work with.

So the jist of this much-longer-than-I-planned stream of consciousness is that I need to start thinking about replacing the old and almost busted computer kit I have with something new. I don’t know what that will be yet, and I’d hoped getting my thoughts out would help me focus my mind on what I want to do.

No such luck though. Any ideas?

  1. Anyone who knows me probably knows I’ve actually been talking about it for ~4 years. 
  2. And what of my iPad? I mainly just use it for Hearthstone and Games Workshop rulebooks. Since iOS 8 (I think), my iPad has taken a huge hit in performance, and just isn’t as capable as it once felt. 
  3. On paper, at least. In practice it was severely hamstrung by the old-school HDD and running OS X. 
  4. My work laptop is quite nice; it’s a Dell Ultrabook, thin, light, and performant enough. But the consumer pricing is higher than I’d value it at. 

My New Mobile Workstation

For a while now I’ve carried my iPad most places I go, when out and about. In the very beginning I would carry an Apple Wireless Keyboard with it, for better typing on the go. Then, at some point, my touchscreen typing got fast enough I couldn’t justify the hassle of carrying the keyboard, for the small amount of typing I was doing.

Lately though, I’ve been writing a lot more on my iPad, so started to use the wireless keyboard again, at least, I did when i was at home. At home I could leave the iPad in its dock, and happily type away. In fact, almost a year ago, this was pretty much my main computing setup1. Away from home though, I still wasn’t carrying the keyboard, as I was finding the wireless keyboard was getting damaged in transit; as nice as those Apple keyboards are, they are not the cheapest.

This ended up frustrating me. I was using the iPad mostly when I was away from home, but only had the best typing experience when I was at my desk – so I’d be as well just using my Mac. After a bit of a look around I decided an integrated cover/keyboard were probably the way to go, even if it did seem a bit redundant given I already had a good keyboard, and would have to take the iPad out of the case to sit it in the dock.

Fortuitously at this point The Verge published a lengthy review of the best iPad keyboards. I started looking at a couple of the Logitech case/keyboard products, as they seemed the best of the “combination” types. Later though I noticed a link buried in the review of the Apple keyboard, to the InCase Origami Workstation (also pictured in the review header image). Once I had found this, I knew I had my solution.

The Origami Workstation is a case for your Apple Keyboard. Yes, that’s right, a separate case for your keyboard. It gets its name from its ability to be folded – “origami-style” – into a stand for your iPad. Because your iPad doesn’t connect into the case in any way you can comfortably use it with your iPad still in its covering (the original Smart Cover in my case). The next day I headed to the Apple Store and picked up my own Origami Workstation for £20 – much cheaper than buying a combined case/keyboard.

I’ve used it a few times around town now, and it’s quite frankly great. The Workstation keeps the keyboard safe from travel damage, prevents it from slipping around, and holds up the iPad at a comfortable angle. Usually I’ll have the iPad in portrait orientation2 as it is more “page-like”, which seems to encourage me to write more, but in some cases (usually email) I will sit it in landscape. This mobile setup3 is helping me to Get Stuff Written©, finally. Time will tell how well the cover holds up to constant carrying around amongst the other contents of my bag, but so far there’s not a mark on it.

  1. Here’s a picture of this setup. Yes, that’s an HP Touchpad pulling duty as a clock. 
  2. In this picture the iPad is “upside-down” to how I use it with the case – I have the home button at the top when I use it in Portrait mode. 
  3. At least, for now. I am eyeing up a MacBook Air/Retina to replace all my other computers.