Desktop is King

Freeing up my lap at last

A big messy smartphone

That’s what I see whenever I open a laptop in the hope of repairing it or pimping it up. My efforts inevitably result in resentful failures, and I either leave the thing broken or send it to a technician. Me, fixing a clumsy block of metal and plastic where every single piece is soldered up or goes inside of a chip? No, thanks.

Before you think I give up too fast, let me tell you that, sure, I could learn how to fix my own laptops, but that’s not the point; the point is I don’t want to. Laptops to me are like cars: an inferior technology that I only resort to when there’s absolutely no other option available.

In this article, I’ll give you more details on why I don’t like laptops and talk about a few things I struggled with when building my desktop workstation last Christmas (2017).

7 years without a desktop

I don’t like laptops. Never did. By 2010, though, a new trend started in my life. Around that time, friends and relatives already knew that I only used computers for lightweight things, such as developing software and surfing the web. They started giving me their “old” (read 4+ years old…) laptops, knowing that they’d still last for a handful of years in my hands. It was a good deal for both parties: I’d get a new old machine, they wouldn’t feel the moral burden of throwing away a high tech piece of hardware that, truth be told, was still in good working conditions.

Why would they do that? Word of the day: convenience. It wasn’t always easy to find tech support for some models (“Official Apple Support” in the case of Macs), parts were expensive and doing it yourself, especially ten or so years ago, was a tough undertaking. Most importantly: the hardware wouldn’t keep up with the software’s requirements. New media formats and content delivery techniques came out in the past decade and web services and video games started making use of them almost immediately, so the GPUs, CPUs and RAMs that could once handle those processes smoothly all of a sudden became an annoying impedance.

Of course, I wouldn’t notice it that much because I was a free soul running a featherweight Linux distro and coding on minimalistic text editors. Sadly, it wouldn’t take long before it started affecting me as well.

JavaScript is the new Flash

Whenever my machines would start lagging, I very naively thought that the problem was myself and the way I was using the computers’ resources. Maybe if I deleted the cookies the problem would go away? Update the browser to a newer version? Uninstall Flash? “It’s always Flash”, we used to hear back then.1 But it wasn’t only Flash. Far from it. In fact, this is the summary of what I feel has been the web for the past decade:

- Can we have a sequence of animated gifs on this webpage?
- Definitely!
- Can we also add one or two (maybe three) videos?
- Yeeeeeeeeeeeeees, all the videos!
- Oh! Oh! Can we also throw in some 30 unceasing JavaScript files for analytics, adds and UX?!
- Sure, why not?!!

There went my RAM. There went my CPU. Just like what happened with the people who had gifted me their old laptops, I was ostracized by hardware elitist websites and couldn’t smoothly surf the web anymore. I still remember when I had to refrain myself from opening more then five tabs on the Firefox browser so that I didn’t bring my Lenovo Ideapad Z460 to a meltdown.

Computing in the 90's VS computing in 2018. (Original by apmvj4M on 9Gag.)

That Lenovo was my third laptop. The first one was given to me in 2010 and never worked well, no matter what task I was trying to perform. It became a “server” when I got a first generation Sony Vaio in 2012. Then, in 2015, the Vaio became a testing machine because that’s when I was gifted the gorgeous i5 Lenovo. Less than a year after that, though, I was already struggling to do work, listen to MP3 and open a few Firefox tabs at the same time without literally burning my legs. Do you know what the specs for that machine are?

$ cat /proc/cpuinfo | grep "model name"
model name      : Intel(R) Core(TM) i5 CPU       M 480  @ 2.67GHz

$ cat /proc/meminfo | grep MemTotal
MemTotal:        3832340 kB

A duo core CPU2 plus 4 GB of RAM. Pretty beefy, in my opinion, and yet I still had to be mindful of the resources on that machine while surfing the web. But, as the Big Lebowsky would put it: “This aggression will not stand, man.”

Should I buy a laptop?

This time around, no one had a “newer old laptop” to gift me and for the first time I was confronted with that question—I had never payed for a laptop in my entire life. I already knew the operating system I wanted to run, but for the hardware itself I was still considering a few options: a MacBook Pro, a powerful System76 model whose name I don’t recall and a vanilla Lenovo with an i7 processor.

But it didn’t feel right. I somehow knew deep inside of me that I’d be paying for a suboptimal product. I knew that, down the line, maybe within four or five years (even less), I’d be struggling with the very same problems of underperformance and memory and CPU hungry software I was struggling with in 2017. And I’m not the kind of person who just switches devices every five or so years like that.

I felt it was time to go back to the desktop. I needed something functional and modular. If a piece broke, I wanted to able to fix it or replace it myself. If I needed more RAM, I wanted to be able to buy new sticks and plug them into the motherboard. If the CPU wouldn’t handle the outrageous amount of cycles required by those f***cking JavaScript heavy websites, I wanted to be able to sell mine and buy a more powerful one. In short, I didn’t want to be lured into getting rid of the whole thing just because one specific component stopped working and I lacked the time and patience to deal with it.

One may argue that, all things considered, changing the pieces in a desktop computer is akin to switching laptops every now and then. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. To start with, a lot of people sell their laptops or just throw them away because fixing them is too expensive or involves a lot of headache. That’s not the case with a PC. Besides, and I unfortunately have no statistics to back me up on this (only my own experience and observations), it’s undeniable that planned obsolescence affects laptops, cellphones and tablets way more than it does desktop computers. Except when it comes to gamers. Some of those folks are so terrified of the idea of being “left behind” that they’ll change their freaking GPUs every couple of years…

A Christmas to remember (not for the right reasons)

So, there I was at the end of 2017, close to getting my genitals vaporized by an overheating laptop computer. When Christmas came and I saw that I could build a new machine (monitor included) for under 900 USD, I didn’t think twice. I ordered everything from Amazon in less then 20 minutes. I hadn’t assembled my own PC in over a decade, and buying everything online was a new experience to me.

A few days later the boxes started arriving, and with them came the problems. First off, when checking the CPU web page on Amazon, I didn’t notice it already included a cooler. “No problem; I can just return the extra CPU fan I’ve ordered.” Same thing for the CPU thermal grease. That’s expected from someone who hasn’t gone through the ritual for so long, right?

I couldn’t wait to put my hands on the screwdriver. The assemblage was surprisingly easier than it used to be in the past, even for someone as rusty as I was. As soon as I connected the basic parts together (motherboard, CPU, RAM, power), the thing lit up a few lights… And that was it. No fan, no funny noise. Nothing. I suspected something was wrong, but the motherboard didn’t give me a clue. I tried removing one RAM stick at a time but it still wouldn’t work. Because the motherboard would only take DDR3 SDRAM, trying my DDR2 sticks on it wasn’t an option. Not having spare parts to test on the motherboard, I couldn’t tell if the problem was the CPU, the RAM or the board itself.

I went to the motherboard manufacturer’s website to check the specs, and guess what? The freaking thing didn’t come with a buzzer! WTF?!? Not even a status light to let end users know what was going on. How was I supposed to debug it, with an ammeter? (Do you know how much time that would have involved, even in the highly unlikely scenario that I succeeded?)

So, I called the manufacturer and they were lazy (and cynical) enough to tell me that “by the sounds of it, the motherboard is toast.” Reeeeeeealy? Can you believe that? You buy a brand new motherboard and it already comes toast. I didn’t even have to overclock the CPU or use the board 150 hours a week for 2 years in a row. Nope. It already came toast out of the box.

I didn’t trust the guy, though. He didn’t seem to really know where the problem was; he probably just wanted me to hang up and let him finish whatever silly video he was watching on Youtube. My living room was full of open boxes, of all possible sizes, and I could barely find a spot to place a cup of coffee on my kitchen counter. That was it. I was finally determined to kiss Amazon goodbye.

So I shipped back the board, the fan, the thermal compound, and also the CPU and RAM sticks. I went straight to the local computer store, bought all the remaining parts from there and got the goddamn machine done the next day. Lucky enough, nothing failed this time. But even if it did, all I’d need to do in that case would be drive back there and exchange the broken part for a new one and try it out again. No shipping, no return forms, just easy wins.

Energy consumption

One of the reasons why I refuse to give up on computers until they’re at the verge of exploding on my face is because, according to my parents, I’m a hippie. (I’ve no idea what they mean by that, but they’re the ones who lived in those times, so I take their word for it.) Yes, I do give a damn to the environment and all that stuff.

It’s a known fact that desktop computers tend to consume more energy and produce more carbon than laptop computers do,3 but more and more hardware manufacturers are displaying those numbers on charts available on their products’ manuals and on retailers’ websites. If you, like me, are concerned about those statistics and measurements, just add the numbers up and compare them before buying or assembling a new machine.

It’s still hard to decisively measure how much carbon our laptop or desktop computers dump into the atmosphere, but when it comes to electricity we can already use an energy consumption monitor, like the Tacklife EM02 or the TP-Link Smart Plug.

Conclusion

The i5 Lenovo became my new spare machine—on the rare occasions that I need to carry a computer with me, I pick the Lenovo and just hope that it won’t fry my legs when I open the browser.

If you like the idea of switching to a desktop computer, do yourself a favor and buy a motherboard debug or diagnostic card as well. They’re considerably cheap for what they offer and will save you a lot of time on the chance that some component malfunctions.

If, on the other hand, you love your laptop computer and don’t plan on switching to a desktop one anytime soon, that’s fine. At the very least, make sure you take it to a repair café before dumping it somewhere you can’t see. Remember: just because it’s not anymore your problem doesn’t mean it’s not someone else’s problem.4

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