Monday, October 3, 2011

My trip to the dark side

Like many others of my generation, my computer life first started with DOS. Dave Barry's article about it, which you can read here, still brings back memories and is funny enough to reduce me to tears. I imported an IBM PC for my brother in 1984 and managed to get out of the customs hall at Bombay airport without paying a penny in bribes. Not only that, several customs officers slapped me cordially on the back as I left, saying "it's good that scientists like you are returning to the country". Those really were the days!

It was on another IBM PC running DOS, which Ashoke Sen had imported from the US, that we typed out this humongous paper, processed it in TeX - which took more than an hour (at roughly one minute per page) - and then printed the final version on a dot-matrix printer, which took an entire night. I still have a guilty conscience about the last part, since after the first twenty pages or so I went to bed, around 4 AM, and when I returned at 10 AM my co-authors were still cheerfully watching the printer make noises like a diseased crow and spit out a page every ten minutes.

Thankfully the DOS phase didn't last very long and pretty soon Linux came along (printers got better, too). I was among the first Linux users in India (you can read about this here) and it's shaped my world-view for a couple of decades now. Initially there was all this tension about whether a new installation would work at all and if so, how one could set the screen resolution and colours, get TeX and LaTeX running and install a printer. Ubuntu rendered all that trivial, so for the last few years things have been quite pleasant. I keep a dual-boot laptop with Ubuntu/Windows, the latter primarily so I can make Powerpoint files for popular talks (ppt is by far the best thing Micros**t have ever made).

Talking of laptops, three years ago I bought a Dell XPS 1330, which is a wonderful machine if you can get over its principal shortcoming - it gets hot enough to fry an omelette, and could even burn the little rivulets of melted cheese that usually leak out from my omelettes.That I'm using it even at this moment is due to my wise decision of purchasing a three-year service contract with Dell at the outset. To date, they have replaced the motherboard four times and the screen twice, each time because of overheating and all for free and without complaint. In fact, whenever I'm bored I just phone Dell and they instantly ship me a motherboard and screen (only joking). I think I'll suggest a small fridge instead, it would be cheaper for them.

Before this vaporises, I'd like a new laptop, and it's not going to be a Dell. So what's it going to be then? My requirements are that it should be fairly small (ideally a 13" screen), lightweight, reasonably powerful and have excellent battery life. Price is not a major issue. I expected there would be loads of such machines these days and I could pick and choose, but that isn't the case. Netbooks are light but of course don't do very much. The non-netbook laptops that you see in stores in Bombay are all inexpensive 15 to 17-inchers that weigh a ton. I learned on the net that my preferred category is called "business ultraportables" and visited many dozen websites over the last week. The Sony Vaio S-series, Samsung's new 900 Series and the Lenovo Thinkpad X220 all seemed like interesting possibilities, with Intel i3-i5-i7 processors and 2-4 GB of RAM. All would allow me my favourite Ubuntu/Windows dual-boot configuration. Then there was the Macbook Air, though some years ago it had given me the distinct impression of merely looking pretty and doing nothing much. Anyway I wanted my beloved Ubuntu and have never been attracted to Apple products or Mac OS.

Now as you'll see below, it's one thing to ask how these machines mutually compare, and another to ask how their sales people compare, and yet another to ask how their sales people in India compare! For the machine comparison, some reviews I located on the net said the Samsung 900 series laptops are serious MacBook Air competitors (both 11" and 13" varieties). Other reviews praise the Lenovo Thinkpad X220 to the skies. Yet others believe Sony Vaio's are the best because unlike the other ultraportables they have optical drives. I tried to buy each of these in turn.

I started with the Sony Vaio. My IT team assured me that although these used to have the reputation of being smart but overpriced, their current stuff was cheap and plasticky - and still overpriced, of course. They were able to borrow a brand new S-series model from the School of Mathematics for me to look at, and I have to say that "cheap and plasticky" described its appearance very well. It was also a shade heavy, somewhat over 2 kg. Now, some of the premium S-series laptops are said to be much more elegant (according to international  reviews) but here's the rub - Sony India wouldn't actually show me anything, not even if I travelled to a shop of their choice. I could only get to see a given model if I bought it first.

Next came Samsung. Some reviews claimed it was the best competitor to the MBA in the market, and beautiful too, so I got my IT staff to phone their Bombay office. Turns out they don't visit interested businesses with a demo model - surprising given that their 13-incher carries a stiff price tag of a little over Rs 1,00,000 and is new on the market. Where can we see it then? Their reply was "Croma" - a chain of stores started by the Tatas where you can pay extra-high prices and enjoy rude service. I phoned Croma and was told (rudely! have to admire their predictability!!) that the branch I was asking about didn't carry this model. Where might I find it then? Oops too late, Croma hung up on me. Phoned Samsung. Which Croma branch in Bombay has your machine in stock? They asked for my name and phone number. I asked why this was a pre-condition to getting the desired information. They wouldn't budge. I declined to share my details and we had reached an impasse. So, no Samsung 900-series for me. The reviews did mention a poor battery life of two hours, so I didn't feel very bad.

Now it was Lenovo's turn. Like Sony Vaio, most of the models they market in India are obsolete elsewhere. But they do sell the Thinkpad X220 which is current and rather popular, and has impressive credentials. It has a 12.5" IPS screen (this is a relatively new LCD technology, IPS stands for "In-Plane Switching" and is supposed to be far superior to the TN or Twisted Nematic variety which offers a very narrow viewing angle). The 6-cell battery gives an amazing 8 hours of usage under actual test conditions. With a 9-cell battery and an optional "slice battery" base, this goes up to 23 hours. Clearly this is the laptop to have if you're planning to be shipwrecked! And it weighs just 1.6 kg.

So I called Lenovo's sales number at 1-800-425-3353 and got a recording in Kannada. Not sure what it said, but it definitely wasn't "swalpa adjust maadi", the only Kannada phrase I know. Twenty tries later I gave up and tried their Bombay office number. This answered with a voice menu that would not accept any inputs from me. Finally I called their Bangalore office and got a charming telephone operator who giggled when I recounted my adventures. She gave me the direct number of someone in Sales at their Bombay office, who I called immediately and - of course - he did not answer. For good measure I tried their customer service and it was consistently busy! Not reassuring.

Today came the final nail in the coffin - Lenovo India (contacted through resellers) reveal that they do not supply the highly rated IPS screen but only the NT. Moreover globally the IPS screen on the X220 turns out to have severe problems with image persistence (as 40 pages of complaints on this forum will attest). And the NT screen in a side-by-side comparison video with the IPS looks washed-out.

All this panicked me. In India there would be no replacement if I didn't like it. If I may permit myself a politically incorrect comment, in India a laptop, like a bride, is seen for the first time on the wedding day and thereafter is supposed to be for keeps!!

Having now run out of possibilities, I am going to take my friend Vishwanath's advice and go over to the dark side. The Macbook Air has the following plus points: (i) the same model is sold in India as everywhere else, (ii) it can be seen and handled at lots of shops, and frankly looks gorgeous, (iii) on the 13" version you can get an Intel i7 processor, 4 GB RAM and a 256 GB solid-state drive, (iv) it is slim bordering on anorexic and weighs just 1.3 kg. So all I have to do, really, is to give up Linux. I may be the first person to have moved over to the "fruit company" not just because of their product's dazzling looks, impressive build quality and clever advertising, but in large measure because of the combined crappiness of Sony Vaio, Samsung and Lenovo, particularly their Indian incarnations.


WebMiner said...

I had a similar experience trying to buy just a Lenovo keyboard last year. Amazing what India makes of MNC businesses. (It's called demand destruction.) I have been using an IBM X40 since 2004. When it kicks the bucket, I am going to buy another old X40 on eBay. When that one rings the bell, I am going to ... you get the idea. And re. Ubuntu: somewhere between Jaunty and Lucid was their best. You might find yourself "bottling at the source" (Debian) soon.

archie said...

Fujitsu is another nice company for laptops. It is a Japanese hardware firm and hence their laptops are super sleek and robust at the same time. Their range of notebooks is pretty nice too. (I fear I almost sound like a sales rep of Fujitsu - but I am really happy with mine, so.. :)

Umesh said...

Your link in the following sentence:
" 40 pages of complaints on this forum will attest.."
links to the paper again (first link of the post) and not to the forum in question. Anyway, great post.

Sunil Mukhi said...

@Umesh: Thanks, I've corrected the link.

As a small follow-up to the posting, I want to mention that I finally tracked down the Samsung 900 series in a mall. The keys are cheap and shoddy with little resistance, like a child's toy. It would be a nightmare to type on this. I also found the Sony Vaio brown-and-gold business version of the S-series. The mouse buttons are poor (depending where you press them, they sometimes don't click) and the keyboard area has a cross-hatched gold surrounding, making it look truly tacky. So I think MacBook Air is an easy winner.

Neelima said...


Umesh said...

For some strange reason the author decided to do a parity transform on the TN (for Twisted Nematic screen) and writes NT instead in the last but second paragraph!