I remarked to a friend recently that technology seems to increase our expectations faster than it can meet them: "why can't my pocket-computer get more than 6 hours of battery life" would have seemed like such a surreal complaint 10 years ago. For that reason I want to recognize an experience I had lately that actually did impress me even in our jaded ways.
The background is that I wanted a dedicated laptop for my electronics work. Normally I use my primary laptop for the job, but it's annoying to connect and disconnect it (power, ethernet [the wifi in my apartment is not great], mouse, electronics projects), and worries about lead contamination lead me to be diligent about cleaning it after using it for electronics. So, I decided to dust off my old college laptop and resurrect it for this new purpose.
I didn't have high hopes for this process, since now my college laptop is not just "crappy and cheap" (hey I bought it in college) but also "ancient"! But anyway I still wanted to try it, so I pulled out my old laptop, plugged it in... and was immediately shown the exact screen I had left three years ago. Apparently the last day I used it was May 1 2011, and I had put it into hibernation. Everything worked after all these years! This thing had been banged around like crazy during college, and sat around for a few years afterwards, and yet it still worked. I'm pretty happy when a piece of electronics lives through its 3 year warranty, but this thing was still going strong after 7 years -- crazy.
I was generally impressed by the laptop too -- this is comparing by 7-year-old college laptop with my 3-year-old current one. The screen was a crisp 1920x1200 (quite a bit better than my new laptop), and it didn't feel sluggish at all. I checked out the processor info and some online benchmarks, and it looks like the processor was only ~10% slower than my new one. Of course, not everything was great: the old laptop feels like it is definitely over 6lbs, and I can't believe I lugged that around campus. But it's just going to sit on a desk now so it doesn't matter.
Part 2: Ubuntu
This laptop was running 10.04, which I remember being a major pain to get running at the time. I decided to upgrade it to 14.04, but I was worried about this process as well. I had spent several days getting Linux to work on this laptop when I first decided to switch to it, which involved some crazy driver work from some friends to get the wifi card working. I was worried that I would run into the same problems and have to give up on this.
So, first I tried an in-place Ubuntu upgrade to 14.04, and to my surprise everything worked! I wanted a clean slate, though, so I tried a fresh install of 14.04: again, everything worked. I haven't done an extensive run through the peripherals but all the necessary bits were certainly working.
I know that it's probably just a single driver that got added to the Linux kernel, but the experience was night-and-day compared to the headache I endured the first time.
So anyway, this was crazy! I have always panned Dell and my old laptop as being "crappy", and Linux as "not user friendly", but at least in this particular case the hardware proved to be remarkably robust (let's just ignore the bezel that came loose), and the software remarkably smooth.
Part 3: Weird desktop
Freshly bolstered by this experience, and with a 14.04 CD in hand, I decided to upgrade my work desktop as well. I had for some reason decided to install 11.04 on that machine, which has been causing me no end of pain recently. This Ubuntu release is so unsupported that all the apt mirrors are gone, and the only supported upgrade path is a clean install. (Side note: because of this experience, I've decided to never use a non-LTS release again.) I've put off reinstalling it with a new version since I also had a horrible experience getting it up and running: I'm running a three-monitor setup and it took me forever (a few days of work) to figure out the right combination of drivers and configurations.
This one didn't go quite as smoothly with this transition, but within a day I was able to get 14.04 up and running and everything pretty much back to the way it was before, but minus the random memory corruptions I used to get from a buggy graphics driver! I also no longer get warnings from every web app out there that I am running an ancient version of Chrome.
All in all, I've been extremely impressed with the reliability of the electronics hardware and the comprehensiveness of modern Linux / Ubuntu.
Part 4: Using the new setup
While this post is mostly about how easy it apparently has become to get Ubuntu running on various hardware, I'm also extremely happy with the new electronics setup of having a dedicated laptop. It is definitely nice to not have to swap my main laptop in and out, and it also means that I can do the software side of my electronics work from anywhere. I set up a SSH server on this laptop, and I am able to log in remotely (even outside of my apartment) into it and work with any electronics projects I left attached! (I plan to point my Dropcam at the workbench so that I can see things remotely, though I haven't gotten around to that.) I made use of this ability over the Thanksgiving break to work on an FPGA design (got DDR3 ram working with it!), which I will hopefully have time to blog about shortly.
Overall, I'm definitely glad I decided to go through this process: the dedicated laptop is very helpful and getting it set up was way less painful than I expected.