My current laptop is 9+ years old. It’s still going very strong (which is crazy), but every once in a while exhibits a potential issue (which I’ve been able to fully mitigate or correct so far). I’ve been researching, thinking and planning for what I’d replace it with for well over 6 months (probably closer to a year), should I need (or want) to pull the trigger on a moment’s notice.
So far, it’s all been in my head (I haven’t even jotted down URLs to machines I’m interested in), which isn’t great, especially if something catastrophic were to happen.
So, this post is meant to be a few things:
- me thinking out loud (in the open), so that I can (hopefully) crystallize the various thoughts kicking around in my head.
- capturing specific URLs (or at least names for various models) that I have some interest in.
- a one in a million possibility that someone will comment with a machine, or an issue that I hadn’t considered (the one in a million is that someone reads this and bothers to comment, not that they will comment and that I will have obviously already considered it!).
Some history (which isn’t really necessary for this post, other than it will prove that it’s written by me and not an AI, since that’s my style). 😀
In the 90’s (yes, I’m old…) I bought off-the-shelf laptops (and desktops). I’m not sure if I simply wasn’t aware of custom laptops or if they weren’t available back then. My first custom laptop was purchased in 2004 from a company called PowerNotebooks (no longer in business). Custom laptops are basically commercial shells that you get to select components for in a web page (e.g., pick the amount and type of RAM, disks or SSDs, screen resolution, etc.).
That first custom laptop was both amazing and one of the biggest headaches I’ve ever experienced. It was crazy fast, but I also had to return it twice for servicing. After that second RMA, it pretty much worked flawlessly (and crazy fast for a machine of its time) for the 4.5 years that I kept it.
I replaced it in late 2008 with another custom laptop from PowerNotebooks. This time, a Core2 Duo based mobile processor which was as perfect a machine as I could have hoped for. It ran cool and silent no matter what I threw at it. The only laptop that I could actually keep on my lap for an entire day if I wanted to, without worrying about 3rd degree burns on my legs…
I held on to the first one for 4.5 years. I held on to the second one for 5.5 years (notice a pattern?). I bought my current machine in February of 2014 (also from PowerNotebooks). It has a 4th Gen Core i7, 16GB or RAM and 3 separate SATA SSDs (NVMe didn’t exist at the time, or I was unaware of them). It’s a large, heavy beast, but it ran (and still runs) like a beast (in the best sense).
I’d say it was because I run Linux on it, but Lois has a similar machine (purchased at the same time from PowerNotebooks as well) that has a 4th Gen Core i7 one model down from mine, and it runs Windows 10 just fine (all these years later as well). So, we’re both now at 9.25 years and going.
Being a hard-core techie, I want a new machine badly (and can obviously afford it), but, I really can’t justify it on any level (other than lust). If you know me, I had a similar experience with my previous car, which I held on to for 21 years and sold for $1 (to someone who badly needed a car) with 397,000 miles on it. I really love my new car, just like I know I’ll love my new machine, if/when I ever pull the trigger…
While I can again go the route of custom laptop, with a different company, it’s not as necessary as it was back then, given the high-end gaming and corporate laptops that exist nowadays. That’s the intro to my current thought process.
While I would enjoy a giant, beefy desktop, that can house anything and be easily upgraded, it doesn’t ideally suit our lifestyle. We split our time between two locations, and additionally travel on a fairly regular basis to visit people. That makes a laptop ideal, since wherever I end up, I have my primary machine with me.
I know that I can be happy with a laptop, so it’s my default choice. I’ve spent a little bit of time considering having a beefy desktop sitting in the house all the time, and using a cheap Chromebook or laptop to connect back to that machine when we aren’t here. That would work OK when we were away for a few days visiting someone, but if we were in a secondary location for a month (not atypical), it could be painful, and very dependent on network speed. Also, if something happened with the power in the house (also not atypical), then there’s always the possibility that the desktop doesn’t come back up properly…
So, a laptop it is, right? Not so fast…
There are now a ton of small form factor (SFF) machines (in various forms themselves), like NUCs (Next Unit of Computing), micro/tiny/mini PCs, etc. Most of them run laptop CPUs (to keep them either fanless, or drawing less power and needing smaller fans). There are basically a few advantages for these machines over a laptop:
- You can easily couple them with larger monitors (and multiple ones if you want). While you can add external monitors to a laptop, the laptop screen itself will often dictate the physical layout, and will be the smallest screen in a multi-monitor setup.
- They are much smaller than a laptop, so lugging them around from one location to another is actually easier than lugging around a beefy 17″ laptop!
- They are more flexible than a laptop. I can easily leave one at home and do the remote scenario I described above with the beefy desktop when on a short trip. That would also solve the problem of having to travel with a monitor/keyboard/mouse for those shorter trips. For our two location setup, I’d have a monitor permanently in each location so only the SFF machine would need to travel with me.
- I can configure one to my specific liking more easily than finding a similar laptop (more on that below).
There are some (potential) downsides (a few of which I’ve already proven to myself I can easily work around, as part of this very long research/thinking process!).
- I’d have to travel with a mouse, keyboard and monitor. A couple of months ago, I bought a portable monitor to know if that could work, and to easily connect to my home servers which are all headless. It’s a 16″ (so very close to my laptop screen) and it’s amazing. I would be perfectly happy to use it when on the road (it’s way crisper and higher resolution than my current laptop). I’d probably want to get a mini-keyboard for travel (and have larger keyboards at each of my main locations). A mouse is not an issue (unless I forget to bring it).
- Flipping open a laptop lid and starting to work within seconds is nice. At a remote location, an SFF setup would have to be assembled (power cable, monitor cable and possibly monitor power cable, keyboard, mouse, etc.).
- They don’t run on battery. We always have our laptops plugged in, but at least if there’s a power outage, we have plenty of time to shut them down cleanly. An SFF machine would simply die if the power went out. Something to be aware of, but not to freak out over (though there would be lost work in the best case). A UPS could solve that in one of the permanent locations, but not practically when traveling.
Given that I’ve (happily) lived in a laptop-only world for 25+ years (without any external monitors either), why am I even considering the SFF alternative? Basically, due to GPUs (Graphic Processing Units). With most high-end laptops (which is the only thing I’d consider, given how long I hang on to these things!), you can’t avoid having a high-end GPU in them as well. There are exceptions (and I’ll link to one below), but mostly, you’re getting a high end GPU if you’re buying a high-end CPU.
To me, that’s a downside (yes, I see some upsides too, which is one of my dilemmas). There are basically three benefits to a high-end GPU:
- Gaming (I don’t game, ever).
- Vector processing (Machine Leaning, AI, math-based stuff). At the moment, I do none of that. With the rapidly progressing world of AI/ML, it’s possible that I’d regret not having this available locally, but that world is also passing me by, and I haven’t been drawn to running any of it locally yet…
- High-end media processing (mostly Video Editing). I don’t do anything meaningful in that regard (I trim off the start and end parts of some of Lois’ videos, which doesn’t require any special GPU). I’m not about to become a viral Youtube star, so I don’t really need this either.
- Crypto mining. I never have, and am unlikely to ever do this.
#2 is the only benefit that I might miss if I got a machine without a high-end GPU.
There are potentially three downsides of a high-end GPU for my use case:
- They draw a lot of power and therefore also generate a lot of heat. If you’re not directly benefiting from them, why take that on?
- On Linux (which is exclusively what I run), the software of running a hybrid graphics system (which most are, containing both a built-in GPU like an Intel Xe unit or an AMD RDNA in the form of an APU, as well as a discrete GPU like an Nvidia or AMD Radeon) can be very tricky to get right. Even my ancient machine has a hyrbrid system (older built-in Intel graphics and an Nvidia discrete GPU). I have basically turned off the Nvidia GPU in order to have a more pleasant software experience.
- It’s a high-end component which is more likely to fail more quickly than any other component in the system. Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS) whenever you can!
Both a laptop and a SFF can easily accommodate up to 64GB of RAM (I could be really happy with 32GB, but I’m likely to rather spend up once and just get 64GB to begin with). It’s much easier to find SFF machines with no discrete GPU than a high-end laptop. While a number of high-end laptops have multiple NVMe slots (two to be exact), many have one Gen 4 slot and one Gen 3 slot. It’s easier to find an SFF with two Gen 4 slots (though there are some laptops with that as well, but not as likely with as good cooling systems and airflow as in an SFF. Gen 4 NVMe SSDs run very hot.
Last week, the batteries on each of our laptops started to fail. Mine was still working, but was constantly flashing red and never charging to full. Lois’ was completely failed, but I didn’t know it because we always work plugged in (as mentioned above). Surprisingly, I was able to find replacement batteries on Amazon (for 9+ year old machines, for under $20 each?!?), and they work perfectly, so that (theoretical) crisis is now behind us. But, it points out that other components may start failing soon as well.
In the past two years, we’ve each had to replace our WiFi/Bluetooth cards (Amazon to the rescue again, for about $30 each, which included an upgrade from WiFi 5 to WiFi 6!).
Forgetting the form factor (laptop vs SFF), my ideal setup would be:
- 64GB of DDR5 RAM.
- 2x NVMe Gen 4 SSDs.
- Extremely adequate cooling for the above (both #1 and #2).
- A high-end Ryzen CPU (something in the 7000 series) or a high-end Intel CPU (likely a 13th Gen i7 or i9, though a 12th Gen would also blow me away at this point). The Ryzens typically draw dramatically less power, though in single threading, the Intels can generally outperform them when drawing that extra wattage.
- At least one USB-4 port (preferably two), and preferably have that also be a Thunderbolt 4 port (though that’s less likely in a Ryzen box (still possible, just cuts down the choices).
Finally, some machines I could pull the trigger on today, if I had to (thankfully I don’t have to, just yet…). First the laptops:
- System76 makes high-end Linux machines (laptops, desktops and servers!). This is a nice laptop. The only configuration change I made from the default is to the screen size from 15.6″ to 17″. The downside is that it has a discrete GPU, albeit an older, lower-end one, in the Nvidia 3050 (perhaps a reasonable compromise to my points above). I’d also yank out the RAM and SSD, so I’m paying for three things I don’t really want. Finally, there is a single Gen 4 NVMe slot, but there is at least a second Gen 3 one (which runs slower, but cooler, and I can live with it, even though it’s not ideal). I’d have to buy RAM (unfortunately DDR4) and SSDs separately.
- For a crazy amount of money (way more than a totally tricked out SFF with monitor and extras would cost) I could get this laptop. I’d be paying for Windows 11 (which I don’t want), and an Nvidia GPU (which I don’t want, and this would be a higher end one), but, it would be an extraordinary machine.
- I mentioned above that I could be happy with a 12th Gen Intel CPU. For a lot less money than #2 above, I could get an older MSI model. This too suffers from paying for things I don’t want/need, but at a more reasonable price (though that’s what pushes me toward the System76 above, which I can snag with the latest Intel CPU for less, even tossing the RAM and SSD and replacing them with my choices!).
- There are others, like the 18″ Razer from Dell, but prices only get even crazier with those machines…
On the SFF side, if I were pulling the trigger today, I’d likely order this:
- NBP7 from Minisforum. It’s on sale at the moment for $489 in a barebones configuration (which is ideal for me). I pick the RAM and SSDs and I don’t pay for an OS that I don’t want/need! It’s got high-speed DDR5 RAM, only 1 Gen 4 NVMe SSD (and no Gen 3 second slot, but one 2.5″ SATA secondary SSD support). Two USB-4 ports (but no Thunderbolt). It’s a very high end 13th Gen Intel CPU (but not the highest end, which is fine). Even if I throw the kitchen sink at this thing, I’d be saving a ton of money over most of the laptops that are equivalent.
- Beelink Ser6 Pro. I like that it is a Ryzen CPU. It supports DDR5 RAM, but at a slower speed than the NBP7 above. It has one NVMe Gen 4 slot. Unfortunately, it’s preconfigured with only 32GB of RAM (more than enough for me, but I’d rather it be zero so I could put in 64GB without throwing away 32GB!) and only a slower 500GB SSD (which is useless to me). Therefore, it starts at $160 more than the NPB7 above with less usefulness to me.
- Perhaps the most intriguing of the bunch is the brand new Beelink GTR7 and GTR7 Pro. Unfortunately, while they claim that it has been officially released, there are no prices listed and it’s not available to buy anywhere. Obviously, it will be out soon, but not yet. That’s one of the reasons that I’m very happy that I can afford to wait and see what’s coming down the pike…
Of course, as with all tech, the longer I wait, the longer I salivate over things that appear to be close, but never really are. For example, they are already teasing the next gen AMD CPUs (8000 series Zen 5 chips). They likely won’t formally be announced until the end of the year, and won’t be available in the form factors that I want (meaning, non-desktop) until roughly a year from now! The point is that you will wait forever if you always want the newest rumored beast…
So, my thoughts are down on paper, and I haven’t yet absorbed them to be sure which way I’d go. A laptop is the most straightforward answer, I know that. But, I also know that my gut and heart say that I’ve love to find out if the SFF will suit me better (or rather, make me happier). The irony is that I can find that out for less than a new laptop would cost me, but, if I wasn’t happy, I’d have to add that cost to the cost of a laptop, which would again make the purchase ridiculously expensive…
I don’t expect any public comments (my blog is not widely read), but if you stumble on this and have any thoughts, please share them.