Washington Apple Pi

A Community of Apple iPad, iPhone and Mac Users

How I Chose a Laptop When My School Decided to Exchange Me

© 2005 Lykara I. Charters

Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint information

In a quest to find ever more expensive ways to educate me, my parents are sending me off to England for a year of studying whilst abroad. With a brilliant sense of timing, they waited until aviation fuel was at an historic high and the dollar-to-pound ratio was at an historic low. This meant that shipping my 14”x17”x10”, 40.1-pound iMac G4 was not going to be the most practical solution to my college computing needs. We needed something that would get through customs in a carry-on.

Our first thought was the Mac mini, with more than enough oomph to help me live out the rest of my college years in comfort and style and also the added bonus of being new and therefore desirable. Combined with a disposable monitor and printer purchased in the UK, I could set up a Mac wonderland in my dorm room and feel quite at home, apart from the kippers. Our thought bubble burst at this point, Sunday comic-style, when we learned that England, that backward bastion of tradition, does not believe that broadband Internet access is a birthright. There was no guarantee that my dorm room would have any connectivity at all and the idea of schlepping a Mac mini setup, however miniature, back and forth to a computer lab compelled us to think seriously about laptops.

This was very bad for me, because I had severe reservations about laptops. They are portable, which means they are theftable; their keyboards are small and not ergonomic; they don’t have the same capabilities as a desktop machine; they are prone to being broken (but never by the owner, as tech support well knows). I have always used larger, more powerful machines and am, at this time, well adjusted (read: covetous) of my 20” screen. None of these reservations paid for shipping my iMac G4 to England and they certainly didn’t solve the problem of religious migration to an Internet port.

I spent a great deal of time doing the same thing everyone else does: I read up on Apple’s laptop offerings, I talked to everyone whose opinion I trusted, and I brooded that it was cruel to house students from overseas in rooms that had no Ethernet jacks. At first, I settled on the 15” PowerBook for showing more information on the screen at once (I’m famous for opening 27 windows at a time), speed comparable to my iMac, and a sleek aluminum case that I felt would comfortably make the transition into the professional world once I graduated. The keyboard, as a bonus, glows gently in the dark, which would make writing late night papers easier on my roommate, if not on me. Backup storage was not something I had to worry about; due to the foresight of my parents, I already had a formidable LaCie d2 external FireWire drive.

The PowerBook idea was run by the Washington Apple Pi forums on the TCS where it was intimated that the repair rates on PowerBooks was not what it should be. I was urged to look more closely at iBooks, with their plastic and more damage-resistant cases. I had dismissed them earlier for that very reason (the plastic case not having the same ‘shiny’ gem quality as the aluminum one) but the rumblings were that this was really a desirable aspect. A feature, not a bug.

Having run through Apple’s Web site once again and nosed through a few reviews on third party sites, we made a family trip to the Apple Store to play with the display models and do side by side comparisons of the two laptop lines. The PowerBook was perceptibly lighter, even when compared to the smaller 14” iBook, but I had to practice some due diligence… and the weight differential wasn’t that much or that big of a deal. A plastic case was less susceptible to warping, less endowed by physics with the ability to burn me if the laptop got overly warm, and more resilient to minor bumps and bruises. The nearest Apple Store to my University in England is about a 3-hour train ride away, so popping in for repairs was not a solution I could rely on. The sturdier iBook was beginning to be more attractive. It didn’t have the screen real estate as my iMac, but it would fit in a backpack and wouldn’t mind accompanying me on my European conquest during school holidays. Also, I learned around this time that I wasn’t going to have a roommate, so the glowing keyboard on the PowerBook was no longer quite as strong a selling point. (But I still wanted it.)

All the same, the 14” iBook was a better, safer buy… so we bought it. It came with a SuperDrive (which can read and write both DVDs and CDs) and Airport wireless capability; I equipped it with extra RAM to bring it up to 1.25 GB and christened it with a funky foreign name. Having spent several weeks getting used to working on a laptop, I upgraded to Mac OS X 10.4 and installed a bunch (more of a bouquet, really) of software that would help with photo editing and Web publishing. I’m not really interested in photo editing and Web publishing, but I owe it to my parents in return for a year of learning how to speak in a condescending accent. To save time and effort with Address Book and the like, I used Migration Assistant to perform a Dr. Frankenstein brain transfer from my iMac G4 to my new iBook; it was so successful that it even copied over settings that I had done incorrectly on my iMac and had hoped to change when setting up my laptop. Very thorough.

Of primary importance was ensuring that my parents and I would be able to see each other – literally. We conducted tests of iChat AV using iSight cameras (with Mac OS 10.3 and then 10.4, for comparison) and found that, in general, it works better when both the machines are running the same OS. We also put my digital camera through its paces and made sure the LaCie drive worked as well as it should. I wouldn’t recommend any laptop on the basis of its sound quality, but I reserve the right to buy good speakers once I get settled.

My iBook is going to be a great companion in England and will make a fine extension to my desk workstation when I return. I had greatly exaggerated in my mind the drawbacks of a portable computer: a sturdy lock and common sense go a long way towards keeping my laptop from walking, the keyboard is not at all uncomfortable when placed at the right height (a health consideration at all times when typing), a well designed laptop backpack and a plastic case will stand between me and mine enemies, and Exposé will cover a multitude of sins for those of us who suffer from Let-A-Thousand-Windows-Bloomitis. As for the decreased abilities of a laptop versus a desktop, there is not much that an undergraduate like me can think of that will tax an iBook – but a girl can dream.