Vlamis - Technology and the Individual

I have spent some time observing and coordinating with the people in the office in an attempt to understand how technology fits in our work and how it fits in our culture. Having also been the fulcrum for specifying and procuring equipment has given me a lot of information that I hope to delineate here in a set of suggestions for an ongoing internal IT procedures and (I hate this word > ) policies.

In the 14 years I have worked here, I learned that I was taught a lot of wrong-headed and "old" business theory that applies well to filing cabinets, but are awful for electronic devices. Business computer equipment in the 70's-80's was often built to be permanent installations and long-term investments like manufacturing equipment. In the ancient world of the IBM PC 286, it was advised to leave your computer on because the electricity it used was less expensive than replacing the power switch. In hindsight, that was not realistic. I have been told of an architect that purchased integrated workstations for his drafters that had an integrated pencil and paper drafting table with built-in CAD computer hardware and software. All encased in beautiful high-tech looking plastic, these were the top of the line and built to last. The architect spent $30,000 on each of these workstations. They were utterly obsolete in about 2 years and the "investment" helped sink his firm and it did not ever recover.

My first day at Vlamis Software Solutions (August 2000) revealed the stifling nature of how technology was viewed in the larger companies I had worked for. The mouse that was attached to the desktop PC I was assigned was a trackball. I abhor trackballs. I figured I was stuck with it. I gave it a shot. I couldn't do work with it. So I asked Dan where I could find a different mouse, and if we were out of them, what kind we were supposed to buy and from where. He looked at me like I didn't understand how life worked. "Go find a mouse that you like and will help you be productive, and if it is under $100, just buy it with your credit card.", Dan said (give or take).

My 14 years ago brain screamed, "What? No. You don't understand. There are approved things that are part of the company standards that are one-size fits-all. You buy these things in bulk and when it goes bad, you have to beg an IT person or other supply strangler to replace it with another sub-optimal thing. This man in front of me doesn't understand how businesses are supposed to work."

I have a scar on the tip of my middle finger. That scar wore a pattern in the plastic of the right-mouse button of the mouse I picked because I ended up using it so long. My productivity was increased and even though the mouse was one of the expensive new 'laser' mouses (mouses point, mice squeak), it cost less in the long term because I bought something based on my knowledge of my working habits and how I used technology. For the cost of $40, I felt more empowered, more respected, more trusted, and more of a part of this company than any results I had from the thousands of dollars spent by the corporations I previously worked for with their silly team building exercises and free bad-coffee and donuts training.

It was enlightening.

The incredibly personal nature of technology and the absolute impermanence of it makes a compelling case to allow freedom of choice with personal electronics.

There are some benefits to standardization. A stack of identical laptops will allow for trading and loaning power supplies. You can exchange parts from one to the other. You can test software and configurations on one machine and have reasonable expectation that it would work for all of them.

The reality of what actually happens in Vlamis is that a laptop and its associated hardware are given to one person and there is so very little "sharing" of that equipment. I cannot think of an example of it ever happening. Beyond that, each person's list of installed software is not the same and there has been little opportunity to realistically do "real" configuration testing. When our laptops have an expired warrantee, we move to a new one, not continue to repair them. After three years, laptop hinges are weak and the case is scratched/dented and worn. Bringing an out of date and worn laptop does not reflect the image of the exclusive boutique business intelligence consultancy we are. I believe that what little benefit there is to strictly standardize is far outweighed by the benefits of allowing a personal choice based on the users' knowledge of their work habits.

In visiting the development areas of a verly large company that is one of our clients, I noticed rather quickly that there was very little computer equipment that was not unique to each user. Laptops were of many shapes and sizes. Mouses and keyboards had rainforest-like "biodiversity". Some happily pecked away at a lightweight and very portable laptop, while others had powerful mobile workstations. Not once did I hear a single complaint about an electronic device that was issued by the company. If a corporation as large as the one I visited cannot gain an advantage at their scale for standardization of equipment for developers, how could we?

We do need ways to work together and whatever technologies we choose need to allow for this. The counter-point to this concern is that it isn't 1995. I saw a picture recently that parodied the Apple "Mac Guy" and "PC Guy" advertisements. The tagline was something like "It doesn't matter which one you pick. You are only going to use it to look at Facebook and Netflix anyway, so they are exactly the same thing." This is a curiously strong statement. The vast majority of what we do is now either browser-based or virtual machine based. The "thick client" Windows/OSX/*nix compatibility issue has been tackled by our esteemed Director of Technology. He uses virtualization to allow him to use Windows 7-based programs directly inside his OSX operating system. I've seen this in operation and it is really slick and just works. His choice of using a Mac has had very little impact on servicing our clients, even VPNs work for him. That doesn't mean that there haven't been challenges to configure cross-compatibility, but there hasn't been a problem that has not had a functional work around.

I find that I am pontificating. It doesn't seem to matter much what color, size, shape, or interface the machine is, as long as the person using it is comfortable with it and they can be productive with it, there is little benefit gained by insisting on standardizing on specific technologies and it is likely that constraining our staff to use only the one thing that some person has arbitrarily decided is "right" decreases productivity and morale.

So what do we do now? Give everyone a credit card limit and say "Go buy some happy!"? Well, that isn't very realistic. Some people have little interest in this at all and would go buy a nice red one, but it may not meet their needs because they didn't realize they even had the need. Some will need to have pre-chosen and pre-approved choices laid out in front of them or they won't ever chose. Some would much rather have a list of requirements that their machine has to fit and that they can go buy that one perfect machine for themselves.

Our laptop requirements, my top 3 picks, and the conclusions I came to are below the fold.

Our Laptop Requirements:

Visually the laptop should reflect a knowledge of high technology and fit our corporate image. This really excludes "value" computers and overtly customized exteriors. I do not believe our customers would get the impression we wish to give if we were to drag out a five-year old Gateway covered in skateboarding stickers.

Performance of the laptop should be in the upper-echelon of the existing technology. The processor(s) must include the most current virtualization technologies. The amount of memory (RAM) should be a minimum of 16 gigabytes, and must be able to run a virtual machine that includes the latest version of the Oracle Database and OBI. The storage capacity needs to be at least 500 gigabytes, large enough to store several large virtual machine images and have capacity for administrative tasks.

The operating system at a minimum needs to be able to operate Microsoft Office 2013, VMware Workstation (or equivalent), the gamut of Oracle client products, Java, and have a wide range of VPN support. This means we are limited to choosing between Windows or OSX. OSX with VMware virtualization can run programs in a virtualized copy of Windows and have an integrated desktop experience.

Additional requirements include: An integrated keyboard and clamshell design, (tablets are simply not ready yet). Wi-Fi with A/G support as a minimum, N/AC is best. Bluetooth is worth spending a little more for. Multiple USB ports including at least one USB 3.0 (equivalent high-speed port for external drives are fine, but USB 3.0 is best). VGA output for projectors, even if a dongle-type adapter is required. A battery that allows for working without A/C power for a reasonable length of time. A screen that is both useable and comfortable for use for extended periods, an anti-glare screen is recommended with reasonably wide viewing angles. An integrated web-cam that is of useable quality and integrated microphone and sound are also required.

There are some of the technologies that are "going out of style" and are not really necessary anymore. CD/DVD is the new floppy disk. Most connectivity ports, firewire, lpt, com, modems, RJ-45 ethernet (wifi and docking stations have replaced this), pccard (pcmcia), express card, DVI, and even dedicated docking station ports. Most have been replaced with USB 3.0 now.

THE CONTENDERS

My recommended laptops for consideration that meet the requirements are listed below. If you are interested in some other device, use this as a guide to help you pick something.

Precision M3800

This is Dell's response to the MacBook.

Ups:

There will not be any problem opening this laptop up in front of a client and it will run all of the Virtual Machines and software we need (though not all simultaneously, obviously). The hardware is very modern and the machine itself will require very little "learning curve" to use.

High performance in a really sleek package! Latest edition quad-core i7, 16gb ram, solid state drives, 2gb ram in a dedicated video card, the newest wifi (ac, newer than N), Bluetooth 4.0, and so on.

This is 4 pounds and less than ¾" thick. It nearly clones the MacBook Pro. (Yes. This is a plus.) It is actually thinner than the MacBook, and lighter depending on what options you choose.

The screen is "better" than the Mac's Retina display. Not only is it 10 finger touch sensitive, it has a higher resolution screen and a more powerful video card. "It’s a 15.6in IPS panel with a mighty 3,200 x 1,880 resolution, which means this 237.9ppi screen is denser than its big rival – the Retina MacBook has a resolution of 2,880 x 1,800 across a 15.4in screen for a 220.5ppi. It’s glossy finish but, like the MacBook, the lack of space between the panel and glass means reflections are minimal." - some review I forgot to get the url of.

Very sturdy build. Gorilla Glass screen, carbon fiber body, backlit keyboard, lots of nice little touches.

A power supply that is small and lightweight like the laptop.

Dell support, next day on site repair, etc.

Reviewers say: Fast, fast, fast. GLORIOUS screen with very high readability even in bright sunlight and a nearly 90 degree viewing angle. Several mention that it plays music surprisingly well for a laptop. One mentioned specifically twisting/torqueing the body of it by hand and it not giving or making any of the popping noises inexpensive laptops make. Several mentions of it being possibly the pinnacle PC laptop on the market today. It is most often compared to the MacBook and the Dell M4800 (incidentally my other two specific recommendations). The reviews are almost entirely very positive, though pro reviewers seem to never give a full 5 stars to this machine.

Downs:

Due to the sleek design, there had to be tradeoffs in connectors and other things. There is one USB 2.0 and 3 USB 3.0 ports. There is a display port and an HDMI. There is a xD card reader. There is an audio out/headphones jack. There is a place to plug it into power, but little else. Notable things this does not have: a VGA port, an Ethernet port, Thunderbolt eSATA, or FireWire drive connections, no docking station port. You will need to buy a "dongle" to have VGA support for presenting, though HDMI is becoming widely adopted. There is no optical drive of any kind, nor is it an option to add.

The storage options are kind of limited because of the battery. There is a mini SSD card slot that offers a choice of 128, 256, and 512 GB capacities. There is also a 2.5" drive bay that offers a 500 GB hybrid, 256/512 SSD, or 1TB Sata 5400RPM drive. It is possible to use both and have 1.5tb of drive space.

The 61 Whr battery is the default. The 91 Whr battery is the upgrade. Choosing the bigger battery immediately disallows using the 2.5" HDD bay on the Dell website. I do not know if the battery is bigger and that uses the drive bay area, or what. The battery is not easily removable like other laptops. It is integrated into the laptop and requires removal of 10 screws to get to it, but is changeable otherwise and not soldered in like a Mac. You won't be bringing a spare battery for an easy swap on a trip. Most reviews mention the battery life.

Battery life is not as super-exceptional as the Mac. The reviewers give it between "only" 4.5 hours and 6 hours of use without plugging it in under light usage. In comparison, the Mac will go upwards of 8 hours under the same use case. I would recommend sacrificing the 2.5" bay for the larger battery. External usb 3.0 drives are cheap if you need more storage than the 500gb SSD.

Version 1.0's do not inspire confidence. This is new-ish technology from Dell, and was built from the XPS laptop line. It isn't new-new, but it isn't tried and true.

In my opinion, Dell sacrificed some processor speed for a better video card and touchscreen. Additionally, this is not expandable to 32gb of RAM like the M4800.

User interface: No stick pointing device. The multi-touch touchpad does not have separate buttons, and you have to just push on the part that is where the button should be. It does move and give the sub-audible "click" as a response. There is no 10 key number pad. The screen is glossy and is a touch screen, so I would be loath to take advantage of the touch feature resulting in a finger-smeary screen.

Reviews say: May get noticeably hot in between the G and H keys, the bottom might get hot, though the reviewer says they used it for hours in their lap and were not uncomfortable. Fan noise is mentioned. There are mentions of touchscreen driver problems. All reviewers mentioned the "text too tiny to read" because of the incredibly high-resolution of the screen in some 3rd party applications, notably the latest Photoshop. One reviewer mentioned that Windows 8 "takes care of most of this" automatically, one said using Windows 7 was the key to this operating well.

My take:

This is a brilliant machine for the "executive" type user we have at Vlamis. Full-blown support of Windows 7 that can come pre-installed, a free upgrade to Windows 8. It is half the weight of the current Dell laptops we have, and it is much faster. I believe it would project an "elegance of high technology" aura to the 3rd party observer (clients). I do have reservations about the newness of this chassis.

The MacBook Pro

Many of the positives and negatives of the Dell M3800 exist in the MacBook as the M3800 is a clone. The lack of configurability, the minimal ports, the limited keyboard, lack of expansion. This is fast, thin and light with a beautiful screen. This write-up will focus mostly on places these two laptops differ.

Ups:

It is a Mac. It is light, thin, very high performance, put inside an aluminum frame and titanium and other unobtaniums and heaped with magic. You can use one as a lever to pry a truck out of a ditch, use it as a battering weapon to defend against ninjas, and prop up the corner of a wobbly table all without ever needing to reboot, and not having so much as a scratch on it when you are done. This is all only sort of an exaggeration. Chris Claterbos' laptop has a feel like it was forged by Vulcan himself. I am duly impressed with the build quality. It is the Bentley/Rolls Royce of laptops.

It runs Windows! There are several ways to do this. One is to format the drive and just install it. It is an PC/x86 architectured machine with an Intel i7 chip. You can also dual boot between OSX and Windows. You can also run OSX natively and use Windows in a VM. With the VMware Fusion-type technologies, Microsoft Outlook 2013 is just an icon on the desktop to click and run. You get OSX and Microsoft at the same time. Virtualization simply works.

It is lightning fast. It is faster than the M3800 on most of the benchmarks that have been run on it that compare the two (despite what Dell marketing might claim).

The Retina display is the gold standard. It is beautiful and is attached to a dedicated video card adapted specially for it. All laptop displays are compared to this display.

It runs 8-10 hours on a single charge of the battery.

This is the latest in a long-line of x86 MacBooks. This hardware is most definitely NOT a 1.0 version, and has had some of the best designers and engineers working on and improving it for the past decade.

Chris Claterbos, certainly among the 5 smartest people I have ever met, loves it and strongly recommends we convert entirely to an all Mac environment. He is incredibly detail-oriented (this is pronounced 'picky' in some parts of the world) and his only minor complaint about how the two MacBooks he has used with great success for us was the way Google Drive synchronizes on the Mac (a Google problem, not a Mac problem).

Reviewers say: "Buy this thing. It is the best thing. I didn't understand things until I had this one." Reviewers either have drank the Kool-Aid, or they haven't.

Downs:

It is a Mac and all that this implies. It uses not exactly the most standard of ports for connecting things. OSX, bringing incompatibilities with this that and the other. There will be the lingering question of "is my problem a Mac thing?" on every problem the computer has, ever. To be fair, there has been an uptick in the adoption of the Mac platform within businesses community and VPN and other businessy-thing support is getting better every day.

We only have one person on staff who is OSX fluent.

Peripherals that are Mac branded can be noticeably more expensive than "generic" PC peripherals.

The keyboard is not a PC keyboard.

Reviewers say: "THIS IS NOT A PC? I can't find the Start button. This thing is broken." PC users are terrible at evaluating Macs, and the majority of the "bad" reviews I have seen are due to conversion pain/failure to drink the Kool-Aid.

My take:

This is the nicest laptop in the world today. The performance, build, and functionality of this machine is second to none. Our clients would likely view the use of this laptop as showing that we are willing to pay for quality and that maybe, just maybe, we know things they don't. It is kind of edgy to use one in a technical setting. "Elegance in high tech" describes Apple across the board. This machine is their Mona Lisa, and I believe Dell is only the first to market with their attempt to clone it. If I had to pick between this and the M3800, I would pick the MacBook and use Windows dual-booted with OSX. Choosing this is by no means the easiest road to travel, but the sights you will see when you are on it would be worth every bump.

M4800

This laptop is the latest version of what we use now (m4500/m4600). This laptop meets or exceeds Vlamis needs across the board.

Ups

Performance-wise, there probably aren't any faster laptops out there. This is a full-blown WORKSTATION replacement. This is not a plaything, it is for serious work. It has the fastest and newest of the Intel i7 mobile processors, a capacity for a giant 32GB of RAM, and a big dedicated video card.

The screen can be the same (less the touchscreen capability) as the M3800. High-high definition with really great color and viewing.

So much storage! Do you want three hard drives with 2.5TB in storage? A ½ TB on an SSD minicard, and 1 TB each on two hybrid drives can be yours. Blue-Ray burner? Yup, just drop one of the 1 TB hybrid drives and it can be yours. Want some different options? There are dozens, with possibly hundreds of configurations that can include RAID.

Can I hook this <random device> to my laptop? If you had the M4800, your answer is almost certainly a yes. USB 3, eSata, Display Ports, HDMI, SD card, FireWire, microphones, headphones, VGA and you can expand that even further with a docking station that has networking, DVI, more usb, esatas, and other things (I have ports on mine that I don't know what they are used for). Compared to the M3800 and MacBook, this thing is a Swiss Army knife of hooking stuff up places.

This has a full 102? key keyboard with the 10 key number pad. There is a pointing stick. There is a multi-touch track pad with dedicated real buttons. There are even mute/volume/play/pause/ffwd/rrw buttons.

Again, this is the latest in a long line of very functional "Precision Workstation" laptops. We have experience using this particular line and have had very few hardware problems in the Dell M4500/M4600 Workstations. I can show you where I crushed part of mine with a chair (two years ago) and it still works great.

Reviewers say: Powerful. Great display. So many ports.

Downs:

This is a monster. Nearly 8 pounds of shoulder pain when going through the airport and that doesn't include the 1 pound or more power supply this behemoth needs.

The battery is rated at 3 hours at "light usage". If you crank down the screen to the dimmest setting, shut off all of the extraneous things like Bluetooth you might be able to work on your presentation through most of your flight to wherever. Maybe. There is an option to buy a second battery on the page where you order it on Dell's website, if that says anything.

Reviewers say: Battery is weak even for this thing, price is high, weight is an issue.

My take:

If you want to crunch a hundred-billion numbers while simultaneously running a pair of Virtual Machines with all of the Oracle BI Stack running on both, this is the machine to do it with. If you want to have on hand a dozen different installers, all of the pictures you have ever taken, 15 different virtual machines, AND enough movies to keep you entertained for a week, this is the machine. If you want to make certain you can always connect to the <random device> no matter what, this is the machine. If you want to make a statement, this thing looks like a laptop. Actually, it looks almost exactly like what I am typing this on. I am a performance guy, and this thing is the fire-breathing monster from the deep I would choose to ride into battle, but I care little for portability. If you want to do things without an extension cord, intend to move this about, care about possible lower back strain taking things out of your bag, or are simply fashion conscious, go pick one of the others. Ultimately, this is the "safe" buy.

Pricing as reviewed/recommended configuration:

M3800 - $2887 (increased battery, best screen, largest storage 512gb)

MacBook - $3200 (faster processor ($200), 1tb drive($500).

M4800 - $3202 (sweet spot nearly fastest processor, 32gb ram, 2.5tb of drives, best screen)

My take on prices:

The pricings are so close together as to not be taken seriously as a decision point. Dell "sale pricing" comes and goes, but in my experience the final prices seem to always come out the same and calling them is an option to get discounts. There are educational discounts to Mac hardware if you want to save a few bucks and want to go through the hassle. All will require docking stations, accessories, laptop bags, and assorted other stuff that run very similar in prices (Docking stations are a $175-225 thing). The M4800 can use the same docking station I have now for my M4600.

I expect with taxes and delivery and things, the laptop is a $3500-ish investment no matter what. This price has gone up about $500 since the first time I looked for laptops for us, some dozen years ago. Not bad as inflation goes.

Conclusion:

I think I would choose the M4800. I know Tim would love the M3800. Chris picked his MacBook.

You should buy something that would make you happiest.