The Raiders of the Next Laptop

Working freelance, alone, is generally a good experience; I can handle my workplace, I can write off as expenses most of the stuff I buy since (lacking a social life) most of my expenses are computer related. There are, though, a few menial tasks that get bothersome. This is why I take Monday as the “Menial-tasks day” and cut it out of the work week, minus emergencies and urgencies.

Beside recording invoices, the most menial task is finding the needed hardware resources; today the objective was to secure my next laptop. Right now I’m writing on my (oldish) MacBook Pro; while I have been mostly happy with it up to now, it’s growing less useful for my use: Aquamacs is not too bad, but it’s not the best when you want to work hard on Emacs; the keyboard has only four modifiers in the left area, and their function in OSX are tightly bound so that they cannot be remapped properly for Emacs to work… and in general customizing Aquamacs is not overly simple.

Unfortunately my latest try to using a Linux laptop ended badly when the Fedora 12 update messed it up. While Fedora was party at fault, the hardware was also to blame; I got a very cheap Compaq laptop, with a bad keyboard, no expansion ports, slow network and, most importantly, a nasty touchpad.

Somehow, the touchpad driver used by OSX is tremendously good to ignore false touches while writing, but even Linux on the MBP has trouble ignoring them; on the Compaq, it totally failed, and I ended up with the cursor going everywhere but where it was meant to stay. It made it very bad to work with.

So this time, I decided to go with something with a Trackpoint, first obvious choice the originators of the device, Lenovo’s ThinkPad. Thanks to Thomas, I was able to pin down a model and a configuration I could be very happy to use; thanks to Doug, I know that the video card should work fine with Gentoo (unfortunately, it’s an nVidia not an ATI, but still better than last time). Having an internal smartcard reader would also make it easier to use the FSFe card that I use as my sole GPG key nowadays.

Unfortunately, Lenovo started with a bad foot: the Italian website does not have a “configure a custom build” option, while the UK site has; the UK site, though, does not ship to Italy; and I obviously need a VAT invoice for this. Second step was the banner “Want to order now? Call $somenumber” that camped on the bottom of the list of Lenovo laptops. Obviously I couldn’t call Sunday night when I decided to get the laptop.

So this morning I call the number, it’s not a toll-free number, so I expect Lenovo to allow me custom-order from them… nope! A middle-aged woman (with all the respect for middle-aged women) gives me an unclear-purpose phone number (also non toll-free), and then proceed to… explain me where to find the page with the Lenovo dealers on their site, starting from giving me the URL. Well, duh… I found the number on the site!

Okay, with a company this uncertain on getting my money for their hardware, I decided to look for alternative firsts; unfortunately the only other alternative I could find is the Dell Latitude E6510. Dell would also be quite ready to get my money for the hardware, also has the smartcard reader, basically has all the same hardware as the Lenovo, and a similar price (slightly higher, but with the 3-years warranty included), but I say “unfortunately” because Elias told me that the chassis is not well-designed and thus of bad quality.

At the end, I asked a quote for the laptop to the nearest dealer (about 50km from here, but they ship, I don’t have to pick it up), but they warned me that to get the US keyboard (which at this point I’d rather get), it’ll take about 20 days, and until I see the price, both options are on my table. So if you have suggestions or experiences to share, please…