My friends think that it’s easy choosing new tech gear when you’re a geek. We scan rows of specifications like a fluent second language, easily removing options at a glance. Surely we end up with the best gear and no buyer’s remorse? In reality, it’s a little more complicated than that, especially when you work in your own business and you’re spending your own money.
The case for keeping the old
The best thing I ever did to my ageing ASUS laptop was to throw a solid state hard drive in it. With 8GB of RAM, an SSD and Windows 10, this little laptop was fast! The worst thing I did was only make it a 128GB disk, which I soon needed to upgrade. My Microsoft Action Pack subscription for the operating system meant a clean build and my laptop performed so well that I couldn’t justify replacing it.
As much of a geek as I am, I don’t have the budget to buy all the new and shiny things when they are released. A purchase like a laptop must be replacing something else and I must justify it well. I’m also the CFO of my own company so that financial approval is surprisingly tough! With the ASUS booting up in less than 30 seconds, plus handling two additional external monitors with ease via the ASUS docking bar, I struggled to justify replacing it.
How I justified replacing my laptop
But then two things happened: I started traveling & I needed to run some virtual machines.
Having a Surface Pro 2 in the drawer, it became my travel machine. The ASUS was just heavy and bulky. The Surface Pro 2 was smaller, lighter and fulfilled my need for a physical keyboard for blogging and emailing. Only, once you’ve held a Surface Pro 3 or 4, the 2 doesn’t seem so light any more. It was also very under-specced compared to my laptop, and I missed having all the same programs and files in the same places. Sure I sync stuff to the Cloud, but not everything. I wanted a laptop that was my main work horse whether it was it was on my desk or in an airport lounge.
Many machines in one
Putting together my first course for Pluralsight, I needed to run some virtual machines. That’s when I found out that my ASUS motherboard didn’t support virtualization. I could have thrown a hardware upgrade at our ageing HP ML350 server in the office (which was already running Hyper-V and a guest Server OS), but that would limit me to the office (see point above regarding travelling).
Next, I considered using Microsoft Azure for my VMs. I already get $100 a month of Azure credits with my Microsoft Action Pack Subscription and would only need to spin these up for periods of testing & recording. Unfortunately, I discovered that it’s not so easy to spin up a new Windows 10 Azure VM. There is no template for a Windows 10 VM in Azure unless you have an MSDN subscription, which I don’t – I’m not a developer. This in itself is a little crazy – like sys admins don’t need to test stuff on desktops? Another route would be to build a Windows 10 Enterprise VM on my old server, follow a complicated process and suck the virtual hard disks up to Azure. Possible, but time consuming and also restricting my VM usage to when I’m connected to the Internet. Right now I’m taking multiple 13+hr flights in a year with no Internet access, so Cloud-only VMs waste a huge chunk of what could be productive work time.
Know your non-negotiables
So, those were my main requirements: light enough for travel, multi-monitor support & a few USB ports for in the office, with virtualization support and high enough specs to run VMs. Simple huh? Let’s go shopping.
And then, my heart kicked in which is probably the very worst way to make any decision. We all do it though, whether you’re buying a laptop or a car. There are specs that you want, specs that you think are overkill and brands and models that you either love or you’d never touch.
“Get a Mac?”
Remember the old “I’m an Apple. I’m a PC” ad campaign? Well, I’m a PC. I have no problem if you’re a Mac (my first school computer was an Apple IIe then a Macintosh Classic (black & white or the color screen if you were lucky enough.)) But since troubleshooting DOS software on a 286, learning to support Windows for Workgroups then doing my first ever Microsoft course on NT4.0 Core Technologies, my work world has always been PC. I’m Microsoft-centric and frankly rather impressed with Windows 10, so a Macbook was never an option for me. Your results may vary and I know plenty of Microsoft partners with Macs, it’s just not for me. I’m a sys admin, Jim, I can fix my own PC if I need to (and I’ve never had a virus).
So now I’m faced with long list of brands and models in one corner, including some impressive Lenovos, or the Microsoft Surface range in the other corner. A huge point of difference in this line-up is one new, impressive capability in the form of the Surface Dial.
Dial it up
I’m not creative. I won’t be spinning this thing to select hues or draw lines. But I cheered at the innovation in this new input device. I’m really hoping that Camtasia will build audio & video editing features for this. It’s not very expensive and it’s just cool. It’s available on the Surface Pro, Surface Book and Surface Studio (which, while a stunning piece of hardware, doesn’t meet my travel requirement).
The struggle is real
Now I’m comparing the Surface Pro 4, which would do what I need it to, with the Surface Book. Microsoft’s first laptop, complete with detachable screen, had me sold when I first saw it but for the price. We’re talking a significant price difference between these two devices and I really struggled to justify the Surface Book. Being able to physically hold both does make a big difference though, with the Surface Book boasting better screen resolution. Better battery life was another pro for the Surface Book, though I was a little disappointed by reports of docking issues and power standby issues, mostly in earlier builds of Windows 10.
Screw it, let’s do it
To paraphrase the famous words of Richard Branson, sometimes you just have to make a decision and then do something. When it comes to hardware there is no single ‘right’ decision, just some decisions that are very wrong and you’ve probably already discounted those (I’m looking at you, i3).
Considering this machine was going to be my life, I decided to treat myself and go with the Surface Book. If you’re going to be a Microsoft fan-girl, you may as well do it properly.
The next mind battle was ‘existing Surface Book model, pre order Surface Book with Performance Base or wait until sometime in 2017 for the rumoured next Surface Book’? I’ve never rushed out and bought the next cool thing upon release if I haven’t needed it, but I’ve also waited 6 months+ because a new model phone was coming out. Looking at the difference in specs though, this time I couldn’t justify the newer Performance Base version of the Surface Book. My usage wasn’t maxing out my ancient laptop, so the existing Surface Book would be more than adequate and I would never be that long without power to need its extra battery life.
Then my local retailer announced $400 off. I handed over my hard-earned cash for an i7, 512GB, 16GB existing model Surface Book. Gulp.
I couldn’t be happier.
This machine meets all of my requirements perfectly. It’s light and stylish and silver. The keys light up and the palm rests are in the perfect spot. With our household iPad being overdue for replacement, I’m grabbing the Surface Book tablet screen from my home office desk on the weekends.
After updating, updating and updating some more, I have zero docking or power standby issues running the latest publicly available Windows 10 build. The Surface Book is more usable on my lap with its keyboard than the Surface Pro is, though I have noticed at the extreme screen tilt it does wobble on my lap a little. This is due to the weight imbalance, with the screen making it top heavy, and my long arms/legs meaning I perch it on my kneecaps. Bring it closer and the wobble disappears, but then my elbow position isn’t optimal. Considering the majority of my usage is having it on a desk, this isn’t a big deal and I actually wrote this entire article on my lap.
Was it the right choice though?
Who knows. Maybe I would have been happier with a Lenovo. I’ll never know. I’m certainly not unhappy with my Surface Book. That’s the interesting thing about decisions. Your experiences and perceptions after making a purchase will also vary from mine, so you’ll have to make up your own mind. I’m warning you though, it’s not an easy process – even for us geeks!