Vaio Pro, for programming
My ThinkPad x201 served me well for two and a half years, with its barnstorming speed, small footprint, and long battery life. It’s also heavy as a brick and about as thick, at least compared to the standard set by the Air and newer PC ultrabooks.
My work laptop for a year now has been a ThinkPad X1 Carbon, a remarkable piece of work by Lenovo after so many years of ThinkPad design stagnation. You can’t really say anything bad about the Carbon hardware — except that with a 14” screen its footprint is bigger than what I want in a personal laptop. The legendary 12” PowerBook spoiled me for life.
So I was looking at smaller ultrabooks and was very nearly tempted to buy the Dell XPS 13, a nicely made and practical system. But I hesitated. Would I regret not having a touchscreen in a year? Was it small enough? I dithered until the Haswell architecture was announced, and then I was glad I did.
I don’t really follow computing hardware news unless I’m shopping for computing hardware, so I only know that Haswell is supposed to be a “game changer” in battery life. It does seem to be that.
I ordered a black Vaio Pro 11” with an i7, which is a custom build so I had plenty of time to anticipate its arrival. FedEx generously delivered it on July 5th, giving me a long weekend to shove Ubuntu onto it. More on that in a bit.
First, the hardware. This is easily the lightest computer I’ve picked up. The impression you have in handling it is that there is no battery at all.
It is a plastic case as I prefer, but it’s a very different feel than the X1 Carbon. Sharp edges, glossy plastic. It reminds me of high-end 1990s electronics, which makes sense given it’s a Sony. It’s not a bad case at all, but it doesn’t feel as solid and precisely made and classy as the X1.
The keyboard takes some getting used to. It’s chicklet style with short travel and high resistance. It’s very different from the x201’s old school (and good) keyboard, and the X1’s MacBookish chicklet keyboard. This one is weird. But it’s a keyboard, I don’t fuss over them, I adapt.
The trackpad is not bad at all. It’s a little less supple than the X1’s but a hundred times better than the X201’s and every other crap trackpad that laptops used to be equipped with. (And unlike the X1, I didn’t have to fiddle with synaptics to get it not to jitter like a cokehead in Ubuntu.)
The Vaio’s display is higher resolution than the X1’s at a much smaller size, 1,920 x 1,080 in 11.6” diagonal. Its video output port is HDMI, for some reason. So I bought a VGA adapter for presentations, I just have to remember to bring it since everyone else is on Mini DisplayPort.
There’s a fan that comes on if I put the i7 to work. Wrrr.
Okay enough about hardware, I want to talk about Windows 8.
Windows 8 is the most impressive development in software in years. It is actually really, really cool and everybody should respect Microsoft for making it. It is wayyyyy bolder and more interesting than what anyone else has done in “desktop” interfaces lately. I’m not even kidding.
Using the touchscreen with Windows 8 is a first-class phone/tablet experience. Tapping, swiping, all that stuff produces smooth animations and, you know, delight. You forget you’re using a “computer”, it’s like you have a fancy tablet held up by a hinged stand with buttons on it.
It was cool. I could see myself using it. I could see myself using Internet Explorer and Bing with it. SERIOUSLY.
Except, you know, Windows. I can’t do it. I can’t do Windows, I can’t do Mac OS X, I can’t do anything that doesn’t come with a supported open source packaging tool so I can have a controllable and uniform development environment across all my systems for the rest of my life.
And as you’ve probably heard, experienced Windows users theselves feel like aliens using Windows 8. The interface for legacy Windows apps is really pretty degraded. I repeatedly had difficulty performing simple tasks like scrolling through selection lists, and I’m not that stupid. Microsoft broke some stuff.
Still I think they made the right decision, hands down. If I were a Windows person I would complain about how badly the legacy interface behaves, but I would actually use and benefit from the new interface too. It’s the future, get used to it.
Getting Ubuntu installed on the Vaio Pro is an epic, at present. I butted my head into the wall for a while before finding this blog post that tells you how to do everything. Not only do you have to install a development version of Ubuntu„ you get to compile your own patched kernel! And more!
It’s a lot, but I actually feel lucky that everything worked in the end. I’ve recklessly bought new model laptops in the past only to find that the wifi could not be made to work reliably in Ubuntu for many months. Things are getting a lot better, in terms of Linux compatibility, mostly thanks to Intel. Yay Intel.
Unfortunately Windows 8 was a casualty of one my late night Ubuntu installation binges. I deleted it completely by accident. It’s sad because I was planning on playing around with 8 a bit more, and demoing it to people like me who forgot about Windows. Oh well.
Ubuntu runs well on this machine, with one caveat: the high DPI screen makes Unity feel clunky and ancient. Kind of like legacy mode in Windows 8, except it’s all you’ve got. I hadn’t anticipated this and am slightly bummed about it.
I’ve bumped up font sizes all over the place, but still some UI elements are stubbornly tiny. Chromium’s tab bar is a ridiculously thin strip. And my precious touchscreen: useless. I mean, it works, but you wouldn’t use it for anything. Compared to how it performed with Windows 8, it’s like my Vaio lost a secret talent it had. I want to flick out that panel from the side of the screen!
I feel sorry for Unity, and GNOME, KDE, and everybody actually. These are dead-end interfaces. Microsoft of all companies has brought the future here. Laptops will be with us for a while but a laptop without a good touch interface is going to feel like half a laptop.
Mac OS X at least has resolution independence, but that’s just putting the WIMP interface on life support. Windows 8 did the painful, right thing, and you will see Apple follow soon enough. Canonical should do the same with Ubuntu Touch. It’s going to take that or some other hybridization with Android, or Tizen, or Chrome OS — but you have to walk away from years of work on GNOME. Some upstart distribution might do it first and dethrone Ubuntu.
Anyway, none of that matters as far as comparing this to any other laptop. It has a touchscreen, lying in wait until I again have software that puts it to good use. With some fiddling I can read everything on the screen, it’s just not always pretty or easy.
So how about it, X1 Carbon vs. Vaio Pro 11? For my home machine I have no regrets with the Vaio, it’s the size I want and there’s no ThinkPad in the same ballpark. Despite its impossibly light weight it lasts longer on battery than the Carbon. Neither machine has unsolvable issues with Ubuntu, but on the ThinkPad you can install a stock 13.04 while the Sony requires all sorts of gymnastics (for now).
If you aren’t a tiny laptop addict, you should probably go for the Carbon. It’s super solid, respectable, has a straightforward Ubuntu install, and a big screen with a traditional pixel density. The battery life is okay, not remarkable. It recharges fast.
Lenovo takes their sweet time but they’ll probably have a Haswell X1 Carbon with better battery characteristics by the end of the summer. And some day/year they’ll surely equip their small-footprint ThinkPads with a modern, Carbon-type case. You’ll hear about it all over the programmer internet.
But the Vaio Pro is already of that next generation of computers. Riding the bleeding edge of Linux in exchange for a devilishly small and light machine sounds like a faustian bargain, but so far my soul is intact.