Glaciers are rivers. Their progress may be slow, but unless humans murder them with climate change, they are inevitable. This will be relevant at the end.
I am a technology enthusiast. I read enthusiast websites, with names in Latin. I build my own desktop computers. I used to work in data centers. Cool hardware has always interested me most of all. It doesn’t have to be the fastest, or the most efficient, but it does have to have that certain something. Remember those Sun UltraSPARC Niagara processors, the ones made specifically for web servers? That kind of weird.
One thing to know about Windows laptops for the entirety of the 1990s and early 2000s: they were all bad. Someone somewhere is thinking of rebuttal involving a ThinkPad with a keyboard that unfolded like origami, but no. Terrible. Also, they ran really slow versions of the same old x86 processors I used everywhere else. Where’s the fun in that? What I wanted was something that ran a really slow version of a more different processor, one that was arguably worse in almost every way, but that was neat.
I’d used Apple IIs at school since second grade or so, maybe even earlier. My cousins Steven and Jeff owned one. I made family newsletters in their little publishing program on it. I’d touched a Mac or two in computer labs in college. But in 2002, I bought my first very own Apple product, with my very own money. Mostly my money, anyway; I had to finance part of it, because I was in college, and stereotypes are real. I was, I am, a desktop person, but I wanted a laptop anyway. A toy to go with my real computer. In the grand tradition of my post about my history with desktop computers from five whole years ago, it’s time to talk about my laptops. A disjointed history, by comparison. And then, towards the end, let’s talk about that glacier again.
MacSheba (2002 – 2004)
My entire first year of college, I carried paper notebooks to class, like some kind of animal. You couldn’t even properly get distracted with one of those. You had to doodle, or write short fiction, or something. Not everyone was so afflicted; I have distinct memories of the two kids I saw taking notes on honest-to-god PDAs; one of them used graffiti, the other folded out a keyboard and attached it to his Palm Tungsten T. A wild time to be young and pretending to pay attention.
It’s easy to understand why I wanted a laptop, but I can’t pretend it wasn’t still a toy. I took it to class, yes, and I took notes on it, but I wrote all my papers at home, on my desktop PC. I spent most of my time on IRC and AIM on my desktop still, too. Guess where I played games? That’s right, on my consoles! But also on my desktop. Most students who used a laptop for college had that as their only computer, but not me. I had two. That’s not to say that MacSheba wasn’t my little buddy, my home away from home, and I loved them for what they were. And if you’re curious about the name, my main computer at the time’s name was: Sheba. That’s it with the CRT on the messy desk in the picture up there.
iBook G3s came in 12″ and 14″ models. I picked the small one because it had to go into a backpack. For the time, it was svelte. Battery life was amazing too: 3, maybe even 4 hours! It was slow as hell, even from the beginning, but you expected that. It was an iBook, running MacOS X, what did you really expect? Once you opened even one program, the genie effect for minimizing windows had frame stutter. I booted it into OS9 once or twice just because I could, but that wasn’t anything anyone should ever do for real. Classic MacOS was a thing of nightmares even when new. I’m not going to lie and pretend I didn’t look upon all of the students who could afford PowerBooks with jealous rage, although that didn’t really start until the 12″ came out a few months later.
Why so few years in the scale above? Was it too slow? Was I forced to upgrade? Alas, no: the logic board demons killed it. I’ll explain more when we get to the next laptop.
- 12.1″ iBook G3 Dual USB (“Snow”) – A1005
- PowerPC G3 800MHz (750CX)
- 256MB of RAM
- 32MB ATI Radeon 7500
- 30GB 4200RPM hard drive
- Seriously, that fucking 12″ PowerBook. Goddammit.
- This is the laptop that went with me to Italy. Because laptop power supplies weren’t universal multi-voltage back then, I had to take a transformer with me. If I used the laptop too much, that thing would get hotter than the surface of the sun and stop working until I let it cool down. Wild west computing!
- The above made no sense to me in retrospect, so I looked it up, and apparently it was a dual-voltage power supply. I was today-years-old when I learned that. I didn’t need that transformer after all. I swear to god younger me checked for the voltage on the power brick before buying the thing, and yet, here we are.
- I never once plugged anything into the FireWire 400 port. Not one single time.
- Speaking of battery life, I once got the battery to beyond its rated 5 hours on an airplane by leaving the lid just barely open, turning the screen off, and using the thing as a giant MP3 player. There was no way to override the hardware sleep function if I’d closed the lid all of the way. The person sitting next to me on the plane was very confused.
- If you’re wondering why anyone would do that, please remember that an iPod cost $399 at the time. $663 equivalent in 2023. I made $9 an hour as a reference librarian, and that was considered a fancy-lad hourly rate for part-time work.
- Speaking of money: The list price of this laptop was $1299. I upgraded the RAM, but also got an education discount, which would have evened everything out. Today that would be $2160.
- Add $79 2002 dollars for the AirPort card, which I had to add myself by popping open the keyboard. A different time.
- I wrote my first book on this thing. The book was terrible, but it started the long trend of me doing all of my long-form writing in a comfy pretzel position somewhere with a laptop. I’ve written several other, less terrible, novels since, the same way. It’s weird, but I guess you can’t question the creative process. If it works it works.
- The iTunes store launched when I had this thing. My friends were jealous I got to try it out. Yes, really.
- Although I used it daily, much more than OS X, I truly hated Windows XP. Jaguar may look quaint and full of Aqua-isms in retrospect, but XP was hideous even in the Silver theme.
- I had no fucking idea what I was doing in bash other than the very basics. I still managed to use a terminal-based IRC client.
In the fall of 2004, my iBook G3 died in the middle of class one day. The screen went fuzzy, then turned itself off. It was a known defect with those models, and Apple had an extended repair program. I took it in to the Apple store, they took possession from me, packed it into a little DHL box, and off it went to get a new motherboard.
I never saw it again.
The full saga was detailed here, on this very website, when it happened. The writing in those old articles isn’t exactly to the standard I would set now, so feel free to not read the whole thing. The short version is that DHL lost the laptop in shipping, and Apple had to replace the entire system. The replacement was the then-current equivalent model, an iBook G4. The process was easy, at least. They opened with what happened and what they were going to give me. I countered with: yes but I upgraded the RAM on the old one, and I paid extra for the AirPort card. The guy on the phone started to say that the new models came with all of those features, paused, audibly sighed, and doubled the RAM on the new iBook.
Only two years had passed, but there was no comparison in performance between the two laptops. Shebintosh was wicked fast. In the old post above, I said it should be at least twice as fast. Looking at historical benchmarks, it looks like that was mostly true. Geekbench 2 scores were 630 for the G4 versus 379 for the G3. But I didn’t need benchmarks: the new laptop could play World of Warcraft! I could browse the internet without beach balling! GarageBand existed!
Shebintosh got me through the rest of college, and then all of graduate school. When I got a job, I used it when I traveled. I did Windows programming in .Net, from Denver, in the year of our lord 2008, by remoting in to my work desktop over Hamachi VPN from a PowerPC Mac.
Nothing lasts forever, of course. It wasn’t the fact that the web browsers weren’t being updated anymore. It wasn’t the fact that Windows was so much better than the old version of MacOS I was running, although it was. I kept using it regardless, because it was my toy, it could still watch YouTube and do basic browsing. Heck, I read comic books in .CBZ on it all the way through 2010.
Then the hard drive started grinding. Sometimes it wouldn’t boot at all. Sometimes it would boot, but make an awful noise. Sometimes it was completely fine. It was time. I shut down Shebintosh, put it in the closet, and…
And the dates above are a complete lie. The end wasn’t in 2010. Shebintosh is still here. Every few years I pull down the bin it’s in, boot it up, and see what happens. It may not be the first time, but eventually, it always comes back, even if it starts off sounding like this.
The battery still holds a charge. It might only last an hour, but it’s a 19-year-old battery! Some day it won’t, I know this. And if the hard drive is what kills it, I’ll spend hours ripping the hard drive out and swapping in an SD card or an SSD, and life will go on, as will my iBook G4. MacSheba died young, a mere babe; Shebintosh is the methuselah of my computing life.
- 12.1″ iBook G4 – A1054
- PowerPC G4 1.2GHz (7447A)
- 512MB of RAM
- 32MB ATI Radeon 9200
- 30GB 4200RPM hard drive
- Later upgraded to 768MB of RAM. Once I started working in IT, free ancient laptop RAM flowed like water. I could not notice a difference, but memory is memory.
- This computer served-as-my government-in-exile while my actual desktop PC was non-functional three times. Three!
- One of those times I had to write a 30-page thesis chapter using NeoOffice, because for some reason my old copy of Office X wasn’t working with Endnote. And then I had to do manual end notes. That was the last straw for me before asking for money to buy a new computer.
- This wasn’t the origin of my friends complaining about me getting inexplicable free stuff, that was when my desktop computer got struck by lightning, but this was the trope codifier for it. A fine tradition that continues to this very day. As I write this article, I have a year-old 2U server arriving any hour now.
- Diablo II also ran great.
- As fast as it felt at first, by 2008 it was showing its age. That’s how computers worked back then, especially laptops. That doesn’t really happen anymore. You can use a five-year-old phone now and not care.
- I distinctly remember playing endless hours of Kongregate tower defense games in my apartment bedroom early into the morning with terrible Nick at Nite reruns on the TV. I must have re-watched all of Roseanne twice in the summer of 2007. In retrospect, it should have been more obvious to me that I was burning out of graduate school. Any chance I got to turn my brain off, I did. And Shebintosh was there.
- Cost to me: $0. Adjust that for inflation why don’t you?
- Somewhere in here I became a computer professional. Still sucked at bash though. Never fixed that.
At this point in my life, I could afford to buy a MacBook to replace my iBook when it died. So why didn’t I? I can think of three reasons.
Reason the first: I didn’t want one. It’s not like I was suddenly without a computer, right? For over two years, the primary use of the iBook was watching YouTube videos in bed. That’s not something worth buying an entire laptop for.
Reason the second: I didn’t need one. I wasn’t traveling that often. I wasn’t going to school. And, in case you have somehow forgotten: take a quick look at those dates above. Smartphones ruined the appeal of budget laptops.
Reason the third: I didn’t like MacOS anymore. Vista had come out, then Windows 7, and I honestly preferred both over the then-current iterations of MacOS. The current MacBooks didn’t have cool hardware either. They were regular-old Intel laptops. Good ones, for sure, but nothing special.
When a laptop aged out of the work fleet, I’d grab it. If I needed to travel for work, I’d take one of the good ones from our loaners. They were always Dells, they were never special, and by the time I took them home they were incredibly decrepit. I remember nothing of them. I think I went through two, but perhaps it was three. Hard to say.
- One of the Dells I used to watch a lot of Channel Fireball MTG draft videos to drift off to sleep. Never forget the Lorthos draft.
HPL-5 (2019 – Present)
I remember what I said to our representative at Zones when I ordered this laptop. I’m going to put it in a quote block, so it looks more epic.
I need five of your most generic laptop that isn’t terrible. They will be used for PowerPoint and web browsing. Make sure they have SSDs.Graeme K. Hefner, 2017
As you might guess from the name, this was the fifth of those five. For almost all of 2017 and 2018, it lived in a drawer in my office at work, reserved for when the Technology Operations department needed a laptop. It traveled with me, it ran some seminars. This was supposed to be its entire life.
In 2018, my former company was purchased by a larger one. They replaced all of our equipment, including those five generic laptops. HPL-5 came home with me. I hadn’t bothered to take home a crappy laptop at home for years, and I’d just finished building a new gaming PC, so I had no inkling that HPL-5 might have a more interesting life to come. I was planning on tossing it into another drawer to gather dust.
Instead: a love affair.
HPL-5 is a piece of garbage, and I loved it for it. I’ll let this Facebook post I made in the height of the pandemic speak for itself:
I wrote two novels on this laptop. I played tons of hours of Slay the Spire. Despite it being a giant 15″ slab of plastic, I’ve taken it on more vacations than all of the other laptops above combined. Romantic weekends with my wife, visiting family, Disney World, multiple weeks at the beach: HPL-5 was there. Sometimes because I was writing or revising one of those novels. Sometimes because I wanted to play Slay the Spire and goof off on the internet. Sometimes just because. I felt like I finally understood why people like laptops. All it took was a Windows laptop that I didn’t care about even a little, and an opportunity to use it for what it wanted to be.
I haven’t officially retired it, yet. It still works perfectly. It’s sitting there at the end of the couch I’m writing this from, right now, powered off, waiting for the next job. I’m planning on it having a long slow life of leisure somewhere on the counter, being the family homework laptop for Alfie and Eadweard. Let them love you, HPL-5. I’m sorry I never gave you a name, but the name you had was perfect for you.
But if HPL-5 still works perfectly, why replace it at all?
- HP ProBook 450 G4
- Intel Core i5-7200U 2.5GHz / 2.7GHz Turbo (Kaby Lake)
- 16GB of RAM
- Intel HD Graphics 620
- 256GB SanDisk SD8SN8U SSD
- This thing is so big the keyboard has an actual number pad attached.
- The printing on the key caps is so bad that no two keys are aligned exactly the same. The letters in the word Backspace wiggle up and down like a worm.
- I absolutely covered this thing in stickers, as you can see in the pictures. My favorite is a little dog sticker from a Cracker Jack box that Alfie gave me before I left for New Bern, North Carolina, ahead of the 2020 election. I was staying with my friend Billy Todd for a few days so that we could observe the various polling locations in case anything went awry. It was the height of the pandemic, and Alfie said the sticker would keep me safe. He also drew me a picture of my favorite things: pizza, ‘the drink in the cans’ (Coke Zero), and ‘the card game with monsters’ (Slay the Spire). I still have that picture, somewhere. It lived in my car until I traded it in. You can see the well-worn little dog sticker in the next picture in this article.
- The viewing angle on this screen is so narrow it reminds me of a rear-projection TV from the 90s. And since it’s a 15″ screen, it’s almost impossible to have all of it looking “correct” at any given point in time. Luckily I used it for text.
- The novels I wrote on this laptop were way better than the one I wrote on that iBook G3.
- Shout out to Scrivener!
- I used this as a streaming box quite a few times. Most memorably, when Alfie wanted to stream himself playing Animal Crossing to “everyone.” Again, the pandemic. I did put that picture above.
Scroll all the way back to the top of this post, and you’ll see me describe my iBook G3 as the first Apple product I personally owned. This is about laptops, a sequel to an essay I wrote five years ago about desktop computers, and not at all about other consumer electronics, but let’s admit to the obvious: Apple hasn’t been named Apple Computer in a long time. Apple makes other things.
My second Apple product? An iPod mini. To this day, I will contend it was the first good iPod. The click wheel was an amazing change, and still my favorite way to ever interact with a music player. I eventually replaced it with a larger iPod 5.5. And then smart phones happened, and I stopped carrying my iPod with me every day because I put the music on my phone, and streaming started…
I went from Blackberry phones to Android. I disliked iOS immensely in the early days. Apple had the sexy hardware, but it wasn’t until iOS 7 that the glacier started to move. It is so tempting to flow this article directly into talking about the history of my smart phones, and my tablets, but I’m going to do the only thing I can to stop myself, and use a numbered list to describe how I fell all of the way back into the Apple ecosystem. Because the Apple walled garden is the glacier.
- I got a retina iPad mini in 2013. I always start with the small ones.
- Next, an iPhone 6S in 2015. Android departed my life. It has not returned.
- I washed my running headphones in 2019. I ordered second-generation AirPods to try, because the wire was starting to bother me while I was running. I have never been as wrong about a product as I was about the AirPods. Before I got them, I didn’t understand the point. After: I could never go back.
- In 2019, I still saw most people running with wired headphones. In 2023, I can’t remember the last time I was out for a run and saw anyone using anything other than wireless earbuds of some kind.
- At Christmas in 2019, the Apple Watch finally went below $200. I thought the Watch was ugly, but I’d been running again for a year, and I hadn’t had a fitness tracker since 2015 or so. I wanted to see if I would use one again. I bought a Series 3.
- By the way, the watches are ugly, but you can accessorize with the bands. The always-on screen helps some, too.
- I’d been with Roku since they were Netflix-only boxes. Over time I’ve had occasion to try everything else, from Fire sticks, to AndroidGoogleTVs, etc, but Rokus were the best. AppleTV was basically unusable for a long time because the Siri remote was pure garbage. Apple happened to revise the AppleTV 4K right when we were renovating our basement in 2021, and it had a new, proper remote. So I bought one to go down there. It’s great.
Let’s talk about an Apple product I don’t like: the iPad Pro. I have one! It’s not a very good tablet, because it’s too big. If you want to use any of the “Pro” parts of it that don’t involve the pencil, which I also have, you have to use the keyboard cover, which I also also have. With the keyboard, it takes up as much space as a laptop, for a worse typing experience, and worse everything else.
But I like toys, and I like cool hardware. And what does Apple have now? The coolest laptop hardware in the world. The last generations of Intel MacBooks were goddamn terrible. Scorching hot and slow Intel CPUs, the butterfly keyboard, the TouchBar: all of it was bad. Now the TouchBar is gone, Intel is gone, and the keyboard is fixed. What replaced the Intel chips are some absolutely insane ARM-based processors based on the work Apple did with the iPhone and iPad for over a decade. And I wanted one.
As soon as the M1 came out in late 2020, I knew I was in trouble. I was using HPL-5 for hours a day, curled up somewhere comfortable, editing the novel I wrote at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020. I told myself I would get one when I finished revisions. I put it off.
I finished the book and didn’t buy one, so I moved my goalposts. When I sold the book, I said. I wrote a second book instead. I put it off further.
In the end, it was carrying around the iPad Pro and the HP laptop at the same time that finally broke me. The laptop? Huge. The iPad Pro? Also huge. The iPad benefits from being in the ecosystem with my phone and everything else. The laptop benefits from being in the ecosystem with my desktop and everything else. What if I could replace them both with one device, that was actually smaller *than either one of them*? The invasive thought snuck back into my brain.
Dream, the five-year-old gaming PC that I built with money being no object, is technically due to be replaced this year. I have no desire to replace it. I haven’t been doing much PC gaming lately, at least not high-end PC gaming, because we built a new home theatre in 2021 and I shoved a PS5 in it. Most of my gaming time is after work, after dinner, with my wife curled up by my side watching me. And it’s great. I’m sure I’ll build a high-end gaming PC again soon-ish, but it won’t be this year. But I still wanted something new…and I hadn’t bought a new laptop in over 20 years…and the M2 was super sexy, and Apple had a ton of refurbished ones in their store now…
I bought one, of course. I’ve written this entire blog post on it, pulling the pictures from my various services and desktop machines. This blog post was a trojan horse to help me get everything configured here exactly as I want it. It mostly worked, although I did have to write a seven-step Shortcut to replace ShareX for screenshots.
Hardware-wise, it’s mostly faster than my gaming PC. Sure, it’s five years newer, but it’s also fanless and ridiculously light and thin. Geekbench 6 isn’t necessarily the best benchmark in the world, but as a point of comparison, I ran it while writing this article, on all three machines. These are the results:
- Single-Core CPU:
- Dream: 1242
- HPL-5: 1058
- Delirium: 2599
- Multi-Core CPU:
- Dream: 6788
- HPL-5: 2120
- Delirium: 9828
- OpenCL GPU compute:
- Dream: 54702
- HPL-5: 4889 (lol)
- Delirium: 27628
That 1080Ti still doing work keeping Dream in the mix somewhere, I guess!
Much like the USS Excelsior, this is the great experiment. If I get a Mac, and go all-in on the ecosystem, how much will I like it? Windows is never going anywhere in my life. It’s integral to my career, and I genuinely like it. But maybe I’ll slide into MacOS for personal use, finally. Or maybe I’ll bounce off it again, and that’s also okay. It’s a toy. A cool toy.
- M2 MacBook Air (Midnight) – A2681
- Apple M2 8C @ 3.49GHz
- 10 Core Apple M2 GPU
- 24GB of RAM
- 2TB SSD
- I bought it from the refurbished store. I’ve had excellent luck with Apple refurbished products lately. When it arrived, it had 1 (one) battery cycle on it. Visually brand new.
- Because the refurbished store doesn’t have a configurator, I did not realize until after the fact that I purchased the literal maximum specification of this machine. I would have been perfectly fine with 16GB of RAM and 1TB of disk space, but, after all, I only buy a laptop every twenty years. I wanted more.
- Purchase price: $2,249. I used an Apple Card promo to get $75 back on my purchase, and got an additional 3% off for using an Apple Card in the first place.
- Windows 11 isn’t supported on HPL-5. Yes, this did factor in to my decision to replace it, but barely.
- I used the Delirium name for my work PC for a long time. I’m re-using it here, because I set the rules, and I decided that that’s okay. My work machines are GUIDs now.
- I still can’t use bash that well, but I am great in PowerShell. I used Homebrew to install PowerShell. I open Terminal.app in PowerShell. Fight me.
- Holly and I have a big trip coming up. Part of me wanted to wait until after the trip, because money. Part of me was swayed by Kenny’s argument of “Do you want a MacBook that hasn’t been to Europe?”
- And now I don’t have to carry that iPad Pro to Germany and Austria!
- A refurbished 14″ MacBook Pro with an M1 Pro CPU, 32GB of RAM, and 2TB of SSD would have been only $250 more and much more powerful than even this machine, with an absolutely fantastic screen. From a deal perspective, that should have been a no-brainer. But after looking at them in person several times, the MBP was noticeably chunkier and heavier, and I didn’t need the extra power. If I wanted a desktop replacement and not an iPad replacement, I would definitely have gone that route.
- MacBook Pro is still a stupid name though. It’s been 17 years and PowerBook is still better. You kept iMac around, no reason you couldn’t have kept that, Apple.