DIY quality

It used to be that building a PC yourself was the best way to get a reliable machine. Pick the best parts, the best software only, and get a solid experience.

I don’t know why, but that world seems gone. I’ve had my latest build for 18 months or so, and it’s been kind of a crappy experience. First the coil whine issue. Then my SSD died. My hard drive drive still fails to resume once in a while, requiring a reboot. Now i discover plugging in usb flash memory causes usb ports to bork until reboot.

This is by far the worst machine I’ve built. And I don’t think it’s because I suck at building them now. I went with pretty standard stuff.

And now on to my totally indefensible theories:

  • The market for DIY pc’s has shrank considerably. Less competition and cost cutting has led to overall crappy parts.
  • Even most DIY Pc’s are highly integrated. What used to be a motherboard and 5 expansion cards is now mostly one motherboard. This puts more onus on the motherboard manufacturer to pick the right parts to solder on the board, and they just don’t do it as well.
  • The only people that do DIY now are gamers. Gamers have different requirements. They need something that runs fast, but perf/cost is more important than that extra 9 in the reliability column.
  • Machines are just complicated enough now that the integration testing done at the Dells and Lenovos of the world now justify the extra cost of ordering from them. At the same time, Joe random PC builder has a much harder time getting any support from a component maker compared to the OEM customer that orders millions of parts.

hardware UI

I realized something recently.

The only reason I’ve been happy with PC (and specifically, desktops) is that I get to control all the “UI hardware” that matters. The screen. The keyboard. The mouse. The speakers. The primary input and output of a computer. Behind those devices is just a box with cpu, memory, and a hard drive.

PC laptops have existed for a long time. I’ve only bought two. The Sony Vaio Z505, and the Sony Picturebook. Both I liked somewhat, but never were my primary machines. The former was cool at the time, but soon felt underpowered compared to my desktop, and ergonomics were not that great. The latter was just a toy to start with (go Transmeta!)

When I started my current job, I was offered only a choice of a laptop, which is a situation that I had never faced before. Initially, I chose a Macbook Pro, mostly because I was curious, and saw that a lot of other fellow engineers were moving to it. Over the past 2 years, I’ve been switching back and forth, probably once every 6-8 months, and I’m currently on the Thinkpad x220.

Here’s the thing: I think software-wise, my brain still thinks in Windows. Maybe that’s outdated, but it’s just really hard to get over. My brain also remembers all the positive experiences I had with Windows growing up. All those times I built a new PC to do exactly what I wanted.

It turns out, I just can’t find that in the world of PC laptops. Everything is integrated for you. You can’t find the one laptop that has the screen, keyboard, and mouse that you want. Even the brands that give you a ton of BTO options can’t seem to give you any good combinations. In the laptop game, it’s about picking the overall best experience. 

When it comes to the overall experience, I think Mac’s currently win. Living with a Thinkpad for just a few months will tell you why. While the Thinkpad keyboard is great, the pointing devices are terrible. Some people seem to like the track point. I think those people are crazy. Anyways, the overall situation leads people to write articles like: http://blog.laptopmag.com/crappy-clickpads-could-kill-the-ultrabook . This article is not exaggerating. The laptop pointing device situation on Windows is atrocious. And it’s telling that it’s still that way after all this time. Any time I feel like I need to do real work on a Thinkpad, I always reach for the external mouse.

So even if my brain can’t quite appreciate all the aspects of OSX (it has a few broken, arcane paradigms of it’s own), at the end of the day, I must acknowledge that as far as laptops go, the mac is what feels the best. They have decent screens, they keyboards are near the top, and the touch/clickpad is top notch. Using their products (typing this on my Dad’s 11inch Air) really makes me feel like they appreciate this one fundamental aspect of computing devices. I see it in their mobile products as well.

I’ll likely be returning to a mac for my work laptop soon, but I’m more writing this because I feel like I’m now seeing the end of an era. I wrote about whether computers were “tools or appliances” before. But I realized, in a way, laptops were appliances all a long. Too many parts of the product are decided by the manufacturer for it not to be so. 

I had long hoped for some kind of “build your own laptop” initiative to take off. There were some little-known attempts, but when the size and power characteristics of the end product make up such an important part of the experience, flexibility of components has a high cost. Maybe it will happen someday, but it seems unlikely. The devices are getting smaller, even more integrated, and cheaper. I suppose people must have felt this way about cars at some point. I suppose I’ll just have to get over it and just use my PC building skills to avoid the Apple memory tax.

Lenovo x220 one month review

I like this laptop a lot. It’s got a few issues, but nothing fatal.

Pros:

  • Light. Lighter than the 13inch mbp I had before. Probably about the same as the MBA 13
  • Amazing battery life. I don’t work too much on the weekends, but it often gets me through to monday without recharging.
  • Top notch keyboard. Especially after the keys loosen up a bit. It’s also got the new Thinkpad layout with the big Esc and Delete keys, which are nice touches. I still with home/end and page up/page down weren’t so far away.
  • It’s fast. Since the last generation or so, any CPU has been fast enough for any basic use, but this machine still feels fast nonetheless. The Intel IGPU in this one feels adequate on my 30 incher at work, though occasionally, with enough windows open, it does start to slow down a bit.
  • Good docking station. The docking station doesn’t have an optical drive, so it’s completely hot-plug. No eject button required. Also, the audio port on the dock doesn’t sound terrible, like the T410s’s did. 

Cons:

  • Screen. I got one with a TN screen. It’s got a lot less contrast than the MBP’s and bad viewing angle overall. Not recommended. If you’re buying this thing, get the IPS.
  • Touchpad: These things are still god-awful. I would be embarrassed if I were Lenovo. Thankfully, you can disable most of the built in gestures, and instead get the Two-Finger-Scroll utility, which works pretty well. No momentum scroll support, but other than that, works almost as well as OSX
  • Slow Wifi reconnect: Resuming from suspend on this machine feels basically as fast as a mac, but for some reason, it takes a lot longer to reconnect to a Wifi network. On the order of 10-20 seconds it seems. Enough to get errors in your browser when you’re not paying attention. I don’t know if this is an issue with my IT department’s configuration. 
  • Weird default video power saving features. Causes temporary weird visuals in some situations (until turned off). Just feels low quality.

Just when I thought I was livin’ the PC life, several things break on me all on the same day. My laptop has trouble connecting to the work wifi network. The recurring issue where my home desktop’s hard drive doesn’t show up on resume started happening again.

Sigh.

Scrolling

Hurray for totally random sketchy utilities that make or break your computing experience.

Enter TwoFingerScroll, a modded version of an old google code project that brings fairly decent two finger scrolling to windows. This thing is _WAY_ better than my x220’s built in scrolling, provided by the ultranav driver. It’s quite embarassing really. Synaptics engineers (or Lenovo engineers?) should be ashamed.

Be sure to turn off the normal two finger scrolling in the ultranav tab of the mouse control panel applet when using this program. This implementation doesn’t have coasting like the mac does, but in most other respects it feels just as good.

Tools vs Appliances

PCs are tools, and Macs are appliances.

Fundamentally, when Apple designs a Mac, they’re making a device that looks like a computer but is targeted at very specific use-cases. At one point, it was the “digital hub” idea. Now it’s added a “internet client” flavor. Their high-end stuff is arguably targeted at content creation.

In any case, Apple is not building you a general purpose computer. They’re building you an easy to use, reliable, low-maintenance solution to your problem. An appliance. Arguably, the part of their product line that is dedicate to general purpose computing is already declining in significance.

PCs on the other hand, are really more about delivering technology. It’s about getting you the best hardware for the best price. Windows (and Linux), while having some built in features, is about providing the platform that allows developers around the world to target all use-cases.

Interestingly, the world needs both. Kindles. Chromebooks. iPads. All are examples of use-case specific devices that provide a lot of value. Appliances are all around, and their simplicity and reliability provide value when you don’t care about the details. Tools are around too and are just as important. Not everybody needs them, but they can provide multiplied value to those who can utilize their flexibility.

Appliances make your life better and easier. Tools help you create the future.

A fix for busted Japanese font display on win7

The symptom of this problem is that when you use your system in english mode, it displays a bunch of Japanese characters as squares (like the font doesn’t exist), but only in certain areas like window titles, task bar, tab titles. It usually doesn’t show in browser rendering, since those engines seem to know how to pull the fonts correctly.

Couldn’t figure this out forever, but I might have finally come upon the fix.

There’s a somewhat hidden setting that probably affects this:

You can get to this by first opening up “fonts” from the start menu search, and hitting the “Font Settings” link on the left side. Unclick that “Hide fonts…” option.

The second part is that you have to kill your font cache. I didn’t even know this cache existed, but the right command appears to be: 

  del c:windowssystem32fntcache.dat

After this, reboot, and voila! no busted squares. Well, at least it worked for me on one system. I can only conclude that this is the logical equiavlent of “fc-cache -f” on modern Linux systems.

Update: There must still be some missing piece. The above procedure did not work on my machine at home, which I recently had to reinstall. However, some combination of installing the Japanese language pack (for win7 ultimate), and also installing the Japanese IME, and repeating the above procedure seemed to do the trick.

Update (september): I may have found a some more info here. This thread: http://answers.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/forum/windows_7-performance/corruption-of-font-cache-on-every-reboot/4c826d85-8d2d-47dc-aad9-262415881897?msgId=0632b25e-20fc-4957-b59a-2160ed90516f is full of other people complaining of the same issue. The claim is that while clearing fntcache.dat works, reboots will randomly re-corrupt the file, causing the symptoms to re-appear. Anyways, the interesting bit is at the bottom:

=============================================================
UPDATE:
I think i might found myself a solution.
Control Panel > Fonts > Font Settings
uncheck “Hide fonts based on language settings”
click “OK”
now still inside “Fonts”
right click “PMingLiU Regular”, click “Hide”
(other languages use different font, this is focused on Chinese)
right click “PMingLiU Regular” again, click “Show”
to verify, create a dummy text file on desktop.
rename it to Chinese file name.
so far all my reboots are good.
no more square characters untill now. (10 plus reboots tested)
=============================================================
At this point, I’m pretty pessimistic about this whole thing, but I did try this procedure, rebooted, and it did make my evernote properly show Japanese to again. There is hope yet.

Two hour impression of x220

Test driving this smaller thinkpad at work. Seems plenty fast, even to drive the 30 inch screen (unlike the previous x201 which had the crappy old intel graphics).

I didn’t get an IPS screen so can’t tell how that is. Bummer. Screen is also definitely lower contrast than Apple display.

Touchpad is awful as usual. I don’t know why PC vendors can’t get this right. Apple has been doing it for years now. Trackpoint is decent, but still makes my fingers hurt.

[Four hours in]

It’s amazing how the eyes adjust to the difference between cleartype and the Apple rendering. I just peeked back at my MBP’s screen and the text looks reaaaaly fuzzy. I’m fairly certain that it didn’t look nearly as fuzzy a few hours ago. How can one’s eyes change like that? Is it a semi-permanent change that makes you prefer one rendering type over another?

The contrast on the x220 TN screen is definitely worse than the MBP. Probably has to do with the clear-coat glass on the mac.

Finally

Finally a USB wifi N card that works.

Avoid Rosewill RNX-N180UBE.

Purchase TP-Link TL-WN822N

ugh

I don’t get it. I can type for a long time on my laptop’s built in keyboard. But I can’t last nearly as long on the little standalone apple keyboard of the same size. Is it the slant? It doesn’t make any sense!

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