You also don't need a new laptop

7 years with the same machine

Going through an inventory of my electronic devices last year, I noticed that I did not own a PC. At least not one in the traditional sense: A tower humming under my desk. I do have a few Raspberry PIs scattered throughout the house. I also realized that my smartphone was 6 years old. What I failed to notice at the time was that my main laptop, an Asus Zenbook UX501V, the one I use to write these blog posts, is from 2016. And it still kicks ass!

I only started to pay attention when I realized that the hardware was falling apart. I dinged it a dozen times, it fell off the table more often than I can count, and it drank full cups of coffee on occasions. It still runs on the original battery which gives me no more than 2 hours when fully charged. But since it is always plugged with two extra monitors, the battery is not an issue.

10 years ago, I wrote about the state of the PC. The article went viral and destroyed my poor server. The web was littered with headlines saying that the PC was dead. Instead, I argued that the PC wasn't dead. Sales were down because unlike smartphones, you didn't need to buy one every year.

In fact, PCs could last for several years before needing an upgrade. And an upgrade sometimes meant replacing an internal part rather than the whole system. When you buy a PC, especially a robust PC, you can use it for many generations of iPhones.

I bought this Zenbook when I founded a startup. I imagined that since I was going to work on a .Net project, I'd need a powerful Windows machine. The specs were as follows:

I took it to our office for a week before I stopped. Carrying this laptop in my backpack with the charger was heavier than I expected. Instead, I opted to carry my much smaller and lighter Ultrabook, the Acer S3. This one was already 2 years old and it did a fine job until our startup went bust!

Since 2018, I've been using the Zenbook daily. I brought it along when I traveled, I worked as a contractor with it, and I watched movies on it. Right now, I have it plugged in my office, streaming a movie on one screen, working on VS code on the other, and writing on my blog on the laptop screen. There are rarely any hiccups.

I may not be able to run the latest games on it, but when it comes to work, a 7 year old machine is doing more than enough. I've been working on AI using Pytorch and training the models on the CPU was becoming tedious. But to my surprise, the GPU drastically improved the speed, and that's with only 2 GB of VRAM.

So far, I've haven't read articles that state that the laptop breed is dying. Except the hustle tweets that say that Jack Dorsey doesn't even own a computer, so it must be obsolete. It's safe to ignore those. But I do notice the trend of new programmers trying to buy the latest and greatest machine to get started. My advice remains the same over the years. Go online and buy a used machine for under $500. If this programming thing works out for you, you'll make enough money to buy a better machine down the line.

At $50, this machine paid back its value a few thousands of times. From graphic design to full fledged web applications, I created it all on this junk. I was able to drop out of college and pursue a career in programming as a freelancer using this defective device.

A few years later, I worked on heavier web content and phone apps, my little box started to feel outdated. So I was handed down a much better computer. One that supported much newer browsers and allowed me to do much more than just web. A Dell Inspiron e1505 2006. Now I could install Eclipse for Android, and the full power of a Linux environment (Ubuntu). I upgraded the hard drive to an SSD and it became my main machine. This machine still purrs softly in the background as I am writing this post. In fact, this very blog was designed and built on it. Yeah I know, it was already 6 years old when I got it.

It's not that new laptops are bad. I still marvel at the speed of the M1 Macs. The issue is that computing hasn't changed enough in the last 7 years to turn a solid laptop from back then obsolete. Yes, when I use my old PowerBook G4, it's nearly impossible to browse the web. If I visit a website that uses React, the computer becomes burning to the touch. That's not a laptop anymore, it's a conversation piece. But a 5 year old laptop will perform well with modern software.

Maybe I'm just a bad customer and I should become a regular shopper to help this failing laptop industry. But I can't help but feel underwhelmed every time I use a brand new computer. Once I configure the machine to my liking, it does tend to look exactly like my previous one, only slightly faster. When I first went from a hard disk drive to an SSD, I was mind blown. The computer went from cold boot to ready for use in under 15 seconds. At the time I was used to 2 or 3 minutes at least. As fast as computers are today, it's hard to match that experience. Going from 15 to 10 seconds is technically impressive, but not as game changing.

I'll be upgrading to a new laptop soon, but it will be a slow process. Because I'm not shopping for my needs today. I'm looking for a machine that will work for me for the next decade.


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