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 What Would Joe Do?
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena is a freelance journalist and Editor of EDA Confidential at She can be reached at peggy at aycinena dot com.

Retail Therapy: Jump starting Black Friday

November 17th, 2016 by Peggy Aycinena

It’s no secret that my 5-year old laptop died recently
; the cries of anguish could be heard a mile away. What to do?

Step 1: Boot the system off Fedora on a data-stick, recover the lost files, and move on.

To do that required the mechanical workaround of duct-taping the power supply, which wouldn’t stay seated, to the chassis because the battery wouldn’t hold a charge, and laying the laptop on a squishy bag of ice to keep it cool enough long enough to do the off-loading. Happily, the tired old hard drive coughed up the goods, then sputtered one last time and said adieu.

Step 2: Buy a new laptop, which is far easier said than done if you’ve been out of the market for a while. Too many choices, too many price ranges, and too many metrics to consider.

To my great luck, however, my old HP died just days prior to CEDA’s Design Automation Futures Workshop. Right there on the Mentor campus in Fremont in late October, therefore, I had the opportunity to do some critical [secret] market research: What are the brightest minds in technology using these days by way of laptops?

Well, according to my secret survey at DAFW, the majority of them seem to carry something with an apple on the cover. Not surprising, really.

And the rest of them? The lesser souls were mostly working away on Lenovo’s. Big ol’ honking laptops that look like they’re made out of recycled truck tires – black, rubbery, chunky, clunky, artless. Hmm.

Were these my only two choices, I asked myself from the back of the room at DAFW 2016: Over-spend on a beautiful system with caché, or sign-up for something that looks like it would survive being run over by an 18-wheeler in heavy traffic?

And don’t think, by the way, that I was the only one who saw the two choices in this light.

When the group of 50 people attending this inaugural workshop were asked to clump together, shoulder to shoulder, at the back of the room for a photo – the person taking the picture saw that a row of laptops along the table parallel to the back wall would all be in the frame and immediately declared:

Any Apple laptop could remain in the ‘up’ position and therefore be in the photo, but all Lenovo’s had to be put in the ‘down’ position so as to not show up.

Again, hmm. Lenovo’s too artless, or too much corporate-issue, even for a group photo of nerd-alert tech junkies with nothing better to do on a Saturday morning that argue about neuromorphic computing?

This dislike-of-Lenovo data point duly noted in my market research, I still resisted. Did I really need to buy an Apple to be in with the In Crowd? Did I really have to buy into that totally closed, albeit fabulous, ecosystem?

More importantly, how would I face my friends in the open source developer community if I showed up for some nerd-alert gathering of these iconoclasts, sat down, and opened up one of those closed-ecosystem silver beauties with the glowing apple on the cover?

So began my search for a better answer.

I won’t bore you with the details – the long hours spent poring over web reviews, written or you-tubed, the multiple visits to a wide range of retail outlets selling an even wider range of technology toys, the into-the-night shopping sessions on everything from Amazon to eBay to Craiglist to to to and the rest, the long conversations with friends who offered an endless range of advice, and finally, the establishing and sorting and re-sorting of priorities with respect to this new laptop, not to mention a moment or two to glance at the balance in my checkbook.

No, I won’t bore you with the details.

Instead, I will tell you how my list of metrics looked when finalized. And what I finally settled on – after several rounds of purchases, crises of confidence, returns, and additional purchases.

Here’s what I wanted in the system, or at least what I was going to look at in making my choice:

* Processor
* Operating System
* Amount of RAM
* Amount of storage
* SSD storage vs. HDD
* Ability to upgrade the system
* Screen size
* Touch screen
* Screen resolution: HD, FHD, UHD
* Battery life
* Tendency to overheat
* Weight
* 2-in-1 tablet
* Back-lit keyboard
* User reviews of keyboard & touchpad
* Speaker quality
* Bloat-ware
* USB Type C
* USB 3.0
* USB 2.0
* Full-size HDMI vs. micro HDMI
* Ultra-book
* Professional cache
* Aesthetic design
* Color
* Price

Here are the systems I seriously considered and studied in detail to match against my list of preferred features:

* ASUS ZenBook
* Dell XPS 13
* Dell Inspirion
* HP ProBook
* HP Pavilion
* HP Spectre x360
* Lenovo Yoga
* Microsoft Surface Pro

And here’s what I purchased – and by the way, I bought two:

System #1: Dell Inspirion 11 3000

* Intel Pentium N3710 [14 nm, FinFET]
* Intel HD Graphics
* Windows 10 Home 64-bit
* 8Gb DDR3L 1600MHz – upgraded from 4Gb despite warning from Dell that this wasn’t possible
* 512 SATA SSD – achieved by swapping out the 512 HDD that shipped with the system
* 11.6” screen, HD (1366 x 768)
* Touch screen with 2-in-1 tablet configuration
* No back-lit keyboard
* Speaker quality adequate, excellent sound w/ earphones
* Wireless: 802.11bgn + Bluetooth 4.0, 2.4 GHz, 1×1
* 32 WHr, 2-Cell Battery
* 6 hours battery life, although not yet verified in extended use
* Cool to touch, particularly after upgrading storage to SSD
* Weight about 3 pounds, not at all a problem
* Nominal bloat-ware
* 2 x USB 2.0
* 1 x USB 3.0
* Full-size HDMI
* Plastic chassis
* Bali Blue
* $299 at Office Depot, plus $250 of RAM & Storage Upgrades

System #2: Dell Inspirion 13 7000

* Intel 6th generation i7 6500U [14 nm FinFET]
* Intel HD graphics 620 with shared graphics memory
* Windows 10 Home 64-bit
* 12 Gb Single Channel DDR4 2400MHz shipped w/ system
* 512 Gb SATA SSD shipped w/ system
* 13.3-inch FHD (1920 x 1080) Truelife LED-backlit touch display with Wide Viewing Angle (IPS)
* 2-in-1 tablet configuration
* Back-lit keyboard
* Excellent speaker quality
* Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 3165 + Bluetooth 4.2
* 42WHr, 3-Cell Battery (Integrated)
* 7 hours battery life, although not yet verified in extended use
* Cool to touch
* Weight: 3.6 pounds
* Nominal bloat-ware
* 1 x USB 2.0
* 1 x USB 3.0 with PowerShare
* 1 x USB Type C
* Full-size HDMI
* SD card reader
* Aluminum chassis
* Silver
* $799 at Best Buy on Daily Special

So there you have it, $1400 and a month later I have both Dell systems up and running, the Blue Dell and the Grey Dell.

I didn’t set out to buy two systems, and I certainly didn’t set out to buy two Dells, but that was the end result of my hours of shopping. And I’m not regretting the choices at all.

Both systems are great and far superior to my now-moribund 5-year-old HP. Both are super-fast, kitted out with NVM storage and 14 nm FinFET technology, the Dell 13 7000 is virtualized for dual-boot with VMWare, and each was chosen to be appropriate in one of the two settings where I hang out: The Grey Dell for work settings and the Blue Dell for use around the toddlers in my life.

These systems will last for several years, depending on how much abuse I can inflict on them, and will more than meet my needs for mobile computing, writing, photo editing, and some software development. And the combined price was competitive.

Finally, next week is the now-infamous Black Friday in American retail. I’ll be looking closely on Friday, November 25th, to see how much my two new systems will be selling for on that day. No doubt, if I could have held out for a few more weeks, I’d have saved some money. But time is money, and I needed my new systems sooner not later.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!


Editor’s Note: No, these systems are not really great for high-performance gaming, but that’s not something I needed while out and about. That level of performance is better suited to the powerful desktop that stays at home.


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