Seperis (seperis) wrote,

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the time has come for a new laptop

So I ordered a new laptop and am starting prep to refurbish this one for my mom.

The new laptop (name pending) is a Dell XPS 17 9700, upgraded to 32 GB RAM and a 4K touchscreen. I left the drive alone since I'm upgrading it myself to a much faster Samsung Pro 980, but happily, unlike Manhattan, this laptop has two M.2 drives and I seriously, seriously missed having that option.

Manhattan, my current laptop, is a Dell XPS 15 9575 Two-In-One with a 4K touchscreen; the screen folds backward 360 degrees into a very weirdly shaped tablet and you can write/draw on it with a pen. This is a lot of fun, but among my acquaintance, all the artistic types had a blast playing with it. And drew me pictures, some of which can be viewed by non-me company.

This option is not available for the XPS 17s, depressingly. I will miss it.

Why 2 in 1's Are Awesome (It's Not What You Think!)

I recommend this style for every laptop on earth, but not necessarily for the tablet option.

The tablet functionality wasn't bad and in fact could be useful if you like to make handwritten notes or basically any reason you like to use a tablet. The tricky part is the size; this is a widescreen laptop; 3840 by 2160 or 16:9. In the vertical, it's unwieldy as fuck and I don't mean weight (though yeah, that too); it's just not the right proportions for a tablet when you shift to the vertical. However, some may be fine with that, and anyway, that's not why I think this is brilliant innovation.

It was being able to open the laptop screen as wide as I wanted.

Most laptops open to just over or under 135 degrees then stop. As it turns out, my most functional working angle is closer to 145-150 degrees.

I've opened it to a full one-eighty when I was working and I needed to sit very straight; I had to lift my hands a little for keyboard but not as much as if it were just barely passed the 90 degrees most laptop screens allow. With one of my laptop stands, I generally have the screen at 145 degrees from the keyboard; it's much easier to sit straight (or straight-ish) if I can have the screen at near eye-level and the keyboard at nearer-hand level.

Which really just begs the question: why for the love of God are laptops still limiting opening angle to roughly 135 degrees or less? Even if you don't need a full 360 degree bend (which make it look like your screen is on top and your keyboard is on bottom), a 180 degree is super useful (see above).

When I took my laptop apart after I got it (to upgrade the hard drive also because I always take my laptops apart when I get them before anything goes wrong so the first time isn't when I'm stressed), I paid attention to how the cables thread from the body to the monitor to make a 360 degree bend work; suffice to say, it's not particularly dramatic or lifechanging; you use hollow hinges to thread the wires through. It's not easy to do it--yes, I did test that, I always take apart my laptops to the base so I know where everything is and how it connects--but it's not hard, just delicate. t didn't take special equipment or magic; like, in a pinch, you might get some tweezers to help move or two, but that's also because I have an intermittent tremble in my right hand.

This is a huge improvement on the way non-2 in 1 laptops work in that the cables are far better protected threading through the hollow hinge itself; no danger a cord that wasn't affixed right will eventually slip due to normal daily activity and get caught on the hinge when opening or closing and be cut (and yes, that happens even if you never opened your case and moved things around). I can definitely see room for improvement, but from a internal cable management perspective, this shit is the boobs. This also allows thicker, more resilient cabling if they'd consider that; the hair-thin ones that are so fragile breathing on them is worrisome should be a thing of the past.

(I have been watching the Big Foot ep of Psych and now I really want to use that in public. Everything cool for the foreseeable future shall be 'the boobs'.)

Preparation Is Key

So far, the only thing on Manhattan needs cosmetically is a new keyboard, but honestly, I think replacing the keyboard and touchpad (basically the entire front panel) is going to be the best option because if there are problems with either, at this point, I wouldn't notice as I've been using it so long it would be a forgotten quirk my hands know.

I am really, desperately going to miss opening my laptop to whatever angle I want, but I take consolation that my mom is going to love this laptop more than possibly her children.

Mom and Relative Value

My mom has excellent taste in tablets and phones; she gets high quality premium ones understanding that you're not just paying for quality but also the warranty to have it replaced. Like me, in prep for a purchase like this, she budgets carefully so she doesn't have to skimp. She'll happily pay ~$600-$700 for her tablet because she'll be using it constantly--and I do mean constantly--for two to three years. But a laptop that costs more than that seems Very Indulgent and Expensive Why Not Something Reasonable?

And it makes perfect sense: let me explain. Mom's first experience in buying consumer grade tech herself was a Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 12.2 roughly 8 to 10 years ago (the year it came out, literally).

At the time, it was the best Android tablet ever to hit the market; I bought one with an unexpected and exciting windfall after a couple of tablet experiments and it was unreal. My mom saw and my mom coveted; despite the (to her) horrifing price, she bought it and was hooked for life.

She'd never, however, bought her own computer. She'd never needed to.

It's not that she doesn't get computers or is just ignorant; she works in IT and was using the internet, programming in Kobol, and doing shit in DOS probably since before I was born (or when the internet first started). She helped design the backbone of several programs that changed how we do food stamps, TANF, Medicaid et al not just in our state, but this program is being implemented in other states. Programs she knows to the ground: she taught me excel about about VBA, she actually likes Powerpoint and could likely kill you with it in single combat, Office holds no terrors for her. I was the first in my family to buy my own PC (1998), but she was the one that taught me how to use it.

You see, most of her life, computers were only at work; she knew software, but had no reason--and frankly, no real way--to learn anything about hardware. She's always worked on state-provided machines. Some worked well, some didn't, computers, man. By the time personal computers became popular, I was buying them and then my sister did, and as we both lived at home, she never need to bother.

So she really doesn't have a concrete idea of how much computers cost, or rather, what they should cost.

(This became super clear when COVID hit, actually, and the state bulk purchased laptops for working at home. Apparently, they took the easy approach; everyone--and I do mean everyone IT or not, who worked for the state--got a Dell Precision Workstation dev-configured laptop.

The Precision workstations are pretty much the best shit you can get for business, and ours were configured mid-range. I stared at mine for a while (because seriously????) then from morbid curiosity went to Dell's website to get an approximate price just in case by some miracle I could suddenly jump income brackets to afford one.

Nope. Oh God nope. Even factoring in a bulk discount the state got from its contract with Dell, nope.

Mom did not believe me when I told her the price and barely believed it when I sent the link. It horrified her.)

Again, the only tech she's ever bought herself was when I got her into tablets and yes, she knows how to shop for those very well, what she wants, what to look for, etc. But she never needed to with PCs, ever; from the mid-nineties when PC sales really took off for consumers, I lived with her, my sister lived with her, I bought them, she bought them, and when I upgraded, the old one just moved out into the living room (sometimes we'd have two or three there at a time).

So her mental value of a good laptop is unconsciously equal to that of a good tablet; roughly, $600 to $800.


If you shop carefully and know what you're doing, you can get a PC or a solid laptop for that, but that assumes you know what you're doing and I don't mean just knowing how to read processor/RAM/hard drive and how those relate to each other. What are you using this pc/laptop for? Are you surfing the net, running Microsoft Office, working with Adobe Everything to edit video and images, or controlling an Oracle database? What's the warranty and replacement like? Can you upgrade the pc/laptop post-production or is everything soldered on?

This is not something she ever needed to think about or knew she even needed to; I was standing right there and doing the purchasing.

PCs have a much, much bigger margin of error than a laptop, granted, but you still have to know what you're doing. I do not insult my mother saying she doesn't; I barely grasp this and I build computers for fun. With my laptops--which I can't build myself (yet)--my budget is 'how much I can save between upgrades and get the best humanly possible (that is available from Dell*)'.


No, Dell does not make best computers in the world when it comes to consumer grade (business machines and the Precision workstations, otoh, still set the standard but that's a start value of higher income bracket than me). However: a.) I like buying local, and b.) throw a stone in Austin and hit a former Dell employee now working to fix Dell PCs and laptop better than Dell can, they're less than five miles away, and can get it done in under two days. And are also creative as fuck solving expensive problems (like blowing out your motherboard) at an excellent price.

Back to Mom and Computers

So mom's computer buying adventures have been--not great and sometimes depressing. Better idea; continue the passing computer tradition even if I don't live at home anymore. When I upgrade, I give her mine (or to whoever in the family needs a computer if she doesn't).

My two-three year upgrade time limit does include Shiny but is also practical.
a.) before work from home was mandatory, if I wanted to work from home, my personal laptop had to be able to support it.
b.) I do a lot of dev work for fun and run a headless server with it.
c.) a lot of my programs are processor intensive
d.) in general, the two-three year window means the laptop I pass down has at least five years or more of normal (non-me) use left. When I still primarily used PCs, they were good for over ten years for general use, and if I had time or a little extra money, I could upgrade the board or RAM if needed.

With laptops, there's less a margin to work with. I generally get the top of its type when I buy it so it's got a decent lifespan left, and when I pass it down, it been cleaned and upgraded within the last six months to a year with a new hard drive, RAM or both. As I do my own upgrades and repairs, if there are problems later, I can deal with them. If I can't, see nice former Dell computer repair people.

The last three family PCs were my personal PCs first; two migrated to relatives somewhere no idea, and the last one was ten plus years old when it died a couple of years ago. So yeah, this system works better than my mother/sister/etc showing me a horribly configured laptop with minimal RAM soldered on that's overheating constantly and throttling the CPU asking me why it's slow. The nightmare continues as I open it and stare, unable to explain why I could drown that thing in thermal paste and line it with thermal pads but nothing would fix a heatsink too small to do shit in a case so badly designed there's literally no room for anything bigger even if it wasn't soldered on; short of running it on a desk of ice (maybe), its going to overheat and even that won't help the limited RAM or the fact there's inadequate venting.

(Again, not a matter of being stupid; the only reason I recognized the problems--and only after opening the case--at all was because I build computers as a hobby so read a lot when I'm designing one and also I want to experiment with water cooling so I studied methods of cooling. The average consumer should not have to deal with this bullshit just to get a working computer.)

This upgrade, though, my mom is super-enthused on multiple levels; see, she got to play with Manhattan laptop soon after I bought it and apparently, the memory reallllly stuck. When I told her I'd ordered the new one and Manhattan would soon be hers, the following convo occurred.

Mom: When will you drop off my laptop?
Me: I just ordered the new one like, ten minutes ago. Ship date is December.
Mom: So...not tomorrow?

Upgrades and Repairs

So I'm prepping now for the upgrade as well as the handoff.

In general, I pick the easiest method;

1.) Buy (or use an existing) portable drive and copy the OS partition and move the Data partition.

The OS partition will be factory reset so it doesn't matter what I leave there, but Data partition is my private data and my brain gets weird about that. I cannot make myself reformat the Data partition while I can see data on it, even after copying it to the portable drive and seeing it there. But if I move the data from the Data partition to the portable hard drive, it's fine; the Data partition is now empty and I can format it.

2.) Copy relevant data to new laptop from portable drive

3.) Move all data from portable drive to the backup partition on Watson Server under computer name (Manhattan) and date of transfer then forget it exists unless something goes wrong.

The Stress of Data Backups and Transfers

Years ago (like, almost twenty), I started using a universal system for my computers; separate OS and Data on two separate drives, or in the case of having only one hard drive, separate partitions. The OS drive holds the OS and all my programs; Data holds all my files, media, dev work, and backups of settings from the OS drive.

This had multiple uses:
1.) repair/reinstall the OS without worrying about my private data.
2.) the drive with the OS is more likely to fail first due to the sheer amount of read-write-access activity so my data stays safe.
3.) it's super easy to upgrade to a new laptop or do a fast, easy manual backup or emergency backup; I just copy all of Data to the backup and be done with it.
4.) the only things I ever risk losing in an emergency are specific browser/program settings and the downloads folder that a.) I couldn't make them map to the Data drive or b.) had to stay on OS due to a performance hit or excessive read-write. I do try to remember to keep backups of everything I want to keep from OS on the Data drive, but...yeah

All of these have happened at least once to me; this system worked perfectly for them all. But number three actually turned out to be ridiculously useful in another way; I started regularly backing up, and once I built Watson Server, I did it a lot

Before, Doing a Backup was always such a goddamn production and stressful as hell, especially the automatic kind. They'd make me specify every single folder and file to the point I'd say "everything" in an excess of anxiety because suddenly, I wasn't sure anymore; did I forget and store my soul in C:\Users\Default\AppData\Roaming and just forgot? Who is Default; am I using that now? Is that my real name? Who am I?

You can imagine how long that kind of backup took. And how big it was, even imaged or zipped. So yeah, not often.

Switching to drive/partition meant a.) no more terrifying backup programs asking me questions about Default Roaming and Local, b.) learning to partition and map drives also taught me where everything was and more importantly, how to search when I didn't know where something was, and c.) Stopped making me terrified of doing something wrong or losing something.

The only thing that are a problem is the Office-related add-ins I coded, my macro workbooks, the default templates for Word and Excel, and current Outlook osts/psts and settings that for some reason have to stay on the OS drive; saved email and file structure are the only thing I can safely map to the Data drive.

Doing a Backup Now:
1.) copy all of Data to the backup folder on Watson Server, which is a mapped drive in My PC on Windows. Or...
2.) Login to Watson Server with mRemoteNG, navigate to attached drives, where I mapped my Windows Data drive, and copy everything to Watson Servers backup folder.

It still takes time (variable) and slows down the machine doing the heavy lifting, so I have two options; if I want to keep working on my laptop, start the backup from Watson; if I want to work in the server, start the backup from my laptop. There's still going to be a performance hit no matter what, but way, way less of one on the machine not actually performing the backup.

Watson now has roughly ten to fifteen years of old backups from most if not all my computers (some have been consolidated, some discarded because sometimes, I can make myself do that, though not often). That only sounds like a lot until you realize the scale difference; it's only in the last two-three years we think in terms of terabytes not gigabytes. Even now, excluding media, my private data (files, documents, books, spreadsheets, stories, pdfs etc) is under 200 GB; ten years ago, my private non-media data was under 25 GB.

The backup partition on Watson isn't actually very big despite it also holding ten years worth of Watson Server backups. That's because it no media saved on it whatsoever but in some folders, images and pictures that I haven't had a chance to verify and consolidate. When I download/buy/transfer any media to my laptop, it all goes into either Video or Pictures on the Data drive and I generally copy it to Watson immediately. I also do regular audits of both media folders to assure Watson has a copy.

Most important of all, when I do a new backup, as soon as it's done, I go into Watson and delete all media folders right then, do not wait or think or like, breathe.

I Hate To Delete

Here's why: during a organization/drive cleanup on Watson circa 2016-2017ish, I did my normal drive reorganization on Watson and noticed the backup drive was getting full, so decided to go look around and maybe maybe (shudder) delete a backup older than four of my nieces and nephews because seriously I probably don't need that anymore.

That's when I realized--and this surprised me, believe it or not, as apparently I don't understand what Backup The Whole Drive means--I'd saved a backup of all my music--between five and fifteen thousand files depending on the backup--about ten to thirty separate times. Sometimes, the same backup date had a couple of these; why, I don't know. This pattern continued for pictures from various phones, everything involving my time in Smallville and learning about graphics, a great eal of home video from camcorders, phones, and video recorders, and every single vid I ever downloaded or ripped. Dating back to 1999.

Oh, I said: well, I'll just check and see if it's on Watson already, copy it if not, and delete the extra copies. It's super cute I thought that.

To streamline this, I created a special folder (backup/all_media) and moved (not copied, I did manage that much) every single media folder into it (renaming each media folder with dates and computer as needed). That doesn't sound streamlined, you say? Why not just mass copy all the media files into the root of the folder instead of fucking around with subfolders and if it says that file is already there, just delete it! Much faster.

Yeah, I can't do that. What if the computer is wrong???? I'll lose it forever!

So I walked through every backup folder, moving each media folder I found into a separate folder into all_media, then comparing the contents of each and every folder to Watson's media folders, and--God I hate this--deleting everything that had a match. To be clear: the process of moving all the media folders in the backups to the all_media folder took like a few hours including time spent carefully renaming Video to Video_SherlockOS_04302009. Let's round it to the equivalent of a weekend at most (maybe).

The rest took months or actually closer to a year and change (lots of change). The majority of it was not spent comparing files; that took seconds. It was spent angsting and triple verifying visually every single match that yes I have that picture saved thirty times, you can delete the twenty-nine extra copies, it's okay. I compared names, sizes, extensions, dates; any discrepancy meant visual check and guess what; the same file in a 2009 backup and a 2016 backup will have different dates. They're still both Undone(2002)_Smallville_ClarkLex_800X600.avi. Or fifteen fucking thousand music files.

Which is why now, I regularly audit my laptop's media to match Watson's media, do another audit before starting the backup, and the second the backup is done, shit gets real.

I do not open Watson's GUI; that way lies madness. This demands command line.

I open putty, ssh into Watson, navigate to /backup/winbackup/full.backup/manhattan_os/backup.00902020 and delete every media and image folder,

That's sudo rm -R /backup/winbackup/full.backup/manhattan_os/backup.09022020/Video, no takebacks, this shit is done.

Why? Because I can't risk seeing the files in the GUI.

Deleting them in the GUI is hard enough, but worse, if it says 'this file is too big for the recycle bin do you want to delete?' I'll say no even though that's the entire point. If it does go into the recycle bin, I'll choke when trying to empty it. If I try and just leave it for nature to take it's course (the recycle bin's thirty day hold), that's thirty days to panic and there's a fifty percent chance I won't make it to day fifteen, much less thirty.

This has been an infodump of my brain today. Carry on as you will. Posted at Dreamwidth: | You can reply here or there. | comment count unavailable comments
Tags: my relationship with electronics

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