All the advice in this computer buying series has been centered around one key assumption: you will use the laptop you’re about to buy for at least 8 years. For many, this sounds like an unreasonable assumption. After all, isn’t your computer outdated as soon as you walk out of the store? Doesn’t Moore’s Law say that computing power doubles every 2 years? Don’t you need the latest and greatest in computing technology??
Well, in order, Yes but who cares, Not Really, and an emphatic No.
To prove this to you, I’ll talk you though my empire of computers, what my typical workload looks like, and what I did to make sure they’re up to my tasks.
Today, we start with the computer I’ve owned the longest (but the youngest of my collection), the 2012 13” Sony Vaio S-series.
Hardware Specs:1If you don’t know what these mean, be sure to read up on the Computer Hardware terms in both Part 1 and Part 2!
Model: 2012 Sony VAIO S, Model Number SVS13A190X
CPU: Intel Core i5 3210M (Dual Core, 2.50 GHz)
RAM: 12 GB (upgraded from 4GB)
Storage: 500GB Samsung 850 SSD (upgraded from 750GB HDD)
GPU: Discrete Nvidia GTX 640m
OS: Originally Windows 7 Pro, Currently Ubuntu Studio 16.04 & Windows 10 Pro
Extra Features: USB 3.0 (big deal back then), great touchpad, backlit keyboard, fingerprint reader
It was the summer of 2012, I had just graduated High School, and was about to head to a Mechanical Engineering college. After substantial research, I was looking for a few very specific things
1) High-resolution 13” screen – Most laptops of this time came with terrible, terrible screens that barely fit a single Word document on the screen. I needed this computer to multitask on the go, so I wanted something I could fit two documents side by side while still fitting in a backpack.2An important note: This turned out to be a perfect resolution. Lower is difficult to multitask, but higher makes text too small to read without Windows Scaling, which doesn’t work particularly well. Especially with specialized engineering programs.
2) Discrete GPU – As you may recall, a discrete GPU is great for graphics-intensive tasks. I had heard that this was important for 3D CAD, a software tool that I was going to be using a lot in my studies.3Turns out, the stuff I was designing did not benefit from the GPU. At all.
3) Thin & Light – I wanted to take this thing to all my classes. I wanted to take notes on it. I wanted to study in the library between classes. And guess what? The computer was with me at all times because I could carry it everywhere I went.
4) Internal CD Drive – At the time, this was important to me for watching movies in the dorm room or burning mix CDs for my parents’ aux-jack-less car.
5) Backlit Keyboard – They looked So. Cool. And I needed it. Turns out, it was actually really useful for finishing up papers at 1:00 in the morning
The Sony Vaio S was the only laptop that had all these features. It was a bit more expensive than my Christmas-and-birthday savings budget. But thanks to timing back-to-school deals and placing the order on my state’s tax holiday, I was able to get the computer for just about $1000 (originally $1200, if memory serves), and it came with a free PS3!
It survived 4 hard Undergraduate years constantly by my side as my main computer. It went into and out of my backpack no fewer than 4x a day. I used it for notes in 30 of my 34 classes.41 professor wouldn’t let me use it in class, 2 math classes that I took before I was comfortable writing equations on USB drawing tablet, and one professionalism seminar that … didn’t exactly need notes It designed parts for 3D printing, ran Finite Element Analysis (FEA) simulations for class projects, and ran model parameter estimation routines on datasets for an independent study. I once simultaneously had open roughly 30 web browser tabs, 3 Word documents, 2 PowerPoint presentations, a MATLAB instance, Solidworks 3D CAD, and not one, but two virtual machines (that’s 3 OSes running at once) and only realized what I was doing because of a slight slowdown.
Now, between my work and personal desktops, the VAIO only sees compute-heavy workloads when I’m traveling. And since I repaired a touchscreen computer (next week!), I don’t take it with me for class or meeting notes anymore either. Nowadays, the VAIO is usually running Ubuntu Studio for web browsing, light photo & video editing on the go, and experiments in music production. I also keep a Windows partition active for occasional LAN gaming, CAD, and PowerPoint presentations.
After 6 years, battery life is down from a stellar 8 hours to a still respectable 3-4 hours I tried replacing the battery with a 3rd party one, it didn’t improve the battery life thanks to low quality components. I have the external battery too, and that’ll double my time away from a charger. Thanks to its decent battery life, respectable computing power, and lightness, the VAIO is my go-to computer when I visit my family or go on conferences.
The S series was the closest thing Sony had to a professional product. It was made from well-built metal and carbon fiber, unlike most of Sony’s other flimsy plastic laptops. That also gave some interesting other perks, such as having the option for a second, external battery.
The i5 happily cranks though any of my research code I give it, though admittedly much slower than my desktop. That said, it never feels slow in everyday tasks like web browsing and blogging even though it’s 6 years old. It’s still perfectly viable for research on the go or at the library.
Thanks to standard connectors, I was able to upgrade to a SSD, add 8GB of RAM, and replace the battery without any trouble at all.
Despite it being a kinda professional product, repairability of the thing is limited to basic RAM, HDD, and Battery replacements. Thanks to 1) not actually being a professional product, 2) not being particularly popular, and 3) Sony selling off their entire VAIO Laptop division a couple years ago, there’s no spare motherboard, keyboard, or hard drive cable parts available for this machine. If something major breaks on this machine, it’s done for. And while most things are upgradable, Sony inexplicably soldered 4GB of RAM to the motherboard, leaving only one RAM connector. If something goes wrong with that 4GB of RAM,5Something I’ve seen personally at least 3 times on different computers the whole computer is bricked.
The discrete GPU was a waste of money. I never saw a benefit in the CAD tools I was using and it really wasn’t powerful enough to play the games of its time. Skyrim, released in 2011, ran at a barely playable 15-20 frames per second. Worse, the heatsink was too small, so performance got worse after a few minutes as the GPU thermal throttled down. This is why I am so against the thin computers of today; my laptop didn’t have proper cooling, so how is a higher performance laptop with an even smaller heatsink supposed to be better?
A new computer would do everything better. Longer battery life, faster processor, yada yada yada. But I don’t need better. I do most of the work I get paid for on my work-supplied computer. Sure, the photo and video editing I do would be faster on a newer computer, but who cares? Those tasks only make up 1% of my total time on a computer. 6-year-old technology doesn’t hamper the rest of the 99% of my time on the computer. And I don’t expect the upcoming years will see that change.
My primary laptop is a middle-of-the-high-end computer from 6 years ago that handles everyday web browsing, casual photo and video editing, and numerical analysis for robotics research without any problems. If you buy good stuff and take the time to maintain it, you’ll find that a regular upgrade cycle nets little value.