A cooler, quieter, cheaper and greener life

10Aug11

For many years I ran a desktop PC in my home office, and it was always on in order to provide various services to other machines scattered around the house. The one good thing about this arrangement was that the room was always warm in winter.

After getting my NAS and Microserver I started paying more attention to energy use, and hibernating my desktop machine whenever it wasn’t in use. This had the effect of highlighting just how noisy it was.

Around the same time I noticed that RAM and a docking station for my X201 Tablet had become affordable. I took the plunge and got an Ultrabase off eBay, and  ordered 8GB or RAM to match my desktop (in order to have headroom to run some VMs on VirtualBox).

The good

  • My office is now much quieter – almost eerily so – it seems I had become used to the noise as a sign that everything’s working as it should.
  • My office is also much cooler. This is great given that we’re having a decent summer this year in the UK. Fingers crossed that I can find something to keep me warm when winter comes.
  • I’ll be spending less on electricity (though the payback is less clear than it was when replacing the 24×7 energy hogs with the NAS and Microserver).
  • If I’m in the middle of something in the office but want to join the family in the living room I can just eject the machine and carry on.

The not so good

  • I’ve had a dual screen monitor setup for many years now, and I’ve always driven them with a dual DVI video card for maximum sharpness. The Ultrabase (in common with most other laptop docks[1]) doesn’t support two digital outputs, which means one slightly fuzzy screen on VGA.
    • The time may have come for me to change this setup. I have long lusted after a 30″ monitor, which would give me more pixels and screen real estate than my existing dual screens, but they’re really expensive. I could probably live (comfortably) with a 27″ screen at 2560×1440, but they too are pretty expensive, or at least they where. My brother was poking fun at my rig the other day, and pointed out that he’d kitted out the new Boss Alien office with Hazro 27″ screens. I’ve since notices that the superbly specified Dell U2711 is available for less than £500. Temptation beckons (and I could potentially get myself 27″ screens for home and work for around the same as a single 30″) – though Sod’s law probably means the moment I spend my money the bottom will completely drop out of the high end IPS market and these things will be £250 in no time.
  • The Ultrabase that I ordered was supposed to come with a DVD/CD-RW but in the end it didn’t. The DVD-RW that I would want to have is still more costly than I’d like, and my USB DVD[2] is fine for occasional use but annoying slow day to day (and doesn’t support burning).
  • I’m also used to having lots of local storage in my desktop, and laptop drives still top out at 1TB (and the one I have installed is only 500GB). In the short term I used the old desktop when I needed a fast optical drive and big storage, but since the whole point was to rid myself of the noise and heat I’ve bought another Microserver to take that role – more on that in a later post.
  • I found the interaction between sleep mode and the Ultrabase pretty flaky at first. The golden rule seems to be to ensure that the machine is active when ejecting from the docking station or putting it back in. I’ve also had to disable my keyboard and mouse from waking the machine up, as it seems to wake whether you touch them or not (it would kind of bounce awake again whenever I tried to use sleep).
    • I also had some frustration with my keyboard at first. I have an ancient PS2 keyboard, but I like it a lot. The Ultrabase doesn’t have PS2 connectors, but I’d previously bought a PS2-USB converter to use with my netbook at work. What I hadn’t realised was that the \ key didn’t work, which is apparently a common problem with UK keyboards and PS2-USB converters. Luckily Belkin make a converter that works properly, and I was able to find one for a few quid on eBay.

Overall

My laptop only life seems to be working out pretty well, and I can’t see myself rushing back to a desktop. The main issues are around screens and storage, and it looks like Apple have got this stuff sorted out with their adoption of Thunderbolt – let’s hope that other vendors jump on that bandwagon soon.
[1] I have the same problem with my HP dock at work
[2] Actually an X-Box360 HD-DVD drive that I once bought at the MS Employee store. Bad choice – they lost the war against Blu-ray and the one HD-DVD in my possession is the ‘King Kong’ that came with it.


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