Monday, April 8, 2013

My new Dell laptop and Windows 8. So far.

So after my old Acer finally died, I set out in search of a shiny new laptop. Now firstly let me say that finding a 17 inch laptop is not nearly as easy as it used to be 4 or 5 years ago. Laptops look to be getting smaller, while desktop displays get bigger... but for those of us who need to be mobile, don't want both a desktop AND a laptop, and also need a big screen in order to design properly, the 17 inch is, in my opinion, still the best option. Albeit a pricey one.

After spending a full day trekking through every computer store in Durban (PC Zone weirdly had no laptops at all!), I found only two 17 inch laptops within my budget, but neither of them were that great. They were both running on the i15 processor thingie (which apparently is less awesome than the newer i17) , the graphics cards and resolutions were average, and they were all plastic and no soul. So in the end, and after a bit of self-justifying, I more or less doubled my budget in order to afford the next best thing.
The Dell inspiron 17R (5721) i17.

Now after spending half of what my car is worth on a little portable computer, I was kind of expecting... stuff to work. But no. Turns out almost nothing works... with Windows 8. Yet. My new Vodacom USB modem being one device that fails miserably. And my new Dell laptop, being the other. Hmpf.

So, after just day 3 of owning the new bank-breaker, here are some of the things that have raised my blood pressure a little already:

1. The Dell Backup and Recovery App just plain does not work. When you buy the machine you are told to create your recovery disk before you do anything else. This basically creates a mirror image of your system, with all it's factory setting, so that you can restore it as new should something go horribly wrong. The app writes the first disk successfully and then just kicks out the second disk without telling you anything more. Some Googling revealed it to be a known Dell issue, without solution, and with many irate customers. So I got on the phone to Dell support and after nearly an hour on the phone, they told me it is a known issue with Windows 8 and there is no solution as yet (duh, I already knew that) but that they will post me the Recovery disks.  In other words, they have not updated/tested/fixed their Dell app in order for it to be compatible with the very operating system that they are selling the machine (and the app) with. Disappointing.

This app, she is broken. Phone Dell and ask them to send you the recovery disks.

2. Windows 8 is a pain in the butt. Nuff said.  No really, it requires a ton of customisation to be even remotely efficient. Why did they put this on my machine?! It breaks everything, and it sucks. And every time I try to use my scroll bar, the 'charms' jump out at me instead. More like curses than charms. Can I have Windows 7 rather? Or even XP will do nicely please.

I will probably get used to Windows 8 and eat my words one day, but right now it is wasting my time and making me a little angry.

Windows 8 Start page which replaces your old Start menu. This is mine after a  lot
of customisation. All the default crap has been moved off-screen to the right. Note the self-made Shutdown button (top left) that needs to be added if you want to shutdown with any ease. Don't get me started on the dismal  task bar. (The Search function in is quite cool though. You just type anywhere on this page and it finds stuff.)

3. The trackpad is... um... less than ideal. The minute you try to use any Adobe programs such as Illustrator or Photoshop (which is the whole reason you spent so much money in the first place) you will find that your space bar shortcut to grab and move the page around, does not work. This is apparently because you are pressing your space bar and using your trackpad at the same time, and there is a default setting in a bunch of Dell laptops that automatically disables the trackpad when using any keys... ostensibly so that your palm does not hit the pad and move things around while you are typing.

So you need to go and disable this in order to use your Adobe software properly (ie, uncheck "switch palm rejection on" in your touch pad settings) . But wait, disabling this does not work unless you first download and installed the new Synaptic drivers for Windows 8 and spend another half an hour on the phone with Dell support, who occasionally cut you off so you have to call back and start all over again. FYI, gamers will also need to disable this default setting or they wont be able to play their games properly either.

1. Install the latest Synaptic Touchpad Driver from Dell website, 2. On the Start page, type "Mouse" > Open "Mouse" > Click on "Dell touchpad" tab > Click on "Click to change Dell Touchpad settings > Uncheck "Palm Rejection Turn On"

Now, once that works as it should, (Yay!) you will find that whenever you type anything (like this blog post for instance) you will quite regularly find yourself typing in random places in your text midway between sentences from two paragraphs up; because now when you palm touches the trackpad the curser jumps all over the place! Thus the default setting which you just unchecked. It seems to me to be poor design and positioning of the trackpad, as I have never ever had problems with my palm moving the cursor while I am typing on any other machine, ever. I am hoping it will be a case of subconsciously learning, over time, through trial and error, where/how to keep my palm away from the trackpad while typing. Humans are smart like that.

What else?

Well, this isn't really a Dell or Windows 8 fault, but still worth mentioning:

A higher resolution screen will make everything smaller. I am embarrassed to admit that I did not think this through beforehand and was somewhat surprised and put out when I found that every web page was about half the size of 'normal' and that text and icons are now teeny tiny everywhere I look. Instead, I thought that a higher resolution screen would be better for my ever diminishing eyesight. Wrong.

And this is why:
Resolution is pixel dependent. So a 17 inch screen with a higher resolution will have more pixels fitted into that screen than a lower resolution 17 inch screen which has less pixels in the same amount of space. And since the screens are the same physical size, the greater number of pixels in the high res screen need to be smaller in order to fit more of them in. Huh? Yes, just like that. Higher resolution equals more and smaller pixels on an identical size screen.

Ok, now think of an image which is 50x50 pixels in size. On the higher resolution screen the image must appear smaller as the pixels are smaller! Penny drops. The same applies to text which is defined by pixel size. Higher resolution equals more and smaller pixels on an identical size screen and thus content with specific pixel dimensions will look smaller.

It's obvious when you think about it, but in reality, how does a higher resolution then help me? What's the point? Well, I would say, it helps when you are designing with vector artwork (pixel independent), or watching high def videos, or playing fancy video games, or editing high res photos. Then things look fantastic.  And if you have great eyesight and can easily read the smaller text, the you have loads more screen real estate at your disposal, so you can now see 200 gmail messages at  once instead of just 100, and when using your design software you have loads of space for the tools and palettes, or even a whole other window of stuff going on next to what you are working on. But if you don't have great eyesight, you're screwed!

No actually you're not.

There is a way around it. Simply change the zoom level of your browser like this. Easy peasy. Just a bunch more customisation, loads of Googling and a little cursing.

Before:  at 100% zoom. tiny web page.

After:  set at 125% zoom. looks like 'normal' size web page now.

It may not sound like it, but  I do in fact like my new machine. I like the round corners and sturdy metallic housing, I like the quiet hum of the fan that doesn't sound like it's trying to escape and fly away, I like that it reboots really quickly, and I like that Dell support is just a phone call away and will rock up at my door tomorrow if they need to. I like that my screen is non-reflective and I can now meet client's at an outdoor coffee shop and we'll still be able to see their website as the sun sets behind us. I like that the machine doesn't get scorching hot and roast my lap. I like that the battery lasts longer than expected, and I like that the colour contrast is fantastic; you can actually see the difference between a 78% and an 80%  intensity of colour swatch. I like that I have a massive 1TB hard drive and 8GB RAM (take that Indesign!). And I like that this thing is new. New stuff is always cool.

A few days after writing this post the fan suddenly got very noisy and very obviously had a problem. I called Dell Support again and was told to download this BIOS update:  The fan quietened down slightly after running it, but was still making a scratchy/scrapy noise and was still loud, so they sent out a technician to install a new fan. In my 10 day old laptop.

Turns out there was a small piece of paper from the factory which was caught in the fan.

Long story short, after new fan installed and BIOS updated the fan is much much quieter. Almost inaudible in fact. Quieter than when I first turned the machine on, before the fan got loud. It's lovely. So although there was in fact a fault with my machine, the BIOS update is necessary as well and I would recommend you install it asap if you have the same laptop.


Brandon Hudson said...

I like your style of writing. You break it down nicely. Very informative post. Keep up the good work.

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Brandon Hudson said...

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Brandon Hudson said...

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Cordia Remsen said...

Windows 8 does take a lot getting used to. At least that's the case with me. I guess I've been using Windows 7 for a long time and thought it was the best version of Windows so it was hard for me to adjust when Microsoft released a new version.

Cordia Remsen @