A History of Laptops

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A laptop sandwich: From bottom left, iBook, MacBook, MacBook Air.

To date, I have owned four Mac laptops, more or less. The first, back in my college days, was a Powerbook 145, which came with a black-and-white screen, a floppy drive and 2MB of RAM. From the privileged vantage point of the present day, it would seem unbearably clunky, heavy and underpowered, but at the time it was a revelation. I’d been using Macs for a few years, but to own one that I could throw into a bag and carry over one shoulder? Genius. (Mind you, my un-ergonomic habits with this laptop probably contributed significantly to a tendency to stoop and lean to one side that persisted for years.)

The one major drawback of the 145 was one that plagued most laptops of the time and would continue to do so for years: reliability. It didn’t last me more than a few years before it broke down to the point where repairing cost as much as replacement. Since I didn’t have the coin to do either, I passed out of the realm of Mac laptop-dom for several years, reverting to a desktop iMac when I finally got a job and could afford a machine of my own.

When I finally got my hands on a Mac laptop again, about ten years ago, it was in the form of a 12-inch white iBook. (The bottom layer of the laptop sandwich above.) With a PowerPC G3 CPU, an unheard of 128MB of RAM and a combo CD/DVD drive, it was a major step up in every way. The 12-inch form factor made it all the more appealing, as it was far easier to carry than the by-then lost in the mists of time 145. It was a lot more robust too, and it suffered its fair share of battering as it accompanied me for several years. However, it had one fatal flaw: a logic board issue that broke the connection between the computer and its screen. As before, the cost of repair rose too high, and the iBook was banished to a cupboard as I returned to the world of the desktop.

Five years ago, I took another shot at the Mac laptop scene, this time in the form of a 13-inch polycarbonate MacBook. (The middle machine above.) Like the iBook, it was white and plastic, but it raised the solidity factor a few notches, and despite the fact that it had a larger, 13-inch screen, it felt sleeker and lighter to carry. Despite the plastic shell’s tendency to fray at the edges (and the fact that the first iteration of this laptop was stolen by an absconding flatmate when only a couple of months old), it was by a long distance the most robust laptop I’d ever used. In five years, the only problems it suffered were a few hard drive glitches that eventually ironed themselves out.

However, five years is a long time in computing, and the MacBook has been struggling with newer software for a while. So the time came last month to put it out to pasture and move on. Where to? To a MacBook Air, leaving behind the world of polycarbonate in favour of an aluminium unibody. This leap shouldn’t be understated. The screen is a mere 11 inches yet bright and pin-sharp, and the laptop itself is so thin and light that the first time it was in my shoulder bag, I had to resist the urge to check whether it was there.

For all that, it feels amazingly robust. For someone who is used to thinking of computers as circuit boards wrapped in a plastic shell, this feels like a solid lump of computing ability. Apple gets a lot of grief for making machines that users are never supposed to delve into or alter, but the tradeoff is clear: this has been engineered to within an inch of its life, and picking out a flaw is very hard to do. The leading edges are so thin that the thought of attaching the Air to an axe-haft and using it to split wood isn’t completely ridiculous. The sound that the lid makes when it closes is redolent of solidity in much the same way as the sound of a high-end car door closing.

No doubt I’m still in the afterglow of an encounter with the new shiny. It’s happened before. There may yet be flaws that time will reveal. At the moment, all that occurs to me is the fact that my hands are a little large and come into contact with those sharp case edges when I type a little too often. A case may be needed, but for once it’ll be for my protection more than it will be for the machine’s.

June Book Reviews

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A slice of bookshelf, from Malory to Moore

Another month that seemed to be heading down a quiet path as far as book reading went was turned around by a lazy weekend at the parents’ place, which allowed me to polish off three titles. I guess there’s something to be said for having a few days where you attempt to merge with the couch through osmosis…

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Night of Knives, Ian C. Esselmont: A stand-alone story set in the world of Steven Erikson’s “Malazan” tales, this is almost as dense in terms of detail as that series, which is to be expected coming from the setting’s co-creator. Set over the course of a single night, it provides a meaningful chunk of backstory to Erikson’s opus, and as a result is probably required reading for diehard fans of the Malazan books. However, it’s not quite as wild and baroque as the series it springs from, and in the course of a single book it cannot explain all the elements of the world that it draws upon, leaving it solely for fans, perhaps.

At Swim Two Birds, Flann O’Brien: Irish myth and folklore twist together with the bluster and verbosity of Irish pub conversation in a surreal, multi-level narrative. Telling multiple stories at various levels, vaguely centered around an author trying to wrangle his recalcitrant creations, it’s filled to the brim with poetically wordy digressions and strange depictions of the wild and the weird of the tiny green island it sprang from. Deeply erudite, constantly playful and Irish in a way that few other books are, even as it launches volley after volley of affectionate digs at the cliches of Irishness, this is a book that demands a lot of the reader but packs more than enough in to reward (if not require) multiple readings.

Girlfriend in a Coma, Douglas Coupland: The title of the book is the kicking-off point for a meditation on the meaning of life, mediated through the experiences of five friends and the few others who come to share their lives as they face the banal apocalypse of adulthood. There’s a vein of weirdness running through the book that comes to overwhelm it towards the end, but the author keeps a careful eye on the point he’s making, and even amid the strangest occurrences the characters remain true to themselves, if not necessarily true to life. Some readers won’t like the overly preachy tone of the last few chapters, but this is a thoughtful book, casting a jaundiced eye over the modern world and comparing its meaningless pursuit of prosperity to a wasted maturity after the promise of childhood.

Last Argument of Kings, Joe Abercrombie: The First Law series of books comes to an end in suitably bloody, ambiguous fashion, with deaths aplenty and destiny revealed to be the inevitable result of choices made by the person affected and those who’ve treated them as pawns. Fittingly, there’s a real sense of returning to where the story began, even as all the secrets and lies laid down before are exposed, leading to results that are all the more satisfying for being unexpected. Joe Abercrombie spots the landing perfectly, even taking the time to have a dig at the fantasy genre and provide plenty of skewed humour amid the blood and gore.

Snuff, Terry Pratchett: At this stage in the author’s career and his long-running Discworld series, there’s a real comfort in revisiting a very familiar setting, but this is Pratchett, and underneath the comfort there’s the steel point of an author who still has things to say. The humour in the newest tale of Sam Vimes, policeman to the bone no matter how high he rises in society, is obvious here, cutting there, but it wouldn’t matter a damn if it weren’t as well-constructed a story as ever, populated by characters who always remain just the right side of caricature. The writing isn’t as sharp as it once was, and the Discworld series has moved far beyond its knockabout roots to warmly told tales of injustice thwarted, but so long as Pratchett keeps issuing invitations to this unique world, I for one will continue to visit.

Dry, Augusten Burroughs: The memoir of an alcoholic trying to go sober in the face of a life that seems to be doing its best to drive him to drink, this is an occasionally hilarious but mostly scouring look into the mind of an addict. An ad exec in New York, Burroughs is at his funniest before he’s forced into rehab, an experience that leads him to confront the reasons for his behaviour and learn whether or not he’s capable of going dry. The degree of self examination can be wearying at times, but there’s no self pity to be found here, just an self awareness that’s at times completely raw.