Pitfalls of an Adventurous Laptop Purchase

Pitfall!_Coverart

I’ve gone through a lot of laptops in the last 15 years. A LOT. Today I have about 20 usable ones and a few for parts.

There’s a definite benefit to going with one of the big names. One is consistency of chargers. For Dell, for example, you can use the same charger from the newest E6530 all the way back to a D400. Thinkpads tend to have reverse compatibility over a long span as well.

And I really like removable batteries. The C6xx and C8xx series from Dell supported two modular bay batteries, one dedicated battery slot and one battery/drive hybrid, and you can swap one out without shutting down. On the larger C8xx series you could even have a fixed-bay optical drive and two batteries. The D830 has one standard battery, but like the C8xx you can pull the modular bay drive and put a battery in its place. I have three of those batteries, and the bulk battery charger for them even.

I’m also a big fan of high-resolution displays, from the 1600×1200 days (C840/I8200 in 2001-2002) to 1920×1200 (D830 in 2008ish?) to today’s 1920×1080. I’ve been willing to take a heavier laptop to get that screen real estate. Four ssh terminals at a time plus a browser or two and two IM clients is not uncommon for me.

But for my last laptop purchase, i decided to risk losing the consistent power supplies, the expandable power, and maybe even some of the display resolution… and consider an Ultrabook. Sure, I miss the quad-core 8-thread 16GB system, but I found I wasn’t doing much virtualization on the laptop. And I was starting to get sore shoulders from the laptop bag. So I scaled it back.

Introducing the ASUS Zenbook UX32VD

ux32vd-500-asusI ended up with the ASUS Zenbook UX32VD, which gave me a dual-core i7 Ivy Bridge processor, a 1920×1080 IPS display (13.3″, which took some getting used to) with discrete NVidia graphics in addition to onboard Intel graphics, USB3 and HDMI built in, and a pretty good battery life estimated at 4-5 hours. I went with Windows 7 since there’s no touchscreen on this model, and I didn’t want to bother with the “upgrade” just yet.

Most people who see it mistake it for a Macbook Air, until they see the color (more of a champagne than the plain brushed aluminum that Apple is fond of) and, of course, the ASUS name on the back. If they’d seen the price tag, they’d know it wasn’t an Apple device as well.

It had two additional features that were much harder to find on an Ultrabook, and those are easy RAM and disk upgrade options.  The factory configuration was 4GB of RAM (2GB onboard, 2GB SODIMM), and a 500GB 5400rpm hard drive (with 24GB iSSD to cache), which is probably more than most casual users need… but I want to run more than the bare minimum. In about 15 minutes or so, I upgraded to 10GB of RAM (via the Corsair Vengeance 1600MHz SODIMM) and a 500GB Samsung 840 SSD.

In terms of performance, I have no complaints. We’re talking instant-on sleep mode that goes into sleep in about 7 seconds, comes back in 2 seconds, and a full reboot for Windows 7 in under 10 seconds most of the time. Apps run fast, USB3 peripherals are snappy too, and I don’t dread Windows Update reboots anymore.

But the downside to this laptop was power expansion. There was no easy story for third party AC adapters or for external batteries. And as I’ve learned with my conference travel this year, you can’t count on easy access to outlets to plug in, or enough time between sessions to charge up.

First, the AC adapters

The stock ASUS AC adapter is pretty cool, a Macbook-adapter-sized wall brick (but in black, and with the Windows COA on the original one), and the tip that goes into the laptop snaps into place quite firmly and has an amber/green charge indicator light on it. But I had trouble finding a third party charger, and the ASUS one was selling for $60+ at the time.

I’ve been a fan of iGo’s universal adapters since the Juice, and have 3-4 of their Green line now (mostly because I keep misplacing the bits). There was no listed iGo tip for the Zenbook–the third machine I’ve found that iGo doesn’t support.

I tried an alternative model of ASUS charger for $15 off eBay, and it worked as long as I held the connector in place. It has a USB port for phone charging, like the iGo, so if it had worked it would’ve been great. But it didn’t have that snap or even the right fit.

AC Adapter: Problem Solved

It turns out that iGo’s 712 bit (which works with their green line of universal adapters) works pretty well with the UX32VD. It doesn’t snap in and doesn’t directly indicate charge (although the two higher-level iGo Green chargers will shut off automatically when there’s no more power draw, which is close enough). It does stay in under normal use, so it’s my usual travel option now. (Thanks to “mykie” on Notebook Review for confirming the tip almost a year ago… iGo was kind enough to not even respond to my inquiry about a tip for the laptop).

The stock adapter is now only $40 on Amazon, which is a nice price. I bought a spare to use at my desk at work.

Second, the batteries

I’ve had a Stiger external battery for a while (bought at Central Computers, who no longer carry or support them). This 7Ah  battery has interchangeable tips for everything from Dell’s old three prong connectors (Latitude C-series and the like) to fairly modern Dell, HP, IBM/Lenovo, etc. But no bit for my new ASUS.

And while Stiger seems impossible to find on the Internet, Central has dodged or ignored inquiries for a while now about this device (even though I bought the laptop and two of the batteries from them in the first place).

Battery Problem: Status TBD

hyperjuice-60wh-3I *think* I’ve found a solution, although it’s going to cost me at least $200 to try it out.

ASUS does have a car/airplane adapter for this laptop, and a company called Hyper has a line of Mac-centric batteries that include a 12V cigar plug adapter. In theory, these should go together, but in practice, the smallest HyperJuice is $170 for 60WHr (16Ah I believe).  So I’m looking at another $60 for the car adapter, $170 for the Hyperjuice, and several crossed appendages to hope that they work.

So where do we go from here?

Well, since I started writing this entry, I found that there’s an air/auto input cable for the iGo Green line, which should be under $20. I think this will be a nominally more sane way to get DC input for my existing power adapters. I also found the $40 “Laptop Travel Charger” which includes the DC cable, and is in stock at the Fry’s 3 blocks from work.  Remember what I said about lost tips?

And since Amazon carries the HyperJuice batteries, I may try one out once I get the DC cable for my power adapter. If it doesn’t work, it goes back. If it does work, we’ll have to see.

Since Hyper is local here in the Bay Area, I’m reaching out to them to see if they can part with an eval battery, or let me stop by their site with my adapter and laptop and try it out in person. If it is a viable option, I expect a few other PC users would consider an extra investment to have killer battery life even without the Apple logo on their screen back.

I’ll keep you all posted. Let me know if you have any ideas or success stories in the comments below.

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One thought on “Pitfalls of an Adventurous Laptop Purchase

  1. Pingback: In Praise Of @MicrosoftStore, or, To QHD And Back Again #rsts11 | rsts11 – Robert Novak on system administration

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