Last week, I was unfortunate enough to have my Asus UX31A laptop stolen from my apartment. Fortunately I use LUKS full disk encryption for all my machines, so I don’t need to worry much about data loss, but it’s still quite infuriating to be in this situation. I’m on call 24×7, and I need a reliable light-weight machine I can take with me anywhere so I can quickly react to production IaaS and application issues should they arise.
Previously I used a AMD E-350-based Sony Vaio laptop which I acquired in 2011 and upgraded the RAM to 8Gb and swapped out the HDD for an SSD. Unfortunately due to the lack of AES support, running LUKS on it was painful. Ultimately I reached the breaking point this year when my workplace required me to run more and more JS-heavy web apps such as Slack and Trello, and then asked me to log into Slack in the event of an outage to keep them updated. Previously I’d just fire up Pidgin and connect to the work-hosted XMPP service in just a few seconds, but Slack (even with a dedicated client such as ScudCloud) would take longer to load and connect than the entire time it took to boot the laptop to the desktop – all the while making the machine too slow to do anything else! Ridiculous! But perhaps that’s a topic for another post.
For a time I was considering the MSI GS30 Shadow, but ultimately my spouse decided to hand me down the UX31A which otherwise wasn’t getting much use. With that stolen, and the AMD E-350 too slow, I found myself once again in the market for a new laptop – only without much of a budget since it wasn’t something I was planning for. :/
You have probably inferred from the title of this post that I eventually decided on the HP 14-AF113AU, so I’ll detail how I came to that conclusion. My priorities were (roughly in order):
1. Works well with free software, such as GNU/Linux.
2. Lightweight. I need to carry this with me anywhere and everywhere. If I go to the supermarket, it’s in my backpack. If I use it to work, I’m carrying it in my bike pannier.
3. No bigger than 14″. It’s unlikely anything bigger than that would fit in my bike pannier, and I didn’t want to risk it.
4. CPU power (preferably 4 cores). Must have extensions for AES support, as the lack of AES was one of the reasons my AMD E-350 was so slow. I wasn’t about to make that mistake again.
5. Cheap! I was hoping for something under AU$500. I could probably have stretched this to $600 if there was a significant advantage in doing so, but under $500 was the goal.
6. Upgradeable RAM, storage, wireless.
7. Screen resolution.
8. Bluetooth. I generally tether to my phone in case of emergencies when I’m out, and Bluetooth is my preferred way to do that. It uses less power than Wifi, which is important if I don’t have a spare charger with me. A lot of wireless headphones also rely on Bluetooth these days, and I hate needing to use dongles.
9. USB 3. USB 2 is just too slow when transferring data to external SSD devices.
10. At least 3 USB ports. It wouldn’t matter much for use on the go, but having an external keyboard, mouse and room for at at least one USB drive would be ideal.
11. Gigabit Ethernet, with the RJ-45 port built-in (as opposed to a USB dongle). As an administrator, I have to troubleshoot patch Ethernet cabling every now and then, and having to bring a set of dongles everywhere just in case proved to be one of the major annoyances of the UX31A.
12. Taiwanese brand. American branded machines have a tendency to be dumbed down to the point of being useless – particularly in the BIOS. Contrast that to MSY, Asus, Gigabyte, etc and you’ve have a plethora of options and features. American brands also in my option/experience (especially Dell) seem to have a greater tendency to rely on Windows software to make the hardware work or to install firmware upgrades – an issue I’ve yet to run into with Taiwanese branded hardware. Last but not least, American brands have a tendency to require same-brand or approved hardware for compatibility. This includes memory modules (Apple), wireless cards (HP), etc. Taiwanese brands never pull that crap – at least not that I’ve ever encountered.
Things I didn’t want to deal with included:
1. Dead or stuck pixels.
2. Low resolution.
3. Dongles to connect to an external monitor.
4. Ordering hardware. I wanted something I could grab off the shelf at a local store, since I wanted something immediately and I don’t trust items posted to me directly. We know the NSA (for example) intercepts computer hardware and install bugs that are heat-injected into the plastic (making it hard to spot even if disassembled and you know what to look for), so my policy is to only purchase hardware that I can buy off the shelf with no advanced notice. It has the added bonus of supporting local businesses.
Things I didn’t care about included:
1. Size. As long as the laptop fits in my backpack and bike pannier and is easy to carry and lightweight, the laptop could be 7″ for all I cared.
2. The operating system. I was going to replace it with Debian GNU/Linux or something anyway. Obviously it would be best to not be paying for something I wasn’t going to use.
3. Optical drives. I’d likely never need to use one, the main exception being the occasional blu-ray disc (which I likely wouldn’t get for the price range I was looking at). An internal drive would unnecessarily add weight.
4. The hard drive size (assuming it was replaceable). For the price I wasn’t expecting an SSD, and the plan was to pull the SSD out of my old Sony E-350 if possible.
All things considered, this HP model did reasonably well at meeting my requirements. It’s just under 2kg (and 2kg is where I draw the line). I’d rather not it not have an optical drive and be ~300g less, but I decided it to be acceptable. Interestingly, lighter laptops seem to be either very cheap (and too weak to be much of an upgrade over the E-350), or quite expensive.
As mentioned, I care more about screen resolution than screen size (provided the screen is no bigger than 14″). Sadly the HP only has a resolution of 1366×768, and this is very hard to deal with to be honest. Having gotten quite used to the 1920×1080 resolution of the UX31A (which has a smaller 13.3″ panel), the HP screen looks absolutely awful. Unfortunately, the sales guy said FHD laptop resolutions only started at around the AU$1300 price bracket, which was more than double what I could possibly spend. It’s doubly unfortunate that the screen is glossy, and I’d much prefer a matte finish. I don’t need a mirror for a screen!
JB Hi-Fi advertises an asking price of $498, however I was able to get the sales guy to bring that down a bit to $484. That probably made this the cheapest quad-core laptop of those that are upgradeable. How did I know it was upgradeable? The mechanical HDD is generally a dead giveaway. Sure the sales guy said it couldn’t be upgraded due to not having a back panel section that could be unscrewed, but I suspected I could still do it by disassembling the entire thing – and I was right! As an aside, I was also pleasantly surprised to find a second empty RAM slot – potentially allowing me to upgrade from 4Gb to 16Gb!
The sales guy informed me that this had Gigabit Ethernet, but it doesn’t. Based on the output of the lspci command, it uses a RTL8101E/RTL8102E PCI Express Fast Ethernet controller. Not a deal-breaker, but quite disappointing. There’s no excuse for not having Gigabit on even the cheapest of laptops – if you’re going to add a RJ-45 Ethernet port anyway, make it useful please! As it stands, the 802.11n wireless is probably faster in general – although that remains to be seen.
The AF113AU does have a USB 3 port, and two USB 2 ports. It’s disappointing that all ports aren’t USB 3, as one has to remember which port is which. Unfortunately HP decided not to bother following convention by marking that port blue, so I had to look through the manual to figure it out.
I failed to get a Taiwanese brand such as Asus or Gigabyte, but hopefully HP doesn’t give me too much trouble. Perhaps the days of HP white-listing wireless cards are over? I’ll probably find out eventually, as the module included uses a Broadcom BCM43142 802.11b/g/n chipset – quite painful to setup. See here for a peek at a guide, but basically it appears to require non-free heavily-restricted firmware to function. The firmware is not freely distributed, so you need to use a script to download a file and extract the firmware files. Ugh! Unfortunately I know of no wireless/bluetooth combo module that’s 100% free software friendly, and I need Bluetooth to tether to my phone during emergencies.
I was lucky to have no dead or stuck pixels on this machine. I say “lucky” because apparently you need at least 3 stuck pixels before you are eligible to return the laptop under warranty, and I was not given the option to inspect the screen before purchase.
The machine requires no dongles to operate. All supported video and data connectors are built-in, which is ideal. I would rather have a laptop that’s 5mm wider and not require dongles do connect everything. It’s also surprising that the machine has a built-in DVD burner. This is absent in the product page image. The drive can easily be replaced with something else (such as a blue-ray drive or an empty caddy) by undoing a single screw and sliding the drive out, however one would have to research which drives would be compatible with the slot.
Another surprise was the size of the 500G Seagate HDD – the thinnest I’ve seen to date. The Corsair Force 3 SSD I replaced it with is about 1 or maybe 2 mm taller, but fortunately still fits (just).
Being an A4-5000 APU, the laptop sports Radeon HD 8330 graphics (which uses the radeonsi Mesa driver) and should offer reasonable performance for the price. So I find it odd that the machine doesn’t have an AMD logo on it anywhere. All Intel machines in the store seemed to have an Intel logo – including machines that weren’t an Atom/i3/i5/i7. It’s as if HP was ashamed of the APU in this cheap laptop, but there’s no reason for it that I can immediately see. Perhaps it doesn’t run Windows 10 (which it came with) so great? Weird.
Well, I wouldn’t know anyway – I swapped the HDDs before I ever booted the 500Gb. Then I backed up the perfectly clean factory default image to an external backup drive, which I’ll later compress, split and burn it to a set of DVDs – good to restore to its original state if ever I need to return the machine under warranty. I’ve been following this same procedure for my last few laptop purchases. Finally I wiped the 500Gb drive and put it into my old Sony (as perhaps one day I’ll find a use for it).
The keyboard is surprisingly nice to type on, with good feedback that a key has registered. Normally I use mechanical keyboards which are amazing, but the HP keyboard wasn’t too bad for what it is. Home/End/Page Up/Page Down/Insert/Delete/Print Screen are all dedicated keys, with fn shortcuts being reserved for non-standard keys such as multimedia buttons, backlight and volume adjustments and wireless and external monitor toggle switches. I feel this was a wise move by the people at HP, as it was always annoying on other machines having to remember the correct fn+button key combinations to navigate documents (for example). One thing I didn’t like about the keyboard was the decision to make the up/down navigation keys half-size, and the left/right keys full size. This just feels weird, unnatural, and I keep pressing the wrong buttons. HP had plenty of space to make all of the buttons full-size if they wanted to, but it feels like they took a page from Apple’s play-book and decided on aesthetics over practicality (but even Apple makes the arrow keys consistent at half-size at least!).
While I’ve yet to test the SD card reader, HDMI and VGA outputs, optical drive and webcam, everything seems to be working (with a bit of effort in the case of the Broadcom wireless chipset) and I’m reasonably satisfied. If the wireless chipset didn’t need such a horrible proprietary firmware blob, the Ethernet was Gigabit, the optical drive was blu-ray (or otherwise didn’t exist), the laptop was easier to upgrade and the screen was slightly better… oh and obviously if GNU/Linux was an option (or at least if Windows was optional)… this would be one really neat machine. But it’s not horrible. Despite the flaws, I’m at least impressed with the price. I may write a review after I’ve used it for a while and put it through its paces.