IT Departments Hate Laptops

On Slashdot today there was an article from Computer World entitled 10 Things We Hate About Laptops. As I was reading it, I couldn’t believe some of the things being said. I’ve used laptops for a while, though I’ve never had to support them for other people. However, I found much of what was said to either be fallacious or misleading.

Granted, I’ve been using a Macbook Pro for several weeks now and it eliminates many of the problems addressed in the article, especially the ones that are caused by Windows. However, prior the the Macbook I was using a 5 years old Sony laptop that I installed Linux on a year or two ago; obviously it had Windows on it for quite a while before that. Even installing Linux on it fixed a lot of the issues caused by using Windows (except for power management; Linux still has issues with laptop hibernation and sleeping).

So, I’d like to provide my own answers to the 10 issues discussed in the article. I may not have the best answer in every case but I hope to at least provide a reasonable rebuttal.

Battery life

Battery life has long been the Achilles heel of laptops, and even though battery life in newer models can now top four hours, it’s not enough for mobile users and the IT pros who service them. Not nearly.

The battery life on my Sony was not more than an hour and a half, if I was lucky. If I used my CD drive or wireless card, then it was usually less than 45 minutes. For people to complain about 4 hours of battery time, try using old tech.

If you turn down the screen backlight and configure it for maximum battery life, you laptop should last half the day before you need to plug it in. Are you really going to be using it for that long when you aren’t near a wall outlet? If it’s really that big of a deal, spend the money and get a small solar panel to charge it when you aren’t near a socket. And don’t forget to put the thing to sleep when you aren’t using it. Even airlines provide outlets on the seats for laptop users. I don’t know if it’s just the business class section that has them but they do exist. If your laptop isn’t lasting for a cross-country flight, turn it off and read a book. You don’t have to be on it all the bloody time.

For those people who complain about not having the right power cord, figure it out. A smart IT department would put a couple Velcro straps on the cord and the laptop so they stay together. And when the laptops aren’t being used, hook them up so they’re always charged.

Laptops get damaged

The No. 1 place laptops get damaged is on airplanes, according to our highly informal survey of support managers. That guy in front stretches out, jams the tray table down and smashes the nice new laptop in the process.

Well, duh! Anything portable (and many things that aren’t) will get damaged with use and abuse. Much of the damage discussed in the article can be avoided by simply being smart:

  1. Wait until the guy in front of you on the plane is comfortable before whipping out your computer. Consider informing him that you have a laptop out and could he please let you know when he’s going to adjust the chair. Or just don’t open the blasted thing on the plane. If you have work to do, maybe you should have done it before you got to the airport.
  2. Since people are forgetful by nature, consider investing in the more expensive laptop cases that are armored or at least made of luggage quality materials. If you’re not going to have the computer with you as carry-on baggage, you better make darn sure that it will survive the trip through baggage handling. It’s an item worth several thousand dollars to the company or yourself; I think a couple hundred for a sturdy case is a small bit of insurance.
  3. If you’re a klutz, don’t eat or drink around your computer. That should apply to everything, not just laptops. If you insist on it (or just want added protection), then buy a laptop keyboard “skin” that puts a silicone overlay on the keyboard. That should keep crumbs and spills from damaging your computer.

Laptops have a short life span

Laptops last, on average, three to four years as compared to the healthier four to five years of the average desktop, according to IDC. Even worse, anecdotal evidence indicates many truly mobile laptops never make it past the two-to-three-year mark.

Not only do laptops live shorter (and more difficult) lives than desktops, they definitely go down fighting — which is to say they give IT departments a much harder time when it comes to upgrades and repairs.

Well, that’s the price you pay for what’s essentially proprietary technology, especially portable technology. Things nowadays simply aren’t made to last. It could be planned obsolescence, cheaper parts, or our disposable society but very few things are really made to be repaired anymore. With electronics, it’s usually cheaper and easier to just buy a new item rather than replace it. It’s not like they’re appliances where you can replace a belt or gasket and keep on truckin’ for another 5 years.

Laptops are historically harder to maintain because they are packing many of the same parts of a desktop system but in a smaller space. Heat is a killer for electronics. For laptops, there’s really no where for the heat to go. I know my Macbook gets extremely hot when I play games or use it for several hours; I have to use a laptop cooler to keep the heat levels manageable. Even then the CPU heat can stay between 50-60 degrees Celsius.

Laptops don’t have the lifespan of desktop systems. Realize it, plan for it, and deal with it.

Laptops get lost

Again, another duh. Anything portable can get lost or stolen. If I take my laptop out of the house, it stays in my backpack when it’s not in use. The backpack is then either on my back, in my trunk, or at least in my sight. That way there’s a minimal chance of it getting lost or stolen. I haven’t invested in a laptop cable for it but I probably will when I move. I haven’t decided whether the Laptop Lo-Jack is worth getting but it’s another option.

They’re hard to secure, physically and digitally

Whether they’re being hacked while using an insecure public Wi-Fi connection or being stolen from the airport men’s room, laptops are vulnerable to theft in ways their deskbound cousins never are.

As I just said, my laptop is always with me when I’m not at home. If you are using it in public, keep it with you. If you’re leaving your table to get a refill, either take it with you or make sure you have a cable lock on it. Oh, and make sure the cable lock is attached to an immovable object. I’ve seen people wrap it around a table leg thinking it’s secure. How hard is it to pull up the table leg and slide the cable off?

Shoulder surfing is supposed to be a big deal. Perhaps it is. But if you’re concerned about it, buy a privacy shield. It prevents people from viewing the screen unless they are directly in front of it. Also, sit with your back to a wall or at least in a position where you can see if someone is trying to look at your screen.

Logging into unknown WiFi connections is a risk you can choose not to take. If you do risk it, then be smart about it. Use VPN connections to your office, use SSL for everything, and do the best you can to ensure you’re actually logging into the hotspot you think you are. There are stories of people setting up login pages that look like the ones Starbucks uses, so people can steal your information. Make sure you’re accessing the connection you think you should be.

And don’t do anything important when you’re in public. That means don’t check your bank account or similar things when you aren’t sure of the connection. Don’t forget to have a non-dictionary password; if you can’t remember a bunch of different passwords, get a password keeper that encrypts the passwords you put in it.

Users hate security

It all comes down this plaintive cry: “Why can’t I connect?” Or perhaps the better question is, why isn’t it easier to connect? Between passwords, screen locks, complicated procedures to log onto virtual private networks and the risk of getting booted off an “insecure” Wi-Fi connection, well, it’s not always easy for users to get online just anywhere.

Suck it up and force people to do it. And don’t compromise security just because the CEO is complaining. If he’s truly competent in his job, he’ll understand why the security measures are in place and be willing to use them.

However, that doesn’t mean you have to be stupid about security. Think about the policies and technology you use and consider whether they actually make things more secure or just allow people to think they are secure. WTF.com has a great article covering “two-factor authentication”, basically saying that companies are lulled into thinking a password and security question really provides secure access.

Security can work but when people are finding ways to get around it to do their jobs, then you might as well not have any.

WiFi is a pain

The challenge of configuring laptops for wireless connectivity, and keeping them up to date, is probably the single biggest nightmare IT professionals face daily, they say.

Yes, but the benefits definitely outweigh the costs. Personally, I don’t have a problem with WiFi, especially with my Mac-only setup at home. And granted, I don’t have to deal with WiFi security for a whole company but I don’t see how difficult it is; how difficult is it to set up WPA on a laptop, especially if you use something like Linksys that has it’s “push the button and go” setup?

“Air cards” (a term from the article) aren’t that tricky, in my experience. They either work or they don’t, from a hardware perspective. If they work, then it’s just a matter of configuring the OS to recognize and use them. If you aren’t using Windows, i.e. Mac or Linux, then it’s a piece of cake. With Linux the hard part was getting the ndiswrapper application to recognize the card but, unless you’re using a USB antennae, many Linux distros can autodetect the WiFi adapter. Obviously Mac has the built-in Airport card so it’s just a matter of enabling Airport in the OS (it’s “on” by default).

Basically for this item, I just don’t see what the problem is.

Laptop users feel entitled

Fay really hates the fact that his users watch TV. Those glossy ads of people effortlessly using laptops in a diner, or on a mountaintop or while driving, all give his users ideas. Bad ideas. Ideas that make them expect that they can be online anywhere and everywhere.

A lot of this comes down to setting reasonable policies and enforcing the rules. The company’s IT department isn’t required to do anything outside of the company. So if someone can’t access YouTube from a friend’s house, it’s really not an IT problem. If the person is using a company laptop for personal use, they’re probably violating a “Terms of Use” agreement.  People need to be reminded about appropriate use and security concerns. If they don’t like it or can’t abide by it, then let them see if their next job is any better.

Laptop sizes are all wrong

Not much you can do about this. People like having desktop screen sizes but they want a computer no bigger than a book. It’s just not going to happen any time soon; as soon as flexible displays are a reality, then you can get a laptop with a 42″ screen if you want. Until then you have to take what’s on the market.

Though I have a 15″ laptop now, I actually think the 13″ size is better for portability. I like the 15″ because of the better resolution and larger real estate for programs but it’s not quite perfect for carrying around. It works best for parking on a table and working from there, though it’s still small enough to actually use on my lap. Anything 17″ or bigger is just a desktop replacement and should be used as an easily movable desktop, more like a Shuttle desktop than a true laptop.

I don’t like using touchpads but they are better than the little erasers on IBM’s Thinkpads. One, I think they are too sensitive to movement. Two, they’re awkward to use (why do you think they started adding touchpads to the same computer?). Three, they have a tendency to push into the LCD making a permanent imprint.

Personally, I use a Logitech Trackman instead of a mouse for most of my computing. I have one for my laptop and use it most of the time. Some people don’t like using a mouse with a laptop but then they don’t like using the touchpad. Well, it’s either one or the other. Mice are getting pretty small so there’s really no reason not to carry one in your laptop bag.

For the complaint of “fat fingering” the laptop’s keyboard, either deal with it or carry an external keyboard. Again, you have to work within the limits of the device so unless you want a 17″ laptop or bigger, you’re going to have to get used to a cramped keyboard.

Performance is worse compared to desktops

Well, yeah. You can’t have desktop components in a laptop and still have a reasonably portable device with a usable battery life. If you want a true “desktop replacement”, then buy an Alienware system. Just don’t expect to use it away from a power outlet. Their systems use a lot of desktop parts, especially CPUs, but then the high power demands suck all the juice from the battery. If you want an actual laptop then you have to be willing to sacrifice performance. Obviously you get better performance when connected to an outlet because you aren’t relying solely on the battery.

Regarding the multitasking issue, I can’t say I’ve found it to be a big problem. Granted, Mac and Linux seem to be better about application management than Windows but not everyone is willing to change. But I’ve have several applications running at the same time and not had serious problems, especially with systems nowadays. Right now the only time I get a performance hit is when I’m using a virtual machine to run Linux or Windows at the same time I’m writing a term paper in OS X, but that hit usually applies to the virtual OS, not the Mac side.

Drivers are another issue you run into. However, much of that is simply due to Windows. In my experience (apart from wireless drivers in Linux), both Macs and Linux systems “just work” when it comes to devices. They don’t normally require installing new drivers because they either use generic, open-source drivers or they have a larger device driver library than Windows.

So,  that’s my rebuttal to Computer World. Most of the issues seem to be non-issues to me, but then I don’t have to support laptops in an IT setting. I’m sure there’s issues I’m not aware of. But, working in the military and at a federal installation, I can say that a lot of the problems (at least here) seem to be caused by IT itself rather than the technology. People just have to use a little more common sense when it comes to implementing these things. It also helps when management is staffed by techies rather than business majors; even then, they need to maintain tabs on the tech world rather than sit on their laurels after promotion.

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One Response to IT Departments Hate Laptops

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