Seven Heaven, or Wait for Eight?

There's lots of comment at the moment about the "post-PC age". Seemingly everyone will just use some Internet tablet or device that installs the O/S and applications from the cloud, keeps all of the data in the cloud, and uses only services running in the cloud. No need for a fast processor, hard drive, or tons of memory because it's just a web browser and display for applications running somewhere else. The thin client for the 21st century.

However plenty of people dispute this assertion, citing the need to run powerful and complicated applications and to store data locally. And, of course, to maintain control. If your whole life is held by some huge and faceless cloud-based corporation (not mentioning any names), what happens when they accidently lose your account? Or decide you are no longer welcome and remove you from their system? Supposedly it's already happened to people who have made some unwelcome comment about their provider, or been mistakenly charged with being a hacker and forcibly ejected.

For most of these reasons, and others, I'm staying with my combination of PCs, servers, and various back-up devices. Yes I do keep a backup of my important data and photos in SkyDrive; though (no doubt due to my well-publicized paranoia) it's all in compressed PGP-encrypted files. But I reckon I've discovered not so much the "post-PC age", but a "same-PC age". Maybe this is as much a problem for PC suppliers as the flood of tablets and smartphones now swamping the world.

The "same-PC age" is a simple concept. Instead of buying the latest, greatest, fastest new machine every couple of years, you just keep the old one. In the past this hasn't really been an option unless you were prepared to turn it on the day before you wanted to use it, and stop for coffee each time you paged down in a document. But recently it's become clear that older PCs can just keep on working.

For example, my wife's four year old Dell XPS laptop with Vista was starting to show the signs of being ready for replacement with something a bit snappier. Yet a simple FDISK and a fresh install of Windows 7 brought it back to life so that it feels like a brand new machine. It's responsive, starts quickly, and handles everything she throws at it.

Even better, a friend's six year old Dell laptop (a huge and ugly beast that originally ran XP) was equally transformed by FDISK and Windows 7 into something that is a pleasure to use. My friend tells me that it's faster now than it was with XP, though I suspect he's being a little optimistic. Of course, it doesn't support Aero, but he never had that anyway so it's no loss. What he is mourning is the lack of scroll support for the trackpad - it seems there's no driver for it that works in Windows 7.

Update: After some experimentation, it turns out that the latest ALPS driver from the Dell website does work with Windows 7.

I suppose that's the problem. Dell is hardly likely to create Windows 7 drivers for a machine that was designed to run XP. It would be like expecting Ford to provide a fuel pipe to connect up a 3 litre BMW engine you shoe-horned into your Focus. And, anyway, my friend is less concerned now after I pointed out that there are Page Up and Page Down keys on the keyboard. I suspect that, until the hard drive dies or he graduates to a tablet, the laptop will continue to serve its "same-PC age" functions.

But the biggest "same-PC age" issue I have at the moment is with my working-day laptop. When I'm not trapped in front of the workstation and huge screens upstairs in the office I use a rather nice, four-year-old Dell Latitude laptop for everything work-related. Its fast, has a wonderful LCD-backlit matte screen, loads of disk space, a superb keyboard, excellent battery life, and still looks prettier than any other laptop out there (including the Apple ones). It runs every piece of complex software I need for my day job, including acting as my office telephone.

But it won't be long before I'm forced to do something about the O/S. Amazingly it's still running the original installation of Vista, but pretty soon company policy will remove Vista from the list of supported operating systems on the corporate VPN. At that point I'll need to make the decision on either Windows 7 or Windows [whatever Windows 8 will be called]. Ah, I hear you say, why not just do the same as with the other machines and hit it with the FDISK/Win7 thing now?

Well I'd love to, but there's a major problem here. To be allowed onto the company network in Windows 7, I have to enable Bit Locker. Yes, it's great idea, but the machine doesn't have a TPM module so it seems I'd need to plug in a thumb drive every time I log on. As the policies applied by the domain force the password-enabled screensaver after 10 minutes, this will be regularly throughout every day. If I leave the thumb drive plugged in I'm sure to break it and the socket at some point as I wander aimlessly around seeking guidance-creation inspiration. If I take it out every time, there's almost no doubt I'll spend the first hour of every day searching for it, or lose it altogether. Either way, I'm destined to regular cycles of FDISK and reinstall. Can I buy a plug-in TPM module I wonder?

Anyway, in preparation, I ran the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor. It says all of my applications will work without problems! Great! However, it also listed all the devices and drivers that won't work in Windows 7. OK, the built-in camera never did work from new, but as I never use it that's not a problem. But when I ordered the machine I specified a built-in smart card reader and fingerprint reader. It even came with a proximity card reader. It's true I never managed to get the terrible clunky device setup software to recognize any of these devices (I assumed it was a Vista issue), and when I did find a driver for the smart card reader it just told me that my corporate smart card was "not a recognized format" so I've been using a separate plug-in card reader instead. And a separate plug-in fingerprint reader because the built-in one seems to be there only for decoration rather than for any functional reason.

So I suppose I shouldn't expect Windows 7 to work with any of these devices either. But I can't make up my mind which is the most annoying outcome of all this investigative effort. Is it that I'll end up junking an otherwise fully-usable machine that cost a lot of money (over 1500 pounds or 2000 dollars)? Or that I'll spend my remaining working days hunting for lost thumb drives and then reinstalling everything? Or, maybe most annoying of all, it reminded me that I paid good money for features that never worked?

If you'd bought a typical consumer device with all the bells and whistles and discovered that several of them didn't actually bell or whistle, you'd soon be back at the store with the box under your arm. How come we computer users accept that only part of the hugely expensive kit we buy will actually work? Perhaps, after all, there is a case for the ubiquitous Internet tablet or device that "just works"...

Comments (2)
  1. Jack says:

    Try an Ipad….

  2. Alex Homer says:

    Hi Jack, I did play with one (not mine) and it is great for reading and surfing. But not much help when I need to use Visio or Visual Studio, or work on large and complex documents. I suspect I'm going to be wedded to laptop or desktop with a real keyboard for some considerable time yet…

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