I have very few vices in life. I don’t smoke, I drink alcohol in moderation, I don’t gorge myself on cakes, I’ve even got my coffee habit down to two cups per day. There is, however, one little luxury in life I do help myself to: decent computers.
I’m predominantly a software developer. So I need high resolution screens to display my code and the output on at the same time. My software development work involves building data analytics tools for healthcare data, so I need a reasonable amount of CPU computing power available on tap to run the complex queries across large data sets.
Unsurprisingly, my main machine is a self-built desktop. It runs a powerful i7 4790K CPU nicknamed “Devils Canyon”. It has 32GB of RAM, and feeds two large IPS Dell monitors. I am insanely productive in front of that thing.
But I spend 30% of my time doing clinical work and visiting client hospitals across the country. I usually travel on trains for this. So I need a to be able to take my work on the road, so I need a comparable laptop for the job.
This gives us a pretty comprehensive shopping list of the things that I’m looking for:
- Portable (i.e. laptop or tablet)
- Powerful CPU
- Decent resolution display (1080p+)
- 12GB+ of RAM
- Enough battery life to last a long train journey
Reading that list, many people might think “ah, that’ll be an Apple Macbook Air or Macbook Pro, then”.
Except there’s another not so conventional requirement I need… Linux.
As a software developer, I have an uncontrollable urge to be able to take things apart and rebuild it to suit my taste. You can’t do that with a Mac. Apple have locked down their Operating System (OS X) and have a very “my way, or the highway” attitude to their products. I’m not talking about setting Hello Kitty wallpaper as my desktop background here, I’m talking about lower-level things like being able to customise how aggressively my computer reconnects to a server when I’m remotely dialling in on a flaky train 3G connection. I’m talking about being able to configure smart synchronisation routines which automatically back up my files to my cloud servers if I’m on mains power with a high bandwidth connection but not when on 30% battery in the middle of the Brecons. I need my laptop to pretend to be a server for demos, but then behave as a client desktop computer for normal use.
Microsoft Windows is less locked down than Apple’s OS X, but it has another weakness: it’s a real pain in the arse to get Open Source development platforms running on it. Getting Python and PostgreSQL running on Windows feels like a hack. Windows also has a habit of randomly hanging for half a second while doing various hidden background tasks. None of that would bother a typical “emails, Office, browsing and
porn Netflix” user, but as a geek I need to be in control.
I need a computer that can run an operating system which I can customise the tits off (not Apple OS X), and which sits there patiently waiting like an obedient dog for my next instruction, rather than wandering off to sniff then piss up a lamppost (Windows). I don’t really need to use word processing applications (Microsoft Word is without a doubt the best on the planet, sorry LibreOffice, you need to up your game), so Office isn’t an issue. I don’t mind spending a few hours getting my hands dirty with a digital spanner and tuning the thing.
So here’s the final spec list:
- Powerful CPU
- Decent resolution display
- 12GB+ of RAM
- Enough battery life to last a long train journey
Where do you go to for that?
I had a look at PC World / Currys who actually do some reasonable deals. It seems as though they make their money on the upsell extras like Office, McAfee antivirus, Super-duper DVD Burnatron crapware etc rather than on the laptop hardware they sell. So for a Linux geek who is just going to wipe the disk the moment he gets home, it can be cheap hardware, so long as he doesn’t mind £70 of the retail price being spent on a Windows licence he won’t be using.
The problem with PC World / Currys is that the performance gear is much more expensive than the middle of the road gear. You can get a £400 middle-spec HP laptop with an i5 CPU and probably 6GB of RAM. But as you start reaching up into the 8GB+ RAM and CPU Passmark score >5000 range, the prices exceed £1500. There is also a growing trend of replacing performance lines with “ultrabook” laptops (slimline physical build, lots of CPU power) which are completely un-upgradable. Who thought it would be a good idea to solder RAM to the motherboard anyway?! Plus most laptops sold in big stores have those fucking reflective screens on. The last thing I want to see when I’m sitting in the garden working, is a reflection of my contorted face obscuring the code.
Online vendors such as Dabs.com (now BT store) and eBuyer sell a huge range of laptops. They make their money on the hardware markup so can be a little more expensive than PC World, but with better choice and without the danger of being sold crapware you don’t need. But it’s very hard to find a laptop there without Windows. And the high end stuff is really rather expensive.
That’s when I happened across PC Specialist. They sell bespoke-build laptops. You start off with a laptop chassis and motherboard, then pick the bits to add to it. This meant that I could chuck all my money at the stuff I cared about (CPU, screen, RAM), and spend nothing on the Operating System. Online reviews said “yay with Linux”. So I placed an order for a “Cosmos IV” and ended up ordering for about £900 the following specs:
– CPU: Intel i7-6700HQ (2.60GB, 8 cores)
– Memory: 16GB RAM
– Graphics: NVIDIA GM108M [GeForce 940MX]
– Storage: 256GB SSD
– Screen: Matte 1920 x 1080 15.6 inch IPS (not touchscreen)
– Battery: 45Wh Lithium Ion, claimed 5 hours typical usage
I’ve used this laptop out in the wild for a good 6 months now, so I feel qualified enough to comment on the Cosmos IV.
The Cosmos IV hails from Taiwan and is actually built by a company called Clevo. The build quality is very good. It has a chiclet keyboard (keys are separate stand-alone little tiles which are robust but easy to press) with a full numpad. The keyboard is backlit for
masturba gaming in the dark. The chassis plastic is thick and solid around the keyboard and base, but the screen is additionally backed with formed aluminium making the screen strong despite its thin profile. There are ports packed around the left, right and back and you are most certainly sorted for connecting peripherals.
Ports-wise, you’ll get:
3 x USB 3
1 x USB 2
Digital audio jack
Mini DisplayPort out
SD card reader
SIM card slot(!)
There are stereo speakers at the top of the keyboard, of moderate sound quality.
Most pleasingly, the air inlets and outlets are AT THE REAR, not at the bottom. This is good. In fact, excuse me for a sec:
Dear Laptop Makers of the World,
The device “a LAPtop” is a computer which may be used on a lap. Please do not put the air inlets or outlets on the bottom surface, because that’s where you’ll find a pair of thighs in the way. See Clevo for an example of how to do it properly.
In total it weighs about 2kg, so it’s light enough to fit in your Ryanair hand luggage allowance. (If you haven’t burst an aneurysm while arguing with their website to untick all the sneaky hidden extras during booking that is)
Processor & RAM:
No question, hands down, this thing is fast and powerful. At 2.6GHz with turbo up to 3.5GHz the i7-6700HQ can deal with single thread operations neatly leaving 7 threads spare for other things. If I take it up to full speed with multithread applications like Minecraft on full graphics building a new part of the level, it does so smoothly. The fans dutifully spin up to dump the heat and there’s no problem with overheating. Ragging the i7 on all its 8 cores with the fans at full tilt does drink the battery power though. At low loads the i7 behaves itself and gently sips power.
The 16GB RAM simply enables the fast operation of that CPU. I’m able to hold massive multi-dimensional data in volatile memory without having to dump a chunk of it to the solid state drive’s swap space. For all you normal people out there, the RAM and CPU are well matched.
The Passmark score is 8133. This is the computer equivalent of “top car speed”. This CPU isn’t quite a Bugatti Veyron, but it’s definitely an Audi R8.
“Meh”… and that’s being generous.
The claimed “5 hours typical use” is politician’s words… i.e. a big fat lie. If we call “typical use” someone with the screen on medium brightness, dicking about on the internet via WiFi, the realistic battery time is about 2 hours. You can squeeze out 3 hours of battery life if you turn off Wifi, dim the screen to lowest brightness, make sure Bluetooth is off, turn off keyboard backlighting and refrain from doing anything which mildly exercises the processor. Think Minesweeper instead of Minecraft.
You could argue “Brooks you prick, what do you expect with such a powerful processor?”. Indeed the i7 in this baby consumes 45 watts on full tilt. When its idling, the CPU backs right off to about 8 watts. So yes, it’s got a thirsty engine in it, but not when cruising the suburbs. Indeed i7 HQs have been put into Macbook Pros with their 8+ hours battery life.
I think that the battery energy density in this Cosmos IV is quite simply not good enough. 45 Wh (Watt-hours) at 19 volts is about 2400 mAh. In the world of modern batteries, this is rather low. Especially on a machine with such a powerful CPU. There’s spare space in the chassis to fit more battery in. There are smartphones with 45 Wh batteries despite their much smaller size.
So thumbs down for the battery.
The first time I booted up was definitely a “wow” moment. Up until about a year ago, you could only really get 720p laptop screens unless you bought a Macbook with its ridiculous resolution “Retina” display and equally ridiculous price. The Cosmos IV came with a 1080p (1920 x1080p) 15.6 inch matte screen. The resolution is perfect. Enough pixels to run two side by side panels of code at 8pt size, but not so high res that you need a magnifying glass to read them! The matte surface means no pesky reflections in bright conditions. So initially I was delighted…
However, after a few weeks I noticed problems. One dead pixel appeared, which isn’t so bad in a screen that size. More disturbingly, greens and cyan colours looked rather “washed out”. I create infographics from time to time and also do astrophotography, so colour accuracy matters to me.
So I investigated further… I made a CD spectrometer to look at the spectral output of the screen. Most laptop screens are illuminated by a strip of white LEDs. White LEDs work by radiating blue light, which then hits a phosphor surface, which absorbs some of the blue and re-radiates this as a wider spread of red and yellow light. The “white” you see is a combination of the original blue peak from the LED emitter plus the re-radiated red and yellow from the phosphor. This white light then passes through an LCD matrix of “pixels” which are just lots of little red/green/blue colour filters.
More expensive white LEDs use a mixture of compounds in their phosphor surface so that the output light is quite broad spectrum, extending from reds well into the bluish greens. But cheaper ones use fewer compounds so you end up with a notch between the LED emitted blue, and the phosphor re-radiated yellow. I set the screen to display white, max brightness, and peered through the CD spectrometer…
Lo and behold, a fat dirty dark notch in the blue-greens. So when the white light passes through a pixel which is set to filter everything but green, the amount of light of the right wavelength that makes it through is less than it should be. Greens look dim.
I tried contacting PC Specialist about this, no answer. I looked around for an “ICC Color Profile” for the screen which is meant to adjust the pixels to compensate for the incident light: nothing.
It seems to me that whoever designed the screen skipped the lectures at uni about colour and light spectra. Who in their right mind would put high spec LCD pixel arrays and a high quality matte surface, to then shine bargain-basement LEDs through them? This behaviour is akin to spending £12,000 on an audiophile’s HiFi, then pumping a CD of Cher Lloyd and Miley fucking Cyrus through it.
But that’s not the worst thing about this screen, oh no no…
THE POLARISED ANGLE IS 90 DEGREES WRONG.
Oh sorry, let me put that another way: YOU CANNOT USE THIS SCREEN WHILE WEARING DECENT SUNGLASSES.
A laptop screen works by:
1) starting with a strip of white LEDs
2) shining them through a clever bit of plastic which acts like frosted glass causing the white light to evenly spread over the surface,
3) passing the light through a special filter called a polariser, which means only the light waves wiggling in one particular direction are allowed through
4) passing the light through a grid of red, green and blue colour filter dots, called “subpixels”,
5) putting electronically adjustable little filters over the top of the subpixels so you can turn bits of the screen red/green/blue or any combination of. The pattern of these pixels is what gives us the image on the screen.
Step 5) is also known as a “liquid crystal display”. The filter pixels in 5) work by containing a substance which causes the molecules in it to line up in a certain direction when an electrical current is passed. The idea is to make the material so that they line up at right angles to the polarising filter used in 3). This means that they happily block the incoming polarised light when active, thus achieving a filtering effect. If you didn’t have the layer in 3), some light would always make it through opaque in 5) which would make the contrast between black and white on the screen piss poor.
Right, still with me?? So that means that a “white” pixel in filter 5) is simply letting all the polarised light from filter 3), through all red/green/blue subpixels and through 5) to the eyes of the human. A black pixel blocks the light coming through from 3). This works fine.
Now let’s add some sunglasses in. Decent sunglasses are polarising filters, just like our screen’s filter in step 3). Polarising sunglasses let vertically-polarised light through (light waves which wiggle up and down). This is because the majority of sunlight reflected from surfaces, the stuff which causes “glare”, is horizontally polarised (light waves wiggle left and right). So put on sunglasses, filter out only the left-right wiggling light and let the up-down wiggling light through, you’ll end up still being able to see stuff, but with much less glaring reflection.
Wearing sunglasses is like adding another step to our laptop screen:
6) Pass the screen image through another polarising filter which only allows through vertically polarised light
So, smart LCD screen manufacturers will make sure layer 3) is orientated to allow vertically polarised light through, so that the screen can be seen by people wearing sunglasses. However, the moron who designed the Cosmos IV screen for whatever reason, decided to make layer 3) horizontally polarised instead. If you put on polarising sunglasses you will see a completely black screen… unless you tilt your head or your laptop by 90 degrees.
What the hell were you thinking?!?
My PC Specialist Cosmos IV is a good laptop if you want something with power that you can take from place to place on short journeys where there will be mains power at either end, such as from home to work and back. It is good for people in temporary accommodation who move around a bit but want a computer with beef. High-performance task programmers and gamers will be happy with this if a desktop PC isn’t feasible.
It is a bad choice for people who regularly spend hours away from the National Grid. It won’t last you a 4 hour train journey or flight. It won’t make it through a full day of client meetings without being recharged every 2 hours.
The screen and nVidia GPU might sound on paper like it’s a good option for a graphic designer, but your colours will be screwed over by the poor spectral performance of the screen’s backlight LEDs. And if you’re taking it on holiday to somewhere sunny, make sure you pack a cheap pair of non-polarising sunglasses if you’re planning on using this in the sun. Either that or get used to typing on a vertically orientated keyboard!
This would be perfect for me if it had double the battery, the screen polarising filter was rotated 90 degrees and they sorted out the screen backlight spectrum.