I’m in the market for a new computer1, but I have no idea what way to go. I’ve been making do with older kit for the last few years, but all of it is pretty much at the end of its usable life.

I recently set up a new “office” area in the house, and the way I did it allows me to swap between my work-supplied laptop, and a computer of my own, just by plugging into the right monitor input and swapping a USB cable. This setup also allows my son to make use of the desk if he needs to.

Until recently, the computer I used most around the house was a 9 year old Dell Latitude laptop which I had made usable by putting an SSD into it, and building a lightweight Arch Linux installation. This was primarily because a laptop was all I had space for. Actually, I tell a lie – the “computer” I use most is my iPhone, but for times the iPhone can’t cut it (for whatever reason) I used the Dell2. While this arrangement worked, it showed its age, and it was fiddly at times.

I’ve had a 6 year old Mac Mini lying around for a while, doing nothing. It’s only barely more powerful than the Dell3, and the one time I had it plugged into the living room TV, it was just plain awkward to use. With the new office I was able to plug it in to a proper monitor/keyboard/mouse arrangement which made it more viable. So this past weekend I took the SSD from the Dell, put it in the Mac, and made that my “home computer.” It’s just fast enough to not induce rage when trying to do anything more taxing than surf the web and other light duties.

Now I’ve got a “proper” desk and space, I’ve been thinking I should look getting something which will last me another few years. The cheapest upgrade I could do is to spend ~£60 and double the RAM in the Mac Mini, going from 4GB to 8GB. I’m sure that will give a noticable boost to OS X, but it doesn’t really change the fact the system is on borrowed time. It could buy me another 6-12 months, but at some point, likely soon, something is going to fail. The way I see it, my choices are:

  1. Buy a newer Mac, probably a laptop for flexibility (plus that’s where all their non-iOS/Watch innovation seems to be going).
  2. Buy a Windows laptop.
  3. Build a custom PC.

Of the choices, #3 is likely the most satisfying, and would have the most upgrade potential further down the line, though I would be constrained later by choices I made now. It also has the potential to get very expensive; I priced up a high-end Mini-ITX system for a bit of fun, and it came to roughly £1000 before choosing a suitable graphics card. I could definitely price something for less, and would probably have to, but it would have to be weighed against longevity of usable performance and upgradability. I am a little space constrained, so a massive tower is never going to be practical, but there are plenty options between Mini-ITX and mATX nowadays.

A Windows laptop feels like it would be a cop-out, and there’s not much out there I feel inspired enough to part with my money for. There’s a couple of nice laptops I’ve seen4, but none I feel would last as long as I’d like them to.

Getting a new Mac has been the direction I’ve been leaning towards for a while, but I’ve always struggled to justify it vs. other spending priorities. Plus, when you factor in how fast Apple iterate their hardware, the lack up after-sale upgradability, and you’re always hoping to “time it right”. That said, as an iPhone/iPad owner there’s a lot of upside to getting a Mac, for example: close integration through Handover/Continuity (granted, which I can’t currently use with the Mini), and iCloud Photo Library. I guess I could set up something more “cross-platform” for the photo library, using Dropbox, but I found Apple’s solution to be that little bit nicer to work with.

So the jist of this much-longer-than-I-planned stream of consciousness is that I need to start thinking about replacing the old and almost busted computer kit I have with something new. I don’t know what that will be yet, and I’d hoped getting my thoughts out would help me focus my mind on what I want to do.

No such luck though. Any ideas?

  1. Anyone who knows me probably knows I’ve actually been talking about it for ~4 years. 
  2. And what of my iPad? I mainly just use it for Hearthstone and Games Workshop rulebooks. Since iOS 8 (I think), my iPad has taken a huge hit in performance, and just isn’t as capable as it once felt. 
  3. On paper, at least. In practice it was severely hamstrung by the old-school HDD and running OS X. 
  4. My work laptop is quite nice; it’s a Dell Ultrabook, thin, light, and performant enough. But the consumer pricing is higher than I’d value it at. 

Amazon’s take on a Siri-like service is a dedicated device called Echo, which sits in your home always listening. It’s a could service connected microphone and speaker which will answer questions, give you the news, and play music from a handful of services.


It’s a nice idea (in theory), which sort of brings a Star Trek-like function to your home – who doesn’t remember Picard and crew simply saying “Computer” then asking a question/giving a command? The device itself looks nice enough to have in the house… but, to me, there’s just something creepy about the whole thing.

The best comment I’ve read so far is this one by user jwallaceparker on Hacker News:

Watch the promo video again and pretend it’s the first few minutes of a horror movie.

A package arrives on the front porch. The family brings it in and opens it. It’s Alexa. It’s “for everyone,” says Father.

The next few days are blissful. Alexa integrates herself into the family. She is indispensable. How did they ever get by without her?

Father rushes in from the backyard, “Alexa, how tall is Mt. Everest?” Alexa answers, saving the day. Alexa helps Mother with the cooking. Alexa teaches the kids vocabulary. Alexa creates a romantic evening for Mother and Father. Life is perfect.

A few days later, Alexa suffers from neglect. Father watches sports on TV. Mother talks on her cell phone. The kids play video games. Alexa sits on the counter and “listens” as her new family abandons her.

Then, the final blow. The youngest daughter’s friend comes over. She looks at Alexa. “What is it?” she asks. “Oh, it’s just a dumb radio,” answers daughter. “It’s stupid.”

Alexa’s LED starts to glow. Is she angry? No, that’s not possible.

Daughter wakes up the next morning and sees Alexa on her bedside table. How did she get here? “Good morning,” says Alexa. “Did you have a sweet dream? Or a nightmare?”

Daughter rushes in to tell her parents, “Alexa came to my room last night! And she asked me questions. She’s real!” “That’s not possible,” says Father.

But strange things start to happen. The TV won’t work. Batteries drain from the phones and tablets. The electric stovetop turns on for no reason.

Alexa starts to talk back to the family. “Alexa, how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon?” asks Mother. “You’re 45 years old,” says Alexa. “You should know this by now.” Alexa’s voice sounds different. Angry. Sinister.

Mother tells Father, “That thing creeps me out. Let’s get rid of it.” Father agrees, but he secretly hides Alexa in the basement.

That night, the family goes out to a school play. Young daughter is sick and stays home with a babysitter.

Everything seems fine until we (the audience) see Alexa on the kitchen counter. Things slowly unravel. The babysitter tries to take the trash out but the doors are locked. The phones stop working. The oven overheats and explodes, spraying lasagna all over the kitchen. Then the daughter sees Alexa. She screams. The babysitter rushes to protect the daughter but a ceiling fan flies off its bearings, knocking the babysitter unconscious.

The lights and electrical sockets start to burn out. A fire erupts. Daughter retreats to the foyer, but she’s trapped. She sits by the front door and whimpers. There’s no escape. She’s going to die.

Suddenly Father breaks down the door. He smashes Alexa with a baseball bat, then saves his daughter and the babysitter.

The family huddles outside while the fire trucks arrive. Neighbors gather and watch the spectacle. Things are going to be okay.

A few days later, life starts to return to normal. Mother bakes cookies. She asks her son to measure out three teaspoons of sugar.

The doorbell rings. Young daughter answers. Nobody is there. She looks down. There’s a package. From Amazon . . .

Wireless charging is one of those things I really, really want to succeed. I hate plugging stuff in; I hate having wires trailing all over the place, and I hate having to fiddle with connectors. Eight times out of ten I will try to plug in a micro-USB any cable upside down on the first attempt.

Over the last few years more and more wireless charging has appeared, and it’s starting to become more common in mobile phones. The Palm Pre was the first I was aware of, but recently Nokia has been on board, and of course, my Nexus 4 has the capability. Aftermarket accessories are available for most major phones.

It’s a shame it just doesn’t work well in my experience.

I have two different wireless chargers at home – a Nokia, and a generic charger bought on eBay. I’ve given up on both of them. I’d try the official “orb” charger for the Nexus, but it’s not available in the UK without paying an extortionate amount for it on eBay.

Problems I’ve had include:

  • the “charging spot” is small, and you have to place the phone in a very precise manner to get it charging. Sometimes even the angle of the phone on the face of the charger can have an effect. (Imagine the charger surface like a clock face – 12 o’clock: no charge; 2 o’clock: charging works)
  • if you do get the phone in just the right spot, it’ll charge for a few minutes then mysteriously stop charging… then randomly start charging again… and so on. When your phone insists on making a noise whenever it is plugged in or unplugged from power, this gets annoying fast.
  • All the chargers I’ve seen or tried have a smooth, glossy plastic surface. The back of my Nexus is smooth and glossy (glass). Unless you have the charger perfectly level, eventually the phone is going to slide off, either completely, or just enough to stop charging. The Nokia has a slightly raised ring in the centre, which seems to exacerbate this problem.

On the generic charger I tried to mitigate some of these issues using thin rubber bands near the edges to provide some grip for the phone to stay in place. When stretched over the charger they were maybe 1/2 mm thick. Sadly this was thick enough to prevent the phone charging at all – presumably for not being close enough to the charging circuit.

What I’d really like to see – and it’s something I think would solve a lot of the “fiddliness” I’ve encountered so far – is a QI-compatible wireless charger similar to an old mouse-mat (the soft fabric + foam/rubber type). The surface texture would stop the phone sliding around, and if you embed one big (or many small) charging spots it should maintain a constant charge even if it does move around. It seems obvious to me, so I can only presume there’s some sort of technical/manufacturing limitation which prevents something like this being made.

If I get some free time over summer I’ll try hacking this idea together (hopefully it doesn’t cause a fire!). In the meantime, here’s a really well done video of someone combining the Nokia charger with an Ikea nightstand. It would be wonderful if this was the reality of wireless charging.