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The Problem with Internet Explorer and Spartan
3/31/2015 12:30 PM
Anybody who knows me professionally, knows that I despise Microsofts Internet Explorer web browser. What they probably don't know is why I despise it. Most people likely assume that because I'm a penguin, I'm also an Internet Explorer hater. The two do tend to go hand in hand. However nothing could be further from the truth. I use Linux a great deal on my own time, but professionally I tend to spend most of my time with Windows. I have a healthy respect for Microsoft products and techs such as Windows Server, IIS and .NET. This respect does not extend to Internet Explorer. The purpose of this post is to explain why that is.

To start, this post was at least partially inspired by the first public/beta release of Microsoft's new Spartan browser. Spartan has been getting heavily hyped over the last few months and with good reason. It represents a few major steps in the right direction for Microsoft. Spartan fixes a lot of the complaints people have made in regards to Internet Explorer, but it does not fix them all. Though it is a step in the right direction and for that Microsoft should be applauded. Nevertheless, it brings with it some of the same baggage that IE does.

Back to IE, where do I even begin? I've been developing web applications for 15 years now and half of that time has been spent suffering with the most infamous version of IE, 6.0. In early 2008 I told my current employer that I was no longer going to spend time trying to make IE 6.0 work with my latest apps and that upgrading to IE 7.0 should be their priority. Surprisingly enough this strategy actually worked though I suffered with IE 7.0 until January of 2013 when I left a position that was forcing me to continue writing code for that browser.

I say all this in an effort to point out that because of Microsofts position in the industry and their general approach to software, web developers like myself have been forced to live with their mistakes for a very long time. IE 6.0 took thirteen years to stop being supported by Microsoft. That's insane despite the fact that when it was released in 2001 it was heralded as a great piece of software. But after Microsoft sat on their laurels for a few years, competitors rose to fill the void and subsequently showed the world that the web browser could still be improved upon. Microsoft released IE 7.0 in 2006, a full five years later. It was woefully behind and unable to compete on most levels with the likes of Firefox. But it still won.

This of course brings me to my first complaint about Internet Explorer: It is perpetually behind the curve. Because of the sluggishness of Microsoft and their general inability to keep up with consumer facing technology trends IE still forces the rest of us to remain behind the curve in order to support the overwhelming majority of desktop and laptop users that still insist on using IE. No matter what Chrome and Firefox bring to the table in terms of standards support, web developers still have to deal with the likes of poly-fills and a variety of other unsavory hacks in order to support popular versions of IE such as version 9.0.

My second complaint about IE is the fact that it is still being tied to specific versions of Windows. I really have no understanding of why Microsoft chooses to do this in this day and age. It really is quite silly. But more than that it ties specific versions of IE to life cycle support commitments Microsoft has made for specific versions of Windows. These commitments are generous and generally last far longer than the commitments Microsofts competitors are willing to make. There are exceptions to this rule of course, but they are for niche products that bear very little relevance to the topic at hand. Nonetheless, IE being tied to specific versions of Windows is a primary reason why web developers like myself are always having to support much older versions of IE.

If you compare this situation to Chrome and Firefox, most web developers don't care about older versions of Chrome and Firefox. These browsers both auto-update and for the most part they do it without even bothering the user. If it is found that a user is in fact using an older version of one of these browsers, they are immediately asked to upgrade. On the other hand, web devs are still being forced to support IE 8 and IE 9 which were released in 2009 and 2011 respectively. In the age of modern tech, that's stunningly outdated.

Part of the motivation here is that Microsoft views IE as a feature that can drive the sales of Windows licenses. That's what they really care about. Sadly that's not working out so great for them. Windows is no longer the dominant OS in the modern world and IE is no longer the only game in town. If a new browser is the best feature your new OS has to offer, then the odds favor the idea that your new OS isn't worth the upgrade. No other browser is treated as an appendage that drives license sales for a specific version of an operating system. This approach has and continues to severely hamper Microsoft's ability to compete in the browser market.

Those are my two primary complaints regarding IE. Now lets be honest, just a few short years ago this list would've been a lot longer. Microsoft has taken steps to close the gap that exists between them and their competition. However Spartan doesn't really address either of these issues. Sure Spartan users will finally get support for extensions, a feature Chrome and Firefox users have enjoyed for God only knows how long but all this really does is prove my point. They are perpetually behind the curve. Extension support is something that makes or breaks my decision to use a particular browser. Without the right extensions, I have no interest in a particular browser. Therefore I have no interest in IE as an end user. Spartan on the other hand... well there is no Linux port at the moment so I cannot upgrade to it ;)

Spartan also continues the unsavory trend of tying Microsoft browsers to specific versions of Windows. This practice will continue to insure that the web development community will be forced to support old versions of IE long after Microsoft has stopped pimping them out to the unwitting masses. No matter what Spartan adds as a web developer, I am really only interested in what IE 9.0 has to offer because that is the minimum version that I have to support. This is sad and ultimately detracts from any headway that Microsoft makes in this area. One can only hope that they will address this issue at some point, thereby paving the way for IE/Spartan to become a first class citizen in the browser community.
Lenovo X1 Carbon: My New Ultrabook
3/12/2015 11:18 AM
So as some of you know, I tend to get a new laptop every 12 to 18 months. Over the years my preferences for laptops have changed drastically however and this has been reflected by my latest purchase, a third generation Lenovo X1 Carbon ultrabook. Long gone are the days where power is king and I'd tolerate any inconvenience to get it. There are a number of reasons for this, the most prominent of which I hope to address as part of this post.

For starters, I've recently come to the conclusion that a tablet has no place in my computing routine. There are many reasons for this, but the biggest one is that my smartphone already does everything that I need a tablet to do and it's far more portable. Outside of taking phone calls, texting, web browsing and GPS related functionality the touch paradigm of computing is something that I'm just not that interested in. A smartphone by itself excels at all of these tasks (more notably, a cheap smartphone ala my first generation Moto G LTE) which renders a tablet useless from my perspective.

However, there is one aspect of tablet usage that has made me insanely jealous over the years. The battery life is awesome when compared to traditional laptops. Right up until this purchase every laptop I have ever owned got between 2 hours and 3 hours of battery life without any exceptions. That gives me enough time to sit at the dining room table each morning while I cruise the web and catch up on world events using my laptop but it doesn't give me much time for anything else. What if I needed to go see a client right after breakfast? Well I went and toted along a laptop with a nearly spent battery along with its AC Adapter. Because if there is one unbreakable rule of dealing with clients it is this: You never know what you are walking into when you make an onsite visit. Thankfully they almost always had working electricity when I arrived ;)

That having been said, my preferences in laptops have changed drastically over the years as well. Gone are the days when I was content and willing to carry around a 17 inch ten pound monstrosity capable of playing high end AAA games while frying eggs for breakfast (yes these things ran that damn hot at times). Gone are the days where I was willing to tolerate three hours of battery life on a good day. Gone are the days in which I was actually interested in playing AAA games on my laptops. Nowadays I'm all about indie and retro gaming. In any event, I was clearly in the market for an ultrabook. I wanted something that ran cool, quiet, long but could still allow me to get the job done in a pinch. However there was another part to this that made life more difficult: I wanted something that was Linux compatible as well.

So yeah finding a decent Windows ultrabook isn't really a challenge. There are a number of models out there to choose from, most of which are decent. However finding one that could run Linux competently was a real challenge. As some of you may know, my last three laptops all came from Linux hardware vendor System 76, but they don't really offer an acceptable ultrabook option. Their so-called ultrabook has been plagued by a number of issues and didn't really live up to some of the battery life claims. In addition, I wanted to buy something with one of the new Intel Broadwell processors as they would only result in even longer battery life due to Intel's new found love of power efficient computing. In any event, I was wary of buying something from another vendor that wasn't focused on Linux compatibility as buying a piece of hardware like that essentially constitutes rolling the dice. So I bided my time.

One day however I stumbled upon this article on Phoronix and suddenly there was a path forward. The third generation Lenovo X1 Carbon had all the makings of a great Linux ultrabook. Lenovo is a brand that is well regarded amongst the PC geek elite though to be honest, I never have cared much for them one way or the other. I've certainly used my fair share of Lenovo hardware at various employers and I had never been that impressed. My biggest issue is that I generally found the hardware to be bulky and relatively unattractive. This was true when I worked at GE, Ameco, Flour Government Group and most recently Erwin Penland (note: The W540 that I've been given for my new position @ Paylocity on the other hand is definitely a step up). Nevertheless, this review on Phoronix got me thinking. More importantly it got me started researching.

During my research I became aware of one major issue with the new X1 Carbon and Linux: The trackpoint buttons don't work quite right in Linux yet. That's good to know, but not that important as I initially planned on spending my time getting acquainted with the trackpad as I've always been a big fan of decent trackpads (which are few and far between in the PC world, let me tell you). Nevertheless because Lenovo units are so well represented within the geek community, the trackpoint button issue is now in the process of being addressed. Beyond that, things looked really good. I was surprised. I was excited. I had never purchased a Lenovo before. But things weren't quite that simple. I had some other issues to eek out before pulling the trigger on this thing.

My existing laptop was a System 76 Gazelle Professional 9. It had a quad core Haswell I7 processor, 16 gigabytes of RAM, an Intel 4600HD GPU and 1.5 terabytes of SSD storage (I removed the optical drive in favor of a secondary drive bay for additional storage as MSATA cards in this laptop ran too hot for prolonged use). Needless to say considering the X1 Carbon required that I be willing to compromise. For starters all of the new Broadwell processors for the X1 Carbon were dual core processors and there was no quad core option available. Frankly this was an easy compromise to make as I very rarely used all four cores. In addition the X1 Carbon has a maximum of 8 gigabytes of RAM. This compromise was a bit harder to stomach until I realized that the 16 gigs of RAM on the GazP9 only came in handy when I ran multiple virtual machines at the same time. This was something I rarely did and when I did it, I did it so that I could apply Windows Updates to multiple client virtual machines at the same time.

The final compromise involved the amount of storage. Now when most people hear that I had 1.5 terabytes of SSD storage, they balk. That's a lot I know. But I love SSDs because they are so freaking fast. I wasn't about to go back to a mechanical drive. But I also wanted as much storage as I could get my hands on. When the infamous Crucial M500 drive hit the market (the worlds first terabyte SSD) I got in line to buy one because I was extremely interested in having as much quick SSD storage as I could get my hands on. Nevertheless, the X1 Carbon could at most provide me with 512 gigabytes of onboard SSD storage. It had space for a single storage PCIe/SATA 80mm M.2 chip. I opted for SATA as I was able to save about $500 dollars by buying the M.2 card for $200 on Amazon rather than paying Lenovo's ridiculous $700 upgrade fee to get 512 gigabytes of PCIe storage (for reference that M.2 card costs about $500 on Amazon). Yes PCIe is faster, but since I actually have one of those in my new desktop/server that I built last year I knew from experience that while it was fast, it doesn't provide much day to day benefit except for allowing Windows to boot in less than ten seconds.

So what did I do? Well for starters I decided to do some spring cleaning. For years I've been lugging around a variety of client related virtual machines and documents, even for clients that I have largely stopped doing business with. You just never know. In any event I finally decided to archive all of this information on my server and stop carrying it around all the time. That freed up a few hundred gigabytes. Next I decided to stop carrying around 140 gigs of music everywhere I went. Now that I'm using Subsonic at home, all I need is a web browser to access my entire music collection from anywhere in the world. Carrying around 140 gigs of it "just in case" had become redundant. Finally I examined some of my personal habits in regards to storage. The one habit I decided to change was my tendency to keep a couple decades of retro games on hand for legacy console and computer system emulation purposes. So I cut my MAME collection along with various other somewhat more modern retro systems to save another 60 gigabytes. Lastly I have a tendency to keep a lot of Steam games installed even though I might only be playing one or two of them at any given time. So I cleaned that up and saved another 50 gigabytes.

Now I didn't get rid of all of this stuff. Some of it was just moved to this device. For instance that's where my offline music collection now resides. That's where some of my client virtual machines now reside (the ones for active clients). There is no need to keep all this stuff on the internal drive when I don't need it that often. By using the latest in portable SSD technology (and yes this Samsung unit lives up to every expectation and then some) I can now have access to additional SSD capacity when I require it.

Needless to say after many hours of rearranging, copying and consideration I have resolved the storage issue. That was the final roadblock preventing me from pulling the trigger on the X1 Carbon. A few weeks later I received my new laptop, upgraded the SSD as my first act and transferred my existing Linux installation using Clonezilla as my second act. Four days later, I couldn't be more pleased. Bottom line: If you are interested in a great ultrabook that runs fast, quiet and cool and gets great battery life (six hours in Linux without any real tweaking though it will get more in Windows) then I highly recommend the third generation Lenovo X1 Carbon.
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