Workstations are underrated
We live in interesting times, and it has finally dawned: many software engineers and designers who wanted to work from home are finally able to. And this brings us to the subject how we work as well.
A number of years ago it has become fashionable to work off of laptops. It had a large number of advantages, but in the first place it meant the escape from “the beige”. It meant that you no longer had to be at the office to get your job done - and that your hardware could be your own property, and you could carry it anywhere with you. Feeling like the office is bringing you down? WiFi is ubiquitous, so pop by your neighbourhood hipster-friendly coffee place and work from there. Want to quickly check the email? No problem - grab the machine out of your messenger bag, pop it open, do the work. Need to do an instant intervention on your company server? Sure thing, roaming access and SSH got you covered.
In fact, laptops have changed the “computer work” culture to a larger extent than the removal of cubicles did. The open office these days is hard to imagine without rows of laptops perched up on laptop stands.
But not all is rosy. Although being able to “work from anywhere” is very appealing – and logistically amazing sometimes – there are things which you are getting “in the package” with the laptop culture which, come to think of it, are not at all so rosy.
Work happens anywhere, which is not always great
It is a luxury these days to have a private cubicle or – thu luxury of luxuries – a private office. Something as ubiquitous as a shed (schuur), a staple of a Dutch dwelling, has become impossible to obtain - at least in Amsterdam. But the benefit of having such a spot is very underrated, yet immesureably substantial. It is that work has a place. You don’t go logging into that server at dinner. You don’t zone out into your work email when sitting on the couch with your partner. If the computer is stationary - and you have to actually walk to it then “working at the computer” becomes a conscious, deliberate action. Laptops condition you to the fact that work can be done anywhere, and they actually also motivate you to use this advantage more often. As the end result, work bleeds into more areas of your life where actually quiet contemplation would do much better. If work can be done anywhere - have no doubt, modern capitalism and incentives will make sure that it will.
Now, ther are a few amazing patterns where laptops enable, by way of their limitations. For example, you want to write something and you go to a coffee bar next door to “zone out” and finish your piece. Since your laptop has a limited battery you effectively impose a “sprint” of sorts upon yourself, since you know that the time you can spend at that spot is limited. But this pattern - at least for me - has proven of limited utility.
When COVID-19 started I’ve noticed that having a fixed spot for “doing work” at home was a way better idea than dragging work with me all around the place.
Performance and thermals, which suck
Laptops are devices built with inherent engineering constraints. They usually have limited active cooling, and thus they need to have limited performance characteristics, as modern circuits are packaged very tightly and generate an incredible amount of heat. This heat, if left unchecked, can make equipment fail, or even cause fires - so a laptop is naturally limited in the amount of performance it can put out. Funnily enough, when a laptop does have active cooling - like the Macbook Pro dual fan setup - this setup can be noisier and more obnoxious than the bigger fans that can be used in a desktop machine, as the noise they generate is produced closer to the person using the machine, right underneath the keyboard. Moving parts also have to spin at a higher speed, because the cross-section of the fan is limited due to the device footprint. Some laptops also transmit quite a bit of vibration from the fans into the body and the enclosure as well. And the modern Electron technology is always available to consume that compute.
Performance is also subpar as laptops are unable to house a high-speed GPU or a very power-hungry processor. For instance Ryzen laptops have only recently started coming to market, not in the last because of the large size (and power consumption) of the chip.
Noise, which is right where you don’t want it
It might seem strange - but under heavy load a laptop with all the fans spinning at maximum speed is more obnoxious to listen to than a workstation. Also, a laptop is always right next to you. Workstations can be located away from where you work, in a spot where adequate sound isolation is provided, and you can - in fact - isolate yourself completely from any noise your computer might be producing. Back in the day when I was working in a Flame suite the screen and the input devices were normally located in a different room than the operator even - the computers would then have their own spot on a rack with ample cooling, and a long run of wire would connect to the screen - which allows one to work in complete silence.
Docks and dongles, which do not work all that well
Laptops are inconvenient to connect to peripherals. Back in the day it was passable - there was a power cord (I still do not own any machines without MagSafe and do not feel like owning one will add any happiness to my life and well-being), the requisite USB ports and maybe a DisplayPort connector. Worked well enough but now we are in this brave new world of USB-C. Screens that do not work. Power that doesn’t get transferred and devices that do not charge. Ports on the left that are exactly the same as on the right but yet they aren’t. Adapters necessary for everything and cables which all have the same connectors yet do not support the 2 functions of the 3 you invariably need to be supported.
Frankly, it is horrible. Most of the people I know working with laptops also do have a “fixed spot” at the office - where the whole shebang of peripherals invariably needs to be connected to the machine, and then unplugged at the end of the day. And even with pre-USB-C Macbook Air 11” (which I consider one of the best machines Apple has ever put out there) one out of 10 times the external screen will fail to reconnect correctly. And sometimes the devices do not get reconnected correctly either. A workstation is always plugged into the right peripherals, with actual stable cabling.
Sadly enough, no modern contender to a Powerbook Duo has emerged to date, which is a shame. Yes, there are dock-like USB-C hubs but even the best of them turn out to be somewhat unreliable.
Network, which is just plain better with wires
I remember when WiFi was something new and amazing - it was a great novelty and an enabler. Yet, even then, compared to just a modest 100Mbit Ethernet connection, it sucked. Even though WiFi speeds have gotten better, equipment has gotten more robust, and the whole thing has become more affordable WiFi still cannot reliably produce 1GBit of throughput. Meanwhile, a network card with some Cat6 wiring can already, today, give you 10Gbit of throughput - without dropouts and signal degradation. And don’t mention congestion. On my street, every apartment is running a network. And every bar in the street (of which there is a dozen within radio range) is running one too - on more powerful hardware as well. All of this really doesn’t make the networks more reliable or speedy - on the contrary, the more networks share WiFi channels the slower things get, for everyone. A workstation doesn’t even need to be on WiFi as you can just leave it plugged into an Ethernet cable, day in and day out.
See Wireless is a trap for more in-depth information on this.
Posture and health, which suffer a bit
Strangely enough, using a laptop turned out to be a net negative for me in terms of health. The problem turned out to be the neck strain. See, when a laptop is on your, well, lap - or on a desk - you have to look downwards to see the screen. For me this has created some cramps in the neck muscles, which then started manifesting as pretty severe headaches. As it turns out, the effects were gone the moment I stopped using laptops for longer than 10-15 minutes and started using a stationary, big display positioned at the right height. Which is not all that hard - a decent screen can be had for just a few hundred countable money units these days. And most people at offices use laptops tethered to external screens anyway.
Well I did actually have a workstation all that time, it just wasn’t getting that much use. The laptops I have been buying were always the “bigger” 17” Macbook Pro’s (remember those?) and they were meant to be plugged in at the home office as well as at work. But I also needed all that screen real estate at work, because – believe it or not – for the better part of the near 8 years of my tenure at Hectic I didn’t have a desk. There were just two Flame displays in the two “suites” and whichever square centimeters I could use next to them to place my laptop. And since Flame was running Linux, using some direly necessary software - even Photoshop - was difficult.
But I always wanted a decent box at home. So when my Mac Book Pro gave up the gost due to a well known tragic situation involving Apple showing nVidia the finger and then showing its customers the finger I bought a trashcan mac, and honestly - didn’t use it much. First it fell victim to - you won’t believe it - another GPU failure. But that one could be rectified and fixed, and once COVID started I moved most of my work to that machine. And man o man does it make a difference, even though it is 7 years old.
If you can - indulge yourself and get a workstation, you might be surprised how well the ancient computer clerks - of the decades gone - by had it.