Low tide at the beach

Submitted by peter on Thu, 06/07/2018 - 13:48

Ok, I am sitting at the beach writing about software development. Looking at the sand and rocks revealed by the low tide. What do you really need for software development at the beach and on the road? What are the highs and lows of software development away from the office?

You might be travelling or visiting a customer who is not set up for software development. You might be enjoying your choice of lifestyle. Remote development work might be defined as using hardware you can fit in your backpack.

Disks

Magnetic disks break when bumped off a desk. Portable computers need SSD. I started using SSD back when 128 GB was expensive. Now you can buy a cheap notebook computer with the smallest SSD option and upgrade to a terabyte SSD for $350.

How much do you need? For a Windows install, 128 GB is half full of bloat with only about 50 GB left for one project. Linux Mint does not have the bloat, leaving 100 GB ready for several projects.

Across a number of projects, you need 3 ~ 6 GB for installation of software tools. A project can use from 3 GB up to a couple of hundred gigabytes when you make a copy of an existing Web site. I found 500 GB a squeeze due to my collection of photographs filling half the space. A full terabyte leaves plenty of room for my photography and software development on the same disk.

Video uses about a hundred times more space. For video, I would use a desktop computer with multiple low cost large drives. For a low cost, you could have up to six drives of 6 TB in a RAID 5 array giving you 30 TB of fast space. The best a notebook can offer is two M.2 drives of 2 TB each, with each 2 TB M.2 drive costing more than 25 TB of magnetic disk.

Screen size

Screen size is the next efficiency limiting factor. 31.5 inch is currently the most popular size screen. There are always deals on that size screen. A couple of 31.5" screens gives you excellent space to compare things side by side.

Notebooks typically have a HDMI socket and a VGA socket, making two screens easy. You cannot carry 31.5" screens in your backpack. You could carry a HDMI cable and connect to any spare television set. A 5 metre HDMI cable is so cheap you could by one for each location.

On the road, I have used 10", 11", 13", 14", 15", and 17". 17" notebooks are too big for a backpack. Some modern 15" notebooks have slim edges and fit. Among older and lower cost notebooks, 14" is a better overall size but 14" screens are now rare. 13" and smaller is just too small for productive work.

Weight

Many notebooks feel light when you handle them in the shop. Add you mobile phone, bottle of water, and everything else to your backpack. Everything together is too heavy for a comfortable long walk. Back to the notebook. Look for models that trim weight with intelligent design and quality materials.

Battery life

Avoid cheap notebooks that reduce weight purely by fitting an insanely small battery. I look for a battery life of more than four hours in real use. This means looking for a battery life of six to eight hours in the fake review specifications.

My longest working time away from mains power is between two and three hours. If a battery starts with five hours, it will degrade to three hours over three years of use with one charge per day. You can then replace the battery and use the notebook for another three years.

For work on site, you can buy a second charger to leave at the customer's office. Good brands of chargers cost practically nothing and save you carrying a significant weight.

Battery life tests often have the screen brightness turned down for indoor use. Outdoors you need maximum brightness. The extra lighting might cut 30 minutes off your battery time.

Water proof

An occasional shower of rain hits my current beachside location. My notebook has a waterproof keyboard. The titanium shell is not waterproof but the tough exterior lets me jamb the notebook into a pack faster than those wobbly plastic notebooks.

Water resistance is available in many devices. Even the iPhone has finally caught up with every other brand and released a water resistant model.

Waterproof keyboards handle coffee spills and other common accidents. If your notebook is light, you can quickly pick it up before fluid leaks in through the base. Titanium and carbon fibre frames help.

USB 3

There are times when you need fast data copies, fast backup, and fast access to external disks to look at old projects you no longer carry in your notebook. USB 3 is the current choice. USB C will be the better choice in a couple of years. Look for at least one USB 3 port on a notebook computer and, for the future, a USB C port.

Car power

How do you charge your notebook in the car? A small 12 volt to mains power converter is the easiest option. $50 gets a 150 watt converter in our local shops. My notebook requires less than 80 watts. My camera charger has a 12 volt option. Everything else can be charged using a USB plug in the cigarette lighter socket.

Processor speed?

Processor speed is not important. Disk speed is more important. If your disk is fast enough, it is in a notebook with a useful processor speed.

A fast two core processor works. Your editing works in one core and the operating system checks your mail using the other core. A medium speed four core processor works.

The only processors that are too slow are the ones in the cheap tablets. They use a simpler architecture to save power and that limits the data processed per cycle. When you compare a 1 GHz low power processor to a 1 GHz Pentium or equivalent, the Pentium might process four times as much data per cycle. The low power processors waste your time.

In the Intel range, the i3 processors are fast enough for magnetic disks. The lower end of the i5 range is fast enough for most SSDs. If your processing needs more power, you often get a better speed increase by spending your money on a notebook with a better graphics processor instead of paying a premium for an i7 processor.

Backpack

Two backpacks are a good choice, a small one for small trips and a big backpack for longer trips. Make sure they are comfortable. The wrong design will make your neck hurt.

A backpack should fit everything you need. For longer trips, you do not know exactly what you will need. Use a bigger backpack and pack spares. An extra bottle of water for trips where you might be delayed while switching from one train to another.

You might carry one of those small use once ponchos for emergencies. For your first and last trips to a customer's office, you might carry your spare charger, HDMI cable, and other accessories. In fact you might pack a VGA cable, USB cables, an external keyboard and mouse, plus extra everything else until you talk your customer into buying the accessories you need for a hot desk at their site.

Good backpacks have padding to stop things rubbing into your back. The padding runs under the bottom of the pack to protect your notebook when your backpack is dumped on the floor. The padding will also be in between the two pockets to protect your notebook from the charger and all the other heavy lumps you carry.

For the large backpack, the straps will include one across your chest up high to hold the shoulder straps at the right width. Visit an outdoors shop to test serious backpacks and talk with an experienced bush walker. The smaller backpack can be a fashion choice instead of a serious item of comfort.

4G

4G Internet access is almost everywhere. Your mobile phone can be a Wifi access point through 4G. For software development, you need only a few gigabytes of downloads and uploads each month. For a large data copy, perhaps the duplication of a working Web site, USB 3 is a better choice. Visit the customer's office, plug in, and copy.

The highs

Fresh air is the highlight of outdoor computing for me. I currently work in an office with a window I can open. Most of my previous office spaces had no open windows. Walking to a local park helped me break out of canned air syndrome.

The choice of coffee is increased when you are mobile. In good weather, the walking is better than the coffee. A change of scenery also helps refresh your brain.

My notebook has a real keyboard. I can type anywhere at full speed. No rubber lumps. No short travel. Real feedback. Superb.

Tough computing helps. SSD instead of magnetic disk. A keyboard with water resistance. A warp resistant case. None of the failures reported to me by people who purchased a slightly cheaper notebook or an expensive Apple device. I just throw the notebook into my back without any worries.

The lows

Before I upgraded to a 1 TB SSD, disk space was always a problem. I often had extra bits on large capacity USB sticks that were too slow. My first USB external disks where too slow.

Wet weather and cold wind are bad. You have to sit indoors at the coffee shop. Some are too noisy. Some are overheated. Most are crowded in bad weather. I have some nice jackets for days when the wind is not so wild. I know where there are sheltered areas for wet days without wind.

Lack of 4G can be a problem when travelling on the road away from the city. 3G works for email and is too slow for everything else. I know where 4G drops out on local train trips and can open a few Web pages before I hit the dead zones.

Conclusion

Low weight and battery life are your best investments for mobile computing. You can upgrade your disk. Test drive several backpacks before buying. Enjoy computing outdoors.

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