Tell Me About My Computer
September 20, 2017 5:29 PM   Subscribe

I've just bought a refurbished laptop to replace the former-job-assigned Mac that was my travel computer. It's adorable. And tiny. I have no idea what half its specs mean, and probably don't need to, but… what can I do with my new widget?

Tech Details: It's a Dell Lattitude E7240 12.5" Ultrabook, Intel Core i5-4300U Dual-Core, 128GB Solid State Drive, 8GB DDR3, 802.11n with Win 10 Pro.

I've got lots of experience with Win 7 and XP. (I desperately miss XP's search function; I use Agent Ransack now.) I can barely operate a Mac. Never worked with Win 10. My most hardcore computer use is document processing; I do some video games, but nothing high-performance that I'd want on a 12" screen.

Current often-used software: Word, Acrobat Pro, Photoshop, Firefox, Chrome, Skype, Slack, Dropbox, Steam, Notepad, Paint, and more obscure things like Calibre, Sigil, Scrivener. I run into production hangups from multiple browser tabs more than anything else.

I mostly want to do web browsing, doc editing in Word or something similar, and maybe watch videos. LibreOffice, Calligra, Atlantis, even an older version of AbiWord are possibilities. (I'd buy Word if they still sold it without a subscription.) I want to avoid production software that requires cloud access - I use g'docs, but they're not a replacement for Word.

Questions (any feedback welcome):
  • What can I expect for battery life? (With and without wi-fi active.)
  • I expect to use this in a lot of public places - coffee shops, airports, hotels, etc. Any special suggestions related to that?
  • Could I comfortably run my normal software set, if I had them all installed? If not, what limits should I expect?
  • This one is dual-core; my current laptop (an Alienware monster, albeit a few years old) is quad-core; am I going to notice the difference in anything other than video games?
  • Any tips on getting used to the touchpad? (I use a trackball mouse. Should I just expect to use one of my USB slots for mousing, or are there ways to learn speed and accuracy with a touchpad?)
  • Any special tips about substitute software? I can do the pros-and-cons searching, but won't know things like, "don't bother with GIMP because the menu windows will be too big to work with."
  • Security software suggestions are welcome. I have a MalwareBytes subscription on my main computer, and Avast's free version.
  • 128 GB is a much smaller drive than I'm used to. I have portable drives and cloud options; any tips about what needs to go in the C drive?
posted by ErisLordFreedom to Computers & Internet (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer:
  • Depends heavily on your usage and screen brightness, but I'd imagine between 4-7 hours with 5ish being most likely based on what I'm seeing online.
  • If you use public WiFi frequently, I'd recommend signing up for a VPN service and using it when on public WiFI. I use VyprVPN, but there are lots of options.
  • Photoshop might chug some on those specs, but the rest should do okay. I wouldn't recommend heavy multitasking on this machine.
  • Video games don't actually make much use of multiple cores, but again, heavy multitasking would be slower going on this machine.
  • Try the touchpad out, and if you don't like it, look into getting a bluetooth mouse so that you don't have to worry about leaving a dongle or cord plugged in all the time. Windows touchpads have been getting better, though I wouldn't expect this to have one of the better ones.
  • I don't have any advice on alternative software other than to be careful about downloading programs from sketchy sites.
  • Windows 10 comes with a virus scanner (Windows Defender) built-in, but you can use other antivirus programs if you want. The free version of MalwareBytes is something I install on my computers, but I leave the everyday virus scanning to Windows Defender. Do not rely on your security software to protect you from everything, and keep backups of any data you cannot bear to lose.
  • Programs and OS need to be on the C: drive, obviously :). I typically sync documents and stuff I know I'll need on the go from a cloud drive to the C: drive and keep larger stuff (like videos/music) on an external drive or download/stream them as needed.

posted by Aleyn at 6:35 PM on September 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

Oh, since you call out multiple browser tabs explicitly, I'd expect this one to not handle a large amount of tabs as well as you might be used to (especially if you're the sort to keep 10-15+ tabs open at once like I am).
posted by Aleyn at 6:40 PM on September 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Starting to set things up. Cortana is talking to me. Aagh. Have to figure out how to shut off all the spyware features. Advice on how to make Win 10 act more like Win 7 is welcome.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 8:14 PM on September 20, 2017

Best answer: I'm using a Dell E7270 for work - it's a model two years more recent than yours but otherwise the specs are functionally the same. These are basically business "thin clients" which are meant to be much faster and lighter than regular laptops, but assume you're going to store almost all your data in the "cloud" as they ship with very limited storage as you've found out. Companies love this, of course, because they don't want any sensitive information physically on the laptop itself in case it gets stolen or compromised. Your C: is just a temporary working space, really.

2 cores or 4 cores really doesn't make a huge difference, even for gaming. Optimizing software to equally use all 4 cores is really hard.

Having a 1080p screen on a 12 inch form factor can be a little small - you can adjust the screen magnification / scaling through the display settings if you want it smaller or bigger.

Honestly I wouldn't use any third party anti-virus or anti-malware software at all. Windows ships with Windows Defender - use it. Keeping your windows software updated and not clicking on dangerous links or programs is all you really need nowadays. I work with the assumption that my laptop could just die at any moment, so I'm always prepared to reformat and reinstall - remember that C: is just a temporary working space, and your real data is safely stored in the cloud where Google has probably backed it up at 5 different locations.
posted by xdvesper at 9:03 PM on September 20, 2017

Re turning off all the spyware and bloat, when I got my Win10 laptop a year ago, I read a few tech blogs which described these issues and how to disable them. So Google Win10 setup and take notes. The explanations were easy to follow. Cortina was the first to go.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 9:41 PM on September 20, 2017

Seconding Aleyn's advice above.

I have had a Surface Pro with the same amount of RAM, CPU and (maybe more?) storage, and I never had trouble with browser performance even with 20 or 30 tabs open in multiple browsers. Run ad blocking software and disable Flash (if that's not already done). I don't think there's much outside of CAD or heavy video editing you can't do on that machine.

You can still buy a standalone version of Word, without the subscription.
posted by cnc at 10:03 PM on September 20, 2017

Best answer: You might want to try a lighter/faster browser instead of Firefox. SlimJet, Chrome (which you already use) or Chromium (if you're Google averse) come to mind.

Also that would make a sweeeet little Linux machine, just so you know. Since you still want Photoshop, you could dual boot it.
posted by Too-Ticky at 4:20 AM on September 21, 2017

Response by poster: "Linux machine" is on my mind as a solid possibility, but I have a trip away from home in a couple of weeks, and I don't want to be learning a new OS at the same time. But I'll be considering whether most of what I want can be done in Linux, and (sigh) it's probably time to get comfortable with GIMP anyway.

Giving up Acrobat Pro is the hard part. Maybe PDF Studio Pro will work.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 8:12 AM on September 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

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