Meandering Musings

Everything not fit to publish

HP Omen

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I am not a hardcore gamer, when I was much younger I was more of a gamer. These days, I don’t care about benchmarks, only if it is fast enough to do what I need without annoying me. Spending more money to get a few extra framerates is pointless. Maybe it is a sign of getting older, I judge things on the personal annoyance factor over anything else. Give me convenience or give me death! Because of that, I will not be posting benchmarks, not that this laptop is a super high-end model, but it is certainly a good all-around laptop.

My main focus for it is as a laptop for programming that can easily run one to two Linux virtual machines and possibly dual boot without a lot of futzing. If it can reasonably run games that is a bonus.

I read lots of reviews of supposedly good programming laptops and the results were quite laughable. Small screens down to 13 inches(32.5cm) came highly recommended. There is no way I could do any work efficiently or sanely on such a toy. Who could? Just as funny is that many of these laptops had 8GB of RAM and low end, but at least low power CPU’s. That is a non-starter. Playing games on such a laptop would be annoying as well. I guess these things sell or they would not be made but I am curious what kinds of use-cases they cover.

There were some good reviews on 15" models but again too small. 17.3 inches is barely tolerable but laptops are always a compromise. 17 inches is my bare minimum screen size. Maybe someday, some genius will invent a laptop with a 32" screen that can fold three or four times when storing it.

I read a lot of whining about the struggles of lugging around a 17" laptop. It was never a big deal to me, I spent most of my college years carrying a big laptop that probably weighed 10 pounds plus all of my books. One term I had to carry large Calculus, Physics, Art History, and Economics books constantly in my bags along with the laptop. When you have to carry 80-100 pounds on your back, waist, and hands through the hilly, thick, hot, and humid jungles of Panama walking from class to class with 30-35 pounds is hardly a challenge.

Of course, when you get to bigger screen sizes plus at least 16GB of RAM and a real dedicated GPU, prices jump up. The dedicated GPU is not a necessity for programming but it is for gaming and that does add to the price.

I had been thinking about buying one since last spring so when I leave town I have a real computer with me. It annoys me to have to use my phone or tablet for anything other than making calls, productive tools they are not. Even candy crush annoys me on my phone. Yes, I am a crotchety old Luddite with a masters degree in computer science. Since I will not be using it much at home the purchase price bothers me. I am getting a cool portable and adjustable table for $32 that can be used on a couch or in bed laying down so that I hoped it would help me to use at home. The table even has separate space for a mouse, which is nice since I get super cranky using the pad to move the cursor, that annoying device makes using laptops as annoying as using a tablet. It also has a built in fan which is important since any laptop with a dedicated GPU is going to get hot. A month after I got the laptop I replaced one of my 27 inch monitors with a 34 inch widescreen making the 17 inch laptop that much more annoying.

I build my desktop computers but it is not much of an option with laptops. Even if it were the heat issue would likely scare me away, a desktop computer case is much easier to make sure it has good airflow.

My first stop was system76, a Linux-centric laptop builder that has so many options that if you are not careful you could configure a laptop that nears $10k! Unfortunately, they ship with Ubuntu which is such a poor and overrated distro. I get cranky having to use that or Debian or any of its children. Any reasonable Linux should work but I am not sure what that does to support options. I am an OpenSUSE nerd, it has the best KDE experience, the best admin tools and is by far the easiest to install and use without dumbing it down. It is equally great for professionals and newbies. I think the first time I installed OpenSUSE was in 2003, I don’t even remember the version number. I have tried lots of others but nothing comes close. It is not perfect but YAST is the best system management tool I have seen in any OS even though it doesn’t completely remove the need for editing configuration files and it doesn’t have a module for ngix which is odd.

System76 also has their own distro that is supposedly useful for STEM work, called POP OS, but it is based on Ubuntu and Gnome is a headache-inducing non-starter. Just for fun, I am installing it in a VM to check it out. Maybe they did do a good job of turd polishing but color me skeptical.

As an aside, I would love to see a distro specifically made for programmers. One that can automatically manage multiple library and languages by automatically installing them in /opt or something. Distros may have a lot of dev tools but they are typically used to support other system functions and they are often out of date and in the case of Debian, it may be broken is subtle ways cough Ruby cough. Ruby and Elixir have pretty nice programs to deal with it but they have their annoyances so I usually handle it manually and have a script to swap out the appropriate soft links in ~/bin on my development machines and just install what I need manually in /opt for my production server. At least the languages I use either have nothing to speak of or make a good attempt to solve the issue. With Ruby rbenv + bundler + gems is probably as close to good as one can get. On the other side, there is garbage like Maven for Java which fittingly is a very Java solution: it is big, bloated and over-engineered and complex yet feels underfeatured. Having no automated system is better than Maven.

These days it is easier to skip the dual boot and use a VM so having the CPU and RAM to run it is more important than ever. It also makes it easier to keep backups. I dual boot and run VM’s on my desktop but more and more I just fire up VM’s. I rarely notice performance differences. I still need to dual boot for various reasons so the ability to have two hard drives or one very large drive is important.

To get something with all the specs I wanted with system76, the price shot up way too high to justify - similar specs were about $600 higher than what I ended up getting - so I looked around on New Egg and BestBuy and Amazon. Laptops that aren’t custom made usually have one fatal flaw that makes it untenable. Underpowered features that lowered the price but made it somewhat useless to me or features that is more than I needed but would be nice that added too much cost. It seemed like there was no Goldilocks laptop available at retail sites and stores.

I did find a few ASUS laptops that were close but they are from ASUS, a company whose products I have had bad luck with and has the worst customer service in the world. I can talk more about them when I review my new audio card but I did buy a monitor from them once and to get it serviced, they required that I pay shipping costs both ways and be without a monitor for 6-8 weeks. And this was after playing phone tag with them for 2 weeks. I have a revulsion to giving money to irredeemably bad companies. Reviews for their ROG laptops were good but were peppered with complaints about when something went wrong and how impossible they are to deal with. In a nutshell, if you get lucky and have no problems it is great, otherwise, not even heaven can help you. Blech

My next stop was HP, a company I rarely buy from but have had to deal with their CS once and it was pretty good. Too bad EVGA does not build laptops, well not really, they seem to be on laptop hiatus. There is not a company in the industry that has better support. It is related to my audio card switch but my 800 Watt EVGA power supply that has a 7-year warranty decided to die spectacularly, basically exploding in the case and creating a lot of smoke. After a 15 minute wait to talk to someone in tech support and a 5-minute conversation and then a quick function test resulted in an RMA number with cross shipping and the brand new power supply was shipped the next morning. I was surprised it was a new unit, I have had to do a couple of warranty claims with them over the years and have always just been refurbished. Typically I get a model upgrade and the PS claim was no different. Besides motherboards, their products are first-rate and their motherboards are not bad just mediocre.

HP doesn’t measure up to EVGA but is good enough.

Their Omen series is very similar to the ASUS ROG in pricing and features, although the ASUS is generally slightly cheaper, losing customer support isn’t worth the slight discount. The Omen is slightly configurable on the HP website, not nearly as much as system76 but it is okay. One good thing was Windows 10 Pro was an option, if you have to get Windows - and I do not need it but HP doesn’t offer Linux on these despite it looking for very Linux friendly - there is no earthly reason to get the Home version and be even more at the mercy of Microsoft. Windows 10 isn’t so bad if you discount the spying, forced updates that seem to be poorly tested (I wait at least 180 days for feature updates, sometimes up to a year), and forced reboots. All of which means it is a bad OS. Once Cortana is killed in the registry, it improved. Sadly, so much configuration has to be done to make Windows usable. I can start with an empty hard drive and Linux on a USB stick and have a completely installed - including games and development tools - configured and updated system within 30 minutes with one reboot max. Windows take hours and many reboots.

Sorry, the continued incompetence of Microsoft makes me nerd rage. Although, when I was a grad student I was grateful that Microsoft supplied functions in the operating system APIs to facilitate writing keyloggers and other nefarious functionality, that made my life so much easier as the university’s cybersecurity lab’s Supreme Dark Overlord. Sadly, that is not an official title. I should have pushed harder to make it happen.

Now to get to the available options, yes I ramble too much. Like I mentioned, Windows 10 Home or Pro. The base CPU/GPU is an Intel i7 9750H with an Nvidia 1660 Ti, it is not the gimped Nvidia laptop cards. They also offer that CPU with an NVidia 2060, 2070 or 2080 and an Intel i9 9880H with an Nvidia 2080, but that option is an additional $830. The base option is perfect for me. For memory, it is 16GB or 32 GB of DDR4-2666.

The base display is a 60Hz IPS panel that looks nice. They also offer a 144Hz IPS, a 4k panel and a 240Hz IPS panel that seems pointless to me.

For storage, the base is 512 GB PCIe NVMe M.2 SSD. There is also 512 GB SSD + 32 GB Optane memory or 1 TB 7200 rpm SATA + 512 GB PCIe NVMe M.2 SSD or 1 TB PCIe NVMe M.2 SSD which is what I got. It boots and shuts down extremely fast and people like to make a big deal of it but I don’t think I could care less. I care more about space than speed. The fact that they only have so many writes bothers me, I have never had a normal hard drive die on me, in 25 years of owning computers. I wish a 2TB drive even if only a 7200 RPM drive were an option. At some point I will add a SATA SSD drive for dual booting and additional storage, I am waiting to see if the Samsung EVO will drop in price during the holidays. Why there was no option for an SSD on both the M.2 and SATA slots Or even a 1 TB SSD + 1 TB HD is a mystery.

There are various warranty options and MS Office add-ons. I had the unfortunate luck to get a free copy of Office 2007 Professional when I was teaching as a grad student + Visio 2007 and I can’t see ever needing more, so I refused MS Office. I usually use Libre Office anyway and have very little use for any of it these days. Besides, the ugly, unintuitive and inefficient interface of Office drives me nuts.

There are options for McAfee’s “security” software, which is bloated and inefficient. I never needed such nonsense in Linux but for Windows and my phone and tablet, I use Webroot Secure Anywhere. It is a little pricey but is so lightweight, doesn’t take over your system, offers free online storage space, password manager and various utilities like a secure file shredder that integrates into File Explorer. It has a web console that allows you to remotely control your device. It is a “cloud” based system so what installs and runs on your machine is extremely lightweight. You never really notice it until it shuts something down. Even scans are fast and very quiet. Licenses allow you to run it on up to 10 devices depending on what you buy, I had extra and was able to let my niece and one of my sisters use it also.

HP makes a big deal of the Bang & Olufsen speakers. Maybe they are nice speakers but the system has crappy Realtek onboard audio, rendering good speakers useless. There is decent audio control software but it never really sounds very good not even for laptop sound. I use $50 Bluetooth headphones which sounds so much better.

They have theft protection software for an additional cost, two types of keyboards and some wireless options: 802.11b/g/n/ac (2x2) + Bluetooth 4.2 is standard. There is also Intel Wi-Fi 6 AX 200 (2x2) and Bluetooth 5 Combo for $5 and for $10 which I got, there is Intel 802.11b/g/n/ac (2x2) Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5 Combo. Strange to have such minor options while they severely limit CPU/GPU and storage options.

The keyboard is well lit.

It comes with HDMI, thunderbolt, card reader, Ethernet, and a few USB ports.

The HP control software is surprisingly decent. Lots of useful controls.

I am not sure if the camera is any good, the first thing I did was place a cover over it. I do have a very nice webcam given to me by a special friend which is likely better than the built-in camera and has the bonus of being able to unplug completely when not in use.

They have overpriced accessories like bags and other software. I bought a nice backpack with a USB charging port for under $40 on Amazon. Like cell phone accessories, laptop accessories are expensive from where you buy the device. Go online elsewhere and save a ton of money.

The power brick is light far more than the Toshiba Qosmio I bought in 2007, about half the weight.

The laptop is plastic but seems like it is decent quality and looks nice - it has a vaguely metallic look, but is a fingerprint magnet.

A big downside is that it can get loud, it sounds like I am inside a plane at takeoff. Even older games like Rift get it very hot, the fans are powerful pushing heat out of the back. You might be able to use it to blow dry your hair. The newest games I have access to right now are Witcher 3 and Outlast 2 and it runs smoothly at high settings. As I said, I don’t play games much and newer games aren’t as good as games from the ‘90s for the most part. I care more about gameplay then graphics quality but this setup will run whatever I want well enough and for the foreseeable future.

Predictably, a full battery charge does not last long. Two to three hours max if I am not doing anything graphically intensive. For the price, it seems it could do better. This is a $1600 laptop that I got on sale after adding options.

Another complaint is that it takes them a long time to build, test and ship it. I received it almost a month after I placed the order. It is a shame I could not find an acceptable Omen configuration on Amazon or NewEgg or at BestBuy.

For its main purpose, it is just perfect and will be as long as it is running, it will probably die long before it is not enough for my needs. It runs VMWare player with no issues, even two VM instances are no problem. I am certain that Linux would run flawlessly on it so when I get a SATA SSD I may set it up to dual boot although there is little reason to do it with the VM running so well on it.

I get the performance I need and didn’t have to compromise anything although it cost a bit more than I was wanting to spend; the only pain was the reason I had the extra money. That makes it less enjoyable than it should be but that is not the poor laptop’s fault.