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For those of you who still not tired of "XYZ for sysadmin" questions: This subject is bothering me for a long time.

I had number of problems selecting notebook for job. For example:

  • Notebook vs Netbook is the real problem too. First has more comfortable keyboard and bigger screen and almost always faster. Second is smaller and easier to carry, but don't have CD/DVD-RW;
  • 14"/15"/17" screen. Don't see winner here. 2-3 more xterms/windows on one screen at cost of 1-2 more kg;
  • Number of extension ports is essential I think. New Mac Air is good, but c'mon: no LAN and two USB ports vs LAN and one USB. Also, as sysadmin I really need COM port to setup network equipment, but where can you find notebook with COM port in 2012? Problem was solved by buying USB-COM cable, but still have problems with drivers in some OSes;

So here goes my questions:

  1. What you think is good notebook for sysadmin? May be you can list specific models;
  2. What hardware extensions(i.e. USB devices) you think should be added to "sysadmin must-have" list;
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Is a USB to Serial adapter acceptable? –  sparks Jul 7 '09 at 3:59
    
Perhaps you could explain the requirement for more than one NIC? –  Dan Carley Jul 7 '09 at 8:34
    
@sparks, Yes USB-to-Serial is acceptable, but they have their issues, so built-in is better. @Dan, From time to time I need to sniff traffic in bridge mode to see whats going on on network or sometimes when gateway dies, I can in couple of minutes setup my FreeBSD on notebook to pass traffic between networks while we figuring out what happened with GW. pjz suggested to use USB network card as second one. –  SaveTheRbtz Jul 7 '09 at 12:57
    
Two NICs- monitor mirrored Gigabit port on one, surf ServerFault for answers on the other. –  kmarsh Jul 8 '09 at 18:32
    
I had an experiences when there is no additional ports on hardware (i.e. PC router or Cisco 3620) or when there is need of changing header/content of packet on the fly. Otherwise you right - port mirror is good hack to do sniffing. –  SaveTheRbtz Jul 8 '09 at 19:21

9 Answers 9

up vote 24 down vote accepted

I've gone pretty much 'USB everything' so all the extras stay in the bag until needed. USB serial port, USB ethernet adapter ( I hear you about sometimes needing two NICs! ), USB CD/DVD-RW. The weight still adds up on the shoulder, but the base machine then requires nothing more than a USB port (or two or three unless you also add a USB hub to the mix). Also handy: USB card reader, USB headphones/mic, and USB->miniUSB cable (for cellphone charging), oh, and USB->IDE/SATA adapter for quick access to random drives from dead machines. Another advantage to USB is that you still have all the extras if/when you upgrade your notebook to another model!

Screensize is up to personal choice - I've gotten fast with my virtual desktop switcher and lived for a long time on an 800x600 13" screen, so my current 15" 1680x1050 seems absolutely luxurious. Of course, more is always better, right? :)

Whatever you do, max out the RAM in your laptop to whatever your OS can use - you won't regret it when you're trying to read docs in firefox on one desktop and run wireshark in another and have a half dozen screen terms open...

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Great writeup. Personally I don't think the screen size matters at all, as long as you are able to 'get things working' with it. I just went from 15" to 13" to 10" because simply I prefer having my laptop portable and a separate workstation for the heavy hits. USB has completely replaced the need for specific on board hardware imho. –  Andrioid Jul 11 '09 at 14:13

I do a fair bit of network engineering in the industrial/engineering sector and needed a laptop with a COM port for both switches and PLCs. The only real options that we found were old Dell Latitude D820s (as of about a year ago you could still purchase these if you told dell you needed the com port) and the Panasonic business rugged Toughbooks.

The toughbooks are great, a little pricey, but great. I've had better experiances with them than with the Dell's, which we found had some memory and CPU problems (bad_pool_caller bluescreens, extreemly slow startup occasionaly (4min+) with CPU going at 100% for no reason). Then again we bought a lot of the Dells and only demoed the toughbooks (the cheaper option won), so samplesize.

Edit: we were looking at these after about three USB to COM adapters and having no luck with Rockwell PLCs. I hear some manufacturers are now building PLCs with USB diagnostic ports, so maybe this won't be such a problem in 5-10 years.

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3  
It's still only anecdotal, but we had problems with every D820 we bought, too. I used to do PLC programming (but Modicon), I'd certainly try one of the PCMCIA serial port cards from these guys: startech.com/category/parts/io-cards-adapters/notebook-io-cards/… –  Ward Jul 7 '09 at 4:20
    
Thanks, I've bookmarked that for when we next look at purchases. –  Cirofren Jul 7 '09 at 5:40
    
If you are willing to get the panasonic tough books check out Itronix as well. They have 9 pin serial on them. gd-itronix.com –  SpaceManSpiff Jul 7 '09 at 11:14
    
The panasonic "business rugged" toughbooks aren't really a rugged laptop, certainly not compared to their field rugged models. As such they're also a much lower cost than the field rugged toughbooks. –  Cirofren Jul 7 '09 at 12:21
    
Most Dell Latitude notebooks have built-in 9-pin serial ports. Good for talking to those Rockwell PLCs you refer to. –  Sanjay Sheth Jul 11 '09 at 17:05

We've been buying HPs for a few years now and so that's what I have. Current model is a Compaq 6910p. It's not the smallest or lightest, but it's not too big or too heavy. I tried a first generation HP 2133 mini-note, but the screen size was too small on those (the first ones had speakers on either side of the screen, limiting the size). For most of my work, the newer ones would be fine, but my 6910 is still going fine.

Feature I need in a "sysadmin" notebook:

  • I find the DVD drive to be critical, for burning disks, looking at installation disks.

  • As many USB ports as possible, I find I'm always using the 3 on my current laptop. I carry a couple of small USB hubs, one powered, one not.

  • I usually don't carry a mouse, I'm fine with the touchpad and just leave a mouse on my desk for when I'm using it there.

  • A serial port would be nice, but there just aren't many laptops that come with them any more. I do have a serial-usb converter, but I don't carry it around. We have a bunch of older laptops and we leave one in each of the service corridors with the switches.

  • For my own backups, I've got an eSATA PCMCIA card that I use, but that's a "nice to have," not a requirement.

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For me, the perfect SA notebook is something that you can carry everywhere and always be to hand. That means light and small. Notebooks are too big and seem often designed for people to use on tables. Netbooks are just too small. Subnote 12" is perfect.

I have an HP 2510p presently, which they have just since released a new 2530p model of.

  • Weighs less than 1.5kg.
  • The screen is a WXGA, so capable of fitting enough information on and still readable.
  • Built-in DVD+/-RW, for burning new ISOs on the run.
  • Bluetooth, for tethering to a mobile.
  • Built-in UMTS/HSDPA, if you wish.
  • A good Synaptics trackpad, instead of just a nipple.
  • Different battery sizes available. I easily get 5hrs out of a medium pack.
  • Keyboard is perfectly good and not re-orientated like some.
  • Build quality is good.

IBM also make some nice subnotes. But the trackpad is a real clincher for me.

I think that now the only solution to serial is USB. If you can find a really small dongle based on a reliable chipset then the hassle is greatly reduced. I've had good experience with Prolific 2303 chipsets. Drivers are in the Linux kernel tree and easily available for Windows. They list some manufacturers on this page and this dongle is also meant to be perfectly good.

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I use an old HP/Compaq nc4010. It comes with two USB, a VGA port, a PCMCIA port, and a PS/2 port. It has wifi and bluetooth as well as Ethernet and a telephone modem.

It is remarkably lightweight and quite compatible with Linux and OpenSolaris and FreeBSD. I use the docking station (a/k/a HP Port Replicator) to get access to DVDs and CDROMs. The machine is very light and portable, and the screen is clear and crisp.

For the serial port, I use a Keyspan USB-serial port: these are well supported by Linux and UNIX.

As for the mouse, the notebook has a trackpad and a "finger pointer" - take your pick. The notebook is very easy to maintain and to replace parts; travel batteries (secondary batteries) are available.

Because of the age, you'll probably find great deals on the system, on parts, on the port replicator, and on the batteries on Ebay.

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Having had an nc4010 in the past - try an 25x0p. They're an order of magnitude better! –  Dan Carley Jul 8 '09 at 16:01

i use a latitude d630. since i'm outsourced it to multiple companies and on the road frequently, the verizon wan card gets used frequently. a healthy battery is essential as well. the only hardware i've had to purchase to supplement what it has was a usb floppy drive for 1 client. all other work i handle through what is included hardware wise and software.

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15" Macbook Pro. Reasons:

  • I don't have to mess with the OS to make hardware function. As a sysadmin, I spend enough time doing that on servers.

  • OS X is a certified Unix, which speaks to my geekiness.

  • It has a full complement of shell tools pre-installed, with thousands more a 'port install' away.

  • The touchpad is the only one I've ever used (out of IBM, Dell, HP and Sony laptops) that doesn't make me want to scream, or at least use an external mouse.

  • It's far easier to get VPN software that "just works", whereas several VPN tools don't even run on Linux (or at least, didn't the last time I used it as a workstation).

  • The 1440x900 display means I can run heaps of terminals side-by-side and stacked on each other.

  • Expose and Spaces have become essential productivity enhancements, as I can separate out projects easier.

As someone who works from home and doesn't have to physically connect to systems in data centers, I don't need things like COM ports. Besides, hosting centers have people for that :-).

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My employer has standardized on IBM/Lenovo and i use a X200. Capable CPU (2,5ghx dualcore) Fast HDD (320GB 7200rpm) Lot's of memory for using VM's on the fly (4GB) 3G for internet access anywhere USB DVD-RW, if i rarely need it. Most stuff is done over LAN, including installs. USB-COM, if i need it. Plenty of battery (up to 6hrs offline with flush 6cell battery). Light (about 1,5kg) 3 USB's for practically anything (IDE, SATA, Eth, phone etc) Dock (can't live without it on my desk)

Dualboot Vista Enterprise and W2k8 Standard (for local Hyper-V).

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Most Dell Latitude notebooks still have a built-in 9-pin serial port. We use them to communicate with some older PLC's whose software is so old that it can't seem to work properly with the USB->Serial Adapters.

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