Recommendations roundup for “TPC”

My brother Daniel introduced me to a new term he and his security-geek friends are trying to encourage the rest of us mere mortals to adopt: “TPC”, or “Trusted Physical Console”.

In short, it’s the sturdy, small laptop running a trusted operating system, to which you (and probably only you) have control of the tools available. (Probably not counting: laptop provided by your boss or school, especially if you don’t have root privileges.)  It’s a nifty term — especially from the point-of-view of improving security and privacy culture — because it reminds us that “the cloud” is not necessarily trustworthy, even (perhaps especially) for technically savvy people.

I made a lazyweb request for recommendations for a TPC that I can use on the bus, and here’s my out-loud thoughts summarizing the responses (received on Twitter and elsewhere):

the request

I said I wanted “a small, lightweight yet sturdy laptop to run (Ubuntu) Linux. Goal: run git & emacs (& chrome) on the bus.” Implied — but not stated directly:

  • about 13″, very high resolution screen (but that I can plug in to a bigger monitor)
  • less than four pounds (an arbitrary limit, I confess)
  • decent battery life
  • multiple cores (do I need to even specify this in 2013?)
  • <$2000
  • Ubuntu should “just work” — I don’t need to be the first reporter on hardware bugs


The recommendations fell into four broad categories:

  • MacBook Air: Ted O’Connor and Oliver Mason recommended this direction. It’s an interesting idea: the hardware is designed for the sort of transit-based flexibility that I want.
  • ThinkPad X220 – my brother runs this himself, though he does so because he salvaged a friend’s, personally replacing the screen, upgrading the hard disk (to SSD) and the RAM. Matt also uses an X220i.
  • Dell XPS 13 dev edition – my co-worker Pierre suggested this series. It’s Dell’s “Developer Edition”, coming guaranteed to work with Ubuntu.  Daniel’s opinion of this series is pretty high too.
  • ZAReason and System76 – Ted and John McChesney-Young suggested these two respectively, as “ideologically pure hardware” (Ted’s term). These smaller companies each make hardware explicitly designed for Linux. ZAReason’s ultrabook is roughly comparable to the Dell XPS system, but System76 doesn’t seem to be shipping a device under four pounds.

I’m going to reject the MacBook out of hand — I’m a little more ideologically driven here, certainly more than Ted, but also I’m tired of being “that guy” who makes Linux work in improbable places. I’m not a hardware hacker, and I don’t want to be making contributions to the open-source and free-software world through hardware driver bug reporting (sorry Ted! I know, it’s supposed to just Do The Right Thing, but my experience with SciPy on Mac has been so unpleasant that I’m dropping that direction).

I’ll write a followup post with the top contenders and what I’ve chosen. I’m eager to get off my previous laptop (on which I’m writing this) which is easily six pounds, no battery life, and more than five years old (though it still supports Ubuntu 12.04 just fine).

This entry was posted in programming, work. Bookmark the permalink.