You’d think it would be easier to find a laptop worth buying. There being many fish in the sea and all that. But I remain relatively unimpressed with the current options. MacBooks notwithstanding.
And yet I’m in desperate need of a hardware upgrade. A laptop is – just as it is for my colleagues – my livelihood, quite literally. All of my writing and a large part of my testing is done on these machines, and as a result I’m a demanding user. Those demands can age machines prematurely. Although it’s been a credible and reliable platform since its purchase, my Thinkpad X40 is beginning to wilt under the pressure placed upon it.
The good news is that laptops are an area that we’re generally willing to invest in at RedMonk. It’s not that price is no object, but given the importance of the tool we’ve always invested fairly substantially in our hardware.
The bad news is that I can’t find anything that meets my requirements. Some are close, but nothing’s close enough yet. Close doesn’t cut it when you’re spending north of $2K.
Laptops not being a market I cover officially, it’d be inappropriate of me to comment on market demand in any real detail. Nonetheless, I’m somewhat convinced that a laptop I would buy is a laptop many would buy.
So what am I looking for?
The importance of battery life is almost entirely dependent on the typical usage scenario. If your primary employment of the machine will be in an office context, or home usage with occasional visits to the coffee shop, it’s probably not much of an issue for you today. Unfortunately, that’s not me. I’m looking for a minimum of six hours in my next machine, and ideally > eight.
Apple users laugh at me when I consider this, but the fact is that Linux is the best choice for me as a desktop operating system at the current time for reasons personal (I can bend it to the way I want to work) and professional (the majority of applications I test and evaluate run on the platform), so this is a concern. Right now, Intel is running away with the title of most-Linux friendly hardware vendor, so that’s option A. Above all, no Atheros wireless chipsets; the flaky madwifi drivers are maddening.
Wifi, obviously. Bluetooth is another must, given my current device portfolio. Ideally, on board Cingular WWAN as well, but I already have a card so that’s not a deal breaker for me.
Absolutely not a must have, but a machine that provided integrated GPS – such as the Asus U3 offers – would be interesting. Very interesting.
Don’t need discrete, I’m not a gamer. The integrated graphics on my 3 year old X40 are good enough to run Compiz with all of the fixins, so something newer would be unlikely to negatively impact me.
A Solid State Drive, 64 GB minimum. I’m living off of 40 now, and am always pressed for space. This component being easily upgradable – unlike the display – I can live without an SSD for now if need be, but I’d prefer not to. Lighter weight, lower power, faster read times, no moving parts, silent operation: it’s a killer proposition for any frequent traveler.
More memory, more better. The cardinal rule of desktop computing. 2 GB minimum, hopefully expandable to 4.
Alex assures me that Apple touchpad users never complain about the technology, as do the majority of Windows users forced to endure them. Myself included; I never really recovered from the hypersensitive touchpads of the old Dell’s and Gateways I used to use – and cover up with a business card. I went Thinkpads about 7 years ago and haven’t looked back from the Trackpoint since. While it’s possible that I could adapt to a touchpad, I’d prefer not to have to.
Multimedia (Camera, Speakers, etc)
Don’t particularly care. The majority of listening I do is over quality headphones anyway, so the speakers are not terribly important, and the camera is a nice to have but not sufficiently critical to impact my decision.
Not only do I not need one, as I have an external DVD driver/burner I can attach for the initial Ubuntu install, I don’t want one. With just about everything I need want available over a network or on flash media, the only thing I’d use it for would be watching DVDs, and we all know that there are alternatives to lugging the discs and the disc drives around. So why incorporate something used so infrequently? Exactly.
I know there are many who scream for next generation output options like HDMI, and I suppose it would be interesting to hook my laptop up to my LCD TV, but I use them infrequently enough for this to be a non-issue for me.
Given my preference for the ultralight form factor, I can’t expect the world in this department. Given that I’m often running VMWare, a browser with 30 tabs, Songbird, a text editor, and Apache/MySQL simultaneously, however, I need a few horses under the hood. Let’s say dual core, and north of 2Ghz. One of those new Penryn chips would do nicely, I think.
LED backlighting is clearly the future for screen technologies. Brighter displays, lower power consumption, and thinner screens. What’s not to like? Minimum resolution would be 1280 x whatever. The 1024×768 I’ve had on three different successive X series models is no longer sufficient for my purposes.
Depending on the reviews, I might be persuaded to go smaller than my current 12.1″ configuration – perhaps to an 11″ model similar to the new Lenovo IdeaPad pictured – but it’s more likely that I go bigger. Specifically, to 13″. This is due in part to the viability of my iPhone as a computing platform, but also ongoing weight reductions mean that the 13″ models are comparable in heft to 12″ models such as my X40. Besides the screen size, like everyone else I want the smallest package practically achievable.
I’m less sensitive to this than are some that I’ve spoken with. Particularly when the extra weight results in a studier, more survivable machine as has been the case with Thinkpads historically. Or for larger, more capacious batteries. Let’s say a cap of four and a quarter pounds.
In a perfect world, I would have bought some version of the Intel Metro prototype before year end. That machine, in fact, is one of the reasons I’ve held off as long as I have in replacing my X40, as rumors were it would reach production late last year. Sadly, however, it seems destined to remain as unobtainable as a concept car.
Available, but of less interest are the Dell XPS M1330, a very fine machine that meets the majority of my requirements, and the aforementioned Asus U3. The latter has some significant drawbacks – battery life being the killer for me – while the former has reportedly had some build quality issues.
As for everyone’s favorite vendor, Apple, they’re not out of the running. Particularly if some of the ultraportable rumors are true. But there’s the touchpad thing, of course, and more problematically the vendor’s stubborn insistence on but the one mouse button. I simply can’t fathom the thinking behind that, in this day and age.
What of Lenovo, you ask? As a long time Thinkpad customer, are they not in the mix? Well, unfortunately, my would-be first choice seems to be doing its best to lose that distinction. While enormously appreciative of the vendor’s candor and transparency, I find the explanation for the lack of higher quality displays unconvincing in light of their availability within competitive products (as do many of the commenters). Likewise for the reasoning behind not including an SSD option. Indeed, on the latter note, it was interesting to learn today that SSDs will, in fact, be an option on the forthcoming IdeaPad U110 machine.
In short, while it’s not fair to say that the Thinkpad engineers have been resting on their laurels, the fact is that the X series machines that fit my needs best are currently outclassed by competitive products such as the M1330. The Thinkpads are undoubtedly tougher and more durable, but the fact that the display has not improved significantly since (reportedly) 2000 is discouraging. Because a Thinkpad is simply what I’d prefer. At least in a world with no Metro.
But I know and have great respect for some of the folks that work over there, so I’m certainly not writing them off. To that end, I’ve given my email to Lenovo to update me on the specifications for the U110 – they’re not available at the moment, but it doesn’t appear to be LED backlit and the removal of the Trackpoint is a strike – and I hope that this rumor has some basis in fact. If it doesn’t, there’s a pretty good chance my next machine won’t be a Thinkpad for the first time since ~2000.
At any rate, I hope the above list is of some assistance to the vendors in question, and feel free to contact me in the comments or directly with questions or feedback. With luck, now that the vendors know what I’m looking for, I’ll find it sooner rather than later. Some of them have to listen. Right?
Disclosure: About a year ago, Lenovo provided me with a loaner X61s – since returned – for testing purposes.