I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

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Originally uploaded by lenovophotolibrary

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?

Battery Life

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.

Hard Drive

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.

Optical Drive

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.

The Candidates

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.


  1. I’m going to back up Alex by saying Apple’s touchpads are indeed flawless, and reassure you that the “just-one-button” issue isn’t an issue at all. That’s right. All you have to do is go to System Preferences, Keyboard & Mouse, and then enable “two fingers + button secondary click” or something to that effect.

    Typically, to right-click when I’m on the road, I just place an extra finger down on the trackpad and then use my thumb to click the large single button. It’s very natural.

    Other perks:

    Two fingers + movement = scrolling

    Input ignored while typing (no accidental mouse movement or clicks)

    And yeah, HP/Dell touchpads sure are a pain. When I have to use such notebooks, I often find myself asking the owner how they can stand it. Have you tried their little scroll strips?? Horrible, horrible, horrible technology. Jumps around like crazy.


  2. Since you haven’t ruled out a MacBook, I’ll share a few items about my experience you may find useful.

    I have the 15″ MacBook Pro which sounds like it is a little larger than you’d like, but of course they do have 13″ versions. I actually don’t find the 15″ too large for travel as it fits nicely in the bag I have and isn’t too heavy.

    The battery life, at least as mine is configured and works, may not meet your 6 hours but it works for me and I am disconnected from power a fair amount of the time.

    I moved to my MacBook from a Dell/Windows but have also been a Linux user for years. I have found that OS/X works great and I have (mostly, just IE for a specific app) no need to run Windows (have it available via Parallels). I have also set up a VM for Linux (currently have LinuxMint) and have found that the latest version of VMware works better than the older version of Parallels I have. When running in full screen mode you can’t tell it isn’t natively running Linux.

    It has good connectivity with WiFi and Bluetooth built in. I use a Bluetooth GPS receiver with it and it works great.

    Regarding the touch pad, I have actually preferred them to Trackpoint, but understand your concern. I certainly have no problems with the touch pad on the Mac and it is one of it not the best I’ve used. You can “right click” with a two finger tap and I’ve gotten used to that so there is no issue there but agree, not including a right mouse button is just silly. In the office, I also use a cordless mouse and while there isn’t a physical right button apparent, clicking on the right side does result in a right mouse click action.

    Hope this helps!

  3. Stephen. I would suggest you email me directly at [email protected]. I will be able to help you out.

  4. It almost sounds like you might want a convertible TabletPC (although I have to agree with Alex, Alan and Kevin about the MacBook trackpad). You’ll find a lot of tablets ship without an optical drive, have mediocre (battery friendly) graphics cards, decent processors that tend to favor decreased power consumption instead of performance, and in general, good battery life.

    Take a look at the Fujitsu T4220 for instance: http://tinyurl.com/2fulbk
    8 hours of battery life if you remove the optical drive and put in a second battery, up to 4GB RAM, 12″ display at 1400 x 1050 (with the SXGA+ display).

    I’ve had pretty good luck with Fujitsu’s in general, and I think it’d be worth looking at their offerings.

  5. You know what I’d recommend, of course šŸ˜‰

    The trackpad and one mouse buttons are, interestingly, the last hold back for most people when it comes to Macs.

    From another angle, it would be really interesting to see what your reaction to using a Mac day in and day out for awhile would be. I’d love to read how you compared the overall Linux experience to the Mac experience.

    I think those two camps could learn a lot from each other, but there are cult (individual and company) lines that prevent much knowledge transfer from happening.

  6. Steve,

    It would be really helpful to get more insight from you on the issues you have been hearing regarding the XPS 1330.

    “Available, but of less interest are the Dell XPS M1330, a very fine machine that meets the majority of my requirements”

    Latest customer feedback is pretty positive. I’d like to know if there are any other significant misses or concerns we should be aware of.

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