A laptop that will not make you want to smash it

Grr … I want to smash my laptop!!! How many people have ever had those types of thoughts before? I sure have. My bet is, so have you, and probably several times in your life.

 

I think that a better laptop could be made, and that it probably would not be too expensive.

 

Why do laptops today simply suck?

 

A huge part of the problem is hardware and how poorly made many modern laptops are.   Software too plays a huge role and I would like to explore this in a future post. Windows in particular has been criticized in the past for its flaws and I think with considerable justification in some areas. There is also user error, which there is no easy cure to take over.

 

The single largest cause is likely the “race to the bottom” that has been caused by the endless price warfare in the PC segment, where laptop makers have cut quality because of competitive pricing pressures. However there have been other flaws in execution that many PC makers have made that have resulted in inferior quality products. Even more expensive laptops often don’t give a great experience.

 

These also seems to be a form over function mentality. When most reviewers review a phone or other product and talk about build quality, they are really talking about materials – the feel in their hands and their subjective opinions about the looks. The end result has been devices with form over function. Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than glass back smartphones and the pursuit of thinness at all costs, despite the impact on overheating and smartphone battery life. Laptops I find are quite similar.

 

I think that one of the reasons why Apple has done comparatively well, is apart from their marketing, the legendary loyalty of the core Apple fanbase, is that they have done a lot right. Their products are very well designed and I would like to explore these in depth later on. Bear in mind, I am quite critical of Apple elsewhere.

  • They have only a small product line of products (very important).
  • Strong focus on end user experience – note how well designed the touchpad and other components are. There is a relentless focus on “it just works”.
  • Quality control appears to be relatively stringent.
  • Vertical integration gives considerable (and often ignored) advantages.

I say this despite my criticisms of Apple’s other business practices. I dislike their planned obsolescence, their focus on style at times over substance, and several other factors (which I will explore). I don’t want to idealize Apple, but they are successful because they have gotten a lot that they’ve done right. There is a lot that happens behind the scenes that has not been explored by other companies as well (supply chain management and the fact that they throw out 90% of the work they do).

 

Elements of a better laptop

 

When I say better, I mean hardware that doesn’t make you want to throw it out right away. I have seen too many laptops that I would love to get my hammer out and smash. I think you have as well.

 

I will give the elements that I think are the most important for laptop owners from most to least.

 

The Touchpad

 

Have you ever fought with a touchpad before? It is infuriating. You have to gesture over and over again with your fingers, but the touchpad simply will not move. It just kills the experience with your laptop. This is one of the things that makes me want to smash a laptop.

 

I have become increasingly convinced that the touchpad is a significantly underrated part of the user experience.

 

That explains to me why the cheap budget laptops have inferior touchpads that are simply unpleasant to use. That does not explain however, why higher end laptops (to give an example Dell), they have:

  • High end consumer laptops: XPS line
  • Gaming laptops: Alienware
  • Mobile workstation laptops: Precision

 

All of these should have touchpads that match or exceed what Apple has to offer. These high end laptops are not cheap. They are also made for audiences too that could use it.  I have tried a multitude of laptops. None of them have ever matched the Apple Trackpad (Apple calls it a trackpad).

 

A while back, Farhad Manjoo wrote an article asking why did every Touchpad but Apple’s suck? It basically came down to the fact that Apple wrote their own software drivers whereas the PC makers generally outsourced to companies such as Synaptics, Elan, etc. Manjoo recommended that PC makers do the same and write their own drivers. That is one reason why I praise Apple for its effective vertical integration.

 

Microsoft has been trying over time to improve the quality of its touchpads and maybe someday they may close the gap. For now though, I think that Apple continues to enjoy a huge advantage. The big challenge here is that they have to have their hardware makers (not just Microsoft themselves) integrate good quality touchpads.

 

I would argue that first, laptop makers have to simplify their lineups (see below), and second, they have to have just 2 touchpads. The first will be a smaller touchpad intended for small to medium sized (say 15″ and under) laptops. The second will be for large laptops. Both touchpads should be large relative to the size of the laptops. Again, this is something the Apple did well. There have been a few praised PC books (the Lenovo U300S series for example), but they are the exception rather than the rule.

 

All laptop models from this laptop maker will carry one of these two choices for touchpad. The laptop maker will work closely with the touchpad maker to design the best possible drivers for their touchpad, buying the same two models across all models. There will be incremental hardware upgrades on the touchpads as the technology improves. Mostly importantly, the drivers should be made internally, made with close integration with the driver manufacturer, and made so that well, they are not a pain to work with.

 

Screen

 

What do you look at every time you manipulate your laptop? The screen. Ever look at a screen where the colors clearly are not vibrant, and the balance is off?

 

Most budget laptops these days carry low end Twisted Nematic (TN) displays that are generally very poor quality. Even many more expensive laptops do not carry good quality screens. I’d argue that all laptops should carry a good quality screen and that starting from medium to high end, an IPS screen is a must-have. OLED technology circa 2015 may be the future, but today there are problems (most notably the blue subpixels have terrible lives resulting in burn in).

 

I’m not going to explain the differences between TN vs IPS here, but just remember, IPS displays are good quality. They are what make up high end PCs, your smartphone and tablets (although many now are AMOLED, a different, but also high quality technology). The bottom line is that the screen is the part that people interact with the most and that it pays to have a good quality screen.

 

One more screen related question, let me ask you a question, how often do you touch your laptop screen? Laptop screens should have Gorilla Glass or something that is touch proof. Probably more than realize. Apart from at times, being gross, there is the potential for damage on the screen.

 

 

Use a Solid State Drive

 

Have you ever had a frustrating experience of waiting for an application to load really slowly? Lag can be caused by many things, but a good Solid State Drive (SSD) can help mitigate the problem. The system boots and shuts down much faster. Applications load much faster. The reason is because access times for SSDs is much faster than your typical Hard Drive.

 

First of all, the laptop should use SSDs. They simply boot faster, and make everything “smoother”. The second is that a large SSD for most consumers is not necessary because most consumers are not going to be doing video editing or any applications that involve huge amounts of hard drive space. Certainly not on a laptop. Perhaps Prosumers might on a home workstation, and perhaps on a large workstation replacement, but that is a different matter.

 

I would also consider SSDs to be a part of durability. If a hard drive is busy spinning at 5400 rpm (or 7200 or those 10k rpm HDDs), then a user moving it around carries a huge risk for damage to the hard drive and their data.

 

Keyboard and other Ergonomics

The keyboard on most laptops just sucks to type on. There is a reason why I am typing this on my desktop. It is just better to use.

 

My dream laptop would have a desktop mechanical keyboard, but apart from desktop replacements, that is clearly not practical. I think that an angled keyboard is good for typing, but not practical save on higher end gaming/workstation replacement laptops. MSI currently has an 18″ laptop with such a feature,  but it’s not practical to integrate something like that onto a smaller laptop.

 

However, there are parts that can be integrated. The excellent tactile feedback in particular is important. It is why mechanical keyboards are growing in popular and amongst them, the MX Blue is often the most popular switch. The MX Blue gives a satisfying clicking sound, which provides feedback. I think that the ThinkPad keyboard is probably the best starting point for a dream laptop, although it could be scaled up for larger sizes.

 

Equally important is the ergonomics. I think that the keyboard (and laptop) should be slightly angled so that it is comfortable for typing. Perhaps there should be a soft touch material over the area where the wrists will be to minimize the incident of wrist pain or over time, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

 

There should be one keyboard for each screen size. One of my pet peeves is that often 17-18″ laptops use the same keyboards as smaller laptops when there is enough space for more. This is a total waste of space in my opinion. This keyboard like the other parts should incrementally improve in each generation.

 

The key is that the laptop should be something that a person likes to type for hours on because of how satisfying they find the experience of typing to be palatable.

 

Battery Life

Battery life is all about trade-offs. A high end system inevitably will suffer from battery life.  The ideal would be a laptop with that is very powerful, has long battery life, and the battery can be removed at will. In practice that is not possible and trade-offs have to be made.

 

I don’t think that a high-end laptop (ex: top end gaming components or mobile workstation) can be made, at least not without being very heavy, but a relatively light laptop can be made already. It will come down to efficient power management. Apple has done probably the best job here.  Anyways, here is a breakdown of what is needed:

  1. For discrete GPUs, solutions such as Nvidia’s Optimus are important here as swapping between the Integrated Graphics (iGPU) for battery life and the discrete GPUs for performance are important.
  2. The ability of the CPU to throttle down when it is idle and sip power is extremely important. Intel has been working on this very aggressively for a long time.
  3. For typical laptops that rely purely on integrated graphics cards, being able to have good power management, including the ability to throttle down is important.
  4. Good choice of screen is important, but again, it has trade-offs. IPS screens have better picture quality than TN displays, but their battery life suffers.
  5. Other components such as SSD choice can also impact battery life.
  6. Last, but not least, the size of the battery. A bigger battery of course means longer life, but it also means that the laptop will be bigger and heavier, likely thicker as well.

 

Non-removable batteries do have the advantage here of allowing the laptop to be thinner and carry more capacity for a given mass, but the downside is that you cannot change battery when they wear out, which lithium ion batteries inevitably do.  Non-removable batteries have adhesive to stick on as well in the case of Apple, which makes removing and replacing them quite tricky. This is true by the way for any laptop that uses adhesive, although Apple is the worst offender here.  I think that all things considered, the removable batteries are worth it. They do offer the ability to change the battery in case it ever dies. There is an element of planned obsolescence built into non-removable batteries and the weight savings are relatively modest.

 

Durability

 

We take our laptops everywhere. That means accidents are bound to happen. We drop our laptops. They get wear and tear, like everything else.

Amongst the laptops that I have seen that are well built, the ones that I have noted most interesting are the Lenovo ThinkPads (well loved in business), the Dell Precision, and most durable of all, the Panasonic Toughbooks.

The Toughbooks are too expensive for consideration to discuss here (save in only the most demanding environments), but the ThinkPads are priced more affordably and we can discuss this in greater detail.

A few things:

  • The hinges are reinforced to survive several openings over and over again. The ThinkPad uses titanium hinges.
  • Choice of materials appears to be more drop resistant. The frame on the ThinkPads is made of magnesium with plastic casing that is very well built.
  • There is a roll cage. It reduces stress on the rest of the system and flex from within.
  • Hard drive has been reinforced to absorb shocks. This is not as big an issue with my proposed laptop as it will use SSDs. There is also a system designed to stop the hard drive in case of unexpected movement.
  • Keyboard is spill resistant (or at least more so than the typical laptop).
  • There are a few other features, such as high/low temperature resilience, dust, humidity, etc that are a bit more stringent than most laptops.

 

The combination has made for a very resilient laptop that can survive drops, repeated openings, and is a decent road warrior. Most other professional laptops such as the Dell Precision 15″ and 17″ laptops, along with the HP Z-Series have similar durability. They are very well regarded for that reason.

 

Cooling System

One of the bigger flaws of Apple notebooks is that by making them so thin, the cooling system is often compromised. Unsurprisingly, the Macbook and especially Macbook Pros have problems with overheating. More surprising however is Lenovo, which I find also has deficient cooling systems in its higher end laptops. It was a surprise for me to learn this because Lenovo ThinkPad is to me, a laptop that puts function first.

 

There is a real trade-off here:

  1. You can have lower TDP components and not much performance (which I recommend in my lines of products for a light laptop), with minimal cooling. Ultrabooks and the Macbook Air do this.
  2. You can have moderate to high TDP components, but with limited cooling and some overheating. The Macbook Pro and some thinner gaming laptops do this.
  3. You can have moderate to high TDP components, decent cooling, but it will be somewhat thicker and heavier. Most of the original ThinkPads are like this.
  4. You can have high TDP components and very good cooling that can disperse of hundreds of watts of energy. High end desktop/workstation replacements are like this.

 

I think that 1, 3, and 4 are the way to go. For 2, the high TDP components are worthless unless you have decent cooling because eventually the components will overheat (and throttle).

 

The laptop will have to be thicker for good heat dispersion. I would recommend heatsinks with a very high fin density and the thicker laptop should allow for more surface area, along with a top quality blower. One option may be to have an intake at the bottom-centre of the case and to have a centrifugal fan taking air in and venting it throughout the laptop, although it will need exhaust ports strategically located for heat dispersion.

 

Potential for upgrades

This is probably the least important, but it’s still a huge part of higher end laptops. It’s not as important for lower end or mid-range laptops though. I think all laptops should have their SSDs replaceable and their RAM.

 

Most laptops these days come with CPUs soldered and if they use discrete GPUs, are often not upgradeable. For higher end laptops, I’d argue that a desktop CPU is the way to go and the MXM format, or if a new format is made, something that can handle more TDP, because of the nature of such GPUs.

 

Probably no brand does upgrades as well right now as Clevo. Their laptops are designed to be taken apart and updated. This is not as important save for the top end 17″-18″ desktop/workstation replacement products.

 

Too many lines of products

If you were to go back to before Steve Jobs came to Apple, you would notice something. There were so many lines of products and they were substantially simplified

 

There are other consequences though to too many lines of products. They lead to consumer confusion, alienation, and other problems. Chris Ziegler has a good article about this on the Verge.

 

To simply, I propose keeping it to 3 lines of products:

  • Lightweight: Will be thin and durable, with a 12″ and 13″-14″ version. Basically an Ultrabook, or something similar to the Macbook and Macbook Air, but with better durability. It will not have hot running components, so no advanced cooling system is needed. The TDP of the CPU must be under 20W maximum and perhaps less than that.
  • Medium: Will have decent computing power, and better cooling. Very similar to the Lenovo ThinkPad, but with the elements I have described above. Available in 15″.
  • Heavy: Full desktop replacement, with 15″, 17″, and 18″. The 15″ will be a bridge between consumer and desktop replacement, somewhat like the Dell Precision M3800, while the 17″ will be like current 17″ Clevo laptops, with 1 heavy GPU and a desktop mainstream CPU. The 18″ will contain the server grade CPUs and room for 2 GPUs. They should be able to incorporate both gaming and workstation GPUs.

 

This will simplify things as there will only be 3 lines of products and 8 laptops. They will only be refreshed when a new CPU architecture or die shrink is released (alongside Intel’s tick-tock architecture). The refreshes may accompany other updates such as incrementally better mousepads, cooling, screens, etc.

 

The goal will be to allow greater focus on these laptops because they can execute them very well.  Since there are only 2 models of touchpads for example, the drivers should be exceptional for them.

 

Summary of Recommendations

Essentially I have recommend combining the best features of the Lenovo ThinkPad with some of Apple’s ideas and a better cooling system like that of gaming laptops or workstation replacements.

 

  • Follow the Apple model when it comes to TouchPads
  • Keep the durability of the Lenovo ThinkPad – perhaps even improve on it
  • Ideally use an SSD
  • Use an IPS display with a Gorilla Glass front
  • Aggressive throttling when idle to maximize battery life
  • Have a thicker laptop for better durability, battery life, and cooling capability
  • For high end laptops, make sure they are upgradeable
  • Streamline products so that you only have a handful of lines

 

This will not be a laptop that looks awesome (if anything it will look closely like the Lenovo ThinkPad), but one that prizes function over all else. It will be durable, life proof, run cool, and will not make you want to smash it due to poorly designed hardware, which seems to be the bane of current PC makers. The Dell Precision series might also be a good parallel, with the M3000 series being like a bridge between consumer and workstation, while the heavier laptops are like workstation replacements.

 

Much like Apple or Lenovo or Clevo or the high end workstation Dell Precision/HP Z-Series, there would be a incremental improvement each generation to the exterior casing. The “gamer” mentality would not be emphasized very much and conservative looks would be. Functionality as defined by durability, components, and cooling performance would drive the laptop above all else.

 

It is a laptop that prizes function, that is designed to be ergonomic, and relative to the components used, keep the inside cool. It will last with time because:

  • Gorilla glass means the screen will not be damaged by frequent touching
  • The better ideas within the ThinkPad mean that it is more drop resistant, spill resistant, and has a durable casing
  • SSD will ensure fast application load times and boot/shutdown times
  • IPS display will make the screen colors “pop” and give excellent viewing angles
  • Good cooling system for sustained use even in more demanding workloads for the higher end lines
  • Touchpad that is very good and an ergonomic keyboard

 

In other words, this is a laptop that may not look better than a ThinkPad, but it will be something that you want to use on a day to day basis.

 

Is there a market for this?

 

Given the rise in Apple Macbook sales, I would argue yes. A good percentage of the total sales that the Macbooks have enjoyed over the past few years (growing still I might add as of 2015, while the rest of the PC industry stagnates or declines) is because Apple’s execution has been very good.

 

I will also note that that throughout this post, two names come up several times, Apple and Lenovo. Perhaps there is a reason why they are doing well relative to their competition. In the case of Apple, their close integration with their software unquestionably also plays a role. However, I will note that neither company is perfect. Lenovo in particular has been suffering from some quality declines especially with their most recent products. They seem determined at times to milk the ThinkPad name from IBM, rather than come up with some truly better products.

 

I think at a medium-priced laptop could be made with the suggestions that I have made. I’m not saying that it will corner the market, but that it has the potential for a decent market share.

 

Where could savings be made? For the lower end consumer laptops:

  • Use a slower CPU – most consumer tasks are not CPU bottlenecked
  • 8 GB of RAM is enough
  • For lower end consumers, they will not need an iGPU
  • Could go with a smaller SSD
  • Lower end screens could be TN, although a good quality TN display

 

Savings elsewhere are not productive and this would result in a decent priced mid-ranged laptop. Naturally, the more expensive, the laptop, the less the compromises necessary, although top end laptops will be heavier due to the power of their components.

 

Nonetheless, I maintain that a “good” laptop could be made at a mid-ranged price.

 

Should you pay extra for a laptop close to this ideal laptop?

 

There isn’t a laptop that meets of the ideals that I have stated, although as I have noted, there are quite a few that touch many of the bases. What about buying the laptops that are close to these ideals? Should you pay extra and buy one?

 

I guess the way to answer this is, on average, you will spend hours every day for the next few years on your laptop.  Do you really want a laptop that you hate using every day? I would argue that for the investment (and I stress investment, even though laptops are indeed a depreciating asset), the productivity gains, if you spend the money wisely, vastly outweigh the costs.

 

Finally, of course, you will have a laptop that makes you not want to smash it because of terribly designed hardware.

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