Off topic: Laptops, lessons learned and the things that matter
Thread poster: Lincoln Hui

Lincoln Hui  Identity Verified
Hong Kong
Local time: 19:14
Member
Chinese to English
+ ...
May 28

It's been almost six months since I bought my last laptop, a ThinkPad E585. I'm getting the itch to buy a new one; there was always a sense that this was going to be a transitional/secondary machine, and I'm about ready for a new toy.

While I can probably hold off that itch for a while longer, I've been thinking about what matters to me when I buy a laptop. This is totally a stream of consciousness, but maybe it’ll help somebody figure out what to do when they look for a new lapto
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It's been almost six months since I bought my last laptop, a ThinkPad E585. I'm getting the itch to buy a new one; there was always a sense that this was going to be a transitional/secondary machine, and I'm about ready for a new toy.

While I can probably hold off that itch for a while longer, I've been thinking about what matters to me when I buy a laptop. This is totally a stream of consciousness, but maybe it’ll help somebody figure out what to do when they look for a new laptop, and maybe avoid a trap or two, because there are some things here that most reviews you read simply don’t talk about.

Size, Weight and Mobility

I used to own thick and heavy desktop replacements. I had a mobile laptop – an Acer Travelmate – when I was in school, but I didn’t appreciate it nearly as much as I would now, because, well, I was a student.

My laptop is 15”, just under 20mm thick and weighs 2.1kg. It’s not ultra-mobile, but reasonably easy to carry that I leave home with it 2-3 times a week. I don’t actually need to take it with me most of the time, but being able to get some work down when you sit down on a bus or at a restaurant has value. I would not go back to heavier laptops.

When I buy a new laptop, these are pretty much the dimensions I’ll shoot for. These days, I wouldn’t consider any laptop heavier than 5 lbs (2.27kg) or thicker than 1 inch (25.4 mm). Actually, 25mm is pushing it; I want less than 20mm, and I don’t really have to compromise. Lighter would be nice, but 2kg is light enough that it stops being a priority.

15 inch is a little big when you sit down in a bus. I expect to fly A LOT with my next laptop, and I can already see using it in economy class being rather cramped.

At the desk, 15 inch is perfect. 14 inch would feel a little small, and 13 inch even more so. I’ve thought about having a 15” laptop as my main machine, and a 13” ultrabook or even a Surface as my secondary machine on the road. But I’d rather not deal with switching between computers (and I already have my current Thinkpad), and if I want a single machine, I’ll take the 15” and compromise on it feeling a little big on the road.

There are benefits to having a laptop designed to be mobile, other than it being mobile. Cheaper desktop replacements are usually made of crap and can literally fall apart in your backpack. Cheaper ultrabooks, on the other hand, are at least designed to take a little bit of abuse if you bring it on the road. The fact is f=ma, and there are some components that tend to become points of failure. Small and light laptops can sometimes be flimsy, yes, but they also do less damage to themselves, much like light people compared to heavy people.

My laptop’s battery doesn’t last 5 hours on low-power surfing. This hasn’t hurt me yet, but I really want something that lasts longer if I fly regularly. 8 hours or more would be great; I would tolerate 6 hours of "real" battery time.

Screen

I’ve had basically the same species of screen on my last 3 laptops – 1920x1080 matte IPS. That’s pretty much where things have been for several years, and where things will continue to be for the foreseeable future. 1366x768 is really too low when you work with documents. 4K would be nice, but on 15” I’ll most likely scale it back to the same size as FHD anyway, and 4K kills about 1/3 battery time, which is simply too high a price to pay. I wouldn’t get a UHD display even if it cost the same as the FHD one.

I have no real use for touchscreens or convertible tablet-hybrid laptops. The problem is that these so often come with glossy screens, up with which I will not put. There are simply too many disadvantages - unusable in sunlight, tiring on the eyes, smudges - that make them thoroughly unacceptable.

Most of the time, things like color, response times, contrast and brightness don’t really matter to a translator, unless you’re using the computer for fun too. Maybe brightness, a little bit, and maybe backlight bleeding. But it’s worth paying attention as to whether a notebook uses PWM to dim the screen – it doesn’t matter in most cases, but there are a few laptops that would flicker when the screen is dimmed. HP, I’m looking at you.

I’ve never used a screen with high refresh rate, although my next laptop will probably have one.

You literally have to try to get a TN panel these days. Please don’t try.

Keyboard

Most things about a laptop you can find out on the internet. In most cases people will tell you what to think, and you’d be fine. But the keyboard is the one thing that you can’t compromise or rely on others.

For me, the Home/End/PgUp/PgDn keys are non-negotiable. Razer laptops are just about perfect in every way, and I’ll never buy a Razer laptop until they fix their stupid keyboard layout.

Some people need a numpad. Some people hate it. I don’t want one as I’d rather have a centered keyboard, but I can live with it. It does make the keyboard pretty cramped, especially if you’re on the road, but my current laptop has a numpad too and I’ve gotten used to it. I even use it from time to time.

If there’s one thing that I regret about buying my current notebook, it’s that the keyboard doesn’t have backlighting. It’s an annoyance that I’ve learned to live with, but an annoyance nonetheless, and if I had known this beforehand, I might have reconsidered.

Thinkpads have a quirk where their left Ctrl and Fn keys are reversed. This can be changed via software, but the key sizes are out of whack too. I’ve grown used to it and it won’t stop me from buying a Thinkpad, but an annoyance is an annoyance.

Most laptop reviews spend their time talking about keyboard feel, and the conclusion I’ve reached is…I don’t really care. Yes, the click on a Thinkpad is nice, but I can get used to a softer or otherwise different feel without really being bothered by it.

What’s inside

…don’t matter. Seriously, all that matters is what’s on the outside.

4-core CPU, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD; it’s actually hard to buy a laptop these days that DOESN’T have these specs at $600 USD and up, and that’s totally adequate for most people. Realistically, I want at least 16GB and so do you, but I can live with 8 if I must. The other things? They don’t matter, for work at least. If you do other things on your computer that need other things, you already know what you need. Most translators shouldn’t need to pay a lot for their laptop; the things that you need to pay for are mobility and build quality, not performance.

What will my next laptop be? Probably a Gigabyte Aero 15, although I’ll be waiting for review of its new refresh coming out in the summer. The MSI equivalents are a distant second – I actually like the keyboard layout, but 1 extra hour of battery time matters, and I want to be able to add a second stick of RAM and SSD without having to take the motherboard apart.


[Edited at 2019-05-28 07:38 GMT]
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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 13:14
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
@Lincoln May 28

Lincoln Hui wrote:
These days, I wouldn’t consider any laptop heavier than 5 lbs (2.27kg) or thicker than 1 inch (25.4 mm).


In my opinion, too much stock is put in the weight and thickness of the laptop. A thin, light-weight laptop can be just as bothersome as a heavier, thicker one if the backpack or carry case that you lug it around in isn't suitable. I understand that there is a difference between carrying 1 kg and carrying 2 kg, but choosing the right laptop backpack will go a long way towards neutralising disadvantages of a heavier, thicker laptop.

In fact, try to get a laptop backpack with wheels (and a telescopic handle), so that you can drag it when the surface you're walking on is suitable for dragging luggage. Don't buy a laptop to suit your existing backpack. Buy a new backpack to suit your laptop.

(This advice assumes you'll be doing most of your work at desks or in public spaces where room is not an issue.)

15 inch is a little big when you sit down in a bus. I expect to fly A LOT with my next laptop, and I can already see using it in economy class being rather cramped. ... At the desk, 15 inch is perfect. 14 inch would feel a little small, and 13 inch even more so.


Have you considered a small, powerful laptop, along with a portable screen? You can use the larger screen whenever you have the space, and use the smaller laptop without the screen when you don't. Some of them are USB powered but don't have their own battery, but others are USB powered *and* have their own battery (e.g. the ASUS MB16AP). The biggest one I was able to find was 15", however (why???).

My laptop’s battery doesn’t last 5 hours on low-power surfing. ... 8 hours or more would be great


Well, that's what you get when you choose a thin laptop -- no removable battery. I'm not sure if you're allowed to take an extra battery on the airplane with you, though.


 

Jo Macdonald  Identity Verified
Spain
Member (2005)
Italian to English
+ ...
Battery life May 28

The battery on my E560 lasts for ages. Never had it anywhere near flat working indoors and even outdoors with the screen on full power it lasts 5 + hours. With an SSD there are basically no moving parts and the fan never really starts up. An i7 uses a lot more power than an i5.

 

IanDhu  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 13:14
Member (2005)
French to English
Using a laptop as a desktop: some caveats May 28

1. The motherboard overheated on a beautiful Toshiba media centre after about 18 months' use: you need to make sure of having adequate ventilation. A cheap fan whirring underneath will save machine life.

2. On that Toshiba and its successor, a Compaq laptop, the battery discharges too soon. The Compaq, being lighter than its Toshiba predecessor, is useful to lug along on trains to work with out of office at clients, but is safest when plugged in to the mains, since it affords at bes
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1. The motherboard overheated on a beautiful Toshiba media centre after about 18 months' use: you need to make sure of having adequate ventilation. A cheap fan whirring underneath will save machine life.

2. On that Toshiba and its successor, a Compaq laptop, the battery discharges too soon. The Compaq, being lighter than its Toshiba predecessor, is useful to lug along on trains to work with out of office at clients, but is safest when plugged in to the mains, since it affords at best 30-40 minutes working from the battery, and less if a lot of kit is connected to the ports. Unless this machine stops functioning, I shall work within its limitations for the time being. Alongside it, I run a Dell Optiplex all-in-one desktop model: it's safer to spread the risks.

Another point is that I bought the Toshiba as a shop model, at a discount: the batteries were already bodgered and discharged disappointingly soon. The machine was somewhat the worse for wear in other respects, too. Don't do it; buy brand-new.

A footnote to this is that I use a Huawei "domino" modem (basically a case the size of a cigarette lighter, with a WiFi station at one end, and access to the mobile-phone network [4G] at the other) for connecting the Compaq to the web - a fairly satisfactory mobility solution.

A PPS: I recently heard a horror story concerning a FNAC IT customer who was refused repairs due under warranty. It sounds like an emporium to be avoided when buying hardware.
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Rolf Keller
Germany
Local time: 13:14
English to German
Battery & fan usage May 29

[quote]IanDhu wrote:

The motherboard overheated on a beautiful Toshiba media centre after about 18 months' use

Dust inside? A very common cause.

the battery discharges too soon.

Some laptops come with inappropriate ex-factory settings (BIOS and Windows) and thus consume more power than necessary. More power means more heat which in turn causes higher fan speeds. Higher fan speeds lead to more dust. More dust leads to higher temperatures because it hinders the air flow. A vicious circle.

The same holds for desktop PCs but with laptops the problem is much greater.

Unfortunately there is no simple receipe for making the right settings. Sometimes you need even a "power-save" tool - which might interact with BIOS & Windows in an undocumented manner. If you don't have the necessary know-how you need an expert.

Anyway you should verify (via Windows' Task Manager) that the cpu usage in idle is less than, say, 5%. If not then there is a need for action.


 

IanDhu  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 13:14
Member (2005)
French to English


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Thank you, Rolf May 29

I stand enlightened, although the motherboard ventilation is viewed as inadequate without a fan under the laptop.

 


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