1/21/2009

01-20-09 - Laptops Part 3

A little more reportage from the laptop front. Holy christ looking for laptops sucks so bad. They're basically all the same inside, but of course people can't just name them clearly based on what they're like. You have to look into every single fucking model in great detail to see what's actually going on with it. Some general thoughts :

802.11n (aka "Wireless N") seems cool; I wasn't really aware of that. The Intel Wifi 5100 and 5300 seem like the way to go. A lot of newer laptops don't have 802.11n which seems pretty dumb.

As much as I hate it, Vista-64 seems like the way to go for the future. All the rotten programmers out there are gonna bloat things up to all hell in the next few years, and I imagine you'll need 8 GB of RAM to run anything in 2010. Hell photoshop already wants 2GB+ for itself. A 32 bit OS locks you into 3 GB which is gonna suck in 5 years.

XP can definitely be found for laptops, but it does greatly reduce your choices. The Dell business line offers "XP downgrades" on most laptops. Lenovo Thinkpads and Toshiba Satellites also have some XP options. Oddly it seems that all of the Mini (10" or less) lappies are on XP.

LED backlighting is brighter, lighter weight, thinner, and uses less power (than the older CCFL backlighting). That all sounds good, *however* I have seen a lot of reports of problems with LED screens. Unfortunately it seems to be one of those things where they vary by screen manufacturer (LG or Samsung or whoever), and every laptop brand sources their screens from various manufacturers, so you never know what you're going to get. The problems I've seen reported are edge bleeding, flickering, brightness various, and "chunky" appearance. I think it's worth the gamble going with LED now, but you might have to fight your manufacturer for RMA if you get a bad one.

SSD's are clearly awesome for laptops but don't seem quite ready for prime time. Again as with the LED screens, not all SSD's are created equal, and it's hard to tell what brand you're going to get when you buy a laptop (mainly some of the off brands have very very poor write performance). Also, there appear to still be major problems with the bios/driver interaction with SSD's - I've widely seen reports that they completely stall the CPU during heavy write activity, indicating a failure to do asynchronous writes. Oddly the SSD upgrade options for laptops seem uniformly overpriced (just buy your own and stick it in yourself) - but there are some laptops with SSD's included by default that are moderately priced.

As for graphics - I've seen a lot of reports of heat problems with NV 8000 series of mobile chips (See previous laptop post for links). Apparently the 9000 series is better. The ATI chips seem to have less of a problem with heat, however there are many reports of problems with ATI mobile drivers under Vista. Yay. The Intel integrated chips are the best choice if all you care about is battery life.

The NV9400 is an integrated part (integrated with the south bridge / memory controller all that mForce whatever). It's supposed to be pretty good for power and is a good DX10.1 part. It's what's in the MacBook Pro for example. BTW it's a real LOL to see the tech writers speculate about Apple shunting OS work off to CUDA. Buy the marketing nonsense much? BTW also lots of laptop specs lie about the "graphics memory" with NV 9 chips. NV 9 is a shared-memory model chip because it's built into the memory controller, kind of like the XBoxes, so the "1 Gig" of graphics memory they're claiming just means that the NV 9 is using 1 G of your main memory.

Another interesting new thing in graphics is the Thinkpad T400 Switchable Graphics . The T400 has an ATI HD3470 for games and an Intel integrated X4500 for battery life. Under Vista apparently you can switch with just a mouse click - no reboot. Under XP you have to reboot. This is kind of cool, but it's also scary as hell because apparently it uses a hacked-together FrankenDriver. Personally I think just going with the NV9400 is a better choice. (also, the MacBook Pro has a 9400 -> 9600 switch option; that's weird because the 9400 is good enough IMO. anyway apparently you have to log out and log back in to switch which is kind of lame; it's not quite a reboot, but it's not a mouse click either).

There are a lot of shitty screens out there. I ranted before about the prevalence of 1280x800 15" screens. Oddly, there are also 1920x1200 15" screens now, which is equally insane in the opposite direction. (I assume those laptops come with a complimentary magnifying glass). Many laptop manufacturers now seem determined to fuck up the screens for no reason but taking glossy screens, and then PUTTING AN EXTRA GLOSSY FILM ON ALREADY GLOSSY SCREENS. Apple for example does this with the new Macbooks. The manufacutrers usually call them "edgeless" or "infinity" screens or something like that, but they should call them "nerfed" or "bricked" screens because they make your laptop useless outside of pitch dark. BTW it's super LOL that the MacBook website shows the pictures of the screen with giant reflections across it; the web site design people must have thought it was cool looking and intentional so they're trying to show off the sweet glare. (the MBP is available with matte I gather, but the MB is not). BTW also this is not a question of taste - yes, matte vs. glossy is a reasonable choice that could go either way, but "glossy with extra gloss layer" is not a reasonable choice.

On the plus side, matte screens definitely can be found (or just plain glossy without the extra stupid layer if you like glossy). With quite a lot of searching I found a bunch of 14" and 15" laptops with matte WXGA+ (1440x900) screens. Something I could not find was non-widescreen (1400x1050). Everything is widescreen now. (you can find 1680x1050 aka WSXGA+ in 15" if you want a bit more res)

Intel Core 2 Duo is the way to go, but there's a little trap. Some of them are 25W and some are 35W. Obviously if you care about heat and battery you want the 25W. It seems the secret code here is a "P" in the name and ignore the number, so P8400 or P9500 is good. Like everything else Intel has decided to jump into fucking retarded obfuscated naming land. Oh yes, of course I want a Penryn on Montevina that's a 9500 (beware, some Penryns on Montevina are 35W). Pretty good guide to Intel nomenclature .

The really thin & light laptops are crazy overpriced right now for no reason. It's the same fricking parts, in fact often they use *cheaper* parts like older CPU's and lesser GPU's, but then they charge almost a $1000 markup for being small. For example the Dell Latitude E4300 is around $1700 but a more capable and identical (but larger) Latitude E6400 is around $900. This applies obviously to stuff like the Air and the Envy, but also to pretty much every good Sony Vaio. If you want the super light laptop you have to either shell out, or go off-brand, or wait.

There are countless things to verify that many lappies fail on : heat, noise, touchpad works decently, hinges okay, screen latch (!), solid case, gigabit ethernet, eSATA.

Finally, www.notebookcheck.net was my savior in finding laptop information. They actually have all the models gathered and a pretty clear simple list of specs with each one, so you can decode the laptop model jungle. Notebookcheck reviews have actually noise volume measurements and exact temperature measurements. Booya. They do it in Celcius. 30 C is okay. 35 C or more is uncomfortable.


Now the specific models :

Dell Latitude E6400 is one of my favorites. Available in 14.1" with WXGA+ (1440x900) matte LED. It's a metal case. It's reasonable light and small and has decent battery life. The specs are not top of the line but they're fine. It also has no huge "style" markup price. Price range $800-1100. The E5400 is a good budget choice, it's just a bit heavier and bigger and slightly downgraded components, but can be had for $600. (these have no top-end graphics options, they're for non-gamers)

Thinkpad T400 is probably what I'd buy for myself right now if I was buying something. 14.1" with WXGA+ (1440x900) matte LED. Very good battery life. Good build quality and keyboard, though I have seen reports that they are flimsier and the keyboard is worse than the older Thinkpads like the T61 line. T400 is around $1200 well equiped. BTW the Thinkpad R400 and Ideapad Y430 are both very similar to the T400, but not really much cheaper, so just go with the T400.

Dell Studio 15 is a pretty solid middle of the road choice for a 15" lappy. 1440x900 LED , but sadly only glossy. It's rather heavy, battery not great. I rather like the sloping keyboard design of these things, much more ergonomic than the big brick style of the Thinkpads.

HP dv5t is a 15" with 1680x1050. Saddly only glossy and offers the retarded "infinity display" which is awesome if you like seeing reflections of the sky . The HP dv4 and dv5 are the cheapest (major brand) laptops with high end GPUs and decent specs. Battery life is notoriously poor for HP's. The use the dedicated NV chips not the integrated.

The Toshiba Satellites seem okay but have nothing in particular to recommend them over one of these.

The Acer Aspire line is pretty amazing if you want a sub-$500 laptop. The components are basically fine, the only thing sucky about them is shitty plastic build quality. If you're not a style snob, they could be a great choice.

The Sony Vaio Z is a very good ultraportable 13", but expensive ($1699). The cheaper Vaio's like the NR,CS,NZ are not competitive in build quality or specs with the laptops above.

The new "unibody" MacBook (not pro) is actually a decent value; I mean, it's not a good value, but it's not awful. Unfortunately it's only available in awful-gloss.

Lastly, laptop pricing is fucking awful. Because you're locked into the manufacturers, they do weird shit with sales and coupons. The prices can fluctuate wildly from one day to the next. Chances are one of the laptops mentioned here is available with a close to 50% discount right now. So if you are not locked into a particular model and can wait a bit, do so.

10 comments:

castano said...

Uh, note that the NV9400 is only DX10 not 10.1

cbloom said...

Urg. I cannot figure out what the video card numbering means.

http://www.nvidia.com/object/geforce_m_series.html

Creative Consumer, eh? wtf!?.

nothings said...

There's no theoretical reason that a 32-bit system/OS can't address 16GB through paging tables, allowing e.g. 5 apps that each use 3GB plus 1GB for the OS to use for itself.

Unfortunately, I don't think XP or Vista supports it... maybe Windows Server does? Linux?

cbloom said...

I read about that a bunch when I was reading about virtual memory (http://cbloomrants.blogspot.com/2009/01/01-16-09-virtual-memory.html)

With PAE you can get to 36 bits of memory (64 GB).

(depending on flavor of Windows, see link:)

http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ms791485.aspx

The problem is the drivers have to be compiled to use the address segment, so chances are on a consumer system it would crash you.

I have heard that people running Windows Server 2003 and running SQL Server or Exchange Server are in fact using /PAE successfuly. See link :

http://chadhoc.net/post/2007/10/PAE-and-3GB-and-AWE-oh-my.aspx

(SQL Server uses AWE which lets it also get to the super large memory spaces in 32 bit code)

Anyway, I'm sure none of that will be mainstream in the future. Stuff will just be 64 bit.

Tom Forsyth said...

I'm going to look like a total shill here, but whatever. It might be worth waiting a little bit until the Nehalems (I'm sorry - "Core i7" - peh) get into laptops, and the Intel SSDs go mainstream. Right now both are in limited supply, but looking very awesome and promising.

But then there's always something awesome "just around the corner", so hey.

Sly said...

Xp vs Vista: actually if I was building a new computer, I would definitely give a try to Windows Seven, aka Vista as it should have been.

SSD: fuck all MLC, they have crappy random write speed, due to lack of cache. Only exception: future OCZ Apex, which will have up to 64mb of cache to hide their write issues.

Intel's SSD seem fine in usage, even if they have a weird behavior in benchmarks, due to their write cache behavior.

SLC are the best and most costly ones. Mtron have some affordable 16gb+ in its 3500 brand. Samsung MLC SSD are cheaper per gb, for a almost similar speed.

Sly said...

Crap, the OCZ Apex SSD don't have cache. The OCZ Vertex do!

cbloom said...

Tom - and when might that be?

Sly - that's exactly why I wouldn't get a laptop with an SSD included right now; you can't rely on them giving you a good brand, I'd want to do lots of research into the various SSD models and make sure I get a good one.

Ignacio - I found a big page on mobile GPUs :

http://www.notebookcheck.net/Mobile-Graphics-Cards-Benchmark-List.844.0.html

They claim *none* of the NV parts are 10.1 , and most of the ATI parts are, even the slow 3470 that's in the T400.

BTW for my money I don't really care if a mobile GPU is fast, I just want good drivers and I want it to *work* and I need the newest DX support so I can run test code. But low power and heat is crucial IMO.

Sly said...

> you can't rely on them giving
> you a good brand, I'd want to do
> lots of research into the
> various SSD models and make sure
> I get a good one.

That's what I just did ;) I followed the subject quite a lot, and I got me a Mobi 3500 : nice and one of the cheapest SLC (aka working) SSD. But Samsung would be a better choice now, given their better gb/price ratio.

> They claim *none* of the NV
> parts are 10.1
Yes that's still true, either for desktop or mobile Nv GPUs.

> and most of the ATI parts are,
> even the slow 3470
Everything from the HD3xx0 (HD3400 being the lower today).

cbloom said...

Looks like Nehalem Mobile is around Q3 2009 , but then it will still be very hot and very expensive at launch I imagine. Probably not an option for me until 2010.

old rants