Anyway, now I'm forced to find a new one. This one has lasted me almost 10 years (!) and in many ways the technology is still cutting edge. (for example sadly you cannot beat the 1400x1050 matte LCD screen I have). I would like to find a lappy which will last me the next 10 years. Because the lappy is so important to me and the lifetime I expect of it is so long, price is basically no object. Hell, I should probably pay $10k if it really gave me a much better lappy, as this is my primary work computer; it is my artistic tool and my livelihood. Sadly there does not really exist such a thing as a superpremium laptop which is actually better.
Let's go through what I've learned so far :
CPU : Intel is in a code name obfuscation shit hole. The Core i3 / i5 / i7 seem to all be the same chip. These are all "Nehalem" variants , though Nehalem is technically only the 45 nm "Lynnfield" variant and "Clarkdale" is the 32 nm "Westmere" variant. Jebus. For mobile, you would prefer the 32 nm Clarkdale for lower power/heat. It seems Clarkdales are the 500 and 600 series, while Lynnfields are the 700+ series. The letter after the number actually contains the most info. "Q" means quad core, others are dual core. Most of them have hyperthreading, but a few are nerfed. "L" seems to mean low power. The "M" mobile chips draw 35 W , the "LM" draw 25. So for example i7 620 M = Clarkdale with two cores at 35 W, i7 720 QM = Lynnfield quad core at 45 W. See pcgameshardware for example. Correction : I guess the mobile variant of Clarkdale is called Arrandale, and it has better integrated graphics than Lynnfield. See Anand .
GPU : the GPU situation is sadly not much changed from one year ago. The ATI 5000 series is the only DX11 part. The 5400 is low power with full capability, but quite slow - even a 3800 is faster on many games. The 5600/5800 are the strongest parts, much much faster than a 5400. The number in the last tens indicates a revving up of speed within the genus, eg. 5430,5450,5470 are progressively faster. NVidia has renamed the 9400 the "Ion" but otherwise has not done much. Optimus seamless switching seems to have been picked up in very few laptops indeed. Reportedly the integrated Intel graphics is much better now. ATI's switchable and crossfire solutions are reported to be very poor with bad driver quality. See notebookcheck for example.
Screen : it is impossible to find a 4:3 any more (God's Own screen dimension). The best you can do is 16:10. There are new confusing acronyms for screen resolutions. For example Lenovo advertises some screens merely as "HD" or "HD+" ; it turns out "HD" is 1366x768 (ugh) and "HD+" is 1600x900 (meh). The best options are WSXGA+ at 1680x1050 for 15-16" or WXGA+ at 1440x900 for 14-15" . You can find matte though it's a bit hard. The only real standout screen I've seen is the Dell Studio XPS which has an RGB LED ; sadly it is crippled by extra glossy nerf-ware technology. IPS is the best panel technology (wide viewing angle) but they basically do not exist at all in laptops right now.
SSD : There seems to be still a massive variation in SSD brands . The Intel X25 series looks like the only safe bet. Most notebook makers won't tell you the brand of the SSD they put in (usually it's some kind of Samsung), so the safest thing is to spec with minimum drive and put in your own. Only with an Intel SSD and Windows 7 will you be sure to get proper "TRIM" support, which helps a lot.s
Other junk : Intel 6200 or 6300 seems the win for Wifi. Everybody does gigabit ethernet now. Sadly quite a few don't have eSATA ports. Almost nobody has DVI out any more, but most have either DisplayPort or HDMI ; sadly if they have DisplayPort out you probably need a fancy adaptor for an older or non-top-of-the-line LCD.
Docking : since I basically just carry my laptop between home and work, I would really like a proper docking solution this time. Sadly, there is still no universal docking standard, and the off brands don't have docks. Many people try to pass off USB docks, but those are shit. (people are also trying to pass off external USB video cards, umm no). The only serious docks I could find are HP and Lenovo.
OS : I guess Win 7 is the way to go, and then may as well go 64 bit I guess.
Let's look at some concrete options :
Dell, Sony - these once proud brands seem to have crumbled into producers of fragile shit. Maybe some of their products are okay, but the Sony Vaio E series is flimsy junk, and there are widespread reports of spontaneously self-destructing Dells and zero customer service.
Asus, Acer, Toshiba. These guys now only make set-spec laptops that you cannot customize. Nope.
Thinkpad T410 : cool, quiet (33 db max), Core i5 or i7 duals, NV Quadro NVS 3100M (bollocks), 14.1" matte LED WXGA+ (1440x900) - but terrible brightness/contrast/color , solid cover latch (yay!), eSata, real docking port, great quality keyboard with real pgup and home in the right place. Conclusion : everything is the win about this except the shit GPU. The new keyboard is supposedly much worse than the old Thinkpad keyboard, but still miles ahead of anyone else, and I hardly ever use it anyway.
Thinkpad W510 : 15.6" "HD+" 1600x900 shitty widescreen resolution choice but better contrast/color than the T410. (the "FHD" 1920x1080 is indefinitely out of stock, and too small pixels anyway). NV Quadro FX 880M - better than the 3100M but not near the top in performance, and not DX11. Core i7 Lynnfield Quad chips. Moderate noise (30-40 dB).
Thinkpad W701 : 17" "WUXGA" 1900x1200 great RGB LED - strong color, the right res, all win. NV FX 2800M or 3800M. Big and heavy as hell. Also built in Wacom digitizer WTFBBQ.
HP 6540b : 15.6" 1600x900 matte, ATI HD 4550 , weak plastic case, no eSATA but has docking, loud (33-47 dB). Not really any major advantage over the Lenovos.
HP EliteBook 8540w : very similar to the W510 ; 15.6" HD+ or FHD , LED anti-glare. NV FX 880M or 1800M. HP does this annoying thing where their pre-configured models are around 50% of the price of the configurable ones. With an 8540w you might pay $1500 for a pre-config, or $3000 for the EXACT SAME spec custom configured. It forces you to find a pre-config that is close to what you want and then do the mods yourself.
HP EliteBook 8740w : very similar to the W701 ; 17" WUXGA "DreamColor" (quite possibly the same panel supplier?) ; same GPU choices, docking. Not sure how to differentiate vs. the W701. I also really don't care much about these super fancy screens as I hope to very rarely use my laptop screen.
Sager/Medion/Deviltech/etc : all the generic laptops now seem to be built on a Clevo base. You can get a top GPU (ATI HD5870) and all the other goodies you want. Another advantage is easy access to upgrade everything, no soldered down parts. Sadly, driver support for these things is notoriously iffy, and none of them have docks. AVADirect Clevo for around $1500 is similar to the $3000+ Thinkpad W701 but has the better 5870 GPU, and you can select your brand of SSD. The big loss with these things is shitty build quality and no docking. Plus they are more likely to have random weird bad performance problems like long DPC timeouts due to bad drivers / config.