04-12-10 - Laptop search

My beloved lappy has lost its video out, so I've been using it recently as an actual laptop. My god this blows. All of you who actuall use laptops as laptops - beware! - you are destroying your neck and back. It's horrifically bad for you.

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.


castano said...

Most of the Dell laptops in the business line have anti-glare screens. You might want to look at the Precision M4500 in particular.

I personally wish the cheaper Vostro 3400 had access to some of the same higher-end options, specially the higher res screen.

None of them have docks, though.

I personally had a good experience with their customer service. When my motherboard died they quickly sent a technician to my home to do the replacement. It was under the 3-year warranty, though.

cbloom said...

Yeah, I actually really like the build quality of Dell's business line, but you shouldn't really have failed mobos. I think Aaron's bit the dust too, and I have other anecdotal evidence that they are extremely flakey.

I suppose the problem with the Dells was that they were trying to get away with too much heat and not enough cooling, to keep power use and noise and cost to a minimum.

Mojo said...

Man, if all you need is a glorified luggable for home/work, why wouldn't you get a teensy quiet pc? Or just a big eSATA drive and two proper pcs?

cbloom said...

"Man, if all you need is a glorified luggable for home/work, why wouldn't you get a teensy quiet pc?"

Yeah, I've thought about that before. Last time I looked there wasn't really a decent product that fits the niche I actually need. It's actually hard to configure up a mini/quiet PC to be as strong spec as a good laptop. The problem is that they build them with the cheapest parts possible, and then they also don't give you enough expansion slots to replace the net card, the sata, the graphics, etc. I also do want lapability for those 5 out of 365 days when I need to travel and have a computer, though actually just a small screen to run my brick on might be fine.

But yeah, if there actually was a good semi-portable brick, that would be the win. Though it would have to have docking and batteries so it can do standby.

Basically I want a laptop with two PCI slots and no keyboard or screen.

"Or just a big eSATA drive and two proper pcs?"

Maybe if they were exactly identical hardware and the eSATA was my boot drive, that might be okay (the problem is so much of setting up a work environment is in Windows not my data). But it would require me shutting down and powering up every time I move between home and work which is actually a pretty big annoyance. That's an interesting idea though.

sly-id said...

What's about a mini-PC like a Shuttle, with keyboard, mouse and every outside devices (even sound through a USB sound card such as the Xmod) connected to a USB hub, and networking through Wiki?

This way, you only have to plug 3 cables: power, usb hub, display. And you can still create whatever configuration you want.

sly-id said...

s/Wiki/Wifi :(

Gilles said...

You seemingly add much weight to the screen. It is strange, considering you don't use it often. I think mini pcs are not well estabilished yet, we haven't got enough consumer grade usage data about them.

jclark785 said...

My HP dv9000 fried its motherboard due to the nVidia's heat. It was post warrenty, but HP had so many problems with them that they extended the warrenty for several models with that specific fail. (Sent me a box to ship it to them, fixed it, sent it back, all pretty quick.) The biggest hassle was backing up and sanitizing my drives before sending it off to them. Oh, and putting it back together after I tried to diagnose it myself before I found out about the extended warrenty. ;-{ Anyway, after their fix it runs much cooler now. Not sure if their current models still have heat problems.

cbloom said...

"You seemingly add much weight to the screen. It is strange, considering you don't use it often."


@ jclark :
GPU heat is a big issue. It's one of the worst things about my 10 year old lappy. The Radeon 9600 in it is the primary battery eater. I think the ATI 5450 is the best mobile GPU right now. Only 19W, low heat, and full DX11 if I ever need to do that. I can't imagine actually ever playing games, but I might need to work on them.

Aaron said...

Re: "I think Aaron's bit the dust too, and I have other anecdotal evidence that they are extremely flakey."

My dell experience was the one they shipped me (6 years ago!) was doa on arrival. But the replacement that arrived a couple days later worked great. No real problems with the lappy itself. Dell, however would not give me even one day of grace period in their battery warranty (I was literally one day over and they wouldn't cover it). Dell gives you incredibly good online manuals for taking apart the laptops too. I've completely broken mine down and rebuilt it a couple times for various reasons (stuff spilled in it, cracked hinge replacement (my fault), pulling a couple pounds of cat hair out of the vents, etc etc. If they weren't such assholes to me about the battery warranty thing I'd recommend them, but not anymore. Also my sister ordered a Precision and they took like a month to build it, but then admitted that it was out of stock and cancelled her order. Craaaazy town.

cbloom said...

"Also my sister ordered a Precision and they took like a month to build it, but then admitted that it was out of stock and cancelled her order. Craaaazy town."

Oh yeah, I had that experience with the Dell I bought last year. The web site said something like 3 days to build, then after 3 days they sent me an email that it was delayed to 7 days, and then 7 days later they sent me an email that it was 2 weeks. They did eventually send it, but very annoying.

Robin said...

Great summary, and perfect timing for me. My search is for a laptop for portable audio work. A ~4lb machine with >1200 pixel display, i7 CPU for real time audio processing, 500Gb HDD for storing the productions and Firewire. It seems these choices are incompatible at any price. VaioZ, fast, amazing screen, only comes with SSDs around 128Gb and no Firewire!. Thinkpads, too heavy, no firewire. light Dells only have Core2 CPUs. HPs don't even come close to the weight and CPU. Asus I need to look into further,

Looks like I'll have to buy a machine and replace the SSD with a big 7200rpm drive of my own.

cbloom said...

Dell Latitude E6410 is 4.26 pounds (though that weight is probably with a light disk).

old rants