Laptoppery


— 11:36 AM on June 11, 2009

Time for some laptoppery. After spending the past month working on servers and desktop CPUs, I have the urge to get out of the office and go mobile. Since my own main laptop, the Sharp M4000 WideNote, is three-and-a-half years and aging, I have the upgrade itch pretty badly. The M4000 has been excellent in almost every way, but age has taken its toll: the touchpad lists to one side and periodically loses its scroll area, the Wi-Fi isn't up to today's standards for range and reliability, and it's on battery number three and counting. Meanwhile, Sharp has pulled out of the mobile market in the U.S. Feels like it's time to look elsewhere.

I did make one concession to the M4000's age last summer, when I bought an Eee PC 1000H. I really like the 1000H, and I use it with regularity for surfing on the couch and the like, but the 1024x600 display is just too small for extended work. I can write on it, but I can't edit or do anything involving page layout. Not without feeling cramped very quickly. I had hoped to learn from having the 1000H around how I would use such a device compared to the aging M4000, and the answer is clear: the 10" netbook simply can't replace my 13.3" ultraportable, mainly due to the screen resolution and perhaps partially due to the small keyboard. Those are the only two barriers, really, which is remarkable.

The question is what to do next.

One approach, which I really like, is to continue with my upgrade installment plan. I figure I could buy a new netbook (or something similar) every 6-8 months and wind up spending no more than I would on upgrading an expensive laptop (as the Sharp originally was) every three years. This approach has many merits, especially with the quick progress being made right now on things like fancy touchpads, displays, and battery life. One could step up to the latest and greatest thing at appropriate inflection points once or twice a year and never be outmoded, whereas even the most expensive ultraportable will seem a little tired in the back half of a three- to four-year lifespan.

This way of doing it also meshes with my sense that the right laptop for me may just be "as many as possible."

Continuing with this approach, to me, means moving into larger-than-1024x600 displays and affordable ultraportable systems that may not quite qualify as "netbooks" anymore. Only a few are on the market, but many more are coming. The ones selling now include the Nano-based Samsung NC20, the sleek Mac Air knockoff and CULV-based MSI X340, and the 11.6" version of the Acer Aspire One, which is apparently now available at Walmart but not online yet. The HP Pavilion dv2 isn't in the running because I need longer battery life and, well, I hate its keyboard. (Glossy key caps? Please.) Now is a troubling time to buy, though. These few systems are just the first fruits of a wave of promising ultraportables on the way, including Asus' 11.6" Eee PC and a number of systems based on the CULV processor.

A more traditional laptop would better handle HD video content, and there are options for well under the traditional two-grand mark now. I'm intrigued by the Samsung X360, with a 13.3" screen, 2.8 lbs weight, and a claimed 10-hour battery life for $1500. Other choices include the Portege A600 and, going more expensive and exotic, the Thinkpad X300 series and the MacBook Air. (No X200, thanks. Need touchpad.) Were it not for the fact that I could have three Samsung NC20s, with excellent build quality and similar dimensions, for that same price, I'd be more enthused about these options. One of these pricier systems would have to remove all doubt about its superiority in every way in order to justify itself. I don't see that happening.

Part of the problem is that my ideal system isn't out yet, but the potential is there. I basically want a larger version of the Eee PC 1000H, whose little 10" display is shockingly good in terms of color reproduction and off-angle viewing, and whose multi-touch touchpad is addictively satisfying to use. Give it the 1000HE's seven-hour battery life, of course. If they could add in the excellent keyboard of the Samsung NC20, that'd be nice. And let's keep the weight well under four pounds, thanks. That mix right there would do it for me.

Then again, I'd pay more for decent integrated graphics from Nvidia or AMD, along with a CULV or Athlon Neo processor. Second core is optional.

The thing is, one can dream up just about the perfect system built from components currently on the market. We're just waiting now for someone to put them all together into a nice design. Surely that can happen soon, right?

On another note, I should mention that Lenovo has almost too predictably heard a huge outcry over its discontinuation of ThinkVantage System Update service and has brought it back. (Thanks to TR reader Prototyped for the heads up.) Good for them, I suppose, but they finally admitted (for real) why they did it, and it's as lame as you might fear: the bandwidth and server costs were too much for them. Really, in this age of hosted services and incredibly cheap CPU power and bandwidth, I find that explanation incredibly weak.

Also, re-activating System Update now requires (as far as I can tell) finding out that it's back via some outside source (I got no Message Center notices about it) and manually downloading the new version from Lenovo's web site.  What do you think their attrition rate is on that? More than likely, just stepping through this process bought Lenovo an 80%-plus reduction in update traffic. Clever, perhaps, but at the continued expense of their reputation.

Still, the new System Update software seems to work well on the T60 I have here, and that's much better than nothing.

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