Lamenting the state of laptops


— 9:30 PM on September 9, 2010

I've developed a definite fondness for the Acer Aspire 1810TZ budget ultraportable that has served as my primary notebook for nearly a year. We've had some good times together, and because the system has just the right blend of portability, performance, usability, and battery life for my needs, I've found it perched on my lap more often than its predecessors.

The 11.6", CULV-powered Aspire replaced a 10" Eee PC 1000HA that I'd had for about 12 months. I'd always spent more on notebooks and kept them for several years, but I told myself that going the budget route would allow me to replace my primary portable more frequently while still saving money in the long run. With the Aspire and me approaching our first anniversary, I've been casually scoping possible replacements. Nothing's really catching my eye, though.

I suppose I'd be more enthusiastic about trading up if I weren't so bummed by a number of trends that have polluted the notebook market in recent years. Innovation seems to be stagnating, in part because manufacturers appear content to chase the lowest possible price points. I suppose my newfound purchasing strategy is partly to blame, but I've come to the realization that I am willing and even eager to pay a premium for a notebook that's really done right. The problem is that precious few are.

Just what I want to see in a laptop screen: a reflection!

My biggest complaints center around the display. Decent screens are increasingly difficult to find, and good luck tracking down a laptop with an 8-bit IPS panel. There are some good TN panels kicking around, but most are saddled with glossy coatings that are highly reflective in normal indoor lighting. You need to crank the backlight brightness to avoid staring at yourself when using most notebooks, and some simply lack the luminance to overpower the muted mirror effect.

The rise of 1366x768 as the resolution of choice is also troubling. That's a great pixel density for the 11.6" display on my Acer ultraportable, and it's a good fit for 13.3" screens. However, 1366x768 adds up to barely more than a megapixel, and its stunted vertical span requires lots of scrolling while surfing. The absence of high-res display options on larger 14" and 15" systems is a travesty, especially when you move up from budget models or into desktop replacement territory.

Keyboards are another sticking point. Far too many are mushy, flexy, and otherwise lacking in precise tactile feedback. As a writer, I'm picky about such things. The fact that the keyboard on my two-year-old Eee PC feels better than what you get on a lot of newer, more expensive laptops is deeply disappointing. 

Do so few laptop users really want to be able to type in the dark?

Mediocre keyboards are especially frustrating in the dark, as is the surprising scarcity of good keyboard lighting implementations. I prefer LED-backlit designs because they have a sort of space-age slickness, but they're incredibly rare and generally limited to premium models. Lenovo's ThinkLight works nearly as well while being considerably simpler and arguably more elegant. However, notebook makers seem more interested in putting LEDs behind extra status lights for things like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi than they do in providing keyboard illumination. At this point, I'd settle for photoluminescent lettering that glowed in the light given off by a laptop's display.

I can't discuss interfaces without, ahem, touching on touchpads. My notebook is most often sitting on my lap while I'm mid-slouch on the couch, a position that doesn't lend itself to comfortable mousing. That puts me at the mercy of the touchpad, and I've been lucky to be spoiled by the diverse range of scrolling options and multitouch gestures offered by full-featured Synaptics drivers. However, an alarming number of notebooks lack multitouch scrolling, and support for advanced gestures is even scarcer. I wouldn't buy a notebook that lacked either, just like I wouldn't settle for a mouse without a scroll wheel and back button.

Why provide a smooth tracking surface when you can impede finger movement with stubble?

The importance of a touchpad's surface also seems to have been lost on some manufacturers. Tracking surfaces should be free of friction, but all too many are slightly tacky or textured in a manner that actually impedes smooth finger movement.

In too many cases, function is being sacrificed for form—and poor form at that. Whoever thought easily marred glossy plastic was a good idea for a device that's handled constantly needs to be tried for crimes against good design. Some notebook makers seem to be getting the message and are moving toward finishes that hold their appeal outside carefully posed product shots. However, even some of the most practical aesthetic efforts to date still commit a cardinal sin by crafting the display bezel from smudgetastic glossy black plastic, which then becomes littered with fingerprints right before your eyes as you adjust the screen tilt to compensate for its inevitably narrow vertical viewing angles.

Fingerprints are hard not to see when they're sitting right across from you.

Ugh.

At least the hardware that underpins notebooks continues to improve. The arrival of affordable ultra-low-voltage Intel CPUs has been a boon to the thin-and-light category, and graphics switching schemes have made it possible to get a laptop with great battery life for basic desktop tasks and plenty of graphics grunt for gaming. Nvidia's Optimus tech is the most seamless and impressive on that front, but it, too, is plagued by penny pinching. Optimus' potential is often squandered on derivatives of the GT218, which is the weakest GPU in the mobile GeForce lineup and the very same silicon behind the next-gen Ion graphics chip. The GT218 must compromise in-game detail to run most of the latest titles at acceptable frame rates, and it still can't handle some. That's a shame considering the wealth of pixel-pushing horsepower available just a rung or two up Nvidia's notebook graphics lineup.

I will admit that there are loads of laptops on the market that do a lot of things right. It's just that most get at least a few crucially important things very wrong. What's even more frustrating is that the basics, which don't have to cost a lot to do well, are so often neglected. Notebooks may be getting faster, but on the whole, I'm not sure they're actually getting better. I guess that saves me the cost of a new one this year. While I can take some solace in knowing that my Aspire hasn't been overrun by the next generation, I'm ultimately more disappointed that nothing in this latest crop has really caught my eye.

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