Modern Laptops Suck

One of the reasons why I’m moving from a laptop to a cloud lifestyle [1] is that laptops suck nowadays.

Engineering Trade-offs

Laptops have always had disadvantages when compared to desktop systems. The screen has to be smaller, the keyboard is inconveniently small on the smaller laptops and netbooks, you don’t get PCI slots (CardBus isn’t nearly as good), you usually can’t have multiple hard drives and expansion options for other things are limited. Also due to the difficulty in designing a computer that uses a small volume it’s very difficult to repair a laptop and there are no realistic options for upgrading the motherboard to use a faster CPU etc. This is OK, it’s engineering trade-offs that we have to deal with.

CPU Speed

Modern laptops however have some bad design choices. Firstly they appear to be trying to compete with desktop systems for CPU speed. This was reasonable when desktop systems had 200MHz CPUs which dissipated about 15W (see the Wikipedia page about CPU power dissipation) but now that desktop CPUs are dissipating 65W at the low end and more than 100W at the high end it’s really not practical to try and compete. My Thinkpad T61 has a T7500 CPU that can dissipate 35W, getting that much heat out of a laptop case is a significant engineering challenge no matter how you do it.

It’s a pity that no-one seems to be making laptops with large screens that have a low-power CPU. Sure it takes a moderate amount of CPU power to use a large display for games or playing video, but if you want to use a laptop for work purposes then not much CPU power is required. For tasks which take a lot of CPU power you can offload it to the cloud, I can ssh to a server to do compiles, and one of my clients is setting up an Adobe After Effects render farm [2] (in the broadest sense of the word “Cloud” can include a server accessed by ssh and a few servers on the LAN running After Effects).

Thin Laptops

The next problem is laptops being thin, it is really convenient to have a thin laptop, but the thinner it is the smaller the fans have to be and the faster the cooling air has to travel through small heat sinks. At the best of times this results in more noise from the cooling fan (which really isn’t so bad). But it also increases the rate at which dust builds up inside the case and insulates the heat sink. When a laptop is thin and light for convenience and also wide to have a large display it just can’t be that strong, so laptops tend to bend. If I put an Australian 10c piece (the size of a US Quarter) under one of the feet of my Thinkpad T61 the other three feet touch the desk! Presumably the laptop would bend in every way imaginable if you were to put it on your lap – which of course you can’t do because there are cooling vents in the bottom so it can give you a hot lap and an overheated laptop.

My first Thinkpad was 61mm high according to the IBM spec sheet. I measured my latest one at 34mm. As 61mm wasn’t too bad I think I could survive now with a laptop that was 45mm high and had more strength and less cooling problems.

My Thinkpad T61 currently has some serious cooling problems, I suspect that something is broken inside. As it’s out of warranty I took it apart but couldn’t find anything wrong, so I guess I’ll have to pay to get it repaired. This will be the third time I’ve had a Thinkpad repaired because of cooling problems, but the first time one has been out of warranty. I blame the engineering trade-offs required to make them thin.

Portable Desktop/Server systems

If you want a small portable computer that delivers great performance then a Mac Mini seems to be a good option [3]. The people who use a laptop at their desk at work and their desk at home would probably be better served by a Mac Mini. The Mac Mini can be purchased with SSD storage to reduce the risk of data loss due to being dropped. Admittedly the Mac Mini needs to be plugged in before it can be used, but if you had a USB Ethernet device and a USB hub then only three cables would be required, power, USB, and video – one more cable than the typical office laptop use with Ethernet and power.

Some modern laptop/netbook systems (such as the Thinkpad T61 and the EeePC 701) seem to be designed to use the keyboard as part of the cooling system. If you run it with the lid closed then it becomes significantly hotter. This makes laptops unsuitable for use as a portable server. Probably one exception to this is the Apple laptops which have a rubbery keyboard that doesn’t allow air flow – of course anyone who likes the feel of a real keyboard won’t buy an Apple laptop for that reason (but a keyboard that has one really hot section above the CPU doesn’t feel great either). In the past I’ve used laptops as servers once they become unsuitable for their primary use, probably in future I won’t be able to do that.

ARM Laptops

There are some laptops and tablets with ARM CPUs that should dissipate little heat. But I’m not aware of any such devices that I consider to be practical Linux laptops. I’ve done some work with iPaQ’s running Familiar in the past, it was a nice system but it was a niche market and everything was different from every other system I’ve ever used. That made all the work take longer.

What would be ideal is an ARM based laptop (not netbook – a big screen is good) that boots from a regular CF or SD card (so the main storage can be installed in another machine to fix any boot failures) and which is supported by a major Linux distribution. Does anyone know of any work towards such a goal?

5 comments to Modern Laptops Suck

  • Daniel

    Try looking into laptops running AMDs E-350 chipset. It pulls around 18W.

  • Couldn’t agree more.
    For me, my ideal laptop is…

    14 inch screen.
    A fast multicore ARM CPU
    Plenty of memory (at least 4GB, preferably 8GB).
    A fast and removable SSD.

    I’m not sure what ARM offers in terms of graphics performance though. I know you said you don’t need GFX for gaming, et al – but _some_ semblance of 3D capable graphics would be nice. I’m not sure if Nvidia ION offers anything that could be used in a laptop.

    Personally, I would run Ubuntu (or Debian or Lubuntu) so operating system wise, ARM is fine for me.

    Maybe approach System76 or Zareason to see if they would look into offering something along these lines?

  • PaulK

    Would second the fusion comment.Cheap as well with a reasonable GPU
    (for a large display). One pretty major problem is the Linux support which is pretty dire for accelerated video.

    Also they mainly stick them in smallish sub-notebook designs.

    Arm wise Tegra is the obvious choice, but until Windows 8 comes oot, there probably won’t be the demand. And thr linux support again seems wanting.

  • Luke Mort

    Have you looked into Intel’s “ultrabooks”? They’re not on the market yet, but Lenovo’s U300 looks pretty good to me and should be out this year in the US–not sure about Australia though. Rough specs are:

    aluminium alloy case to help dissipate heat and reduce flex,
    optical drive,
    i7 processor which should draw between 17 and 45 Watts depending on the model
    4-8 GB RAM.

    Sure, there’s still an engineering trade-off, but they might solve most of your problems. And of course, without knowing exactly what hardware they use it’s tough to say how well Linux will run–especially if you refuse to run non-free software.

  • etbe

    Daniel: Thanks for the suggestion, has an article about 9W and 18W dual-core AMD CPUs with integrated graphics. 14W idle power use for a E-350 desktop system is quite nice!

    Techreport indicates that the E-350 is about half the speed of an E6400, an E6400 is about the same speed as the E4600 in the latest system I got a few days ago (I don’t tend to get the latest and greatest – in this case it was a system from the trash). I could quite happily live with a system half as fast as what I’ve got now for CPU stuff, I plan to move all my big builds to the cloud anyway. The E-350 sucks badly at 3D gaming, fortunately I don’t care much for that.

    Mark: Have you played “Air Attack HD” on an Android phone such as an Xperia X10 (or one of the many phones that has a faster CPU/GPU combo)? It’s very impressive. I don’t know much about the technical specs of phone hardware, but Air Attack shows that pseudo-3D on a low power ARM device can work really well.

    System76 only ships to the US, Canada, and the UK. Apart from that they seem interesting, Ubuntu-preloaded desktops, laptops, and servers. But they don’t appear to be innovating in terms of technology.

    A quick scan of the zareason web site indicates that they are more innovative, maybe they would be good for this. Hopefully the mention of them in the comments will attract their interest via Google. ;)

    PaulK: Yes, the Tegra 2 and 3 sound like good chipsets for a low-power laptop or netbook. But there’s still the issue of how to boot it which isn’t standardised – unlike the PC boot which although horrible is a well supported informal standard.

    Luke: The Lenovo U300 sounds interesting. Not sure what a “breathable keyboard” is or whether I would want one. But the aluminium shell will be good for heat dissipation. Unfortunately they are using an Intel Core i7 which will make it hot.