Why buy a business-grade laptop?

The other day a friend looked at my laptop–a Lenovo Thinkpad T410–and commented that it looked ancient. It is all black and bulky, like one of those clunky boxes from the 1990s, but I am loathe to give it up.

The T410 was the last laptop on the market (aside from Apple’s laptops) to still use a 16×10 screen, which gives more vertical space than the 16×9 screens which are standard today. Moreover, it has a matte antiglare screen, which makes the colors look washed out, but doesn’t reflect ambient light like the standard glossy screens, which I find incredibly annoying. At work, I use an Acer laptop with a 16×9 glossy screen and it drives me to distraction. I am constantly squinting at it and adjusting the screen to avoid the reflected light from the windows. I find myself growing tense and annoyed after hours of staring at it. The 1440×900 screen on the T410 isn’t particularly good according to the experts. It has a poor color accuracy and poor vertical and horizontal viewing, but I am less worried about brilliant and accurate colors than a calming matte screen.

The flat panel industry in its infinite wisdom decided that people need laptops which are entertainment devices for watching movies in the dark, so it made it impossible to get screens which are useful for doing real work. I wish we could go back to the 4×3 matte screens of the late 90s, which had more vertical screen space for reading documents or web pages, which is what I do 90% of the time when I’m using the computer.

The only company which currently makes laptops with 16×10 screens is Apple, but I have been boycotting Apple for years due to:

  1. their patent lawsuits which threaten the free and open source software community,
  2. their warranties which violate of users’ rights to fix and upgrade their computers,
  3. their walled garden approach to computing and promotion of proprietary standards and hardware,
  4. the aluminum unibody of the Macbook prevent users from opening the case and promotes planned obsolescence, which harms the environment.

The mining and refining of the aluminum used in a Macbook case has a very high environmental impact. According to John Rankin, the production of one kg of virgin aluminum consumes 212 megajoules and emits 22 kg of carbon dioxide. Likewise, the use of the Retina screens in Macbooks causes environmental damage, since higher resolution screen cause greater probability of dead pixels in a screen and a greater number of wasted screens.

If Macbooks are designed as stylish closed systems, my Thinkpad is the polar opposite. It is purposely unstylish in pure black and a boxy design which screams utility over style. I frankly don’t care what my computer looks like, nor do I care whether it has the latest hardware inside, but I do care that it has a strong case, a screen that doesn’t flex, strong steel hinges, a responsive keyboard, a case which is easy to open, uses standard parts that I can replace, and has open source drivers for all its hardware (which means its manufacturers publish their specs or write open source drivers). By these measures, my Thinkpad T410 is a decent machine. I fault it for using a slimline DVD drive for which I can’t buy a replacement in Bolivia and for using an nVidia NVS3100M dual graphics card, which hasn’t published its specs so the Linux developers can write decent drivers. It sports outdated 2010 technology, but it has enough RAM to run virtual machines and enough graphics power to play movies, which is all I really care about. Because I use Linux, I can install an lighter windows manager and dump unnecessary processes to make old hardware responsive.

I am a technology whore, in the sense that I love to fiddle with computers, but I don’t need to have the latest hardware to be entertained. The ability to figure out how my computer works is far more important than having the latest gizmo. The problem was that some of the keys on my T410 were getting sticky. I was having to hit the spacebar and the shift keys two or three times for the key to register. Now with a standard consumer laptop, I would either buy a new keyboard, which is impossible in Bolivia, or buy a new laptop, but Thinkpads are designed to be fixable. Thinkpads are famous for the quality of their keyboards, although I personally prefer the light touch of Dell keyboards. With a little trepidation, I popped all the keys off the keyboard. I have popped off the keys off cheaper laptops and it is very easy to damage the plastic underpinnings, but everyone of the keys came off without damaging the plastic holders. I was surprised to see that the large keys (shift, enter, backspace, and spacebar) all had underlying wires holding them into metal clips which give them more stability and prevent them from easily popping off. After giving the keypad a through cleaning, I pressed pressed the keys back into place and all the keys now work good as new. It is a joy to use a responsive keyboard once again.

Quality construction in a keyboard seems like such a minor thing, but it meant the difference between an hour of cleaning and having to buy a whole new laptop in Bolivia (or having to order a new laptop keyboard and convince a friend to bring it to me from the US). Business class laptops cost 30%-50% more than standard consumer laptops, but it is worth paying that difference. I never have to worry about the case cracking, the hinges breaking, the keys failing, replacing the power connector, or the screen cracking. The bezel on the screen is over a cm thick, but I have accidentally dropped the computer on the floor and the screen survived. I carry my T410 everywhere in my backpack, loading books and groceries on top of it. It has an internal metal frame to protect the hardware. It is designed to withstand liquid spills. It has shock mounting around the harddrive and a motion detector to stop it its platters from spinning if it is dropped. Every couple weeks I run into a friend who recounts a woeful story about how they are looking for a new laptop because the screen has cracked, the hinges are broken or a key stopped working on their old laptop.

I have a friend who has a high spec Asus laptop with a high-resolution screen and metal case, but one day the video stopped working. He tore apart the computer and found that the video cable which was taped down had come loose and was being pinched. A couple weeks later, his cat jumped on the computer and knocked it off the table. His harddrive didn’t survive the fall. I choose the example of this Asus laptop, because Asus is reputed to have the highest build quality in the computer industry. Industry data shows that Asus laptops have the lowest number of hardware failures on average of any major computer brand. The difference is that the designers of that Asus laptop decided to use tape to hold down a video cable that would come unstuck after a couple years and didn’t design the mounting on the harddrive to protect it from drops. Having a laptop which is designed to withstand abuse and designed to be fixable are the best ways to lower costs over the long haul and minimize the environmental impact of computers, since these factors extend the life of a laptop.

There are a number of factors, however, which militate against the longevity of laptops in recent years. One factor has been the move by Apple toward cases which aren’t designed to be opened by users and parts which aren’t designed to be replaceable such as RAM soldered on the motherboard in the Macbook Air. Since Apple is the most profitable brand and carries the biggest cachet, its designs based on planned obsolescence are being widely copied in the computer industry.

The second factor is the increasing emphasis on style and thin-and-light design over sturdiness. The move toward lighter hardware has been continuous since the release of the first Osborne laptop in the early 1980s, but in the past sturdy business laptops set the trend, whereas today consumer products are setting the trend, so there is less concern for sturdiness and utility. Business laptops like Lenovo Thinkpads, HP Elitebooks and Dell Latitudes are increasingly considered old and stodgy, which don’t compete with the latest ultrabooks and Macbooks. My friend’s remark that my T410 “looks ancient” reflects the general attitude toward traditional business-class laptops, so even the business lines are increasingly emphasizing lightness and style in recent models, rather sturdiness and fixability.

The biggest factor decreasing the longevity of laptops in recent years is the increasing emphasis on laptops and mobile computers in general as entertainment devices and lifestyle choices rather than useful tools. They now have widescreens and glossy screens to better play movies, but make it harder to read long documents and work in well lit environments. Useful keys like PageUp and PageDown are disappearing and it is no longer possible to get to many Function keys without using annoying key combinations. Traditional keyboards have been replaced with chiclet (island-style) keyboards, which make it harder or even impossible to remove the keys for cleaning. They have cheap cases which are held together with plastic pressure tabs rather then steel screws. They have less space for replaceable parts, RAM soldered on the motherboard and batteries which can’t be replaced without opening the case.

All of these trends make me reticent to recommend many of the new laptops that I see being sold in the stores. Last weekend I tried to help a friend buy a laptop and came away disgusted with the quality of the cases and the keyboards on today’s laptops. They are cheap and light, but they aren’t designed to withstand the abuse I dish out. I’m going to hang onto my old, clunky laptop as long as possible. It may be considered 5 years out of date, but it’s second generation Core i5 2.66 Ghz processor is still fast enough to run a Windows virtual machine, which means that it is capable of wasting more processes than I will ever need. Recent CPUs have so much spare capacity, there is little need to upgrade them except that the keyboards wear out and the hinges break. With a business-class laptop the life can be extended and the parts that do break can be replaced. Buying cheap consumer laptops is simply a bad decision in the long term.

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