Shopping for a laptop – and why it sucks
Posted by shannonclark on March 24, 2007
I am a highly technical individual. My first computer (that I bought myself) was a serious, unix workstation (a NeXT Cube to be precise). My computers are extensions of me, the tools I use to create, to participate, to communicate and interact via.
For most of today, while my dying ThinkPad T40 is being imaged into a new life as a virtual machine running via Parallels on my iMac desktop, I have been shopping for a new laptop.
This process is too hard
I’ve looked at about a dozen different websites from a direct computer makers to large resellers (Buy.com, Amazon.com, many others) and even knowing a great deal about computers – I’m left feeling lost, confused, befuddled, uncertain what to buy, unclear even what my options are – let alone how to compare or decide between various options.
At most websites, before I can even look at laptop options, I have to first select between: Home and Home Office; Small Business; Large Enterprise; Government and often other options as well. Each choice the leads me to a radically different site – usually presenting information in very different ways, and often selling entirely different systems (or offering different configuration options).
Now I do, in fact, work from my home.
But in my actual use and needs, I am perhaps closer to, actually I don’t know – none of the categories really capture what I truly need in a computer. I need a tool – as simple, yet as powerful as possible. By “simple” I mean – I don’t want Microsoft Works, random audio or 60 day trial software cluttering up my system. By power I mean I may end up booting into multiple OSes (and/or running others via VM software). At times I may need to compile code, may run semi-arcane tools like X11, may even need to have a locally running web server (and perhaps database server) to demo my applications on (without relying on a network connection).
Furthermore, unlike many other “power” users of systems, I also need most of the features of serious business travelers – I want to actually carry my laptop. And since I walk or try to nearly 4-5 miles most days, every pound I carry matters (especially to my shoulders). I also relish having the freedom of a system that could run on a cross country flight (so at a minimum reliably run for 5+ hours with 7-8 hours being even better). I’m happy to achieve that via an extended battery, possibly even via a second installed battery (though with that I’d rather be able to get to 10+ hours of use).
So getting back to the experience of shopping – with my rather complex (and highly technical) needs, I have found that any site that first requires me to identify myself via broad categories will generally be horrible throughout the shopping experience. Of the major brands, Lenovo (IBM), Toshiba, and Apple fared well on this front. Dell, HP/Compaq, Sony and others not nearly as well. But even Apple has its flaws.
Now onto the shopping experience(s). Pretty much all horrible.
Quick – do you know the difference between the Intel Core 2 Duo mobile processor, the Intel Centrino Core 2 Duo mobile processor, and the Intel Core Duo mobile processor? (don’t try looking to Intel’s website for much help – they list at least 40+ different processors just a mobile options – with different lists depending on where you start looking.
Second quick test – look for laptops on any site out there. Your choice – almost NO site can pass my simple checklist.
Okay as quickly as possible find the following about the systems:
- Weight of the laptop (bonus for weight as configured + power adapter)
- Battery life (Bonus for clear answers as to what additional battery options exist and what they add)
- Screen resolution (note – not just screen size, the actual native number of pixels. And no WXGA etc isn’t all that useful). And an aside, have you noticed how hard it is still to get a laptop with at least 1400 x 1050 screen resolution?
- Basic system details – processor, installed memory, hd size, graphics card w/memory
- OS installed (bonus for Linux & Vista compatibility)
- Slightly advanced system details – internal microphone? built-in speakers? camera? # of USB 2.0 ports? firewire ports? memory card readers? Express card slot(s)? PC Card slots?
- Exact wifi compatibility (i.e. a/b/g/n/?)
- if built-in WWAN capabilities – EXACTLY which carrier and what contract requirements are implied?
- The precise terms of the warranty including how to get it to at least 3 years, On-site repair, with FULL coverage (i.e. will replace the screen even in the case of accidental damage)
If you can find all that – even after deep searching – you are better than I (I’ve gotten, mostly, answers to these questions – but only after very very painstaking efforts – and I’m still not 100% certain in most cases).
Really great companies would also have options not of “this piece of crap software or that piece” but more like “neither – and please don’t charge me”.
And don’t even get me started on how annoying it is to look at buying a full license of, probably, Windows Vista, when I have TWO full licenses to Windows Vista Ultimate which Microsoft gave me for attending one of their launch events. (and they gave me two licenses to Microsoft Office 2007 as well)
Not that I really want to run Vista – but it seems unlikely that I’ll buy a new machine at the moment and not get Vista whether I want it or not.