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balancing software engineering & infosec

Buying a Windows laptop is hard

posted on Nov. 16, 2021, 8:15 p.m. in hardware

I think the last time I was shopping for a Windows laptop was around 2001 or 2002. As I have only used MacBooks since 2008ish, I mostly lost track of how brands and notebooks evolved, except occasional news coverage and some tests on YouTube. Actually needing a Windows / Linux laptop for a project though meant it was time to go shopping. And it turned out to be way more work than expected to find a suitable one.

My first laptop was a used IBM T20. Shortly followed by a HP/Compaq NX7000, which until today is one of my most cherished and loved laptops I have ever used. (Well, except for the flimsy wifi button and the small issue with the first revision, where the graphics card popped out of the slot and needed to be pressed in again by applying brute force to F3-F7 keys. Luckily I got the mainboard swapped and the new one had a proper locking mechanism.) The only other non-Apple laptop I have ever used for work was a T42, issued by one of my clients.

Overall I always loved the IBM ThinkPad series and was really disappointed and worried when they sold to Lenovo. As it turns out it was not as bad as expected, but some tradeoffs were made over the years and I do not believe ThinkPads are the same unbreakable laptops which can be used for self defense as they once were. But this did not keep me from taking a look at their lineup, to see if I fancy any of the devices.

I did not go in with many requirements. The laptop is a business expense, so price is a secondary factor, but I set myself a soft limit of 1500€. No CPU preference, as they're probably all fine, 16GB memory (usually running one VM), battery lifetime around 8 hours or more and a minimum of 512GB storage. Once the baseline was defined, I decided on two acceptable device classes - ultra mobile (like my MacBook Air), or something pretending to be a workstation replacement with lots of cooling. While the complete opposite, both work for me and got their advantages. The majority of my work will still happen on my Mac Pro anyway, so I had a slight preference on ultra mobile.

One hard requirement was a support contract with a way to get the notebook serviced quickly. Most of the year the notebook will not do a lot, but when the project is in a critical stage I absolutely need it to work. Extended warranties are mostly worth the money. Not because brands actually care to fulfil their advertisement promises, but they increase chances of a less horrible and slow support experience and an actual solution to the problem.

Another one was a decent keyboard and trackpad which is not stupid. And by stupid I mean "shifted to the left to fit a number block". I do not know what it is, but the most miserable time I ever hand with a laptop, was one where the keyboard was not centered. Something in my mind stops working properly and I forget how to type. But at least I can overlook Lenovos traditional mess up by putting FN on the left of control, likely thanks to muscle memory.

That being said, let's look at actual laptop manufacturers and their models.

First candidate: Lenovo. Sorting by brands we have ThinkPad, ThinkBook, ideapad, YOGA, LEGION and Lenovo (creative, aren't they? That's like calling a MacBook MacBook... scnr). While the LEGION seemed to have a pretty good price / performance value, I do not need the dedicated GPU, gamer features or subpar battery life. ThinkPads ship in multiple categories (X1, X, T, P, E, L and Yoga - because why not, it's not like there is already a brand called Yoga). Navigating the different options for each category was tedious, especially as previous generations and current generations are still being sold. Also the Intel / AMD split on top.

I am not considering the P as workstation class anymore. ECC memory or I am out. The T Series, which I still remember being amazing to self-service, now got half of the components soldered on for a thinner case. None of those really piqued my interest, except one laptop I was eyeing for a long time - the X1 Carbon. A friend of mine got one and I know it is a beautiful device with a workable trackpad and an better than your average laptop keyboard, yet not even close to a T42. Being based on the Intel Evo platform means it should have a pretty good Linux compatibility right out of the box, a 16:10 display ratio is really welcome and it ships with Windows 10 Pro - not having to deal with the dumpster fire Windows 11 is an advantage to me.

But being open minded, I took a look at Dell as well. There are so many people loving their XPS series, there has to be something to them. The description of their business lines Latitude, Vostro and Inspiron alone was so bad, I had no idea what to shop. But also none of them seemed like a pretty good deal and more like your regular off the shelve plastic ware. So off to the XPS configurator.

13, 15 and 17 inch as well as a 2-in-1. That's pretty easy to follow and makes a lot of sense. So let's go for the 13 and I do not really need the larger screen or a GeForce RTX. Click on i5 - check. 16GB memory - check. Oh, a 4k screen option with touchscreen! I do not see the point of touch screens for a laptop which is not a 2-in-1 and 4k for 13 inch laptops is also not really necessary, but more pixels will likely not hurt a lot (except in battery runtime). At this point the configurator decides that I obviously have to buy an i7 when I want a 4k screen. Okay? And also Windows 11 HOME. What I found out later is that you want to configure the exact same laptop but as a business client, as this means more options for memory, no Windows 11, but it forces you on an i7 for 16GB memory for a regular FHD+ screen. You know what Dell? Keep your McAfee crapware you force me to check out, and also the rest of the notebook. The configurator actually triggered me so much by forcing options on me that I put all of Dell on my "no buy list" for the next five to ten years.

Okay HP, show me what you got! Based on the description on the homepage it sounded like the Elite or Z by HP series are the ones to look at. Z by HP seems pretty close to the workstation like experience if you throw enough money at it, but it also ships with a lot of hardware I do not need. The Elite series either showed me 2-in-1 options or 15.6" with stupid keyboards. This was a pretty fast and fruitless shopping experience.

Time to look at some of the smaller brands. Let me start with System 76. They have a really good lineup, well structured and the configurator does not suck. Well done! The Lemur Pro seems to be a good choice for what I am looking for. In my opinion they offer a bit more choice than necessary, storage for example, but configuring one was by far the best online shop experience I had all day. But it looks like I would be stuck with a QWERTY keyboard. I considered it in the past, but I am not ready to switch away from QWERTZ. From what I heard it is also a bit tedious and takes time to get one serviced in case of any issues if you are living outside the US or Canada.

There is also framework, the newcomer with a very unique set of features, such as exchangeable ports and the option to fully self-service the device. Let me say upfront that I have tremendous respect for what they are trying to accomplish and that I would love to support them. So off to their website I go and - "Accepting pre-orders in the US and Canada". Okay, I will keep my stupid Euros. I totally get it, they are still small and need to slowly ramp up production, support, etc. I am not holding this against them and in a few years to a decade, depending on when I next shop for a laptop I will try again.

At this point I could have started to look for other brands such as Razer, Asus, MSI or Sony, to see if they got anything coming close to the more traditional business oriented brands or if it is mostly consumer and gamer hardware.

But having already spent more than a few hours on this I decided to simply go for the Lenovo X1 Carbon Gen 9. The shopping experience was pretty good, even if I do not like the configurator. The only two things I bought besides a ready to ship base configuration were extended warranty and a docking station. I really like copper based networking, it does not randomly fail for unknown reasons. And thanks to Apple Pay integration the checkout was done in five clicks. (Dell seems to offer Google Pay, the only time I have seen this as an option, but no Apple Pay. Curious choice, but okay.)

At the end of this I can confidently say: As a consumer without any prior hardware knowledge I would hate buying a laptop right now. Sure, I have not kept up with everything going on in the notebook world. I obviously caught some news and I think the X1 Fold is a neat toy. But I know computers and what I want, need, what the rough price points are, and what to look out for. Maybe I need a quick online search to see how a brand is doing the last few years, but that is it.

Lenovo alone offers what, 30 different models? (And this does not include the configuration options.) Compare this to buying a MacBook. Want the ultra mobile one or a "Pro"? Screen size? CPU, memory, storage? Done. Fast to navigate, clearly communicated what you are buying, and done in less clicks than the Lenovo checkout would take without Apple Pay.

Having a stupidly large lineup of notebooks from cheap plastic to professional models seems to work well for Lenovo, HP and Dell. Otherwise they surely would reconsider their strategy. Yet I vastly prefer Apples approach, even if it means a bit less choice and sometimes being stuck with a model revision with some shortcomings (such as keyboards falling apart when you look at them).