February 18, 2022

The Perfect Laptop

The TL;DR is down here.


Personal preference is an interesting thing. People can have a particular preference for something until they are able to experience something else. As we gain experience, our personal preference gets more finely tuned.

I’ve probably owned 20 or more laptops over the years. I remember two cheap consumer-grade laptops I bought early on in my life of laptop ownership. They were Gateways, a 14" early on (AMD Turion X2 model) that I ended up selling to a client. This particular model would come to bite me later on in life when it refused to run a modern operating system. Not long after, I got another Gateway: a dirt cheap Black Friday deal (back when these were still great deals) with an Intel chip that I had installed Windows Server 2003 on. I couldn’t tell you now the reason for that, I suppose I was in to plugging it in to networks and having it do “server things” at the time. This laptop was stolen out of the back of my car behind a shopping center.

Before I owned those two laptops (which in retrospect I would describe as atrocious) I worked as a computer repair technician in a computer shop (remember those?). It was a great job for a teenager, I remember asking the owner of the shop if I could have a broken laptop he had in a cardboard box in the “old parts room”. It was an old IBM ThinkPad 600e, and it would become my first personal laptop. I would spend the day fixing consumer grade Sony Vaios that would cost thousands, and bargain basement Toshibas that came from the factory with gigabytes of junkware. But I kept going back to this ancient Pentium II powered laptop, amidst the Pentium 4s and Core-based machines that were the laptop of the day. At the time, I couldn’t figure out why I was drawn to this laptop. I realize now there was something about the way it felt. The way the keyboard felt. The way the screen hinges moved. Partly it was because I had pieced it together from spare parts, a 2.5" hard drive some customer replaced with a larger capacity drive… a memory module and charger I found in other boxes of spare parts.

Since the laptop was terribly outdated even at the time I experimented with Linux (Slackware of course!) on it. While just working on the hardware of the machine I found there was a real difference in the build quality and repair experience on this old gem.

The experienced technician (probably 20 years my senior) I shared an office with remarked, “Oh, the ThinkPads… those things are tanks, easy to fix too, look how many different kinds of screws they use” as he pointed to a pile of screws of all the same length.

That was the moment I began to appreciate the engineering that goes into making a laptop.

Later more consumer-grade laptops came and went.

Eventually I came back around to the ThinkPad. This time a Job bought me a Lenovo x201. I got a good deal on it, as it was a generation or two old by the time I got it, but this was the best laptop I had ever used.

I used it for many years. In fact, I had continued using it far past what many would consider it’s usable lifetime. At the time I found it to be the perfect size. The keyboard, which I wouldn’t explicitly appreciate until some time later, was also sublime. It’s speakers were garbage, but I was a headphone guy.

There was something about the screen though that I didn’t like.

I didn’t know what it was until I started experiencing Apple’s latest. I had worked on older PowerPC Apple laptops in the past, but I suppose they never really appealed to me.

There was something about the screen on the MacBook that made me realize screens on other laptops were severely lacking. I finally broke down and bought a 2015 MacBook Pro in 2018 (brand new) at the height of the keyboard fiasco. Once I had the experience of the MacBook Pro’s excellent screen, I had to quantify what made this one so much better.

The two specifications that made the largest impact were: Brightness (nits). Aspect ratio (16:10).

The “retina” marketing of the Apple displays was also apparent, but at the time most laptops came with at least a 1920x1080 resolution display.

I currently own: 2020 MacBook Pro (the 4 port one with Intel CPU), a Lenovo x201, and a Lenovo x220.

So, with the background out of the way, I’d like to quantify what, In my opinion, would make up the perfect laptop today.

The Perfect Laptop

The perfect laptop has:

  • a 13" to 14" screen with at least a 16:10 ratio, if not taller (how to calculate? 1)
    • 2560x1600 is a great resolution to start with, 1920x1200 at a minimum
    • 400 nits or greater brightness, we need to be able to use it in various lighting conditions
    • reasonable color reproduction, the colors shouldn’t be washed out
  • the body of a 12" laptop
    • to fit the 13" to 14" screen it would have very small bezels, this is a great size for fitting in bags and sitting on small tables
    • the body need not be ridiculously thin, needlessly sacrificing performance and battery power
  • webcam that doesn’t make it look like your laptop (or you) are a potato during a videoconference
    • it doesn’t have to be super high resolution, just a quality image with good light management
  • excellent build quality
    • this is more important than being lightweight
    • milled aluminum or magnesium chassis are nice, but even just high quality composites and plastics are fine
  • a great keyboard, look to the 2008-11 era ThinkPads for inspiration
  • a large, quality touchpad backed by great software
    • another Apple can’t put my finger on why this is so much better than everyone else things
  • excellent performance, excellent battery life
    • certainly a sliding scale, but I’m anxiously awaiting the industry’s response to Apple’s M1 line of processors, these are currently unmatched in the space 2
  • the ability to run whatever operating system I want
    • within reason, is it reasonable to want to be able to run MacOS, Windows, Linux, BSD? the perfect laptop is truly the the laptop for everyone
  • excellent repairability
    • also the ability to upgrade the basics, like memory and storage
  • good quality DAC or audio interface (headphone jack), this is also something Apple tends to do a little better than competitors
  • a useful number of ports
    • a 1/8" headphone and microphone combo port is a must
    • it should at least have an HDMI port, some USB-C/Thunderbolt ports, and until the world is completely switched over to USB-C ports, probably a couple USB-A ports as well
    • an SD card reader, why not, they’re $5
  • reasonably priced (certainly under $2000, ideally under $1500 with a great spec)

There is a short list of laptops currently on the market that come as near as they can to “The Perfect Laptop”:

  • Apple M1 MacBook line (from Air to the lower end Pro)
  • The Framework Laptop
  • Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano Gen 2
  • Lenovo ThinkPad X13 Gen 2 (AMD)

Sadly, none of these are 100% there yet. I’m excited to see what Qualcomm or Intel responds to the M1 processors with, and to see what Framework and Lenovo does with them.

The fact that an amalgam of these laptops could be “The Perfect Laptop” means it’s certainly possible

  1. To calculate the ratio, just divide the wide pixel count by the height, so 2560x1440 is 16:9 (also 1920x1080), 2560/1440 = 1.777…
    2560/1600 = 1.6 (this is a good aspect ratio, the perfect laptop has a ratio ≤ 1.6) ↩︎

  2. 2020/03/20 EDIT: Lenovo has announced an ARM ThinkPad! And, it’s an X13! Very excited to see how it reviews when released, I will be watching this one carefully. ↩︎

© Andrew Brossia 2022