Buying notebooks

I read Jeff Atwood’s decision making process on buying a laptop (he picked an Asus W3J) with great fascination today.  I suppose one of the main reasons anyone becomes interested in something often has to do with seeing parallels and similarities in one’s own experiences…and I’ve obviously gone through the notebook buying experience a few times.

Buying a laptop is a very personalized decision if you are computing literate.  The reason something like the W3J doesn’t work for me is that it’s a little too heavy (5 lbs) and the battery life is not great.  But for the form factor and requirements Jeff wants, it’s an excellent choice.

With that said, I’ve been eyeing various upgrades myself.  The Toshiba M200 I have right now is getting the job done, but I find it fairly restrictive at the moment.  I bought it mainly to get my feet wet with the Tablet PC concept.  I feel I understand its strengths and benefits now, but the less current specs are otherwise holding me back.

So here’s what I’ve been looking for from a new notebook.

1. Lighter weight (4 lbs max).  Really, no reason except that I know it’s possible and why get something huge if it doesn’t have to be huge?
2. More drive space. I’m using VMWare and Virtual server a lot more lately to simulate automated deployments and I need space for the images.
3. Core Duo or better.  Again, run some virtual machines and you’ll want all the processors you can get.  Solo’s are out at this point.
4. Glossy screen, but still high-res (12.1″ SXGA+ is my target).  The screen on my M200 is frankly painful by today’s standards.  The resolution is still spectacular, though.  A screen like that on the M400 would be perfect.
5. Seamless multimonitor while docked.  Multiple monitors is a huge productivity improvement…and frankly, I see no reason to use the notebook as a notebook when I’m sitting at a desk most of the time.
6. Massive battery life. (6 hrs +)  I’m tired of watching the clock on my notebook.  I want insane battery life.
7. Integrated WWAN.  When I travel, using the Internet through my phone is workable, but painful.  Let’s make this seamless.
8. Stylish. Hey, why not?

I hate to say it, but it seems like I’m going to have to drop the Tablet functionality.  It’s not that I don’t want it, but I don’t find myself using it much at the moment and the other specs are higher on my list.

Seamless multimonitor is a non-negotiable item on my list.  Multiple monitor setups are a huge productivity improvement, and I want to make sure my next setup has it.  Originally I was under the impression that I was going to need a docking station with a PCI slot to allow me to do this…which was becoming very frustrating because, if you look, you’ll find that most manufacturers have basically eliminated these expansion options from their notebook lines.  Only Dell and IBM have expansion slots in their docking stations.

Luckily, I got a bit creative and found a way around the issue.  I tested MaxiVista a bit more and figured out that with a speedy host processor over a wired Fast Ethernet or Gigabit network connection, MaxiVista does the multimonitor story pretty damn well for productivity tasks, which is all that I need this stuff for anyway.

Stylish is another one of those options that is just hard to find in
combination with everything else you want in a notebook.  However, I ran across a
site called Smooth Creations and realized that these guys can personalize pretty much anything.

Once I managed to factor out the stylish and multimonitor requirements, the field opened up.

As with most buying decisions, you examine the field and then you get an idea for what is extraordinary and what is standard.  After a lot of searching, the notebooks that come closest to what I’m looking for are:

Thinkpad X60s – Definitely the closest to my target.  It’s incredibly thin and light, starting at just 2.7lbs, with options to get up to over 10 hour of battery life.  It doesn’t waste space and weight on an optical drive…which appears to have paid off, as they manage to fit more RAM, drive space, and processor into their package than competing models by using standard mobility parts instead of expensive specialized component form factors.  The biggest problem for me is that the screen is only 12.1″ XGA and the pointing device is a Trackpoint…no touchpad.

Panasonic Y5 – This import packs great battery life and an incredible 14.1″ SXGA+ screen in just 3.37 lbs.  Actually, in terms of the number of features missing from my list, this is the closest notebook…but the one main problem with this laptop is so big that I can’t get past it.  It uses a less standard Micro-DIMM that can only upgrade the notebook to 1.5 GB total.  Yarrrgh!  That’s a non starter for me, unfortunately.

Sony TX770 – I love this laptop.  The screen is truly awesome…an ultrathin 11.1″ 1366×768 screen.  Unfortunately, the low powered CPU and 1.8″ hard drive means it will fall on the low end of my specs, and the expandability of the RAM is limited too.

I’m not intent on buying anything yet.  New processors and chipsets from Intel are due in about a month or two and if I can, I’m going to wait and see what happens then.  But I’m definitely keeping my eyes open.

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