What's Your Laptop?

For some of us a laptop is so tightly integrated in our daily lives that it almost feels like an organ. I probably spend a good two-digit number of hours on most days with a laptop for both work-related and personal purposes. So these days I see the laptop as being an integral part of me. And I can only imagine that it will be more so for more people in the future—more reliance on devices like laptops, smartphones, and in general, technology. Evolution as it turns out in terms of our biology is slow—maybe not in cosmic terms, but certainly in human life terms. In the last few decades, technology—especially computing related, like microprocessors, memory support, etc.—tends to improve in an exponential manner. It’s interesting if not mind-blowing to see what some people predict in terms of the relationship between humans and machines/technology in the very near future (decades). See Rey Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near as an example.

But I’m digressing… back to laptops, I actually find it nice that this piece of technology is not an inseparable physical part of my body but rather a separate unit. This means that I can benefit from the rapid technological advancements by replacing it every two or three years with a better one. So what I wanted to do here is describe the laptop I’m using these days; what I like about it and what I don’t. And invite you to do the same.

I do want to note that I’m no hardware guru, and so far I’ve used probably 10 different laptops, so obviously there are many that I haven’t had a chance to experience. This entry is not a professional one, but rather a very personal, subjective description from my experience. That’s also what I hope to hear from you—more than just the technical specifications, why it works or doesn’t work for you. I can only hope that this platform won’t be abused by people with marketing interests; rather, this is a call for geeks like me to express your honest and unbiased opinion.

My main line of work is teaching and speaking about T-SQL, and for this I travel probably more than 50 percent of the time. So as you can imagine, factors that are integral for me are size, weight, durability, reliability, battery life, and performance.

When it’s time to choose a new laptop—and such time is always an exciting time!—it’s very easy to get carried away focusing on impressive specs and not think about the implications to you and your daily life. I fell into this trap already in the past and ended up with a very powerful brick that spends most of its time connected to the TV since it isn’t very mobile.

Out of all of the laptops that I used, my favorite so far is my main companion for the last year—the Lenovo ThinkPad T410s. Note that recently Lenovo introduced a newer model – T420s; I’ll describe the main differences between the two later.

The Specs

First, the specs of some of the main parts of my laptop, briefly:

CPU: Intel Core i5-520M (3M cache, 2.40 GHz), 2 cores, 4 logical CPUs

Memory: 8 GB (self-installed; replaced original 2 GB)

Main Hard Drive: 256 GB Crucial RealSSD C300 1.8” SATA 6GB/s (self-installed; replaced original 250 GB rotating drive)

Second Hard Drive: 750 GB Western Digital Scorpio 2.5” rotating drive (self-installed; replaced original optical drive with HDD Ultrabay Adapter III with second hard drive)

Weight: 3.91 lbs

Screen: 14.1”, Resolution: 1440 × 900

What I Like About My Laptop

I admire the engineering of the Lenovo ThinkPads in general, and specifically mine. The laptop is very robust and durable.

The T410s is both thinner and lighter than the T410. It weighs 3.91 lbs. The shape and weight make the laptop very convenient to handle when I need to move from one room to another or from one continent to another.

One of the things I like best about it is the support for the HDD ultrabay. I travel most of the time and I want all of my digital media, including music and movies, with me. It can be awkward and annoying to need to connect an external drive whenever you want to consume media (think airplanes). The T410s, as well as several other ThinkPads, support replacing the optical drive with a hard drive ultrabay adapter with a secondary standard 2.5” 9.5mm hard drive. This allows you to use a very fast, comparatively small SSD as your main drive, and store all of the media on the much bigger, secondary, rotating drive. I also store in the secondary drive all the virtual machines with the beta/CTP software that I don’t dare to install on my main working environment. An example would be SQL Server Denali CTPs.

Initially I thought that not having an optical drive constantly available in my laptop would be a problem, but it isn’t. I use an optical drive probably once a month in average. These days most of the content is available in digital form anyway. I have an external optical drive in my backpack, and in the rare occasions that I need it, I pull it out of the bag, use, and return it. Not a problem when I need it so infrequently. But having the secondary hard drive option, to me, is a huge advantage.

As mentioned, it’s convenient to be able to use a comparatively smaller SSD as the main drive. I replaced the original 250 GB rotating drive with a separately purchased 256 GB Crucial RealSSD C300 1.8” SATA 6GB/s—this was the single most dramatic performance difference that I ever realized from a hardware upgrade. Boot time is now reduced from minutes to 35 seconds or so. I did have a few blue-screens initially after installing the drive, but after downloading and installing the latest firmware from the Crucial SSD website a few weeks ago it’s all good. In the don’t likes section I’ll talk more about the drive dimensions, which I happen to not like very much—an area that was addressed in the newer version of the laptop—T420s.

Traveling most of the time pretty much around the world makes the international warranty coverage an important factor. Never had to use it so far (which is another plus), so I can’t comment on the quality of their support. But it is comforting to know it’s available outside the US as well.

I often have work-related online meetings, as well as video chats with family and friends. The built-in video camera and dual microphone is a big plus. Also, I love the combined headphones and microphone socket, since it allows me to use the same headphones with microphone that I use for my smartphone. This is a big plus when I’m in a noisy area like a pub abroad and want to have a voice or combined video and voice conversation.

I love the Lenovo ThinkVantage System Update utility. You load it and with one click it figures out for you which updates are available for your system. It reduces a lot of the hassle when you need to erase and reinstall your environment. Recently I had to erase and reinstall my wife’s two-year old Lenovo ThinkPad X301 in order to switch from a 32-bit OS to a 64-bit one. The ThinkVantage System Update utility made the driver installation a breeze. Just went to the Lenovo website, downloaded and installed the utility, and it took care of the rest.

What I Don’t Like

I’d actually like to start with an issue that is not specific to my laptop, but rather is a common theme with laptops in general. Parts like memory and hard drives tend to be more expensive if you buy them as part of the laptop from the laptop vendor—sometimes two or three times compared with buying and installing yourself. Unfortunately, though, the laptop’s warranty won’t cover you for parts that are not theirs. I wish that the laptop vendors realized that what they’re asking is often exaggerated. Of course people would naturally prefer to buy the parts from them in order to have one address to deal with, but that’s as long as the prices were more reasonable.

As for my specific laptop, there are a few things I don’t like about it.

The Fn and Ctrl keys in the Lenovo keyboard appear in the opposite order compared with most keyboards. In the Lenovo keyboard the Fn key appears to the left of the Ctrl key whereas in most keyboards it’s the other way around. I often work on more than one machine simultaneously, and I can tell you that it can be very confusing when you switch between keyboards.

Speaking of keyboards, the smaller Sony Vaio’s like the Z series—though with very impressive specs—haven’t worked for me due to a keyboard design aspect. It might seem like a silly thing, but it is a big one to me. I spend a lot of time writing batches of code in SQL Server Management Studio. I often need to highlight everything from the current point to the beginning (Shift+Ctrl+Home) or to the end (Shift+Ctrl+End). With some of the smaller Sony Vaio laptops you need to use a combination of the Fn plus one of the arrow keys to hit Home or End. This means that to achieve what I want I need to press four keys simultaneously.

Back to the don’t likes in the T410s; this laptop supports a 1.8” main drive. In most laptops the standard is a 2.5” 9.5mm drive. Granted, some consider the 1.8” to be an advantage with SSDs because usually the 2.5” and 1.8” versions have the same performance, but the latter is smaller, weighs less, and uses less energy. My problem with the 1.8” is that usually it takes several months longer for the SSD vendors to release the 1.8” version of a drive, if at all. I much prefer to have the standard 2.5” and have the newest hardware available to me. BTW, the T420s changes this aspect and comes with a 2.5” 9.5mm main drive.

I’m not very happy with my laptop’s battery life. I have the original 6-cell Li Ion battery, and even early on I got perhaps a bit over two hours of battery life with normal use. These days I get under two hours. I’m sure the second hard drive doesn’t help, but still, I had hoped for more. The specs for the T420s look more promising.

I sometimes need to connect my laptop to an HD TV. The T410s supports a DisplyPort connector and if your TV doesn’t support one, you need to use a DisplayPort to HDMI adapter. It’s really not such a big deal since such an adapter exists, but I wish my laptop supported both DisplayPort and HDMI. For example, the Dell Alienware M11x supports both. But I can understand engineering challenges when you’re focusing on thin and light, so if I had to choose between the two, I’d rather have HDMI support since it’s much more common. More than once when I asked a sales rep in a retail store whether a certain TV supports a DisplayPort connector or whether they had a DisplayPort to HDMI adapter, most didn’t know what a DisplayPort was, or even thought I was talking about the VGA port.

About T420s—the Newer Version of the T410s

Recently Lenovo released newer versions of several of the ThinkPads. The one replacing the T410s is T420s. If I were to buy a new one today, I’d buy this one. The new version has several improvements:

My biggest issue with the current laptop is the dimensions of the main hard drive, and that’s resolved—the T420s supports the standard 2.5” 9.5mm drive. Again, for some the support for a 1.8” drive is actually considered an advantage due to weight and energy consumption, but I prefer the 2.5”. For example, say that you wanted to buy today the new 256 GB Intel 510 SSD, or the 600 GB Intel 320 SSD, these are only available at the moment in a 2.5” form.

What’s more, the T420s supports a SATA III (6 Gb/s) specification for the hard drive. The T410s supports SATA II (3 Gb/s).

The T420s supports a Core i7-second generation processor (Sandy Bridge microarchitecture) with integrated graphics vs. the maximum Core i5-first generation that the T410s supports. A point on the CPU, though; of course I like things to be faster; but for what I do, including a lot of querying and query tuning related work and research, the hard drive performance and memory size are much more important factors than the CPU. The Core i5 CPU still gives me two cores and four logical CPUs, which is very reasonable for my needs. Of course, if I bought a new laptop today and had the option, I’d go for the Core i7, but that’s just because I can—not because I really, really need it.

The T420s supports the newer USB 3.0 interface.

The T420s supports improved integrated graphics performance.

The T420s has a smaller 14” screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio compared with the T410s, which has a 14.1” screen with a 16:10 aspect ratio. Some prefer the latter and see it as a disadvantage of the new version.

ThinkPad W520

Another very tempting laptop is the new ThinkPad W520. It’s bigger (15”) and heavier (starting at 5.95 lbs) than the T420s. But then again, considering the specs, you might think of the dimensions and weight as being more than adequate. What I especially like about it is that it has four memory slots, and according to the specs supports up to 32 GB RAM (talking about exponential advancement of technology). Though it will probably take some time before 8GB memory modules will be available and affordable. Still, 4 GB modules are fairly cheap these days, and for a reasonable cost you can have 16 GB RAM in your laptop today; that’s something! This is one of those laptops that sound great because of the sheer power that they can harness. In practical terms, I think that what works best for my needs is the T410s. I’m dying to put my hands on the newer T420s, but I hope I can resist it for another year or two, so that I can justify the expense on my existing one—which I do love.

So, what’s your laptop?

Cheers,

BG

 

Discuss this Blog Entry 4

on May 31, 2011
Oh yes, and their keyboard is the BEST.
on May 6, 2011
I'm on my 2nd HP, this time a DV7T, with i7-740 Quad core 1.7Ghz CPU, 8Gb RAM and dual 500Gb 7,200rpm Sata HDD and an 18" display. I run Ubuntu on it, with my various virtual machines hosting the different versions of SQL. I even have a virtual SQL 2008 Cluster with shared iSCSI NAS storage that runs just great in Virtualbox. I bought the laptop a year ago refurbished from HP and can only rave about it, it's been a really good buy for me and I'll definitely be going for HP again when I refresh later this year.
on May 31, 2011
This is absolutely uncanny. I have the exact model with the 1600x900 LED display on its way. Unfortunately they do not have a TB hard drive. upgradeable to 8 GIG and mobile broadband ready. I googled the model name + "coupon" and found a coupon and saved fifty bucks. NO shipping (father's day deal)... eight hundred bucks. Only difference is mine is a 14".
on Apr 29, 2011
Itzik

When I started to read your post, I was concerned because I just recently selected a new work laptop and have already placed the order. I'm switching employers and have to send my leased ThinkPad W500 back. I've been using ThinkPads for about five years and even after the transition from IBM to Lenovo, still believe that they're the best choice for a serious road-warrior consulting machine. I couldn't imagine going to a smaller screen, although it would certainly be more convenient to have a thinner, lighter model. My Victorinox computer bag is permananetly attached to my left shoulder when I travel, afterwhich I vist the chiropractor weekly.

I opted for the new W520. I ordered it with 1 4G stick of RAM and will add two more that I already own, totalling 12G (if it turns out that the memory speed is compatible - otherwise, 8G now and 16G later.) Like you, I run a lot of virtual machine images that use a bunch or RAM and disk space. I was really happy with this model having 4 slots. Aside from the 500G main drive, I keep a second 500G drive in the UltraBay slot for my VM files. I expect the i7 2720QM quad core processor to be quick and capable. There were options for Intel's slightly higher-end chips at a very premium price. I opted for a 3-year warranty which is an absolute must.

I configured it around a $2,000 budget and made two concessions - 1.) I did not go with my first impulse to buy an SSD drive as my primary boot device. I know it would be much faster to boot and load apps but I'm just waiting for prices to come down. 2.) I ordered the 1600x900 15.6" display rather than the higher resolution 1920x1080. This wasn't a question of cost as much as a question of age...mine. My eyesight is not quite what it used to be and I thought that a slightly lower native resolution would be easier to read. We'll see.

It should arrive next week (hopefully just in time to prep it for my sessions at TechEd). I'll let you know what I think of it.







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