The Declining Quality of Low and Middle Class Laptops

My old laptop broke (3.5 years in service already), so I had to get a new one. I thought it would be easy – I went to an online store, picked some nice configuration (core i7, 8G RAM), and went to a real store to buy it. The price was around 700 euro. The brand was DELL, with an option for a Lenovo IdeaPad.

It was when they opened the box when my disappointment started. I have never been picky in terms of quality of materials, but what was in front of me was a complete piece of crap. The keyboard was quite wobbly, and clumsily installed. There was a num-pad on a 15.6″ laptop. And it looked fragile. I was about to go for the IdeaPad, but a review from a friend showed that after 2 months the laptop has started failing … physically.

Since I’m a developer, I have a couple of requirements:

  • the best CPU and lots of RAM – it will get old in 3 years anyway
  • good keyboard – stable and easy to use. No num-pad.
  • 15.6″ – I will be moving it around from time to time (so no 17″) but I will be developing on in after all, so nothing less
  • matted display

Battery life and cooling are things that were optional – I’ve lived a long time with battery life of 2-3 hours, and my previous laptop was HP, so it had cooling problems, but apart form the noise it wasn’t an issue for these 3+ years.

Much to my surprise this combination is impossible to find. Matted displays are only available for business-class models. Keyboards without a numpad are almost non-existent. Almost all keyboards that I tried in 3 big stores with doznes of laptops were wobbly, unstable and obviously not mounted properly. Most laptops have 6-cell batteries, and HPs still have cooling problems (just touch any HP above the fan)

C’mon. You are in the industry for years already. Is a “decent laptop” not an option? Laptops from all brands were crappy. Even the ones from HP, which was pretty fine 3 years back when I got mine. And 3 years before that when I got my previous one. And they were both lower class machines.

So with every machine that I tried being crappy I finally settled for a laptop priced twice as my initial choice. Lenovo ThinkPad T520 (1500 euro). It is core i7, 8G RAM (added in store), stable and pleasant keyboard, matted display with very good resolution. But it’s a business-class machine. And yet, I have complaints:

  • Fn and Ctrl. Lenovo just won’t get this right, will they. Why put the least used button in the place of the most used button? No, I won’t get used to that, because it breaks your habits with every normal keyboard. Plus, as a java developer using eclipse most of my shortcuts are CTRL+SHIFT+something. Try pressing that. Yeah, Lenovo have been good to us and added an option in the BIOS to swap the two keys. But Fn is smaller. Still, a good workaround so far
  • Small left shift – do I need the backward slash next the to left shift? No, because I have it next to the enter! On the other hand, as I said, I use a lot of SHIFT. My workaround – remapped the slash to behave as SHIFT. Works fine so far.

Apart from that I’m pleased with the ThinkPad so far. It is nice and solid. But I’m disappointed with laptop manufacturers. (And no, I don’t want a MacBook)

3 thoughts on “The Declining Quality of Low and Middle Class Laptops”

  1. Nice article. IMHO the budget class laptops have always been mostly crappy and there is no true “middle” class machines – there are the budget ones and the high-end(business & gaming) rigs… and a great void in between them. T520 is one of the very few laptops with a proper built that doesn’t have an Apple logo on it. I’d advise you to swap the Caps Lock for an additional control and use it instead of the tiny left control – the caps key is easier to reach if you’re a touch typist anyway. My only real gripes with the T520 are the size(much bulkier than a macbook) and the shape of the Return key – I’m quite fond of the longer single row Return – this alternative version is quite disruptive to my writing.

    Hopefully the new beast will serve you for a long, long time. Code long and prosper!

  2. Dude,
    Last time I researched for laptops two basic truths emerged – they are insurmountable – there are only two well build laptop series – IBM/Lenovo’s ThinkPad and Apple’s Macbook – both are undestroyable.

    I’ve tested them on lot of occasions and if one wants something that would just work these are the options, nothing else.

  3. One more thing about Thinkpads – one can buy different kind of batteries – for my sister’s machine I saw options ranging from a 4-cell battery to a 12-cell battery. If one doesn’t mind the battery sticking out of the laptop’s body, one can get a lot more time on battery. I don’t if Lenovo kept that feature to the machine in question.

    This feature does not exist with Macbooks, which I regret.

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