What lightweight but powerful laptop should I buy?
December 10, 2009 4:36 PM   Subscribe

Which light-weight yet powerful laptop should I buy? I like the Sony Vaio Z, followed by the MB Air and the Thinkpad X200. Am I missing any models?

I'm looking to replace my current work laptop - I use it for web development, so I need to be able to run Apache, MySQL, PHP, and some other stuff. I also use Chrome pretty heavily, and of course I watch a DVD every now and then, play music, etc. I don't run an office suite or play any games.

I carry my laptop to and from work every day, and my current HP is pretty heavy, so I am looking to buy the lightest laptop possible that still has a real CPU (e.g. no Atom, ULV, etc). I don't want anything at all resembling a "netbook". What I'm not considering at the moment is price - I'm happy to pay extra for a nicer, lighter, laptop.

At the moment, the best option I could find is the Sony VAIO Z-series. It weighs 3.3 pounds, not the lightest on my list, but it has a nice CPU (a T9900 @ 3.06 GHz). The MB Air is 0.3lbs lighter, but the CPU clocks in at 2.13 GHz and as expected does slightly worse in benchmarks. The Z also has a higher-res screen. I use an additional external monitor, but it is a nice extra. The Lenovo Thinkpad X200 and X200s are lighter even than the MB Air, but have even smaller screens and slower CPUs.

(Note: I am aware of the Z's in-BIOS VT block. I have no problems with patching the BIOS to work around this. I don't consider it a downside.)

Additional details: I plan on running Linux, so gross Linux incompatibilities are a no-go, but I think I can handle anything merely pedestrian. Also, I plan on swapping out the HDD with an SSD some point in the future, so if that has any bearing on anything, I'd love to know. I'm still in the research phase for that.

In short: I want a light yet powerful high-quality workhorse laptop. The VAIO Z looks to be a good balance.

My question: Am I missing anything in my analysis? Do any of these laptops have any glaring flaws? Are there any other models that have solid build quality and similar or better specs?

posted by bkudria to Computers & Internet (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Well, this is something you've probably already excluded it looks like to me, but the battery in the 13" Macbook Pro is pretty great. I love light laptops but I'd prefer the significantly longer-running batteries Probably it's heavier than you want, though?
posted by krilli at 5:06 PM on December 10, 2009

"batteries. Probably"
posted by krilli at 5:06 PM on December 10, 2009

Response by poster: Honestly, I stay plugged-in 80% of the time. A good battery is nice, but I don't need marathon-strength battery power.

The MBP 13 is 4.5 pounds. It would be attractive if not for the lighter and slightly more powerful Z.
posted by bkudria at 5:35 PM on December 10, 2009

Best answer: I know several people with the MB Air, and every last one of them regretted buying it. Flimsy, underpowered, overpriced were some of the adjectives I heard. Besides, if you're not planning to run MacOS, buying a Mac just seems silly - you can get better hardware for far less money.
posted by deadmessenger at 5:38 PM on December 10, 2009

Do you really need a powerful laptop? MS Office has a helluva lot more footprint than most Apache/MySQP/PHP uses, doesn't it? If that's what you're doing, I'd get the lightest thing possible rather than focusing on performance. Unless you're planning on running a bunch of virtual machines or something.

That's just me. It's been a long time since I did much Apache/MySQL work, but as a really heavy GIS/AutoCAD/Photoshop user, I'm completely happy still puttering along at a lowly 2 ghz on my old MacBook Pro with the RAM maxed out. Weight, RAM and battery life seem much more important than performance in this day and age.

As someone who walks with a laptop most days and feels your back pain, I'd go with the Air or VAIO. Probably the Air, given the slightly better resale value and looks.
posted by paanta at 5:49 PM on December 10, 2009

Response by poster: paanta: Multiple VMs are not out of the question. I do other dev work also. I guess, unlike you, I'd rather trade some performance for some weight. This will be my one and only machine, and I want it to be powerful enough to throw anything reasonable at it.
posted by bkudria at 5:52 PM on December 10, 2009

Response by poster: deadmessenger: Thanks for the feedback. I certainly don't want a flimsy or underpowered laptop. However, I have heard good things about Apple hardware. What better hardware would you suggest?
posted by bkudria at 5:53 PM on December 10, 2009

Best answer: Don't get a MB Air, as much as I love my Mac, the non upgradable 2GB memory will be a huge obstacle that's been there so long that you just know they're going to fix it in the next 3-4 months. Having said that, I've got a MacBook Pro 13 inch with 4 GB of ram and it's pretty small/light 4.5 lbs, and has a DVD drive.

ThinkPads have excellent support with Linux, and the X series is SOLID! My wife still loves her x31 even though the damn thing is six years old. Just so you know, they're coming out with an x100 series in early Jan, which should be somewhere between a netbook and the x200, but CPU seems to be important for you, so it probably won't be of much interest.
posted by furtive at 6:04 PM on December 10, 2009

The Sony is the only one that comes with an optical drive. It's Blu-ray, but you won't be able to play Blu-ray discs (or 1080p video) on Linux - AFAIK there's no hardware decoding support, and even that CPU probably won't be able to decode 1080p without stuttering.

I've used the X200 and it's a great machine with a solid feel. Only complaint is the weirdly large bezel above the screen. Its integrated graphics are worse than the Sony, but sufficient if you aren't a gamer.

One thing to note about the MB Air is that if you buy the cheaper one, you're getting a 4200rpm SATA disk, and that's really going to hurt system performance. It's a small form factor disk, so you can't replace it with a conventional disk.

Have you considered the Thinkpad X300 series and the Dell Adamo?
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:11 PM on December 10, 2009

Love my MBP-13. I've had about fifteen laptops over the years, including nine or ten Power/MacBooks and the rest various PCs (and one Viao) and this is the best one yet. Sturdy, strong, sexy, fast, has all the right ports, a great keyboard, long battery life.... everything. I can't think of anything I would change on it. Maybe a wider opening hinge for bed-typing.

I like Sony stuff, but their laptops really feel like toys in comparison. I actually find the Air really attractive, but the 2Gb max memory and lack of USB ports made me reject it.

(Yes, this is a subjective valuation from a guy who owns 3x as many Macs as PCs. But there you go.)
posted by rokusan at 6:22 PM on December 10, 2009

Best answer: I work at the University of Michigan in the IT department and I will say that there are certainly a niche of professors who share your desire. They come and go a lot and place a high premium on both acceptable performance and the thing being as light as humanly possible while still being functional.

They tend to go with the Lenovo X301. As a result, I've worked on a couple and they seem like really decent little machines. I just recently installed an SSD drive in one, and it worked like a charm, so no trouble on that front. Because LCDs are so cheap, a lot of them hook up an external monitor via display port (a nice bonus feature) to get a bigger workspace. I can't speak for whatever Linux distro you have in mind, but on Windows 7 they seem responsive and sometimes downright agile. So, not knowing how the price compares, I'd recommend you take a look if you have time to kill.

We tend not to go with Sony. I couldn't really say why, specifically. Well, no, I guess I could - it seems like their software support is shoddy and they are seemingly always infested with annoying nuggets of necessary bloatware. As you're going to use Linux, this probably doesn't really apply to you.
posted by kbanas at 6:43 PM on December 10, 2009

I am passionately in love with my Lenovo x61 Thinkpad. It's light as a feather, and I carry it every day everywhere I go, so I prize lightness. It's powerful, it's got a great keyboard, and I've dropped it a few times without consequence. I've owned Toshiba and Dell laptops in the past, and there is no comparison.
posted by prefpara at 6:55 PM on December 10, 2009

The Macbook Air is a great laptop. It's the only Mac notebook that I actually haven't not considering selling, after going through two 17"ers and a 15". The screen is the best I've seen on any notebook.

Rev. A Macbook Airs got pretty bad reviews from the sluggishness of the 1.8" PATA drives. I have a Rev A 1.8ghz / SSD and performance is great.

It looks like you're going to buy new so you should have no issues. I would definitely get an SSD model - keep in mind if you want to retrofit an SSD, you need a 1.8", so you can't hit those crazy performance numbers with 2.5" SSDs.

Also there is no optical drive you'll have to rip DVDs beforehand or carry the optical drive with you.
posted by wongcorgi at 7:06 PM on December 10, 2009

Yeah, I absolutely love my SSD-carting MacBook Air. It's solid, not flimsy. It's not my primary machine, but for working in the library, serious lengthy writing or presenting, it's ideal.

A lot of that is because it's OS X and I live in the mac ecosystem, however. If you're just going to wipe it and install Linux, I'm not sure I'd see an advantage if the Lenovo can be had for cheaper.

(that said, the advantages of sticking with OS X are legion, if the unix elements of it are robust enough to cope with the problems that Linux solves for you.)
posted by bonaldi at 7:30 PM on December 10, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice! some specific replies/clarifications:

furtive: Thanks for the reminder re: the MBA's max 2GB RAM. More RAM is better, and yes, I think 2GB is rather limiting.

qxntpqbbbqxl: The Sony comes with a DVD reader/burner, and the Blu-Ray option is another $500. I'd forgo the DVD drive if I could - it's just extra weight, as far as I'm concerned. I'm happy to use a external USB drive on the very probably rarechance I'll need to handle optical media.

The X301 Thinkpad actually looks quite nice, excepting the weaker CPU. I'll look into it a bit more. The removable DVD drive is a plus.

The Dell Adamo weighs 4 lbs, and doesn't seem to offer any distinct advantage other than looking nice.

rokusan: Can you clarify your "toy" comment? Are they not as sturdy?

kbanas: Thanks for the suggestion, I'll look into the X301s. I imagine I'll like what college professors like.

As for the Sony, yes, I plan on wiping everything right after I take it out of the box. I'm really only concerned with the hardware.

bonalid: I absolutely abhor the idea of having more than one work machine - keeping everything in sync and set up they way I like it would be a nightmare. I'd rather just tote one around, so a max-2GB MBA is problematic. And, no, Mac OS X's Unix elements are not robust enough. As we all know, apt-get is the One True Religion. (Also, I like customizing things to the extreme, and that's not exactly compatible with Apple's way of doing things. I had to jailbreak my iPhone!)

Any more feedback on the Sony would be great - still leaning towards that, although the Thinkpads are tempting!
posted by bkudria at 10:46 PM on December 10, 2009

I have the HP EliteBook 2530p and I really like it. It is small and the build quality is excellent. It feels very sturdy.

I have used Slackware and Arch Linux on it; both work quite well. I had to change some sort of fan setting in the BIOS, and occasionally the keyboard is not responsive at boot time. I have been fiddling with the kernel options to see if this last problem can be fixed. Debian stable is a bit too old to use on it (the laptop has newer hardware in it) otherwise I would use that.

I have no optical drive. You can get one built-in, but this requires getting a smaller (in terms of size, not GB) hard drive, which is expensive. I just don't use an optical drive.
posted by massysett at 4:04 AM on December 11, 2009

Point of note: You don't even need a mechanized-laser drive to install Windows anymore.

Good luck in finding using your new hardware.
posted by krilli at 4:15 AM on December 11, 2009

Best thing about the Lenovo Thinkpads is the keyboard. They've kept essentially the same keyboard layout for a long time, and to me it's perfect. Also they usually come with the "little red dot" which as a hater of trackpads, is wondddddddddddddderful to me.
posted by haveanicesummer at 7:39 AM on December 11, 2009

When I was looking for a lightweight machine to travel with and game on I came across the Samsung x460 and x360. I don't see the x360 on their site at the moment, but it was slotted as an air competitor (video)that had an optical drive. The x460 has been more popular with it's option of a dedicated graphics card and excellent processor.

I have been very happy with my x460. I travel frequently with it, and it has excellent battery life. I play modern games on it, but I do have to turn down the settings for certain things. I haven't tried using any major CAD or solid modeling tools on it as yet. It feels light and easy to travel with for me, but it replaced a massive 8lb desktop replacement sort of laptop so my perspective might be a bit off.
posted by Feantari at 7:48 AM on December 11, 2009

I was looking for light, powerful, and Linux-compatible last year, and I ended up with Ubuntu on a Toshiba Portege, which I have been reasonably happy with. The Portege is more powerful than the MacBook Air, and thinner and lighter.

(The Portege weighs 2.4 pounds, compared with the HP Envy at 3.7, the Voodoo Envy at 3.5, the Lenovo x300 at 3.3, the Dell Adamo at 4.0, the MacBook Air at 3.0, and the Samsung x360 at 2.8.)

The downside to the Portege is mainly build quality: the design is fine, but the materials are flimsy and cheap-feeling. I guess that's the tradeoff for lack of weight. It also gets uncomfortably hot, and has a weird cursor skip problem. But I've been able to live with all that okay: there is no perfect laptop.

You say you're not interested in battery life but still, the HP Envy 13 battery is so extraordinary, it might tempt you. With the optional additional battery the Envy apparently gets 14 hours (real hours, real use). I'm considering the Envy now, for that reason, so if anybody has thoughts on it, I'd be happy to hear them.
posted by Susan PG at 10:22 AM on December 11, 2009

Best answer: I got a Sony VAIO a few months ago and I couldn't be happier with it. After using Dells and JPs, the Sony feels very slick and worry free with it's build and features. And MUCH lighter than the monster that was my HP.
posted by ninjakins at 10:38 AM on December 11, 2009

Response by poster: massysett: The EliteBook looks decent, but I have an HP at the moment, and I'm not enamored with it. (I have a Pavilion dv6000, one of the ones where the wireless card just failes after a while. The build quality sucks, too. Granted, I did drop it a couple of times, but...) Anyway, the 2530 has one of those anemic-sounding LV CPUs.

haveanicesummer: Indeed, I hate trackpads, but the nipple isn't any better. I carry around an awesome Bluetooth Logitech mouse cause everything else sucks.

I've used Thinkpad keyboards (for significant amounts of time) and they're decent, but not amazing, in my opinion. I plug in an external keyboard (the Das Keyboard) most of the time anyway.

Feantri: The Samsungs look nice, I kept them in mind, but it just seems that I get a better CPU (and more RAM capacity!) at the cost of 0.1-0.2 lbs with the Sony.

Susan PG: I have seen the Portege models as well, they are pretty impressive. It seems I want to err more on the side of CPU rather than lightweight. I'm not a fan of cheap build quality, though.

The Envy models are ... envious, but they seem to be the same weight as the Sony, but with a weaker CPU. They sure are pretty, though.
posted by bkudria at 11:39 AM on December 11, 2009

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