my laptop preferences are becoming non-mainstream, why? and what to do?
March 15, 2019 12:19 AM   Subscribe

New laptops are way better on the technical specs (battery, CPU power, RAM, storage, connectivity, etc.). But the keyboards feel terrible, the screens are short and wide, things break all the time, and nothing can be serviced or upgraded by the user. Manufacturers are clearly optimizing for someone else. But who? And what will I do when my laptop breaks?

I'm typing this on a 12 year old Thinkpad X61. Things I like about it that I can't seem to find any more:

- 4:3 aspect ratio
- keyboard feels pretty good, considering its size and weight
- removable battery, because you know that'll die after a few years.
- little doors leading directly to the RAM and hard-drive, so I can upgrade them with a screwdriver and no instructions.
- Durable, so durable that after 12 years I've chipped a few bits off the case but everything works as well as it did when I first got it.

Instead, the trend seems to be toward

- universal 16:9 aspect ratio, which is way too wide for one page and not quite wide enough for two pages side by side
- terrible keyboards, just squishy and shallow and often fragile
- No access to hard drive or RAM. Sometimes you just have to dig through other components, sometimes they're soldered down to the motherboard.
- Sometimes on the ultraportable stuff even the battery is soldered down!
- This is pure anecdata, but they seem to be getting less reliable? I know a lot of people who've broken their new laptops after only a few years.

So, two questions:

1. Who are OEMs trying to please? I feel like ease of typing, ease of reading, and longevity (via durability and upgradability) should be pretty universal virtues, but they're apparently not.

2. Are there any durable, upgradable laptops with a good keyboard at this point? 90% of my computer usage is Gmail, Metafilter, and blogs. Every now and then I watch something on Youtube. Very rarely, I have to install something from source.

I'm aware of the X62, but the supply is a bit erratic and the whole thing is a bit sketchy.

I've thought about buying an X220 off eBay, but that only gets me from a 12 year old computer to an 8 year old computer.

Hope me?
posted by meaty shoe puppet to Technology (22 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I’ve gone through a bunch of Thinkpads: X61, X220, X230, currently using a 2nd gen X1 Carbon that’s getting a bit long in the tooth.

The good news is that I felt the same way as you about aspect ratio, and it does bug me on the x220 and x230, but for whatever reason I find the Carbon’s higher resolution screen very usable and I don’t notice the aspect ratio much. The resolution, color range, and max brightness will be a pleasant improvement from your X61.

But yeah, the keyboard sucks and no new laptops have real Thinkpad keyboards anymore. There was that retro Thinkpad in 2017, and various mods to retrofit X230 with a real keyboard, but you’re probably out of luck for keyboards. Same with easily serviceable parts. You might try asking on /r/thinkpad
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 12:47 AM on March 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'd wager the wider aspect ratio is because a lot of people aren't doing as much long-form reading on their laptop screens, they're watching videos and playing games, which benefit from a cinematic aspect ratio.

Likewise, a crappy keyboard brings down cost and is a lower priority for most people (anecdata: I do a lot of laptop typing, and I don't mind shallow keys at all) - and they figure anyone using it for proper desk work can plug in an external display and keyboard.
posted by Gordafarin at 3:24 AM on March 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Re 2, look at Clevo laptops, they're OEMs sold under a number of brands (eg metabox here in Aus), and they are quite old school. Mine has: upgradeable ram, chip; removeable battery; space for two hard drives + msata; SD card reader, a whole bunch of stuff I liked (also, a matte screen like my beloved old thinkpads. Keyboard is not quite as good as an older thinkpad, and there's no nipple, but still).

If what's your looking for is a laptop of yore, clevo's are a good bet.
posted by smoke at 3:42 AM on March 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

4:3 is hard to find, but the last of Ye Olde Macbook Pros meets the rest of those requirements (the battery is replaceable, but not swappable).

Mine has a 2.6GHz i7 CPU, 16GB of RAM, discrete NV 650M gpu (enough for creative apps, etc, not gaming), the hard drive has been replaced with a SSD and so has the optical drive. This is just before they started soldering the memory the mainboard, and then shortly after the mass storage.

The keyboard has good feel and decent travel, although it does have that slightly e x p a n d e d apple keyspacing.

It doesn't have Retina, and it's Thunderbolt 1. Those are the main limitations, in terms of forward compatibility. It does have a cardslot and even FireWire ports (still useful for audio production).

Barring a mainboard or GPU failure, I'm not sure what would kill this machine.

But that would still get you to a merely 6 to 7 year old computer. :P

Didn't Clevo used to be the generic version of Alienware? It's been a long time since I've followed the PC building scene.
posted by snuffleupagus at 4:52 AM on March 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think the Microsoft Surface Pro is 4:3.

But everybody is following the Apple model of a sealed body with nothing replaceable inside.
No manufacturer makes money off of spare parts.

My answer has been to accept that laptops are disposable, and put all my storage and data on personal servers.
posted by nickggully at 6:05 AM on March 15, 2019

A friend of mine had similar issues WRT Thinkpad keyboards. He's a bit hardcore.
posted by pompomtom at 6:10 AM on March 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'm starting to see a lot of this kind of complaining, but it's hard for me to avoid seeing a good chunk of it as the inevitable certainty of the middle aged that things were better before!

I mean, these are some good points; it would definitely be nice if my current MBP was as user-upgradable as the one I had a decade ago. But most people never bother with that kind of thing; in 20+ years of laptop use, I think I've opened a case twice. It just didn't come up.

That's why they're the way they are now: because you mostly don't need to do it anymore. It's possible that the moment of stability we're in -- e.g., a 5 year old laptop today is WAY more usable than a 5 year old laptop 10 years ago -- will drive users to longer duty cycles, and thus drive manufacturers to more repairability, but I wouldn't bet on it.
posted by uberchet at 6:55 AM on March 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

re: keyboards - virtually everyone in my organization uses their laptops 60%+ of the time in a dock, so they're using an external (typically mechanical) full size keyboard more than half the time, particularly when they're sitting down to do long stretches of work. (and of course a massive external monitor array as well.)

I think in a lot of industries laptops are used this way -- you can take your data or presentation on the road if you have to, but the bulk of the work with the machine is done while using an external keyboard/monitor setup, so the keyboard installed in the laptop is thought of mostly as a "backup" keyboard -- and then weight is the priority, not functionality.

Also, our laptops are leased, so they're automatically replaced every two years. And our org leases close to a thousand of them. So, again, no need for user serviceable parts -- if they break, just transfer the data and swap it out for a new one.
posted by anastasiav at 7:06 AM on March 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

1) It allows them to make the laptops thinner and lighter
2) Instead of people upgrading components, they will need to buy a new laptop
3) Most people never upgraded a laptop (or a desktop, for that matter)
posted by Automocar at 7:07 AM on March 15, 2019

1. Who are OEMs trying to please?

Reviewers, and tire kickers at best buy.

Thinness is all the crazy with reviewers, and it's a very in-depth review if they've spent more than a calendar month with a product before reviewing it. At best, a reviewer might be able to note that they wonder about the durability of part X. While there's definitely those of us who prefer mechanical keyboards, just as I've (mostly) given up the battle against top-repliers in email, you should probably accept that squishy membrane keyboards are considered quiet and the current rage. Good (to you) keyboards are the exception.

For someone who doesn't know what they want in a laptop wandering a display section of a big box store, the tiny thin things seem so elegant. And 16:9 is a big improvement in tv's, so it should definitely be the same improvement on a laptop. Additionally price is a huge factor to try to get a casual buyer. If the price is inline with some phones, why shouldn't the reliability and assembly be like that of phones?

At these price points, the majority of purchases will not be upgrading them, and they're more likely to be captured in the upgrade cycle, so manufacturers consider it a plus if they can successfully market a non-upgradable device.
posted by nobeagle at 7:12 AM on March 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

You might have better luck (though spending more) looking at "gaming laptops".
posted by Hypatia at 7:53 AM on March 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

I buy used Thinkpads off eBay, ones that boot and have no hard drive. Then I can just move my hard drive and usually RAM when my laptop dies of being dropped. I just got one for 65, shipped. Not super high end, but does everything I need with ease. More than a few companies remove hard drives then donate or sell their laptops, so they are plentiful.
posted by theora55 at 9:15 AM on March 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Interesting, I think almost the exact opposite. To me it's only in recent years that laptops have moved from fragile and slow trade-off boxes to being real desktop replacements. My new Carbon X1 (my 3rd one) also has my all time favourite keyboard.

And modern laptops are absolutely more reliable than older ones. I say this as someone who has purchased literally hundreds of laptops per year for the past 15 years.
posted by Cosine at 9:31 AM on March 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Who are OEMs trying to please?

Douglas Adams wrote this wonderful slur about ape-descended life forms so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. If he were writing it today, I'm sure he'd have used touch screens instead.

Laptops as such are a dying breed. Everything is turning into a black slab with a touch screen on it, and from an OEM's point of view a laptop in 2019 is pretty much just a tablet in a clam-shell casing. The innards are pretty close to indistinguishable now.

So the answer to your question is that OEMs are trying to please themselves by reducing the amount of tooling they need to stay invested in to produce the range of stuff they want to; and to a lesser extent they're trying to please their retailers by building stuff that's every bit as pretty as Apple gear, because prettiness walks off shelves way faster than durability or maintainability does.

Are there any durable, upgradable laptops with a good keyboard at this point?

If you don't mind throwing money at the problem you might care to look into Purism's Librem 15.
posted by flabdablet at 9:34 AM on March 15, 2019

The reason there aren't swappable batteries is because you can get 8 solid hours of basic web surfing or similar light duty out of a typical battery. Putting a durable connector and case on a battery is necessary and costs a lot of space (because you really don't want to puncture a Lithium Ion battery that has roughly the same stored energy as a hand grenade). If you look at an old-school laptop battery next to a modern laptop, it's pretty clear that you wouldn't have much room left with a traditional battery.

The upgrade cycle for all computers has really slowed down, in general, because the technology isn't advancing nearly as fast. It used to be that you'd wait 2-3 years and be able to replace the memory for half the price per megabyte. But according to the memory price tracker in the last ten years the price has gone from $10 a GB all the way down to... $7 a gigabyte. It's essentially the same story with CPU speed, except for the rare applications that can really make use of multiple cores and threads, and those tend to be exactly the kinds of things that people don't do on laptops. So there's zero incentive not to buy the maximum CPU and amount of memory you think you'll need at the time of purchase. SSD prices continue to fall but those are, usually, replaceable if you wait a few years.

But the rest of the stuff, as far as I can tell, is related to the fact that it's super hard to engineer a very thin laptop. So the prestige brands put a lot of money into that, because the processors and storage and screens are basically commodity at this point. There's a famous anecdote about Steve Jobs taking an early iPod, dropping it into an aquarium, and demanding that the designers and engineers get the bubbles out. In fact, there are whole companies dedicated to helping you optimize the layout of components in order to minimize the volume, because it is computationally a hard problem. J random clone laptop maker can't afford to put that kind of money into their design. In fact, Intel put a huge amount of money into its Ultrabook program to help laptop makers to catch up to Apple's unibody MacBook Pros. Personally, my non-touchbar Macbook Pro is thin enough that it occasionally gets lost in the couch cushions, or under the mail, but the above is the reason why the laptops have gone from "helpfully, portably thin" to "We removed all the key travel to save space, hope you don't mind typing on an unyielding granite slab". Personally, the 2012 and 2015 retina Macbooks are the sweet spot because they still have a very nice keyboard, great display, and while you can't replace the battery yourself unless you're comfortable removing adhesive and using spudgers, there will always be someone who can do it for you, and for surprisingly little money.
posted by wnissen at 9:49 AM on March 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

there's zero incentive not to buy the maximum CPU and amount of memory you think you'll need at the time of purchase

Maxing out RAM at initial purchase has been my best advice for many years, even back when the upgrade treadmill was running at a far higher pace than it seems to be today.

It was indeed true that waiting 2-3 years would let you replace the memory for half the price per megabyte; but 2-3 years was never really enough for applications to bloat to the point where what you'd bought initially was manifestly inadequate. That used to take maybe five years - and by the time you have a machine that old, RAM has moved on by maybe two generations and the sticks you need for compatibility are no longer being made in huge volumes and are more expensive than they were when you initially bought the machine.

The only machines it has never made sense to max out on purchase are from Apple, because Apple charges an unconscionable amount for RAM. If the Apple model you're buying gives you the option (and increasingly they don't) it's generally way cheaper to stuff it full of after-market RAM.
posted by flabdablet at 10:05 AM on March 15, 2019

I can't weigh in on the whys of your question since I am also puzzled by this trend, but like snuffleupagus mentions above, I opted for a 2012 Macbook Pro a couple years ago and then installed my own 1 TB solid state hard drive and 16 GB RAM. I'm hoping to be able to use this machine til infinity and beyond!!
posted by trampoliningisfun at 11:49 AM on March 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Look for business laptops that are still servicable. I bought a dell 5289 over surface tablets or dell consume or HP consumer lines because it allowed me to change/replace almost everything. If laptop breaks , i can still use a screwdriver to replace components.
posted by radsqd at 1:28 PM on March 15, 2019

I am 3-peating snuffleupagus and trampoliningisfun to say that I also am using a mid-2012 MacBook with updated SSD and RAM. I like travel to my keys, and I'd rather have a couple of ports than be carrying a couple of dongles. I am clearly not the target market for these new trends.

Honestly, I think that the manufacturers are looking to make things that inspire New Gadget Lust. The tech having gotten to a place where batteries run for a long enough time and last for enough years just means that they can make things non-replaceable without suffering the backlash they would have previously. Hopefully, the pendulum will swing back the other way before I need a new computer.
posted by past unusual at 1:39 PM on March 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

I picked up a HP 9480 Elitebook used - replaced an old Core2Duo Macbook (which itself was used; buying tech new seems pointless given rate of change and premium on new & shiny - particularly when laptops have had the horsepower to do 99% of what I need for several years now).

I've been familiar with the Elitebooks for several years at work and the 9480 was no different - all worked well, nice keyboard (for a laptop), drive & memory, battery are upgrade-able. Ubuntu supported everything with the default install. Only downsides - annoying wide-screen (I'd prefer more height to width), tiny speakers (probably not a big priority on an enterprise laptop) and annoying power-lead socket placement (why doesn't everyone magsafe their connectors!). If I'd tried to upgrade to a similar spec'd Mac I'd have to pay at least double for the privilege (and loose upgrade-ability/user-maintenance/connectivity).

One other nifty thing about the 9480, it has 2 drive bays - you can connect a small form-factor SSD and a standard 2.5" laptop drive (SSD or otherwise) - super-useful for in-body backups or extra capacity.
posted by phigmov at 2:16 PM on March 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Me-nthing 2012 MBP +aftermarket 1 or 2 TB SSD and max ram. You want the very very last model Apple made before going all blade-style SSDs.

I run this style too with cheesegrater Mac Pros, but that is a different fettle of kish that became highly complicated with the recent introduction of a new FS standard for boot SSDs by Apple, essentially disabling BootCamp on SSD-booting pre-trashcan Mac Pros. Thank you very much, Jony Apple.
posted by mwhybark at 8:31 PM on March 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you REALLY want a modern CPU in an old-style Thinkpad case, there is a group in China who can do that for you. Apparently it costs around $1200, and involves wiring money to a Chinese bank. But the people who have tried it have rave reviews (linked in article), and it is really the only way to get what the numerous classic Thinkpad fans in this thread are missing.
posted by seasparrow at 8:41 PM on March 17, 2019

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