Will 12" satisfy me?
April 8, 2007 5:41 PM   Subscribe

Am I going to regret getting a 12"-screen ultraportable laptop?

I'm going to b-school in the fall for an MBA and am shopping for a refurbished laptop to use for school. Since I'm going to be lugging it around, I'm thinking of picking up an HP nc4000, a 12" subnotebook. It's got a full-size keyboard and otherwise meets my specs, but I'm wondering about that 12", 1024x768 screen and the general practicalities of subnotebooks.

Currently I've got a work-provided 14" screen laptop with 1400x1050 resolution. (I don't want to use my work laptop for school.) The refurb places around here have had no SXGA laptops, so the alternative to the nc4000 will probably be a 1024x768 14" screen.

Am I going to regret going with a little laptop with a 12" display? (By which I mean: Do you regret having had or not had an ultraportable 12" laptop?)
posted by mendel to Computers & Internet (49 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I have a ThinkPad G40 desktop replacement model. I always wish that I had gotten the smallest, most portable laptop possible, and an external monitor for use at home.
posted by grouse at 5:49 PM on April 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

I love my 12" PowerBook. I carry it around everywhere, and it's lightness is a definite plus. Working on images in photoshop can be less than ideal on a 1024x768 screen, but for all other (non-graphics-related) applications I have no problems with the reduced resolution.
posted by kisch mokusch at 5:50 PM on April 8, 2007

I love my tiny laptop, it's so light that even if I drag it around all day and never even use it, I'm not resentful, as I used to be with a larger laptop. basic word processing, and web surfing (reading and writing) it works great. It can be frusterating if you're working with larger spread-sheets or graphics stuff. Plus it doubles as a portable DVD player on holiday!
posted by dipolemoment at 5:54 PM on April 8, 2007

12" PowerBook here as well. I have used it as my primary computer for 3 years and LOVE it. That includes lots of Photoshop and web design work. A lot of the reason is that the display quality is so good. If the display on yours is high quality, I don't think you will regret a 12 inch. It's a wonderfully portable size.
posted by The Deej at 5:55 PM on April 8, 2007

I use one for business school, and Mrs. Tacos just bought one a few months ago.

I'd suggest learning how to use the keyboard to navigate around, and using something like Launchy to switch apps using only the keyboard.

FWIW, my subnotebook basically runs some custom C++, R and Java apps, Excel, Minitab, Mathematica, some software I like for taking notes (an Outliner), a web-browser and e-mail. It's not as nice as working at my desk, but it's not bad.

Missus Tacos uses one that basically just runs Firefox, Thunderbird, Office, and whatever software the Logitech Digital io2 pen uses, and she loves it. She still has a full-size laptop, but she never, ever uses it.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 6:01 PM on April 8, 2007

love my 12" ibook. i don't find it too small, but you might prefer to get an external monitor and keyboard for working at home.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:09 PM on April 8, 2007

I have a 12" iBook. It was great for when I was at school, but you won't regret an external display and keyboard for when you're at home. Much better than just a bigger laptop (albeit more expensive).
posted by maledictory at 6:20 PM on April 8, 2007

I've used a Dell 700m for almost two years now and I've never regretted it. It's about the size of a hardback book, then enough to fit in almost any bag I've got, and it's powerful enough to run Photoshop, Illustrator, iTunes, and Trillian without blinking.
posted by ASoze at 6:21 PM on April 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've been carrying around my 12" powerbook as my primary computer now for 3 years (!) even though I can afford and easily justify getting the latest greatest model. Why?

Portability is key. The thing is light and I find myself carrying it around everywhere or willing to carry it around everywhere - literally throwing it in my bag only to "remember" I have it later at a useful moment.

The screen 1024x768 is sufficient for my needs (MS Office products + terminals + browser) Its true I cant have windows side-by-side but thats why I hook it up to an external large display at the office. On the go, I've become a master of fast app and window switching (e.g. Expose on the Mac)

As I mentioned, I could go out and grab a 15" MacBook Pro today. But instead I'm going to hang on to my beloved 12" until it breathes its last bit.
posted by vacapinta at 6:25 PM on April 8, 2007

i use a macbook, and connect it to a 23" apple monitor. best of both worlds. imho, the issue is not so much real-estate (well ok im lying), as it brightness of screen.
posted by phaedon at 6:26 PM on April 8, 2007

First, kudos on the thread title.

Second, small laptop + big screen, mouse, keyboard at home = happiness.
posted by Ynoxas at 6:29 PM on April 8, 2007

12 inches has always satisfied me in the powerbook department.
posted by shanevsevil at 6:36 PM on April 8, 2007

While not personally owning an ultra-portable, I know a few people who have, and they were all incredibly happy with them. At least two of them have larger, desktop-replacement laptops as well, and never use them.
posted by djgh at 6:39 PM on April 8, 2007

I got a secondhand 15" dell laptop that I had to lug around for a class, and I hated the thing. It was big, clunky, and heavy as hell. I would have been much much happier with a tiny 12" and an external monitor at home.
posted by chrisamiller at 6:39 PM on April 8, 2007

I had a 15' desktop replacement up until it died a year and a half ago. It was so bulky that I hardly ever took it anywhere. When it died, I replaced it with a 12' ultraportable and I'm much happier with it.

An external monitor is a very good idea though.
posted by Sand Reckoner at 6:42 PM on April 8, 2007

Definitely get the small one -- you'll be taking it everywhere and the less it weighs, the better. I had a huge old 15" Compaq when I was in b-school and it was really annoying to lug it around everywhere.

Oh, and definitely invest in a good bag/backpack. So very important...

(I regret not getting the 12" iBook for personal use, too, the 14" is too clunky)
posted by echo0720 at 6:44 PM on April 8, 2007

Every thread needs a devil's advocate, right?

I used to have a 12" ibook, and now I have a 15" powerbook. I was never unsatisfied with the ibook, because I didn't have any experience with anything different. Now that I have the 15" screen and can have two documents side by side, I think I would be frustrated by the small screen.

Also, unlike many of the posters, I really don't feel like the one pound difference makes any difference in my bag at all. I carry around my bigger laptop all the time and it's never a big deal.

Just my two cents.
posted by umbĂș at 6:54 PM on April 8, 2007

12" iBook, primary computer, love it, wouldn't want anything else now.
posted by moira at 6:54 PM on April 8, 2007

I used to work for a company that sold subnotebooks and I loooooved my baby Toughbook. I was very sad when I left the company and I had to leave it behind. I quickly adjusted to the smaller keyboard and display but it's super easy to just attach a normal keyboard and monitor when you're at home if you prefer.

Seriously, if you're hauling it anywhere at all, do you want to worry about an extra ten pounds in your backpack when you could have had two pounds instead?
posted by sugarfish at 6:58 PM on April 8, 2007

I had a 12" PowerBook, but after a year I decided I felt terribly cramped and needed to upgrade to the 15". Even an external display wouldn't have helped. I'm much happier now, even if it is noticeably heavier.
posted by thejoshu at 7:00 PM on April 8, 2007

I had a Dell XPS m1210 12" notebook for a week before switching to a Macbook.

I loved the small size of the Dell, but I got headaches when I used it, which I think came from the small screen. I had used a 12" screen on a Thinkpad before, but it was 12 years ago and my eyes have aged.

For me, the 13" screen is the sweet spot.
posted by 4ster at 7:05 PM on April 8, 2007

Another satisfied 12 inch iBooker. I wouldn't want it to be my ONLY computer, but for taking around to class it's perfect. 12 inches sounds small, but it's usually close to your face than a monitor on a desk. Anything bigger would mean A) heavier and B) uses more power.

The 15 inch Dell I had before this was alright, but I would not want to lug it around every day (not that it would last through 3 classes anyways). You'll be totally satisfied.
posted by almostmanda at 7:20 PM on April 8, 2007

I bought a 15.4" for my college work, but now wish I bought a 12". Go for a 12", U can plug in an external monitor at home if u need.
posted by WizKid at 7:21 PM on April 8, 2007

i have a 12" powerbook and i LOVE it. i take it everywhere.
i'm all for the small, light computers.
make sure the one you want gets good wireless reception.
posted by twistofrhyme at 7:30 PM on April 8, 2007

Last two notebooks have been 12" screens - a Dell X200 and a Voodo Envy i.222. The latter is wide-aspect and glossy, both of which I recommend if you have the option.

As for the small screen: adjustable fonts are a must.

I love these devices for notes, for couch-use, for the fact that I can pick it up with one hand and not strain anything.

(And I have terrible, terrible vision. Even corrected, I'm about 20/70. I still prefer my small 12" screens to the slightly-larger laptop screens available due to the motility of the whole unit versus a few extra inches).
posted by abulafa at 7:38 PM on April 8, 2007

The Deej brought up a key point: quality of the display. I'm forced at work to migrate from a Thinkpad with a nice screen to a HP with a screen that's just horrible. They're both about the same size, but the quality isn't even in the same universe.

I don't have a ton of experience on ultraportables, but the ones I've seen tend to be a bit higher-end & have nice displays. Just make sure yours looks good, and follow the other posters' advice and get an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse, and you'll be golden.
posted by altcountryman at 7:42 PM on April 8, 2007

Obviously this is very subjective, but for me the convenience of carrying around a smaller laptop paled in comparison to the inconvenience of having to scroll around the little window all the time. I tend to work better with more than one app open at the same time, something I basically had to give up with the smaller laptop. Many websites now default to a 1024x768 layout, which affects both browsing and developing. As for graphics work, a small laptop is just the wrong tool for the job. Most of the time I felt like I was digging a hole with a spoon.

The problem I had was that the machine was just slightly too small to be really useful for certain tasks, but not small enough that I'd just drop the idea of using it for those tasks... it was frustration-filled productivity. The solution I came up with was to head in the opposite direction from what everyone was recommending... I got an OQO that can handle all of the connectivity/productivity stuff that I really *need* from a mobile, and save the photoshop/dev/multiple-apps work for the multi-monitor desktop machine. Turns out I like my life better this way... my workflow is reorganized such that I am always using the right tool for the right job, and I don't have any more of the frustration that comes from trying to get more out of a piece of technology than it was designed to give.
posted by foobario at 8:02 PM on April 8, 2007

I have a 12" Lenovo X41 Tablet PC and I would marry the thing, if not for that unfortunate constitutional amendment passed last year.
posted by LarryC at 8:31 PM on April 8, 2007

Love my 12" powerbook . Nudge nudge
posted by lalochezia at 8:36 PM on April 8, 2007

12" is not an ultraportable, this is an ultraportable.

I have the predecessor of the linked machine and love it more than I have ever loved a portable computer before.
posted by kindall at 8:57 PM on April 8, 2007


If you'll be studying finance, accounting, or anything else that is spreadsheet-intensive, you may regret a 12" machine.

Financial statement analysis usually calls for going at least 40 rows down in Excel. This sucks on a 12" display. If you're studying marketing at a school with a small core curriculum, you'll be fine. Otherwise, think twice.

Furthermore, your keyboard will be extremely important. Don't buy a machine until you've typed on it for a few minutes.
posted by Kwantsar at 8:58 PM on April 8, 2007

I've got a 12" Dell mx1210 and love it.

I have a 24" monitor at home and another at the office so I only use the small screen as a secondary display for Outlook or when I'm traveling.
posted by Mick at 9:05 PM on April 8, 2007

12" Vaio, love it. I have no issues whatsoever with the screen size.

However, my girlfriend hates programming on it because she can't have all her windows open at once. But she uses three monitors at work, so I'd take that with a grain of salt.

I, however, love that I can take it anywhere and it fits in every bag and is very, very light.
posted by fiercecupcake at 9:13 PM on April 8, 2007

I forgot to mention earlier:

Firefox makes it so easy to make fon't larger that it is a great choice for a small screen.

It helps to see the screen of the notebook before you buy it. Sometimes, the screens only look good from one particular angle, and that can really limit its usefulness, particularly on a small screen.
posted by 4ster at 9:49 PM on April 8, 2007

Well, the OP clearly wants an ultralight and Apple doesn't make those (however superior Apple hardware may be in other ways).

For a PC ultralight that's comparable to an Apple in terms of build quality (including quality of the display) and generally intelligent design, I'd suggest a Sony Vaio ultralight.

Display quality and keyboard feel will both make a massive difference in your experience. I'll loudly second Kwantsar's advice to never buy an ultraportable you haven't physically tried out yet (unless you can find a seller with a return policy / restocking fee you can deal with).
posted by allterrainbrain at 9:56 PM on April 8, 2007

I have a 12" iBook. No experience with anything else in a 12" screen size (and, the iBook isn't an 'ultralight'? FWIW, I don't think it's that heavy), but in terms of just working on a screen that size, I don't really mind.

Wouldn't want to make it my only computer though. I use it just for web browsing and email, generally when I'm in bed or on the couch, or traveling (and not lugging my work-issue ball and chain). I have a 19" CRT on my desktop and that's where I do all graphics/photo/video work. If it were my only computer I'd probably be a lot less happy.

So anyway, I don't think there's any reason to avoid 12" screens if you're mostly going to be processing text. I've written more pages of LaTeX than I'd like to think about on this thing, and never found it to be bad.

For reasons that are beyond me, a lot of manufacturers seem to be going with these glossy screens now, which I think are hideous. But judging from the number of them I've seen around, some people must prefer them (!), so I think a lot boils down to personal taste.

So whichever computer you think you're going to go with, I wouldn't buy it sight unseen in any event. There are too many machines out there with cheap screens or crummy keyboards to just hope you'll get something decent.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:50 PM on April 8, 2007

Another 12" iBook user here. I bought mine refurbished, and love it to death, even with the low resolution. I see kids here on campus with these giant 17" widescreen monstrosities and feel real good that I have a computer that'll fit on the tiniest of lecture hall desks, and has much better battery life.

Caveat: I also have a desktop Mac mini with a 19" LCD. Believe me, if the iBook were my primary machine, I'd go nuts. It's just too tiny to work on for extended periods. But for a portable, it can not be beat.
posted by SansPoint at 11:19 PM on April 8, 2007

I love my 12" ThinkPad X40. I wish it was SXGA, but XGA works alright for me.

1024x768 is great for writing essays and such, alright for programming and the web, and kind of short for editing photos.
posted by qvtqht at 11:54 PM on April 8, 2007

I should mention that other than my dual SXGA desktop at the office (not mine), the 12.1" ThinkPad is my primary (and only) computer which I use to do everything.

I am looking for a desktop to supplement it, but I have been fine in this state for a year.
posted by qvtqht at 11:55 PM on April 8, 2007

Yet another very happy 12" powerbook owner here (who migrated from a larger powerbook). Some observations:

- For usability, e.g. the spreadsheet scenario, screen size isn't as important as screen resolution (number of pixels). Oftentimes, the larger-screen model will have the same resolution as the smaller model --- meaning it can't actually display any more information than the smaller-screen model, despite being heavier, clumsier, more fragile, and more expensive. Ignore the screen size and go by pixel count.

- If you can, get a separate system for desktop use (or at least, get a separate keyboard and display and choose a laptop that supports external displays well). Trying to use a laptop as a desktop replacement just doesn't work all that well: it forces too many compromises.

- Get a few minutes of hands-on time with the laptop before you decide to buy it. It's really hard to judge from specs and photos alone.

(Oh, and Kadin2048: the small ibooks and powerbooks are reasonably light, yes, but they're not ultralights. There are some very thin lightweight laptops out there.)
posted by hattifattener at 1:06 AM on April 9, 2007

Another ThinkPad X40 user here -- I've probably flown at least 100,000 with this laptop, and generally use it about 12 hours a day for everything from writing to spreadsheets to light image editing to instant messaging and would highly recommend getting the smaller device. I care more about size than weight, so I added two external batteries, which nearly double the weight but add almost nothing to the laptop's dimensions.

You'll be surprised how much the extra mobility changes the way you work. I have a ready comparison, since my other laptop (and my wife's) have a 14" screen, and I have a 32" HDTV hooked up as the display on my other computer. Despite 60" of other screens available to me around the house, I end up using this little 12" more than the rest combined.
posted by anildash at 1:30 AM on April 9, 2007

Financial statement analysis usually calls for going at least 40 rows down in Excel. This sucks on a 12" display.

Excellent point, though this can be mitigated with a higher resolution. OP mentions 1024x768, which I would suggest is about as bad as you'll ever want to deal with. Most application designers assume this as a minimum, but fail to take into account the top and bottom menu area which will subtract another hundred pixels from your usable space.

My recommendation is to concentrate on rectifying the low-resolution problem first and foremost. IBM (/Lenovo) offer higher resolution SXGA and UXGA screens, which means 14" minimum sadly. If you find the everyday fonts too small, you can always enlarge them in the systems menu. But not having the option to go smaller when you need it will be crippling.

The other problem (at least for me) is that nearly every single notebook manufacturer has this weird, asinine idea of how to implement the six document-navigation keys (HOME/END, PGUP/PGDOWN, INS/DEL). If you type as much as I do, the order and orientation of these six keys becomes part of your muscular memory, yet most notebooks hide them in hidden function-keypress combinations that make them effectively useless. IBM Thinkpads (/Lenovos) are the only ones that I know of offhand that get this right. If you'll be spending a lot of time typing, it'll be hard to top the Thinkpad.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:24 AM on April 9, 2007


When I full-screen Excel on my Toshiba m205 (with 12" standard [not wide] glossy display, I get 21 columns by 48 rows.

And I've got more toolbars running than the default.

A 12" screen is perfect for school, and you'll be fin in Excel.
posted by SlyBevel at 6:39 AM on April 9, 2007

posted by SlyBevel at 6:39 AM on April 9, 2007

I'm not sure I could go back to a 12" screen after moving from an iBook to a giant-ass iMac. That said, when I had my iBook I found it perfectly fine. Smaller laptops are much more convenient. I don't think i'd ever by a bigger laptop than a 12" one.
posted by chunking express at 6:47 AM on April 9, 2007

If you'll be studying finance, accounting, or anything else that is spreadsheet-intensive, you may regret a 12" machine.

I disagree. My 15" laptop isn't much better than my 12" for excel/minitab, etc. Right now the spreadsheet I have open has data through column BL, and row 630, and that's pretty standard.

You get a better return from learning all relevant keyboard shortcuts (ctrl-page up/down to switch sheets, alt-page up/down to scroll left/right, ctrl-home/end, etc.) than you get from an extra three inches of screen.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 7:21 AM on April 9, 2007

I have a Fujitsu 7020D notebook, which I believe is even smaller than 12". I've had it 2 years now and never regretted it. It fits on planes, on restaurant bars, in the car, has crazy battery life, and is more than powerful enough for any non-gaming use I've come up with. It's usually a great conversation starter too - people ask about my tiny computer wherever I go.
posted by Vorteks at 11:27 AM on April 9, 2007

I have a 12" G4 powerbook too, and I love it. The screen gets a little cramped when tinkering with vast expanses of code and/or photoshop, but I have the ability to connect a larger external display when I need it. For taking notes and surfing the web, it's pretty much the bees' knees. I'm probably upgrading to a 15" MBP for grad school, but I'll keep this machine around to lug to class for note-taking.
posted by Alterscape at 4:07 PM on April 9, 2007

Welp, that took forever, but I'm now the happy owner of a refurbished Dell Latitude D410 with a 1024x768 12" display. You guys were right, it's the perfect size. Thanks, everyone!
posted by mendel at 6:20 PM on June 13, 2007

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