Tablets don’t kill laptops – Laptop makers are killing laptops
The current laptop I’m talking about, by the way, is a nine-year-old Dell Inspiron E1505. It was beaten, the hinge is weak and the battery collapsed years ago. It’s easily twice as thick as today’s thickest. I’ve increased the RAM, changed the hard drive, and reinstalled Windows several times – and it works just fine. It lacks a few current-gen conveniences, but I consider it superior to anything available today in every way that matters to me.
This nine-year-old laptop won’t win any beauty contests today, but it should remind many companies why things were better before.
It all starts with the screen. No matter the size, an overwhelming majority of laptops sold over the past decade have the same resolution: 1366×768 pixels. It’s terrible for two reasons: first, it’s extremely low-key, which means you have less information and fewer controls than you need onscreen. Second, the aspect ratio (width to height) is 16:9, which is totally unsuitable for work.
The 16:9 aspect ratio was not always common for computer monitors. It was the display manufacturers who forced the switch from 16:10 to the much shorter and narrower 16:9 to cut costs after flat panel televisions became affordable, because that’s what the standards of television broadcast dictated.
The makers said back then that we’d all love to watch movies without ugly black bands on screen, but what they didn’t say was that turning the lowest common denominator into a standard has them helped save a lot of money. As a result, we lost a lot of vertical screen space, which is incredibly useful for working with text and spreadsheets, surfing the web, editing photos, and doing just about anything else. other than watching a movie. Only Apple stayed with 16:10 (except on the 11-inch MacBook Air), showing that the panels are available to any manufacturer that doesn’t prioritize cost over usability.
Windows 8.1 still can’t handle scaling well – some UI elements are tiny while others are bigger but blurry.
Until just a few months ago, it was almost impossible to find a better screen on a reasonably priced laptop in India – some manufacturers sold such models abroad but refused to do so here due to perceived price sensitivity. It took Apple’s Retina MacBooks to give them a jolt, and so now we have the other extreme – 2560×1440 at 13-inches, chosen because it shrinks down to 1280×720. Everything looks crisp, but that’s actually less working space than even 1366×768, unless you’re prepared to deal with Windows 8.1’s finicky scaling behavior.
Dell’s old resolution? 1280×800, for a 16:10 aspect ratio. Oh and it’s not too reflective to bring out the colors. If you’re having trouble tilting a laptop screen so lights don’t reflect off it, remember that the manufacturer made a choice that wasn’t based on usability and that didn’t help. not always been normal.
Separate, clickable trackpad buttons. Media shortcuts under your thumb. Large front speakers.
Then there are laptop keyboards. For the moment, it is impossible to find one that is not “island style” or “chiclet style”. Indeed, thinness has become the number one priority, and manufacturers don’t care that the keys actually need a certain amount of height to move when you type. Nope, every keyboard has been flattened and every laptop I’ve tried to use lately has made me change my typing style and slow me down.
I type a lot. Several thousand words a week, in fact. Writing and editing are core functions of my job, and I guess I was wrong to expect to be able to do that job on a laptop. I can easily exceed 72 wpm on a good keyboard, but speed and accuracy drop off if the keyboard is too shallow.
I also constantly need to hit the cursor block and paging block – Insert, Delete, Home End, Page Up and Page Down. I can do this blindly on a standard keyboard, with Ctrl and Shift to move and select text, but every time I look down and search on a laptop keyboard, it’s a pause in concentration.
The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (2014) – quite possibly the worst keyboard layout ever inflicted on laptop users.
Appearance being the priority, all the keys are inserted into a neat rectangle. The first victim of this is the paging block, with keys scattered all over the place or consigned to secondary functions. Other keys are also regularly moved – there is no standard layout. We’ve seen the entire row of Fn keys omitted or converted to Windows shortcuts, the Ctrl key moved (goodbye, copy/paste movies), and various other atrocities committed. Inverted-T arrow keys are now almost always smoothed into a block (spreadsheets are damned). And it’s become commonplace to just leave out keys like Pause/Pause and the Windows menu key – sorry, power users.
Now, I don’t expect product designers to magically create enough space for a full desktop layout, but there’s still room for improvement. I know this because whoever made my old E1505 made it so much better so long ago. Take a look at this layout. It’s phenomenal, and you won’t find anything quite like it on the market today – it’s clearly possible, but it couldn’t have been pretty enough. The only improvement in laptop keyboards over the past decade has been backlighting, which I admit I wish I had.
The keyboard might not be a visually appealing rectangle, but it’s incredibly easy to use. Bonus: the virtual numeric keypad on the right.
I romanticize a lot about the E1505, but at 2.8kg carrying it around every day has never been one of them. I am happy that laptops can now be much lighter. That said, I’ve never had a problem with its 3.5 cm thickness. Before laptops became fashion statements, it was possible to have a variety of ports and slots (in convenient places too), and it was normal to have easy access to the insides. The E1505 has four USB ports, FireWire, an SD card reader, audio input and output, VGA and S-Video outputs, Ethernet, a dial-up modem, DVD-RW drive and even an ExpressCard slot. Try to find as much flexibility on any laptop today, even considering modern standards.
I was able to squeeze so much life out of it because it’s absurdly easy to upgrade and repair. The hard drive and RAM are accessible without even opening the lid – upgrades took just seconds. Twice I took it apart to get rid of dust and dog hair clogging its vents. I pulled the battery out with a fingernail when a warning LED started flashing all the time. More importantly, I know that if the basic components ever fail, I can remove the hard drive and recover all my data.
The hard drive is accessible from the outside. It only takes two screws to release all your data.
My lovely old E1505 cost $849 with tax in May 2006. That was around Rs. 38,000 back then, and would be Rs. 54,500 today. I think I got phenomenal value from my (well, my parents’) investment. No laptop at this price today will do as much for as long. It’s even wrong to think of spending so much money on something that would in many ways be a downgrade.
Lenovo had decent ThinkPads and Dell had Latitudes that were nearly okay, but ultimately failed for one reason or another. It’s also worth noting that these lines are aimed at business and aren’t readily available at retail – so on some level both companies recognize that business users need good machines, and still convince each other that everything the world outside of an office (including students and self-employed) will be delighted with the shiny plastic instead.
RAM is just as easy to swap out. See also, the modem module. A flap in the battery compartment conceals the optional Bluetooth module.
And so it didn’t seem bad to bypass all available options and spend almost as much on an iPad not long ago. The iPad does new things, it’s convenient in different ways, and it adds a noticeable quality to my life. I did exactly what PC makers had feared for years: I spent my PC upgrade money on something other than a PC upgrade. Perversely, whatever manufacturers have done to make laptops look more like tablets to prevent that from happening has made it all the more so.
Speeds and standards aside, today’s laptops just aren’t as good as those available a decade ago. Even though mine isn’t fast enough anymore, the pros of using it outweigh the cons of upgrading. This has been the case for millions of people who have purchased smartphones and tablets instead of new PCs over the past few years.
The lid of the Dell Inspiron E1505 is as thick as a current 13-inch MacBook Air.
PC makers still worry about the death of the PC, but they are the ones who have tightened the noose from the start. They pinned all their hopes on Windows 8, which is driving demand for touchscreens, and they’re doing it again with Windows 10.
It doesn’t matter if the material is not good enough. We need our computers to improve so that we can improve ourselves. We won’t spend on new ones until we’re sure it happens again. PC makers dropped the ball, and as a result, they almost got kicked out of business. It shouldn’t be difficult at all for them to raise the bar from where it currently is. If they do, buyers will come in droves, and I’ll be ahead of the queue.