LUG's Laptop Reviews

The #osu-lug channel on Freenode has recently seen a lot of requests for advice on choosing laptops. Here's a summary of the advice you're likely to get from each channel member.

edunham

Preferences

I play a bit of Minecraft and occasionally like to compile code or run VMs locally, so a machine's performace is moderately important. Most of my schoolwork and real work is done on remote machines while I'm at home or on campus, so I need at least a couple hours of battery life and good wireless performance. I usually run Linux Mint or Arch on laptops, and am not a fan of troubleshooting proprietary driver problems.

Display quality is not important to me and I don't mind small screens. Input devices are extremely important to me. I strongly prefer the old style Thinkpad keyboards and find chicklets unpleasant to type on. The xkcd mouse is my preferred pointing device, so physical buttons at the top of the touchpad are important to me. I find "clicky" touchpads difficult to use and dislike integrated buttons.

Thinkpad x100e/x120e

They're tiny, light, cheap, and have a flimsy feel compared to "real" Thinkpads. I got an X100e in my freshman year (2010) and it was fine for schoolwork, though it tended to heat up badly when playing Minecraft and the chicklet keyboard was less than ideal. Linux Mint worked out of the box.

I was carrying the X100e in a non-padded bag with a bunch of other stuff, dropped it wrong on a tile floor, and the outside of the screen suffered a sharp impact which caused the display to crack. I replaced it with an X120e, which was lighter and didn't overheat quite as badly. The batteries of the two models are interchangeable, as is standard for models within the same Thinkpad line, which is extremely convenient.

Thinkpad T420?

Intel issued it to me during my internship in the summer of 2012. Nice machine, bombproof-feeling construction, but I found it huge and unwieldy and it weighed a TON. The keyboard spoiled me for life, and desire for the same type of keyboard factored into my decision to retire my X120e.

Thinkpad X230

Got it new in September 2012, when the model had just been released, due to a Lenovo store discount for Intel employees at the end of my internship.

Pros: * light * nice screen * good specs for the time, 4GB RAM, Intel Core i5 processor, etc. * came with option to not include webcam, since I was buying it new * xkcd mouse has physical buttons at top of touchpad Cons: * Chicklet keyboard * Clicky touchpad * Linux didn't Just Work immediately -- I "fixed" this with the classic technique of waiting a couple months then trying again

After having used a nice Thinkpad keyboard all summer, the chicklet keyboard that shipped with the X230 annoyed me so badly that I ordered an X220 keyboard (the old style of keys, and more or less the same form factor), dremeled down the bits that didn't fit, and stuffed it into the X230 chassis. All the regular keys work fine; the delete/home/end keys in the upper right don't perform the same functions as they're labeled with but I've just memorized their new positions and it's not annoying enough to warrant figuring out how to change their mappings in software. From 2013 onward, Linux Mint and Arch have Just Worked on this machine.

It shipped with a 3-cell battery, which slowly wore out until it only held about 2 hours' charge when it was 2 years old. Upgraded to an SSD and 9-cell battery in 2014 and can now get ~8 hours of battery life.

T440s

I was issued a T440s for my 2014 internship on the Urban Airship ops team. It's a reasonable work machine, since work constitutes sitting in its docking station hooked up to external keyboard, mouse, and monitor, impersonating a desktop computer.

However, I would never buy a T440s for my personal machine. Its build construction is lightweight at the expense of the strurdiness that I've come to expect with even the X2xx series, the chicklet keyboard is deeply unpleasant to type on, and it lacks separate buttons to go with the xkcd mouse. It took me several months to find the magic settings which allow me to right-click when using the laptop as a laptop. It's also physically larger than I need, which makes me find it awkward to use on the go. Plus it has the new, rectangular power connector, instead of the old round one that's been interchangeable on every other Thinkpad I've ever had.

It basically feels like Lenovo tried to impersonate a Mac, so you might like this machine if you're a fan of Apple hardware. However, I buy Thinkpads because I like the sturdy construction and boxy lines which make you feel like you could bludgeon a wild animal to death with it and then happily resume coding. The T440s is the furthest from classic Lenovo construction that I've ever used, and I don't enjoy it.

Other Advice

Assess your priorities for weight and battery life, then buy whatever battery best fits your use case. The weight and performance differences between battery sizes are huge. Plan on replacing your battery every 18 months or so for optimal performance.

If typing on your machine doesn't feel pleasant any more, try replacing the keyboard. A new one is typically $15 to $30 and the difference between an old, grungy laptop keyboard and a brand new one cannot be overstated. It makes it feel like a new computer, in a way that cleaning the old keyboard just can't.

mythmon

Preferences

In many ways, I'm opposite of edunham in my laptop preferences. I'm out of school, and I use my "work" laptop as my primary machine. I hate working on remote systems for day to day work. I work locally most of the time. My laptop spends about half its time in some sort of desk setup, and the other half in my lap. Portability is important, but so is expandibility with ports.

My day job involves hacking on a couple decently sized Django website. This means I run Mariadb, Postgres, Redis, Memcached, Elasticsearch, and a bunch of other services most of the time. In short, I need a decently beefy system. I run Arch. I play some games, but anything graphically intensive goes on another box. I like high resolution displays, though not too high density. More on this later. I'm not a huge stickler about input, and I generally don't mind Apple laptops (except the software). I never use the xkcd mouse.

Thinkpad T420

Pros

  • Sturdy
  • Good screen
  • Classic input

Cons

  • Silly GPUs
  • Huge

This was my first Thinkpad. It is huge by todays standards, but isn't a very largeThinkpad, thickness wise. Today it seems like a behemoth, but it was fine back in 2012. It's bulk came with some advantages. It was quite sturdy, and served me well for its lifetime. It had the old style non-chiclet keys and a classic 5 button Thinkpad trackpad, but I went so far as to disable the nub or remove it entirely sometimes.

I enjoyed its docking port. It worked well for external headphones, mouse keyboard, and a single extra monitor.

The single biggest problem with this laptop was its graphics stack. It was a dual GPU card, one Nvidia, one Intel. Running Windows, this would allow the laptop to switch back and forth, or even use both, to achieve a good balance of power and efficiency. In Linux however, getting this kind of feature is quite challenging, especially in Arch. Virtual frame buffers, shipping rendered frames between GPUs, etc. It's all a huge hassle. So in practice you have to choose one or the other. Luckily the BIOS makes this extermely easy.

The next problem is that, for some reason, the external video ports are not wired to both cards. The VGA port is wired only to the Intel card, and the DisplayPort port is wired only to the Nvidia card. Additionally, all the shiny video outputs on the Dock except the VGA port are wired through to the Nvidia card.

I chose efficiency over power, going with Intel GPU all the time. This means I get analog video output, and limited choices. But it was still a nice system.

Thinkpad X1 Carbon (Gen 2)

Pros

  • Thin+Light
  • Very high resolution screen
  • Decent battery life

Cons

  • Weird keyboard
  • Very high resolution screen
  • Weird ports
  • Unreliable

This was my second thinkpad. Gone are the buttons on the trackpad, here is a strange keyboard layout. This thinkpad uses the newer style buttonless clickpad, and a very strange keyboard layout. It had changes like the home and end key sharing the space where caps lock used to be, moving ~ to to the right of the space bar, and completely removing the F-key (F1, F2, etc) in favor of a light up touch strip.

This sounds horrible. It looks awful. It is a chiclet style keyboard, so take that as you will. That being said, I grew to tolerate, and in some cases even enjoy it. The touch lights were always just barely passable, but I grew to enjoy home/end in the wasted space of caps lock, and I still occasionally try to hit ~ with my thumb. If you have to move back and forth between the laptop keyboard and other keyboards, the constant switching sucks. If it's all you are going to use, it can be usable.

This laptop has only a single Intel GPU, which worked great. The wireless card worked fine as well. I forget what kind of video outputs it had, but they were perfectly functional. All the usual boxes were checked. Except ethernet. The X1's excuse for an ethernet port was a small, proprietary port that could take a proprietary adaptor, which I prompty lost. Oh well.

The docking port on the bottom is gone in favor of a dock port on the side of the laptop, which doubles as the power jack. It works fine, but it isn't quite as satisifying as dropping a laptop on a dock.

And then there is the screen. 2560x1440 on a 14" display. I stubornly ran it in 1x mode, instead of Retina-style 2x mode. After cranking up font sizes and tweaking Firefox, it was usable for me, but anyone who looked at my laptop wondered "How can you read that!?". There are of coures lower resolution models.

The BIOS/UEFI firmware was a dream. Options for EFI boot management, secureboot controls, nothing to complain about. This is as good as UEFI gets (and it is pretty good). I opted for Linux Kernel Stubloader instead of Grub.

The biggest problem, and this is absolute killer, and makes me recommend avoiding this model at all costs: quality. In six months I went through three X1s. The first failed within a week, refusing to boot with a cryptic error message. The next would run fine for several hours, and then its screen would freak out and it would refuse to boot for a few cycles. The third lasted several months before turning off and never turning on again.

Three warranty claims is too many. At this point I asked work to give me a different model, which leads me to:

Thinkpad X240

Pros

  • Amazing battery life
  • Dual batteries
  • Small footprint

Cons

  • A bit thick
  • Low resolution screen (as configured)
  • Dual batteries

This laptop is my favorite so far. It still has the clickpad, which I enjoy, but is not a good choice for nubbin users. It has a real dock port on the bottom. It has a neat trick with two batteries: one internal (screwed and wired in, no solder here), and one external. The external can be removed and the laptop keeps running. It drains the external one first, then switches to internal. Charging runs in reverse.

With both batteries, I easily get 6-10 hours of battery life. I've honestly stopped paying attention to it, and I've never had it die.

The usual problem points of Linux laptops, installation, boot loaders, wifi, and GPUs all behave nicely here. The BIOS/UEFI firmware is just like that on the X1C, a dream compared to some others.

It is a bit bulky coming from the X1C, but if that is the price to pay for reliability, I'll take it. It is still a feather compared to the T420.

I listed dual batteries under both Pro and Con. That's because as far as I can tell, no tools will give me a combined runtime for both batteries. The software support is a little lacking.

The screen on mine is only 1366x768, which is radically different than the 2560x1440 I had. The X1C is a bit too dense, but this is too sparse. I imagine the 1080p option would be a good level, but the this is what I got.