Has the world forgotten how to make decent laptops?

I need a new laptop. While it is true that I am in possession of a number of laptops, they are all at least 4 years old and “a bit slow” does not really cover it any more. My main machine is a laptop with a 2GHz Pentium M and 2 GB RAM and is near-permanently-docked to a 24″ monitor. Eclipse is tolerable but not nice and HD video tends to just not play.

So I have been looking for something new. I am looking for something to last me the next few years and I am prepared to spend to get quality. Provisionally I have given myself a budget of about 1000 GBP, so I am expecting something really quite decent. And I am prepared to go higher if I think its worth it. However after a couple of months of looking I have failed to find anything all at that I want but can’t afford, let alone something I want to buy.

Summary of my requirements, in roughly descending priority order:

  • Must not come with a propitiatory OS. I plan to use Ubuntu and don’t want to pay tax to either MS or Apple.
  • Graphics card that plays nice with Ubuntu. (nvidia or Intel graphics preferred).
  • Decent battery life; at least 4 hours. There is no point carrying round a laptop with no power.
  • Decent CPU speed – at least an i5, though an i7 would be nice.
  • Should be reasonably small / light. I have done 17″ laptops, now I want something I am likely to want to carry.
  • Decent build quality. The machine should feel well made and build to last.
  • Keyboard should be nice to type on, have a decent layout and not be missing any import keys. Must have Home, End, PgUp and PgDn keys. Bottom-left key must be Ctrl (NOT Fn).
  • HDMI video output port. Its going to be docked a lot, so I want decent video quality on an external screen.
  • x86, 4+ GB RAM, 200+ GB HDD.
  • No CD drive. I never use it, so it would just wast space.

Now to me, these requirements are fairly modest and easily within the bounds of currently technology. Though as far as I can tell, this machine just does not exist.

OS tax
The first major problem I have hit is OS tax. So far as I can tell, it is near *impossible* to build a laptop without paying for a pre-installed OS. I can not see free OSs like Ubuntu *EVER* gaining any meaningful market share while this remains the case. Very very few users are ever going to use a free, unsupported OS when they have just paid for a supported one.
I am very surprised that the EU have not had a go at MS for being anti-competitive, though I suspect the blame would be tricky. I am sure MS would argue that they just make their OS available to manufactures and its the manufactures, who choose to only supply one OS and not supply hardware without an OS.
Or perhaps MS subsidise it so much that the hardware would be more expensive without an OS pre-installed?

Battery life
So few manufactures ever give enough priority to this, but what is the point of a laptop form factor if its not portable?

Build quality
People have been making laptops for quite a few years now any yet they are always bendy, feel cheaply made and creek a bit when poked. Apple are the only manufacturer I know of to actually put a laptop in a metal box. While I would never actually buy one, the metal bodied Apple laptops give a really nice sense of something that has been thought through and well made.

Keyboard
Apple is the prime offender here for stripping out a whole load of useful keys, removing the possibility of buying one and running Ubuntu on it. Which is a real shame, ‘cos the hardware is really quite nice otherwise.

All this leaves me with a feeling that the world has forgotten how to make decent laptops. I wonder if laptop manufacturers are scared they will end up like phone makers? Selling all their hardware through service providers who attach them as freebees in contracts. And with the market being largely determined by which models service providers decide to offer. Its possible. Already a number of netboooks are given away with 3G contracts.

This leaves me very sad and still lacking a decent laptop.

One Response to “Has the world forgotten how to make decent laptops?”

  1. Ian says:

    I fear that “Core i5/i7” and “>4 hours battery” may be incompatible goals at the moment — not that manufacturers are going to tell you the real battery life anyway, which makes this all the more difficult.

    Your CPU & RAM requirements are also largely incompatible with “No CD drive” — anything above a Core 2 Duo is definitely seen as a power user laptop, and they’re all going to come with DVDRWs.

    The above points are both solved by some laptops that let you swap out the CD drive for a secondary battery, though these are rare. I think Eric’s HP tx2000 has this option (though it fails the rest of your criteria).

    Above all, sad as it is to say, I think your OS requirement is the most limiting factor. Few OEMs take Linux seriously because there just isn’t the demand and won’t be in the forseeable future. There isn’t a big enough section of the market that specifically wants Linux but doesn’t know how to install it themselves. There are a few companies out there that take OEM machines, whack Linux on them and resell them, but that then becomes more expensive than just buying a Windows machine and doing it yourself.

    Incidentally, don’t be tempted to drop your keyboard requirement and get a Mac. The lack of Home/End/PgUp/PgDown/Delete still annoys me, and I’ve had a MacBook for a year and a half!

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