Ah, late summer. The time when a young man’s fancy turns to back to school tech. Papers. Notebooks. Maybe, dare I say it, the laptop of his dreams?
Okay, I’m not a student, but I do dream of getting the “right laptop” some day.
My quest started in the late 90s. I wanted to get a laptop, was debating whether I would get a laptop instead of a desktop, but it’s not really what I wanted the laptop to be. If it replaced my desktop, I wanted power to crunch spreadsheets, handle wordprocessing, some basic games, a bit of photo editing, and internet browsing. Call it the SWGPI protocol. Five basic things. I give it a name because it is going to come up again. Stay tuned.
So if it was a desktop replacement, I needed some power to do SWGPI, plus some video editing, and a good sized screen. But then if I did that, and wanted to go mobile, I would be stuck with this honking big laptop. Great to take my whole setup with me if I was going to Peterborough for the weekend, no chance of leaving anything behind, but battery life would suck AND it would be unwieldy. What they used to call luggables.
I decided to get a full desktop, which then left me wanting a simpler writing computer to handle wordprocessing, a small game or two, and a bit of internet stuff. WGI, if you will. Lightweight, good battery life. That was the dream.
And so off I went one weekend to Toronto with my nephew. We combed all the big and little computer stores in Toronto to see what I could find. What I found was bulky replacements (SWGPI) at a reasonable price OR I could find near WGI but at insane prices. $2500-$3000. My dream was found in a Sony Vaio at $2999, onsale from original pricing of like $3999. Way out of my price range.
Expanding my search to New York
At the time, David Pogue was a tech reviewer for the NY Times. I found his email online, and despite him saying very clearly “Don’t ask my opinion about stuff”, I wrote and asked him anyway. I basically asked him, “Are there any lightweight laptops that don’t have an optical drive, etc. at a reasonable price?”. I was surprised but he answered and said, “Not really.” Everyone had gone BIGGER with their designs, i.e. the desktop replacements, so there was supposedly no market for the little footprints.
Fastforward about 8-10 years, and netbooks were all the rage. Almost exactly what I had been looking for previously. I had made do with some other tools here and there, but never really found what I wanted at the right price. Netbooks seemed like the answer, but it took me a while to decide on a model. I still have it. The only problem? It was slow as molasses. Even with everything eventually stripped down to Linux. Adequate, but not the dream.
I also tried pairing a Bluetooth keyboard with my Android tablet. The result was buffering and fast battery drain.
I bought a more powerful and faster laptop, a nice HP model, 17″ screen, great. Not small, but powerful and met my needs. Poor battery life so I upgraded it, but it was never the dream either. It still works, and is strong enough to use it in my basement for a streaming computer. The wifi is kaput though, so not much good for coffee shops. And, of course, with a 17″ screen, a DVD writer, and a few other internal bells and whistles, it’s firmly in the luggable category too.
A few years ago, Andrea jettisoned her desktop in favour of a laptop. It is plugged into a docking port that connects her to an external mouse, keyboard, ethernet, and a monitor, and it serves her well. Well, it did until the hard drive died recently. She was ready to ditch it entirely and get a new one, so I thought I’d pay for a simple repair and use it as my portable machine. Bigger than I wanted, but not horrendous, even if still in the luggable category. Except it wasn’t that much to fix, it didn’t take too long, and by the time it came back, she hadn’t replaced it yet. So she just took it back. But it made me start thinking about a new laptop of some sort.
Last year in March, as the lockdown began, it was clear Jacob would be using a computer a lot more than he had. We considered the one he had in the office upstairs, a full-size desktop option, but we were leaning towards something a bit more suited to his interests. The one he had was a repurposed desktop that Andrea or I had used previously, and it got him going, but if he was going to be online all the time for school, maybe something a little nicer was in order than just what was doable for occasional surfing or playing.
We debated similar issues to what I needed. He was going to use it as a desktop replacement, so we were going to get some power. He has some eye issues, so a larger screen was also warranted and likely all the time (not just plugging into a larger monitor). And he was starting to get into gaming. There was a nice gaming laptop on sale at the time, way more power than he was going to need for awhile, and twice the cost of the type of laptop that would “do him for now”. We took the plunge. Of all the things we did in the last 16m, I think it was one of the best decisions. Jacob LOVES the computer and its power.
Enter the dragon
The dragon is my messed up head. I started thinking I wanted a new portable tool for writing, or simply anything I could use upstairs instead of always working in the basement where my office is set up. I spend the whole day down there, I don’t really enjoy coming down here at night too. But if I’m doing stuff on my computer, this is the computer I use.
I thought I was going to have Andrea’s used laptop and she would get a new one, but she ended up keeping hers. I like the power of Jacob’s computer and he has even been able to use it well at the cottage, but it’s more than I would need. My solutions? Not so effective.
We have been considering picking up a new iPad with a keyboard and having that as an extra tool around the family room, kitchen, etc. We have an old one already (Gen 2), plus Jacob’s (Gen 3, I think?), and they’re okay, but not awesome. Not something we would grab to play on, too slow by contemporary standards. And I’m leery about relying on it for writing anyway (given drainage of the battery from using Bluetooth connections constantly).
So I’m back to the same eternal question…full desktop replacement or portable tool? The solution is relatively obvious for me. I have a properly working desktop, upgraded within the last year, and I love the current power. I don’t need to change it. Ergo, I’m only looking for a portable tool. The WGI option again.
Possible dream dates
I did my due diligence online, but there is only so far you can go in internet research to know what you want. A friend lent me a Chromebook recently which is almost all I want. It lets me write, it can access the internet through wifi, and the footprint is about right. But the specific model has a keyboard that’s a bit wonky for layout (including one key in a really awkward position that I hate), and I found it limiting for my work. It does run, of course, Chrome OS instead of Windows, and a limited form of Chrome OS at that, so I couldn’t load an app version of Word even. I had to rely solely on Google Docs. Doable, but not really ideal. Almost, and the price was right. But not the dream.
So tonight I went off to Canada Computers first. I checked out three or four different models that they had, and it quickly became clear that I’m likely aiming for a 13.5-14″ screen. That’s on the smaller size for availability although there are some 12.5″ models too. The screens are all way above my needs, and the power is likely to come out to an i5 Intel option or Ryzen 5. They benchmark almost equally at the moment, and I don’t have a preference. The background for the size is almost comical though. I have a great shoulder bag that I got at MEC maybe ten years ago. I love it. And so I want a computer that will fit inside it. Anything bigger than 15″ for screen size is really challenging for that option. Don’t get me wrong, I have other bags, including a full padded knapsack. But it isn’t the dream. I want it small enough to fit in my shoulder bag.
One computer looked great until I checked the reviews and tested that aspect myself. A few reviews said the keyboard was compact, almost cramped, but on a small footprint, there’s not much you can do about that. It’s as wide as it is. Except on the one, it was also cramped for depth (keyboard to function keys). When I typed and went to hit the space bar, my thumb was tapping the trackpad. And not even “close” to hitting the space bar. My hands and fingers are just too big / fat for such a layout design. Pass.
Another one from HP was decently priced, good look, backlighting was a bit odd, but whatever. My current laptop is HP and I’ve got a lot of value out of it, so I was willing to consider it. It felt like I was typing on something made by Mattel. A toy, not a workhorse. Pass.
Asus has a series of small footprint laptops called Vivobooks, and I found a workable model. The right price and size, the keyboard feel was fine, as was the layout. I wasn’t 100% sold though, and battery life is not quite as high for the model they had in stock. I didn’t need to buy tonight, and there were some other brands to consider.
I headed next to Best Buy. I ended out checking out another HP model (Envy) that hadn’t been on my list yet probably should have been, but I wasn’t a fan of the keyboard again, and it was the same price as others that were better on specs. Pass.
I considered the Vivobook models as well as some Acer setups, but nothing was drawing me in. Nice but no sale.
And then I thought, not for the first time, “I really like the Microsoft Surface Pro that I use for work, too bad they’re so expensive.” It really does all I need it to do, but work paid for it. I had seen MS Surface options in the $2K range in the past, well outside what I wanted to pay.
But I happened to see on one of the review sites that there was an MS Surface option for less. What the …? Ohhhhhh, there is regular and then there is Pro. Well, what are the regular ones like? Slick as sh**.
I’m sure I’d like the Pro models more, but the regular new version 4s are equal to what I have on my desk for work. It runs full Windows so I can run 64-bit Word. I have enough power to do all my internet stuff, including editing blogs. I can do some basic gaming, and some basic video stuff no problem. And battery life? Off the charts. They rate it to 19h, but even the PC Mag benchmarks put them in the 15-16h range for video usage. If I took it to the cottage, I could likely use it for three or four sessions without having to recharge. Around the house? Maybe five or six outings. And it is well within my budget. Sign me up, amirite?
Well, no, cuz there are 4 different models. Son of a biscuit. There’s a really nice 12.5″ footprint, but I feel the typing is a bit challenged. Another in the 13.5″ that is highly doable, another in 14″ and then options that are either tablet-y or 2-in-1 foldables. All reasonably within a couple of hundred dollars as each other. I even considered one that would take a SIM card. But I ruled it out, dumped the tablet-y one, passed on 12.5, went with 13.5.
Whew, all settled.
Everyone wakes from the dream
I want to take it with me to the cottage, I have 10d to get the laptop and get it set up, plenty of time. Except none of the Best Buys within 300km have ANY in stock. Are you freaking kidding me?
I grabbed the info for the model I want, I’ll do some more searching tomorrow online, but in the meantime, I trotted down the road to Staples. Hey, look, there’s one! Same price, same model, all good. Oh wait, small distraction, there’s an open-box version of an older model, really sharp and small, $300 less. I feel like Red Leader was talking in my ear, “Stay on target…”.
Copy that, Red Leader. I’ll stick to the 13.5″ model, MS Surface 4. Great, let’s do that one. Oh wait, they don’t have THAT model in stock. There is, however, the same model with an extra 256GB of SSD space, only a measly $400 more. Umm, no. For way less than that, I can use a USB key or upload to the cloud. None of the base models in stock. Frack.
I really thought I was coming home tonight with a lightweight, small footprint laptop with long battery life. I was SO happy that I had it figured out. Alas, the quest continues. Sure, at least I’ve assembled the clues into a coherent map, but that isn’t the same as grabbing the Holy Grail.