I still average well over three years of use for a laptop, so failing after only two years is fast. But I use my laptop more than any other thing I own — over ten hours a day, every day, on average — so no wonder it wears out over time. The build, the screen and the keyboard quality is important when I spend so much time using it, so a budget laptop is generally not a good idea. I try to stay within 100k yen per year for all my electronics; that is, computer, phone, tablet, peripherals and so on. It leaves me with about 200k for a new computer, with room to spare for other gadgets over the next few years.
I'd use the laptop on airplanes and trains, airports and stations, and I'd use it on the go to take notes and check my itinerary, email and other stuff. Low weight and a small footprint were both important, and the Panasonic Let's Note series I've been using are full laptops in a very compact, light form factor. But lately I use my phone and Android tablet on the road while the laptop stays in the bag. I can look for a larger, more featureful computer with fewer compromises in the name of size.
When I checked Lenovo's Japanese site this morning, they had an all-night sale on the T430 Thinkpad model I was interested in — perfect timing, and it took me only a few minutes to customize and order. I managed to squeeze in just below my 200k budget with a better machine than I could ever have hoped to get. Main points:
- 16Gb memory. Because that's the maximum they offer. Can you have too much memory? No. No, you can't. Nothing else does more to improve your computer. For work, I need 8Gb to run my simulations, so with less than that I can't even use the laptop for development. Your operating system will use any remaining memory as a disk cache, speeding up everything.
- 128Gb SSD and a 500Gb secondary disk. Next to memory, a solid-state disk will give you the most performance improvement. 128Gb is technically enough for me — I use about 110Gb on my current drive — but it's rather tight. With the secondary drive I can put archival stuff such as old projects and most of my pictures on it and free up lots of space on the SSD. SSDs have a reputation for sudden failures, but I can set up the computer to back up the SSD to the secondary disk once or twice a day; I'll lose no more than a few hours of work in case something happens.
- NVIDIA 5400M discrete graphics card. I'm taking a chance with this one. Support for both discrete and integrated graphics is not well developed under Linux yet, so I may have to mess around a bit to get things working. I still wanted a real, discrete card, though, for
Minecraftwork-related OpenCL development.
- A decent 14" screen, with 900 pixels vertical resolution and a matte, not glossy, surface. The vertical resolution is important (and I'd have wanted even more), as that limits how many lines of text or code you can see at once. I'm not against the current trend toward wide screens; I like to compare text side-by-side, for instance. But it shouldn't happen at the expense of vertical resolution. At the same time, you don't want too high resolution either, as it uses more graphics memory, power and other resources. For instance, games apparently sometimes run in lower quality on the newest iPad than on earlier models because its graphics engine can't keep up with its high-resolution display.
A matte screen is a deal-breaker. With a glossy screen, everything — ceiling lights, bright walls, people, your own face — is reflected back at you. It's distracting, and bright backgrounds can completely obscure the screen contents; besides, I'm not narcissistic enough to want to stare at myself for hours every day. It's less of a problem on a phone that you can easily angle away from distracting lights, but the large screen of a laptop is almost impossible to shield properly.
It's a Lenovo (former IBM), a premium brand alongside Apple and Panasonic, so the build quality is likely to be quite good1. They are justly famous for their keyboards; I know people who swear by Lenovo machines simply because of the keyboard quality and feel. A lot of people love the trackpoint — the little red nipple — while others hate it. It's easy to ignore if you want.
It comes with Windows 7 installed apparently. I'm going to install Ubuntu on it, so it doesn't matter one way or another. I wonder, though, if it shouldn't be possible to reinstall or move Windows into a virtual machine under Linux somehow? It could be practical to have now and again, I've got ample memory to run it in a VM, and I have paid for the license after all.
The looks are typical Thinkpad — dark and utilitarian. Me, I rather like it; it has an industrial no-nonsense feel to it that sets it off from the shiny metal cases that is all the rage right now. There's microphones, a camera and a memory card reader, none of which is likely to see much use (my phone and tablet are both more convenient for video meetings). There's an assortment of other ports, some potentially useful, others less so. At least I remembered to deselect the fingerprint reader.
The downsides are mainly weight and size. At over 2.2kg it's almost a kg heavier than my current machine, and a fair bit larger. Oh well. That's the price for getting a good, large screen, lots of memory, two drives and a full-size keyboard. Battery lifetime is likely a fair bit less than the 8 hours I get on the Let's Note, though you can add an insane amount of battery capacity to it if you want. Nowadays I don't use the laptop unplugged for more than an hour or two so I doubt it matters a lot in practice.
The system will ship in a week or so, and probably take another week or two to actually arrive. Plenty of time to prepare, though I'm a bit weary of yet another OS install so close after upgrading or reinstalling my current machines so recently. Just hope the Panasonic holds up until then. I thought it would be fine well into autumn, but with the Ethernet card suddenly breaking I'm no longer so sure.
#1 "good" is not "perfect". My current Panasonic is failing before its time after all, and we've had one Apple notebook literally falling apart (the touchpad was coming loose) right out of the box. You get what you pay for, and nobody wants to pay enough for a guaranteed trouble-free machine.