Thursday, March 22, 2012

Notebook Reviews

...and why they are mostly terrible

I'm in the market for a notebook now. My desktop has been turned into a media center in my lounge.

Surfing around, there is a real dearth of good reviews. Yes yes any geek can spew benchmarks and regurgitate technical details about a notebook, but just about every review out there misses the point when it comes to notebooks.

Ultimately, notebooks need to be judged by a few critical areas that are unique to notebooks:
  • Build Quality: This is subjective, but it's the impression you get when picking it up and holding it in your hands. Flex in the keyboard? Flimsy lid?
  • Typing Comfort: Almost always overlooked, good notebooks do fall flat on this one. How does it feel to type a paragraph of text on the notebook? A lousy keyboard is a big no-no for most students, professionals and even your mum who types the odd email.
  • Portability: battery life and weight. At least 5 hours is mandatory for portable computing. The difference between 1.12kg (Portege Z830) and 1.5kg (Folio 13) may not sound like much, but hold them up and feel the difference. It's like carrying two extra cellphones. Truly mobile noteboks are used like cellphones and you wont be carrying around a charger for general use.
  • Display: This is very relevant as people tend to spend a lot of time staring at their computer screens. You dont realize how important it is until you compare a good display next to a crappy one and realize that your eyes literally hurt less staring at the nice display.
    • IPS vs TN: The former are found in the iPad. Great viewing angles and good color depth. TN screens are relatively crap and are only good for staring at a screen from one angle. There are some genuinely good TN screens such as those on the HP Envy and Macbook Pro, but most are just bad.
    • Resolution: The difference between a low and high res screen is plenty obvious. A full HD 1920x1080 screen could fit two things side by side (eg. a word document and a webpage) comfortably. Take note of the vertical resolution (the smaller number). The smaller this number the more vertical scrolling you will have to do when browsing webpages - it gets seriously annoying especially with small netbooks with the typical 600px vertical resolution. Keep in mind your browser will use up some pixels for the address bar
    • Color Gamut: If you do anything with photos/media, then this is relevant to you. Look for screens with 95% color gamut. Otherwise the reds will not be as red and the blues will not be as blue as they should be and will print differently from what you see in screen! If the color gamut is not advertised, it's safe to assume it falls short of 80%.
    • Matt vs Glossy: glossy displays are terribly annoying in anything other than dim room lighting. They offer better contrast for watching movies though, and are more suited for multimedia buffs. Business notebooks almost always come with matt displays - they are so much easier on the eyes for text.
  • Graphics: For playing games other than solitaire and chess. If you want to play modern computer games (Skyrim, Battlefield 3, Modern Warfare, RISE etc), then you could probably ignore most other specs. The difference between an i5 and i7 mean nothing as gaming performance is really about what kind of discrete graphics is available on the system.
  • Solid State Drive / RAM: These are the two things that will make your computer feel snappy. SSD's make wake times almost instant, and a good (4gb minimum) amount of ram makes everything really responsive.
  • Processor: Generally irrelevant unless you are doing media rendering or games.
  • Heat Dissipation: Some notebooks run HOT. Some notebooks have a high pitched buzz from a cooling fan that never seems to turn off. As expected, this critical factor is almost always omitted from "professional reviews" online.
Here is a summary of my thoughts of a few current (March 2012) notebooks that I'm considering of purchasing. Most reviews ignore these notebook's halo features so i'll summarize them here. I have personally went to a store and had a feel before making these comments. Displays were judged from the benchmark site. These reviews are subjective.

Hp Folio 13 Ultrabook  ~AU$1100
1.5kg SSD 13" portable with good battery life and a COMFORTABLE KEYBOARD. Decent build quality. The screen is a big disappointment though. It's glossy and very very dim. Set the display to max brightness in store to see if it is bright enough for you before buying.

Acer Ultrabooks ~AU900
CHEAP. Not much else to say really. They put a spinning hard drive when they really should have a SSD. Display, keyboard, etc... You get what you pay for. Definitely try before buying.

Toshiba Z830 Ultrabook ~AU$1200
1.12kg SSD 13" ultraportable. VERY VERY LIGHT 13" notebook. The screen does flex alot however and it just feels flimsy once opened. Keyboard is not very good for touch typists. Check out the keyboard and type an entire paragraph before buying! Built for business, it's worth mentioning that it has a full sized VGA port, something most ultrabooks lack.

Hp Envy Spectre Ultrabook ~AU$2000
SSD. 14" screen in a 13" frame. It's LG's new thin bezel Shuriken display. It's also branded as a Radiance display. High(er) contrast, 1600x900 resolution makes the screen just gorgeous to look at. It's wrapped in Corning's Gorilla Glass and if you like the iPhone 4, you'll love the Spectre. Like other ultrabooks, the keyboard is backlit. But unlike other ultrabooks, each key has it's own individual LED so the backlighting looks alot better. It's fat though by ultrabook standards, coming in at almost 2kg...and it is very very expensive for what you get.

Sony Vaio S (15" model) ~AU$1500
This is the lightest notebook with a Full HD 1920x1080 IPS display on the market. Essentially a 2kg 15" full hd ips notebook. Battery life is terrible. Audio is terrible. It's redeeming halo feature is really the display. It's a pleasure to use and it does have the typical premium Vaio build quality. There's a sheet battery that extends the battery life to 10 hours though...and it's being offered free atm...though it makes the premium notebook look fatter. Oh and being a vaio, it's pricey. As in macbook pro pricey, but it runs windows...and it's a sony.

Lenovo Thinkpad T/X Series ~AU$1500
Better build quality than just about every other notebook out there. The screen opens to 180 degrees. The keyboard is legendary - I personally own a Thinkpad and can say with certainty that they are an absolute joy to type on. The only keyboard I found more comfortable was the Razer Blackadder, a full fledged desktop keyboard with mechanical keys. It's that good. Other than the two features above, this notebook is mediocre for the price. Bog standard everything. You are really spending on the robust build quality and gold standard keyboard. It's built for business and it shows.

Lenovo Ideapad Y 570 ~AU900
Desktop replacement 3kg 15" laptop. Why am I including it here? Because it shows you what you can get if weight, battery life, portability, screen, SSD, and build quality are sacrificed. It's a budget plastic laptop, but comes standard with a near top of the line quad-core i7 (4x 3.1ghz cores!). 8gb ram makes it speedy along with 2gb in the Nvidia GT555M graphics card. This thing can actually play most games at their recommended settings. It has the same resolution as most 13" ultrabooks, which is a pity as the screen is so big. There is one plus to a big, low resolution screen though - everything appears bigger - which is a boon especially to elderly people.

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