End of the laptop line

I realised not long ago that, for my purposes, laptop PCs have stopped improving.

It didn’t happen recently: it just took me a long time to notice.  In fact I reckon it happened about five years ago.

My decline and theirs

Sony Vaio PCG-R600MX (2002)The first laptop I bought with my own money was a Vaio R600MX in 2002. It must have cost about £1400. A lovely hardware design, it had a beautiful case and keyboard and a clear 12.1″ screen, but it was noisy, even for the time it was slow, battery life wasn’t good, and the screen was only 1024×768.

Still, it was easy to carry, and that’s the first thing I looked for in a laptop because I only used it when on the move. I stuck with similar criteria for years after that, up to a Vaio Z in 2010.

But the way I work has changed during the last five years or so: I lost the desk and desktop PC I had at home when the space was upgraded to a chest of drawers; I do less number-crunching than I used to, and rely less on the power of a desktop machine. I can “get away with” using a laptop more.

I now have most of my data online, so I no longer have any need to carry the same computer between work and home.  And having a family I travel less.  I haven’t left Europe since 2002, meaning that first Vaio is still the only computer I’ve ever tried to use on a plane.

So I now work on a laptop far more than I used to, but it doesn’t actually have to move about as much.

During the same five years, something bad has happened to laptops.

Screens have got shorter and shorter and gone all shiny. Keyboards have turned flat and featureless. The hardware has got faster, but quite a bit of that is down to solid-state drives—which you can retrofit in any machine. For the former me, an 11″ MacBook Air would have seemed like the ideal machine: to the current me, it starts to look a bit fiddly.

When all this eventually dawned on me, I made a couple of trips to the Queensway computer market and to eBay and discovered that a Thinkpad T60, made in 2007, now costs about £150.

Quadratisch, praktisch, gut

There are machines that do individual things better than the T60, but nothing else I’ve found yet is so consistently nice to use.

Thinkpad T60The 14″ non-widescreen high resolution display! All those lines of text!  Funny to think this was once commonplace.

A proper bumpy keyboard!  And a good one, if not quite your Sun Type-5.

Of course it’s not fast as such, but it was certainly fast “only” five years ago, and it’s good enough, especially with another 70 quid spent on an SSD, to feel broadly contemporary rather than totally antique.

(Software no longer seems to bloat as rapidly as it used to, either because I’ve been fixed in the same tasks and development environments for too long, or because the increasing proliferation of lower-level general-purpose hardware and the limitations of Moore’s law have moderated other developers’ ambitions.)

Very solidly built; easy to find spare parts and replacement batteries; battery life isn’t bad. The styling is a bit divisive, but it appeals to me.

Finally, the T60 was the last Thinkpad that actually said IBM on it. I’m a sucker for that.

And a hundred and fifty quid!  Just writing it makes me want to go and buy another… although even at that price, I can’t currently afford to. Even so, it puts dramatically into perspective the amount I’ve spent on new hardware over the years.

Is this just because I’m becoming obsolete along with the computers I use? Is it an affectation that I’ll forget all about next time something really shiny turns up? Or is it a symptom of the PC age running out of appealing novelties?

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2 thoughts on “End of the laptop line

  1. For some time I’ve been confused by why laptop screens are all 16:9 or so. Surely the majority of people aren’t all sat there just watching videos on their laptops. I love my pair of 5:4 desktop monitors. As for hardware, I’m only just starting to find 2GB not being enough for some of my dev tasks.

    • Of course I agree with you, as you can tell from the post—but dispassionately there are some advantages to wide screens on laptops.

      Using a shorter screen reduces the depth of the machine, making it easier to fit into a confined area like a table on a train. Some tasks that use multiple windows or palettes can benefit more from extra horizontal than vertical space. Shorter screens are easier to use in meetings because you can see over them more easily! And of course they’re cheaper to make, having proportionally fewer pixels.

      Even so, many current laptops use screens with aspect ratios wider than that of the computer itself, leaving an inch of wasted space above and below the screen. They’re hardly taking advantage of any potential benefit, and they look pretty strange too.

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