Why newer is not better: notes from laptop shopping

(NB: This tech rant was written 9 months ago. It's a little dusty.)

After years of mulling it over, I finally managed to purchase a new laptop. The sad fate of a tech-loving anthropologist in the concluding months of a PhD program is that cash flow is at an all-time low, while new gadgetry is at its shiniest. Even on my spartan budget, however, such is the diversity of the general consumer marketplace that I was able to maximize my hardware options at competitive prices. In the end, I managed to procure a brilliantly performing Win7 laptop for under $500. It isn't the MacBook Pro I had so hoped to acquire, but it has proven reliable. Even Windows 7 is not too shabby.

The process of buying a new laptop or computer today is complicated given the range of products, brands and features available. I am often asked for advice on this subject, which inevitably becomes a very personalized process of narrowing down needs and wants against a set budget. Novices who are unsure about computers in general are unanimously overwhelmed by the choices and frustrated when they end up with something they don't want (or that ends up being "too complicated"). Still, it's even more difficult when you know exactly what you want and need it to come out of a reasonably priced box. It therefore took me about 4 months to narrow down a system and specifications within my price range (which consistently became obsolete with each month that passed) and I remained undecided until the last moment.

I had never purchased a laptop in a physical store before, having previously ordered online. I realize now how lucky I was that the product which arrived at my door in 2002 was a quality machine with a decent build and intuitive design that suited my needs. I now fastidiously check local shops before purchasing products online to test their build quality and suitability. I spend more waking hours interacting with computers than any other activity, so I am very picky when the planets miraculously align and I can afford a new purchase. In short, design is everything. Drives and memory can be updated, but you're stuck with the shell. This is where tactile perception counts. It has to feel right.

Although I have been in constant contact with innovative technologies, brand new hardware and cutting-edge devices in the course of my research, this was my first major, personal acquisition in over 8 years. I am happy with the speed and flexibility of my new system, but I miss some design features of the old one. In my shopping experience, I must have literally tested hundreds of laptops of different specs and models. Here are my impressions:

Build quality
Cost-cutting is rampant in the technology industry. This is old news. But I was very displeased with the build quality of standard consumer PC laptops across most brands. While I am all for using lighter-weight materials to slim down heavy machinery and make it more manageable and portable, there are limits to usability when the body of the laptop can't withstand the pressure of, well, typing. Asus was a particularly bad culprit of this. Picking up several $800-$1,000 Asus options, they literally compressed in my grip, the optical drive bending unsympathetically into the underside of the case. Are companies so blatantly ready to admit that they're only selling us equipment that will last less than a year before falling apart? Tip: If you really want to know how a laptop will hold up, visit a retail store with a lot of foot traffic like Best Buy (or Walmart or Target if you can brave it – link to trampled person in valley stream). The computers get abused by customers all day, every day. Discard the ones that are missing keys, rattling, slanted, and/or greased over with fingerprints and you just narrowed your options for a sturdy computer able to withstand daily use, and, if you're lucky, fieldwork.

The worst feature: keyboards. I say this as a touch-typist and a bit of a keyboard fanatic. When did manufacturers begin making exceptionally flimsy keyboards that sink or sag when light pressure is applied? Isn't the keyboard one of the most important parts of a laptop that has to hold up to consistent use? I had to turn down at least 7 different brands (Toshiba, HP, Compaq, Dell, Asus, eMachines, Gateway and some Acers) because the keys were too shiny, slippery or completely loose. Prettiness is no substitute for usability. Slippery keys also slow down typing. I decided on my Acer laptop because it had the only matte keyboard I could find and the raised chiclet keys are comfortable and effortless to type on. Nevertheless, I am reminded that my last laptop took 2-3 years of constant use @130wmp before showing wear and tear on the keys. Within 4 weeks, my new Acer had developed patches where my fingers are already wearing them away, and I have a light touch.

Which genius decided that computers should be highly reflective fingerprint magnets? HP and Toshiba laptops, although their overall build quality is consistently rather more robust, have bodies so shiny and reflective that even microfiber cloths leave streaks. I just don't see the purpose of a computer that is made to look slick and modern, but ends up hosting an array of oily residues. Yuck. And surely the crisp, clear picture that my new laptop provides is impaired by its radioactive reflectivity. The shininess of typical LCD backlit screens prevents use in most natural lighting conditions except dusk and night. Is this because hardware developers work in basements? There is no good angle if the room you're sitting in has a window (unless you enjoy watching yourself working or have spent your remaining household budget on USB adaptors (see below) and can no longer afford a new mirror).

Certain items add convenience, like extra USBs, hotkeys and quick access ports. These quickly render themselves useless via bad design. For instance, on nearly every PC laptop I tested that claims to offer 4 USB ports, a lack of adequate spacing renders at least 2 ports useless at all times. Typically, a bay of two ports sits on either side of the laptop. My mouse is USB powered wireless, so the receptor goes in one port. When in use, the space in between the receptor and the neighboring port is so negligible that even the slimmest USB pen drives, modems and even my thumb-nail sized Bluetooth adaptor cannot fit in beside it. One USB item now takes up two ports due to useless design. Speaking of Bluetooth, Acer decided to save money by not including Bluetooth devices in some of its models while maintaining one universal case with a Bluetooth hotkey on it. On my machine, that hotkey does not respond to anything and I can't figure out how to reprogram it. Does anyone know?

What a waste of space! The percentage of time that the average, non-gaming person spends watching movies on their computer versus doing everything else does not justify a widescreen. It makes work with photos, graphics and long pages of code/writing more difficult and cramped, with wasted space on either side.

This one has an easy fix: uninstall. But some manufacturers so deeply integrate their proprietary crapware with the OS that it is difficult for the average user to know what is safe to remove, what is redundant and what might be useful or necessary. Luckily Win7 now lets you disable unneeded Microsoft extras, but most people, if they're even aware of this, will still have to Google to make sure that they don't switch off any vital services. In addition to Windows' standard built-in backup software, my Acer laptop came with two other proprietary backup programs, useless trial software and a host of other miscellaneous junk. My old HP was a big bloatware culprit as well, and it took about 10 consecutive reboots and file searches to rid my system of all the scattered installer files. In the end, though, bloatware is a bit like having ads on any low-cost service: the benefits offset the annoyance. Just about.

Verdict: the same old story is that you get what you pay for. At sub-$500, I'm happy with my laptop because it was a great deal for the specs and build quality, apart from the aforementioned design niggles. That Win 7 is a tolerable OS is a bonus, but Linux would have been a quick fix for that, too. The other machines I test drove were depressingly expensive for their faults, and it is clear that consumers are – as ever – increasingly duped into (literally "buying into") the hype of newness; maybe even to the extent that we force ourselves to believe that our expectations (whether of self-image or productivity) have been fulfilled.

I hasten to add that my old, retired laptop (vintage 2001) is sluggish, but it still works and the hardware has lasted. I am not sure that I will be able to say the same of my new machine a decade from now.

Image: Turn your PC into an Apple laptop.


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