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Laptop Criteria


This is a rough documentation of the criteria and reasoning I have used to decide which laptop(s) to buy. Some of it may apply to you as well.


Last updated: 2008-07-30.


roadwarrior or drone


Are you a roadwarrior or just a home/work drone?


If all you do is use your laptop on your desk at home, and then pack it in your oversized padded laptop bag that yells "steal me" and then take it to work and use it on your desk at work, and then repack it and take it back to your desk at home, then these criteria may not apply to you. Unfortunately this seems to describe most laptop users' most common behavior, so most laptops are designed for such work/home dronage.


If on the other hand, you:

  • work in cafes, bars, restaurants, libraries, other friends houses, anywhere on the street you can find an open wifi hotspot
  • give the clerks at Villains and Amoeba an evil eye and say "No" when they ask you to check your laptop bag
  • have used your laptop on the bus, train, MUNI, back of a cab for whatever reason
  • have hacked your BlackBerry to act as a bluetooth modem
  • prefer that the folks around you not know that you have a laptop when you're not using it
  • take your laptop nearly everywhere

then you're more than likely a roadwarrior.


Note that in reality this is a bit of a spectrum, with the boring home/work drone at one end and the rough and tumble never say die roadwarrior at the other end. You, like most people are probably somewhere in the middle. The question is, which resembles you more closely? The more roadwarrior-like you are, the more these criteria will apply to you. But even if you are a home/work drone, you may have roadwarrior aspirations. Or maybe the home/work drone is your mild mannered alter-ego, your cover-identity, and you want/need the ability to transform into a roadwarrior at any given moment, whether at home or at work or en route between the two.


laptops break often

If there's anything consistent about laptops, it's that if used truly as laptops were meant to be (i.e. see above description of "roadwarrior", you will push it much further than any of the testers at Apple (or any other laptop manufacturer) have, and it will break on you, because you are a *real* user and use it A LOT. Things that break from heavy usage:


  • hinges
  • keyboard
  • trackpad / button
  • CD/DVD drive


  • harddrive
  • various electronics, e.g. daughterboard, motherboard, wifi chips


There are steps you can take to minimize the probability of such breakage of course, like always:

  • use a padded case/bag when carrying
  • close/open the lid/screen gently (never slam it shut, no matter how much you of a dramatic effect/statement you want to make)
  • make sure the vents are clear of any obstacles and that there is good airflow
  • use on a flat stiff surface that allows for at least a few millimeters of clearance underneath (as a result of the feet holding it)
  • quit all processor/disk-greedy applications whenever possible (use the Activity Monitor application to keep track of which apps are the worst offenders)
  • put it to (or let it fall a) sleep when you're asleep


However even with precautions, you will experience laptop breakage. And if you critically depend on your laptop as every roadwarrior does, then you will need to be ready to handle this eventuality as efficiently and quickly as possible.


First of all, always buy AppleCare with every new Mac laptop you purchase. Doing so has always paid for itself within year two of owning every Mac laptop I've bought AppleCare for.


Second, get it repaired as quickly as possible. As soon as you have verified a reproduceable problem with your laptop make an appointment online to bring it in to your local Apple Store's Genius Bar for submission ASAP. Tip: look at the available appointments at all Genius Bars within one hour (or more) driving distance for the first available appointment. Use the time between now and your appointment to update your backups (yes plural) of your critical laptop data, then wipe it to a factory install state and be sure to restore any OEM/Apple RAM - never submit your laptop to Apple with 3rd party RAM, they will almost always blame it for any problem.


Ok, now you have to wait a week or more after submitting your laptop before you can get it back.


This is totally unacceptable to any roadwarrior. Totally. Even going several hours without can be considered an epic infrastuctural failure.


This leaves you with pretty much only one choice: redundancy.




Just as commercial websites have redundant servers that can handle one (or more) servers failing, you need to have a backup/secondary laptop that you can quickly switch to when your primary laptop fails.


If you are starting from scratch (no laptop), the easiest thing to do is to buy two identical models.


If you already have a laptop, buy a comparable laptop as your secondary/multitasking/home laptop.


Either way, keep your secondary laptop synced to your primary in terms of applications etc., such that all you have to do is do an incremental sync update (rather than a full image backup) before wiping/prepping for submitting for repair.


Of course, keeping/maintaining two laptops can be expensive. This leads to the next criteria.



cheaper is better


Buy the cheapest laptop that will efficiently perform the tasks you need to regularly perform.


In addition, by sticking to the following criteria and getting the cheapest laptop you can, you will almost certainly be able to buy *two* of the same laptop that *one* "top end" laptop would have cost you and presto, you have now solved the redundancy problem. You can also delay purchasing your secondary laptop until your primary laptop begins to show the first signs of any kind of flakiness, but this is a bit riskier (it might happen when you are far from any place to purchase a laptop immediately) and costlier (you will likely pay more for IRL immediate purchase or overnight shipping etc.)


Tip: check the Refurbished laptops section (e.g. on the Apple Store site). You will often be able to save a few hundred dollars by buying a refurbished laptop (which always worked just fine for me, and come with same 1 year warranty), as long as you don't mind that they might have a scratch or two - in my experience though most refurb units look new.


So yes, buy the cheapest laptop that will get the job done efficiently.


Why not buy the fastest laptop available? Read on.


avoid the processor speed trap

Manufacturers (including Apple) want you to buy their highest end laptops which have the highest profit margins. They put a lot into marketing the super-duper-high end of the line with names like "Pro" (are you a professional or just an __amateur__), and seriously hyped metrics.


The reality is that unless you are a biotech engineer doing protein folding, or a global warming researcher running climate simulations, or an animator rendering fully synthesized frames for the latest feature length animation, you don't need the (marketed) fastest thing out there. Really, you don't. Or even if you are, you really should be doing such rendering on a server at home or at work and simply using your laptop as a "controller" to interface with it.


Basically unless you are doing something processor-intensive (if you don't know what that means, you're likely not), then having a processor which is 10-25% faster will make nearly no difference to you.


This is because almost everything you do on a computer is what is called "I/O bound" (short for input/output bound). In short this means that no matter how fast the processor, the effective speed (i.e. the time you wait for the computer to respond to your user requests like typing and clicking) is actually based on how fast the I/O devices are on the device, like the harddisk, the network, etc. Such I/O takes up 90-99% of the time in practical applications. What does this mean? Simple math, if 90 (and that's being conservative, higher is more likely) out of 100 seconds of your time on the computer is spent waiting for I/O, then only 10 seconds out of a 100 are dependent on the processor speed. This means that even if the processor is TWICE as fast, that 10 seconds will only be reduced to 5 seconds, and you will have only saved 5 seconds out of 100.


That's right, all other things being equal, if you have two laptops with identical disk, network, bus etc. and one has a 2x faster processor, it will only be about 5% effectively faster.


This is the speed trap that is marketed to you by every manufacturer.


It's up to you to decide whether to buy into the marketing messages that are specifically catered to stroke your ego, or to make a rational scientific decision. If you want to pay 2x for a 5% or less speed increase that's up to you.


And there's more reasons why you don't want the fastest processor.



longer battery life is better

Different laptop models burn through their respective batteries at different speeds. As a roadwarrior who may need to do hours of work often without access to a power infrastructure (e.g on a trans-Pacific flight), you need as much battery life as you can get.


So check how much battery life different models of laptops get. Typically the lower/medium end laptops will have better battery life than the high-end laptops.


Within a model, consider getting one with the slowest processor that will still run the applications you need to run with acceptable response times. Slower processor = less energy consuming = longer battery life. Yes I know today's modern processors have the ability to run slower but that depends on the software "getting it right" but unfortunately you can't really depend on today's so-called modern operating systems to get such details right.



smaller is better

As a roadwarrior, your laptop is by far the only piece of equipment you carry with you, but it might be the largest and heaviest of your on-your-person devices. Since you'll likely be carrying your laptop with you almost everywhere, to reduce stress and strain, you want the smallest, lightest laptop you can get.


Given a choice though between smaller and lighter, smaller is more important for the following reasons:

  • smaller = will fit in smaller bags that
    • look a lot less like they have a laptop in them.
    • will be allowed in more places (like stores, museums etc. - note the "no bag larger than xxxx" signs that such places often have)


The smallest laptop that Apple has ever shipped is the PowerBook G4 12".


The second smallest laptop that Apple has ever shipped is the MacBook Air. However, avoid it because the MacBookAirSucks. Seriously.


The next smallest laptop that Apple has ever shipped is the 13" MacBook, which is also substantially cheaper than the MacBook Air. Thus it's currently the logical choice for the cheapest/smallest/lightest laptop.


faster is better

Once you satisfy all previous criteria, it makes sense to make sure your laptop is effectively as fast as possible.


The biggest source of slowdown (and thus opportunity for speedup) in a laptop is the harddrive. Typical activities as noted above in "avoid the processor speed trap" are I/O bound, and most of that I/O is disk related.


There are two things you can do about that.

  1. Max RAM. What does this have to do with disk? Everything. More RAM is nearly always the #1 speed related improvement you can do to a computer. Most of your disk usage is due to virtual memory, and the more that your computer needs to swap data from "real" memory (RAM) to "virtual" memory (disk), the slower it will be. There are two ways that you can reduce virtual memory disk usage (AKA swapping) : 1. run fewer applications with fewer windows, 2. max out your RAM. Since you'll likely want to be able to run as many applications as you can or open as many windows (e.g. browser tabs) as you can, option two makes the most sense.
  2. Max RPMs. Get the fastest disk you can get installed. Roughly speaking, more RPMs = faster disk. Longer: more RPMs = lower latency = shorter amount of time to do the thing that makes the disk take most of its time, which is to look up something else on the disk.
    1. Note battery life tradeoff. More RPMs typically means the disk motor is spending more energy in the same amount of time spinning the disk up to those higher RPMs and keeping them there. More energy spend in the same amount of time = faster drain on the battery = lower battery life. So you may not want the highest RPMs. Check some metrics, YMMV etc.


E.g. on a MacBook, it can handle up to 4GB of RAM, and the best deals for RAM are all 3rd party, so the logical choice is to buy a maxed out RAM upgrade kit for your MacBook from a 3rd party.


what I bought in 2008

Given these criteria, take a look at HouseMacBook to see the details of what I bought as a secondary / shared laptop.

Return to HouseMacBook \ FrontPage.

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