Modern laptops are quite good, actually

There’s some talk in the bits of the Internet I hang out in around how poor modern laptops are. As expected (given the bits of the Internet I frequent) a lot of this boils down to the way modern laptops are not Thinkpads.

The most recent thing I read was An Epitaph To Laptops and, while our author apologises for a lapse in their normal optimism, I think there’s so much to be optimistic about.

What makes a good laptop?

I think I’m a professional – I get paid to use computers, I have job titles with words like ‘engineer’ in them. Sometimes I wear a shirt.

My favourite laptops are the sort where reviews say they “don’t have enough ports for professionals” and warn of ‘dongle hell‘. We are all, I’m told, supposed to buy a Thinkpad, ideally an IBM or early Lenovo one.

Most of the time I use a laptop I’m sat at my desk at home, or a desk in my office. In each of these situations, I have a monitor or two, a keyboard and a mouse plugged in to a dock. I’m not using anything laptop-like about it, and I could just carry an Intel NUC or similar between home and work. I did once (briefly) do this with a Mac Mini.

So for most of the time that I use my laptop nothing about the hardware (besides its computing ability) is that important; I want something small and light, ideally that I can clear off my desk once it’s docked. This is not my desk, but it’s how I like to arrange my laptop:

When I’m actually making use of the laptop aspect of my PC it’s normally because I’m on a train, in a cafe or, most-likely, I’ve taken my laptop to a meeting or some other collaborative setup.

In these cases, too, it’s important that it’s lightweight, and easily-portable; I don’t know what I’d want to plug into my laptop in a cafe or train outside of perhaps a USB stick.

On my desk my laptop is plugged into a dock, and I’ve plugged my webcam, headset, keyboard, mouse, USB drive and ethernet into the dock.

So “enough ports” for this professional is a dock. And I imagine that a lot of the professionals who need more ports on their laptops are probably just those who for one reason or another don’t like docks.

What used to make a good laptop?

The most impressive laptop I’ve ever owned was my Thinkpad X201. An early Lenovo one, from just before they ditched the “proper” keyboards.

That was my first ‘premium’ laptop, it was the first time I’d worked at a company that both offered Laptops and expected them to be quite portable. I had never been as impressed by a new laptop until I got that one, and have never been as impressed by a new laptop since. This perhaps speaks more about the laptops I’d had beforehand.

It had a keyboard that tried quite hard to do an impression of a clacky mechanical keyboard like the one on my desk. It had about 11h of battery life, and I could swap out one of the batteries without rebooting. It had the nipple which was absolutely required for reasons that I forget now that I’m used to using gestures on touchpads. The keys weren’t backlit, instead there’s a little light in the top-right of the lid that could illuminate the keyboard; a ThinkLight.

That laptop was absolutely optimised for doing a whole load of typing – a nice keyboard, a pointing device you can use without taking your hands off the home row, dedicated keys for page-up/down and friends, and a stonking battery life.

And, importantly, that’s what I used it for. I was a sysadmin at the time, my job was to write long, detailled, sarcastic responses to emails, to edit config files, and to type a lot of commands into a shell. It was brilliant, and probably the best laptop available at the time for the job.

That said, it wasn’t without its detractors! I remember the concern at the time that the Thinkpad X-series had dropped the serial port and had no optical drive, and also the two camps with their opposing views on it shipping with a VGA out but no HDMI. Not enough ports for these professionals!

Modern docks are excellent

This I think is the biggie that gets missed in these conversations. Until five or six years ago when you wanted to dock a laptop you bought a docking station which meant your laptop sat on your desk but about an inch taller than normal.

I had a dock for my X201 at home and another in the office; the times I used the excellent keyboard and the vital nipple were when I was out and about or on-call (and working by the light of the ThinkLight!)

If you kept the lid open you could perhaps use the keyboard and pointing device of the laptop on your desk, but it always felt a bit odd because of how high the chassis was lifted. Some were better and only lifted the rear of the laptop:

Either way, though, these were relatively specific to laptop models, took up lots of desk space when in use and rather a lot when not. and were often actually more-untidy than just plugging everything in to the laptop directly.

I think this experience put a lot of people off the notion of docks, and so they’re frequently seen as a sop to some sort of conspiracy by laptop manufacturers to put fewer sockets on their devices – instead of the sockets you want, here’s a thing you definitely don’t want that has the sockets on.

It also meant a lot of companies didn’t buy the docks; they effectively raised the cost of each laptop by the cost of a dock since the docks would only be useful with the model of laptop they were bought with.

Several years ago Thunderbolt docks became popular – they use a cable to connect a standard USB-C-like socket, standard enough that even (some) MacBooks support them.

They don’t need to conform to the size of a laptop any more so can be quite small, and they’ve also got remarkably cheap now that you don’t need to buy them from the laptop manufacturer; there’s a Dell monitor that you can get with a Thunderbolt dock built-in for about £30 extra. One common option for at-home is a Thinkpad dock that regularly goes for les than £50 second hand.

And they’re universal. I’ve a Caldigit dock at home under my desk, with the cable poking up. I’m now on my fourth work laptop that I’ve just brought home, plugged in, and got-cracking with. I honestly don’t understand why anyone with a desk at home and a modern laptop wouldn’t use one.

So what now?

I don’t type very much any more. Or, rather, my ratio of time spent not-typing to typing is skewed very much in favour of not-typing. And when I am typing, I’m doing it at a desk with monitors and my choice of keyboard and mouse.

My role has changed and I now spend more time planning things, explaining things and talking about things, obviously. But also the industry has changed and I am no longer a sysadmin but some sort of devops/cloud/platform engineer.

One important bit of that development really is that I can effect large change with relatively little typing. Another is that what I do is much less based on intuition and experience, but based on collaboration, discussion and research.

I spend quite some time figuring out what to do but only a few lines of code doing it. I also don’t get long emails do digest and write long rebuttals to; the norm increasingly is to have a conversation in-person, over video or instant-message. More and more tooling is mouse-driven; dragging and dropping post-its, tickets, time-windows on graphs and the like.

And so my laptop no longer needs to be optimised for hours spent hunched over it typing out hundreds of thousands of characters. It needs to be good enough that I don’t mind using it like that, but not at the expense of portability and convenience.

Nearly everything battery-powered that I own charges off a USB-C cable; now my laptop does too I have a single charger to take with me when I go away. All our issued laptops at work are USB-C regardless of brand or model so there’s no dongles to deal with, since the desks and meeting rooms are also all USB-C. Even if I did feel the need to carry a dongle round with me for some reason, it’s much lighter, smaller and handier than the dedicated laptop charger I used to carry.

My previous work laptop was a Dell XPS13. Tiny thing, hours of battery life, squillions of dots on the screen, Thunderbolt docking so I could hide it away easily. The keyboard’s still not excellent, but nor’s any of it. It genuinely is a jack of all trades, rather than being a master of one.

And that, I think, is the thing. Laptops used to be primarily about typing while out-and-about because that was most of what you’d do on a laptop; most of the work involving computers that you could do out and about was typing.

That’s changed massively; I think for nearly all of us there’s an awful lot of value and productivity we do with our laptops that isn’t typing out text. It’s important that you can type, sure, but the measure of a good laptop isn’t solely its typing experience: it’s the portability, the weight, the size, the touchpad experience, the screen quality, the battery life – the whole experience of owning it.

The one sort of job that comes to mind where this isn’t true is those jobs where the output is written word; the jobs that are to write articles about laptops, for instance 😀