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Laptop Alternatives

I was desperately trying to avoid the expense of buying a new laptop, but my work-provided Thinkpad T43 just isn't cutting it for me.

The problem with Thinkpads, even the very nice new T60 models, is deeper than the hardware and the classic black box design. Thinkpads are uninspiring. They're the gray flannel suit of the IT industry. Every other attendee at TechEd 2006 was sporting the same old boring corporate issue ThinkPad. Every time I pulled the T43 out of my bag, I felt like I was advertising the fact that I didn't give a damn.

I want something different. Something more interesting. Here's what I'm looking for:

  • A Core Duo CPU. Easily the best CPU Intel has produced in years. The latest batch of Core Duo laptops, even the slowest and smallest ones, are plenty powerful enough for pretty much anything except high-end gaming or video editing. And Core Duo 2 is right around the corner, in the unlikely event that you happen to need even more CPU power.
  • Near ultra-portable, to the tune of 5 pounds maximum, with a reasonably sized 13" or 14" screen. I figure the whole point of having a laptop is so that you can easily take it with you-- without it becoming absurdly, awkwardly small. I do want to stick with the standard, proven laptop form factor.
  • Dedicated video hardware. I want Vista to run well with its hardware accelerated GUI. That means real third-party graphics hardware with dedicated graphics memory, not that Intel onboard integrated shared memory crap. This also means I could possibly play a game or two in a pinch, but that's not a priority. It's more like a fringe benefit of Vista compatibility.
  • No optical drive. Or at least provide the option to remove the optical drive. Really, who uses optical drives any more? That's an extra half-pound I'd rather not carry around. I can drag an external USB slimline optical drive with me if I'm ever going to need it. Which is probably never.

After obsessively searching through all my options, here's what I arrived at:

  1. Lenovo Thinkpad X60

    A non-starter for several reasons, the first of which is that it's a Thinkpad. It's also very spendy. And no touchpad? No purchase. The lack of an embedded optical drive is a big-- and rare-- plus, however.

  2. Samsung Q35

    The Q35 is very tempting. But integrated video is a showstopper. If it had dedicated video, I think this would have been my final choice.

  3. MacBook Pro

    Apple laptops are actually a good value for the money now that they've switched to Intel. I like the design and the hardware choices Apple made a lot, but I ultimately decided against it. I'd never use OSX. It seems a waste to boot this machine to Windows exclusively. Plus, the keyboard and trackpad are designed for the Mac world and require some annoying rejiggering for proper Windows support.

  4. Dell e1405

    Yes, Dell laptops are a great value. My current laptop is a Dell. But they're too mainstream for my taste. We live in a world of platform choices; repeatedly choosing a Dell is a catastrophic failure of imagination. And there's that ubiquitous integrated graphics problem, anyway.

  5. Sony VAIO SZ

    The integrated camera and biometric reader on the VAIO is a nice touch. But I don't trust Sony for drivers and support; their stuff is always pretty but vapid. The integrated nVidia 7400 video is solid, if about 20 percent slower than the X1600 on the MacBook Pro. And the lack of gigabit ethernet is just plain sloppy.

  6. Asus W3J

    Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.

Asus is the OEM who manufactures Apple's laptops, and it shows: the Asus W3J hits the sweet spot on all my criteria.

  • 14" 1280x768 widescreen Core Duo
  • 4.4 lbs without DVD-R
  • Clean, slimline aluminum design
  • Dedicated ATI x1600 graphics
  • A nifty swappable bay which supports DVD-R (included), blank bay for lightest weight, an extra battery, or an extra hard drive.

The W3J owner's forum on notebook review is full of glowing praise and almost nothing in the way of complaints.

asus-w3f.jpg

Another bit of good news is that Asus has silently upgraded the specs on the W3J. The vendor I purchased the computer from called me to verify my order, and while he was chatting with me he mentioned that any W3J that ships from the Asus factory in June will have the following spec improvements:

  • a single 1 gigabyte DIMM instead of the two 512 megabyte DIMMs
  • a 2.0 GHz Core Duo chip instead of the 1.83 GHz Core Duo

And they throw in a bluetooth mouse to boot. Of course, the first thing I'll be doing is peeling those ridiculous stickers off the machine.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror