Is the high-end laptop dead?

There aren't many good reasons left to spend a big chunk of cash on a laptop. It's easy to make a case though for solid remote access to cloud and/or virtual resources.

A while back, I wrote that I was trading my laptop for a server. Finances have dictated that I tough it out with my MacBook for a while longer, which is fine since it does most of what I need it to do as well as any other computer. A server would just be handy to centralize all of my stuff and leverage virtual machines to give the kids and wife their own computing platforms that are more easily managed than random laptops and salvaged desktops.

So the server is coming, as soon as I can make it a financial priority, although it may just be in the form of a high-end PC. Great. That being said, I'm not even writing this on my trusty, if boring, MacBook. I'm writing it on a netbook that Dell has provided me for a long-term evaluation. It's one of their new Latitude 2110's and may actually be the most usable netbook I've ever, well...used.

The 2110 is designed primarily for the educational market with some slick classroom features and a rugged, rubber exterior (think of those four-square and dodgeball balls you used in elementary school). The keyboard is quite good, even without the "for a netbook" modifier, the high-res screen is great to look at as long as I have my reading glasses on, and I'm getting 8 hours of battery life pretty consistently under normal load. It isn't the lightest netbook ever (the 6-cell battery that enables those 8 hours is a bit chunky), but it was no problem to toss into my messenger bag for a day in New York with Kid #1 to see a couple shows.

The numerical designation, by the way, for those of you who don't follow me on Twitter, refers to birth order, not favoritism. Although I do like Kid #1 a lot. Just heading off that particular set of flames before it gets started.

In fact, I'm sitting on the train now, typing away, distinctly not wishing for an uber-speedy, high-end laptop. Don't get me wrong - I often feel the need for speed. My old MacBook makes movies whenever I tell it to, but the hours that it takes to render a DVD or even output a medium-sized YouTube video is just painful (what was I thinking getting a laptop with integrated graphics when it was intended to be my primary machine?).

Next: Geek lust vs. common sense »

However, 90% of the time, I'm writing, reading, listening, or watching. Who isn't, right? The integrated graphics on this little netbook from Dell, the new Intel Classmate I often use, my Macbook, or virtually any desktop at which I sit down to work will let me do that. I was lusting over a quad-core, 16" Sony Vaio notebook in Best Buy the other day. $1400 got me a lovely screen, a discrete graphics card, 6GB of RAM and a Core i7 processor. Not Intel's top of the line Core processor, but my need for speed would have been largely satisfied.

You know what it wouldn't have bought me? A laptop that I was willing to bring with me on a trip to New York City. At $1400, 8 pounds with power brick, and less than 3 hours of battery life, I'd be leaving it at home. If I was a video producer going on location, I'd happily bring a MacBook Pro or HP Envy with me. My son is headed off to film school and he's getting a MacBook Pro because he needs to be able to edit and produce video in his bedroom as easily as in the media lab with his peers. Most of us, though, need to write, read, listen, and watch. And we don't need to cart around an expensive laptop that can be lost, damaged, stolen, dropped, sat on, clunked around, or otherwise put in harm's way.

How many applications do you really need to be running when you're sitting on a train, or in a meeting, or walking between classes, or flying on a plane? And how heavy do you want that laptop to be?

"But what about the Dell Adamo??!!!", you exclaim in horror? That's thin, light, and more powerful than a netbook! And Dell has even dropped its price to make it a bit less troublesome for corporate bean counters. Or even the new unibody MacBooks - they're a bit cheaper than that Sony (insert scowl and disdain from Mac users here) and are fairly rugged. You can even make a video on them without too much pain thanks to some updated graphics capabilities.

True, true, and the MacBook actually isn't a bad choice if your only computer needs to be portable. The Dell Adamo, despite price drops, remains the sort of thing that executives and road warriors can use but the average SMB employee can only chuckle about.

Next: Here's what I really want »

Here's the thing, though. I want a lightweight disposable computer that I can truck with me wherever I go. For some people (me included sometimes), a good smartphone will fill the bill. For others, it's a tablet or cheap netbook (I favor the latter since I make my living writing and want to be able to type easily wherever I go). Add to that the Google factor (call it the cloud factor if you'd like) and oftentimes I don't even need to bring a computer with me. I sit down at a PC with Internet access, connect to the sites I need, and do my work, whatever that might be.

It's only when I get home to my office that I'd like my PC to be able to really scream. It usually just comes down to either video or data analysis tasks when I'm itching for a few cores or an amount of RAM that actually requires a 64-bit OS. Running virtual machines for testing or sandbox purposes makes me wish for a meaty computer, too.

Now not everyone is lucky enough to have an office at home. However, most people have a place where they do most of their work, a place where a good desktop computer that's a heck of a lot cheaper than a comparably equipped laptop can easily reside.

Clearly, there are road warriors who need a very light, well-equipped laptop. There are others who need to be able to take a very powerful portable machine to a client's site, on location, or as they work long assignments in multiple offices. However, I'm pretty convinced that the high-end, desktop replacement laptop is becoming a niche for people who genuinely need them.

Next: On vomit and other reasons to buy cheap »

The same goes for ultralight Adamo/MacBook Air types. Now that new chipsets from Intel and AMD are enabling mid-range (in terms of cost and capability) laptops that are both relatively light and relatively cheap, a very few individuals will need to purchase a laptop over the $1000 range. In fact, $600-700 seems to be a real sweet spot for a decent laptop and $400 will buy a mighty nice Atom-based computer that your kid can vomit on (been there, done that) without inducing a coronary.

I would even go so far as to suggest that mobile thin clients and zero clients may be nearing a tipping point where they can provide really cheap access to a virtual desktop or relatively cheap access to a PCoIP streaming desktop with high-end computing capabilities.

If, for the price of a desktop replacement laptop (say $1500) I can buy a quad- or six-core desktop and a comfortable netbook, count me in. As money permits, I can very cheaply add monitors, RAM, and storage to the desktop and meet most of my mobile needs with remote access to cloud resources or the desktop, leaving my desktop where it can easily be power-protected, physically secure, easily backed up, and, most importantly, more capable than any reasonably-priced notebook.

By the way, I'm finishing this article on the train on my way home from the day in New York with Kid #1. We walked about 5 miles between a couple of theaters and a couple destinations he had in mind, saw two great shows (Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson closes in a week...if you're the least bit near New York, go see it), and I never once regretted bringing the Dell netbook. I still have almost 3 hours of battery life left and I'm charging my phone as I type on the train.

To be honest, I'd happily sacrifice a more powerful notebook for a good 3G card or a tethered data plan on my phone. Ubiquitous internet access is far more important at this point for most folks than a high-end mobile graphics card or having the bragging rights over carrying the world's thinnest laptop in their bag.

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