Tablets, Ultrabooks: The future is unfixable

Tablets, Ultrabooks: The future is unfixable

Summary: This week, I spent some time looking for a new corporate laptop. The more time I spent trying to find the perfect system to fit my needs, the more I discovered how little flexibility and choice I actually had.

SHARE:
117

Over the last seven years of my professional life, I've never needed to shop for laptop and notebook computers for business use.

Most of what I have bought for research purposes for my writing and personal training has been server and desktop-class equipment, because they were expandable and easier to deal with for the software and products that I test.

laptop-in-trash-620-DARKBLUE

In that time I've purchased only two laptops, a Lenovo x200 from a friend because it was a good buy and the machine was barely used, and a Dell Studio 15 because my wife needed an inexpensive desktop replacement.

Not a lot of thought went into either purchase, because they were for personal use and neither system acquistion amounted to a lot of money. I spent about $500-$800 on each computer, both of which I consider to be small expenditures for systems.

My wife is still using her Dell and the x200 is still running well -- in fact it's my main personal system these days. 

For the first time in my entire professional career working in Corporate America, I have now been allowed to choose my own laptop. How cool is that?

For work purposes, I've had the privelege of working for employers that issue me business laptops as company assets. But I had no choice or input into the matter. IBM had a standard laptop that was pre-configured, as did Unisys. 

Working at Microsoft has been a breath of fresh air in numerous ways, and it has been interesting to observe the differences in the way the company works versus previous companies I have been at.

For the first time in my entire professional career working in Corporate America, I have now been allowed to choose my own laptop.

How cool is that?

When I joined Microsoft in December, my manager picked out a system from a pile of stuff that was recently turned in from other individuals and told me that it was only temporary, and that I would be able to get a new laptop very shortly.

In fact, everyone in our group is going to get new laptops that are Windows 8 optimized, because this is a technical sales team and the company wants us using equipment that showcases the newest technology when we're out visiting partners and customers.

At Microsoft we have a list of desktop and laptop systems that are approved as supported by our internal IT.  I was amazed, actually, how big that list is compared to when I worked at IBM.

At IBM, we had like 3 or 4 models of Lenovos that were issued per generation (typically the refresh was every 4 years) and certain elite developers and executives got to buy Macs, with special exception. As I understand, at the time I left the company, they were just starting to offer its employees laptops from other vendors.

It shouldn't be a big surprise that IBM primarily only uses Lenovo ThinkPads, given their history with the brand.

At Microsoft, we have a very wide choice of vendors and systems to choose from. While this does not cover every possible OEM and system combination known to man, it's about as diverse an offering as I have ever seen in any corporate IT department.

All in all, there are about 20 different unique model laptops to choose from.

Now, this seems like a lot, but when you get into my actual use case scenario, you start to narrow the playing field quite a bit.

First, I don't want anything too heavy, as I will be going on a lot of short business trips. So I want to stay within the 3lb limit as much as possible. 

I also wanted a 13" or wider size screen, a standard size keyboard, a multitouch trackpad, and if possible a touchscreen, so I could make the most use out of the Windows 8 UI. And also a TPM security chip so that I could use Windows 8 DirectAccess, which I feel is one of the killer features of this OS release.

If I want to try to satisfy all of those requirements, that immediately brings me down to one model from each major OEM, the HP Elitebook Revolve 810, Lenovo X1 Carbon Touch, Dell XPS 12, Asus Zenbook Prime and the Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro 700T

While all nice machines, the HP, Dell and the Samsung get knocked out of consideration for screen size. As does Surface Pro. Which leave the Lenovo X1 and the Asus Zenbook Prime as my main contenders.

[Note: I am aware there may be other models from these vendors that fit my requirements, but they aren't avaliable for me to purchase yet.]

All of these machines are slightly different in basic configuration, and two of these convert into full-blown tablets as well, but most of these all share one thing in common: You can't upgrade or fix them. The designs are completely sealed.

At least, you aren't meant to fix them unless you are the manufacturer. Based on information at Crucial.com, the XPS 12 can have its SSD swapped out, but everything else has storage and RAM soldered to the motherboard.

According to Crucial.com, my two main contenders, the Lenovo X1 Carbon Touch and the Asus Zenbook Prime are absolutely non-upgradeable.

Seems kinda similar to another breakthrough product from Silicon Valley.

And yes, I'm aware that the Microsoft Surface Pro isn't exactly a repairability or upgrade dream either. But the system doesn't meet my specific needs anyway.

So if you're going to buy one of these systems, be aware that for most of these, you cannot upgrade the components, so you had better order it in the highest end configuration you can afford.

At bare minimum I need an i5, 8GB RAM and 256GB of SSD, and I would advise that you probably also go with this configuration if you intend to keep the system 3 years or more.

If I wanted a system that could take 16GB of RAM, an i7 processor, removable SATA SSD drive, 14" display and had durable construction, I was heading into 4lb/5lb territory. Like the Lenovo ThinkPad T430S

The horsepower sounds sexy, I can do a lot of stuff with a machine like that, and I know that system is built like a tank, but the heat generation, battery drain and not to mention the weight is not desireable.

One more pound doesn't sound like a lot more weight, but in a small backpack when running through airports trying to change terminals in tight connections (hello, Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson!) it's a lot more weight than you think.

Stuff in a 6-cell or 9-cell battery to replace the base-level 4-cell laptop battery, and you're adding a half pound or more of weight on top of the base configuration. Not counting your power brick, your smartphone, change of clothing, toiletries, and other optional gadgets and accoutrements.

My circumstances are certainly not unique. I expect that most of the growth of the PC industry over the next several years will be in this thin, high-end 11"-14" 3-4lb touchscreen/convertible Ultrabook category.

Eventually I expect the 5lb and above 15" and 17" monsters to disappear entirely, with the exception of some very niche users that need the horsepower and mobility. Lighter and touch and tablet convertible seems to be they way the majority of the industry is going.

Lenovo, HP and Dell may end up producing one model of each of these heavier workhorses in limited production, but the majority of their system sales will likely be in these new Ultrabooks.

The monster pro laptop biz will almost certainly end up with specialized OEMs like Sager.

And with that comes some stark realizations as well as important considerations.

First, forget about a system that you as a consumer can fix or upgrade. You bought the config, now you're stuck with it. For at least 3 to 5 years depending on your actual refresh cycle.

Second, given how unrepairable and tightly integrated and thin these systems are, and no matter what advanced materials and construction processes the OEMs use, expect them to be more fragile than their 4lb-5lb counterparts.

I can't tell you how many times a year I get emails from people telling me that they cracked the LCD on their laptop, their OEM refuses to honor their warranty, and what should they do, now that they are facing a huge out of warranty repair bill.

I was once able to bully Hewlett-Packard into fixing a system based on them reneging on an earlier commitment to repair it under warranty, but don't expect this kind of treatment as Joe Public if your break your screen.

If you are a consumer or small business, and you are buying any new laptop computer and you are spending $1300 plus, get an accidental damage coverage policy.

Hewlett-Packard, DellLenovo, ASUS and Samsung all offer these, at different pricing and coverage levels. Before you commit to a purchase with one of these vendors, read the terms of each of these accordingly.

Apple has Applecare+, and I have heard of varying degrees of success end-users have had getting repairs of broken/cracked screens gratis or inexpensively with these plans, so your mileage may vary.

Any large business negotiating a fleet purchase of systems should be adding accidental damage as part of their vendor negotiation, because these systems will break, particularly if you have a large mobile employee force. 

Are we heading toward a future of "Unfixable" and completely unupgradable laptops? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Laptops, Hardware, Tablets

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

117 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • The Lenovo Yoga 13

    Seems to be the model others are recommending as the best Win8 notebook/Ultrabook.
    JustCallMeBC
  • Your requirements are mine

    and about 800 other people in the company I work for. And a common set of requirements it is. I am on a Lenovo T420 and just accept the weight and buy flight cases or rucksacks to accept and alleviate the weight. Price is secondary for the IT dept, they will buy a bunch of systems that fit the user requirements and allow the device to be repaired wherever we are in the world. No good being in Malaysia if the only repair allowed is in Germany.
    I will be interested in what you decide upon. We will get Surface Pros in about 6 months but to run ERP type software we still need the hefty laptop. So another Lenovo comming along I guess
    sonnet37
  • Ugh...

    Used to be you could buy a laptop that met your needs today secure in the knowledge that if needed you could squeeze a year or two more out of it by upgrading the RAM and/or hard drive. The new model is for even the battery to be non-user replaceable, which is like selling a car that you can't change the tires on. i mean, batteries are wear items. It's well known that they have a limited service life. I've got a couple of notebooks for wihch I've bought new batteries after the old ones died.

    At the very least manufacturers need to make it possible to wap the battery. I don't care of you need to unscrew the bottom of the case and gently pull the old one off an adhesive strip. It should be possible for a guy who's handy with a screwdriver to do.
    dsf3g
    • Yep, and that was also the day when

      laptops were issued with anemic RAM and hard drive space. Computers with 4 GB of RAM and 256 GB hard drives from five years ago are still very usable today. The reality is, the days when computers were consistently underpowered are gone. Perlow is the exception, not the rule. He's also a bit unrealistic in thinking that he can get the power he wants in the weight he wants. The engineering just isn't there, yet.
      baggins_z
      • "Usable" depen,ds on the user

        4MB RAM and a 256 GB drive from four years ago also MAY have only had a dual core processor...IF that! Will it be "usable" today? Technically, yes. Practically, probably not so much. It really depends on what the machine is used for. If just surfing, sending email and simple documents it will probably be pretty decent. But forget about complex documents, graphics, multimedia/video editing, etc. I'm running Office 2010 and Adobe Master Collection CS6 as well as several PhotoShop plug-ins and that would pretty much wipe out the drive capacity before I ever created a document. Not to mention that four years ago 64 bit operating systems were not the norm. Today, all of my video and photo editing is done on a 64 bit machine. Some of my apps don't even have a 32 bit counterpart...they require 64 bit. Because we can't see four years down the "pipeline" of technology, we don't know what new system requirements are going to be needed for upgraded software. Our options...don't upgrade your software until you upgrade your computer, buy the most powerful machine you can find when you buy - whether you need it or not right now, or plan to buy a new computer every time your primary software apps place hardware upgrades as something necessary to run the program. This is really going to be a game changer for the entire industry. For starters, I plan on making sure I go back to having a desktop system in my home as well as my laptops so I can easily upgrade it when needed.
        number cruncher
        • If you run Ubuntu

          All of that will work fine on an old Core 2 Duo with 64 or 32 bit Ubuntu (both free). Just drop the Adobe for Gimp and you're good. If you really need Adobe it runs fine in WINE.

          Stop letting MS force you into new hardware.
          T1Oracle
  • like you

    I have a corporate issued laptop. Unlike you, I had zero choice in the configuration. Its a standard Dell 17 in clamshell. It is heavier than I would like for traveling, but it is durable, despite the abuse of business travel. I also like the screen size. I have tried working with spreadsheets on smaller screens and its frustrating. Bottom line, I see the extra couple of weight as an acceptable trade off in exchange for the durability and productivity of larger laptop.
    krossbow
  • Interesting cycle clash

    It'll start getting interesting when you purchase "the best you can afford", start on your 3 - 5 year journey before you can refresh, and then have the OS upgrade on a different cycle and either max your machine out or slow it to a crawl. While this happens today in some Apple products, I don't consider their use "mission critical" right now (I have an IPod that still plays music just fine, though it can't run any of the new games coming out, for example), a laptop used for work or as primary home (budget, research, word processor, etc) machine is a different issue. I wonder if that's the strategy, as if you can't afford to replace the machine, the only alternative is moving to the cloud...
    georgedroden@...
  • Consider higher end business class laptops

    Business Class Laptops are an option... more choices, better durability, built for continuous use of a professional wirter/consultant who needs a constanly operating laptop. Yes they are about $1000 more expensive, but mine (Dell M4600.. costs $4,000) is very powerful for contstant on the road and desktop operational use, which is what you need as a professional. These open market consumer models in big box electronics stores are cut rate prices do not cut it, and are prone to virus attacks and slow running, and keyboard and screen failures. They are built very cheaply to meet a price point. I dont't have the time to take the risk. I need a top notch machine that is reliable. I have used this M4600 machine 8 hours a day for the last two years with no problems. It does not have a hard drive... it has a solid state flash memory, which is great on batteries.
    Joe E S
    • You missed a point or two here or there

      SSD are on pretty much every ultrabook or tablet, not a new thing at all. Yes, a very large SSD will add $500-$1000 to the pricetag of any device; the HDD-based MacBook I bought for my daughter last summer ran $1000 more for the same sized (750GB) SSD. But most of this new class of ultra-light devices run much smaller drives, generally in the 128-256GB range. That is, in fact, a step down in capacity from the traditional consumer laptop, which settled in around 500GB last year.

      There is nothing inherently more or less virus prone in a Business Class laptop running Windows than a consumer class laptop running Windows. If your laptop is managed by an IT department, they certainly install additional software to help out here. Some consumers don't. But in both cases, it's an after-sale choice. And if you're a regular consumer buying a computer at a big box store, there's a very high chance you leave with either McAffee or Norton Security software installed an running... that's not the best by far, but it's probably better than nothing, and a hugely profitable upsell for these stores. Like selling you a $125 HDMI cable when you buy that new HDTV.

      HDDs last at least 5 years, on average, short of being dropped or infant mortality. Eight hours a day for two years is no big thing. The main value of a business-class laptop is that it's in theory designed to be lugged around the globe to business meetings without failure -- higher build quality than what you see at the big box stores. They have pretty much all the same electronics inside: same RAM, same CPUs, etc. If you're lucky, you'll have an enterprise-class SLC SSD rather than a consumer grade, so it'll roughly 10x longer than an MLC drive. It's also a different measure... HDDs age based on power cycling and spindle motor runtime, mostly. SSDs age primarily on how much you write to them. If you're doing 500GB transfers every day, you want an HDD. If you write very little, the SSD will outlive your PC.
      Hazydave
      • Where'd You get it?

        Where did you find a 750GB SSD last summer?
        tommad@...
  • The Chromebook Option

    It is hard to believe there was no mention of the Chromebook in this article. With the major push into the cloud, the Chromebook is one of the best, overlooked, options today. It Is very fast, light, long battery life, nearly immune to viruses, and incredibly inexpensive!
    rm6565
    • chromebook

      you did notice that the writer works for Microsoft......
      Sul52
      • I found it interesting that ....

        in an earlier blog, just after his move to MS, I believe Jason stated that there was no policy at MS as to the HW/SW you could use as an employee. Now he says:

        "the company wants us using equipment that showcases the newest technology when we're out visiting partners and customers"

        So much for credibility.

        Just like his outright dismissal of the obvious conflict of interest as a blogger on certain topics.

        Sorry Jason, I do not trust you AT ALL.
        D.T.Long
        • Maybe it's different behind closed doors?

          Maybe it's a policy that in their day-to-day business, they can use whatever may get the job done, but Microsoft would want their best foot put forward (emphasis on "their", as in "not Google's") when out visiting partners and customers. On the other hand, if it's behind the scenes, they probably don't really care how it gets done, as long as it gets done.
          Third of Five
          • In my previous article

            I was talking about BYOD, tablets and smartphones. Nobody cares what you walk around campus with. But I am not going to use my own equipment to do company work, that's rediculous.
            jperlow
          • Additionally

            Microsoft has a group of folks that develop Mac and iOS apps, formerly the MBU (Mac Business Unit). Those people get issued Apple hardware, obviously.

            There are plenty of people who use iPhones and iPads and Android Tabs and other things on campus and also in the field. But at the same time, everyone is an evangelist for our own technology, and we want to show it off, so many of us carry one of our own and what the company issues us/pays for. I carry both an iPhone and a Nokia 920 in the field, for example. But there is no rule that says "You must use X" for your personal equipment.
            jperlow
        • D.T.Long, nobody trust your posts...

          You and CB7 must be best buddies....
          Owlll1net
        • Sorry D.T.Long, that was touched on already

          when he wrote the article, many people also agreed that it wouldn't look right for an Apple employee to walk into a meeting with a Samsung Galaxy, an MS employee with Apple hardware, ect.

          Google decided to switch out all their Windows machines because it wouldn't look right them not eating their own dogfood.

          GM sales people drive guess what? (hint - they're not Fords or Chrysler)

          At what point will you put 2 and 2 together and realize that no company will issue a competing product to their people instead of their own.

          And yet you continue on like everyone else is in the wrong, because it involves MS in some why.

          You throw around the word credibility all the time, but appear to have little, yourself.
          William Farrel
          • Good points.

            Unfortunately, with high employee turnover, employees having to buy every brand of computer, cars, etc, because employers are "delegating" this to their employees to do while demanding people kow tow the company line and not have the freedom to choose is eventually going to backfire, once wages stagnate or decline beyond a certain point... oh dear, how dare "freedom" be brought into this issue, how odd... we still live in a free country, right? Not when employers tell us what to do at every turn... that has more to do with slavery or serfdom... but people must like being willful serfs and slaves, I suppose...
            HypnoToad72