Tablets, Ultrabooks: The future is unfixable

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.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

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.


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.

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