Laptops Still Suck

LazyGamer

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I'm a gamer. And an amateur photographer and aspiring amateur videographer. I dabble with VMs quite a bit. I'm usually a student. And my laptop doesn't exist.

I have a general set of requirements:
  • The laptop needs to be ergonomic, meaning keyboard and trackpad at least need to be very good
  • It needs to be solidly built
  • It needs to be portable, somewhere between a 13" and a small 15" like the new XPS15
  • It needs decent battery life, say approaching eight hours outside of gaming or processing intensive tasks
  • It needs either a stout APU or a decent discrete GPU
  • It needs a panel that's at least function for color work, say 100% SRGB
  • It needs a full-size SD card slot
  • It needs to be under $2000 well configured -or- be upgradeable
  • It needs VRR
  • It needs a higher-refresh rate screen, say 120Hz
The first five are easy when considered alone, as I just described the current XPS15 and likely a number of competitors. Where everything falls apart, though, is when you get to those last two bullets.

So here's the main complaint. Why do so very many laptops with either AMD APUs or Nvidia discrete GPUs lack VRR such as Freesync or G-Sync and why are higher refresh rates frowned upon?

This kills me. When running in performance-limited scenarios, which laptops always are whether in the form of a svelte ultrabook or a DTR boat anchor, given that chassis design limits TDP, you'd figure that VRR would be at the top of the list to court gaming customers. You'd also think that both AMD and Nvidia would be putting pressure on OEMs to make sure that their respective solutions were employed wherever possible for the same reason. People have been gaming on laptops, including laptops that aren't specifically marketed toward gamers, for decades. On integrated graphics even. One shouldn't have to buy an Alienware or Razer to get a feature like VRR implemented, we should see it as a basic feature on anything that isn't Intel!

Next, higher refresh-rates are just as easily sold as a quality of life improvement. We used to turn up the refresh rates on CRTs to mitigate flickering, but with the advent of LCDs, we're back to 60Hz as a standard. I run >120Hz monitors on my desktops, and honestly I appreciate that functionality, that fluidity and clarity, as much for daily productivity tasks as I do for games. I really feel like the big OEMs could stand to offer that as an option, especially next to 4k panels that do very little for mobile computing.

Complaint number two is more specific, or rather, vendor specific.

In researching a recent laptop purchase for myself, I looked hard at AMDs APUs. Real hard.

What I found was initially very encouraging: the new 4000-series APUs are coming across as very efficient, and since they have twice the cores as Intel's current offerings in the sub-45w range, are actually doing very well with respect to bringing general computing performance.

But I noticed two things that put me off. The first is that just about every review showed issues related to support for AMDs GPU and their transcoding hardware to be very lacking across popular software suites. Can't really blame AMD for software houses not providing support (at least on Windows/Linux, I hear they work great on Macs), but it's a very consistent complaint, and well, it involves all of the software I'd use outside of office productivity and gaming.

The second I mentioned above, but the lack of Freesync on laptops with AMD APUs just rubs me the wrong way. AMD has marketed these as being better for entry-level gaming, and that's backed up by benchmarks, but they haven't bothered to ensure that the main feature that they have that Intel doesn't is actually leveraged?

I say all that given that I'd be all over an XPS15 with a 4800U powering a 120Hz VRR display. Plenty of grunt on tap for everything I do when plugged in, plenty of run time away from the wall.

Instead, since I couldn't really find anything close to what I'm looking for without spending more on a Razer (US$2500+) than I'm willing to trust their QA and warranty service with, I went by Dell's refurbished outlet and picked up a Latitude with a 10th-gen (but 14nm still) i7 for a cool grand as a holdover. The trackpad isn't great; it's probably a five year-old design. The screen is barely adequate. The keyboard is an acquired taste, but works. At the same time, it has great battery life, the CPU is more than fast enough, it's built like a tank, and it has every port I could ask for except the full-size SD card. I really have no idea where OEMs got the notion that people actually use micro-SD cards outside of the few phones that support them still.


So that leaves me with this: I'm waiting for the industry to get its act together. I hope that AMD gets their software support squared away. I expect that Intel will have VRR support for their new iGPU. And maybe Dell / HP / etc. will realize that there's some appeal for 'gaming' features in laptops that aren't covered in unicorn puke lighting!
 

David_Schroth

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You described the Lenovo P1 quite well actually - picked it up last year for about $1700 (including a 4 year warranty). No idea what the refresh rate is on the panel. Got one of my guys a P1 Gen 2 earlier this year for about the same price. Got my newest guy the 15" Yoga C940 which is also close, just no SD card slot.

On the AMD side, if you aim for the H class chips (45w) then you'll probably get an NVIDIA discrete GPU with them, however, there's not a ton of great options out there.
 

Brian_B

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Seems like high refresh rate / VRR and high color accuracy are kinda at odds with each other?
 

LazyGamer

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You described the Lenovo P1 quite well actually - picked it up last year for about $1700 (including a 4 year warranty). No idea what the refresh rate is on the panel. Got one of my guys a P1 Gen 2 earlier this year for about the same price. Got my newest guy the 15" Yoga C940 which is also close, just no SD card slot.
I remain dismayed that Lenovo is a Chinese company. Nothing against the Chinese people themselves... and that's really all I can say without getting into politics.

On the AMD side, if you aim for the H class chips (45w) then you'll probably get an NVIDIA discrete GPU with them, however, there's not a ton of great options out there.
I've seen that, which is just... wacky. I'm also going to admit that I overlooked some of these, and probably shouldn't have; there's nothing wrong with the configuration, and the issues are with AMD graphics, not their CPUs.

And it's really a shame given how well AMDs hardware seems to be supported on the Mac side of things, so we know that their hardware is capable.
Seems like high refresh rate / VRR and high color accuracy are kinda at odds with each other?
In terms of cost, I'd absolutely expect so. Razer seems to be the only OEM shipping laptops that are both 120Hz and 100% SRGB.

But even they don't mention VRR anywhere, nor can I find information in reviews.

Still, 'gaming' IPS panels are available with really the best color you're going to get out of a 'consumer' monitor and tend to test very, very well in terms of color accuracy.

My complaint is mostly that OEMs aren't 'closing the loop' with features that really should be a given for the hardware included!
 

LazyGamer

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So, an update: I gave in.

I've had this Latitude 5410 for three weeks, and while it's a solid laptop, I'm sending it back.

I just cannot stand the trackpad.

It's not terrible, in that I've definitely used significantly worse, but given that that's my primary pointing device, it's not something that I'm willing to live with. Major complaints are:
  • Size. Apparently Dell is still aping Thinkpads with the pointing stick and a second set of mouse buttons, limiting the size
  • It also has hardware mouse buttons, which are, well, why - they should have died out with the advent of tap to click
  • The touchpad is responsive in terms of keeping up, but it takes just a little bit more pressure at its most sensitive setting to activate, such that I'm constantly missing clicks
  • And finally... it's textured instead of smooth glass, and that makes a world of a difference
And also the screen it pretty awful and the page up and page down keys are poorly placed.

So I'm grabbing an XPS15.
 

LeRoy_Blanchard

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Have you considered looking at portable displays to solve the short comings with the built-in laptop monitor?

As a photographer, I prefer multiple displays anyway. You could have a good, portable monitor connected to your laptop that shows the photograph you're working on in full screen while the laptops display has all your buttons/ui for whatever software you use for post processing.
 

LazyGamer

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Have you considered looking at portable displays to solve the short comings with the built-in laptop monitor?

As a photographer, I prefer multiple displays anyway. You could have a good, portable monitor connected to your laptop that shows the photograph you're working on in full screen while the laptops display has all your buttons/ui for whatever software you use for post processing.
It's not a bad idea, but it'd have to be an exceedingly compact solution to really sell me on it, on top of being as good or better than I could get in a laptop.

And it's not like I don't have a desktop for this stuff, really more than one; the photography side of the laptop is mostly for travel and sheer convenience. I took my previous XPS 13 with me to the UK, for example, and did quite a bit of work on it; and that was back when i7's were dual-core!

This new machine will also be expected to handle video, at least up to 4k, and needs to be able to do that in both Premiere and Resolve. The XPS 15 I have on order is an eight-core variant. I think the only thing I upgraded from that point was the white palmrest as I'm a sucker for such things and it was cheap.

I'll be swapping the dual 4GB RAM modules out for dual 16GB modules, hopefully using the one I put into this Latitude to get it to 32GB, and just ordering another. I'll also eventually be swapping out the 256GB SSD they put in it with something more substantial after I nail down a few higher-performance candidates to wait for sales.


And this brings me to my second 'Laptops Still Suck' ranting points:

Configurations. My old XPS 13 has a higher-res touchscreen. It's far too high res to be run native on a 13" laptop, and it looks pretty bad set to 1080p. Thankfully scaling in Windows and popular apps has made leaps and bounds since its 2017 release, but man oh man was it an annoyance back them. And while it was an annoyance that I thought I could work around at the time, and mostly have now, the reason I had to buy a model with the high-res panel and with touch capability is that models without those options were limited to 8GB of RAM for an ultrabook with RAM soldered. 8GB was simply not enough then. Just maddening that getting the baseline of performance needed meant having other features that only serve as impediments to getting work done. I eventually just turned the touchscreen off in the UEFI because it was so **** easy to hit with the thin bezels. And as a parting shot to that laptop, it had the nostril cam that its line had become famous for by that point!

Now, on to this Latitude 5410. The keyboard is actually okay. It's honestly livable, outside of the placement of the page up and page down keys on either side of the up arrow. These keys are small and just too easy to hit, and that makes text navigation hell. But feel is good, the keys have a slight 'mush' when they bottom out, but that also means that they're relatively muted when it comes to offensive keyboard acoustics and that's pretty easy to live with. The keys do have a bit of a 'tough' feel to them as if they're likely to withstand years of abuse, fitting for a representative of the Latitude line, and honestly if one needs a bit more ruggedness, this keyboard is an easy sell.

But here's the catch! I'm one of those folks that appreciates backlit keys. But if you note my complaint about the size of the touchpad being limited by the physical left and right click buttons below the touchpad as well as the three buttons for the finger stick, well, the only way to get this laptop without those is to forego a backlit keyboard entirely. Thanks Dell.


And one last parting shot: I really do not get the honest to God utility of folding laptops. The laptop my wife uses, an extremely thin folder with a quad-core CPU, 16GB of RAM, and a 2TB SSD I popped in, is just awkward as all get out to use as a 'tablet' whether as a touch device or with a pen. While I realize that there are some creatives that could make extended use of such a device, well, I am not one of them. I think companies have a lot of work to do to make that workflow... 'work' to the point of actually being productive for folks that do actually work.
 

LeRoy_Blanchard

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Well they're not compact in a sense that they're ~15" wide, but they're as thin or thinner than your cell phone.

As for touchscreen reversible laptops; I have one and sometimes the touch screen part comes in handy as does being able to fold it back onto itself "tablet mode" or whatever you want to call it. However, neither of those would be a selling point for me.

I use my laptop for in the field photography as well. Though most of my post-processing happens on my desktop. Should I need to do post processing on the lappy, I can and depending on what it is I'll upload the pictures to my NAS as home and remote into my desktop to do the post processing since its a lot, lot faster than the first generation Ryzen CPU in my laptop.

I also carry an external keyboard and mouse with me when I travel. I hate laptop keyboards and touchpads.
 

Endgame

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Prior to the pandemic, I was traveling around 25 weeks / year for work, and much like the OP, I’ve disliked every option I’ve ever used, but for completely different reasons.

first, generally due to network security, I need to use whatever company laptop I’m assigned. This usually means some sub 1000 Toshiba or Lenovo which starts you off in a bad place to begin

I hate every track pad I’ve ever used on a laptop - you type and invariably the trackpad picks up your wrists and unexpected things happen. It’s gotten to the point that I just disable the trackpad and use an external mouse with every laptop I use.

the integrated keyboards are almost all too cramped to use, short of the old 17” hp DTR I had at a previous job. I end up carting around a razor 10 keyless external keyboard as well.. which means I might as well be using tablet since I’m not using the built in keyboard or trackpad.

i always bring along an Asus 1920x1080 portable display when traveling as well for the extra screen space (email and slack on 1 display, work on the other).

my absolute preferred solution would be:

1) travel with whatever PoS company laptop I’m assigned
2) bring my own device to supplement the work laptop.

My ideal supplemental device is, in order of priority

1) A tablet form Factor, but with Windows and plenty of USB ports. I want to use my own keyboard and mouse, so a tablet form factor means I don’t have the base of a laptop getting in the way.

2) external Screen and usb hub pass through mode. If I’m working at the office, I want to be able to just plug the tablet device into the PoS work laptop and use it as a extra monitor and usb hub - I don’t even need to load an OS in this mode, because I won’t be allowed to connect it to the work network anyway.

3) IPS display, ideally 120hz 1080p. If I’m using this as a primary monitor for 100+ days / year, I don’t want some blurry / cheap TN display. VRR would be fantastic for item 4

4) A top end APU or mid range GPU would be nice. I’m honestly not too concerned about playing a current AAA shooter from the while traveling, but it would be nice to pop open something 2 years old or something like MWO and get decent frames.

things that don’t matter much

1) battery - if I can make it though 4 hours of consecutive meetings, I’m fine with the PoS laptop. Even then, conference rooms have outlets. The supplemental device just needs enough battery to last a flight from coast to coast while playing a movie or light tablet usage, such as reading a book.

2) storage capacity. 256 GB NVME is sufficient. If I really need more, I’ll bring a USB C external drive.

3) LTE. I’m in the office, the hotel, or a coffee shop. They all have WiFi, I don’t need any cell service.
 

LazyGamer

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I guess I should clarify by 'work' I mean 'my work', not my... 'work work'. I've been issued a 13" Latitude before, and honestly it wasn't a bad laptop at all. There's a whole lot to like about Latitudes, but performance and portability at a reasonable price aren't on the list :).

Now, I don't really like trackpads, but I've gotten used to them and the best ones are actually pretty good. It's just that the cheap ones show it something fierce. I can actually get all kinds of work done with a good trackpad.

And I've done the 'carry a keyboard around' thing; granted I once carried around a 17" DTR myself, and used external peripherals and an external monitor just to make it comfortable. I didn't, however, do that on a flight, that was more localish travel, and that's why I insist on something with good inputs. The keyboard on this Latitude 5410 I'm returning this weekend is actually pretty good in terms of usability. And the touchpad isn't bad for what it is, but it does slow me down.

Missing VRR to me is really the most egregious part, and it's pretty widespread. Literally based on the technology used for laptop displays and almost nowhere to be found.

120Hz is really in a creature comfort category, but it's also surprising to see a lack of focus on it given how phones have been pimping higher refresh rates as a feature for years.

The only thing I find egregious about storage is when the manufacturer decides that soldering on the only internal storage device is a good idea. I have no problem with 256GB for most laptop use, but for my personal 'work' laptop I consider the option to install more essential. Part of that is content creation, as photography can get out of hand pretty quickly, and videography more so -- and you don't want to be doing lots of that from an external drive, at least not one that is portable. I also want to be able to run a bunch of VMs and be able to multi-boot, and extra storage useful for that.
 

LazyGamer

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I have a general set of requirements:
  • The laptop needs to be ergonomic, meaning keyboard and trackpad at least need to be very good
  • It needs to be solidly built
  • It needs to be portable, somewhere between a 13" and a small 15" like the new XPS15
  • It needs decent battery life, say approaching eight hours outside of gaming or processing intensive tasks
  • It needs either a stout APU or a decent discrete GPU
  • It needs a panel that's at least function for color work, say 100% SRGB
  • It needs a full-size SD card slot
  • It needs to be under $2000 well configured -or- be upgradeable
  • It needs VRR
  • It needs a higher-refresh rate screen, say 120Hz
Following up... I'm currently using an XPS 15. Picked the eight-core version... because... and grabbed the white deck for a similar reason, but otherwise left the SSD at 256GB and memory at 2x4GB because I have upgrades for both. Dell isn't quite Apple with their pricing but they're certainly not generous.

A few basic notes:
  • The XPS 15 is pretty thin and light for what it is, but what it isn't is an ultrabook
  • The keyboard is... above average, it could be better, there's some creeking and the keys are slightly spongy, but overall pretty good
  • I'm not a fan of the 1200p VA panel it comes with, it's not IPS or OLED in terms of brilliance, but it did measure perfectly with my Spyder 4 and it gets plenty bright
  • The touchpad is stellar
  • The built-in mic is supposed to be good for Windows Hello, which I won't be using it for, but it picks up a great bit of room noise, so I probably won't be using it at all if I don't have to
  • Fans have been quiet except when gaming
And a point-by-point:
  • The laptop needs to be ergonomic, meaning keyboard and trackpad at least need to be very good
    • The XPS line is pretty much the standard here on the PC line for consumer-grade stuff
  • It needs to be solidly built
    • No complaints
  • It needs to be portable, somewhere between a 13" and a small 15" like the new XPS15
    • I definitely underestimated how big 15" is, even at what's probably it's smallest
  • It needs decent battery life, say approaching eight hours outside of gaming or processing intensive tasks
    • The XPS 15 delivers here
  • It needs either a stout APU or a decent discrete GPU
    • Here too, though I'm a bit frustrated that the included 1650Ti lacks RTX for DLSS and RTX voice
  • It needs a panel that's at least function for color work, say 100% SRGB
    • Verified to hit this mark, and it does work for photo editing next to a calibrated IPS
  • It needs a full-size SD card slot
    • With style!
  • It needs to be under $2000 well configured -or- be upgradeable
    • It's definitely upgradeable
  • It needs VRR
    • This is a miss...
  • It needs a higher-refresh rate screen, say 120Hz
    • As is this one.
Overall, I'm still surprised that the last two points aren't more of a focus. Perhaps that will change in the near future with Intel likely bringing support for VRR with their Xe graphics IP and perhaps companies paying attention to folks that want to game a bit on something that's a bit more friendly for everyday use.
 
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