Getting Notebook Design 'Just Right'
- 2006.12.05 - Tip Jar
I've been using portable computers since 1993 and have found over the years that some models really worked for me, while others did not. There have been machines so nice as to cause severe envy on mere sight of one at a shop, and some that, once obtained, were so disappointing that I turned around and sold them before even making the space bar shiny.
Of course, there are different criteria for each user as to what makes a laptop (or any product) great, but there are a few things that are largely universal.
I'd like to look at those subjective and objective qualities - and then give a few examples of laptops that have really done it for me over the years, and of others where some fatal flaw relegated an otherwise excellent machine to junk status.
First and foremost for me is the keyboard. Think about it: You carry a laptop for a number of reasons, but unless you view and enter text, most of those reasons could handled with a cheaper and more convenient device. Be it watching movies or playing games, laptops, while adapted to such tasks, were not designed for them from the beginning.
A laptop with a lousy keyboard is simply not the right tool for generating text.
Laptops were designed to help us remain productive when away from our desks, and with that in mind, the first thing I look at (or, more accurately, touch) is the keyboard. A laptop with a lousy keyboard is simply not the right tool for generating text.
Many laptops have been offered over the years by many manufacturers that had the features downright, amazing technology, and great prices, but they were ruined by cost-cutting in the keyboard.
When I bought my first 12" PowerBook in 2003, the 12" iBook had plenty of power for my needs and was considerably more rugged - but because of the cheap keyboard, I spent 50% more and bought the PowerBook.
Yes, the feel of the keyboard was worth the extra $500 to me, and it remains the most important consideration when choosing a laptop.
Four Classes of Keyboards
There are four levels, generally, of laptop keyboards. First are the cheapo Taiwan ODM keyboards, like you will find on the $600 Dell or Gateway laptops or the cheap consumer models at your local Best Buy. The keyboard is cheaply made on a plastic base that flexes when you strike a key with any more than the gentlest of touches. Keys rely on membranes only for their actuation, rather than the more expensive scissor-and-spring mechanisms or scissor-guided membranes on the better units. The keys themselves are of cheap plastic, with poor arrangement of function keys.
Next are the "good" quality keyboards, membrane keys with scissor mechanisms to guide them, semi-rigid bases, and a bit of thought put into the layout of the keys.
Next come the "premium" keyboards, such as you will find on the aluminum PowerBooks and MacBook Pro. These are also scissor and membrane keyboards, though the base is extremely rigid. The only thing separating these keyboards from perfection is usually a minor flaw. In the aluminum PowerBooks that I loved so much, the flaw was function keys that were too small and too close to the number keys to be comfortable. Otherwise, it was keyboard Nirvana.
The "best" of all are the keyboards like those on the old Wallstreet PowerBooks, some models of IBM ThinkPad, and mid-1990s Toshibas. These keyboards did everything right, with excellent key feel, rigid bases, and intelligent layout. I put the current Apple MacBook in this category as well, though the strange appearance puts some users off.
For me, I'll buy a computer with a "premium" or "best" keyboard, but never with a "cheap" or "good" keyboard. It's that important. (That iBook, by the way, fell into the "good" category.)
After the keyboard, the next thing I look at is the screen. This is clearly where most people will disagree, as the size and type of screen defines the very character of the laptop.
Travel-friendly machines will have small screens that make them unacceptable for those who work in graphics. A 17" widescreen may be just the thing for video or multiple documents, but it's useless for a travel machine. Still, there is much that the graphic artist and the frequent-flyer can agree on.
Matte or Glossy?
This is a difficult choice and one that is getting more difficult as glossy screens improve. I remember the first time I saw a glossy laptop a few years ago, it was a Compaq with a 15.4" widescreen display that was all-but useless in most indoor and outdoor lighting. It was amazing in a darkened room for watching movies, but turn on any light source and the reflection of that light source was all you would see. Things are much better now.
I had a MacBook for a little while and found its glossy screen a delight to work with. Yes, there was more glare than on the conventional matte screens I'm used to, but there was also a significant improvement in color saturation and the depth of blacks, which is important for text work. I still prefer a matte display, but only because one of my workspaces (my den at home) is high-glare for about an hour in the morning as the sun passes through the unblocked window.
The next aspect of the screen that matters is resolution, which is different, though related to size. Most Web pages are optimized for XGA (1024 pixels wide by 768 pixels tall). This is the absolute minimum resolution that is tolerable for use today. Higher resolution is nice for increasing productivity, but it has the downside of making text and icons appear smaller on the screen.
Think of it this way: The MacBook's 13.3" screen has similar resolution to the 2005-model of 15" PowerBook, meaning both computers show approximately the same number of dots in their differently sized LCDs. To show the same number of dots, those dots are smaller and closer together on the MacBook. This creates smoother fonts, though fonts that are smaller may be difficult to read.
The other example comes in the iBook series: Both the 12" and 14" iBooks had the same XGA resolution, meaning that the images and letters on the screen of the 14" iBook were larger, though those on the 12" model were smoother.
Resolution, like size, is a very personal, and very important decision. "I used to have an IBM ThinkPad with a 14" SXGA+ (1440 x 1050) screen at the same time as I owned a 12" PowerBook with XGA (1024 x 768). The IBM had a larger screen, but by default letters and images were larger and easier to see on the 12" Apple, while being smoother and sharper (though smaller) on the IBM. Of course, where the XGA panel was filled with a single document, I had room on the SXGA+ panel to put a second document next to it, and this was not a widescreen.
Your screen choice will play a very large role in determining the other size characteristics of your laptop, so if you want a small and light laptop, you will have to suffer with a small screen. If you want a monster-screen video powerhouse, it will be big and heavy.
Life's tough, but the laws of physics cannot be broken (yet).
Look and Feel
The final factor for me in determining whether I will love or hate a given machine is the highly subject look and feel category. There is no hard and fast formula for what works and what doesn't, and it varies a lot by user.
I remember when the titanium PowerBooks came out and everyone fell in love with their look. Everyone, that is, except me. I thought that while very thin, they still had an unfinished, clunky look, especially in the hinges and sides. Clearly the market tells us that the TiBook was a great design that many bought for looks alone, but such is the nature of subjective opinion that it cannot be applied by any standard other than your own.
For me, good design means simplicity, quality materials, good fit and finish, and - most important - a function-oriented rather than style-first design. Those old TiBooks clearly satisfied all of those requirements; I just didn't like the look.
Great Laptop Designs
Okay, so you know what I look for and how I look for it, what are some examples of great laptop design (for me - this is subjective, after all)?
To start, the 12" PowerBook. This was and remains my favorite laptop computer design ever. It has its flaws, to be sure, but the design is just right. It looks and feels more like a Swiss watch than a laptop and has an excellent keyboard, though only an okay screen.
What I really liked was how Apple was able to take such a small case (smaller than many 3 lb. ultralights) and make it a full-featured computer. Nothing was left out except for a PC card slot. It even has a terrific three-speaker sound system that's far better sounding than such a small computer has any right to. First class.
Another machine that really worked for me was the X-series IBM ThinkPad, which, like PowerBooks, I've owned more than one of. My favorite in the context of when it was made is the old X20-series from the year 2000. I still have my 2002 model X22 that my daughter uses for school (along with a G4 Mac mini at home).
With a battery clipped to its base, the X22 is somewhat heavy and very thick, but on its own it weighs only 3.3 lb., is the same size as the 12" PowerBook, and has what may just be the best keyboard ever put on a computer, period. Even today it's a beautiful machine.
Again in the context of when it was made, the old Toshiba Portegé 650CT from 1996 is another great design that I have very fond memories of. Today this 133 MHz Pentium-powered computer with its SVGA (800 x 600) screen is almost unusable (but still surprisingly good for typing), but in its day it was quite a revelation.
I was working for Apple at the time, and as part of Pre-sales support we had a lab full of not only Apple machines, but their competition as well, including a Portegé 650CT. Compared to the PowerBook 5300ce in the lab next to it, the Portegé was much smaller and lighter, had a much better keyboard, and a larger, brighter, and sharper screen with the same resolution.
It lacked the 5300ce's drive bay, but at only 5 lb. it was a lot lighter, and it ran for a full four hours on its battery. Most important, however, were the two things I look most at, keyboard and screen. The Portegé 650 had a gorgeous 11" screen that is still gorgeous by today's standards.
Amazingly for a machine released in the mid 90s, the computer itself was barely larger than the screen, much like modern portables - and unlike its competition that had massive plastic bezels surrounding their undersized LCD displays. That it also had an outstanding scissor and spring keyboard simply made this a very luxurious machine to use, despite its tiny dimensions.
Finally I'd like to look at the granddaddy of good laptop design, the 100-series PowerBook. I owned a PowerBook 145b from 1993 to 1998, with it serving as my only computer for the first two of those years. Not many 1991 designs (the 145b was essentially a combination of PowerBook 140 and 170 bits) could be used as a primary computer even by the standards of 1991, but those early PowerBooks not only could, but were better than many contemporary desktops.
Again it was all about keyboard and screen. The 100-series keyboards were not the best mechanisms, but they were built on stiff bases and introduced the palmrest and forward-mounted pointing device design that we take for granted today. The screen wasn't great either, but it was good enough and was readable outdoors without the backlight.
What I've noticed these past 13 years is that some companies just "get" good design, others haven't got a clue, and some have occasional flashes of brilliance, occasional flashes of idiocy, and a whole lot of boring though functional designs in between.
IBM (now Lenovo), at least since the ThinkPad line came out, is probably the best in terms of hardware. They've had a few goofs, but at least in their premium lines the quality is always topnotch, keyboards and screens are always outstanding, and the designs stress function over style, which is probably why an 8-year-old ThinkPad 600 looks almost the same as a brand-new ThinkPad T60.
...everything is clearly designed by people who actually use the stuff.
Apple and Toshiba, unlike IBM, are kind of a mixed bag on laptop design. Toshiba makes some real junk in their consumer line, but tends to put a lot of thought into their professional Portegé and Tecra business lines. They aren't pretty and won't win any style awards, but everything is clearly designed by people who actually use the stuff.
Apple errs on the other side from Toshiba, often placing style above function. Apple portables are almost always beautiful, or at least interesting, but often had functional deficiencies on account of their beautiful designs. TiBook hinges and paint were known to fail, while those outrageous clamshell iBooks were hobbled with a small, low resolution screen. The aluminum and titanium computers are slim and light for their size and look terrific, but replacing the hard drive or optical drive is a major project, and none of them can accept a second battery.
So the next time you go laptop shopping, do yourself a favor and focus on the keyboard and the screen. Look at the materials and assembly. You'll not only be more productive, but get a lot more enjoyment from a laptop that satisfies your own subjective standards.
Now where is that 11" outdoor XGA touchscreen MacBook Pro I've been dreaming of?
Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.
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