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Fast, Compact, Light, Quiet, Cool, Long Battery Life, Large Screen, Affordable: You Can't Have It All

- 2007.12.05 - Tip Jar

After reading Charles Moore's recent article, The Case for a Quiet, Cooler Running, Low Powered MacBook, suggesting a cooler-running, lower-powered MacBook and sending him a lengthy reply, I thought that I should weigh in on this topic. Speed, (lack of) heat, noise, battery life, and a number of other factors go into the design of a portable computer, and like any other manufacturer, Apple must balance these factors, as well as cost, before arriving at a retail product.

You've all seen those signs at retail stores to the effect of "Cheap, Fast, Good: Pick Any Two", and so it goes when designing a computer. For a laptop, the equation has more variables, but it's basically the same. Speed, price, weight, noise, battery life, size, durability, and other, more specialized specifications (such as docking, optical drives, connectivity and screen type) all are considered.

Apple made a number of choices in its MacBook and MacBook Pro that make them ideal for some users - and poorly suited to others.

Moore expressed his preference for the large 17" screen on his PowerBook, and Apple has a MacBook Pro just for him. He also mentioned his sensitivity to noise and his desire for a quiet-running computer, and the 17" MacBook Pro may or may not be ideal, depending on the choices Apple made in its specification. That MacBook Pro uses the fastest current versions of Intel's Core 2 Duo chips, which are very powerful but run rather hot.

Intel does make cooler-running versions of the Core 2 Duo, low and ultra-low voltage versions designed for the small (poorly vented) enclosures and tiny batteries of ultraportable laptops. One of those ULV chips could very easily be fitted to a large, desktop-replacement type portable such as the MacBook Pro, but Apple doesn't make that option available. (In all fairness, neither do any other manufacturers to my knowledge.)

That ULV MacBook Pro would be Moore's perfect computer. Slower than the high-powered MacBook Pro, but still adequate for most tasks. We could extend it more and fit our quiet 17" MacBook Pro with the integrated graphics of the lower-level MacBook. Integrated video doesn't have the performance of a high-end dedicated graphics chip, but it runs cooler and uses less battery power. Apple's response is to sell you a plain MacBook, but of course they don't offer one with a screen larger than 13" or with a low-voltage processor.

Even the computers that do have those ultra-low-voltage processors may not be as quiet as Moore would like. I own a pair of Lenovo ThinkPad laptops, a 14" T60p with a fast Core Duo that competes with the 15" MacBook Pro, and an ultraportable X41 that uses a ULV processor. While the big laptop has a considerably hotter (both temperature and performance) processor, it's also a much quieter computer. The X41 has a very cool-running chip and integrated graphics, but the case itself is so tiny that it needs hardworking fans to pull cool air in and push hot air out. The big T60p, despite its hot processor and even hotter graphics card, has a nice spacious case that allows a larger fan to move more air with far less effort and correspondingly lower noise levels. Of course, putting that ULV processor and integrated graphics into the spacious case would likely yield Moore's dream of a computer that doesn't need or use a fan at all, with the added bonus of longer battery life and a cooler chassis for comfortable laptop use.

Of course, what it really comes down to is profit. Apple, Lenovo, HP, and every other computer company exists not to make the computer that Moore, you, or I want; they exist to make money, which is best done by making the computer that appeals to the broadest sector of the market. Apple doesn't make an ultraportable not because it wouldn't sell, as I would buy one in a heartbeat, but because they (Apple) don't think it would sell in enough quantity in their market at a high-enough profit to justify the added expense of design, production, marketing, and support.

Lenovo does make an ultraportable, because it does sell in its market in large enough quantity and at high-enough profit to justify the costs. Toshiba makes five completely different models of tablet computer, Lenovo makes one, and Apple makes none, for the very same reasons.

Profit is also involved in noise and temperature beyond the size and cost of ultraportables or the lack of demand for low-powered large laptops. Any laptop can be made quieter through better, more insulated materials in the case, better airflow design, exotic materials for cooling, and perhaps a larger number of smaller, quieter, and more expensive fans. Perhaps Apple could build a 17" MacBook Pro with the hottest processor, most powerful graphics, and a more advanced cooling system that will be both silent and cool, but adding $50, $100, or even $400 to the cost of each MacBook Pro sold. Moore might happily pay for it, whereas the majority of buyers would prefer the lower price.

Where does that leave Moore? Of you? Or me?

Like everyone, we can only look at what is on the market and find the closest match for what we need or want. I want two laptops: one that connects to a docking station, has a high-resolution (at least SXGA - 1280 x 1024) screen, accepts multiple batteries, and runs Mac OS X; the other a 3 or 4 lb. ultraportable tablet with the option of 8 hour battery life. Moore wants a quiet, cool-running computer with a large screen. Most of us want these computers at a reasonable price.

None of those computers exist today, but we can get fairly close. The 17" MacBook Pro will give Moore his big screen, and an entry-level MacBook will give him lower temperatures and noise - he just can't have both in the same machine today. I have my docking and SXGA+ screen on my ThinkPad T60p, but it won't run OS X (without hacks, cheats, and compatibility issues). Toshiba's new Portegé R500 or Lenovo's X61t tablets satisfy my tablet dreams, just at too high of a price, so I compromise with a heavier, cheaper tablet.

Think of it like buying a family car. You want a sports car that's fun to drive and stylish. You also want a large van to carry your spouse, two children, and all of your stuff. There are some very sporty cars with four seats that you can squeeze into, at a sacrifice in space for people and stuff. You can buy a minivan, but it won't be any fun to drive. You can buy something in between. You can even buy a turbo Porsche Cayenne that will satisfy all of your wants and needs, but at a very high price.

Only you can choose which sacrifices you are willing to make, and which you are not. LEM

Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.

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