The Mobile Mac

Watch Out! Getting Notebook Design Wrong

- 2006.12.07 -Tip Jar

My previous article, Getting Notebook Design"Just Right", was about what I look for in the design of aportable computer in terms of hardware, with an emphasis onkeyboard, screen and build-quality. It was a very subjective lookat what works for me and why. In this follow-up, I'd like toexamine the opposite end, bad design, and how you might spot itbefore spending your hard-earned money.

First, the Keyboard

Clearly, if a good keyboard is essential for a good laptop,nothing will ruin a portable more quickly than a poorly designedkeyboard.

Of course, it's not so simple. Everyone wants a stiff keyboardbase that prevents the keyboard from flexing when used, but tocompletely eliminate flex you need two things, a sturdy base (addsweight) and solid mounting to a rigid chassis. This is great wherepossible, but sometimes there are important reasons why you cannothave that rigid base or solid mounting.

I gave the example of the G4 iBook as a great design that wascrippled (for me) by a flexible keyboard. What I did not mention iswhy that keyboard is flexible. In the iBook, Apple'sengineers wanted easy access to RAM and AirPort slots; theyachieved it by making the keyboard user-removable without tools.Pulling back on two plastic latches is all that is required, andthe keyboard pops right off. An added benefit is that in a computerdesigned for students, it's conceivable that keyboards will be wornout more quickly than on a computer designed for businessexecutives, and the removable keyboard of the iBook is far easierto replace than the rigid-mounted keyboard on the 12"PowerBook.

Apple's Pismo and Lombard PowerBooks also had easilyremovable keyboards, and they also flexed - but not as much, asthose were professional models with stiffer keyboard bases. The old100-series PowerBooks had solidlymounted rigid keyboards, while the 500series and 5300 had flexibleboards that mounted rather loosely. My opinions of each werelikewise adjusted by the quality of their keyboards.

Next, the Bulk

Another element of bad design is bulk. I understand thatcomponents have a certain size and weight that cannot be avoided,but sometimes manufacturers don't even try to keep things slim.When building to a low price, that's understandable, but on apremium product there's no excuse.

Apple has been good about keeping weight down since the Dual USB iBook came out, which was verylight for its time at 4.9 lb., but with the MacBook I fear Apple is heading back inthe direction they went in 1997 with the WallStreet, emphasizing features at theexpense of tidy packaging. The MacBook is beautiful and slim, butit's heavy for a machine of its size.

My current portable is a great example of a machine that mixesexcellent and horrible design elements, but still ultimately passedthe test. It's a ToshibaPortegé M400 tablet PC with a 12" screen, a keyboardthat I will call "above average", and two design flaws that almostcaused me to return it.

First off, I'll say what is right with the design. Despitehaving a swivel mounted screen that converts it from a conventionallaptop into a tablet, the M400 actually weighs less than the verysmall 12" PowerBook at 4.5 lb. Its keyboard isn't quite as good asthe PowerBook's, but it's far better than the one on the old iBook.Its screen, despite having a Wacom digitizer built-in, is brightand has excellent color and contrast and a wide viewing angle.While some tablet screens have even better viewing angles, they getthem at the expense of contrast, which is just as good as on aconventional laptop with the M400. It's also much like the MacBookscreen in that it's glossy, but textured just enough to remainusable in most lighting conditions.

Those two fatal flaws I mentioned? First, it has a removablekeyboard, which is the reason for the flex I complained aboutabove. It has a rigid metal base, but still its borderlineacceptable for me, and I honestly thought long and hard aboutreturning it and buying the otherwise lower-tech ThinkPad X41tablet instead. I will say that while slightly flexible, the layoutand key feel are excellent, which is why I ultimately decided tokeep the computer.

The next flaw is that you must remove the keyboard to installmemory, Bluetooth, or upgrade the wireless card. This is normallynot that big of a deal, as such upgrades are only done once ortwice over the life of a computer, but on the M400, removing thekeyboard requires removing a very delicate bezel that is easilydamaged. I upgraded my RAM and actually broke the Esc key, whichcaused me to have Toshiba replace the entire keyboard - almost atmy expense, as they list memory upgrades as a "service center only"procedure.

So you see, it's a balance. I look at the positives of a givendesign, factor in the negatives, and in the end decide yes or no.The M400 is right on the line, but what tipped it in favor ofownership is how the design works in actual use. The tablet featureis something I've come to depend on for court work, but I can't dowithout a sturdy keyboard as part of the machine instead of anadd-on accessory. I need USB ports where I can reach them,convenient docking, at least three hours of real-world (not specsheet) battery life, and a light travel weight.

Weigh Your Needs

There are very few machines on the market to satisfy my list ofrequirements.

Your list is probably just as restrictive if you think about it.Do you want a machine with good sound and a large widescreen formovies - but need it to work well in harsh lighting? There are manylarge widescreen laptops out there, but how many of them areavailable without the glossy screen?

Do you need something very small and light, but you can't dowithout a built-in optical drive? Very few ultra-portables have theoptical drive built-in, eliminating most of the choices in thatmarket.

Do you need something at a low price point but still needcertain features? You can see how difficult this can be, and whenyou add in a quality keyboard or a dual-battery or dockingrequirement, your choices are further restricted.

Examples of Poor Notebook Design

In my previous article I gave a few examples of excellent laptopdesigns; now I'd like to give the opposite list, a few machineswhere the flaws were simply too much to overcome.

I already mentioned my current tablet PC and last year's iBook -and how their flaws put them on either side of the acceptabilityline. Here are a few that aren't in the running at all.

Toshiba Portegé 3490CT

Toshiba Portegé 3490CT (2001). I love ultra-portables,and this is one of the best, so you might ask why it's included inthe failed design list? The answer is simple and comes down to twoflaws in the design that severely limit its usefulness.

First, while equipped with a generous 128 MB of built-in RAM(this was 2001, remember), its add-on memory slot was of anonstandard "Micro-DIMM" type that was only shared a few very smallSony laptops. The slot was about half the size of conventionallaptop memory modules, and modules were never made in larger than128 MB capacity. So while the computer had a then-powerful PentiumIII at 700 MHz and a decent video card, it could never accept morethan 256 MB of RAM. (There were 256 MB modules made for the Sonythat are extremely rare and expensive - and they work just fine inthe Toshiba, and as it used a standard Intel 440BX chipset it couldrecognize even more if such a conventional slot was provided.)Sadly, there was plenty of room in the case for a conventionalmemory module, so this was just a bad choice.

The other flaw was the keyboard, which was properly rigid andhad excellent feel, but a layout so screwy that I had to take thedraconian step of disabling many of the navigation keys in order totype on it. These flaws ruined what was otherwise an extremely nicelaptop.

PowerBook 5300

Moving to more familiar ground for Low End Mac readers, letstake a look at some of Apple's design gaffes over the years. I'llstart with a machine that many have enjoyed pointing fingers at,the PowerBook 5300 (1995). I owned one of these and liked it quitea bit (before becoming the keyboard snob that I am today), but itwas crippled by design flaws that had nothing to do with what mostpeople point at as their faults. 5300s are maligned for brittlecase plastics, instability, and motherboard issues, but most ofthose faults were corrected during the production run, solved byupdated versions of the Mac OS, or repaired under an Apple RepairExtension.

What ruined that model for me was - surprise surprise - thecheap, flexible keyboard and the idiotic decision to make aswappable drive bay that was too narrow to accept a CD-ROMdrive.

PowerBook 3400c

My final example is the PowerBook3400c, a machine that was praised as the fastest laptop of itstime (1997). These are very well made machines based on the 5300design, and as such they share the flawed keyboard, but what isunforgivable is how in stretching the machine to accept a CD-ROMdrive, they kept on stretching it to allow a fancy threespeaker sound system (that still didn't sound very good).

The 5300 was liked by its users for its compact footprint andmoderate weight, two of its good qualities that the 3400c proceededto completely negate.

100-series PowerBooks

I mentioned the 100-series PowerBooks in my previous article,and those had a fatal flaw as well. The ports were covered by aplastic door that also covered the power button, and this door wasextremely delicate and tended to break off after a few months ofuse. With the door, it was inconvenient to access the power button.Without it, your computer would turn itself on as it moved in yourbag and your ports were unprotected. Not good.

IBM ThinkPad 570

Finally, I'll give an example of another machine that I reallywanted to like, but in the end had to get rid of quickly.Strangely, it was an IBM ThinkPad, a series usually known foroutstanding design. This one was the ThinkPad 570, asemi-ultralight that weighed 4 lb. and relied on a dock for itsoptical and floppy drives.

Back in 1998 this was perhaps the most desirable "executive"type laptop on account of being under 1" thick, having thelegendary ThinkPad keyboard and build quality, and including alarge 13.3" screen.

The flaw was the power switch that was located on the side ofthe computer. Since its predecessor, the 560 model, had awell-criticized tendency to turn itself on (or off) as it wasinserted and removed from computer bags, IBM put a locking buttonin the middle of the power slider, making it difficult to use - andif the lock button broke, as mine did, impossible.

The Landscape Today

Where does that leave Apple's current models and theircompetition? Well, most manufacturers have learned their lessonswell. You'll still find horrible keyboards on the cheap "Best Buy"consumer models, but the days of proprietary RAM slots, strangekeyboard layouts, and buttons in the wrong places are mostly athing of the past.

Apple, particularly, seems to have standardized on soundergonomic design in its portables, though as I've lamented before,they have abandoned the ultra-portable market (which they inventedwith the Duo) and not bothered to enterthe tablet field.

Today's notebooks have memory modules that are easily accessible(except in my Toshiba), hard drives that can be easily removed (notin a MacBook Pro), and power switches that are protected by thescreen itself. Plastic doors are largely a thing of the past onhigher-end machines, though the cheapies still have plenty ofthem.

These are things that most people tend not to think about whenshopping, but they can save you a lot of disappointment andannoyance during the years that you use your new notebook - or thedays before you return it. LEM

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

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