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Laptop Beauty is only Skin Deep, but Functionality goes all the way to the Bone


Slim, Sexy Laptop

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Many people like their laptops like they like their women: thin and beautiful. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But, as with many women, there are disadvantages to thin and beautiful laptops.

There is of course the cost. Most thin, beautiful laptops tend to be more expensive. I don't think that's because they're all that much harder to make or have all that much more expensive components. I think it's because companies believe that people will pay more for thin, beautiful laptops. I freely admit, however, that I am not in any way an expert on the cost to manufactures of thinner, more beautiful components and cases. So, I could be mistaken. But I would be surprised if I were, because I know that the prices we pay for non-essential consumer goods generally have more to do with how much we are willing to pay than with the actual manufacturing costs.

Don't get me wrong. I appreciate thin, beautiful laptops too. In fact, I really appreciate them. Sometimes even enough to pay more for them. However, that is more often due to the fact that thin, beautiful laptops are often higher quality and more durable than the average piece of junk laptop. Metal laptops are both more beautiful and more durable than plastic ones. And durability is something that I really care about, because it really affects the cost of ownership.

There is an even bigger problem with thin laptops than cost: thermal throttling. Generally, the hotter a piece of electronics operates, the shorter it's life. Thin laptops have less airflow than thick ones. The result is that thin laptops can't suck as much heat away from the internal components--most notably the CPU, the most expensive component and one that is rarely replaceable in a laptop without replacing the whole motherboard. Manufacturers know that if they put out thin laptops that burn up in three months, even naive consumers will eventually stop buying them. So, they must prevent that from happening. They do that by limiting the clock frequency at which the CPU operates. This is known as thermal throttling.

So, how does thermal throttling effect you? Glad you asked. What thermal throttling means is that although you may have paid a pretty penny for the latest core i9 processor in your new thin laptop, you are not really getting what you paid for, because due to thermal throttling, the CPU is usually not allowed to run flat out at it's highest possible clock frequency. So, you won't be getting the performance you paid for, except over short periods of time (like 30 seconds). If you are doing something on your thin laptop that requires long periods of computation--like trans-coding a movie, or rendering 3-D graphics--it will likely take noticeably longer, perhaps even significantly longer than on a non-thermally-throttled computer with the same CPU. But the ability to do these tasks faster is why you shelled out all that money for that fast core i9 processor.

Lest you think this is a rare problem, let me make myself very clear. This is not a rare problem. In fact, I would go so far as to say that most of the more powerful thin laptops these days either have significant thermal throttling or run at CPU temperatures that in my opinion are too high for long life. That means that when you buy a new thin laptop, you have to be very careful that you don't buy a laptop with either of these problems. How do you do that? One way is to buy thin laptops with less expensive (i.e. slower) CPU's--for example, a core i3 or core i5 instead of a core i7 or core i9. You shouldn't be buying a faster processor than you need anyway. But what if you need a fast processor? How do you know you'll be getting what you're paying for? I'll answer that question in a later article.

Another problem with thin laptops is that you can't upgrade them. To be honest, laptops were never that easy to upgrade. But at least you had the option of replacing the hard drive when it wore out. And you could often add more RAM. And sometimes you could even put in a faster CPU. With thin laptops, that is no longer true. Everything is soldered to the motherboard. Sometimes manufactures even make it difficult for you to replace the battery by gluing it in place. So, you end up with a thin laptop after maybe three years that you have to have plugged in all the time. So, forget about using it on a plane or outside or anywhere without an available electrical outlet, like a full conference room. Many people are really angry about this trend, including me, because we like to tinker with and fix our computers. We want to be able to replace the hard drive with an SSD. We want to have the option of installing a gigantic 4 terabyte hard drive when they become available for a reasonable price. And we certainly don't want to have to buy a new thin laptop simply because some program comes along that requires more RAM than the base model we bought in order to save some money when we purchased it thinking that we would upgrade later when RAM was cheaper. In other words, we value flexibility above thinness and beauty. The problem is that manufactures want less flexible laptops, because they can sell more of them, since we are forced to by a new thin laptop every time we need some new capability. Guess who's winning this fight.

The last significant problem with thin, beautiful laptops is their lack of connectivity. By this, I mean fewer USB ports, maybe no ethernet port, and definitely no pug-in cards for expandability. Not having these things may be fine for typical consumers most of the time, but for those of us who actually have to do things with our laptops (like work), we very often need these things. There have been many times when I have had a combination of four USB sticks and external hard drives and an ethernet cable plugged simultaneously into my laptop. I couldn't do this if I had a thin laptop with only one or two USB ports. Yes, I realize that I could use a USB hub, but they are often slow, slow, slow--no matter what USB version they're designated as. And when you are copying files from one device on one of their USB ports to another device on another of their USB ports, they can slow down even more--nearly to the point of unuseability! And since I am aware that wifi is inherently insecure (no matter what any anyone assures me), there are times when I want a direct connection to the internet. On a computer without an ethernet port, that would mean adding an ethernet dongle onto a USB port. But what if I only have one USB port, and it's needed for something else?

Related Articles:

Computer Built-In Obsolescence

Why are there so many Lousy Laptops?

When Buying a Computer, More Knowledge Equals Lower Cost

Understanding computer File Transfer Rates


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