Why has laptop technology stagnated?

I used to use a laptop every day. In my mind, the most important aspects of a laptop are: screen size and resolution; keyboard quality; thickness and weight; and battery life.

If you asked someone today to choose a top-of-the-line laptop, he’d likely pick a MacBook Pro, the 15” model of which has the following key features:

Surely an impressive machine. However, in 2003 I got an IBM Thinkpad T40, which has the following corresponding specs:

  • 14.1” screen with 1400×1050 resolution
  • Amazing keyboard
  • 1.0” thick
  • 4.9 lbs
  • 4:40 real-world battery life

It’s remarkably similar, and actually better on several counts. Sure,

  • The processor is slower, but it was state-of-the-art at the time, and was probably more power hungry.
  • The screen is smaller, but it’s higher resolution. Also, the 13.3” MacBook Pro weighs 4.5 lbs, so 14.1”/4.9 is still very competitive.
  • “Macs have better build quality, blah blah”. Does not appear to be the case, at least for this example. The T40 in question was used every day as my primary computer for years. It’s been dropped, while open and running, at least 5 times, with no ill effects. In fact, it is still running, seven years on, as a streaming Netflix server for our TV. It won’t die.

What gives? I know battery technology hasn’t improved much. But what about everything else? Shouldn’t new laptops be half the weight, or have fold-up “retina display” screens, or something?

Okay, here’s the most advanced laptop I could find with an optical drive… the Lenovo ThinkPad T410s.

  • 14” screen with 1440×900 resolution
  • Apparently great keyboard
  • 0.83” thick
  • 3.9 lbs
  • 4:10 real-world battery life

I guess that’s decent. But still. 7 years ago, I listened to music on a portable abacus, and now I have it piped directly into the aural processing unit of my brain. Why can’t laptops catch up?

Edit: In responding to a comment, I came across a better laptop with an optical drive, the ThinkPad X301:

  • 13.3” screen with 1440×900 resolution
  • Apparently great keyboard
  • 0.7” thick
  • 2.9-3.3 lbs
  • 3:40 real-world battery life

That’s not bad. Too bad it starts at like $2,500.

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11 Responses to Why has laptop technology stagnated?

  1. gdogg says:

    i like how you dispute that macs have better build quality with “useless, anecdotal, and in this case, demonstrably false” with an anecdote.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Have dual core processors that appeared much after 2003 done anything for palpable laptop performance? I think not, except for those people who do video editing while running spreadheets. In the meantime, Intel differentiated processors for the last 5 years based on cache and speed, while AMD barely caught up with Intel on laptop processors in 2009.

    (Nav** @ Pitt**)

  3. Anonymous says:

    interesting

    One issue is that I think there’s a tradeoff between weight and battery life; I think batteries have gotten huge in recent MacBooks. Do you think it would make a big difference to have much higher resolution for a 14″ screen? Not sure I can think of things that I do where that would make a big difference.

    I’ve heard that SSDs make a huge difference performance-wise. If you don’t do too much CPU-intensive stuff, you could potentially go with an SSD and a less powerful CPU and then shrink the battery (losing weight) without losing too much battery life and perhaps gaining performance.

    Re: dual cores, it definitely helps me to have a spare core while doing development to keep the machine responsive during things like builds and tests.

    • aj says:

      Re: interesting

      Yeah, I would have thought that processors were getting more efficient with the smaller fabrication processes.

      I definitely think a higher resolution makes a difference. For instance, compare the iPhone 4’s screen to a 3GS. Things look a lot better. You’re right; an improvement may not make a big difference, but it would definitely make a difference. And why not? I would love for my text and graphics to be crisper. And most laptops, including the MacBook Pro here, can’t even display native 1080p hi-def video (which is what blu-ray and HD TV are, right?).

      One guess as to why high-density displays aren’t more prevalent at larger screen sizes might be that the pixel error rate is not yet low enough to produce, say, a 4000×3000 screens with a small enough number of stuck pixels.

      You’re right about SSDs. I’d also hope that they require less power than a traditional hard drive with a mechanical spinning platter. I’m eager. I also agree about dual cores. But that’s a step up in general processor technology, not in laptop design specifically. In my mind, desktop computing has been commoditized by this point. Portable computing allows for a host of form factors and other differentiating aspects. I would have assumed that this would stimulate innovation, but everyone seems to be moving along in lockstep.

      I want laptop tech to progress as fast as phone tech has.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: interesting

        Actually now that I think about it, I don’t really know what sucks up the power on a laptop anymore; is it mostly the display? Maybe the CPU power consumption isn’t such a big deal in comparison.

        I guess I’d have to see a crisper display on a laptop to know what I’m missing. On the iPhone I think it makes a big difference for reading tiny text that pops up on websites before zooming; maybe I could comfortably cram even more code on my screen with an analogous laptop display.

        Have you looked at the MacBook Air? Maybe with a higher-res screen it would be more along the lines of what you’re looking for.

        • aj says:

          Re: interesting

          Yeah, I’m not even sure about showing more stuff on the screen as much as just having the existing stuff look better. You kind of get inured to the quality until you see something better. It’s like going from DVD (looks great!) to Blu-ray (how did I ever watch DVDs before?). At least that’s how I imagine it =).

          I have looked at a MacBook Air — my dad has one. It’s okay. If I were going that route, given the ThinkPad partisan that I am, I’d probably opt for the ThinkPad X301, which has a higher resolution screen and an optical drive (!) in a thinner package that weighs about the same. Oh yeah, and it actually has more than one USB port. In fact, damn, that’s a hell of a computer. I’m going to update the post.

          I’d probably be happy with either. But my point isn’t necessarily that I can’t personally find a laptop that I want to buy (I’m not even in the market for one; this all started because I was looking for a friend), but that the state-of-the-art simply hasn’t advanced that much. I guess I’ve been spoiled by the phones.

          • Anonymous says:

            Re: interesting

            Yeah, ThinkPad X series are pretty awesome. I think maybe tablets will eventually get to the point where they can be viewed as an evolution of a laptop, like a future iPad with a higher-resolution screen and some kind of funky fold-out keyboard.

        • Re: interesting

          “I don’t really know what sucks up the power on a laptop anymore; is it mostly the display?”

          Ballpark for most portables under normal use is a third goes for the display (the majority of which is the backlight), one third to the HDD, and one third to everything else.

          LED backlighting and solid-state drives have brought down the usage by the display and disk somewhat in the last couple years, but those wins have been roughly balanced by increasing memory (actually a substantial power draw as it gets larger, and it’s not uncommon to see laptops with 8GB now), increasing display brightness, and increasing GPU power. The GPU in that MacBook Pro is *enormously* more powerful than what your old T40 has.

  4. judytuna says:

    Bet you can’t mass an army of Coloxen on your T40!!

  5. Anonymous says:

    specs on the new 13″ MacBook Air

    * 13.3″ screen with 1440×900 resolution
    * Standard MacBook keyboard
    * 0.11 – 0.68″ thick
    * 2.9 lbs
    * “Up to 7 hours” battery life (dunno about real world)

    (from here)

    $1699 w/ 256GB storage and 4GB RAM, or $1399 with 128GB storage. CPU looks to be faster than the X301 (1.86GHz vs. 1.4GHz), but there’s no optical drive or wired Ethernet. BTW, I can’t find the X301 on Lenovo’s web site; my guess is it was a hard sell at that price point. Looks pretty solid, depending on how well the battery life thing plays out.