Laptops - A Tech's View

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A view from the inside – Zach Johnson

I work as a ResNet technician at my university. Every day, we get a
whole slew of different machines coming in for problems ranging from
AIM not working to the whole computer not working. In my two years
there, I’ve come to a single conclusion about laptops:

EVERY laptop maker has serious problems with reliability and quality.

The laptops I see most frequently in the Res are HPs and Dells (not
surprisingly). I’d say that maybe 80% of those have desktop Celerons
and desktop Pentium 4 processors in them, and I’d say that maybe 50% of
those have overheating problems. Those aren’t good statistics . . .

Overheating has a range of definitions, though – ranging from loud,
annoying fans, having to prop the laptop up on something to allow
adequate airflow to fans that are stupidly placed facing down toward
the desk, to literally leaving a red burn mark on a girl.

One facet of overheating that a lot of people don’t consider are the
secondary failures associated with heat – everyone knows that it will
get really hot, really loud and sometimes even shut down. Only a
few know that this heat buildup is frying hard drives left and right.

These same HPs and Dells that overheat end up needing new hard drives
because the old one is literally clicking, or the data is corrupt, or the
hard drive simply isn’t detected at all.

Therefore, my word of advice on laptop purchases:

IF you need one, get one with a MOBILE processor, and be prepared for
issues anyway.

Laptops are abused because they’re small and portable. People pick
them up to get a piece of paper out from under the computer and then
just let it drop back down to the desk. They sling it around in their
backpacks, they spill soda on it, etc. They’re just not the best
idea.

Unless you actually NEED the portability, go with a desktop.

Most students find that they don’t need a laptop for school work, and
I’d say that for most students, the only good reason to have a laptop
is so they don’t hurt their back when coming down to ResNet to get it
fixed.

Now please don’t assume that just the above two brands are bad – they’re
just the largest makers of computers, so a lot of people have them. We
get Sony and a smattering of everything else as well. We even see a
few Apples, though only one or two for hardware problems.

So what are my recommendations?
{mospagebreak}

  1. If it’s big, thick, offers every feature under the sun, and has a
    desktop processor in it – forget about it. There’s a reason why these
    are so cheap.

  2. If your student or sibling or grandmother spends the majority of
    their time writing papers and checking email, you don’t need top of the
    line on every component. The Celeron M (based on the Pentium M) is a
    large step up from the Celerons of old.

  3. Make sure you get 512 MB of RAM. This is another way that
    manufacturers make laptops cheap, and this is why laptops get so slow.
    They’re hobbled with 4200 rpm hard drives, so swapping to disk is not
    something you want your laptop to do.

  4. Pentium M, Celeron M, G4 and Pentium 4m simply don’t overheat
    unless something is broken. Buy these.

    I’ve had quite a few unpleasant experiences with AMD Athlon XPm
    based laptops as well. HP is pretty much the only manufacturer of
    these, but they get just as hot as desktop Pentium 4s for some reason I
    can’t explain.

  5. Make sure you need a laptop – you’d be surprised how many people
    really don’t.

  6. Check to make sure that, if this is for a college student, the
    university doesn’t offer antivirus software. If they do, you don’t
    need to buy any for the laptop and it won’t expire in six months.

  7. Give the person a quick tutorial on antivirus and antispyware
    checks so that they can do them on their own. This will keep them out
    of the local ResNet and out of your hair.

Please also note that there are exceptions to these rules – Certain
laptops with desktop processors never overheat, and certain
Centrino-based laptops get quite hot (they don’t overheat, but their
hard drives die). I don’t mean to single Dell out, as they probably
represent more than 50% of purchases at my school, but I’ve seen more
Dells with bad hard drives than I can count.

Lastly, remember that computers fail – I’ve had a bad experience with
probably every major and minor brand that can be purchased in the
United States. This doesn’t mean they’re all bad.

Zach Johnson (zachj in the forums)

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Discussion
  1. I think its a little naive to say dont get laptops because one company had a problem.
    Like any type of PC/PC part out there there are bad ones and good ones. Good brands and crap brands. Problematic brands and OK brands.
    I have had a laptop for over a year now and apart from screwing the software on it a couple times (my own fault) and occasionally accidentally covering the vent (causing it to shut off) its been fine.
    The problem is not with the laptops, its with the backup methods, if you are worried about losing work or email archives. If you are using a laptop you should have some form of external backup, much like it is wise to at the very least keep important data backed up to a secondary drive in your PC - at the least.
    However, there are many issues with laptops which result from heat. I've seen this firsthand in many thinkpads within my company - models T23-T43 are currently in the wild in our company, and T23's and T30's occasionally just have the drives up and quit. I attribute this to cooling mainly, as it just isn't seen as much in the desktop systems. We had dell C600's before we moved to IBM, and those also show up routinely with hard drive problems.
    We keep a 3 year warranty, and I can say its fairly regular to see multiple forms of failure around the time the warranty is coming close or has just passed.
    I wouldn't make any global decision about laptops from this experience, but I would not consider a laptop a great storage solution long term. There are a lot of factors that play into it however, so its really hard to say where the problem lies.
    Basing comments on notebook reliability on observations made at a college dorm is a little short-sighted isn't it? That's sort of like basing all DIY PC experiences on a box built with PC Chips and goodwill store parts. You get what you pay for is never more true than with notebooks!
    I work 12-15 hour days 6-7 days a week on my notebooks and travel extensively via plane. So I drop the money on high end business-class notebooks: The thinkpad T Series. I doubt many parents spend $4000CAD on their freshman kids and so I kinda doubt Zach supports many of these in the dorms. But the Thinkpad T30, the T41P, and the T42P have all been an absolute pleasure to use. Light, powerful, reliable, and good battery life. The only drawback is the price as far as I can tell, and I buy them on grants and pass them down to the grad students when I get a new one. Neither me nor anyone in the dept. has had a problem other than hdd failure in the last 3 years. And the replacement drive was here the next day so no biggie.
    I'm glad you mentioned HDD's pHaestus... I would basically share your opinion of the T series for the most part. Other than hard drives, the only major problem I know of is a defective DIMM slot on either the T23 or T30 models (can't recall which off the top of my head). Our models had 512MB installed, and many units were being reported as slow, and others were found through our reporting software to only show 256MB of RAM. IBM has provided service on as many of these units we could find... Probably well over a hundred.
    Other than those two issues, I can only say I've seen intermittent video display issues in some T23's. Overall, I think the T series fares as well or better than other similarly equipped units. If I had the money to invest in a laptop, I sure would like to get a thinkpad... Until then, I'll just have to try to get hired in full time so work buys one for me. :rolleyes:
    Gee, I wonder why some people are so hard one laptops... :rolleyes:
    Like, come on, they have as much hard drive storage as a desktop, but in about 1/4 the size. You are being a bit too hard on their reliability. I have a laptop for a year now, and I have replaced the HD once. Not bad, considering all the stuff I did with it... :cool:
    Yes, the main problem with laptops is cooling, but it is usually not so much the design of the cooling system causing problems as it is the BIOS running the fans. If a laptop was set to run the fans wide open all the time, there would probably be fewer heat-related problems showing up. I run my laptop at full fan speed, and it never gets hot like a celeron in a toshiba, with BIOS controlled cooling.
    More details I couldn't come up with earlier...
    The issue is indeed in their T30 models, not the T23's AFAIK.
    I looked into this further, and the CPU of the T30 sits directly above the memory slots. Over time after normal usage, there is a failure in one of the slots.
    We have about 1000 T30's with 512MB (both ram slots) still in production, and a few hundred of them have been identified and repaired by service shops setup by IBM at our SW conferences. Dunno if this is isolated to only certain T30 types and we bought a lot of them in that period, or if this is an issue which may exist in all T30's.
    I can't imagine how expensive this has been for IBM.
    EDIT: Originally they were only replacing system boards for this issue, however I came to find out that now they are resoldering a point on the DIMM socket which breaks due to stress when holding the chassis by the corner, replacing the drive "cage", as well as making some slight modifications to the chassis. Basically they needed to re-engineer it.
    my personal experience with laptops is one of frustration.
    1. I have UBER large hands, and the keyboard is too small for me.
    2. I am super clumsy, and have broken more than 1 laptop by dropping them out of my hands.
    3. I have seen many friends have them stolen from them.
    4. Upgradability - I know they are getting better with each passing generation.... but i always manage to lose that 1 critical screw in the shag carpet.
    my personal experience with laptops is one of frustration.
    1. I have UBER large hands, and the keyboard is too small for me.

    I have the same problem as (1) but not the other issues. I moved to this one:

    3.2GHz, 60GB 7200rpm, 1GB PC3200 @ running at 400MHz DDR, 17" panel......
    Problem fixed for me :)
    R
    hmmm can't see what ppl are complaining about
    i've had my packard bell easy one silver for 3 yrs now and haven't had one problem
    exept the ones i've created myselve but hey that's just the software
    sorry
    yes i do have to agree on that
    mine is kind of small too :( 30X11cm (4.5" X 1' )for the keyboard but other than that
    i had nothing
    guess i've just been lucky :)
    I work 40 hours a week on laptop repair...
    Componet level.. thermal issues... componet failure.. etc..
    Top 3 Brands that i see in shops for repairs...
    Coming in #1 Dell.... Prob cause there so popular not simply poor design
    Followed By IBM ..
    Pullin up the rear Compaq's
    Want a real tank of a laptop check out the HP laptops
    Gee, I wonder why some people are so hard one laptops... :rolleyes:
    Like, come on, they have as much hard drive storage as a desktop, but in about 1/4 the size. You are being a bit too hard on their reliability. I have a laptop for a year now, and I have replaced the HD once. Not bad, considering all the stuff I did with it... :cool:
    Yes, the main problem with laptops is cooling, but it is usually not so much the design of the cooling system causing problems as it is the BIOS running the fans. If a laptop was set to run the fans wide open all the time, there would probably be fewer heat-related problems showing up. I run my laptop at full fan speed, and it never gets hot like a celeron in a toshiba, with BIOS controlled cooling.

    just 2 comments...
    hard drives 1/4 the size and 1/4 the capacity... 100g to 400g
    if fans ran none stop youd loose another 15 min minimum on your already crappy battery life
    laptops, just like anything else, require carefull research, as well as realisticly knowing what you are going to be using the laptop for, before making a purchase. Because of the latest advances, there is a lappy that will suit almost anyones needs. Simple case and point. My wife and i both needed new laptops this year. My wife doesn't go out of the house too much but runs macro's across a VPN 20-40 hours a week. There is also a lot of photoshopping that takes place on her's. So battery life is not much of an issue in her case but a 15" monitor was needed because of time spent on it. More of a DTR roll. So i got her a P4 2.8 w/HT and put in a 5400 rpm drive for a little better hdd performance. Then threw an extra gig of ram in it to ease hdd use. She is as happy as can be as the lappy suits her needs.
    As for me, i diagnose cars, render a little video, and travel by car quite a bit with mine and am not near a power outlet a lot. So a compromise was in order. While a P4 with HT would be great for rendering, 2 hours of battery life sux and I didnt want a lappy that weighed 9 pounds +. A 14" is more than enough for my needs. I also didnt want spend more than $1.5K So after mulling over the many options, i went for a 1.6 dothan core centrino, a toshiba tecra. It wieghs 5 lbs. goes 4 hours on the small battery, has an extra slot for add on battery and have the option for, and an extra cap battery for 7 hours. I also like to fold on my lappy. I tried folding on my wifes and even though there was adacuate cooling, it sounded like a hair drier when folding. I also added a gig to this one as well when rendering i use as much as 1.3 gb so the 1.5 thats in it now is just right. two different needs, thus two totally different lappies. For those of you who are worried about data storage can always go RAID 1. Yes there are some sweet lappies out there with onboard RAID.
    The moral of course is buying a lappy is much like buying a car, or a house, or deciding what college you are to attend. A little research and use evaluation will go a long way.
    And yes the HDD is the weakest link in the lappy chain. So NEVER skimp on memory. The more mem you have, the longer your hdd will last. A gig wont go to waste for most users of XP and your hdd will love you for it :)
    I think people need to be specific about their problems before they judge an entire brand. The only reason that I can think of for saying a brand sucks is if their tech/customer support sucks, because that flows down to all their models.
    I can say Chevy sucks because they produced the Chevette, or Ford sucks because they made the Pinto. I think every manufacturor in every field has their ups and downs on different models.
    I also think a specific problem most geeks have is prejudice based on numbers. "There are more of x brand computers failing, so that must mean they all suck." But that could also mean there are just more of x brand computers out there.