What a great laptop needs

This post is at least partially aimed at any hardware vendors who may be reading along.

If you’re here for just the KDE-specific stuff, feel free to skip this post.


I’m picky about laptops, since I use one as my sole computer for both work and play. I probably spend at least 10 hours a day on it, so this experience ought to be as pleasant as possible. 🙂

Two characteristics define a laptop:

  1. Portability
  2. The limitations that stem from portability, such as a certain number of components being hard or impossible to replace

Achieving a good product requires a balance here, but ultimately portability is key or else the machine doesn’t get used as a laptop and mostly sits in one place, defeating the point of buying a laptop. To avoid this fate, it needs to be thin and light. Any components that have to be non-upgradable to achieve this must be excellent. Let’s start with the basic input and output devices; they have to be so good that you won’t need to upgrade them:

Highest-quality screen

The screen is your primary window to the computer and generally no part of it is easily replaceable or upgradable. So it needs to be good, with a resolution that allows 200% scale at effectively 120-130-ish DPI (meaning 240-260 physical DPI), accurate color reproduction, and enough brightness to use outdoors–generally 400+ nits. It also needs a decent enough black-to-white refresh rate that you won’t see ghosting. A high-resolution webcam on top with a privacy shutter is also highly desirable.

Most laptops get this completely wrong. In particular, nearly all 13.3″ and 14″ screens have a 1080p resolution which makes everything much too small and requires fractional scaling, or they offer a 4K resolution which has the same problem and additionally consumes far too much power. Many 15″ QHD screens are in the same boat. And a lot of screens are embarrassingly color-inaccurate, dim, or ghosty. It’s 2021; this is just not acceptable anymore. Nobody stuck with a crappy laptop screen is happy with their computer. Get this right!

Highest-quality keyboard

Carting around an external keyboard isn’t practical, so the built-in one needs to be excellent. It must have good tactile feedback and key travel for accurate and comfortable typing, or else you’ll hate it. For professional uses, it also needs dedicated Home/End/PageUp/PageDown keys to enable fast text navigation so you don’t need function key chords to access them. Bonus points for a Super/Meta/Windows key on both sides of the spacebar, a microphone mute key, and media playback keys.

Though the average tactility of PC laptop keyboards has markedly improved in the past decade, there are still few perfect key layouts. HP bizarrely removed the right Ctrl key on their laptop keyboards. Lenovo refuses to add Home/End/PageUp/PageDown keys to the non-numberpad keyboards of anything other than ThinkPads. But ThinkPads put a PrintScreen key between the right Alt and Ctrl keys, so you accidentally open Spectacle 20 times a day. MSI laptops have a weird, nonstandard layout. I could go on.

Highest-quality touchpad

If the touchpad isn’t close to perfect, people will be tempted to carry around a mouse, which takes up space and weight and is uncomfortable to use in many situations (e.g. on an airplane). To avoid this, the touchpad must be fairly large, have a smooth glass surface, and incorporate the highest quality, highest resolution hardware drivers. This should be easy to get right, yet I’d say at least 50% of PC laptops still don’t, and this is true of basically every manufacturer. I don’t get it.

Highest-quality speakers

Like the touchpad, if the speakers aren’t excellent, people will feel the need to use headphones–another thing to carry around. Decent volume and good sound reproduction at both the high and low ends are a must. Front/upward-facing speakers are the minimum acceptable standard here, with quad speakers being preferred, and bonus points for an integrated subwoofer, however small. Some Lenovo consumer laptops have a 5.1 speaker setup in the display hinge which I think is a genius idea, since they’re always pointing right at you! Sound from these laptops is amazing. If you haven’t used one of these, you you might not realize that sound from a laptop can actually be good! Unfortunately this is the exception, because the speakers on most PC laptops are a muffled, disappointing afterthought.


That’s it for the basics. I don’t think anything here should be too controversial, but nearly every PC laptop gets at least one of these things dramatically wrong. I’m not talking about the bargain-bin $400 garbage laptops; you should be able to get all of this in anything you pay $1500 or more on. But there sadly just isn’t a manufacturer that consistently nails the basics with even their high-end machines. And beyond that, you also want to take maximum advantage of the laptop’s portability, which means:

Battery and energy efficiency

The battery should be big enough to last at least 8 hours with light use, ideally more. This generally means a large 55+ watt-hour battery, and larger is better especially for the bigger screen sizes. Also important is good hardware support for power-saving modes and features. A certain amount of this that can be tweaked and improved with software, but the hardware element is fixed. So it needs to be good. A 2-3 watt idle power draw should be the target. At this level, you can actually work untethered without having to sprinkle power cords around the home and office.


After that, we need to make sure it’s useful for serious work:

CPU, GPU, and cooling

The laptop needs a powerful processor so it doesn’t feel slow in 5 years and make you want to replace it, and it needs a cooling system to let the processor reach its potential. Desktop-level performance is not the goal here–we know that’s the compromise with a laptop. But it should still be fast and powerful. Today, that would largely mean a beefy AMD Ryzen CPU, which also helps with energy efficiency. Intel need not apply.

Personally I don’t want or need a dedicated GPU in a laptop for my use cases, but I know many people do. An AMD GPU is strongly preferred here so you don’t have to deal with NVIDIA’s buggy drivers–and this goes for on Windows as well as Linux!

Replaceable hard drive/SSD

This lets you upgrade to a higher capacity disk in the future if needed. I’ve seen people junk perfectly good Apple laptops because they ran out of space and couldn’t upgrade without buying a whole new computer. What a waste! Another less obvious reason is so your data isn’t lost if the laptop loses the ability to boot up or even power on. Being able to remove the storage medium and put it in a different computer or an external dock greatly aids in troubleshooting, data recovery, and migration.


Beyond that, everything else is really just a nice-to-have. Personally I like the 2-in-1 touchscreen form factor, a unibody (not stamped) aluminum or magnesium case, a 16:10 or 3:2 screen aspect ratio, 2 full-sized USB-A ports, a USB-C port on each side that’s capable of charging, and a garaged pen. But I could excuse those as long as the machine got everything else right! Sadly, few do. It’s a real problem. If you are a PC vendor, and you get everything above right, you’ll have a product better than 99% of your competitors!

Postscript: what about the Framework laptop?

I love the Framework laptop. It’s just what the market needs, and I eagerly look forward to buying one some day! If you haven’t heard about it yet, seriously, check it out.

Unfortunately it has a few drawbacks that prevent it from being the ideal laptop: its inappropriate screen DPI, keyboard without dedicated text navigation keys, poor speakers, and hot power-hungry Intel CPU. Since these components are replaceable, it’s possible that in the future better versions will become available. However that hasn’t happened yet, so alas, it is not the holy grail laptop.

47 thoughts on “What a great laptop needs

  1. I was curious about this point: “In particular, nearly all 13.3″ and 14″ screens have a 1080p resolution which makes everything much too small and requires fractional scaling”

    I use a Dell XPS 13 9305 for work, which has a 1080p resolution, and I’ve never needed to use fractional scaling for it. Maybe this is highly dependent on personal preference – I don’t have any real vision issues. I do like to zoom in a lot of apps though, like Konsole I have zoomed in about 150% by default, and a lot of websites on Firefox I also have zoomed in.

    Honestly this laptop is pretty nice, the only real problem with it is 8GB of RAM really isn’t enough, and a faster CPU would be nice. I think 12th gen Intel CPUs could be pretty compelling in the laptop, given that they’re a big improvement over 11th gen on desktop, but they don’t seem to exist in laptops yet.

    Like

    1. Right, you need to zoom in within each of your apps when using such a screen. But not all apps offer a zoom feature, and some only zoom the content, not the UI, and it’s a pain in the neck to have to do this for every app even when they all support it. None of this is necessary when the screen has a proper resolution in the first place. Then the content is automatically displayed at a comfortable size and the UI scale matches it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have to add my $0.02 regarding laptop requirements — include a TrackPoint/DualPoint/EraserMouse/ whatever you care to call the magical little nub that sits between the ‘G’, ‘H’, and ‘B’ keys on all properly equipped keyboards! It’s an absolute necessity for me; I’ve never been able to generate anything but hatred for touchpads,
    and my choice of machines is far more restricted than I’d like because of that.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Optimal resolution and DPI is highly personal and depends on your own preferences. Anything less than 1080p (or 1200p) feels claustrophobic to me and is unusable.
    Therefore I wouldn’t consider anything less than 4k x2 even for 13″. If the resulting image were too small (which it isn’t for me) I’d get a 15 or 17 inch laptop instead. There’s pretty portable laptops in that size category these days (xps 17, LG gram).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Honestly, this article just nailed it.

    I sincerely don’t know a single vendor who gets all of these things right. There is a german seller that nails most of these things, but not all.
    (https://www.tuxedocomputers.com/, this is no ad, again, they *don’t* offer the perfect laptop. I just happen to know them since I am german too)

    Surprisingly (or maybe not?) apple does a lot of those things right since quite a few years now. Might be one reason why people spend stupid amounts of money on their machines…

    Depending on your use case you might actually be better off getting two docking stations (one for work, one for home) and a powerfull NUC (can be AMD too!) together with 2 high-end monitors and good peripherals. But that is not something I would call portable.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sadly my experience with Tuxedo Computers has been mediocre at best, from the point of view of slow order assembly time to non responsiveness to emails and service tickets, as well as poorly chosen keyboard font type and size. Moreover, their claim to be fully linux compatible is also fully incorrect. You cannot use their software if you use anything other than systemd. So you’re fully out of luck if you choose to run a system with openrc, runit, sysvinit, s6, dinit, or anything else for that matter as your preferred system init.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. > requires fractional scaling

    So? It’s 2021. If software doesn’t work well with fractional scaling, it’s garbage and needs to be dumped.

    Like

    1. As long as you don’t have screens with very, very high DPI, far far higher then anything used today in laptops or regular screens, “fixing fractional scaling” is physically impossible.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Ok, you just dumped most software, including on Windows. 🙂

      It’s true that we in KDE land can do a better job of making fractional scaling look less bad. There are probably better scaling algorithms we could use to produce output that looks *less* blurry and more sharp. But in the end you can’t work around a lack of physical pixel density. It it simply a hardware limitation. Fractional scaling will *always* look worse than integer scaling with proper pixel density (for a laptop, 125 or so DPI, meaning 250 physical DPI when using 200% scale) simply because there aren’t enough physical pixels to display the desired level of detail, and pixel-alignment becomes impossible without altering the metrics of the thing you’re trying to pixel-align.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Nope, I did not dump much software at all, not even on Windows. My work notebook runs Windows at 225% scaling, for example. It’s fine.

        Like

        1. That means you’re not a picky person who demands pixel-perfection. Fractional scaling on Plasma is probably fine too in that case. The people who complain about fractional scaling are different: they demand pixel perfection and no blurriness, which is impossible to achieve with fractional scaling. It can be reduced through good image scaling algorithms, but never completely eliminated.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. What a great laptop wants,
    What a great laptop needs,
    Whatever makes it happy and sets me free
    And I’m thanking you for knowing exactly
    What a great laptop wants, what a great laptop needs
    Whatever keeps it in my arms
    And I’m thanking you for giving it to me

    Sorry couldn’t help myself my mind went STRAIGHT to it when I read the title

    (great post btw haha)

    Liked by 2 people

  7. This X1 Carbon Gen9 with an 1185G7 is nice but your ThinkPad criticisms apply. It’s 1900×1200 but something like 2560×1440 might be nicer. Text display is *the* make-or-break useabilty issue for me. No hardware+distro combination I’ve used gets it right out of the box.

    FWIW, Wayland noticeably improves touchpad gesture use vs Touchegg solutions on Xorg, at least on Fedora 35.

    Also have an MSI mini running a 5700G, basically a Ryzen laptop in a box. Suspend is still broken, even on a 5.16 kernel. I won’t consider a Ryzen laptop until that’s resolved.

    If Apple continues a line of M1 Macbooks and Mac Minis around the $1000 price point AND if we really do see mainstream Linux-on-M1 that doesn’t break with updates, those machines would be attractive.

    Like

    1. Yeah, Apple’s laptop hardware typically ticks all of these boxes–especially now that they’ve fully abandoned that ridiculous touch bar and have gone back to reasonable physical buttons.

      Like

  8. You know, one thing that makes me crazy in laptop keyboards that you didn’t mention is when there’s no way to _feel_ where the up/down arrow keys are. Granted that’s not so common, but my current (Lenovo) laptop from 4/5 years ago has up/down arrows that are exactly the same size and shape as the other keys, with no empy space around them, so there’s no way to just feel where the up key is (I could be pressing ; or shift), and as a result I often also press left or right instead of down. It’s really annoying.

    Like

    1. Yeah this is another reason why I like ThinkPad keyboards: the arrow keys are slightly lower down than the rest of the keys, so you can feel their position.

      Like

  9. It needs to be light, but it doesn’t need to be particularly thin. In fact I’d say that any thinner than… I don’t know, 15 mm? is almost certainly a flaw. But sure, ideally it also wouldn’t be thicker than 3 cm or so. But there hasn’t been a laptop thicker than 2.5-3 cm in probably two decades.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Completely agree. Even an extra 5mm on most current laptop designs would allow for any/all of better airflow, more key travel and replaceable/upgradeable components. All with no or very little extra weight.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Exactly. Make laptops too thin and too slippery and we’d create a market for laptop cases just as there’s a market for cases fitting thin and slippery phones.

      Like

  10. Two additional features that make an ideal laptop are:
    – trackpad centred in laptop (rather than centred about “home position” on keyboard). On laptops with the trackpad to the left of the centre of the laptop, I regularly right clicking when I mean to left click – because the pad and buttons are too far to the left. This drives me crazy!
    – function keys that line up with the number keys. HP used to get this right, but they still are close to lined up compared to most other brands. When they are lined up, it is easy to find the desired function key as it is immediately above the number key with the same number (function key labels tend to be tiny).

    I also really dislike clicky trackpads.

    Like

  11. Good point about DPI of a monitor. That opens a great discussion about KDE/Qt styles. Why? Because a GTK world (and styling) is much more flexible – it is easy to set up 200% scaling and preserve adequate size of elements (by style/font size).
    On KDE, whatever config is, no matter how polished (sizes of fonts, icons, top-bars), fractional scaling is the only way.

    Like

    1. What do you mean? I actually do that in Plasma: I set 200% scale but use 11pt Noto Sans rather than 10pt. Non-icon stuff scales with the font size, so this effectively makes everything 22% bigger without using fractional scaling (because of a quirk in Noto Sans that makes 11pt 22% bigger than 10pt, rather than 10% bigger as you would expect).

      Like

      1. Yes, I got it, but you know what I mean. It is all about those little inconsistencies which make a big difference:
        1. checkboxes, radiobuttons, mentioned icons (which have too few sizes) don’t scale,
        2. plasma desktop (panels, context menus, widgets) has different scaling vs. Qt applications styles
        3. pointed Noto sans font – so diffuse that I have to change for something condensed for better setup.

        If it all were that good, you wouldn’t be talking about fractional scaling, but you did, so scaling by font/style is not comprehensive (as it is on Gnome/Pantheon which both has their drawbacks either).
        Something is wrong “…it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad”, so we are looking a fractional scaling instead of improving the Qt style.

        Like

  12. Wow, that’s so timely for me, as I am considering buying a new laptop.
    I was looking towards Slimbook Pro (Ryzen), but don’t see them being mentioned anywhere in the post or comments.
    Does anyone have one and can share a bit his experience ?

    Like

      1. And it doesn’t come out of sleep mode more than once. This is still uresolved and frankly makes Ryzen awful! AMD does not care about fixing this either. Inform yourself about this before buying.

        Like

          1. Ehmmm no it isn’t, I have a Ryzen 4800H laptop and running it on kernel 5.15.5. This is a very frustrating *persistent* problem, which has been fixed on Windows machines, but not on Linux.

            Liked by 1 person

        1. In general they are very good. I’m typing on one right now.

          Excellent keyboard, excellent trackpad, lots of ports, very rugged. Some models have good sound, others less so. Same with the screen resolution. I would recommend QHD+ on a 13.3″ screen size and an AMD CPU, if you can find a model with one. Hard to go wrong with a machine like this. Not cheap though!

          Liked by 1 person

  13. Nate, a laptop that covers many of your points, particularly the screen, already exists. I’m typing on one right now. Trackpad is very nice, screen is 227 dpi 2560 x 1600 16:10 (just like the old macbooks), keyboard decent, speakers ok/poor, 56 Wh battery etc. Serves me very well on KDE, I use bluetooth XM3 headphones anyway so speakers aren’t a problem. with EasyEffects and a Dolby HP Live IRS profile loaded in convolver they can be made to sound a bit better (essentially Dolby Atmos on Linux).

    It’s a bit of a secret as Lenovo don’t make a big thing of it but this is it:

    https://www.lenovo.com/us/en/p/laptops/ideapad/ideapad-500/ideapad-s540-(13%E2%80%9D,-intel)-laptop/len101i0016

    Ideapad S540. In Europe can get it with Ryzen too.

    Like

    1. Yeah there are a lot of 13-14″ laptops with QHD+ screen resolutions these days. So that’s progress! Unfortunately IdeaPad keyboards don’t have have dedicated Home/End/PageUp/PageDown keys and for me personally that’s a dealbreaker. I just need those keys to be productive. Bad sound is also a dealbreaker for me.

      And that’s the way it always seems to be. You can find plenty of laptops that get 50-75% of these things right. But your options narrow to practically nothing if you want to go beyond that.

      Like

  14. Am I the only one who mostly works in home office and has no problem carrying 10 kg when needed? I have a large monitor and a keyboard on my desk. Anywhere I work I start with plugging in the power because otherwise the damned thing may turn off in the middle of something important or when I am away.
    So the screen, keyboard, battery, etc are not important. RAM, SSD, Linux compatibility is, and of course the price.

    Like

    1. The same for me, except for the screen, I don’t want to use an external monitor so the laptop’s panel has to be excellent.

      But I never got used to laptop keyboards or touchpads (can’t be productive on those) so for me it’s almost always external keyboard/mouse combo.

      I don’t need to carry my laptop around that much (home to work and back 5 days a week pre-covid, 2 days per week now) so I always prefered 15 inches screens.

      Like

  15. It is interesting, how different the preferences are. I think 1080p is perfect for 14″. Nonetheless, I am unhappy. Why?
    Because for external screens that I attach to my laptop I find 2 x 27″ good companions. I could probably go with QHD without the need to change DPI, but actually, I really prefer 4k. However, 200% on a 4k @ 27″ screen is way too big for me.

    What I currently do is that I use X.org and force 144 DPI. Everything has then for me perfect size on my external screens. My current laptop is a 4k @ 15.6″ screen. 144 DPI is not enough for me actually so I reduced the resolution to 3200×1800. This is borderline ok, a bit blurred but due to the high resolution still ok, since I mainly work with my external screens.

    Fractional scaling would be a blessing, where I would adjust the DPI on the external screens to my pixel-perfect liking and then fractional scale on the laptop.

    Other things that are problematic when buying a laptop: no thunderbolt with AMD (and with USB-C you need to check carefully if two (!) external 4k screens are supported), the lack of a track-point, glossy screens, Nvidia GPUs.

    Right now, I am gravitating to a Thinkpad T14 Gen 2 as my next laptop with Intel core and I probably go for the 4k screen wasting precious battery lifetime. Of course, I am not sure if a can go for 144 DPI + reduced resolution set-up on a 14″ in laptop given that 15.6″ are borderline. But I really don’t want to go back from HiDPI (external) screens.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. At the moment, I’m using Alienware R17, which is already 5 years old, so I need to look around for a new laptop of the same grade.

    The problems that I am facing are:
    1. Alienware works really well on LInux but have some pain points like problems with sound (dedicated sound card that don’t have proper Linux drivers and the generic ones used, cause issues). This made me to decide that my new laptop will be more Linux friendly out of the box.
    2. I’m used to 17 inch laptops, as it is my only computer that I use for everything. Having a bigger screen is great for watching or gaming. Also a very needed thing for work, because I work a lot with spreadsheets or programs with table structures, so I need a huge screen real estate. The problem is, vendors making Linux laptops are not producing 17-inch laptops, because this is a too small niche nowadays.

    So at the moment, I have two mutually excluding needs for my new laptop:

    – fully Linux compatible
    – 17 inch, gaming grade (need for everything, for work, consuming media, but also playing – strong machine handling all use cases, even if mobility is a bit lowered)

    I haven’t found any clear solution to this. I fear it will force me to buy some popular gaming laptops, but it will still have some Linux hardware issues.

    Like

      1. Thanks, I’ll have a look. I hope that ROG laptops have a better support than some other Asus lines. I lost trust in ASUS when I discovered that some ASUS lines have absolutely no firmware support, meaning, you buy it, and it never receives any BIOS updates. It happened in case of my sis’s laptop. In a few years there were several, very serious security wholes discovered. There are not patched on her laptop, and we can’t do anything about it. Because of that, the entire ASUS brand lost strongly in my eyes. The worst part is, in a moment of buying of a laptop, you can never know if it will get firmware support. One could assume that such known brand will support it, and it turned out not to be true.
        However, ROG line is more on top and if it wouldn’t be supported, the storm it could create… so in this case the risk is minimal. Still… the distastes about the ASUS brand stays.

        Like

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