Finding a decent laptop

I’m tech geek, but I’m a cheap one. I’m willing to pay or quality, but I also am not one of those people who waits overnight in front of stores to get the latest Shiny Thingâ„¢ so I can show all my friends how cool I am. I casually look for things all the time, and get excited by them, but I rarely
actually buy.

Witness the (somewhat) recent release of the Apple iPhone, over which I have lusted since I first read reliable descriptions back in January. As the release date got closer and closer, the inadequacies of the platform became more and more pronounced (crappy EDGE network, only AT&T plans, can’t use your own SIM card, can’t install your own software, phone costs $600, etc.) and Apple failed to get me as a customer. Fortunately for me, I didn’t pay the $200 “aren’t I cool?” tax like a lot of folks did. Oh, well. At least those folks helped Apple beta-test their platform.

Recently, it’s become more and more clear that I need a replacement for my computer(s). My recent canine acquisition has effectively moved my home office from our actual office to my couch, since it offers superior surveillance capabilities. I had always worked nearly exclusively on my desktop computer, a great AMD Athlon XP workhorse that has been reliable and stood by me lo these many years since I bought it for my wife so she could play Diablo II with my brother-in-law and me (at which point I decided to take the new computer for myself because hey, what does my wife need with all that processing power?). When I was out and about, I used my somewhat less-trusty 17-inch HP electric blanket notebook, but it never really felt right, since I’ve always been a desktop kinda guy. Using the laptop more and more (on the couch) has made it clear that both computers need to go: I need a laptop, and this one is falling apart; if I need a laptop, why do I need a desktop at all — as long as I can have a nice, big screen to plug into when I’m actually at my desk.

Thus begins my quest to find a suitable laptop to take over all my computing needs.

Don’t forget: I said I was willing to pay for quality, but I also said I was cheap. I also didn’t say it, but I’m not going to lug around 10 pounds of laptop anymore. No, sir.

My actual needs are few: anything that can outperform my existing 3 GHz hyper-threaded processor without setting my legs on fire is adequate. I also need lots of RAM since I like to run a thousand things at once. The games that I do actually play are old in terms of graphics requirements, so I don’t exactly need a top-of-the-line gaming platform.

Given my requirements, why is it so hard to find a decent laptop these days? Apparently, my requirements are more strict than I had first let on. What I really want is:

  • 800-MHz FSB with matching-speed memory
  • A high-resolution screen (WSXGA+ would be preferred)
  • Discrete graphics memory on a good mobile graphics board
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • Digital video output
  • Low weight
  • Reasonable price (less than $1500 including 1-yr warranty)

Actually, I’m willing to sacrifice a little weight to meet the other criteria. Ideally, I’d like to make it under 7 pounds including the power brick, but that appears to be difficult to accomplish in the 15-inch screen size.

So, what are the problems?

  • Many companies will allow you to select the new 800MHz FSB processors, but they won’t give you matching-speed memory. So much for a faster FSB.
  • I have been able to find WSXGA+ on only a few laptops. I realize this is pretty expensive, so most vendors don’t even give you the option. I can give this up if necessary, especially since I’ll mostly be using higher-resolutions on my external monitor, anyway.
  • Mobile graphics cards just suck in comparison to their desktop-based brethren: it’s a fact. It still shouldn’t stop me from getting something nice in the graphics department. Every single laptop in these price ranges should have the option of discrete graphics memory (with reasonable on-board memory sizes: 128MB is not enough these days, guys!).
  • Virtually nobody has gigabit Ethernet. Why? I can’t even imagine. You can get a desktop gigabit card for five bucks. I should be able to get a mobile one for fifty. It’s sad that the wired options for laptops are faster than the wired ones these days.
  • Many companies (Dell, I’m looking at you) don’t support HDMI or even DVI video output yet. Why? Especially Dell: they sell these big, fat displays that all have DVI and HDMI inputs on them, and their laptops need special adapters to utilize the superior-quality digital signals.
  • Weight is always a problem: sturdy construction plus lots of components equals many pounds. I get it. Why can I get the same components in 3 different systems and have the weights all be wildly different? Sigh.

I can get various combinations of the above on different units from different manufacturers (except gigabit Ethernet), but I can’t find the one unit that has all of them. It’s always a trade-off: do I want proper speed-matched memory and CPU or do I want a decent graphics card? Do I want a slick hi-def screen or do I want HDMI output? It’s maddening.

I have given up the laptop search for this month. Maybe around Thanksgiving, when hardware manufacturers completely lose their minds just so they can move inventory regardless of the cost, I’ll be able to get something whose flaws I don’t mind accepting because I’m getting such an insane deal on the price.

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