Laptop Buying Advice?

My current Lenovo X201 laptop has been with me for over four years. I’ve been looking at new laptop models over the years thinking that I should upgrade. Every time, after checking performance numbers, I’ve always reached the conclusion that it is not worth it. The most performant Intel Broadwell processor is the the Core i7 5600U and it is only about 1.5 times the performance of my current Intel Core i7 620M. Meanwhile disk performance has increased more rapidly, but changing the disk on a laptop is usually simple. Two years ago I upgraded to the Samsung 840 Pro 256GB disk, and this year I swapped that for the Samsung 850 Pro 1TB, and both have been good investments.

Recently my laptop usage patterns have changed slightly, and instead of carrying one laptop around, I have decided to aim for multiple semi-permanent laptops at different locations, coupled with a mobile device that right now is just my phone. The X201 will remain one of my normal work machines.

What remains is to decide on a new laptop, and there begins the fun. My requirements are relatively easy to summarize. The laptop will run a GNU/Linux distribution like Debian, so it has to work well with it. I’ve decided that my preferred CPU is the Intel Core i7 5600U. The screen size, keyboard and mouse is mostly irrelevant as I never work longer periods of time directly on the laptop. Even though the laptop will be semi-permanent, I know there will be times when I take it with me. Thus it has to be as lightweight as possible. If there would be significant advantages in going with a heavier laptop, I might reconsider this, but as far as I can see the only advantage with a heavier machine is bigger/better screen, keyboard (all of which I find irrelevant) and maximum memory capacity (which I would find useful, but not enough of an argument for me). The sub-1.5kg laptops with the 5600U CPU on the market that I have found are:

Lenovo X250 1.42kg 12.5″ 1366×768
Lenovo X1 Carbon (3rd gen) 1.34kg 14″ 2560×1440
Dell Latitude E7250 1.25kg 12.5″ 1366×768
Dell XPS 13 1.26kg 13.3″ 3200×1800
HP EliteBook Folio 1040 G2 1.49kg 14″ 1920×1080
HP EliteBook Revolve 810 G3 1.4kg 11.6″ 1366×768

I find it interesting that Lenovo, Dell and HP each have two models that meets my 5600U/sub-1.5kg criteria. Regarding screen, possibly there exists models with other screen resolutions. The XPS 13, HP 810 and X1 models I looked had touch screens, the others did not. As screen is not important to me, I didn’t evaluate this further.

I think all of them would suffice, and there are only subtle differences. All except the XPS 13 can be connected to peripherals using one cable, which I find convenient to avoid a cable mess. All of them have DisplayPort, but HP uses DisplayPort Standard and the rest uses miniDP. The E7250 and X1 have HDMI output. The X250 boosts a 15-pin VGA connector, none of the others have it — I’m not sure if that is a advantage or disadvantage these days. All of them have 2 USB v3.0 ports except the E7250 which has 3 ports. The HP 1040, XPS 13 and X1 Carbon do not have RJ45 Ethernet connectors, which is a significant disadvantage to me. Ironically, only the smallest one of these, the HP 810, can be memory upgraded to 12GB with the others being stuck at 8GB. HP and the E7250 supports NFC, although Debian support is not certain. The E7250 and X250 have a smartcard reader, and again, Debian support is not certain. The X1, X250 and 810 have a 3G/4G card.

Right now, I’m leaning towards rejecting the XPS 13, X1 and HP 1040 because of lack of RJ45 ethernet port. That leaves me with the E7250, X250 and the 810. Of these, the E7250 seems like the winner: lightest, 1 extra USB port, HDMI, NFC, SmartCard-reader. However, it has no 3G/4G-card and no memory upgrade options. Looking for compatibility problems, it seems you have to be careful to not end up with the “Dell Wireless” card and the E7250 appears to come in a docking and non-docking variant but I’m not sure what that means.

Are there other models I should consider? Other thoughts?

27 Replies to “Laptop Buying Advice?”

  1. How quickly are you looking to purchase?

    I personally would recommend the X1 Carbon; the second-generation model is quite nice, and the third-generation is much better (fixing the keyboard and mouse). While it doesn’t have a physical Ethernet port on the system itself (since the system is thinner than the port), it *does* have a hardware Ethernet MAC on-board, and the adapter is just a wire. That makes it much better than systems requiring a USB Ethernet adapter.

    However, you might also look at the Purism (puri.sm) 13 and 15; the 15 is coming in April, and design on the 13 will start at that point. It’s not perfect (the weight is higher than you’d like), but it has a 4k display, options for huge SSDs, an SD reader, as much RAM as you want, and a wireless card with Open Source firmware.

    • Thanks — I’ll make sure to reconsider on the X1 before deciding. I wonder if the XPS13 and HP1040 has a similar MAC on board?

      I suppose I should have discussed “alternative” laptops a bit, because I have researched the options there a bit. What I’d really like is to have a free bootloader, otherwise I don’t see the point of going non-mainstream — I have researched Puri.sm before, but I can’t really tell if it has a free bootloader or not? Their page https://puri.sm/posts/purism-software-freedom-deconstructed/ is unclear on this, and the illustration suggests there are non-free components in the laptop anyway.

      /Simon

  2. The Thinkpad T450s has everything you want, EXCEPT it weighs 1.6kg. With all those items on your wish list, you deserve the extra 0.1kg 🙂

    • Thanks for feedback! I looked at the T450/T450s when I considered heavier options. The only thing I care about that it would give me is 16GB instead of 8GB. Considering that I haven’t even bothered upgrading my X201 from 4GB to 8GB (which IS possible) I realize that RAM is not so important for me, once I go above a certain threshhold. Right now probably the 4GB is the bottleneck, but I’m not sure if I’m willing to break my back getting 16GB.

      /Simon

  3. Hi,

    I have a X250 since about 1 week (I upgraded from an X200s, which I used since early 2009). The i7 variants (which is what I bought) normally has a 1920×1080 IPS screen, which is suprisingly good in sunlight. My usecase is quite different from yours (I carry it around a lot), but here are some thoughts, which may be relevant for you:

    * The “ThinkPad Ultra Dock” has lots of USB and all display connectors (VGA, DVI, HDMI, Display Port) in regular size. I guess the dock is a must-have for your usecase.
    * I can’t tell you about the LTE modem support in Debian, since my variant did not come with a LTE modem
    * The X250’s smartcard reader is connected via USB (vendor and product id is 058f:9540) and seems to be supported by Debian. I did not yet test it, though (I don’t really need it at the moment).
    * Also included is a sd/mmc card reader, which is a Realtek RTS5227. This one is properly supported in Debian (I only tested it with 3.19 from experimental)
    * WiFi (Intel Wireless 7265) worked with the 3.16 kernel from Debian testing; for 3.19 kernel from experimental a newer firmware is needed (which is available in linux-firmware.git from kernel.org, so will be added to the Debian package in the future)
    * Bluetooth firmware is also not yet in the Debian package, but available from kernel.org’s linux-firmware.git repository. I have not yet tested it, but rfkill and hciconfig work as expected
    * About the VGA port: the main reason for having it are video projectors at conferences etc. The main disadvantage is that the notebook case must be thick enough for the connector 🙂
    * There are some problems with the graphic stack. The xorg driver from Debian testing does not support 3D (software fallback is used), the driver from experimental does support 3D, but has broken 2D (e.g. fonts are not rendered properly), current git HEAD works, but its broken after a suspend. Since this is related to the i7 5600U you will probably have this problem with all mentioned models.

    Not so interesting for your mostly static setup, but maybe relevant:

    * Without disabling the screen I was able to get down to 3.5 Watt (full idle, wifi in power saving mode, only powertop running, no input events for some time). Normal use (i.e. during writing this text is about 6-6.5 Watt).
    * The dual battery concept is quite nice (the X250 has a builtin battery, so that you can swap the main battery without turning the system off).

    — Sebastian

    • Thanks for the information Sebastian!

      Given that I’m on a Lenovo X-series laptop now, my first instinct was to get the X250. After noticing it didn’t go beyond 8GB and is still as heavy as the X201, I decided to look around.

      Regarding the battery — do you know if it is possible to have a dummy plastic in the rear battery to lower the weight? I assume the rear battery is a couple of hundred grams. Maybe it will cause a lot of tear on the internal battery?

      I am sorry to hear about poor support for video — if it is not easy to get working reliably in Debian Jessie, this seems like it will be a serious problem for me. Sigh.

      With the Ultra dock (which you are right in assuming I would get), do you notice any delays after activating the keyboard when the machine is sleeping? My wife has a X240 with the Ultra dock and it is slow (~10s) in activating screen and keyboard when you approach it after some time of inactivity. This can be a Windows software problem though.

      /Simon

      • Hi,

        Battery Dummy: the notebook works perfectly fine without any battery in the battery slot, so you should be able to print a dummy with a 3D-printer. Obviously this will increase usage of the internal battery. Discharge logic is: use external battery until it reaches 5%, then switch to internal battery.

        Battery Weight: The 3 cell battery (24Wh) is about 150g.

        Docking Problems: Suspend currently breaks my Xorg, so I can’t properly test it, sorry.

        Debian testing xorg-video-intel: 2D, no 3D, suspend
        Debian experimental xorg-video-intel: no 2D, 3D, suspend unknown
        Current master xorg-video-intel: 2D, 3D, broken suspend

        Problems sound like being Windows specific though, since the dock just contains a USB hub AFAIK.

        — Sebastian

    • Yeah, I like System76 and have looked at them before — however, their lightest laptop appears to be 1.81kg (4lbs) which is way too heavy for me, and they don’t offer Swedish keyboard layouts (alas I’m too hard-wired towards these keyboards to switch), even on a laptop. Not sure if they ship to Sweden either.

      /Simon

  4. You may take into account the fact that Lenovo has been installing malware on their computers, and that it may thus be unethical to contribute to this harmful company’s success by buying their products.

    • Agreed — however all major laptop manufacturers installs malware (Windows) so to me they all fall into the same category anyway. I’m really hoping Libreboot will produce a bootloader for my X201, so I can at least enjoy one free laptop.

      The comment about video support for the 5600U has made me start to reconsider my preferred choice of CPU, so maybe I can reconsider on weight to get a more free laptop too…. Anyway, it seems clear that I definitely need to spend more time browsing about laptop models. 🙂

      /Simon

    • If it really was a free laptop (free bootloader) I would consider it, even if it is way too heavy. I probably should survey “alternative” laptops to see how they fare.

      /Simon

      • The Librem 13 certainly doesn’t seem to be heavy. I think it’s at 1.4kg and comes with a 13.3″ IPS screen at 1920x1080p.

        I know it’s not completely free, but they seem close, and seem to be the only ones striving towards making a high-end free-as-in-freedom laptop.

        So I’m thinking it’d be nice to support them with ~$2000 to get a good laptop instead of giving that money to Lenovo/HP/etc.

        But you seem to do a good job of comparing the above ones. Would love to see you do another comparison with Librem 13 included.

  5. I’d get a ThinkPad for the keyboard alone (it’s very satisfying to write on it). OK, and the style and the brand.

    Preferably an X250 with a Full HD IPS screen, not the low resolution one you list. This way you have a reasonably good screen that is matte. The other options only have glossy or lowres screens.

    The HP has a stupid aluminium body.

  6. Have you looked at the Fujitsu Lifebook E series?

    I have an E 782 (which is fairly old), but it has

    – a real serial port(!)
    – smart card reader
    – 4G option (2×2 MIMO)
    – VGA and DP on the base
    – VGA, DP and DVI on the docking station
    – special “compressed air” lid for quickly cleaning the heatsink

    I’m sure they have newer models now that might also support NFC.

    • Thanks for the pointer. The E734 seems like the current smallest model, but it is 1.6kg and no Broadwell CPUs. Looks like the serial port is gone though! 🙂

      /Simon

      • search for the fujitsu 935, it’s only 1.37kg on spec. also don’t forget about the toshiba portege Z30s, they are fully configurable up to 5600/16gb ram and even lighter

        • Thank you! Both models match what I want, but I can’t find them available nearby (which explains why I didn’t found them in my searches) — probably a matter of time until they are available though. The 935 is even 1.24kg without touch display. The Z30 seems to be about 1.2kg too. I’ll compare them a bit more to see if they have any issues…

          /Simon

  7. Pingback: Laptop decision fatigue | Simon Josefsson's blog

  8. The current XPS13 is also available with 16gigs of memory and a 512gb SSD. I’m not sure that I want such a small sreen, however (currenly using an older XPS13).

  9. Hi,

    I am looking for some advice on which new laptop is best for me. I found your blog and was hoping you could offer some help. I don’t need it for gaming, I’m not a gamer. I’m going back to college and will be taking upper level accounting courses. So, I will need something that can handle software like Excel and Quick Books with ease. I would prefer a 4K screen if there’s one worth the money. I have a few specific laptops I like, but am unsure which would be better for me. I like the new HP Spectre 13 with the i7 & the Samsung Notebook 9 Pro 4K. I could have (probably still can) bought a Samsung Notebook 9 Spin with an i7 and QHD for $763, but I passed because I didn’t know much about it and if it would be a good fit for me. Could you offer some advice to me on these and any other laptops that would be ideal? Thanks for your help!

    Seth Penny

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