This post provides a brief look at the process of searching for a laptop computer. The emphasis is upon the process rather than the outcome. That is, my own ultimate choice will probably not be particularly relevant for most people’s needs, but perhaps some will find it informative to consider the path I took to make that choice.
First, a bit of background. I had purchased an ASUS Eee netbook for $359 about 18 months previously. I had partitioned and tweaked it to taste, and had used it occasionally. Overall, I liked it. The size and lightness were great. I never had the feeling that I was lugging around a brick in my backpack. My main problem with it: I felt that I wasn’t taking it seriously. Maybe it was the combination of slowness at bootup, small screen, and good but not great touchpad; maybe it was just the attitude that I’d had when I selected it. For some reason, anyway, I wasn’t making use of laptop computing at times when it would have been useful. I was treating the Eee as just a temporary tool, with the assumption that all the real work had to happen on the big iron back home.
Without denying the practicality of focusing one’s computer-related purchases, tweaks, and other developments to a single workspace, circumstances permitting, I didn’t want that mindset to be influencing the kinds of opportunities I would pursue in life, or the things that I would do with the opportunities that presented themselves. Suffice it to say that I saw some upside, at this point, in having a machine that was adequately portable and also adequately powerful. I wasn’t looking for a desktop replacement laptop, but I did want something that would be snappier, more capable, and more comfortable, especially in terms of the ability to view and work with a couple of documents or other files onscreen at a time without much delay — to work for hours, if wanted or needed, without that feeling that it would be much more efficient to just shut the thing down and go home. So I decided to shop around for a new laptop or notebook computer, with the assumption that the sale of the Eee would partly defray its replacement.
At first, I tried relying on the searching and sorting tools available at websites of merchants like Newegg and Amazon. Unlike most items searched at such websites, though, I wasn’t getting many reviews this time around. In addition, I had previously observed that reviews could rise and fall, like waves, as the early adopters of new technology surrendered their first-blush optimism to the more seasoned and weary consumers following in their footsteps. What originally sounded good didn’t always keep sounding good, as people developed deeper and more enduring familiarity. Point is, I would have preferred to see hundreds of user reviews, stretching back over several years of firsthand experience; but when dealing with laptop models that may not have existed ten months earlier, that sort of deep acquaintance with the merchandise was scarce.
So I found that the tools and reviews at places like Amazon and Newegg were good for orienting me to some of the possibilities. They did not necessarily narrow down the search, as they would often do in other kinds of purchases. To the contrary, they broadened my search, giving me hints of what other people were finding useful in their laptops, and where they were proceeding with their assorted investigations. A crucial realization was that, when there were only three reviews of a laptop, I had to look at what those reviews said. Even if the three averaged out to a poor score, there might be a very positive review from someone who seemed to have interests much like my own, dragged down by two confused souls who gave negative reviews based on complete misunderstanding or ineptitude.
After some initial flailing around, I came to the view that a matte (a/k/a anti-glare, non-glossy) display was essential for me. It seemed that some people disliked matte finishes because they might reduce the brightness of the colors onscreen, or might impair viewing of the screen from an angle. Of course, the former might not be much of a concern for many (I, for one, did not intend to do much video editing on this machine, and I could cope with a less-than-ideal rendition of the occasional YouTube video), and the latter might be a plus (if e.g., the user preferred not to make it easy for others to watch what s/he was doing onscreen). I was interested in a matte screen because I hoped to use the laptop outdoors sometimes, and had previously found that a highly reflective screen made that difficult. Direct sunshine wasn’t the issue. That could make it hard to see what was on any variety of screens. It was the reflections of every bright thing, appearing on the screen, that had previously troubled my efforts in the lovely day.
The need for a matte finish on the display proved to be a dealbreaker for most laptops. It seemed that others had likewise struggled to find many laptops with that feature. Generalizing from my own experience on this point, I guessed that many people might find that one preferred characteristic would be enough to reduce dramatically the numbers of laptops they would consider.
Continued digging identified or inculcated additional beliefs that further narrowed the field. I had been a pretty consistent user of AMD CPUs for a long time; but in this case, the desire for something snappy provoked me to absorb the moderate premium for an Intel CPU. It appeared that Intel Core i3, i5, and i7 CPUs, in particular, were offering good performance and efficient battery use in laptops at affordable prices, so I focused on finding a machine with one of those. I drew my information on performance from Passmark CPU benchmarks. These underscored the dramatic difference between the CPUs in my little Eee, and in some other lower-cost machines, and those in the higher-end ultraportables (a/k/a subnotebooks) that offered both power and compactness. I wasn’t a road warrior, and didn’t need a killer machine, so I was able to take advantage of a newly developing price break between laptops using the recently dominant Sandy Bridge versions of those Intel Core CPUs and the newly emerging Ivy Bridge versions. Prices appeared to have dropped by as much as one-third for some of the former, within just the past few months.
Machine size was another major consideration. The keyboard on my Eee had been surprisingly adequate. I wasn’t among those who bemoaned the odd placement of keys like Delete and PgUp on many laptops. I had also liked the small size and light weight of the Eee. In fact, I had even toyed with the idea of taking it with me in a running backpack during a run-camping trip. I didn’t want to return to the experience of hauling around a monster whose sheer size would deter me from dragging it along to places where it might have been useful. But I did think that a somewhat larger screen would have made the machine more appealing and practically useful. At first, I assumed these considerations were steering me toward something around the popular 15.6″ (diagonally measured) screen size. This sort of assumption was where online shopping could be dangerous. Fortunately, I happened to stumble through the computer section of a Walmart store, and there I realized that a 15.6″ machine could still seem enormous, to someone who was used to an Eee. I wasn’t sure how it would all seem after a few months of use, but I decided I had better shoot for the 14″ zone instead. It might have been different if I had needed a dedicated numeric keypad: that seemed to be one of the principal differences between otherwise similar 14″ and 15.6″ machines.
The amorphous sprawl of my laptop search encouraged some respect for the value of a careful equipment review. Many websites provided laptop reviews. It was not always clear to me, though, whether such sites would favor their own advertisers. I found it more credible when a review would go through the details, leading toward a conclusion that seemed to be supported, without distortion, by the information presented. Among the websites offering reviews that might have been appropriate for my purposes, I began to focus particularly on the reviews at NotebookCheck, though other sites (e.g., Tom’s Hardware, AnandTech) might have been useful too.
The price estimates at NotebookCheck were usually high, possibly due in part to their apparent location in Germany; I had to research prices separately. Some poking around persuaded me that I was probably going to be most interested in machines they had reviewed within the past eight months or so. Those computers might have been very expensive when they came out, but (as noted above) prices had been dropping rapidly in some laptops. A machine reviewed within the not-too-distant past would have the advantage of still being available at a variety of merchants, unlike those situations where a few sellers continue to offer a machine past its expiration date, at prices that would interest only the occasional fanatic for that particular model. I had initially planned to set $400 as my ceiling. That was probably the approximate ceiling I had used in my previous search, leading to the Eee. It appeared, though, that a moderately higher ceiling could expose me to significantly more solid and capable possibilities, while remaining well short of the $1,000 zone of the ultrabooks. I probably benefited somewhat from timing as well: I was shopping during a post-Thanksgiving “Cyber Monday” period of discounts.
As I was working through these individual aspects of my search, it occurred to me that my laptop shopping was proceeding in a direction somewhat opposite to my usual investigations. Instead of starting with a search that would home in on specific relevant findings, I seemed to be starting with the specifics and working toward constructing a useful search. That search would not yield thousands or millions of hits, as would often be the case in other investigations. If I had correctly worked out the key components, this search might produce no more than a few dozen results.
My search for laptops with matte screens led especially to Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Lenovo. I had lost faith in HP, over the years since their heyday as one of the best companies in America. My level of faith seemed to correspond with the company’s own decline to a more troubled state. I did wonder what would explain that change. But at the moment, what I was hearing about the quality of their laptops encouraged me to focus, instead, on Lenovo.
I had not realized that Lenovo offered a Dell-like opportunity to choose among various options to design one’s own custom laptop solution. Ultimately, though, that turned out to be merely a choice among sub-models. That is, Lenovo seemed to offer a different sub-model number for each available configuration. So, in my case, what had started out as a particular interest in Lenovo’s ThinkPad Edge E530 15.6″ laptop (due, I think, to a small number of positive reviews at Newegg) had come around, through the process described above, to the ThinkPad Edge E430 14″ alternative; and within the world of the E430, I now discovered the existence of (and the necessity of tuning my search among) a plethora of individual submodels. For instance, the E430 3254-ACU and the 3254-ADU would differ only in the nature of their wireless feature and the presence of a fingerprint reader.
Since the E430 and E530 seemed to be so similar, I guessed that I could probably use Lenovo’s webpages for both models to inform me further on the selection of components for the E430. I was skeptical, at first, as to whether user reviews on those pages were genuine and unselected — whether, that is, a really critical review of a Lenovo computer would last long on either such page. It did appear, though, that at least some critical remarks had survived. The general flavor of such remarks seemed consistent with reviews at NotebookCheck and also with one or two YouTube video reviews, so it appeared that I could draw upon those reviews from the Lenovo website for guidance at least in the selection of features. Incidentally, those YouTube videos gave me some quasi-physical assurance that I seemed to be buying a good machine.
I ended up placing an order for an E430 3254-ADU for $435 — one dollar for each member of the House of Representatives, and may they have a merry Christmas. Note, also, that I wound up with a price not far above my initial $400 limit, but I would not have gotten there if I had not initially set the limit at $500 and then used PriceBlink to lead me downhill. That is, the initial list price for the E430 on Lenovo’s own site was around $490; with feature revisions, it rose to $509; but then PriceBlink showed that I could get substantially the same E430 for less elsewhere.
So that was pretty much the process by which I decided on a replacement for my Asus Eee PC. I spent most of a day at it. It was not really time that I had to spare; then again, for some months I had been frittering away hours, here and there, in desultory searches for something to replace the Eee. Sitting down and working through the whole process at this point did seem like an efficient thing to do, on balance. Focusing on it also helped me to uncover some of the insights described above — insights that had eluded me during those previous page-flipping searches. I felt, on balance, that I had found a good laptop, at a good price, with the features that mattered most to me. Whether it would turn out in fact to be a worthy purchase was yet to be determined.