Re-imagine cheap laptops

Or how to make a new laptop category…

What is the reason

I’m a computer enthusiast. I live in “second world” country in Europe. A lot of people take advice from me in case they want to buy a new laptop. Their options are limited, unlike Western people’s who buy MacBooks for everything, even for simple web browsing. They dislike cheap laptops. In Central / Eastern Europe this could not work. People can’t pay half of their yearly salary for a MacBook. We have only two choices left. Buy a cheap laptop for 200–300 Euros or buy a really expensive one, for 1000 Euros. And what is between them? Bad quality laptops with powerful hardware.

There is no category left between these two. Ultrabooks and hybrid laptops are just dreams, and a really low number of people can buy them. People are forced to buy those really cheap laptops. What do they get? Bad quality computers with useless features. How do I know this? I get plenty of responses from people.

How to fix it

These are my own ideas. I’m not a manufacturer and I don’t have any connections with them. I’m just an ordinary guy who knows a lot about computers. I really hope this message can reach them and start them thinking. These are big changes but I will try to stay around the 500 Euro limit. I’m pretty sure that people who pay 300 Euros for a laptop would pay a little more if that laptop is so much better. I will talk about the 15.6 inch category, these are the best sellers in Central Europe.

You can think that the normal laptop category will die. Possibly, further down the road but they are here to stay for now. In the last few years the number of sold tablets have been stagnating, the number of home desktops decreasing. People are changing them to smaller, more portable devices. Let’s forget about gaming PCs for now. iMacs are basically non — existent around here. I will not focus on any specific manufacturer, let’s imagine a generic laptop. My message to the current laptop manufacturers is the following:

The build quality

Stop doing anti-consumer things! This is only true when it comes to the more expensive laptops for now, but it can easily reach the cheaper categories soon. Things like soldering RAM to the motherboard to gain a little thinness (the real reason is to make the laptop obsolete in a few years). People around me who buy laptops would likely use them for the next 4–5 years. They will not buy a new laptop only for more RAM. Next on the list: make a laptops easy to clean. People only bring laptops to repair shops after their machine stopped working. They don’t take them for cleaning every 6 months. If they can’t open the back easily they won’t open it. I’m talking about the “after-warranty” period. Maybe in the future, processors will not require fans which would make this problem disappear. We are still not there yet.

The outside materials have been changed in the last few years. If you touch a new cheaper laptop and an old cheaper one the newer will feel more plastic and easier to break. I know someone who had a laptop that, after only two months, had its touchpad change its color because it has worn out. After a few more months the print of his hands became visible. Could have been a painting problem, I’m not sure. I don’t expect for cheaper laptops to have metal housing I just want them to have better materials. I know this could be accomplishable, because there are good quality plastic laptops on the market even now, but these can be found in a more expensive price category.

The screen

This is my biggest issue. I hate those 1366x768 TN displays. The 90’s called and they want their awful screens back. The two reasons why these screens are still on the market:

  • The Windows OS does not have a perfect High-DPI scaling available
  • There is no other choice, people are forced to buy them
Demonstration of the color change at specific viewing angles

Actually there is choice, but not in this price range. Do you know what people say about these ugly displays? They say it is OK because other (similarly priced) laptops have the same quality displays. I’m not saying that there aren’t any good TN panels. In 2017 IPS should be the minimum requirement. OLED displays might be the future, but only a few expensive laptops have them yet, and they suffer from image retention.

And what about the resolution? I think currently the best resolution for a 15.6 inch laptop would be 1600x900, but this is not High-DPI. Windows 10 has many improvements when it comes to the DPI settings. Based on my personal experience Windows works best on 150% and 200% scale settings. I started to see some cheap laptops with 1080p screens, but those work on 125% by default, and a lot of programs don’t support this scaling as of yet. My laptop has it too and I use on 100% scale because 150% is just too big. So my idea would be something like the 1.5x of the 900p resolution. It is something similar to what the Retina MacBooks offer. High-DPI is the future, and Apple laptops did this leap a few years ago. Windows laptops will do it in the future too, I hope. Make a 900p laptops instead of 1080p and 768p, or make 2400x1350 (900p * 150%) resolution screens. I know that it would be more expensive, but if the laptop manufacturers agree on the same resolution, then display manufacturers could produce them in a mass amount and it would get cheaper in time. 4K displays are overkill and you need 300% scaling to use it normally. So basically they have the same problem as the 1080p displays.

The useless things

There are plenty of useless components in cheap laptops. Removing them could make a price difference. I made a list where I explain the problems with them:

  • Optical disc drives: Let’s shrink this to DVD drives only because Blu-Ray drives only exist in more expensive multimedia laptops. Honestly, I don’t know a single person who uses the DVD drive. And this drive takes up a lot of space. This space could be used for something else, like a bigger battery or a better cooling solution.
  • Special speaker branding: They often license third party brands to their audio components and put their logo on the laptop casing itself. I think they that even with these “special licensed components” these laptops still sound the same. They sound just as awful as their default counterparts. They are only good for marketing reasons and nothing else.
  • Touch screen: It is an unusual thing and the cheapest laptops do not have them. If the give laptop is not a 2-in-1 or hybrid (like a Lenovo Yoga laptop or the Microsoft Surface Book) then having a touch screen is useless and only a gimmick.
  • Dedicated video cards: Cheap laptops have bad dedicated GPU-s. They are basically useless. I will talk more about it later.
  • Bad touchpads: Make them non-clickable, or maybe put in something similar to the old MacBook touchpads. People will use gestures if they understand them and can use them comfortably. If half of the touchpad is clicking, then it is bad sign.
  • Stickers on them: Instead of putting them on the housing of the laptop, include them in the box. Then if someone wants them they can stick them on the laptop.

The hardware

Why do manufacturers sell laptops with weak dedicated GPUs? There are lot of laptops packed with integrated and dedicated GPUs. When they share nearly the same performance then the dedicated one becomes useless. The entry level dedicated GPUs should not be included. You cannot do anything with these. Games run poorly and they are not powerful enough for 3D rendering. When the GPU is much more powerful than the integrated one then it is OK. My laptop has this combination too.

CPUs should have a new naming system. Unexperienced buyers think that a U series i7 is more powerful than an i5 HQ just because it is an i7. They don’t know what is the difference between an i3 and a dual core, but they know that both have 2 cores. The difference though is drastically big and they don’t understand what Hyper-Threading means.

Why do cheap laptops still have 5200RPM hard drives with capacities like 1 or 1.5 TB? In my opinion a 160GB SSD would suffice most user’s needs. The average users don’t fill up more than 300GB on a HDD tops. Instead manufacturers should include lifelong cloud support for every well-known provider. Their own clouds are really bad. I got some space for myself but I don’t use it. Solutions like Dropbox and Google Drive are much better, I myself use these. Time limited cloud storage is an anti-consumer thing.

As I’ve said earlier soldering the RAM to the motherboard is not nice thing. When people buy laptops they expect their laptops to last at least 4–6 years. Soldering SSDs to it is a bad idea, too. I fear that this thing will become more common in the future.

Optical Disc Drive takes a lot of space

Losing the DVD Super Multi drive would open up a lot of space for a better speaker solution or a more advanced cooling system. In case of going the better speakers route I’m not saying that they should be bigger, but they should definitely use some acoustic techniques.

My last wish is to keep the most used ports. Slowly force people to use new interfaces and do not remove the old ones completely, like Apple did with the newest MacBooks.

The Software

There are 4 fully — featured desktop operating systems currently available on the market. The first is macOS which is only available on Apple computers. Now we have 3 left. Chrome OS is one of them, but not much can be done with it in its current state. The process of having Android apps has just started, solutions like the Andromeda support is still far — far away. Now we have 2 other choices left, Linux and Windows. Both have advantages and disadvantages.

The problem with Linux is that it has no proper drivers and software. If you are not an experienced computer user then you are going to have plenty of problems. The average user wants Skype, office and games. The open source office solutions are not perfect and there is no official Skype support. Linux distribution makers should make a new cycle, where manufacturers can provide proper driver support, because they can’t keep up with making drivers every half a year or every kernel change. My recommendation is Windows 10. I won’t recommend Windows 7 because the newest laptops are designed for the latest OS and not an 8-year-old one, which is going to be obsolete in the next 2–3 year. Plus, Windows 10 is more user — friendly. These cheap laptops are sold with FreeDOS and don’t have an OEM variant. With these you can only buy Windows separately. Here in the “second world” people don’t want to pay 1/3rd of the laptop’s price for an OS, so they get it from the “Swedish import” (torrent it) source. I think Microsoft should lower the price of Windows 10 drastically if they want users to have legal copies of Windows around here. Forced updates on the latest Windows are not an anti-consumer thing. Having no choice to disable it is an anti-consumer move.

The battery

I’ve got an interesting definition for portability: if the battery can last more than 4 hours then it is a portable laptop, otherwise it is not. Laptops of today can’t do more than 3 hours. This is actually decreasing with time. If it will keep up this tempo laptops won’t be able to last more than 10 minutes without AC. This should change. Put bigger batteries inside! On the other hand, being non-removable batteries are not a problem, replacement units are too expensive.

Conclusion

This might have all sounded like a rant. Maybe I am wrong, but I hope this message reaches the manufacturers. There should be some paradigm change in the near future. The computer industry is moving forward but this segment of it hasn’t changed accordingly. Average laptops should change too. If they won’t, then people will move to another platform. My wish would be a new category between cheap, bad laptops and the expensive ones. Please don’t take this too seriously. This is all based on my experience.

I want to thank Róbert Gulyás for doing editorial work on this article.

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