As we get to the end of the year, I tend to dream about what is coming and I have, under NDA, been shown a lot of products that are coming next year. Not one of them fits my ideal product and there are strengths each vendor has that outline where I think excellence lies. So, I'll outline what I think would be the perfect laptop for me. This may not be the same for you but could form the basis for a list of qualities you look for in a product now or in the future.
In a way, this is intended as both a forward-looking post and an addition to my earlier post on choosing a laptop. Let me start by describing my own needs and then drop into what I think would be the perfect laptop.
The way I work, I have a need for power in the office and portability when I travel. A combination desktop/laptop solution works best because it ensures the power I need in the office and I can optimize for portability when I travel. I have large hands and, as someone in the latter part of life, large screens are a plus. I also really like to be able to work outside when I can and get out of the office, which means I value strong battery life and an outdoor viewable screen. Noise is annoying and having something that sounds like a jet engine when it is on wouldn't be on my short list. Finally, a laptop is personal and I really enjoy having something that is attractive and distinctive. I'm not someone that likes the same dull thing that everyone else has.
This suggests something in the 13" to 14" size, with an outdoor viewable screen, eight-hour battery life, good looks, a variety of wireless connectivity options, and a reasonably low carry weight.
Now let's look at how I'd build the Frankenstein notebook from existing vendor solutions.
Building the Perfect Notebook
Lenovo/ThinkPad for Reliability: First I'd want a product that was robust. Notebooks can get dropped but semi-hardened notebooks typically have a huge carry weight and a massive price. Hardened notebooks from Panasonic and Data General are good examples of strength but only Lenovo builds what is a semi-hardened product that is affordable. What is interesting is that its normal products evidently meet, and often exceed, the specifications of many branded hardened products. In short, my perfect product would start with something like Lenovo's roll cage technology.
Gateway for Quiet: The quietest notebook I've had is the 150XL from Gateway. I still can't believe how quiet this thing is. In my home with my ear right next to the notebook, I can't hear either the fan or the drive most of the time. No clicks, no fan noise, no sound at all. I imagine if I took this outside into heavy heat and plugged it into power, I might get some fan noise but I have yet to hear it. I have a friend who does voice-over work and this was what I recommended to her. So I'd want the quiet of Gateway.
Toshiba for screen: There are a lot of ways to make a screen work outside, generally having to do with pushing the light up to very high levels from the back. This can really drain the battery and it isn't an ideal offering because it is hard to overpower the sun. Toshiba is currently the only mainstream vendor shipping a beautiful transflective screen (transflective screens use ambient light and only use internal lighting when it is dark) on a notebook computer, the Toshiba R500.
Apple for Power Connector: Now this is kind of iffy because what I'm talking about here is the breakaway connector that Apple uses on its laptops. The other day, I tripped over my power cord and sent one of my laptops sailing across the room to land in a pile of broken plastic. On an Apple, the cord breaks away; it is magnetic and does not pull the laptop off the table. So I'd want the Apple power connector on my perfect box so it doesn't take an expensive trip across the room.
Kensington for Power Supply: No vendor ships with a universal power supply and the best currently in the market is the Kensington. (Not a bad stocking stuffer for the traveling executive, by the way.) With this, you can plug into planes, cars, trains and busses that have AC or DC power sources and it is slim, light, and easy to pack. It's generally as light or lighter than the standard power supply, and relatively attractive. It would sure be nice if this came standard.
Dell and Smooth Creations for Design and Customization: Now this is really personal. Sony does attractive designs and a lot of colors so I had to think about this a lot. Here, my wife and I would likely differ because she prefers Sony in design while right now I prefer the Dell XPS M1330 and Dell One. Of course, I would like a higher level of customization than any vendor currently offers so I'm going to blend this choice by adding Smooth Creations, whom I use for custom painting, as part of this so the end result is uniquely mine. (I really love walking into meetings and drawing a crowd.) Dell also did the World of Warcraft gaming laptop and that is an amazing product to see. So Dell for design and Smooth Creations to make the result unique.
User Experience by HP: I'm kind of cheating here because I'm not really thinking of a notebook computer when I say this. The easiest Microsoft-based product I've had in house all year was the MediaSmart Server, which was a joint effort by Microsoft and HP. But given that most of the problems my community complains about have to do with Windows, the ability to work with Microsoft to create something amazing stands out as a big differentiator if it can be applied to the desktop. Given that HP working with Microsoft made a server OS drop-dead easy to install and use, I'm thinking that making huge improvements to Windows wouldn't be that hard. In addition, HP did TouchSmart, which was a rework of the Windows interface and really fun to use. If HP can do for a PC what it did for the Home Server, life would be much better for all of us.
Out of Box Experience by Apple: I was trying to think of anyone who does a better job of out of box experience than Apple and couldn't. Taking an Apple computer out of the box is almost magical. While this isn't a huge thing, I'm talking about the perfect product here and perfection means I have to touch all bases.
Battery Life from ?: The problem is that to get to eight hours of battery life, you tend to end up with something that is still impractically heavy in current products. The Lenovo T series is probably the lightest I know of but it gets there with both an extended battery and a bay battery, which makes the result kind of heavy. Next year, we should see new technology batteries that provide eight-plus hours with acceptable carry weights, though they are based on silver and require an, as yet, uncreated trade-in program to recover the silver to be affordable. Battery life remains a problem to solve and eight hours remains an elusive target.
Solid State Drive from ?: Right now, the first solid state drives have a lot of problems. They are too slow, too unreliable, or way the heck too expensive, and way too often all are true. However, when they work right you get something that is up to 100 percent faster (you see a bigger pop from this than from a faster processor or faster memory), it is dead quiet, and it is something like 10x more reliable. Oh, and it is generally much lighter.
There are a lot of vendors chasing this and currently they are having trouble with the disk controller, which is evidently causing performance and reliability problems. This should all be fixed by this time next year.
Wrapping up the Frankenlaptop
You might think this is wishful thinking but, as I say, I've seen the future and there actually will be some products that come really close to this ideal next year. These won't be cheap; I'd expect them in the mid-$2,000 range, dropping in 2009. If you are looking for something this year, wander back to my earlier piece for some ideas and have fun shopping.