Wednesday, 2 May 2012

I need a new laptop, pt. 2: Size and Weight

Laptops can be bad for you

If you have decided that you needs a laptop, then presumably it is because you intend to carry it around.  Size and weight become a significant issue here because any benefit of a nice chunky laptop may well be overcome by the disadvantages of back pain if you are not careful. A small and light machine certainly sounds preferable to long-term injury - but remember that you may well be using the machine for long periods of time. Hunching over a tiny laptop and squinting for hours on end at a reduced screen can cause as many (if not more) health problems than lugging a monster around.  Research by UNISON found that 61% of laptop-users asked suffered from backpain, 60% suffered from neck pain and 68% suffered from eyestrain. 55% found laptop computers heavy, but not much can be made from this as doubtless as many would find the Sunday Times heavy if they had to carry it on their shoulder for 45 minutes every day.

The NHS seem to be putting a lot of focus on laptop computers as an increasing source of medical complaints.  The Solihul Care Trust site offers a good example of this, as guidance on using laptop computers takes up nearly half of its page on 'back care'.

My previous HP Compaq 6715b weighed 2.7kg. Before that I was using an Apple iBook G3 (back in the days when they were so cool they even appeared in films like Legally Blonde), which weighed 3kg.

(laptops-from-legally-blonde, 2011)

Both of these machines were well under the 4kg which the NHS warns about, and I can't say that I experienced any real problems carrying them for the daily 3hr commute I enjoyed during the time I was using them. I suppose I should contextualise this though, by saying that during this time I was going to the gym twice a week so fitness levels may have had an effect. As age catches up with me and fitness falls behind, the combinations of textbooks and laptops which clutter up my bags are definately taking more of a toll.

One thing I have learned is to avoid using a shoulder bag. The uneven distribution of weight can put pressure on the back, which makes a backpack which evenly distributes the weight much better for you.  Mind, I pretend to having absolutely no medical knowledge whatsoever. I got this from the McKinley Health Centre at the University of Illinois - and presume they know what they are talking about. Certainly by back has felt a lot more comfortable with the Complete Works of Shakespeare next to my laptop since investing in a decent backpack, so a laptop of a similar weight to the ones I have already used would be perfectly acceptable.

The laptop / netbook / ultrabook / tablet condudrum

(Notebook, Netbook, Ultrabook or Tablet?, 2012)

So, weight is an issue - but with a little care it needn't be a major one.

This is important because the market is currently filling with a range of choices about different kinds of laptop you can buy. A few years ago, a range of laptops emerged under the name of 'netbooks'. These nifty little machines were focused primarily on those people who needed to access the internet on the move. They were cheap, light and small. Very small. A 10 inch screen is about the norm for a netbook.

Things became more complicated when Apple launched its groundbreaking 'tablet', the iPad. The iPad was effectively an iPhone with a big screen and more power, both of which meant that you could do a lot more with it. The absence of a keyboard, the lightness of the machine, and the stylish looks made it an instant hit.The problem was, many people went out and bought an iPad thinking it could replace their laptop. It couldn't of course. Laptops are deisgned as a platform for a range of specific programmes - like Microsoft Word - which the iPad could only ever thinly approximate. This wasn't a problem with the iPad. It's just that the iPad was trying to offer users something different (something best explained in this excellent blog by Christopher Scott Barr). What it offered has proved successful enough to spawn a whole catalogue of imatation 'tablet's from some of the biggest names in the tech industry.

Inevitably though, a new breed of laptop has emerged which has attempted to merge the strenghts of the tablet with the functionality of the laptop. These machines are commonly referred to as 'ultrabooks'. Looking like wafer-thin laptops, these machines are light, powerful and flexible. The downside is they cost a bomb, and many (like the Macbook Air) are heavily dependent on the same web connectivity which underpins the tablets.

The practical choice (or, the gadget-envy trap)

Let's be honest here. How many of us are really totally immune to gadget-envy? Someone on the train is watching Harry Potter in glorious HD on new the iPad 3. In PC World you see a budget laptop looking like a 1980s mobile phone next to the sleek, space-ship design of the latest Asus ultrabook. Eyes tend to glaze over. A mist of hypnotic awe fills the air, and suddenly a decimal point here or there in the price seems meaningless.

Doubtless in a computer store showroom, you will be bombarded with videos of the latest wonder-gadgets doing the most amazing things, and sales staff will express their astomishment that humanity had somehow managed to survive all this time without the Sony Viao T13 ultrabook.

But let's be realistic. If you have so much cash that you could afford to buy a 5 bedroom house when there are only two of you, or you would think nothing of buying a Range Rover in order to take you to the local corner shop, then fine - get the shiniest thing you see and good luck to you. For the rest of us, don't be duped into spending money you don't have on something you don't need (which, incidentally, is a paraphrase from the 1999 film Fight Club - if Brad Pitt said it, it must be true).

For example, despite all the 'oos' and 'aahs' I emit when looking at a gorgeous piece of new tech, I am going to go for a standard laptop - and here's why: I am not the world's biggest fan of Microsoft Office. Quite the opposite. However, the realities of my work mean that I often end up needing to use Word, Excel or PowerPoint for the sake of compatability - all of which would be difficult on a shiny tablet. At the same time, I tend to spend a great deal of time working on my laptop, and the thought of squinting at a 10 inch screen for 6 hours sounds both frustrating and hazardous. My budget certainly does not stretch to a high-end ultrabook, but even if it did I could not say that I would use the additional performance of such a machine, and while it would be nice to have a light machine I am not particularly willing for fork out an extra £600 just to lose a kilo.

Size: Is bigger, better?

One final consideration then. Size. Sometimes you might be looking at a bunch of laptops on a website and see one which looks both impressive and cheap. Trouble is, when it arrives you discover it is screen is tiny and the keybaord is cramped. The photos of laptops which appear on websites makes them all look the same size, when in reality the size differences can be huge.

The screen size is the vital information here.  A screen size of 13 inch is on the smallest end of the scale for a laptop. The 'desktop replacement' style can have a screen size that goes up to 17 and 20 inches. Of course, the bigger the screen, the heavier the machine. There are advantages to a bigger screen though: working for long periods of time on a small screen can result in eyestrain. A bigger screen means you can work comfortably with documents side-by-side, and if you wanted to use your laptop for multimedia as well (i.e. watching films) then the bigger the screen the better the experience. There is a price factor as well. In general, the bigger the screen the higher the price - although this chart from John Lamansky does suggest that for PCs the difference is not significant until you get into the territory of really big screens:

(Prices as of June 2011 - data from John Lamansky)

Remember, as well, that you are going to have to carry this computer around.  A 20 inch laptop might sound ideal, but imagine trying to fit it into your bag. Or trying to take it out in order to do some work on a crowded train.

Ultimately it is a question of finding a screen which balances size and practicality. Certainly it is worth going into a showroom and looking at different machines to get a feel for the differences between a 14 inch and a 17 inch. If you can manage it without setting off an alarm, try typing onto the keyboard as well so that you can get a feel for the size of the keyboard, and the spacing of the keys. If you find the keys marginally further appart or closer together than you would like, then this is probably something you could get ued to. If you find you have no idea what keys you are pressing at any time, then maybe look for something more familiar.

Personally, I am going to be looking for something around 14 to 15 inches. The amount of time I spend using my laptop means that I am happy to err towards a slightly bigger and heavier machine if it means greater levels of comfort while using it - but anything bigger and I am sure I would end up grumbling about it later.  A 14 to 15 inch machine means that the laptop will easily fit into the bag I currently use as well (a 17 inch machine would mean I needed a new bag, while a 16 inch machine would involve a wrestling match every time I wanted to put the thing away), and the keyboard size will be approximately the same as the ones I have already been using.

My Laptop has died. How do I choose a new one?
I need a new laptop, pt. 1: What do I use it for?