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Problems with Notebook Computers
Posted December 19, 2003

Notebook (laptop) computers are really neat, and they can even be really useful.


Posture. Notebook computers encourage bad posture. If the keyboard is on your lap, you have to look toward your knees to see the screen. Putting the screen at eye level, where it should be, puts the keyboard out of reach.

Price. Notebook computers are two or three times as expensive as desktop systems with comparable specifications.

Drivers. Drivers tend to be specific to particular models. Reinstalling and upgrading your operating system is more troublesome.

Repair. Usually, when part of your notebook computer breaks, repair is too expensive to be worthwhile. Everything is built-in; most parts are proprietary (hard disks and memory are the exceptions). If your "a" key breaks, you can't just buy a new generic keyboard ($10 to $50) and plug it in, like you could with a desktop system.

Quality. You always get tiny speakers, poor quality sound components, and a crappy keyboard and pointing device.

Longevity. Notebook computers tend to become useless sooner than desktop systems. Contributing factors include high cost of repair, high cost of upgrades, low quality of components, and harsh living conditions (temperature, humidity, dropping, spilling).

Upgrading. Your upgrade options are more restricted. You can't upgrade your video card, your sound card, or your CPU. You only have one slot for additional memory. You can't add an internal hard disk (but at least you can replace the existing one).

Batteries. Battery technology sucks. Either your battery is large and heavy, or it doesn't last very long, or both. When it's time to replace your battery (sooner than you think) it will probably be expensive, and hard to even find the right kind.

Theft and damage. Understandably, most owners are paranoid about leaving their notebook computers alone anywhere, even for a second. They also have to be handled delicately (the computers, not the owners). How much energy do you want to devote to prevention of theft and damage? People who own desktop systems don't have to think about that stuff every day.

Accessories. When you bring your laptop, you'll usually bring along about eight hundred cables, adapters, etc.

LCD panels are much easier on my eyes. I have talked to people who prefer CRTs, but I think most people prefer LCD. Now that LCD panels for desktop systems are affordable, this no longer counts as an excuse to use a notebook computer.

Redeeming Qualities

Portable! Notebook computers are portable, and you can use them (for an hour or two) without plugging them in. For some people, this fact makes them worth sacrificing money, speed, upgradeability, compatibility, and longevity. There are lots of fun and useful ways to take advantage of portability.

Quiet! Notebook computers are much quieter than desktop systems. (Exception: with a desktop system, you can use extension cords, and put the noisy part on the other side of a wall or floor.)

Energy. Notebook computers use less power than desktop systems.

Advice for buyers:

  • Get a Pelican case. For $100ish (?) you can protect your fancy computer from the most likely damage: water, and falling short distances. Pelican cases are more bulky than regular laptop cases, but they can withstand teenagers and canoe trips...
  • Get a brand which is known for longevity. Broken notebooks suck! I have seen good results from Toshiba notebooks.
  • Try out the keyboard and pointing device (touch pad or joystick).
  • Get a normal mouse and keyboard to use at home. That way, at least when you're at home, it will be just like having a real computer.
  • Don't spend money on fancy sound cards and speakers. You'll still wish you were using a cheap stereo system instead.
  • Get a good built-in network adapter (Intel or 3com).