The Last PC Laptop

I've been chasing the perfect PC laptop for over a decade now. Although I've tolerated lugging around 3kg machines because I've had to, laptops were always about portability first and most of all to me. I quickly gravitated to so-called ultraportable laptops as soon as they became available. The first one was the 2003 Dell Inspiron 300M. It was the first laptop I found that delivered a decent 2kg or so package without too many compromises. How I loved this little thing.

The laptop as an institution is one of the truest expressions of the "PC Era". And as we turn the corner to whatever comes next, laptops have gotten good — really good. Coding Horror's Jeff Atwood looks at how one of today's best laptops towers over its forebearers, while also maybe representing the last generation of laptop dominance.

But there was a downside to that 2003-era ultraportability — the default battery in the system provided about two hours of runtime. Switching to the larger battery extended that to a much more respectable 5.5 hours, but it also added half a kilo to the system and protruded from the rear a bit.

I've pursued the same dream of reasonable power with extreme portability ever since, with varying degrees of success. The PC industry isn't exactly known for its design leadership, and it can be downright schizophrenic at times. So if you were a fan of laptops that were actually thin and light and portable, it's been rough going for a long time. 2007's Dell XPS M1330 was a brief bright spot, but honestly, it's only in the last few months I've found an ultraportable that lived up to my expectations, one that I feel confident in recommending. That laptop is the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A.

Having lived with this laptop for about two months now, I can safely say it is without question the best PC laptop I've ever owned. Consider the Tech Report review and the Engadget review, both rave. Here's what you need to know:

  • Retina-esque 1920x1080 resolution in an amazingly high-quality 13.3-inch IPS display
  • Intel's latest 17W Ivy Bridge processor with (finally!) decent integrated graphics
  • 128GB SSD with fast 6Gbps interface
  • Just under 1.4kg
  • Decent six-hour runtime
  • Classy brushed metal case and cover

All of this for about $1800 Australian RRP at the time of writing. If you're suffering through a sub-par TN display on your current laptop, the awesome IPS display is almost worth an upgrade on its own. After switching to bargain Korean IPS displays on the desktop, I'm desperately hoping my poor eyeballs never have to endure another awful TN LCD display for the rest of my life.

This is a machine that pleasantly surprised me at every turn. The keyboard is solid feeling with a dimmable backlight, and the Achilles heel of all PC laptops, the trackpad, is about as good as it ever gets on PCs. Which is to say still not great. Even the power adaptor is classy, although highly derivative of Apple. While this is substantially closer to the ideal ultraportable hardware I've had in my brain since 2003, it still exhibits some of the same problems I experienced with that Inspiron 300M almost 10 years ago:

  • An operating system pre-loaded with useless craplets and pointless bloatware, all in the name of hypothetical value add by the vendor and/or marketing subsidies.
  • Several branding stickers I had to peel off the machine after I opened the box. (Note that the press photos for a machine never include these ugly stickers. Go figure.)
  • A trackpad that works kinda-sorta OK, but never quite inspires enough confidence that I can stop carrying an external mouse around in my laptop bag with me.

The first thing I did when I got the laptop was wipe it and install the Windows 8 preview, and soon after updated it to the final Windows 8 release. Despite all the grousing about the tablet-centric nature of Windows 8 — some of which is warranted, but can easily be ignored entirely — I am an unabashed fan of the operating system. It is a big improvement over Windows 7 in my day to day use. The more I use Windows 8 the more I believe it's the biggest step forward in Windows since Windows 95. So what I've put together here is probably the best, most platonic ideal form of Wintel laptop hardware you can buy in mid-2012.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I actually own two of these. One for my wife and one for me. Because I am an inveterate hotrodder, I had to have more memory and a larger, faster SSD. So I bought the UX32VD model which has a discrete Nvidia 620M GPU and, most importantly, can be upgraded internally. So I dropped in a Samsung 830 512GB SSD and 8GB DIMM. This led to a slightly oddball final configuration of 10 GB RAM and an internal embedded 32GB SSD plus the 512GB SSD. It hurts battery life by at least an hour too. You should also know that the teeny-tiny Torx screws on the back of this laptop are not to be trifled with. Bring your jeweller's loupe. In case it wasn't already abundantly clear, let me spell it out for you: going this route is not recommended unless you are as crazy as I am. The base model is really nice! Trust me!)

If pressed, I might admit the combination of ASUS Zenbook Prime hardware and modern Windows 8 amenities lives up to the whole Intel "Ultrabook" marketing schtick. But I'm not sure that's enough any more.

Every time I leave the house — heck, every time I leave the room — I have to decide what kind of computer I'm going to take with me, if any. Besides the ultraportable laptops, I now own an iPhone 5, several retina iPads and a Nexus 7. I'm sure there are many more of these devices on the way. In the calculus of deciding what kind of computing device I want with me, even the most awesome ultraportable laptop I can find is no longer enough. Consider:

  • Want 10 hours of real-world battery life? Even when doing actual work that would ramp the CPU up? Many tablets and phones can achieve that magical 10-hour battery life figure, but it will be a long, long time before you reliably get that out of any ultraportable laptop. Personally, I blame x86.
  • Want to start doing stuff immediately? Even Windows 8, which has radically improved wake times, is laughably slow to start up compared to tablets and phones which are practically instant-on by design.
  • Want the smallest most portable device you can get away with? It's unlikely that will be a laptop, even an ultraportable, because of the implied keyboard and connectivity ports, plus the big screen and hinge. There is no form factor more compact than the touchscreen tablet. And you've got to take your phone along in any case, because that's how your family and loved ones will contact you, right? Have you seen the iPhone 5 benchmarks? It's faster than most tablets!
  • Want to be always connected to the internet? Sure you do; how else can you get to Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange for all of life's essential questions? Then you probably need some kind of mobile support, for 3G or 4G or LTE or whatever the telephone companies are calling high-speed internet access these days. That is quite rare on traditional laptops, but obviously common on phones and much easier to find on tablets.
  • Want easy access? Just try opening a laptop on a crowded train or bus. Or with, say, three toddlers running around your house. I dare you. But phones and 7-inch tablets offer easy one-handed operation; you can whip them out and fill whatever time you have available, whereas cracking open a laptop feels like a sizeable commitment in time and space to doing something.

My laptop is increasingly a device I only take when I know I'll need to do a lot of typing, and/or I'll need a lot of screen space to work. But even a phone could do that if it had decent support for Bluetooth keyboards and external displays, couldn't it? And even a few programmers, the audience who would most need all the power and flexibility of laptops, are switching to tablets.

I've waited 12 years for the PC industry to get its collective act together and, if nothing else, successfully copy Apple's laptop hardware designs. Now that they (mostly) have, I wonder: is it too late? Has the PC industry irrevocably shifted underneath them while they were so busy pumping out endless refinements to generic x86 boxes? I love this new laptop, and in many ways it is the perfect ultraportable hardware I dreamed of having in 2003. But every time I power it up and use it, I feel a little sad. I can't shake the feeling that this might end up being the last PC laptop I ever own.

Coding Horror is operated by Jeff Atwood of Stack Overflow fame. It's his personal repository of interesting bits of information accumulated while keeping up with software development.


Comments

    I can honestly see this happening. If Windows 8 does what MS wants it to, the "Transformer" form factor would surely replace the traditional notebook design.

    My main rig is already based around a custom notebook rather than a desktop. I could imagine doing the same thing with a dock-able tablet but take that one step further.

    You have your massive 3D capable display, gaming mouse an keyboard, multifunction, etc, etc and it's all powered by your Goram "phone".

    what about if you're like myself who wants a phone and a computer and that's it? tablets don't yet cut it. thanks for recommending my next 'puter.

      padfone
      can wait till when we can have a windows padfone

      phone inside a tablet that docks into a keyboard. Runs full windows

      padfone RT maybe?

      Last edited 09/10/12 3:11 pm

    Holy cheeseballs, Batman. Check out the price on Amazon for the ASUS Zenbook UX32VD-DB71 - <$1300 for IB i7, FHD screen and 620M GPU, vs. >$1800 in Australia for the same machine sans GPU (not that HD4000 is bad, but discrege GPU with its own RAM is better!).

    Australia Tax strikes again!

      its sub $1000 for a core i5 version from BHphoto

      I saw a UX-31 in Harvey Norman yesterday for $1139, which is well below the $1488 it is going for on amazon.com. There is no point comparing recommended retail prices in one country with advertised prices in another. The tiny savings shown at amazon ($10-$50) don't compare with the $350 I got off at JB Hi-Fi without having to haggle at all. If you look at street prices, you will find that we do OK for such a tiny market with such huge overheads.

        +1

        Wow I just +1'd a MM comment. I must be sick lol

        "If you look at street prices, you will find that we do OK for such a tiny market with such huge overheads."

        Hahaha, no. Wholesale cost (i.e. from buying direct from the manufacturer) in Aus is almost always significantly higher than the street price in the US. Some vendors are better than others, but some charge almost double here than what they do in the US. The only time you'll get the kind of discounts you're claiming is either when the vendor is running a promotion to gain market share (which almost never happens on premium products) or the vendor has dropped the price to clear stock to make way for a new model. The UX-31 you saw in HN is an I5 model (not I7), and is about to be replaced with a Win8 model. The street price of the UX-32 in the US is now sub $1000. Wholesale buy in Aus is still around $1300.
        Don't kid yourself - we are absolutely paying much higher prices here than we should be, and it has nothing to do with overheads.

    What is it about a pc laptop that was so important that you couldn't get a macbook air? And for much less. And considering they can dual boot, why the insistence on a pc brand laptop?

      Maybe he doesn't like OSX and doesn't like dual booting? Price for price, you get a superior machine anyway by going with the Zenbook Prime.

      MBA doesnt have FULLHD IPS and the specs are worse

      the asus comes with alot of accessories (adapters, cases) and has more ports. There is no like for like, asus wins hands down

      Let me see. My UX-21 was $1350, the equivalent MacBook Air would have been $1899. There's 549 good reasons straight off the bat. Add in the necessity to buy a Windows license and we are up to around 700 reasons. Then there is the classy looking slip-case that comes with it, which is another 50 or so reasons. Even if they were competitive on price, the Zenbook is a nicer looking laptop with more useful connectivity, so it would win anyway.

      Today the difference is even more stark, as the new Zenbooks have full HD res screens and Ivy Bridge CPUs, where the Air is still running 1366x768 and, AFAIK, Sandy Bridge CPUs. At least Apple have dropped the Air's price to reflect it's obsolete status.

        The current MacBook Air uses Ivy Bridge. Got the spec bump same time as the Pro.

        But is saying that its only an i5 and not an i7.

        The Air used to be technically superior (in terms of display and hardware) but they have only made small bumps recently. While internal hardware (CPU, ram, GPU) may not be super important for everyday use, as it can do most things most users need. It does lack that extra grunt an i7 or discrete graphics could offer. Hopefully when Haswell is released it will alleviate this issue with lower power consumption and better graphics performance.

        The screen is for me the single reason why I wouldn't get one. Although at the size and distance you sit from the display I can notice the pixels on a MacBook Air display. It's not as crystal clear or colour accurate as I would like. The MacBook Pro has a beautiful display (but to be honest I haven't seen what the competition offers). Hopefully it gets a "retina" class display with improved colour gamut, IPS tech etc etc.

    There is an interesting dichotomy in what this guy has to say. First he raves about all the power of his UX-31, how amazing it is and how it's the first properly useful laptop he has come across, only to spend the rest of the article saying that no-one needs any of what it has to offer any more. To put it another way, he lists all the things he values in his UX-31, then goes on to say how none of them are actually important. It is strange.

    For each of the 5 bullet-point questions he asks and answers, my answer would be different.
    - No, I absolutely do not need 10 hour battery life. Half that is plenty.
    - No, I do not want to start doing stuff immediately and if I did, I would just keep my laptop in "instant on" mode. On a side note here, my Playbook takes around 3 minutes to start and if I switch it to stand-by, the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth will flatten the battery in a few hours anyway.
    - OK, I do want the smallest, most portable device I can get away with, which is why I bought a UX-21 and not a UX-31. The size/weight difference between it and a tablet is inconsequential, yet the utility of a proper laptop over a tablet is almost incalculable.
    - No, I don't want to be always connected to the internet. I'm not at home so I absolutely don't need to be when I am away from home.
    - No, I don't want easy access when I am on a crowded bus or train as I don't need to be staring at a screen every waking minute of my life.

    All I want to say is that until I recently broke it I had the Asus ul30vt. This little beauty had and actually achieved its claimed 12+ hr battery life! I would get that kind of longevity regularly, WiFi on, screen readable, half a dozen chrome tabs and word.

    Add in a stock discrete, switchable gfx card, stock 4gb and less than an inch thick, HDMI out and then an added Intel ssd and I think its the ultimate computer.

    I think it had an 84Wh battery but it didnt protrude and boy did it last.

    Bring on an ivb ssd fhd 84Wh ultrabook!

    I regularly get 10 hours or more from one charge on my 2010 Asus UL30A. It also has built-in 3G. Warranty support was very good too when I smashed a screen hinge during an overseas trip. It's a little trooper of a laptop and has been extremely reliable.

    In comparison, the only original parts on my 2008 MacBook Pro are the DVD drive and the aluminium shell. Everything else has been replaced at least once due to failure during the warranty period.

    For ultra-portability, my phone fulfils that perfectly. I don't even need a tablet for that. For weeks of travel overseas my phone has handled all my technological requirements.

    For the sort of graphic design work I do with massive Photoshop and illustrator files, as well as my sound editing work though, going to a tablet or phone for that is laughable. That'd be like going back to 2002 Windows or Apple hardware, no matter what silly artificial benchmarks some new iphone gets. That's the reality- although that stuff is better than it used to be, the specs and power in mobile devices is far beneath a full computer.

    The thing is that Windows and Apple hardware has become far more powerful than the needs of the average user require (despite badly coded software slowing it down), so for those users doing the same simple, general stuff on tablets and phones it gives the illusion that those devices are equally as capable. But the reality remains that hardcore creative work still needs the horespower and that's when the fantasy land of mobile hardware capability comes crashing down.

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