Looking for a survivable-in-any-situation ultraportable

Discussion in 'What Notebook Should I Buy?' started by OverTallman, Jul 12, 2016.

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  1. OverTallman

    OverTallman Notebook Evangelist

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    BEWARE: Very long post

    [​IMG]
    My Dell Latitude D420 with a Wacom graphics tablet

    Please bear with my not-so-good English, it's not my first language.

    Currently I have a 10-year-old Dell Latitude D420 (mine is built in 2007 but this model was available in 2006) running Windows 10, and I'm very happy with what it delivers, despite its very old hardware. It's one of the best partners I've ever had. However, after a lengthy discussion with another member, I think it's about time to find a successor for it. Well not fully replacing it but as a complement to it: Being a 32-bit only machine is already a reason not to retire my D420, there are some softwares (e.g. Virtual Floppy Drive) that can only run in 32-bit OS and I don't like handicapping 64-bit machines with 32-bit OS, I want a native 32-bit machine.

    Background Story

    I'm a student currently studying Masters year of Aerospace Engineering, and in the past 3 years I've been using a Fujitsu Lifebook LH772 which was sponsored by my parents. Unfortunately after about 2.5 years of less-than-gentle usage, it's now in pretty bad shape. Not wanting to cause further damage to it, I decided to replace its role with tougher laptops in May last year, at last I settled on a Dell Latitude E5510 (for heavy tasks) and a Dell Latitude D420 (for portability). I know they're older and a lot slower, but hey they were cheap (the E5510 was £100 and the D420 was a paltry £8, compared to HK$10,500 (~£950 in 2012) for my LH772) and Latitudes were known for their toughness, so I went ahead with them and put my Fujitsu to a 1-year suspension.

    I live off-campus and I need to ride my bike for ~30 minutes to reach the campus, and my dual-laptop configuration proved to be handy: I'd bring my E5510 if I need to work on CAD models and assignments (don't like using campus computers, I want full control to the softwares), otherwise I'd bring my D420 for presentations and basic entertainment which involves web surfing and playing music. Kinda special as I'm one of the few students in the uni who uses business laptops exclusively, most are using consumer laptops; and while others occasionally whine about their machines, I have no real complain on mine, except for some design problem in my D420 (more on this later).

    Its portability is useful aside from academic use, too. Whenever I need to use a laptop and get access to Internet when I'm not in my home or during a road trip, it's either my D420 or my HP EliteBook 2740p (bought 9 months later), as they both have 3G capability (retrofitted a WWAN card into my D420). I just need to insert a SIM card into either of them.

    Throughout my 1 year of ownership, I've upgraded both laptops extensively, here are the specifications of my D420 atm:
    • CPU: Intel Core Duo ULV U2500 (1.2GHz)
    • Chipset: Intel 945GMS (single-channel memory controller)
    • Memory: 2.5GB DDR2 RAM (2GB usable due to chipset limit)
    • Storage: 1.8" Zheino (some obscure Chinese brand) 64GB SSD
    • Screen: 12.1″ 16:10 glossy widescreen display (1280 x 800)
    • Graphics: Intel GMA 950
    • Connectivity: Dell Wireless 1490 WLAN + Dell Wireless 5530 WWAN + Dell Wireless 360 BT
    • Operating System: Windows 10 Home 32-bit
    • Accessories: Docking station with a DVD drive
    Basically I can use it in pretty much any (undesirable) situation:
    • No WiFi but with a spare SIM card
    • During flights and road trips
    • Only wired connection available
    • Lack of desk space
    • Unable or inconvenient to carry larger laptops (I prefer side bags than backpacks)
    • Burn CD / DVD in emergency
    • Support older machines and hardware
    • As a backup machine
    • And many more...
    That's why I call it a survivable-in-any-situation ultraportable: It's not always the optimal solution, but hey at least you can do stuff to a certain degree, and most importantly, you still have a computer to use (i.e. If you don't compromise you won't even have a worker available ;)).

    Successor Criteria

    I'll mainly use my D420 as a benchmark in this post from now on.

    As a successor to it, I want something superior but without the loss of any important functionality provided in my D420. The particular functionalities I'm looking for are:
    • Durability
    • Easiness to upgrade
    • Connectivity
    • Input
    • Flexibility in usage
    I'd also like the successor to amend the shortcomings present in my D420, specifically:
    • Inadequate performance (my D420 fits my need, but it'd be better if it were more powerful)
    • Screen glare (though this is my fault of replacing its faulty screen with a glossy screen)
    • Port positions (this is the design problem I talked about)
    Considering I'm still a student, my budget is very limited. To make the matter worse, I have almost no viable way to earn money aside from selling refurbished laptops, I'm not giving up any of my "comrades" too so the financial situation will only worsen over time. I don't think leeching my parents is a good idea, so don't expect my budget will go up any time soon.

    Lastly, since I have prior experience on dealing with computer hardware (been refurbishing old laptops, plus I've disassembled and reassembled my E5510, D420 and 2740p at least once), I don't mind fiddling. If there's something missing, I can retrofit it later.

    Note that the successor doesn't need to also replace the role of my 2740p, I specifically bought a convertible tablet for some good reasons.

    General Questions

    What is your budget?
    £150 is my preferred target but I can stretch up to £200 if needed, be reminded that £200 is my cut-off limit though. I don't care if I can buy a much better laptop for just £10-20 more, £200 is really the maximum I can spend now.

    So in short, within £200 but prefer £150 or less.

    What size notebook would you prefer?
    Ultraportable: 11" - 12" screen

    I'd prefer an ultraportable with the size similar to my D420. The dimensions of a D420 is 11.6" x 8.3" x 1.0" (29.5 cm x 21.1 cm x 2.5 cm), courtesy of David and Andrew's D420 review.

    Below shows my D420 compared with a stack of ~250 90gsm A4 papers:
    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]
    So they're about the same in dimension. Take that as a reference if you want.

    As for the weight, it has to be under 2kg, preferably about 1.5kg or less, which is about the same as my D420.

    Where will you buying this notebook?
    UK, forget about outlets

    Are there any brands that you prefer or any you really don't like?
    Like: Dell, HP, Lenovo, actually any brand as long as it builds durable quality laptops
    Dislike: Apple (see "Input" section below)

    Would prefer Lenovo over Dell and HP, as I already have a lot of Dell (E5510, D420, X1) and HP (2740p, nx8220, nc8230, nx6125) laptops. However if it's not possible then another Dell or HP is always welcomed.

    Would you consider laptops that are refurbished/redistributed?
    I believe that's pretty much my only option, isn't it?

    What are the primary tasks will you be performing with this notebook?
    Basically what a normal uni student does: Web surfing, typing documents, playing music and videos, YouTube etc.

    I'm an engineering student though so there's an additional requirement: CAD software, but even my E5510 and 2740p can handle my workload so don't worry too much about it.

    Will you be taking the notebook with you to different places, leaving it on your desk or both?
    Both, I leave it on desk as much as I use it outside. That's why I'm looking for an ultraportable. I'll usually bring the charger along with my laptop, though.

    Will you be playing games on your notebook?
    Of course I do, but only light gaming. I have my desktop for more graphics-intensive games.

    Currently I play osu! (one of the reason why I have a Wacom), Nekopara and Hyperdimension Neptunia, all are not very demanding in terms of hardware. My D420 (with its almost useless Intel GMA 950) can run osu! in 60fps constantly :eek:, and my E5510 can run all three, though Neptunia is buggy. To conclude, anything newer shouldn't have problem with what I play.

    I also play Need For Speed Underground 2, Most Wanted 2005 and Carbon occasionally, they're some of the best NFS games imo.

    Now if it can also run Akiba's Trip :p, then it'll be perfect!

    How many hours of battery life do you need?
    At least 3 hours.

    My D420 managed to last for about 2:30 hours on an almost new 6-cell battery with Win 10's Power Save mode enabled, web browsing with Opera (WiFi on only) for half an hour and the remaining 2 hours involves playing music with foobar2000. I do expect its successor to last longer.

    Oh yeah, one additional requirement: The battery must be removable. Much easier to replace.

    Would you prefer to see the notebooks you're considering before purchasing it or buying a notebook on-line without seeing it is OK?
    I always do some research on the model before buying a laptop, also dents and scratches are no biggie to me, as long as they're not excessive, so I'm okay with "blind purchase".

    What OS do you prefer?
    Windows 10, it has to be. However, I do have a Windows 10 USB key (just in case if I need to reinstall or recover my other machines) so I can do it myself if the laptop doesn't come with it.

    Screen Specifics

    What screen resolution(s) would you prefer?
    For reading documents and websites which are what I do mostly, I always prefer squarish screens. My current desktop system consists of two 19" 5:4 screens, 1280 x 1024 on each one.

    But I know it's impossible to find a recent laptop with squarish screens anymore so I can settle with 16:10 or 16:9 screens, as long as they're in 1280 x 800 or 1366 x 768. Higher resolution tends to make the text too small (as in my nc8230 which has a 15.4" 1920 x 1200 screen) and I'm moderately short-sighted.

    Do you want a glossy/reflective screen or a matte/non-glossy screen?
    Looks like I have to go with a matte screen to avoid glares, even if that means I'll miss the vividness of glossy panels.

    Also I'd avoid anything with a digitizer glass (i.e. tablets), as the glass is also fairly reflective (like my 2740p), as effective as a glossy panel.

    Build Quality and Design

    Are the notebook's looks and stylishness important to you?
    Not at all, dents and scratches accepted as long as they're not excessive.

    When are you buying this laptop?
    ASAP, to take advantage of free Windows 10 upgrade.

    How long do you want this laptop to last?
    At least 5 years, preferably 8 years, amidst some physical abuse.

    I will only consider replacing computers after 5-8 years of use so I always demand reliability when I buy a computer, new or used, unless it's already past 8 years old.

    Note that this only applies to the build quality and reliability, speed and performance is not in the consideration, though I'm quite used to the speed of my D420 over more than a year of use and I'm gonna let it run for a further few years. Still, faster is better.

    Notebook Components

    How much hard drive space do you need? Do you want a SSD drive?
    120GB is enough, but I must have an SSD drive in it. Don't wanna lose my files when the laptop drops hard to the floor.

    Do you need an optical drive? If yes, a DVD Burner, Blu-ray Reader or Blu-Ray Burner?
    I guess I must give it up on a laptop of this size, even though I do want one. I do have a USB DVD burner though.

    Additional Requirements

    Recapping what Successor Criteria section has mentioned, I absolutely need the following things described below.

    Durability
    This is the very first thing I'd look into when I buy laptops. I don't give a darn on its look and performance, if it must be treated like a baby to prevent it from breaking then I'll look away immediately. I replaced my Lifebook with two Latitudes for this very reason, and I expect no less with my next laptop.

    I'm not gonna treat my laptops like babies, in fact hits and drops are to be expected. In some unfortunate circumstances such as me crashing my bike or the laptop falling off the tray during a ride, it has to be still in one piece with little to no damage.

    I test my laptops' durability with a 50cm drop test to hard floor, hinge side down. Both my Latitudes passed with no damage, at least visibly.

    Easiness to upgrade
    Literally every upgradable parts must be easy to access, I don't want taking the whole laptop apart just to do something as trivial as upgrading RAM or fitting a WWAN card.

    Connectivity
    WLAN + WWAN + BT + LAN port, if it misses any one if them, it's a deal breaker. However, if it's upgradable (i.e. has slot but device not fitted) by end user, I can do so later.

    Input
    For keyboard it has to be large, at least as large as my D420, preferably backlit but I can settle with non-backlit keyboard.

    For the mouse, after using the pointing sticks (aka TrackPoint) in the three laptops (E5510, D420, 2740p) I fell in love with them, I'd prefer a laptop with one. Otherwise, I need a large and decent touchpad with dedicated mouse buttons, so no Apple-esque haptic touchpad. Considering I also need a large keyboard in such a small laptop, I think this is a no go.

    Flexibility in usage
    Just like my D420, I expect my new laptop to be flexible and survivable in any situation as well, though I doubt it can't, as long as the previous requirements are met.

    The following are nit-picky at best, but I do want to point them out.

    Performance
    After owning so many Intel machines, I really want to try an AMD machine. Well, I do have one (nx6125) but that's very old. Nevertheless, I know the choice is close to zilch so if it's not possible, then stick to Intel. VIA is irrelevant here I guess, though I do want to support it as well.

    As for Intel, I'm aiming for Sandy Bridge i3/i5 at least.

    Port positions
    The biggest complain to my D420 is something that you may think trivial - the port positions.
    [​IMG]
    Most of the ports on D420 are situated at the rear

    This will be a problem if there's little spare vertical space (such as on a tray in a coach / train / airplane), I'd have to bend the cables excessively which may damage them, or they won't have enough space at all.

    Therefore I'd like most (if not all) of the ports to be placed on the sides. Dell has successfully done so with the Latitude X1 (though it's in fact a Samsung) so I doubt if it's really impossible to do.

    Docking station
    Hopefully there's a docking station, preferably with a parallel port and a serial port, but that's optional as I already have my D420 to support legacy hardware.

    My Thoughts
    I've reviewed my requirements and there are a few traditional options available to me:
    • Dell Latitude E6220 / E6230
    • HP EliteBook 2560p / 2570p
    • Lenovo ThinkPad X220 / X230
    So yeah it's the boring offerings from The Big Three again :rolleyes:. Anyway, if you have other good alternatives, feel free to suggest, I'm open to them.

    Again thank you for taking time to read my post :)
     
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2016
  2. Starlight5

    Starlight5 W I N T E R B O R N

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    @OverTallman I suggest X220 tablet. Not only because it's a convertible tablet, but also because you will have VERY hard time finding a normal X220/X230 with IPS display within the budget, and crappy TN is a crappy TN. Also, X220 series are much easier on aftermarket batteries and BIOS mods than X230 series. Other upgrades are very cheap, too; recently, latest BIOS mod was released, with annoying 5-beep problem resolved, so you can finally put any non-whitelisted WLAN and WWAN cards you want inside without compromising security or nasty beeping. Docking station should be cheap as well.

    Just noticed you would prefer non-tablet... well, then good luck finding X220 with IPS within your price range. Both HP and Dell have subpar TN displays unless you manually replace them, will be harder and more expensive to maintain&repair.
     
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2016
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  3. OverTallman

    OverTallman Notebook Evangelist

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    Well as long as the screen doesn't reflect much, I'm fine with that.

    Personally I find my 2740p reflecting too much under bright sunlight, and that's not because of the screen but the digitizer panel. I'll try to take a shot in the daytime.

    I want a screen that doesn't reflect much even under bright sunlight, my E5510's did a good job on that even though the panel itself is lousy (color feels a bit washed out).

    If I did buy a tablet I may even gift my 2740p to my younger sister (she's gonna study 2nd year in uni), I really regret buying a new Acer to her :( (I did thought of buying a good used 8470p to her before)
     
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  4. Kent T

    Kent T Notebook Virtuoso

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    Like yourself, I love my Latitudes, my E5510 survived being dumped (a neighbor who works for the town dump rescued it for me). A new keyboard, upgrading RAM and installing a bay DVD/RW drive, and this old box has never let me down. And it has survived spastic, gimpy me very well. And easy to service and maintain. Why not another Latitude or a good ThinkPad, the older T410/T420 are superb. And can be had in your price range, and so far tough for me. In 12", the old X220 is my all time favorite small screen machine for durability, my work example was beat up when we got it in a lot of X220, and I upgraded storage and RAM, and replaced the keyboard. The most durable ultraportable I can find which does not say Panasonic ToughBook on it. Muscles with a mind of their own tend rough on laptops, I demand machines which put up with me and I can service and maintain.
     
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  5. Starlight5

    Starlight5 W I N T E R B O R N

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    @OverTallman concerning bright sunlight - it is not reflections but screen brightness presenting a problem, at least for me; X220 tablet is not an iPad or something else with 400+ nits, after all. While it's brighter than your HP, some shade or cloudy day are suggested for outdoor use.
     
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  6. OverTallman

    OverTallman Notebook Evangelist

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    Yeah, I feel the same with mine.
    One time when I was working on a CAD model in it and then the program crashed... and my 1 hour of work was gone with the wind :mad:
    In a fit of rage I slammed the lid to close, throw it to a carpeted ground and stomped on the chassis a few times. When I calmed down after a few minutes, I opened the lid and behold, I was welcomed by the Win 10 lock screen :eek:
    Screen still intact, no cracks no chipping, hard drive still good, it looked exactly like before I tortured it. I was like, "WTF!?" At that time I knew I had made a great purchase.
    Such a shame that the E5000 series is so underrated...

    As for ThinkPad, I do have a T410 in my collection, along with a Latitude E6410, an EliteBook 8440p and a Tecra M11, but these four are destined to my relatives. Hey, they've supported me greatly on my study, so I gotta do something for them at the very least.
    As for using a T410, well I might be using one right now if it weren't the fact that I found the E5510 first (and it already had the fastest Westmere i5 when I bought it).

    I've thought of buying a Toughbook but spare parts aren't cheap (even in evilBay) which kinda puts me off. Not to mention they're too heavy to my liking, except their ultraportables.

    Screen brightness isn't much of a problem, in fact the brighter the screen, the less the reflection affects me.
    I tried to take a picture to show how much the glass reflect and I think this one shows the most accurate one:
    [​IMG]
    Screen brightness is set as max, and even then I can't see the image properly on the area with reflection. With dimmer screen I can barely see anything at all. It's not the brightest time in the day too.

    With that said, if X220/X230 Tablet doesn't have the same problem, then I'll definitely shoot for it, as I've just found a rather good deal for a pair of X220t across the ocean.
    Just need to replace a screen (an IPS screen for ~£30, what a bargain) and both the palmrests, and I'll get the US keyboard too.
     
  7. Starlight5

    Starlight5 W I N T E R B O R N

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    @OverTallman I was talking about the fact that X220 tablet is nowhere near 400 nits at max brightness. Display is specced at 300 nits, and produces even less in reality - more like 250. I never noticed such problem as on photo; however, I mostly use X220 tablet at 0%-20% brightness indoors, and don't sit right behind windows - that's akin to asking for trouble.
     
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  8. Kent T

    Kent T Notebook Virtuoso

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    For your CAD, why not a 15" Dell Precision from the Core i era Sandy Bridge? Similar to our favorites in build and ruggedness. Similar in ease of repair/maintenance/upgrades. Handles a Quadro/FirePro, makes short work out of CAD, handles more RAM. Makes sense. Similar form factor, weights. With some hunting, within what you can afford too.
     
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  9. darkydark

    darkydark Notebook Evangelist

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    If you are keen on 12" take a look at 2470p. Fat little bastard, but can be upgraded to a quad core, 16 gigs of ram and two 2.5" hdds.

    For a larger brothers look at e5430, e5420, e6420, e6430, t420, t430, 8470p, 8460p.

    Depending on your country at least one of those should be availible way under your budget with spare money to upgrade.

    Sent from my D5803 using Tapatalk
     
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  10. Starlight5

    Starlight5 W I N T E R B O R N

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    @darkydark FWIW 2570p (there's no 2470p, and it's matching your description) is plagued by ridiculous TN screen - and I wasn't able to find any report of fitting IPS screen there; particularly, attempts to fit X220's IPS were unsuccessful.
     
    Last edited: Jul 13, 2016
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