There was a recent discussion on https://lobste.rs/ regarding the laptop hardware used by the community members (most of which I guess are IT professionals or at least work in a technical position).
Out of the 91 comments, as of 2nd of April,
48 of them mentioned Apple,
32 mentioned ThinkPad,
and only a few mentioned Dell, HP, or Framework.
(These figures are based on the number of posts
which contain certain words connected with these brands,
like for example
thus are not quite accurate,
but it does convey a general trend.)
However, I was astonished how many people were mentioning Apple... For me, these newer Apple laptops are, as one commenter put it, "tablets with a keyboard" because everything is soldered-on, not serviceable by the user, and feature almost no ports except the "insert universal broken dongle here" port... (Granted, in a few recent models Apple started re-introducing HDMI, so perhaps there is hope...)
Anyway, I've also made a comment about my ThinkPad T450, but went further and listed a few requirements that a laptop should meet, especially for an IT professional.
So, I would like to expand a bit upon that comment and explore some more requirements, and perhaps include more details about why I consider them important.
I'll start with the non-negotiable requirements.
I can't see any reason why a professional wouldn't want any of these in his laptop, especially one that he'll use for development or operations tasks.
being able to easily remove or replace one's drive is paramount; the most important component of a laptop is not hardware or software, it's one's data! I can always buy a new laptop, I can always reinstall the software, but the actual data is unique and non-replaceable; (yes, yes, backups... I'm only human...)
for example if one's laptop dies, before sending it for replacement or repairs, one should be able to remove the disk, if not for having access to the data, at least to be sure that one doesn't leave sensitive information on the disk, information which could then be used or leaked by anyone working at the repair facility;
another use-case, one that I've applied many times with my own laptops, is to quickly migrate from one laptop to another by just moving the SSD, applying minor tweaks to
/etc(I'm running Linux), and be up-and-running in less than 30 minutes;
Dedicated video connector (HDMI/DP)
having a proper way to connect to an external monitor, projector, TV, or other kind of display is critical, especially if one often participates in meetings, presentations, meet-ups, etc.;
HDMI would be perfect, every monitor, projector or TV has at least one HDMI port; the cables are cheap (at least the low-quality ones), and you can easily find one in every general store;
mDP (micro-DisplayPort) or DP (DisplayPort) is another choice, albeit a less desirable one because DP cables are expensive, hard to find, and you always need to carry with you an DP-to-HDMI adapter; however most DP ports are also compatible with HDMI, thus the DP-to-HDMI adapter is just a physical one, not requiring any active electronics;
Dedicated Ethernet connector (RJ45)
sometimes the WiFi doesn't just work, thus a proper network cable provides reliability;
sometimes the WiFi works like a 56K modem, thus a proper network cable provides performance;
sometimes you are working in a sensitive environment (e.g. a datacenter), where WiFi is a security liability, thus a proper network cable provides (basic) security;
sometimes you are in an environment that doesn't just have WiFi or 3G/4G/5G, thus a proper network cable is your only choice;
- being able to replace RAM means being able to prolong the life of a laptop; even to this day my parents use my 10+ year old laptop because I was able to upgrade both the RAM and put in a SSD;
Internal SATA connector
in addition to a self-serviceable SSD, having a proper SATA connector means a greater flexibility in terms of storage portability;
one person commented that you can as easily move an M.2 card from one laptop to another; yes, but M.2 is no SATA!
M.2 comes in both M.2 SATA and M.2 NVMe flavors, and some older laptops support only M.2 SATA while at the same time M.2 SATA is hard to come by today; still on the topic of M.2, many older laptops can't boot of M.2;
given how wide-spread 2.5 inch SATA is, each of us already has many racks, cases, or USB-adapters, thus in terms of portability there is nothing better at the moment than SATA;
No NVIDIA GPU!
I don't play games, I don't require GPU acceleration; (although for some reason using Google Meet does seem to require it, else my laptop goes on fire...)
I have always bought only hardware (both for laptops and desktops) that have integrated video graphics; It works best with Intel, and recently I've tested with success an HP t620 thin-client with AMD;
Linux compatibility out-of-the-box
I use Linux; I need every component in my laptop to work on Linux;
I don't want to fiddle with unsupported modules; thus all the hardware must be supported out-of-the box on Linux;
in order to achieve this, I've only bought hardware with Intel-based components; Intel graphics, Intel WiFi, Intel network card, etc.;
non Intel wireless cards are always problematic;
on-board Bluetooth always seems to fail to work properly...
Next I'll present some very important requirements, at least for me and the way I use laptops. These are not necessarily deal-breakers, but they could serve as product differentiators.
Ability to run with the lid closed
I would say 99% of the time my laptop is connected to an external monitor and keyboard, thus I prefer to close the lid of my laptop;
however, some current laptops have the airflow built in such a fashion, that closing the lid basically obstructs the airflow and the laptop overheats; (Apple laptops, from what I can see, seem to fall in this category;)
Airflow exhaust to the side
I have used a BenQ laptop for a long time in my lap, and because it had the hot air exhaust pointed behind, thus towards my left knee, after some years I've gotten quite a sensible knee because of this;
having the exhaust to the sides is especially helpful if one is using laptops in one's lap;
having the exhaust towards the back might be useful only if one uses the laptop exclusively on the desk;
All important ports on one side
the former BenQ model I've mentioned had all important connectors to one side; this included power, network, video, USB;
another former Lenovo X1 model had all the important connectors in the back;
this is especially important for those that use the laptop on a desk, and don't have a docking station; connecting and disconnecting cables is extremely easy;
having all connectors in one place, also permits one to tie the cables together, thus tidying-up the desk;
Proper SD card slot
SD cards are today's floppy's; thus having an SD card is very useful;
some newer laptops have microSD cards; this is not enough; one can easily convert a microSD to a normal SD, but not the other way around;
SD cards are not only useful for photographers, but also as a medium for backups, especially of very important data, because such cards are small enough that they fit in one's wallet;
BIOS boot (instead of UEFI)
to this day I don't understand what all the rage with UEFI is... it's complex, it's convoluted, it doesn't work properly (at least on older hardware)...
I exclusively rely on SysLinux (thus not Grub) to load all my Linux systems, from rescue sticks to my home-server; it is easy to configure, it works with FAT, Ext2/Ext4, and it has never failed me;
Next are some "nice to have" features, but certainly don't influence my decision:
video camera (that works under Linux) -- although it's always crappy, it's there with you everywhere;
3.5mm jack for headphones and / or microphone -- especially useful in conjunction with the video camera;
3G modem (that works under Linux) -- it's nice to have a built-in modem, and not rely on WiFi or hotspots;
external or easily replaceable battery;
Next are some things I don't care about:
keyboard -- all of them are crappy! including new Lenovo / Apple designs! I always use an external keyboard;
touchpads -- all of them are crappy! (perhaps less so with Apple...) I always use a trackball;
trackpoints -- I don't use them, although some swear by them...
displays -- all of them, except for Apple, are crappy! I always use an external monitor; (although I do seem to prefer a mate display as opposed to a glossy one;)
CPU -- most recent CPU's, say i5 and above, are good enough! if I need more CPU power, I delegate those tasks to a desktop;
WiFi -- it's not that I don't sometimes need WiFi, it's that I don't care about it... even the old 802.11g is enough for casual browsing, and in general I always use a proper Ethernet cable (thus 1 GiB/s with no losses);
battery -- at least on Linux the runtime is crappy! I always carry with me a charger, because I'll always reach the end of my battery...
speakers -- all of them are crappy! if I want to listen to music I use a proper speaker over Bluetooth; (even a cheap Bluetooth speaker is better than builtin speakers;)
microphone -- all of them are crappy! it's nice to have one, especially in conjunction with a video camera, mostly out of convenience;
build quality -- it's crappy everywhere you look, perhaps less with Apple! I don't tend to drop my laptop, nor do I physically abuse it... plastic is perhaps better than aluminum because it doesn't deform that easily; Lenovo's approach to paint their cases with some non-slippery stuff is the worse, as it doesn't age well, becoming extremely sticky with old age;
Finally, it shouldn't cost me an arm and a leg!
A laptop is a tool, it's not a fashion statement, it's not a piece of jewelry, it's not a long term investment!
I could see a laptop costing ~15% more than the equivalent desktop + monitor, but by my assessment, currently it's something like +100% or more.
So what laptop am I using today?
A refurbished Lenovo ThinkPad T450 (PN
20BUS1D71G). It meets most of my requirements.
I'll replace it in a few years with another refurbished Lenovo ThinkPad T460 or T470, but not T480 and above because these have started lacking a proper SATA drive and having (at least one DIMM of) RAM soldered-on.
Previously I've used a Lenovo ThinkPad X1 (first generation, PN
and a BenQ Joybook S32.
I've heard good things about Dell XPS, but everything is soldered on, so pass. I've heard good things about Mac's, but besides the fact that everything is soldered on, Apple seems to drop support for them after 8 or so years, thus they become useless. (And running Linux on them is just more hassle than it's worth).
Here is what others have to say about the topic:
- Should you trust a third-party bootloader to run newer MacOS versions?
[...] In my opinion, hardware vendors should continue supporting their old hardware for at least 10–15 years. There's no need for my MacBook to become electronics waste at this point in its life. Assuming I can run still-maintained and secure software on it, it still has years of use ahead of it. [...]
- Fucking laptops
[...] It has since come to my attention that in 2020, every laptop still fucking sucks. Even the ones people pretend to like have crippling, egregious flaws. The Dell XPS series has a firmware so bad that its engineers should be strung up in the town square for building it - if yours works, it's because you were lucky. System76 laptops are bulky and priced at 2x or 3x what they're worth. Same goes for Purism, plus a company I have no desire to support any longer, and they're out of stock anyway. Pine64 requires nonfree blobs, patched kernels, and booting up ARM devices is a fucking nightmare, and they're out of stock anyway. The Star Lite looks promising, but they're out of stock too. Huewei laptops are shameless Macbook ripoffs with the same shitty keyboards, and you can't buy them in the US anyway. Speaking of Macbooks, even Apple fanboys are fed up with them these days. [...]
- How and Why I Stopped Buying New Laptops
[...] All this means that there's no environmental or financial benefit whatsoever to replacing an old laptop with a new one. On the contrary, the only thing a consumer can do to improve their laptop's ecological and economic sustainability is to use it for as long as possible. This is facilitated by the fact that laptops are now a mature technology and have more than sufficient computational power. One problem, though. Consumers who try to keep working on their old laptops are likely to end up frustrated. I shortly explain my frustrations below, and I'm pretty confident that they are not exceptional. [...]
- USB-C hubs and my slow descent into madness
[...] I have one of those laptops lacking a lot of accessory ports. In fact, I'm writing this on an Apple MacBook Pro, and all I got was four lousy USB-C ports. If I want to connect pretty much anything, I need some sort of adapter or some sort of hub. USB-C hubs are a great idea: [...] Unfortunately, since 2018, I've worked through three USB-C hubs, and they're all kinda bad. [...] [...] If you are in the market for a new USB-C hub, then... well, I'm sorry. I can't tell you what to buy. It's probably not the worst idea just to buy a couple of cheap hubs on eBay and Aliexpress, see which one works the best, and keep the others around as backups. Chances are high you'll get the same hardware as the one in the "expensive" hubs anyway. If you buy the "branded" version of those off-the-shelf products, you might get devices that have passed additional quality control measurements. [...]
- Life at 800MHz