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The State of the Laptop, 2009: Progress Stalls Out

Every year around this time, I try to get a sense of the laptop market by test-driving sample machines loaned by a handful of manufacturers. Most of this research flows into my annual guide to laptop shopping--which you can read in today's column--but as the laptop increasingly becomes the default home computer, these trials also provide me with a broader perspective on the state of the computing business.

Last August, I found room for optimism. The laptops I tried weighed less and ran cooler than earlier models, and some even showed a belated recognition by manufacturers that users aren't impressed by how much third-party software comes crammed onto the machine.

This year, things don't look so good. Aside from Apple, I see few signs of progress. Once again, the Dell was boring, clean and affordable; the H-P looked stylish but suffered from a high price and a lame set of add-on software; the Toshiba was not so stylish and had an even worse software bundle.

The sidebar story that will accompany Sunday's story includes capsule reviews of those machines, but you can get those details and more here (read after the jump for info on how I conducted my tests):

Apple 13-in. MacBook Pro, $1,199 (starts at $1,199)
* Specs: 13.3-in. screen, 4.4 lbs. (power adapter adds .5 lbs.). 2.26 GHz Intel processor, 2 GB memory, 160 GB hard drive (130 GB free). Reads and writes CDs and DVDs. SD Card slot. WiFi and Ethernet. 2 USB ports, one FireWire 800 port, Bluetooth. Webcam. Mini DisplayPort video output.
* Tests: Battery lasted 3 hours and 58 minutes for DVD playback, 5:04 for MP3 playback. Took 40 seconds to start up. Power consumption when on: 29 watts.
* Notes: Expensive. Terrific battery life, sturdy design, multi-touch trackpad and backlit keyboard. Mac OS X superior to Windows Vista; iLife multimedia suite beats PC bundleware too. Bluetooth standard, but Mini DisplayPort require adapters for use with almost all monitors and HDTVs.

Dell Inspiron 14, $689 (starts at $449)
* Specs: 14-in. screen, 5 lbs. (power adapter adds .8 lbs.). 2.2 GHz Intel processor, 3 GB memory, 250 GB hard drive (193 GB free). Reads and writes CDs and DVDs. SD Card/Memory Stick and ExpressCard slots. WiFi and Ethernet. 3 USB ports. VGA video output.
* Tests: Battery lasted 2:30 for DVD playback, 3:06 for MP3 playback. Took 2 minutes and 4 seconds to start up. Power consumption when on: 18 watts. "Windows Experience Index" score: 3.0
* Notes: A tad hefty, but mostly free of third-party software (though Dell Dock software slows its startup). Clean design, with clearly labeled function keys and only two of the usual, useless stickers. Tested model lacked some helpful features, such as a webcam and Bluetooth.

Hewlett-Packard Pavilion dv3t, $1249.99 (starts at $649.99)
* Specs: 13.3-in. screen, 4.9 lbs. (power adapter adds 1.1 lbs.). 2.53 GHz Intel processor, 4 GB memory, 320 GB hard drive (247 GB free). Reads Blu-ray discs, reads and writes CDs and DVDs. SD Card/Memory Stick/xD-Picture Card and Express Card slots. WiFi and Ethernet. 3 USB ports (one also eSATA). Webcam. VGA video and HDMI audio/video outputs.
* Tests: Battery lasted 2:38 for DVD playback, 3:23 for MP3 playback. Took 3:25 to start up. Power consumption when on: 25 watts. Windows Experience Index score: 4.0.
* Notes: Lame software bundle included links to set up dial-up service (despite lack of a modem) and slowed startup cycle to 3.5 minutes. Power brick weighed twice as much as Apple's. Bluetooth and HDTV-friendly HDMI output are nice bonuses, but upgrades like Blu-ray drive inflated reviewed system's price.

Toshiba Satellite U505, $799.99 (starts at $698)
* Specs: 13.3-in. screen, 4.8 lbs. (power adapter adds .7 lbs.). 2.1 GHz Intel processor, 4 GB memory, 320 GB hard drive (245 GB free). Reads and writes CDs and DVDs. SD Card/Memory Stick/xD-Picture Card and Express Card slots. WiFi, Ethernet and modem. 3 USB ports (one also eSATA). Webcam. VGA video and HDMI audio/video outputs.
* Tests: Battery lasted 2:26 for DVD playback, 2:57 for MP3 playback. Took 1:20 to start up. Power consumption in use: 30 watts. Windows Experience Index score: 3.8.
* Notes: Cheap, and felt like it -- keyboard flexed noticeably during typing. Littered with irrelevant shortcuts for extra software and services. Weak battery life. HDMI output, but no Bluetooth.

If you've used any of these models--or if you have other reasonably lightweight laptops to endorse or shun--I'd like to hear about it. The comments are yours....


How I conducted these tests:

Weight: These figures come from the scale in our mailroom. If that's wrong, then we've been committing mail fraud for a long time.

Free disk space: How much space each laptop's operating system reported available after installing all available system updates.

Battery life: First, I adjusted the default power-saving settings to keep the screen on and the laptop awake. For the MP3-playback test, I set the default music player--iTunes on a Mac, Windows Media Player on a PC--to play randomly through a music library and opened the default Web browser to The Post's home page and Major League Baseball's scoreboard page, both of which refresh automatically. For the DVD test, I used the same power settings but only had the default DVD-playback software active. In some cases, I relied on system logs, as seen in Windows Vista's Event Viewer and Mac OS X's System Profiler, to tell when a laptop's exhausted battery sent it into sleep mode.

Startup times: I used a stopwatch and watched to see when the computer had finished loading its default assortment of startup applications. In some cases, you might be able to start work while the last program or two finished launching.

Power consumption: I plugged each laptop into a Kill-A-Watt power meter, then observed its report with the computer in an awake but otherwise idle state.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  July 31, 2009; 2:55 PM ET
Categories:  Computers  
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I hope you don't wait another year for the next iteration of your tests, but can test-drive a few after they ship with Windows 7 and Snow Leopard to give us some idea of how that changes startup and battery life times. I realize that this may be outside of your control, but it would also be useful if the comparison machines were similarly configured hardware-wise.

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | July 31, 2009 7:46 PM | Report abuse

I am an acknowledged MacSnot: they're just superior machines in almost every way.

Having said that, I am typing this on my beloved eee pc running a very snappy version of ubuntu9.04 (eeebuntu, if you must know). Further, I have several very stable XP virtual machines that I use on a daily basis: I know and am facile in many OS, my mac bias isn't blind or uninformed.

HAVING SAID THAT: if you're in the market for a laptop, TEST IT and pay attention to two main features:

* Keyboard -- how does it feel to type on it? Open a text editor and type a few lines. Move to the next machine you're considering and do the same.

* Monitor -- how does it look? Stick a DVD in (I use FINDING NEMO) and examine how bright and sharp the colors are.

If the store you're at won't let you run either of these tests, go to one that will. Because if you don't know you're going to enjoy looking at/typing on the machine, how can you buy the one that's best for you?

And, bottom line: You get what you pay for. My tiny eee is a marvel, but it cost less than my iPod Touch and with good reason: it's of far lesser quality (with less storage) and I expect it won't last as long as the iPT. The Asus feels cheap, has a lesser screen and worse battery life.

But it does have a keyboard, however cramped it may be, and is far easier to snuggle with in bed than my 15" MBP.

I suppose that's one other feature you should test: How does the machine feel in your hands when you heft it/carry it about?

Posted by: Bush--notrelated | August 1, 2009 12:17 AM | Report abuse

Oh, one more point...

Read elsewhere that the Wal-Mart sub-$300 laptops come with Vista Home and will NOT be eligible for free upgrades to Win7.

Suddenly that $300 lappie is a lot more expensive b/c few are going to want to chug along with Vista Home on such underpowered processors...

Posted by: Bush--notrelated | August 1, 2009 12:20 AM | Report abuse

I like the Lenovo (IBM) Thinkpads. They have been good machines. Now I have an X61, which has been superseded by the X200. I tried an X200 and like it, but it has a wide-format screen -- fine for DVDs, but I'm working with documents mostly. The X61 is light but gets really hot. The best thing about Lenovo is the warranty service -- super fast, if you need it.

I think I'd like to try the Macbook Pro 13" running Parallels for Windows if that setup would really run all my Windows software. Of course, you have to buy a Windows OS to do that, but what would you buy today?. I use and like XP but guess that will finally be phased out with Windows 7, BUT Windows 7 that has an XP emulation mode, but you can't buy Windows 7 yet . . . so I think about all that and do nothing.

Posted by: Bitter_Bill | August 1, 2009 12:53 AM | Report abuse

Gateway LT3103.
2.8 pounds. 12" screen.
Tossed off Vista .. Ubuntu runs like a charm.
Wish list - 14" screen, backlit keyboard, HDMI 1.3 out, maybe bluetooth.
But for $400 it seems like a good value,
rather than $800 HP. I just hope it holds up!

Posted by: George20 | August 1, 2009 1:56 AM | Report abuse

Only thing I'd add is that windows 7 comes out in October. So if you're in the market for a pc, I'd wait until then unless you find a phenomenal deal or aren't in a position to wait that long.

Posted by: Booyah5000 | August 1, 2009 2:25 AM | Report abuse



Posted by: cleverdave1 | August 1, 2009 5:15 AM | Report abuse

Why did you only test consumer laptops? Of course they are cheap and boring and loaded with crapware. Try some business laptops. I have a Thinkpad x61s and it is also boring, but the build quality is good and it is very compact and light with good battery life.

Oh, and you aren't going to get something for nothing. You want a wonderful, inexpensive laptop. Ain't gonna happen. You can pay a lot for a good laptop, or you can pay a little for a cheap laptop. There is a reason the $800 laptops cost $800.

Posted by: member8 | August 1, 2009 6:51 AM | Report abuse

Have you tried the Sony laptops, specifically the VGN-SR490? Very light, great raised keyboard, no add-on applications, and run Vista extremely fast...

BTW, the Mac OS has security flaws as well, refer to below URL;
"Mac flaw could let hackers get scrambled data; There’s no ‘no magic fairy dust protecting Macs,’ security expert says..."

Posted by: SammyB1 | August 1, 2009 6:53 AM | Report abuse

What jumps out at me is that the MacBook starts up in 40 seconds.
Everything else is over a minute longer.

Posted by: edlharris | August 1, 2009 7:54 AM | Report abuse

I run Ubuntu on my two netbooks and will replace my laptop with one that runs Ubuntu with classic desktop. Perhaps future WaPost columns in this series will include comments about ease of installing Ubuntu or other Linux operating systems on specific computers.

Posted by: TeresaBinstock | August 1, 2009 8:43 AM | Report abuse

I wish you'd looked at low-end Acer laptops. They market themselves principally with exceptionally low prices, but some models offer considerably horsepower by conventional measures. My experience is that they come bundled with a few frustrations probably avoided with higher-priced brands, but they might be very attractive to someone who know a bit about Wintel machines and invests some effort in optimizing the configuration.

Posted by: rboltuck | August 1, 2009 9:10 AM | Report abuse

OK, I ordered an HP G70 yesterday from Newegg. $600 after rebate for a 17" screen and qualifies for Win7 upgrade. Don't care about bloatware cuz it's toast. I'll try Vista but if it doesn't work for me I'll load the 7rc I'm using now. It's due Tuesday, if there's a problem with it I'll let you know. It's replacing a 5yo HP that's just getting way too slow but had no other problems.

Posted by: jimbo1949 | August 1, 2009 11:47 AM | Report abuse

It is embarrassing to admit that when I first started working with custom software, I used a stopwatch to time how long it took to move from screen to screen and 25 years later you still need a stopwatch to time the minutes and seconds it takes for a computer to start up so it can be used. Will Windows 7 help out with that?
Have an HP laptop that has good battery life and doesn't get too hot and have had it for a year.
Need to check out the graphics capability if it is going to be used to drive a larger screen, like in a dorm room, for TV.

Posted by: duanelaw1 | August 1, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

Guys (I think all current comments are by males), remember the target of this column & blog: the less computer savvy. Anyone reading a column like this for basic "what should I buy" advice won't be wiping an existing OS and installing Ubuntu, Fedora, Win7rc or the like.

Instead, they'll be looking to learn exactly what Rob pointed out: "I wanna spend as little as possible, what should I buy?" Obviously, this puts the business lappies, the Macs (unless the buyer has a preexisting bent towards the MacOS) and more expensive machines like Vaios, Lifebooks, etc out of the running.

Unfortunately, its these users who'll be most disappointed when their $300 machine RUNS like a $300 machine, so urging them to remember "you get what you pay for" is valuable advice. But urging them to wipe and install something else or buy something that needs more configuration-tweaking is counterproductive: they're not up for it.

Which is why so many people are returning (according to one manufacturer) their linux-based netbooks. And why Wal-Mart dropped the gOS machine, although Newegg still offers it: Newegg buyers KNOW what they're getting, Wal-mart buyers (and to some extent those reading this column for advice) don't.

Posted by: Bush--notrelated | August 1, 2009 1:46 PM | Report abuse

I recently bought a Toshiba Satellite A300. I would have seriously considered a Lenovo as I am reliably told they are the most reliable of all PC notebooks. But they rate poorly in the Greenpeace Greener Guide to Electronics, as do Apples by the way. Toshiba do OK. I wanted to wait till Windows 7 was out but my old notebook was dying. To date it's great - clear screen, no crapware of any note and installation process was simple and works a charm. I always believe it's best to get a computer better than you need for now, as in 2 years you'll want the extra grunt to run all the new programmes that have come out.

David in Australia

Posted by: wavey | August 1, 2009 2:51 PM | Report abuse

Here is my two cents: I have a Dell Inspiron 5160 (I know, I know an ancient machine). I bought it used from a pawn shop for $200.00 and think it's a great machine save for one major flaw: It's too heavy! I know it weighs in excess of ten pounds and that is too heavy for something portable. But aside from that it runs Win XP Pro like a dream. It's a bit slow on boot but I do have connecting to my desktop drives so that's understandable but I bet I can run it against newer laptops and it would perform as well as any.

Posted by: RDSpeer | August 1, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

I recently bought my first Macbook Pro (13"). I have been using OS X on my desktop for about 4 years. I love the Macbook. Not too fond of the sharp edges near the wrists, which I consider to be a design flaw. It does get rather hot, too. But OS X is worlds ahead of Windows and such a pleasure to work with (I'm a programmer). Boot-up times vary, and seem to have increased after I installed XCode and the dev tools, but still not annoyingly long.

My sister just bought a Toshiba (either 15" or 17") and it seems crude in comparison. I don't just mean looks or style (I don't buy Macs for style, I buy them for OS X being the best desktop on a unix there is, IMO). Simply getting the laptop to find my wireless access point on her laptop was irritating - the Mac just does it, no clicking all over to connect to network, choose network type, click to find networks, click to do this, click to do that.... gah!

I also just got an Asus eee pc 900, with Linux, for quite a low price. It's good to have for the kids and as a carry-around computer, but its keys are too small to do any real typing (using more than 2 fingers), and its 4GB SSD arrived almost 96% full - with no way to remove default programs you don't want without going to the command line and doing some intricate mojo. It's more like a toy, but for $180 I'm not complaining.

Posted by: hitpoints | August 1, 2009 8:40 PM | Report abuse

Since the only time I ever use a laptop is while traveling, the single most important feature is WEIGHT; i.e. the lack thereof.
My aging Toshiba Portege R100 which I bought used a couple of years ago weighs exactly 1KG--2.2 pounds for the metrically challenged. It doesn't have a built-in CD/DVD, doesn't have the longest battery life, and lacks some other bells and whistles. But even with the supplementary battery, which adds about a pound, it still doesn't feel like I'm carrying a ton of bricks. Almost every new so-called "lightweight" laptop weighs at least twice this much. The only possible replacement might be a netbook, but they have their own drawbacks.

Posted by: RAB2 | August 1, 2009 9:12 PM | Report abuse

I know that the MacBook is using some newer battery technology, but it is amazing how much better the battery life it. Roughly 1.5 hours more than the other three. Nice.

Posted by: jkh1970 | August 1, 2009 9:48 PM | Report abuse

How did you choose these laptops?

I agree you should have looked at Sony. I had two 13.3" Sony Vaio laptops. Both right around or under 4 pounds, plenty of memory, HDD space, optical drive, etc. They were the old S and SZ series machines that have since been superseded.

I am currently using a Samsung X360 which I love. Weighs under 3 pounds, long battery life, bright 13.3" screen, decent sized HDD, plenty of USB ports. The only potential drawback is the lack of an optical drive, but I never use one on my laptop anyway so I don't miss it at all. And I could always get a USB DVD if absolutely necessary. I install software by using the DVD drive on my desktop set up to be a shared drive on my home network. Runs Vista Business, 3 GB of RAM. It is a great machine that I ended up getting for $750 after rebate.

Both the Sony's and the Samsung have ExpressCard slots that accept pretty much any sort of ExpressCard. I had an ExpressCard memory card reader for my Sony's, but the Samsung has its own built in card reader.

I think you missed the boat yet again with this article.

Posted by: fedssocr | August 2, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

How about adding durability? I've gone through a number of laptops myself toting them around school and work, and have noticed that every other feature means squat if a two ounce coffee spill on the keyboard fries the video card. The iBook G4, eg, bent easily, and way back when I had an AMD-K6 die from an 18" fall.

I realize the fall could've killed most anything, but getting an idea of how college-kid-friendly each would be would be nice.

The new class of "business rugged" laptops (and even Apple's original iBook; an interestingly shaped but strong machine for students) shows durability is a market factor worth watching.

Posted by: WorstSeat | August 2, 2009 6:38 PM | Report abuse

I have an x61 too, like it a lot, expensive, multitouch screen but no software uses that. Decent battery life, not a lot of 3rd party software, but a ton of factory software means a lot of effort to keep updated and slow boot/shut down. Agreed the x200 replacement is too big.

Posted by: dbh369 | August 3, 2009 9:44 AM | Report abuse

The two computers I've come to rely on are any Mac and any Thinkpad - I think the hardware, reliability, and durability of these two makes are just better than what else you can find in the market, now or ever, really.

I have a Lenovo T61 Thinkpad now as a replacement to my IBM-made T41 and you can see some cost cutting but its still a great computer. Of course, Windows still crashes, various applications crash, and having to manage anti-virus is a pain.

My other laptop is a MacBook Pro and its great - it just works, its solid, great to hold and type on, and the screen is great. Better is the software it comes with, no viruses, and it never crashes.

If I'm buying a PC or a Mac, the costs are identical as far as I'm concerned since I don't buy the cheapest, lowest performing models, I buy useful models.

Posted by: macross2 | August 3, 2009 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Ladies think about the timing of this column. Okay what big event happens in next few weeks for parents with spawn between the ages of 18 to 30yo. They go back to college. You can here the Halluhahs now from the Parents Chorus.

Poor Robby does this column every year at this time. Great service for those poor parents.

Parents remember to check the college book store for deals . also remember Apple gives big education discount of 11% I believe.

Posted by: omarthetentmaker | August 3, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for all the comments. To answer a few questions that you've raised here:

* I picked those four vendors because they've been the four most popular notebook brands in recent years (some of the newest stats have Acer in third place and Apple in fifth, but those group notebooks and netbooks in the same category). This way, I would cover the manufacturers people were most likely to come across in the mass market, but it did mean giving up the chance to review less popular but potentially more interesting laptops.

* In particular, had I had another two weeks and 10 column inches, I would have liked to include Lenovo and Acer. Sony's a tougher call... their market share has been declining for years. (FWIW, the Vaio laptops I've seen in stores suggest that Sony has yet to curb its addiction to bundleware; that would have hurt the company in my evaluation.)

* Y'all make an excellent point about durability, but there's no effective way to test that in a two-week trial--not least since the PR folks that loaned these computers expect them back in one piece, and destructive testing makes that difficult. All I can do is note parts that seem obviously fragile (e.g., the Toshiba's flimsy keyboard) and comment on designs that seem stronger than usual (the MacBook Pro's case).

* You won't get an argument from me about the utility of ultralight laptops (by which I mean under 3 pounds). That's the kind of machine I'd want to get for my own use. But those tend to cost a lot extra, and my own kind of use case--schlepping a laptop around through four days of CES--isn't really applicable to college use.

* Yes, 54Strat, I definitely plan to put Windows 7 on some of these machines to see what it does to their performance. Some of the companies involved will want the computer back before October, but with most I should be able to stretch out the product loan for another month or two.

- RP

Posted by: robpegoraro | August 3, 2009 11:56 AM | Report abuse

This comment might be too late, but I want to add in that docking solutions are an important feature for laptops. I have a Sony Vaio and get a lot of utility from the docking station designed for use with the laptop. There are generic solutions, but they usually lack DVI or HDMI support. A laptop review should include info about docking station features. Thanks for the round up.

Posted by: Alexandria-va1 | August 4, 2009 10:25 AM | Report abuse

The Apple Macbook Pro may cost more upfront, but chances are that it will last much more than the year or two that many windows laptops survive. Plus you do not need to buy or subscribe to anti-virus software. Nor worry much about software configurations, drivers, updates, crashes etc. And of course it is solidly built. This is from a household that has 4 Macbooks of various vintages all going strong.

Posted by: OttawaForester | August 4, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

The factor that is missing from this article is: what do you want to do with your laptop?

Netbooks have made one issue very clear: most people are buying vastly overpowered laptops.

If you want to just surf the net, get email, view a few flash videos, you do not need a $1000 dollar plus machine.

I have a dv5z from HP I bought for $550. Yes, it has an AMD processor, but that's plenty of power for all of the above. It's durable, well built, with a nice screen. I just deleted all the "bloatware" the digerati can't seem to get over. Battery life is just over 2 hours, but I, like many laptop users, use this laptop as a desktop replacement, always plugged into a wall socket.

Posted by: skshrews | August 7, 2009 10:20 PM | Report abuse

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