Chris Harjadi is a sophomore student studying cognitive science. The focus of his studies includes how computer science and psychology connect via virtual reality/”metaverse” applications, as well as learning about the philosophy and linguistics of computer systems. In the article below, Chris shares his thoughts on the relationship between making computers intuitive to use, thinness and repairability. Feel free to reach out to Chris via email.

Would you like to contribute an article as a Guest Writer? Feel free to get in touch via the Contact button.


TL;DR (Too Long, Didn’t Read): More and more nontechnical users are using laptops; they would prefer sending them to a repair shop over DIY repair, and the market share of DIYers in both corporate and consumer buyers is dwindling. 

So far, I would say that IT businesses have shifted mostly from individuals who repaired laptops on an individual basis (ex, laptop repair much like the “do it yourself” ethos of PC builders) to being outsourced to bigger repair shops (ex, Staples,  Office Depot, Insight, etc) in the corporate world, leading for businesses not to really care about the repairability of the machines they are manufacturing. After all, a broken laptop, in an employee’s eyes, is broken and will often be repaired by the “tech guy.”

Since computer manufacturers want to give the consumer what they want, a computer that is easy to repair is not often a priority. If their customers don’t care about the repairability of the device, then it means the manufacturer doesn’t normally either. This gives laptop manufacturers a stronger incentive to “lock up” their computers and make them less repairable because it isn’t as important as it used to be. On the design side, larger manufacturers over the years including Lenovo, Apple, HP, Dell and more, want to outdo each other in providing what the consumer wants. This often means thinner and lighter devices (what is valued) at the cost of repairability (not as valued). 

I think it could be due to manufacturers targeting non-technical users by giving them a seamless and intuitive user interface/hardware interface. This marketing has been pushed rather strongly by Apple compared to the Microsoft/Windows laptop market. Over the years Apple made several ads showing the ease with which a computer could be used and Microsoft felt the pressure to create a similar experience for its users. This means the overall skill ceiling to use a computer becomes lower and accessibility is greater. These are both good things, but they come with a price.

Since the number of non-technical users has increased over the years, the DIY ethos has less and less of a market share, leading to manufacturers to cut costs, first soldering chips to the motherboard, then soldering the RAM later on. Even mainline ThinkPads, like the ThinkPad T490 and later, only have one user-replaceable RAM slot. Interestingly enough, this feature now appears on the L series, which is geared towards smaller business consumers that might need to make their machines work for longer periods of time in between upgrades, making this feature more desirable at this price point. This leads to a cycle where non-technical employees and consumers enjoy slimmer and slimmer laptops, while sacrificing tech-friendly features like maintenance hatches and easy to replace RAM. David Hill said it well in an interview segment featured on Laptop Retrospective:

“It’s not as utilitarian as it once was but some of the need for some of that stuff is not so great. It used to be really, really important to swap out batteries, the hardfile [hard drive] and all this stuff. It’s a slightly different world now and to make a computer like that would make it thicker, more expensive, more complicated, layers upon layers upon layers of materials. I think that kind of thing, that time has somewhat passed. There may be a market for some of that but it’s a smaller market.”

Businesses buy these laptops because they are in demand and the computer technicians can fix them quickly by swapping larger components wasting less time on diagnosis. When they run out of warranty, the hard-to-repair laptops flood the refurbished market every 2-3 years. Many computer enthusiasts prefer to buy used hardware because they have the skill and knowledge to have them run good as new. Interestingly, HP and Dell have kept many of these features in their business-class laptops, yet they have also had to put internal batteries in laptops. 

On the ground, I see that most tech enthusiasts and people who like to tinker tend to talk about the right to repair (which is an important movement), while other non-technical users will get outside help. In the end, it mainly impacts people who buy refurbished units or old laptops on eBay or other retailers, while businesses and employees tend to be generally happy with using their work laptops. Though the Framework laptop has helped revive the right to repair discussion for laptops, its features are only appreciated by technology enthusiasts. In short, repairable features of laptops are only appreciated by tech enthusiasts, which are making up a smaller and smaller share of the laptop market.


Thanks again to Chris for putting this together. If you’d like to read more about this subject, you might be interested in the articles below.

Dec
28

Repairability, Realism and the Rise of Repairables

Like a few articles on this website, this was inspired by a tweet by a friend of mine Dave Kennedy.  Dave is right. ThinkPads have been sporting modular, repairable and swappable parts as part of their original bento-box style design. To see one of the finest examples of this, see the video below. There has […]

Like a few articles on this website, this was inspired by a tweet by a friend of mine Dave Kennedy. 

Dave is right. ThinkPads have been sporting modular, repairable and swappable parts as part of their original bento-box style design. To see one of the finest examples of this, see the video below.

There has been a big change in how society views computers. They have gone from specialized hardware to an appliance. Appliances are disposable and do not require background knowledge to use. For example, you don’t need to know how your microwave or fridge works to operate it. In the early days of computing, not knowing how a computer worked meant it was difficult to use. This has led to them being more disposable. Mobile computers are especially prone to being disposable.

A modern mobile computer that is disposable cannot realistically be repaired outside of large component swaps. We are talking about everything being soldered onto a board. Due to this and a variety of other factors, you often see people replacing their mobile devices every three years or sooner, which coincidently is when the extended warranties also run out. Few companies are left that offer warranties beyond this point and this is an unattractive prospect for business customers that cannot go without. One might say that repairability is the answer, but it isn’t so simple. This is compounded further as business customers and the average consumer aren’t interested so much in repairability anymore as a feature. Other items like build materials, thinness, ports and power are more important. Few are concerned with making room for servicing. It also doesn’t help that definitions vary between groups. When I followed up with Dave about this article, he had this to say:

From a business perspective “serviceable” means more than fixable to many. Upgradeable to increase longevity, security where data on sensitive components can be removed and physically destroyed without killing the entire device. – Dave Kennedy

There are awesome channels out there that do a great job of documenting this process like Louis Rossmann who has become synonymous with the Right to Repair movement. He needs are unique in the sense he wants schematics and access to parts that companies like Apple are keeping from entering any kind of public supply chain. Make no mistake, this has a direct impact on the owner of electronic devices because it opens up choice for where you can get your device repaired, the level of repair and of course, the cost. Currently, many manufacturers will not do component repair and will only offer to swap out the board or larger parts that house that component. Right to Repair would give third-party repair the option to offer component repair to more devices.

Now that is a very quick and dirty summary of a very complex and ongoing issue and that brings me back to laptops. It is well known in tech circles that the least repairable devices are from Apple and any other company that prefers adhesive and soldered components. Many Surface devices from Microsoft are no better. Recently, there has been a resurgence of repairable laptops like the one offered from Framework which I’ve discussed on this site before.

May
09

Framework Laptop- What we know so far

Since I first posted about the Framework Laptop, many details have been released. Here is everything we know so far about this laptop. Currently, Framework is preparing for pre-orders. You can find out more information in their article here. 1. 1080 Webcam The Framework Laptop will have a 1080P 60fps camera. Produced by Partron  in […]

This is really cool to see a company building a computer that is ‘completely’ user serviceable. But how much of an advantage do you really have over other laptops?

Now full disclosure, I have yet to have the opportunity to look at the Framework Laptop (I hope one day to do so), so this is not based on my personal time with it, but let us talk about the basic components that make up a laptop:

  • Case
  • Display
  • CPU
  • Cooling solution
  • Battery/Charging system
  • RAM
  • Motherboard
  • dGPU (if present)
  • Keyboard
  • Ports
  • Mouse/Pointing device
  • WiFi, LTE/5G
  • Storage
  • Speakers
  • Microphone
  • Camera

Thanks to Intel and AMD, you cannot get a socketed CPU anymore in a laptop after the 4th generation of Intel. This is a pain point for a lot of older users that remember the days of swapping out a CPU and getting better performance. This is one of the factors that make the ThinkPad W540/541 and other machines of that era still desirable. It has a socketed CPU, four RAM slots along with nearly everything else being removable and user serviceable. While not “modern”, it has even more serviceable components than newer laptops that advertise a highly repairable device.

Since a socketed CPU is out, that only really leaves RAM, WiFi, LTE/5G and storage for upgrades. Framework is planning on possibly having motherboards/CPUs that you can swap out with the same screw points to reduce the need for you to buy a whole new PC; we will see how this works once the company has been around long enough to release another board revision. Beyond these components, most manufacturers have similar levels of repairability with the only distinguishing factor being how easy it is to access parts. Another benefit of course is a company that encourages you to tinker, upgrade and modify your device and is actively supporting third party development of expansion modules. One other item that doesn’t get a lot of discussion is ports wearing out that are soldered onto the mainboard of laptops and the Framework is currently no exception to that. The only really way around that is to make the ports socketed on the board itself or put them in smaller boards that connect to the main board. The expansion card system does potentially mitigate this, but only if you aren’t constantly swapping modules.

All that being said, I remain cautiously optimistic that this will be a return to more easily swappable, repairable components, but it could also be very possible the that industry has moved on from this being desirable (people willing to pay for these features or sacrifice other features) and this could just be a new niche or a passing moment. David Hill, the person that led ThinkPad design for decades in a Think Design Short Stories segment had this to say:

It’s not as utilitarian as it once was but some of the need for some of that stuff is not so great. It used to be really, really important to swap out batteries, the hardfile and all this stuff. It’s a slightly different world now and to make a computer like that would make it thicker, more expensive, more complicated, layers upon layers upon layers of materials. I think that kind of thing, that time has somewhat passed. There may be a market for some of that but it’s a smaller market.

Nobody really looses when a machine is easier to repair, except maybe the sale of a brand new machine which has a higher profit margin but at the same time, supporting older machines means a steady stream of sale of replacement parts as well. Perhaps we will see each major manufacturers sell a highly repairable and serviceable line for those customers that desire it just like those customers that desire other specific experiences. Time will tell and maybe we will find out as early as CES 2022. 

Perhaps 2022 will the be year of the “repairables” category.

Ahead of CES this year, LG is breaking into the gaming laptop market. The UltraGear series laptop is supposed to be a thin laptop that boasts significant performance. Here is an excerpt from the press briefing:

LG’s take-anywhere gaming rig features an 11th Gen Intel® Tiger Lake H processor, NVIDIA GeForceTM RTX 3080 Max-Q graphics card, dual-channel memory and an ultra-fast dual SSD setup. In addition to a 17-inch IPS panel with a 1 millisecond response time and a 300Hz refresh rate, the LG UltraGear gaming laptop ensures immersive, fluid gameplay for even the most graphically demanding PC games thanks to the latest top-of-the-line hardware. Also, LG’s cooling system with vapor chamber keeps the laptop running cool, even when pushed to the limits.

When it comes to this much performance in a thinner chassis (o.84 inches), cooling is ultimately the problem. Modern laptops are essentially guaranteed to throttle at some point given that it is an acceptable outcome nowadays. It will be interesting to see how this laptop benchmarks under load. Vapor chamber technology has been used before to cool all sorts of setups and seeing how it can handle cooling a modern Intel CPU and NVIDIA GPU will be worth watching closely.

Pricing has not yet been announced but given the specs listed below, it will likely be a premium priced device. Given the continuing GPU shortage however, the 3080 might be attractive enough to give this device a try.

LG UltraGear 17G90Q

Display Size

17.3-inch

LCD

FHD (1,920 x 1,080) IPS 1ms, 300Hz,
sRGB 99 percent

Aspect Ratio

16:9

Weight

2.64kg (5.82lbs)

Size

400 x 271.6 x 20.9 ~ 21.4mm

(15.75 x 10.69 x 0.82~0.84 inches)

Battery

93Wh

CPU

11th Gen Intel® Core™ Processor Intel Tiger Lake – H

GPU

NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3080 Max-Q Graphics 

Memory

16/32GB

Dual Slots

(DDR4)

Storage

Up to 1TB

M.2 Dual SSD slots (NVMeTM)

Color

Purple Gray

Keyboard

Per-key RGB backlit gaming keyboard

I/O Port

USB 4 Gen 3×2 Type C (x1, USB PD-out & TBT4),
USB 3.2 Gen 2×1 Type C (x1, USB PD-out & DP),
USB 3.2 Gen 2×1 (x2), HP-Out (4-Pole Headset, US
type), HDMI, RJ45, DC-In, microSD/UFS

USP

IPS 1ms response time & 300Hz refresh rate,
Fingerprint Reader on Power button,
FHD webcam with Dual Mic, IR Camera,
Wi-Fi 6E & Intel® Killer Wireless,
2 Way speaker (2.0W x 4) with DTS X Ultra,
Cooling System with Vapor Chamber,
gaming UI (UltraGear Studio)

This article was made possible by the excellent and very interesting study linked below.

Coppola, Sarah M., Philippe C. Dixon, Boyi Hu, Michael Y.C. Lin, and Jack T. Dennerlein. 2019. “Going Short: The Effects of Short-Travel Key Switches on Typing Performance, Typing Force, Forearm Muscle Activity, and User Experience.” Journal of Applied Biomechanics 35 (2): 149–56.

https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/jab/35/2/article-p149.xml

One of the longest-running metrics for keyboard quality, especially on laptops has been key travel. While key travel plays an incredibly important part, I’ve had a hard time believing it was the only one. I know for example that there are many fans of what is considered the classic IBM/ThinkPad 7-row keyboard before it was changed to the design we have today. When that design changed occurred, strong opinions emerged and that didn’t result in any significant change to key travel. If you want an in-depth look at the differences between these two keyboards, I strongly recommend this article from Laptopmag.com: https://www.laptopmag.com/articles/thinkpad-type-off-is-lenovos-new-island-style-keyboard-better-or-worse

Lenovo at the time also published a 5-pager which you can read here: Lenovo-Keyboard_Change-Is-Hard-Why-You-Should-Give-In-to-the-New-ThinkPad-Keyboard They outline the work that went into the redesign of the keyboard if you have never read it.

In the article above they examined several different metrics and came to the conclusion that the newer keyboard was not a step backward. In fact, the key travel between the two keyboards is identical, but the strong opinions remain for some, thus another factor must be at work. Now, getting back to our article from the Journal of Applied Biomechanics.

The present results suggest that key travel alone does not predict biomechanical outcomes and that key mechanism and activation force are also important factors in key switch design.

The results from the study were very interesting considering the common trend among reviewers and I suspect the industry as a whole is to discuss key travel as the main metric to measure the quality of the keyboard. Many companies like Dell have come up with some interesting ideas such as the use of magnets on their keyboards to maintain a good tactile feel while reducing travel. Others like Apple have ended up being in the news over their butterfly switches and their failure rate.

Specifically, the 2 devices with the same short travel (0.55 mm) had the largest differences across most muscles, though this difference was relatively small (<1.0% MVC). These 2 devices differed in activation force and mechanism: Tablet S had a dome switch mechanism and a higher activation force than Notebook S, which had a butterfly switch mechanism. Similarly, this study found that key travel distance was not strictly associated with typing force, typing performance, or perceived experience, as Tablet S was associated with the worst results across these measures compared with the other 3 devices.

In short, other factors such as the switch mechanism and how it relates to activation force potentially play a larger role than just key travel alone. Some might wish to equate a longer key travel with a greater activation force but that isn’t how spring mechanisms work.

Cherry MX Brown Switch Components. Note the spring included that makes up the core of the force required. Daniel beardsmore / http://deskthority.net/wiki/User:Daniel_beardsmore, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Let us consider the classic example of a keyboard with an actual spring in the switch for sake of simplicity. If we look at Hooke’s Law which is used to calculate spring constants, F = -kΔx where F= force in Newtons, -k= Spring Constant and Δx= the change in spring length, we can see from this relationship that depending on the spring, we can change how much force is required for a specific change in distance. Now for further math-related content regarding keyboards and force, I strongly suggest you spend some time looking at the work done by Javier De Leon at the University of Alaska.

http://ffden-2.phys.uaf.edu/webproj/211_fall_2018/Javi_De_Leon/javier_deleon/Title_Page.html

If seeing classic  keyboard switches gutted are your thing, you might want to check out this article that shows the switch designs of several classic ThinkPad keyboards including the 701C

https://deskthority.net/viewtopic.php?t=15457

Turning out attention to the ThinkPad X1 Nano, which has key travel of 1.35mm, the mechanism gives it a positive typing experience. One of the “key” criticisms of the newer ThinkPads is the reduced key travel on the thinner models. While thinning a laptop down objectively leaves less room for key travel and some traditional activation mechanisms, we shouldn’t count out innovation to find solutions to these problems.

With pre-orders open to most countries for the Framework Laptop, I’ve been reading some criticism (some serious, some not) on the module design that Framework has created.

Some have stated that the creation of these “pockets” in the body of the laptop is a gimmick and does not truly add meaningful functionality, but I am tempted to disagree. While the concept is simple to execute, it has large implications on how these machines can be configured.

One way to look at this is to peer back into history when, not at computers, but military load-bearing equipment or LBE for short. It wasn’t until recently that this equipment adopted a similar idea to the Framework Laptop known as modularity. Many armies traditionally have had bags or satchels and at best, sewn on pockets to a vest or harness, but these pockets could not be moved or swapped out, so every soldier had the same equipment, but not the same mission.

Over time this got better, but the position and availability of the pockets were often limited to proprietary systems that offered no interchangeability.

Diagram of the Canadian ’82 Pattern web gear. While somewhat configurable, you were limited to the pockets that were created for it and placement on the belt only.
The Canadian Forces “Tac Vest” that was issued after the ’82 Pattern was not a large improvement. All pouches were sewn on with the exception of the bayonet carrier and two large side pouches. There was no compatibility with other systems.

The standard practice of MOLLE and other systems brought about huge change in how a soldier could configure their gear. Using a “basket-weaving” style method, you could now swap pouches and pockets to change up the load of equipment you carried without too much difficulty. To me, this is what Framework is trying to do with their laptop.

The MODULAR FIGHTING ORDER CARRIER RIG (MOFOCR) from CP Gear. This can be configured and reconfigured in any way the user requires. Only limited to the pouches they have on hand. Compatible with multiple systems.

In short, I am hoping more people are willing to give this concept a chance. It has a lot of merit to be able to configure the machine to perform in a variety of different situations and tasks where ports truly matter. It could also impact how businesses would deploy a fleet of machines and be able to swap ports between them. Not to mention if a module is used frequently, it could also reduce wear on the USB-C port that would otherwise be used with a dongle on a frequent basis.

Since I first posted about the Framework Laptop, many details have been released. Here is everything we know so far about this laptop. Currently, Framework is preparing for pre-orders. You can find out more information in their article here.

Feb
25

The Framework Laptop, a modular laptop in 2021

Modularity is something we haven’t truly seen in laptops since Intel decided to stop offering socketed mobile CPUs. Manufacturers often shoulder the blame on that, unfairly in my mind, but that is a topic for another article. Many users miss the days of taking apart every component of their laptop and replacing or upgrading components […]

1. 1080 Webcam

The Framework Laptop will have a 1080P 60fps camera. Produced by Partron  in South Korea, it will have the following  specifications:

  • 1/6″ OmniVision OV2740 sensor
  • 80° diagonal f/2.0 four-element lens, using a blue glass IR filter for improved colour performance
  • Realtek RTS5853 camera controller
  • Hardware privacy switch for the camera and microphone array
The camera and microphone array. Image from Framework Blog.

2. The Motherboard

The motherboard planned is designed to be removed and replaced with other motherboards of the same form factor. It also sports:

  • Removable memory modules
  • Tiger Lake CPUs at launch (i5-1135G7, i7-1165G7, i7-1185G7)
  • Thermal system designed for 28W continuous load
  • 65mm x 5.5mm cooling fan
The motherboard from the Framework laptop. Note the larger cooling fan and dual memory modules on the same side of the board. Image from Framework Blog.

In terms of other items such as SSDs, WiFi cards and more, see the summary below:

  • You can buy  the Framework Laptop without RAM, SSD or WiFi so you can use your own parts
  • M.2 2280 PCIe Gen 4 NVMe (up to 7,000MB/s and write speeds of up to 5,300MB/s)
  • Prebuilt models will ship with Western Digital’s SN730
  • 2 SO-DIMM sockets supporting DDR4 DRAM at up to DDR4-3200. Maximum of 64GB of RAM over 32GB modules
  • Prebuilt models will ship with Samsung, SK Hynix, and Micron
  • WiFi is handled by support for 2×2 WiFi 6 and WiFi 6E modules through an M.2 2230 socket

3. The Keyboard

The keyboard of any laptop is an essential component as you spend more time touching it than any other part of the machine. Here is what we know about the keyboard on the Framework laptop:

  • 1.5mm key travel
  • Backlit
  • Keyboard and top decks will be available for purchase
  • US English, UK English, International English, French, French Canadian, Korean, Chinese Pinyin, Chinese Traditional, Japanese, German, Italian, Spanish, Latin American, and Dutch Belgian variants are being planned
  • Completely black and clear keyboards will also be available
The keyboard of the Framework laptop. Image from Framework Blog.

4. Storage Expansion Cards

One of the eye-catching design choices of the Framework Laptop is the expansion modules. These allow for functionality and ports to be swapped on the fly through the use of the USB-C form-factor. Several modules like USB-C, USB-A, HDMI, DisplayPort, MicroSD are already planned and now they have added storage to this list. 250GB and 1TB are the current sizes being tested.

  • Cards being made by BizLink and Phison
  • U17 Flash Controller, N28 NAND
  • 1TB card exceeds 1000MB/s read and write
  • 250GB clocks in at  1000MB/s read and 375 MB/s write
Storage card about to be inserted into one of the slots on the Framework Laptop. Image from Framework Blog.

5. 3:2 Display

Let’s get right to the point. This display looks amazing. To remove it, simply remove a magnetic bezel and four fasteners.

  • BOE’s 13.5” 2256×1504 LCD
  • 1500:1 contrast
  • 100% coverage of sRGB
  • Lay flat design (180-degree hinge)
  • Ambient light sensor
  • DC mode backlight controller to avoid flicker
  • 400 nit 
  • Bezel colour options available
The Framework Laptop flat on a table with its 180-degree hinge. Image from Framework Blog.

6. The Power Adapter

Power adapters are important, for without them, you have a paperweight. Here is what we know about the adapter that will be bundled with the Framework Laptop:

  • 60W 20V/3A USB-C (USB-PD 3.0 and PPS)
  • Developed in partnership with Phihong
  • 58mm x 58mm x 27mm
  • Modular cable options for different regions and is replaceable from both ends or the brick itself
The inside of the Framework charger. Image from Framework Blog.

I first encountered the name Steve Hamm when I was doing research on a ThinkPad to track down and cover for the channel. I had consulted several lists to see what would be some fun and unique models to try and acquire that weren’t overly expensive. There are some really cool ThinkPads out there, but some are simply not being sold online or if they are, go for significant amounts of money, ready for museums.

I settled on learning more about the ThinkPad X300 and quickly, after a few searches in a variety of places, one of them being YouTube, I found there was little in the way of recent coverage and discussion about the X300 and its underappreciated role in laptop design. However, one of the items I did find was a talk that Steve Hamm gave on the Microsoft Research channel. You can find the full video below.

After watching the first hour of Steve’s talk, I was intrigued. Steve had been a technology journalist for over 20 years at the point to wrote “The Race for Perfect: Inside the Quest to Design the Ultimate Portable Computer.” Then I saw the cover of the book and found a digital copy of the dust jacket. The book was primarily focused on the X300, I thought I couldn’t have asked for a better resource. At the end of the project, it was a tie between the treasure-trove of the book and talking to David Hill (who was the head of design at the time for IBM/Lenovo) about the X300.

The front cover of the book featuring the Lenovo ThinkPad X300.

One thing you need to understand is the book is more than just about the X300. If you want to understand the history of portable computing or ThinkPad development, you need to read this book. The stories and people that he interviewed for the book at first might not seem interconnected but it helps you build an understanding and appreciation for what Lenovo was able to accomplish in the X300. Going all the way back to the early days of portable computing up to what was the present day at the time of publishing gives a crystal clear picture of the significance of computers like the X300. This isn’t just about one laptop, it is a history of mobile computing.

Steve had exclusive access to multiple key people on the X300 project, David Hill included. Originally he was at Lenovo to interview the chairman who just recently completed the purchase of IBM’s PC division. His schedule was packed, but he had a few minutes where he was taken down to the design lab, this is where he and David would meet for the first time. When I spoke to David Hill, he told me about how far Steve’s access went.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They brought him down to the design lab and said, “Hey, this is Steve Hamm, he is from BusinessWeek Magazine, he’s got like, 20 minutes, can you show him something?”

I’m like, okay. So I said, “So what can I show him?”

“Well he’s on a Non-Disclosure-Agreement so you can show him anything.”

So I showed him what were were doing and he was so fascinated with it, he said, “I want to write a book about it.”

So we gave him a complete, insider view of exactly what was happening. He went to Japan and he went to Italy and he met with Richard Sapper, he met with Naihtoh-son. It was kind of funny, I had an interlock call with Naihtoh-son we had a regular kind of call when meeting about various kinds of topics and he said, “Hey do you know this guy Steve Hamm?” and I said “Yeah I do.”

“I met him in Japan, he knows everything.”

I said, “Yeah, he does. We’ve been talking to him and showing him all this stuff. What did you do?”

“Well I figured it must be okay, so I showed him everything.”

David Hill would go on to say that this was completely counter to anything that IBM would have ever allowed. If you haven’t seen my video review of this book, please consider watching it below.

Steve mentions this in the Microsoft Research video above when he talks about the book, but one of the great things about “The Race for Perfect” is he was able to interview and get these accounts first hand from the people that were there with very few exceptions. I will leave the final word with Steve Hamm as it personifies how I felt when I sat down with David Hill to talk to him regarding his role in the X300.

These people are incredible inventors and they need to be remembered. 

-Steve Hamm

I hope you enjoy the interview, it was a lot of fun talking to Steve and I am infinitely grateful for the generous gift of his time and sharing. For those looking for an audio version of the interview, you can find it below or click here for the mp3.

It isn’t a secret that most claims of laptop battery life need to be taken with a grain of salt. From my experience, the average consumer doesn’t realize how much exactly battery life can vary based on 

  • Machine specifications (Display size and resolution, CPU/GPU configurations)
  • Battery size (WHr)
  • Battery technology (Most are Lithium-based but battery technology is constantly improving)
  • Power Draw (How many Watts each component is drawing at any given time and for how long)
  • Usage (The processes the end-user is running, their intensity and duration)

Claims listed on manufacturer websites occasionally will not include the specific conditions or tests that result in the numbers that they post. I’ve also read several posts of some very suspect claims of older machines getting very high hour counts for battery life. The one exception to this might be the individual that put actual Tesla Model 3 cells into their ThinkPad T420S to give them 129.7Wh with 0.2V under a 60W load.

T420S battery upgraded with Tesla model 3 21700 cells.

Assuming that this modification might not be for you, there are a few things to think about when looking at battery life statistics.

Get multiple sources of data.

While the manufacturer “should” be a reliable source of information on the product that they have created, battery statistics are often theoretical maximums and not “regular usage.” You will note that nearly every brand will list their battery life with the words: “Up to X.X hours” because they know as well as I do that you can drain any battery to flat under the right conditions in record time (Notebook Check drained the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano under maximum load under two hours). This isn’t entirely their fault or even misleading. Since how computers are used is varied so much, it would be exceedingly difficult to come up with a number that could be agreed upon as “normal use” that would apply to every user.

“After fully recharging the laptop, we set up the machine in power-save mode (as opposed to balanced or high-performance mode) where available and make a few other battery-conserving tweaks in preparation for our unplugged video rundown test. (We also turn Wi-Fi off, putting the laptop into airplane mode.) In this test, we loop a video—a locally stored 720p file of the Blender Foundation short film Tears of Steel—with screen brightness set at 50 percent and volume at 100 percent until the system quits.” –PC Mag Review

By using a theoretical maximum it gives the consumer an idea of what the machine can be stretched to do in terms of energy conservation. If a laptop functioning at its leanest cannot produce the battery life you desire, you know it isn’t in the running. At the same time, knowing those lean conditions and deciding if they are acceptable for you are also a key part of the decisions. Some battery tests are far more theoretical than others. This is where reading and watching multiple detailed reviews to get an average is the most reliable method.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano battery statistics. Note how their results and test conditions differ from PC Mag.
Battery information for the Dell XPS 13. Due to the different screens available on this model, they list both expected maximums as well as testing conditions. Note the lower system specifications and screen brightness.

Try to find use cases and configurations similar to your own.

When looking for those reviews or videos, try to find similar configurations to the machine you are looking to purchase and similar use cases if possible. For example, the difference between a 1080p panel, 2K panel and 4K panel is quite significant when it comes to battery life. This can actually be the difference of up to 50% of your battery life. In 2017 Joshua Goldman published an article for CNET.com that showed this issue. It is also illustrated in the screenshot of the 9310 XPS 13.

For example, Dell’s XPS 13 outfitted with its QHD touchscreen lasts for just about 8 hours in our tests. Get the full HD display instead, though, and you’re able to get more than 10.5 hours of battery life. It’s the same for the HP Spectre x360, which is rated at 8 hours for the 4K version, but 16 hours with a full HD screen.

Set realistic expectations.

Battery technology has come a long way, but some of the claims of 19 -20+ hours haven’t reached realistic use cases in my opinion. Those numbers are often achieved with WiFi off, the machine on but idling or running a simple task and with screen brightness set to a very low level to reduce power consumption. Take a look at the PC Mag statistics and test data above to see that while impressive, how realistic is this situation for all users?

Understand it is a balance of finite resources.

When it comes to laptops, it is ALWAYS a compromise. It is a tug-of-war between weight, size, performance, affordability, durability, endurance and more. Resist the urge to believe what you know you shouldn’t to avoid disappointment and returns. Focus on what you really and truly need and how it fits within your budget. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box.

Consider the power of Rapid Charge technology. 

Many higher-end laptops are now coming with some kind of Rapid Charge technology that gets you to full battery in record time. Rapid Charge often gets you the major of your battery back in 30 minutes to an hour, or your average lunch break. This is a significant factor to consider because if you have this technology at your fingertips, you might just need to consider how long your battery lasts for half the day, not the full day. My new ThinkPad X1 Nano has about half of the battery capacity of the Surface Book 2, but it is gentler on power consumption and the ability to Rapid Charge means I haven’t missed it at all. 

Are there other topics relating to laptop design that you’d like me to write about? Feel free to send me an email with your idea using the Contact form on this website or hit me up on Twitter. Thanks for reading.

Modularity is something we haven’t truly seen in laptops since Intel decided to stop offering socketed mobile CPUs. Manufacturers often shoulder the blame on that, unfairly in my mind, but that is a topic for another article. Many users miss the days of taking apart every component of their laptop and replacing or upgrading components inside without having high levels of training in soldering and electrical engineering.

Enter the Framework Laptop announced today by a company of the same name. To see their press release, you can visit the link here. This small, but the growing team has revealed their plan to make a modular laptop available for purchase and plans to make it available in the summer of 2021. You will be able to buy the laptop pre-assembled or as a kit you put together yourself, which, I’m not going to lie, sounds like a blast.

One of the items that make the Framework Laptop unique instantly is its use of Expansion Cards. These appear to be USB-C connections that are recessed into the machine and allow the laptop to be configured with whatever ports you want, when you want. This reminds me of when the MOLLE system was introduced to the military and law enforcement community.

The Expansion Card. Available in a variety of configurations like USB-C pictured here, USB-A, HDMI, DisplayPort, MicroSD and more are planned.

This is a very exciting machine with a lot of potential. Framework has plans to set up a module marketplace where different components could be built and used with this machine to increase the longevity of the machine. It is certainly an ambitious project that I will be watching closely.

In February 2018 after months of research, I went to a Microsoft Store and purchased a Surface Book 2 13.5″ i7 model to replace my MacBook Pro. With the warranty, it was a significant investment of just over $3000 CDN. I’ve used my Surface Book 2 every single day (documenting it in this video series) and up until the end of 2020, it did everything I needed it to do. However, my next laptop will not be a Surface Book or any Surface for that matter.

My Surface Book 2 with my MacBook Pro in the background.

Before we jump to conclusions, I’m not dissatisfied with my original purchase or even have buyer’s remorse in any way. The Surface Book 2 has served its role with me admirably without a single fault and I know from reading thousands of comments on my Surface Book 2 videos, that others have had issues. For me, here are the reasons why I will be moving on:

  1. My needs for a laptop have significantly changed. I think this is something a lot of people overlook when they get critical with directions laptop brands go. Laptops change, but so do we. With video conferencing being used more and more, a passively cooled i7 is showing some struggles. Oddly enough, some video conferencing platforms utilize the dGPU which is actively cooled and runs perfectly, but some platforms, mainly Google Meets rely on the CPU and integrated graphics and I’ve tried nearly every tweak out there to get it to cooperate. Running 25 tabs, several programs and conferencing software generates a lot of heat that it simply cannot get rid of. The need for a dGPU has also gone away and laptops with them are no longer a draw, changing the field of choices dramatically. A good screen, powerful CPU and solid battery life are specs that I am not willing to give up though.
  2. The Surface Book 3 was a bit too safe. I had high hopes that the patents that Microsoft took out that clearly showed some ideas they had for the Surface Book would be released in the third generation machine. However, like many others, I was disappointed that it was essentially just a chipset refresh with some other minor improvements to the hinge mechanism. That’s fine if you don’t already own a Surface Book, but for those that did, it seemed very lacklustre.

    Microsoft Store Front circa 2008 COLLINS: CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
  3. The closure of the Microsoft Store. I’ve said this multiple times, but the closure of these stores was a huge blow for me. It was the only place to really go in my area to see high-end laptops and actually pick them up and get a feel for them before buying them. This was a huge part of making my original decision to buy the Surface Book 2 in 2018 because I could actually see it. For most other laptops I had to rely on reviews, videos and other marketing to try and decide remotely if it was worth the investment. Surface lost that advantage and now goes back into the pile of choices that I would now have to bite the bullet on and order blindly without ever touching the device.
  4. Changes in warranty service. The benefit of having a Microsoft Store nearby and a Business Warranty was if anything ever went wrong, I could walk in and get it sorted out very quickly. Now that isn’t an option. So just like I explained above, it is open season for whoever can provide the best warranty for my device in my region. Since this is a device I use for work and not personal use or hobby related tasks, that extra layer of protection means a lot to me. So whoever can provide the best service in that area is now a contender.
  5. I’ve learned a lot about laptop design. Three years is a long time and I have learned a lot about laptop design and what is truly important for my needs. I remain confident in 2018 I made the best decision 2018-me could make and I have no regrets. But knowing what I do now, I will make my next decision based on 2021-me and what he knows.

In conclusion, none of the reasons listed above are a negative experience with the Surface Book 2. In terms of what replaces it, I have narrowed that down to a select few machines and it looks like parts availability and timing will have more to do with choice. Regardless of that choice, I’ll be Thinking  Differently in the future.