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.

 

My first time looking at a modern T series, specifically the T470s, I was struck by a burning question: what was the X1 Carbon doing if we had other ThinkPad series that were this thin and light? It seemed like other ThinkPads in the family were starting to steal the X1’s limelight. Thinness was traditionally a bit more distinct.

X300 internals (BusinessWeek Magazine 2008)

For those that aren’t familiar, the X1 and X1 Carbon lines were created when Lenovo took the X300 and wanted to change it from a halo product that cost thousands of dollars upon its release and make it more affordable without compromising the wow factor. They were successful and the X1 Carbon is seen by many as the flagship for ThinkPad that is often compared against its many rivals from Dell, HP and Apple. The T430s was the first generation to adopt the Precision Keyboard that first debuted on the X1, but this wouldn’t be the last time the Txxxs series borrowed from its popular sibling.

Now the Txxxs line has been around since the very beginning. Lenovo has gotten better and better making the Txxxs line thinner and thinner each generation. The T460s and T470s were 18.8mm thin. The X1 Carbon does remain the thinner (15-16mm usually from model to model) and lighter device, but we are measuring in a few millimetres and grams. Often some of the key differences between the X and T series now is what parts are available for each with the X1 variants having nicer screens either by default or higher-end ones available that aren’t on other models. The main point I’d like to make is there were fewer and fewer reasons to go for the X1 Carbon over the very strong internal competition from within ThinkPads’ own lineup.

Then came along the X1 Nano. Crazy thin and crazy light (13.87-16.7mm and 907 grams for the base non-touch model). Thinner and lighter than the X1 Carbon and only being beaten out by the X1 Titanium announced at CES this year for thinnest yet. Not only is it thin and light, which many laptops are these days, but its default configuration got my immediate attention. While the base model is expensive, it is well justified with all the bells and whistles that come standard.

X1 Nano internals.

Base specs give it a 450nit DolbyVision 2K display with an integrated IR camera for Windows Hello and 8GB of RAM as a minimum. Granted that RAM is soldered on and maxes out at 16GB but as a starting configuration, not too shabby. Intel 11th generation CPUs in i5 and i7 variants are par the course and a 57Wh battery for lots of screentime. News and review sites like notebookcheck.com have already compared it against the MacBook Air like its predecessor, just like in 2008. 

Honestly, if it had AMD options at launch (I have flimsy reasons to believe that an AMD version might be coming one day) I’d be tempted to cancel my custom-built and pick up one of these. I’d be making a few compromises on my original plans for a new laptop, but wow is this thing pretty. Nobody will mistake this for an X1 Carbon or T14. It’s the sort of “rabbit out of a hat” that I love Lenovo and ThinkPad for over the years and I’m glad to see they still have it. Hopefully, these distinctions will bleed down onto the X1 Carbon to make it a more unique choice like the Z61 did for introducing 16:10 to ThinkPad all those years ago.

 

As some of you will know, I took a quick look at the GPD Pocket 2. While I shared most of my thoughts in the video I posted on YouTube there are some additional words I wanted to put to the page.

While I’m likely not the target user for this device in the sense that the compromises it makes I worry about, I think there is a look of good going on from a design point of view and even more places to improve.

  1. Cooling. It was pretty easy to get the fan up to 50dB making it louder than the laptop it was sitting next to on the desk. With the intake fan trying to suck air from under the device I suspect leads it to work extra hard. There is a button to turn off the fan, likely included to “address” this but I further suspect that will lead to thermal throttling. Apparently, there were earlier versions of the Pocket 2 with stronger CPUs that had even greater thermal issues. They were supposedly swapped out as most people were using the device for standard tasks like documents and email. They wanted to prioritize battery life and the target audience.

    GPD Pocket 2 diagram as seen on their official site. Note placement and clearance of the intake for the fan on the bottom of the computer.
  2. The “Human Element” needs additional work. While it might seem like a nitpick, opening the device so far is not easy. There are magnets and a strong hinge holding it shut and with no perch to place your fingertips, it is hard to open without the small worry of dropping it. Granted the design is using every millimetre of space they have, they still need to take into account the ease of use.  If you are a person with little dexterity I think it would be a point of frustration. While there is a good chance it was made that rigid to stand up being used as a touch screen, I think there is still room for improvements to be made in this area.

    A short GIF showing the less-than-easy opening process.
  3. They are very close to “getting it.” GPD did a lot of things right with this, a lot. The screen is amazing, the touchscreen and Blackberry-like mouse control work well (although the buttons require a fair degree of force). The battery life is quite acceptable and overall the build quality, with a few minor issues that aren’t visible, is excellent. 

I look forward to what a Pocket 3 could look like and how they could make it easier to use. Even if it wasn’t 7″ and got slightly bigger, I think it would give them room to address things like keyboard layout, fan noise/thermals as well as general performance. Until then, I think it remains a battle of function versus size.

Alan Kay, the brain behind Dynabook talked about laptop weight before the word laptop came into common usage. I remember reading in “The Race for Perfect” by Steve Hamm♦ when researching the ThinkPad X300 a story about him testing weight that people would be willing to carry:

“Using a book as a model, Kay taped together a cardboard mockup of what the Dynabook computer might look like, and filled it with lead shotgun pellets until he decided that he
had reached the limit of what people would be willing to carry around. The optimal weight he decided on: two pounds.”

Two pounds for reference is 907 grams or under one-kilogram. It wouldn’t be for decades after Kay’s measurements that computers would be that light.

At CES this year, there are several manufacturers chasing after the one-kilogram laptop. Both HP and Lenovo have put new entries into the ring to challenge the LG gram. Here is a short breakdown of these two challengers.

 

HP Elite Dragonfly Max

Reportedly coming in under one kilogram is the HP Elite Dragonfly Max. Little is currently known about the Dragonfly Max beyond what is in the table below. Out of all of the laptops, it is the only one that hasn’t been released and pricing isn’t currently available. I’ve included the fine print regarding its inclusion into this comparison in the chart below.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano

Not shying away from the lightweight competition is the long-rumoured and awaited X1 Nano. Unlike the HP Dragonfly Max, fully spec’d out only puts it 1g over the one-kilogram mark. While it might lack in ports, it has the nicest screen available between the three models and is also tied for the thinnest on the list. It is also the only one that features Thunderbolt 4 and a touch screen.

The first laptop that most people think of that made the weight part of the branding is of course the LG gram, which I talked about in an earlier article here. The only one that is fair to compare by weight is listed below:

  Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano HP Dragonfly Max LG gram 14
(14Z90P)
Display Size 13-inch 13.3-inch 14-inch
LCD

13.0″ 2K Touchscreen (2160 x 1350) IPS, glossy touchscreen with Dolby Vision™, 450 nits, 100% sRGB

13.0″ 2K (2160 x 1350) IPS, anti-glare with Dolby Vision™, 450 nits, 100% sRGB

13.3-inch HD (1920 x 1080) display WUXGA (1920 x 1200) IPS, DCI-P3 99 percent (Typical)
Aspect
Ratio
16:10 16:9 16:10
Weight
  • Non-touch: 1.99 lb / 907 g
  • Touch models: 2.14 lb / 969 g
  • WWAN non-touch: 2.07 lb / 939 g
  • WWAN touch: 2.21 lb / 1001 g
Under 1kg. Weight will vary by configuration. UHD panel or HP Sure View Reflect, 32GB memory base units, WWAN, 4-cell battery, and 512GB SSD or higher not available on configurations starting at less than 1kg. 999g (2.2lbs)
Size
  • Non-touch: 12.72″ x 8.54″ x 0.55-0.66″ / 292.8mm x 207.7mm x 13.87-16.7mm
  • Touch: 12.72″ x 8.54″ x 0.56-0.68″ / 292.9mm x 207.8mm x 14.27-17.2mm
 Not currently known. 313.4 x 215.2 x16.8mm
(12.34 x 8.47 x 0.66 inches)
Battery 65Wh 4 cell. Not currently known. 72Wh
CPU 11th Gen Intel®
Core™ Processor
11th Gen Intel®
Core™ Processor
11th Gen Intel®
Core™ Processor
GPU Intel® Iris® Xe Graphics
Intel® UHD
Graphics
Intel® Iris® Xe Graphics
Intel® UHD
Graphics
Intel® Iris® Xe Graphics
Intel® UHD
Graphics
Memory 8/16GB
Up to 32GB 8/16GB
(LPDDR4x)
Storage M.2  SSD slot (NVMeTM) 1TB Max M.2 SSD slot (NVMeTM) 2TB Max M.2 Dual SSD slots
(NVMeTM)
Colour Black, Black with Carbon-Fiber Weave on top cover (available on Touch models only) Dragonfly Blue, Black White, Silver, Black
Keyboard Backlit Backlit Backlit
I/O Port

2 x USB4 Thunderbolt™ 4, Headphone / mic combo

USB 3.1 charging port, 2 x USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports,  HDMI 1.4b USB 4 Gen3x2(x2,
USB PD, ThunderboltTM 4), USB
3.2 Gen2x1(x2), HDMI, microSD/UFS, HP-Out
USP Fingerprint Reader, Optional: WWAN LTE 5G / LTE 4G CAT9, WLAN: WiFi 6 AX201 802.11AX (2 x 2), Bluetooth® 5.1, Hybrid infrared (IR) / 720p HD with webcam privacy cover

Optional 5G, 5MP webcamera

Fingerprint Reader, DTS X
Ultra, Wi-Fi 6

Please note I have attempted to leave the text untouched in terms of how it was formatted in the original press releases.

♦Items purchased through this link earn the channel a small commission through the Amazon Affiliate Program.

2021 is off and running with CES and one thing is quite clear and that is people are talking about 5G. Specifically, companies are showcasing it as an included feature in their laptops.

Out of curiosity, I started a simple poll on the YouTube Community page for the channel and asked people to vote on how they felt about cellular connectivity in laptops. After a day, the following results were tallied:

Poll results from the YouTube Community page on cellular connectivity in laptops. Image captured January 9, 2021.

The results were interesting. Approximately two-thirds of respondents didn’t see the need or felt the cost was a barrier. Several people commented that if they needed the internet they either tethered from their phone or used their phone to create a mobile hotspot. One commenter even suggested the benefits of doing this as it allows you to position the “antenna” (the phone) in a better position for a signal without the need to move the entire laptop. I found this thought very sound having done so myself on several occasions.

The question then is of course, who are these laptop manufacturers targeting with 5G? The answer I suspect is the same people that have always been targeted with cellular connectivity in laptops. Businesses. If they have employees that need to have internet access to do their job then it makes sense for the business to purchase a machine and a data plan to ensure they get it. I note a change already at CES this year, with 5G seemingly being used to target consumers as well. But for the average user, I suspect the data plans that are already being paid for as a part of a phone plan are enough. With people still mainly stuck and home or under travel restrictions, being in a location without WiFi is not currently a common experience for many users.

Lenovo’s landing page for the IdeaPad 5G at CES 2021

The big question is, will cellular modems break into the mainstream anytime soon? With cellular bands like 5G almost becoming a branding item like multi-lens cameras on smartphones, I could see it happening. There is also the potential for something like this to be great in areas where traditional infrastructure is not as reliable as cellular service. Time will tell if the consumer values this added feature that I suspect will be coming to more laptops this year than ever before. I suspect many customers however will see this and start to count on their fingers how many times and how much they are paying for internet access.

NEC announced this week that it is releasing its LAVIE Pro to the world.

NEC while based in Japan, when it comes to laptop development is partnered with Lenovo, which makes sense if you want access to large-scale manufacturing capacity.

The specifications of the device appear to support a very mobile yet powerful laptop. Equipped with an i7-1165G7 CPU, 16GB of RAM, 1920×1080 IPS display, 512GB SSD and even an IR camera for Windows Hello as standard there is a lot to like. Although the design is made out of a boasted new carbon material wrapped in a soft-touch coating, the price tag is certainly premium at $1,699 USD.

Packing all of this into a package as thin and light won’t be cheap and it has to make room for a 49Wh battery, but at that price point, can it move beyond just being a “good” laptop? As with many premium devices, they invite comparison and I will be curious to see how the NEC LAVIE Pro stacks up once in the wild.

For full specifications, see their datasheet.

ThinkMods have announced one of their next products on their Discord today. It is a better-built version of an existing mod that puts a USB port inside of your compatible ThinkPad.

This is really handy if you have a USB module for a mouse or keyboard that you use all the time but don’t want to use up an external port. Instead, it plugs into an absent SmartCard plug found on the motherboard. To be clear, this mod is only possible on the X220/X230 and T430 machines. The Tablet variants of the X series listed should be compatible.

While this mod currently exists and can be found on several websites, there are some key differences that the ThinkMod version will provide.

Unlike the Chinese one, these will both be available for $5, and the X220/X230 one actually has a full 5V voltage regulator, so it provides a proper 5V unlike the Chinese one which only provides 3.3V.
(some USB devices, like logitech unifying receivers, are ok with 3.3v, but not all are)

So in summary: Higher quality, cheaper, and ships much faster than the Chinese variant.

While the main focus remains on getting the TM-E2M finished, it is exciting to hear what they have in the works. For more information, consider dropping by their website, https://thinkmods.store/

Why ThinkPads?

Anyone that watches the channel will know that the majority of the laptops featured so far have been ThinkPads either made by IBM or Lenovo.

Here are some of the reasons they are featured:

  1. They last. ThinkPads are designed for business customers first and not the consumer market. That means after their service life, like any piece of equipment, it gets surplused by the company. A lot of surplus is generally written off for scrap, recyclers and tinkerers. What makes a ThinkPad different is, most of them have plenty of life left to give and their original value drops significantly. This is thanks in no small part to the Yamato Design Labs “torture chamber” and the MIL-STD tests that these laptops undergo. Most consumer-grade devices, if they last their life-cycle are often difficult to repair and source parts. A quick search on eBay reveals that parts for ThinkPads however are easily found.

    Yamato Labs from Digital Trends tour in 2017
  2. Maintenance Manuals are readily available. They show you step by step how to service each part of the machine, have images and part numbers. You can read them before or after you buy your laptop to see what you are getting yourself into. Never taken apart a computer before? It tells you how. Not sure if that “for parts” eBay listing is worth your time? Check the manual for costs and price out what it might cost to fix. Screws are also standard so no need for specialized drivers to open the computer.

    Cover of the Maintenance Manual for the T470s
  3. Drivers can be found. Every driver is available on one of thetwo driver websites that Lenovo maintains. No discs required and no hunting sketchy third-party websites for drivers. Get them right from the source. Not only that, but Linux support is infamous on ThinkPads and in the year 2020, you can buy them new with Linux installed.
  4. Design matters. ThinkPads aren’t just a black business laptop. When IBM was sold to Lenovo, one of the things that had Lenovo drooling was all the patents they were buying. Several iconic features were included in that deal. To say nothing of the innovations of swappable Ultrabay drives, the ThinkLight, TrackPoint, the amazing keyboards (both classic and new) would be a mistake. When you spend over 25 years designing an object, you learn a lot. Granted you make mistakes, but the benefits and knowledge over time outweigh the setbacks. David Hill told me that Lenovo knows everything about making a keyboard and that makes sense given how long they have been doing it.

    Graphic from “ThinkPad Design Spirit and Essence.”
  5. Tinkerer’s Dream. Don’t like the ThinkPad you bought? Chances are good there is something to be done about it. Whether it is swapping out factory parts, building an ExpressCard eGPU or seeking our third-party parts to enhance your computer, the ThinkPad community has you covered.

In short, if you are in the need of a laptop, as many are at the start of 2021, if you are willing to take the time and learn about your options, you really do stand to benefit from some used ThinkPads out there.