Fucking laptops

Published 2020-02-18 on Drew DeVault's blog

The best laptop ever made is the ThinkPad X200, and I have two of them. The caveats are: I get only 2-3 hours of battery life even with conservative use; and it struggles to deal with 1080p videos.

The integrated GPU, Bluetooth and WiFi, internal sensors, and even the fingerprint reader can all be driven by the upstream Linux kernel. In fact, the hardware is so well understood that I have successfully used almost all of the laptop’s features on Linux, FreeBSD, NetBSD, Minix, Haiku, and Plan 9. Plan fucking 9. It can run coreboot, too. The back of the laptop has all of the screws (Phillips head) labelled so you know which to remove to service which parts. User replacable parts include the screen, keyboard (multiple layouts are available and are interchangeable), the RAM, hard drive (I put a new SSD in one of mine a few weeks ago, and it took about 30 seconds) — actually, there are a total of 26 replacable parts in this laptop.1 There is a detailed 278-page service manual to assist you or your local repair tech in addressing any problems that arise.

They’re quite durable, too. Mine still looks like it just rolled off the assembly line yesterday. In fact, it was built 12 years ago.

The X200 was made in 2008. In the time since, the modern laptops’ battery life and video decoding performance has improved. In every other respect, the market is regressive, half-assed garbage.

I am usually near power, so I’ve been reasonably happy even with the pithy battery life of the X200. I also have a T520, which sucks in its own way2, but can decode 1080p videos just fine. I generally don’t need a lot of power - compiling most programs is fast enough that I don’t really notice, especially with incremental compilation, and for any large workloads I just SSH out into a build server somewhere. However, I’ve been planning some astronomy outings lately, and the battery life matters for this - so I was looking for a laptop I could run Stellarium on to drive my telescope into the wee hours of the night.

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.

The laptop market is in an atrocious state, folks. If you work at any of these companies and you’re proud of the garbage you’re shipping, then I’m disappointed in you. Come on, let’s get our shit together and try to make a laptop which is at least as good as the 12 year-old one I’m stuck with now.

  1. Which just means you can basically take the entire thing apart and replace almost any part. 

  2. It barely gets an hour and a half of battery life on a good day. And there’s an Nvidia optimus GPU, which is just, ugh. 

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