Ditching the Box: My First Laptop

By Sol in Blog

I just had the rare opportunity to make a first-time purchase– I bought a laptop.

“What’s the point of a laptop?”

That’s what I would have said only 6 months ago, but after spending some time on the road with a (woefully underpowered) netbook and discovering that I actually enjoy working away from my desk, it suddenly became the top choice for when the time came to pick up a new computer.

Why now?

Despite the fact that my current desktop is only 2 years old, there are several reasons why I decided to buy a new computer now.

The Deal

Famous last words: “It was a great deal”. First, within a day of coming across the laptop I would ultimately buy (more on this later), its price decreased by $50 on Newegg. Checking the laptop’s pricing history showed that the price fluctuated between the currently reduced price and $50 more.

I’ll take a $50 savings any day.

In addition, Newegg was offering a promotional $100 gift card when you purchased this particular laptop. I don’t know how often or how long they’ve been running this promotion, but $100 is a non-trivial discount (nearly a 14% discount in this case). The stock configuration of this laptop is not without its weaknesses, so the extra $100 will let me add RAM and other accessories.

It actually was a great deal.

I was going to buy something anyway

I was already planning to spend $200+ for components for my desktop computer.  Since the laptop would come with these components pre-installed, it seemed like a good idea to put that money into a laptop instead of buying the desktop components now and then still buying a laptop 6-12 months from now.

Yes, I’m really saying, “I spent $700 in order to save $200″.

The Pressure was on

I’m not too proud to admit that a big reason that I bought a laptop now rather than later was because the $100 gift card promotion was ending tomorrow.

Marketing working it’s magic, people.

In fact, I put it off until the very last minute– the time of purchase on the invoice was 11:57:54 PM. It really could have gone either way in the end, but I clicked the “confirm purchase” button and that was that.

Diving into the Unknown

However, the world is not sparkling cider and sunshine now that I’ve purchased my very first laptop.  There are several unknowns related to this purchase that made it hard to hit the “buy now” without consternation.

Will I make good use of a laptop?

Up until now, I’ve used a computer at a desk. I’m used to it; it works for me. As such, I’m expecting that I’ll still do this with a laptop much of the time, simply connecting it to my current LCD monitor, keyboard, and mouse. How much will I really make use of the laptop’s mobility and untether it from the desk to use in other locations?

Is it fast enough?

In order to meet the constraints of a battery-powered device, the laptop’s processor is actually a fair bit slower than my 2-year old desktop’s Intel i5 2500K processor. Will the current CPU be fast enough for my needs? Messing around with the laptops at the Buy More can only tell me so much. Until I use it in a production environment, I won’t know whether this laptop is fast enough.

No Returns

Unlike many purchases, computer purchases at Newegg cannot be returned for a refund once the box has been opened. Rather, it can only be replaced if defective. This means I’m stuck with it regardless of whether it meets my needs or not.

The Laptop

After quite a bit of research, I ultimately purchased the laptop that was the catalyst for my thinking more seriously about picking up a laptop– the Acer Aspire TimelineU M5-481TG-6814 Ultrabook (or simply the “M5″).

As I previously mentioned, I picked up the laptop from Newegg primarily due to the recent price drop and $100 promotional gift card. However, a discounted price was not the sole reason I purchased this particular model. There were certain requirements that any laptop would need to meet to be a candidate for purchase:

Thin & light

“Portable” is subjective. Your standard laptop is about 1.3″ thick and weighs over 5lbs. I knew that if I bought a standard laptop, it would never leave the desk because it would be far too bulky to carry around. My goal was to comfortably work anywhere, and to do that, I narrowed my focus to ultrabooks.

As I would learn though, “ultrabook” is just another word for “compromise”.

Laptops in general, with their limited expansion potential, are already rife with compromises compared to a full-size desktop computer, and this is even more true for ultrabooks. While I would have loved a laptop with a quad-core i7 processor, it’s simply not going to happen for (most) ultrabooks. In fact, the M5′s Intel i5 3317U CPU is practically de rigueur for ultrabooks. As a result, performance could not even be a requirement if I was limiting my options to ultrabooks.

At 0.81″ thick and weighing 4.3lbs, I took a gamble on a machine with a slower CPU than my current desktop because its thin dimensions and (passably) light weight at least meant that I could easily move about with it. It’s a gamble that could go either way.

Discrete GPU

Working with video post-production software such as Adobe Premiere Pro and After Effects require a discrete GPU for optimal performance. As such, any laptop with integrated graphics (e.g. Intel’s HD Graphics 4000) simply would not cut it. Furthermore, many applications require a Nvidia GPU, which further narrowed the field (sorry AMD).

The M5 is equipped with a Nvidia 640M LE GPU with 1GB of RAM. While it may not compete with desktop-class video cards, it definitely should meet my GPU-specific needs.

Compromises (there are many)

Like I said, simply choosing an ultrabook means you’ll be making compromises. In order to prioritize portability I’ve had to compromise on performance (single option for CPU and GPU), expandability (10GB RAM max), resolution (14″ 1366×768 LCD in lieu of my current 21″ 1680×1050 LCD), and even usability (no numeric pad on keyboard).

While I cannot say that I’m completely confident that all of these compromises are worth the cost, I am hopeful that many (if not all) of these compromises will be non-issues under normal working conditions.

Aside: Of course, if one desired to knock all compromises out in one fell swoop, there is always Gigabyte’s U2442 Ultrabook, which has a 1600×900 LCD, Intel i7 CPU (but not quad-core), 8GB of RAM, and Nvidia’s 650M GPU (with 2GB RAM). Then again, at over $1200, Gigabyte’s offering costs nearly twice the M5′s price, which is a definitely a compromise of a different kind.

What will I use it for?

Basically everything. Well, at least I hope to as it’s simply not worth it to buy a laptop (as I learned with the netbook) if it won’t allow me to continue working on my current projects. To that end, the M5 will hopefully be able to do at least the following fairly well:

  • Development — Programming for the web and mobile devices
  • Film/Video Post-Production — Editing, visual effects, sound design, etc.
  • Photography — Managing and developing photos in Adobe Bridge and Lightroom
  • Graphic Design — Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator

All will soon be clear (hopefully)

So many questions! Nonetheless, I’m looking forward to receiving my very first laptop in a couple days and seeing how well it fits into my ideal workflow. Check back in a bit, as I’m sure to post my notes and observations.

PS: Shout out to ShopRunner, who automatically extended my membership for free throughout the holidays. Without the free shipping provided by ShopRunner for Newegg purchases, this purchase would likely not have even been an option (Newegg’s shipping costs to Hawaii are a killer).