The stupidity of thin laptops

Disclaimer: don’t take this article too seriously, it’s a rant. But it does highlight the problems in the industry.

The need

My 7 year old laptop needs replacement and I thought I would go for a more powerful, thin, beautiful new one. Most of the use is still going to be light: web browsing, document work, video watching, some CAD design, some coding and the occasional data analysis (CPU/GPU intensive) and .. not going to lie a game/simulator was added to the list. I really enjoy a screen with decent colors – more than 90% SRGB is enough. This is what determines the class of machine I am looking for: gaming or content creator… says the internet. The gaming ones are the ones with a lot of CPU/GPU power but which may come with a poor color screen, heavy and ugly (some think otherwise). The content creator ones also have high processing power but provide a good screen and i occasionally find them overly expensive. There is some overlap of the categories and usages. Oh, and I want the option to charge via USB C when on the go: lighter, more universal and boy you’d be surprised how few manufacturers and how few models offer this at the moment.

For my needs, the pool of gaming models drops really fast once I look into the ones fitted with decent screens. The content creator ones use good screens, but seldom have higher end GPUs. Accounting for the USBC charging and local availability I was left with the Asus G14, Asus G15, Asus M15, MSI GS66, Razer Blade advanced, MSI Creator.

The curve

If you analyse the performance of machines while considering a specific use, you see that it follows quite a bit of an S curve: at low prices performance is pretty poor and barely rises as the price rises. In the middle price and performance rise proportionally and then it plateaus and you get too little advantage for extra money. For what I am looking for, I would say the middle part of the curve is in the range of 800 to 2400 euros (to keep a round 3:1 ratio). So naturally, my logic is to grab something as high as reasonable from the middle part of the curve. I would not push too high in order to get the most life time out of it since you never know what new toys the future brings. And I would not buy a machine at the lower end since that means having to deal with purchasing another one much sooner. A hassle.

Rant 1  <<< the main thing

This brings me to the main issue here. Nooise! Here’s the stack of laptops i have now. From bottom to top in chronological order.

Bottom one: a 17″ HP Compaq 8710w which I won at an analog electronics contest. I was rocking this 10 years ago. Heavy as hell – 3.5kg. Powerful for its time. 46 mm thick. But it was rather silent – at idle you can only hear the hard disk. The fan is running, but it is so silent you can only hear it if you put your ear next to the exhaust vent and feel the hot air and hear the little noise it makes. The laptop being so thick it has room for a fan that is rather large and tall, which blows the air across some quite tall fins. This means it cam move a rather large amount of air slowly which makes little noise when dealing with the heat from the CPU and GPU

Middle: my current Asus 15″ laptop. A multimedia machine I have been using for the last 7 years. Changed to SSD an 16GB of RAM as soon as I got it and it has been serving me well until now. It’s long since Asus made any fan and performance control software for it, so it is all pretty much driven by windows 10. But everything runs smooth – at idle the fans stay barely audible and produce a quite nice white noise. It takes quite a bit of load to get them to spin up and even at maximum they are not that loud.

Top: the new MSI GS66 which I bought and returned. A gaming laptop with a color accurate screen, USB charging and the usual other goods. Main issue: noise at idle is really loud – the fans’ minimum speed is rather high (2700 rpm) and they are noisy. Manual fan profiles allow you to turn off the fans at low temperature only for them to cycle on/off constantly which is both loud and annoying. At more serious load the laptop gets hot, and despite being the loudest laptop I ever encountered it still reaches high temperatures. It’s a gaming laptop, so it needs to go “brrrrrr” really loud and have flashy colored lights to make the gamers think it is working hard and offering performance. The problem of high noise for such laptops is not unique to this model or brand.

So what gives? The power consumption while being idle is quite similar for the 3 laptops, as measured: 31W for HP, 26W Asus and 27W for the MSI. The majority of the consumed power turns into heat, so the laptops have to remove a comparable amount of heat while being idle. But they are noisier the thinner they are. A similar power consumption at idle means laptops have not been getting more efficient while doing nothing over the last years. Just to compare, a 10 inch tablet I own uses under 0.5W while doing nothing with the screen at minimum brightness, WiFi connected and battery charged, 50 times more efficient! Nb: there are other laptops that are lower power, but they are also lower performance.

At full load, the story is a bit different: ~90W for the HP, ~85W for the Asus and >150W for the MSI. The thin MSI has to get rid of almost twice the heat, while using less space. Twice the heat means twice the airflow. Combined with the reduced height, you get a recipe for faster flowing air through tight spaces which makes more noise. And, when even that much airflow is not enough to cool the device, the internal components end up being a lot hotter which shortens their lives.

As you see above, laptop power consumption has not gone down over time, but stayed the same in idle and increased in high load. Thinner laptops have no way to get rid of this heat but to use a fast air flow, which is noisy both at high load and at low load. This makes these high performance laptops bad companions for enjoying life in silence while the computer has little work to do.

When exactly did we start needing thinner laptops?

There is no doubt that most people would want lighter laptops, as laptops made in the last many many years have all been acceptably thin to throw in a bag or backpack for me. Never have I ever thought that my HP was too thick. To heavy, absolutely!

Could this all be because Intel invented the Ultrabook? Ultrabooks are defined as being very portable, with a certain minimum battery life and… wait for it… a maximum thickness. I am guessing this was a way for Intel to make laptops more appealing and more like the devices people were moving towards, phones and tablets…which rarely contain Intel processors. But I guess they missed adding light and silent in the specification, two common characteristics of tablets and phones.

My thought? we never needed thinner laptops, just lighter ones. It’d very much prefer laptops to be a bit thicker and a lot less noisy.

The normalbook. Or the Everybook.

Here is my proposal for a new kind of laptop: the normal book, a recipe for things every laptop should have, making life better for everyone.

  1. Starting with the issue at hand, on a “Silent” profile you are able to browse the web, work on some simple documents or watch a video in silence. Without noise. Without any fan spinning, all passively cooled. OK, they can get away with running fans, provided they are inaudible at head level in a really quiet room.
  2. All the ports you need, no adapters. That would be HDMI as the most common video interface, 2 USB A ports at least (most devices now still use A), 2 USB C ports which support the full functionality (data, power in, power out, displayport), headphone jack, power input.  Optional SD card reader (no microSD, nobody needs that).
  3. Support for USB C charging to get some use of the laptop with a small charger and be able to borrow someone else’s charger. It’s awesome that phones can interchange chargers, how about we switch to one that works with all laptops and phones now.
  4. That web browsing, document working and video watching on the silent profile should work for at least 5 hours on a charge. This is more a matter of making high power laptops more efficient at low loads, battery capacity is enough.
  5. Good colors – minimum 90% of sRGB (the standard color space every camera and screen uses) sounds reasonable. Cut it out with the crappy 50-60% sRGB screens, they are awful.
  6. A set of standard abilities all should have: webcam (hey Asus), speakers, fingerprint reader, noise cancelling microphone, WiFi.
  7. Bonus: touchscreen that rotates 180 to turn it into a tablet.
  8. And at the opposite end of that “Silent” profile you need a “High performance” profile which gives you all it can with all the noise it needs.

Continuing now to a few other mini-rants.

Rant 2

What is up with missing features like webcams? Poor timing and choices Asus!

Rant 3

What is up with gamers wanting so many RGB lights? And screens with hudreds of Hz refresh rate and usually poor response time and poor colors? I bet they are way past point where people would not be able to tell the difference in an A/B/X test.

Rant 4

Man, CPUs have not gone up in processing power that much. Staying in the same class (i7) and price range i get 6 cores instead of 2, and only around 30% more real performance. That’s a low increase for 7 years, which might explain why it took so long for me to need a replacement.

Rant 5

You cannot trust audio measurements in reviews. First off, they measure with random instruments or even phones which are in no way calibrated. Second, they don’t measure in quiet enough rooms and most might come up with results that are altered by that. Third, the sound level meter mostly used gives you a level considering all frequencies. The fans on the bottom two laptops produce noise that is more spread across frequency (white noise) which is more bearable than a similar level of noise coming from the top laptop which has a rather large component around 5-6kHz.

Rant 6

What about the fruit company? Well, the take the other extreme – they prefer absolute silence which results in lowered performance from the same components.

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