The Notebook I'm Glad I Didn't Buy

A few months ago I was looking at buying a new notebook computer to replace my MacBook Air and become the centre of my creative and entertainment endeavours. I spent months researching the different options available, reading reviews all over the web and going to big-box stores to get some hands-on time with similar units. Whenever I buy a computer, I first look at two key elements: the screen quality and the keyboard. The screen, because that's what we look at for the vast majority of the time we spend in front of the device, and the keyboard because that's what we touch when interacting with the system. Almost everything else is secondary as CPUs are generally fast enough for what most of us want to do, SSDs are often fast enough to keep up with expectations, and just about every other part of today's computers can do what we ask of them. Well … except for the touchpads, of course. Synaptics has had two decades to get their software right, and it's still a pain in the butt to type on most notebooks without first disabling the touchpad entirely.

During my research, I paid close attention to the expandability and repairability of the notebooks. Apple devices look and feel great, but they're neither upgradable or easy to fix without taking the device to Apple or one of their authorized repair centres. I've never been comfortable with the idea of letting another person have physical access to my computers when I'm in the same room, let alone trusting someone who will open the machine while out of sight. I have a lot of digital resources on my computer that fall under strict NDAs, and I won't give strangers the benefit of the doubt when it comes to leaving my storage mediums alone. What this meant is that Lenovo, with its history of easy hardware upgrades, was quickly up front as a manufacturer to stay close to. The units that caught my eye were the X250, the T450S, and a T550. All of these machines had some clear advantages and a respectable amount of upgrade room.

In addition to looking at Lenovos, I looked at an interesting device from Hewlett-Packard, as they were my preferred hardware vendor a decade ago. The Spectre 13 x360 Limited Edition is basically HP's version of the MacBook Air. The screen is wonderful. The keyboard is … a keyboard. Upgrades and repairs, though, are impossible. Everything is soldered to the motherboard, including the storage device. If I wanted to upgrade to a 1TB SSD in a year or two when the prices came down, I'd be out of luck.

After literally months of deliberations and a handful of podcast episodes where my friend Keita and I discussed moving from Apple to Linux, I decided to buy a MacBook Pro. The extra power over the Air was welcome and, as just about every 13" notebook maxes out at 16GB RAM, I opted to just get a unit that came fully equipped. I can't upgrade the unit, nor will I be able to easily repair components as they fail with age, but the keyboard and screen are wonderful to work with in Ubuntu MATE 16.04.

So with all this said, what notebook am I glad I didn't buy? A Lenovo W541; the machine my employer supplied for development and I pimped out with 32GB RAM and a terabyte of SSD storage. I'm glad I didn't buy one of these because the screen is awful and the keyboard is frustratingly laid out.

The Screen

First the screen. I've been using this notebook for about 200 hours based on the information reported by my employer's time tracking tools. This screen is a 15" Full HD (1920x1080) screen. The resolution, while not quite as lovely as a 3K or 4K screen might offer, does show characters with smooth-looking lines and very little pixellation. Unfortunately, the colours are wrong. I just cannot for the life of me adjust the screen to show things without an annoying blue tinge. Yellows look green. Reds look faded. Blacks are gray. As someone who is red-green colour blind, I'm disgusted that stuff like this can even leave the factory. I took my unit to a big-box retailer to put it next to some of the other ThinkPads I had considered buying and found that this screen on the W541 is actually better at showing colour than some of the display model screens.

This is just downright unacceptable.

The Keyboard

I should have called this section "Wyould You Like Tpyos With That?", because the keys on this unit do not lend themselves to bouncing back at the same speed as my fingers. I have actually had to slow down my typing speed when I use the Lenovo to get around the fact that the keyboard is just not good enough. I find it's the keys on the left side that tend to bounce back slower and, as a result, cause problems. On the right side, some keys will not register unless you make sure the key is firmly pressed. The [I], [L], and [;] keys are the worst, and this is particularly problematic when trying to write code, query a database, type a blog post, chat online, search the web, or make notes. So long as I don't want to do any of these things, the keyboard is just fine.

An Afterthought

Look at this. Who thought that a "Print Screen" button would be ideal between Control and Alt? Does nobody test their layouts before sending them to the factory?

These first world problems are, of course, downright unacceptable.

Making Due

I've recently put in a request with my bosses for a very specific external monitor, a 24" Dell P2415Q. It has a 4K (3840 x 2160) resolution and better colour matching than the Lenovo. It's not as expensive as the UltraSharp models, so it might be possible to get the unit without blowing this year's hardware budget. As for keyboards, an external is becoming more and more necessary. The amount of time that's wasted by slowing down and fixing typos is just stupid. I can completely understand why a lot of professionals who use notebooks at the day job hook them up to external devices and use them as desktops.

The Lenovo isn't all bad, of course. It's still the most powerful and capable unit I've ever had the luxury to use. With a quad-core i7 under the hood paired with 32GB RAM and 1TB of SATA3 SSD, there's no task (that I need to do) that is too taxing for the unit. Would I buy one of these to use at home? No. I'd probably just build a custom desktop and call it a day.

Please tell me that there are some good, non-Apple notebooks with beautiful screens and excellent keyboards sold overseas. I've looked at hundreds of models here in Japan over the years, and I've been disappointed every time.