Grant McWilliams

Tech Gadgets Blog Travel/Work Laptop comparison

Travel/Work Laptop comparison

As any of my readers know I travel a lot. I also blog a lot, take photos a lot and research a lot. That’s a lot of lotting. Thus when I’m travelling I need a computer. I know people who rely completely on Internet Cafes but I really like editing photos using my own computer late at night in my apartment in Paris, or Venice or Budapest or anywhere else as opposed to paying by the hour to use some age old slow Windows machine. Not to mention I can upload all of my photos while I’m sleeping via secure copy instead of having to babysit it.I also like to travel light thus I’ve always leaned toward small lightweight laptops.

My first travel laptop was a Sharp MM20 that I purchased in 2004 for my trip from London to Istanbul. This is probably my favorite still. However, it came to an untimely end in Krakow Poland when I left it running in our apartment while we went out to dinner. It was an unusually hot day and roof tiles peeled up on the roof followed by an equally unusual downpour. Our roof as you would expect only leaked in one spot - right over my Sharp MM20. The poor thing continued running under a direct stream of water for an hour. It took me a month to dry it out and then it continued to run for another year although in somewhat of a crippled state.If memory serves me the wifi card stopped working and it took several tries to get it to turn on. I still used it though until it finally gave up and died for good.

The Sharp MM20

The Sharp at .8 inches thick (at it’s thickest) and only 1.99 lbs was ultra-sexy. That 0.01 lbs was crucial in differentiating between sexy as opposed to ultra-sexy so I’ll emphasis it here - 1.99 lbs! It had 512 MB of ram which was a lot at the time and a minuscule 20 GB ipod sized hard drive. The battery as you can imagine was tiny and even if the Transmeta CPU was efficient I got about 2 hrs of life out of each charge. To solve this issue I bought the “9 hr battery” which lasted about 6 hrs. It added about half a pound to the size and protruded out the bottom like a large wart so I actually carried both batteries, one for transport and the other I’d swap in when I decided I wanted to work for a while. Not ideal but it did work. I also used a USB mouse and since the hard drive was so small I backed up all of my photos and videos on an external USB hard drive. The Sharp had no memory card reader so I had to use an external USB and it only had two USB ports so I had to carry a mini USB hub as well. The laptop, 9 hr battery, USB hub, USB memory card reader and external hard drive weighed 3 lbs, 5 oz. I paid $1850 for everything which at the time was a good deal. One year I took my USB DVD drive too and even a USB Dye Subliminal postcard printer. The latter was really fun since we could send out customized postcards with us in them but I couldn’t justify the extra more than once.

Pluses for the Sharp MM20

  • Small and Beautiful
  • Decent screen and keybaord for the size
  • PCMCIA slot in a .5/.8 inch laptop!

Minuses for the Sharp MM20

  • Poor battery life
  • Not enough USB ports
  • CPU not very fast
  • VGA port needed a dongle
  • Small slow hard drive

The MSI Wind

After the Sharp died a friend gave me an MSI Wind Netbook. Netbooks are wimpy little Notebook computers that go for a song - in this case free because my friend didn’t like the touchpad. It had a 160 GB hard drive, memory card reader and 3 USB ports so I didn’t really have to bring anything with me. Although the idea of having my photos in one spot still made me nervous so I carried the external USB drive anyway. Total cost was $0 but had I purchased it I would have paid about $299. Netbooks are an interesting breed. Technically speaking this thing had more CPU, more ram, way more hard drive and more expansion than my Sharp and cost ? as much. What 5 years makes in the IT industry. They are however built cheaply. It’s about twice as thick as the Sharp and all plastic. The Sharp feels like a really nice, well engineered product. The Netbook... not so much. Also battery life sucked and there’s not much I could do about it - 2.5 hrs tops. An added note is that the MSI screen was 10.1 inches. The Sharp screen was 10.4 inches but if you compare them side to side you’d think something is a little fishy. The Sharp’s screen was way more useful. With the MSI they went with the wide screen format and technically it is a 10.1 inch screen but vertically it’s nearly two inches shorter than the Sharp’s. The Sharp’s screen resolution was 1024x768 and the MSI 1024x600. That’s valuable screen real estate lost. A great example of why small 4:3 screens were better than small 16:9 screens.The netbook still works and still sucks the same. It’s slow, attracts fingerprints and the battery life is still poor. I might note too that the keyboard layout is less than desirable. I remember cursing the Sharp’s tiny keyboard but now in retrospect it was quite nice. Total weight 2 lbs 15 oz with the external hard drive.

Pluses for the MSI Wind

  • Cheap
  • Reasonably small
  • Lots of hard drive space

Minuses for the MSI Wind

  • Slow CPU
  • Poor keyboard layout
  • Cramped wide aspect screen
  • Maddening touch pad
  • Poor expansion - 3 USB ports, that’s it.

The Toshiba r705

Earlier this year  I decided that I needed to get some work done and it pained me to do it on the Netbook so I bought a Toshiba r705. This is the grown up successor to the Sharp MM20! It has a 3 inch larger screen (13.3) is still fairly slim in relation to it’s size and feels a lot like a bigger Sharp. It includes a memory card reader, 500 GB hd, 4 GB of ram, DVD writer (so I don’t have to carry an external USB drive now) and a 6 hr battery life. The Toshiba is all I need by itself and only weighs 3 lbs 3 oz. Travel weight was roughly equal to it’s 10” brethren but had a dual core 2.4 Ghz Intel i3, lots of ram, lots of hard drive and a writable DVD drive. I could actually WORK on it and it was light enough to travel with. It’s size is a bit of an issue because it’s quite a bit larger than the two smaller laptops but still manageable. With the Sharp I used to just slide it between my vacuum packed clothes because it was so slim. Neither the MSI or the Toshiba have this luxury as they’re a bit more than an inch thick.

Pluses for the Toshiba r705

  • Great screen size - 13.3 is near ideal in my book
  • Great touch pad
  • Large hard drive
  • eSATA, VGA, USB, HDMI, Ethernet
  • Optical Drive
  • Excellent weight for this size of laptop

Minuses for the Toshiba r705

  • Quite wide. Probably can’t get around that with a 13.3” wide aspect screen
  • Chicklet keyboard
  • Battery life could be better
  • Needed AES-NI (that’s the only reason I’m selling it)

The Lenovo X220

I mentioned I bought the Toshiba so I could work right? Now work required me to have a new thing in my CPU called AES-NI. This allows lightening fast hard drive decryption. Had I just paid another couple hundred dollars I could have gotten an r705 with it but at the time I didn’t know I was going to need it. By the time I knew the relevant Toshiba r705 wasn’t being sold anymore and it’s replacement was $1500. My search brought me to the Lenovo X220 - a mid 3lb laptop with AES-NI, lots of ram, decent hard drive, decent expansion and incredible battery life. I could have bought the lightweight 6 hr battery and my travel weight (and battery life) would have been identical to the Toshiba. However, there was the standard 9 hr battery or the extended 12 hr battery. Knowing that you never get as much as they say I bought the 12 hour battery which gets me 10 hrs. That’s still a LOT. It would allow me to use it on a trans-Atlantic flight or any cross country flight without plugging in! It also added about half a pound. Crap, I would work for an entire day just on the battery. This is the first practical laptop I’ve ever had in that regard.

The Lenovo’s screen is 12.5 inches (smaller than the Toshiba, larger than the others), has 8 GB of ram (!), a 320 GB hard drive, PCI Express slot (which I filled with an eSATA card), three USB ports (one of them ultra-fast USB 3.0), HDMI, VGA, SDHC memory card slot, ethernet and headphones. Basically everything I need. It’s a bit of a brute and as ugly too. The Sharp and Toshiba’s are pretty laptops, the Lenovo - only a mother could love. It is however durable and the keyboard has the best feel of any of them. It will make a great work laptop and I think a decent travel laptop as soon as I get a chance to take it somewhere. It’s a tad shorter than the Toshiba and would have less depth to if I’d ordered the standard battery. It’s a tad thicker though. I think overall the size difference is a wash. I kind of wish Lenovo would look over the trade show booth at just about anyone’s products though because this thing looks like an IBM Thinkpad from 1992. It even has the red rubber eraser pointer tool in the keyboard which is a bit irritating as I keep bumping it. I think I saw in the BIOS that I can turn it off. It also has a very strange bumpy touchpad and strangely shaped mouse buttons between the space bar and the touch pad in addition to the touchpad acting as mouse buttons. If you took all the input methods by ALL the other manufacturers and crammed them into one Laptop you’d have the Lenovo. However, the feel of the keyboard is great (like an old fashioned non-Chiclets keyboard!), the cursor keys, home/end/PgUp/PgDn and function keys are placed well. The shift, delete, backspace and enter keys are very large as well which is a huge improvement over other laptops.

Pluses for the Lenovo X220

  • Great screen size - 12.5 is near ideal
  • Battery life, battery life, battery life.
  • Even the light battery is great!
  • PC Expresscard slot, USB 3.0
  • Great keyboard feel
  • Decent sized hard drive
  • AES-NI - the reason I bought it
  • LOTS of ram - 8 GB. That’s more than my workstation or server
  • Great wifi reception

Minuses for the Lenovo X220

  • Weird keyboard layout
  • Weird red eraser pointer
  • Funky touchpad
  • No eSATA
  • Heavy and a bit bulky too
  • Ugly as sin
  • Extended battery protrudes
  • No optical drive!

Here are all four lined up in the following order (from left to right), Toshiba r705, Lenovo X220, Sharp MM20, MSI Wind. If you look closely at the screens on the Sharp and MSI you'll see that the Sharp looks to have a screen much larger than the MSI. This is what I was talking about earlier about wide aspect ration screens - you lose a lot. The Sharps 10.4" screen is as tall and nearly as usable as a wide screen 12.5. Also I think you can see from this photo how thin the Sharp is.

My Dream Laptop

If I could have anything I wanted I’d take an updated Sharp MM20. Stretch the screen a bit from 10.4 to 12.5. Expand the keyboard a tad, give it more oomph and increase the battery life. Yep, that’s what I’d order if I were Mayor for a day. Some people might think I just described the MacBook Air 13 and maybe they’re right so let’s look at that for a moment.

  Sharp MM20 MSI Wind Toshiba r705 Lenovo X220 MacBook Air 13
Dimensions 9.9 x 8.1 x .8 10.3 x 7.1 x 1.1 12.4 x 8.9 x 1.0 12 x 8 x 1.4 12.8 x 9 x .7
Weight 1.99 lbs/2.5 lbs with 9hr battery 2.8 lbs 3.2 lbs 3.8 lbs 2.9 lbs
Screen 10.4 10.1 13.3 12.5 13.3
CPU 1 Ghz Transmeta 1.6 Ghz Atom 2.4 Ghz Core i3 2.5 Ghz Core i5 2.13 Ghz Core 2 Duo
Ram 512 MB 1 GB 4 GB 8 GB 4 GB
Hard drive 20 GB 160 GB 500 GB 320 GB 256 GB
Ethernet 10/100 10/100/1000 10/100/1000 10/100/1000 None
Wifi 802.11 b/g 802.11 b/g/n 802.11 b/g/n + WiMax 802.11 b/g/n 802.11 b/g/n
Battery Life 3/9 hrs rated
2/6 hrs real
with 9hr battery
3 hrs rated
2.5 hrs real
8 hrs rated
6 hrs real
13 hrs rated
10 hrs real
7 hrs rated
Expansion PCMCIA, 2 USB, VGA, Ethernet, headphone 3 USB, Ethernet, SD card, VGA, headphone, mic 3 USB, Ethernet, SD card, VGA, HDMI, eSATA, headphone, mic, bluetooth 3 USB, Ethernet, SD card, VGA, HDMI, Expresscard, headphone, bluetooth 2 USB, SD card, Displayport, headphone, bluetooth
Price $1500 $299 $899 $1500 $1829

It’s interesting to see how closely Toshiba tracks the MacBook Air. Toshiba seems to have taken a 90/10 plan in that they will provide 90% of the coolness for a fraction of the price. It’s almost as light and thin ( ¼ lb and ¼ inch) but has far greater expansion and included equipment. Battery life is arguably better, CPU is faster, storage is double, plus it has a great deal more expansion for... wait for it... half the price!

How does my current choice stack up? It’s physically smaller in width and depth but twice as thick (thus half as sexy) and nearly a pound heavier. It’s clearly built for a different purpose. It has double the memory, more storage, double the battery life and double the expansion for …. wait for it... half the price!

So in short the MacBook Air is a neat bit of kit but it’s got some shortcomings - namely expandability. The other issue (and it’s a big one) that I haven’t even touched yet is running Linux on it won’t be nearly as easy. Yes, I’d put Linux where the Oh So Fancy MacOS was but I’m sure I could coax Linux on the MacBook but my options are more limited.

The other other really big issue is eSATA. I need eSATA for my current job and the Toshiba had it built in. The Lenovo has an Expresscard slot in which I placed a dual eSATA card. And the MacBook Air doesn’t have AES-NI in the CPU either which is the main reason I’m getting rid of the Toshiba. In short it wouldn’t work for my situation. However, for just a travel laptop it looks like a great deal if the price was significantly lower (or the Toshiba didn’t exist).

Tech Gadgets Blog Travel/Work Laptop comparison