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Tech Profile: the Laptop

Laptops are the straightforward solution if what you need is to get some work done away from home.

Laptops are an everyday essential in the classroom and meeting room. Everywhere else, their flexibility makes them a great choice when you want to be ready for anything.

What Laptops Excel at

Versatility

Versatility is, hands-down, laptops’ greatest asset. You can take your laptop with you pretty much anywhere and it will, with some degree of success, be able to fulfill the role of a stationary computer, a tablet and, with a bit of creativity, even a phone.

If you don’t know what your needs are or will be or just have commitment issues; a laptop is probably your best option; at least to start.

Best of Both World

Laptops work just the same way as much larger computers. Meanwhile managing to be small enough to carry around and comfortable enough to actually get the job done before you start aching too much.

If you have to work away from the desk (assuming it involves more than just taking notes), you would be hard-pressed to find a better fit.

What Laptops do not handle so well

Laptops are very much an exercise in compromise. A good laptop has to combine the power and battery longevity you need in a package small and light enough to carry with you daily… all that at a price you can afford.

This is a difficult feat to achieve and if the balance is not just right for you, it will lead to frustration.

Inefficient

It is possible to get laptops of any caliber these days:

  • Some are capable of accomplishing the same demanding tasks as their larger brethren.
  • Others can last all day on battery power.
  • Others are so small and so light, you can carry them one-handed.

Sadly, those are competing characteristics and it's nearly impossible to hit perfect marks in all 3 at a low price point. Increasing power, for instance will tend to reduce battery life and increase the laptop’s bulk.

For that reason, laptops rarely compare favorably to full-sized computers when it comes to raw bang for the buck.

Accident-Prone

Life on the go is a hard life for a computer and a lot of bad things can happen to a laptop. But besides accidents, theft, splashes and dirt, a few other factors contribute to age laptops prematurely.

Limited Maintenance Options

In order to package all of a computer’s features in a small package most laptop sacrifice at least some of their modularity. As a result, some laptops on the market today offer no repair option; if something breaks or if your needs change too much, your only recourse is to get a new one.

Heat-Sensitive

To top it all, laptops have no extra room for cooling or accommodating all the gunk they will collect during their lives. It doesn’t help that many of them can’t even be dusted off properly without voiding the warranty.

Therefore, as a laptop ages, heat and noise will increase which will in turn decrease performance and contribute to the battery’s decline.

Keeping your laptop cool will increase its performance and lifespan significantly and here are a few things you can do:

  • Avoid direct sunlight; for extended periods of time at least
  • Be careful with blankets; if you use laptops in bed or on the couch, use a cooling pad or some kind of tray to prevent it from getting embedded in blankets, cushions and the likes
  • Don’t pad your laptop; some products exist to physically protect laptops: silicone keyboard covers and laptop shells for instance. Those accessories will hinder laptop cooling and in the end age your laptop prematurely.

Hard on the body

Something which is small enough to carry makes for a cramped working space. Even with a full-sized keyboard and a larger screen, a laptop placed on a table will usually be too high for your arms and too low for your eyes.

This isn’t so bad if your involvement with the computer takes form in short, sporadic sessions (up to 30 consecutive minutes). If you usually use a laptop for longer periods, however, this can build up into serious health issues.

If you experience chronic pain of any kind, you should at least explore alternatives before going for a laptop. If you still need a laptop as your main computer, you can still create an ergonomic workstation:

Here's an example of an ergonomic setup for a laptop.
  • Get a laptop riser which will bring the computer screen at eye level
  • Get a full-sized monitor
  • Get a keyboard and mouse

To read more about ergonomics: Tech Ergonomics: comfort is the key to enjoyment.

So, should you get a laptop?

For all the flaws laptops have, they’re a necessity if you have to work on a computer away from your desk. A smartphone or tablet can fulfill some mobile computing needs like taking notes, reading documents or writing drafts. If you need to do more elaborate work, a laptop will be more likely to keep up with you where smaller devices wouldn’t.

Laptops which never leave the house are another matter. If that's what you envision for your next computer, your money would be better invested in a judiciously placed stationary model.

Can you play games on a laptop?

This is a common question and even though a laptop is not the optimal choice for PC gaming, but some laptops excel at that task.

Keep in mind: gaming laptops usually heavily sacrifice ease of transportation and battery autonomy. But if you are a gamer-away-from-home and handheld and mobile games won't do; this is pretty much your only option.

If your goal is just to play your games around the house, then you should really consider a stationary computer instead. You will benefit greatly from it especially if you often have hours-long gaming sessions.

For mobility inside the house, I would rather recommend two courses of action:

  • Try to set your gaming PC in a convenient location; if you like playing games on the TV, for instance, try setting your gaming PC in the living room.
  • Look into game streaming like Steam in-home streaming or Nvidia Shield. When you stream a game, the game runs on a powerful computer but is played on a more humble device somewhere else.
  • If you don't have room to dedicate to your gaming machine, a large laptop could be your best option; too bulky to carry around but small enough to be stashed away when not in use.

The Ideal Buying Cycle for Laptops

Because of their versatility, laptops are a great choice as a 1st device. This gives you a chance to get used to having your options open and observe where your computer sees the most action. I’d say to invest in a mid-range model for your first laptop, to see how that feels.

When that 1st laptop starts to slow down, it’s time to reflect on how that laptop served you:

If you mostly used it at home

Then I think your next step would be to invest into a stationary computer as a main workstation. Keep the aging laptop as a way to get small stuff done when away from your desk.

When the laptop ceases working, invest in a replacement proportionally to the amount of use the laptop sees. For instance: let’s say you spend only 10% of your computer time away from home. In this scenario, I would recommend spending less than 20% of the stationary computer’s value on a laptop.

If you mostly used the computer away from home

Start saving for your next laptop; go high end if you can and focus on resolving the main irritating experience you had with the previous laptop. For instance:

Still the best design for workers on the go

At the end of the day, laptops are strong enough to handle actual work with reasonable compromises for the sake of portability. For anyone who has to get stuff done away from the desk, a laptop is the straightforward answer.