Posts tagged with “laptops”

Tale of Two Laptops

Last night, I traded my iPad Pro for a Huawei MateBook X Pro (2018) (hereafter "matebook") and now I'm going to spend some time comparing this laptop to my current laptop, a Panasonic Let's Note CF-SV8 (hereafter "SV8"). Both machines are very similar in some ways and incredibly different in others, so I thought I might take the opportunity to write a little bit about this. This is not a review of either machine and is probably a bit premature as I've had the SV8 for a few months and the matebook only a few hours.

Lets start with the objective boring stuff, the specs.

CPUi5-8365U 4c/8t 1.6GHz Base, 4.1GHz boost, 6MB L3, 15wi7-8550U 4c/8t 1.8GHz Base, 4.0GHz boost, 8MB L3, 15w
RAM8GB LPDDR3-2133 (soldered)16GB LPDDR3-2133 (soldered)
GPUIntel UHDIntel UHD 620 & Nvidia GeForce MX150
SSD256GB m.2 NVMe 2280512GB m.2 NVMe 2280
Other StorageDVD-RW & SD XC slot-
Ports3x USB3.0, USB-C Thunderbolt 3, HDMI, VGA, 1GbE Ethernet, Headset, 16v power1x USB3.0, USB-C Thunderbolt 3, USB-C 3.0 (data & power), Headset
NetworkingIntel I219-LM Ethernet, Intel Canon Point-LP CNVi Wireless-ACIntel Wireless-AC 8275
Screen1920x1200, 12.1"3000x2000, 13.9", capacitive multitouch
Dimensions283x204x25mm (11.1x8x1in)304x217x15mm (12x8.5x0.6in)
Weight1Kg (2.2lbs)1.3Kg (2.9lbs)
Battery43Wh (5900mAh 7.2v) removeable56Wh (7410mAh 7.6v) fixed
OtherIndicator LEDs, Windows Hello camera support, full magnesium chassisBacklit keyboard, fingerprint reader
Retail Price (Approx.)$2,200$1,700

So, what does this tell us? Well, these are both "thin and light" medium/high class machines from 2018, though their target audiences are very different. The SV8 isn't even sold in the US, and is targeted squarely at Japanese businessmen wanting a high end and very practical Windows laptop with good connectivity and great battery life. The matebook, on the otherhand, is sold worldwide and is targeted at people who want a Mac but want to run Windows on it for slightly less than Apple prices. It's a high end machine, but not really suitable for "traditional business use" and it suffers from the port-deletes found on most similar thin and light laptops today.

Aside from the differences in CPU and RAM (which, I think it's worth mentioning - the SV8 is available in an i7/16 config, and the matebook is available in an i5/8 config) the largest difference between the two from a hardware perspective is that the SV8 has an integral full-size optical drive, which, for a 12" laptop in 2018, is nothing short of incredible. It's not something I need or use, and in fact I have it disabled in the BIOS, but I can understand how some see the appeal. Optical drive delete models exist and are approx. 100g lighter, but they don't seem to be very common. Additionally, the matebook includes a dedicated Nvidia MX150 GPU. This is a GPU suitable for "light gaming" (eSports Titles and the like) and something I would just as soon not have. It's not possible to disable entirely in the BIOS, but it's trivial to do so in both Windows and Linux. Doing so, of course, increases battery life. Personally, I find the inclusion of a dGPU for occasional 3D tasks to be more beneficial than an optical drive. I can plug in a USB optical drive, but eGPUs are decidedly more of a pain.

I don't use a laptop as my primary machine, so lots of RAM and a powerful CPU are much less relevant to me. The SV8 has performed every task I have cared to throw at it handily, and while I haven't done as much on the matebook, I expect it to perform just as well. I have benchmarked both machines, both with Geekbench 5.3.1 and an xz compression test if the reader is interested in raw numbers.

Both machines have beautiful screens. The matebook's panel is glossy, however, because it's also a touch screen, which is not something I care for. I don't mind glossy panels, but I know that some hate them. I rarely, if ever, use a computer outdoors, and I try and avoid situations with bright overhead lighting when I can. 3000x2000 at 13.9" on the matebook is far too high a DPI for me to use at 100%, but 200% is too large. 150% feels just right in windows, but fractional scaling suffers considerably under linux, and may even be impossible when using the Nvidia GPU. I would prefer to run my display at 100% under all circumstances, but on the matebook it's just not possible for me without reading glasses. The SV8's panel, by comparison, is 1920x1200 at 12.1", and I find it very usable at 100%. There are times when my eyes are a bit more "tired" and focusing on the smaller characters is a bit of a struggle, but this can quickly be resolved by blowing up my web browser or terminal to 125-150%. Both panels are better than a typical 1920x1080 display due to the added vertical height. The matebook is 3:2 and the SV8 is 3.2:2. Both are wonderful, but the added height on the matebook wins for me.

On the question of input devices, it's no question that the matebook wins for me. The keyboard is wider with larger keys, and it has a more standard American layout that I am used to elsewhere. The keys have good travel and feel, and nothing wobbles or bends when typing. It's not the SV8's fault for having a JIS keyboard, as it is a machine primarily sold in Japan, rather it's my fault for using a JIS keyboard in an American layout. The SV8's keyboard has many keys that are specific to inputting Japanese text, which are unused by me, and I would prefer they not be there at all to make the other keys larger. There is a configuration of the SV8 that is sold in Singapore which has an American style keyboard, but I have not been able to find one of these yet. I also suspect if I had smaller hands I would like the SV8's keyboard more. The SV8 keyboard does win out in a few ways, though: it has a contextual menu key, which I use daily, it has dedicated Insert/Delete keys (the matebook only has delete), and the arrow keys are in the "normal" inverted-T configuration, rather than the mushed macbook-style that the matebook adopted. The feel of the SV8 keyboard is "fine", on the mushier side but not bad. It also feels very rigidly affixed to the case. The matebook's is also backlit, which I appreciate; the SV8's is not.

I almost always use a bluetooth mouse when using a laptop on a table, but I'll use the trackpad plenty around the house or when traveling. The matebook has a gigantic glass covered trackpad, much in Apple's style, and it feels great and is very responsive. The SV8's trackpad is also very responsive, and it's unique circular shape is interesting, but it is very small, which can be frustrating at times. The dedicated buttons of the SV8 are nice, but missing them on the matebook isn't a dealbreaker. Something I wish both had was the ability to turn off the trackpad from a function key. If I'm using a mouse, I often don't want any input from the trackpad.

The matebook's thinness causes it to loose the I/O battle without question. A single USB3-A, two USB-C (one of which is TB3) and a headset jack. That's it. Not even an SD card slot. The SV8 on the other hand comes in with a full compliment - three USB3-As, a USB-C for TB3, HDMI and VGA, ethernet, and a dedicated barrel jack for power. The SV8 also has a full compliment of indicator LEDs: power status, lock keys, and activity of HDD and SD while the matebook only has a charging LED on the side. USB-C charging is an option for both machines - the matebook requires it with no alternative, and the SV8 supports it as long as the machine is either running or in standby. For some reason it won't charge from USB-C if it's powered off - I haven't figured out why. Both support Windows Hello if you're into that sort of thing - the SV8 has the IR camera while the matebook has a fingerprint reader on the power button. I don't use either. The webcams on both are good, though the SV8's is clearly better, full 1080p. The matebook's is 720, and it pops up out of the keyboard between the F6 and F7 keys, which is a very peculiar feature. It does enable the screen area on the matebook to completely fill the lid, which is very attractive. The matebook has fairly full-sounding speakers which can be incredibly loud, which is something I find frustrating. In Windows I find the 10-15 volume level to be appropriate. The SV8's speakers are "fine" but definitely not something I would want to use for listening to music, contrary to the matebook. I haven't used the microphones on either, but I imagine they're both pretty bad, but acceptable in a pinch.

I don't know how Huawei's batteries track over time, but I don't have a tremendous amount of confidence in it's long term capacity. The SV8, on the other hand, I expect to retain near-original capacity for years, as has been reported by other Let's Note owners. Panasonic is just really good at batteries, go figure. I have never needed to go more than about 5 hours on a charge, and both machines will do so easily. The 43 watt hour battery in the SV8 is reported to last up to 13 hours under light duty loads, and I can believe that. The matebook is advertised as lasting 12 hours, which I do not believe. Reviewers have placed it at the seven to nine hour mark, which as I have stated is plenty enough for me. I don't know if I will be able to get a replacement for either, should I ever need one.

So, aesthetics. The matebook is boring. Lots of people will probably find it to be very sexy and attractive, but it's just a 13" MacBook Pro clone. It does a good job being a MacBook clone in that it feels very solid and the fit and finish is excellent. Pretty, but boring. The SV8 on the other hand is a cute little pragmatic powerhouse that many people find to be tremendously ugly. It's true that the aesthetics of Let's Note laptops haven't changed significantly in 20 years, but Panasonic is clearly taking a "if it ain't broke don't fix it" approach to their laptop design, and I am thoroughly okay with that. The chassis is composed entirely of magnesium, so it's very strong and light. The lid has an interesting wavy design in the top that is designed to distribute weight that might otherwise crack the display. When you pick up the SV8 you are immediately surprised at how light it is, and you suspect it's made of thin plastic like a netbook, but it's not! The SV8 also has a top mounted hinge, which I greatly prefer to the matebook's macbook-style wrap-around hinge. The matebook is "sleeker" though - thinner with no protrusions. The SV8 is much thicker, and the way the battery and feet stick out from the bottom causes them to often get caught on something when taking it in or out of a bag. Additionally, the strange footprint and thickness of the SV8 makes finding a suitable small sleeve or case a challenge, whereas the matebook is much more of a generic 13" laptop.

Conclusion? I don't have one yet. They're both good laptops, and for the foreseeable future I'll continue to use both in varying roles. I look forward to traveling with both when Global Pandemic is over as I would like to have more time with each on the road. I can see the SV8 being more of a desk queen, living beside my desktop in a very dignified role. The matebook, on the other hand, is a beater - if it falls off a table or my daughter spills chocolate milk on it, well, that's why I have an accidental damage rider for laptops and tablets on my homeowners insurance. I do not know if it would be possible for me to get another SV8.

SV8 and Matebook

NVMe Upgrade

I found a good deal for a 480GB Kingston NVMe drive (true NVMe, not the "SATA on m.2 rubbish) as part of prime day, so I decided to go ahead and bite the bullet and slap one in the Inspiron. The main advantage this would give me is the ability to configure the second drive, the 2.5" SATA drive, as a secondary boot drive for linux, or additional storage if necessary. A day layer the drive showed up in a tiny envelope and the upgrade could commence. Prior to wiping the 2.5" drive, I ran Veeam to get a full system image over to the NAS. I wasn't planning to restore any data from it, but just in case something wonky happened I wanted to have an image I could quickly restore from. Under normal circumstances I would have simply mirrored the 2.5 over to the NVMe drive, but I wanted to use this as an opportunity to upgrade from home to pro, and I wanted to do that as a fresh install rather than an upgrade from within windows.

The physical installation was a breeze - pop off the bottom panel, remove the m.2 retention screw, drop in the drive, replace the screw. Could hardly be easier. The software installation, however, was somewhat more involved. The reason being that I didn't want to use the Windows 10 Home license key that is embedded in the system firmware. It took some trial and error, but what eventually worked was creating a PID.txt file in D:\sources\ on the installer. The key I wanted to use was embedded within the PID.txt file, and the installer automatically applied it, then activated it after the system started.

I wont bother listing any benchmark results - I ran CrystalDiskBench and it scored exactly as well as it should have, what you would expect for a mid-range NVMe drive. This wasn't installed for speed, however, rather it was installed to gain a second drive in this system. Once it was done and configured as I wanted, I popped in Ubuntu 18.04 install media and installed that onto the the 2.5" drive. Initially I had intended to remove the original 2.5" drive I was using and replace it with one of my older 128GB drives, but apparently this machine has some very strict thickness requirements and only 7mm drives will work. As it stands, it has a 480GB NVMe and 480GB 2.5" - more storage than I need, but until I can get a slim 120 or 240 that's not in use elsewhere, it's what will stay. Alternatively, I could split it in half and make a scratch disk with what's left over, but that's just not fairly low down on the importance ladder.

New Laptop!

The last "contemporary" laptop I purchased was a Samsung Chromebook, for about $150, three years ago. It worked well enough, but as a then-low end machine with a small 1366x768 screen and not much in the way of RAM, CPU power, or storage, I didn't end up doing much with it. Prior to that was my Lenovo T410, a thinkpad purchased as a refurb unit in late 2010 while I was in college. The T410 was my daily driver all through college, and until a couple of years after, when I decided that I no longer really needed a laptop as my main machine, and would rather use a desktop. The T410 never went anywhere, but despite having 8GB of RAM and an SSD did start to feel "old" fairly quickly. Granted, this was a first generation i5 from 2010, and while in 2014 it was still capable, it had it's limitations. The battery was long gone, and the CPU seemed to always run hot, no matter how often I would tear it down and blow out dust and replace the thermal paste. Every key on the keyboard is worn shiny, as is the once bumpy trackpad and pebbled wrist rests, and the screen has just enough annoying bits of dust trapped within it to be frustrating. I should note that I do still have it, though, and I have no intentions of getting rid of it... it's just... not really a laptop anymore, it's a small computer that runs linux like a dream and sits on a desk.

Now, I've been in my current professional position for a bit more than two and a half years now, and for about 18 months of that, I have had a very nice Precision 5510. Prior to that I had a Precision M4800, which when docked was the perfect computer, but at a heftyy 13 pounds (with charger, granted) was less than pleasant to travel with - and I travel a lot. The M4800 developed some problems and I was able to get upgraded, thus, 5510. With a 4c/8t i7, 32GB RAM, a 1TB NVMe SSD and 2GB Quadro GPU it's nothing to sneeze at - though it's nothing I would ever purchase for myself. It's basically the business equivalent of the XPS 15, just with a Quadro instead of a GeForce Mobile, or whatever.

The problem is, really, that this machine had more or less developed into my standard laptop for travel. Vacations to Maine or weekend trips to Richmond, Charleston, or Savannah I would always bring it along. It was only ever used to checking email, streaming Netflix or Plex, or perhaps offloading pictures from a full SD card, but was nice to have along. Until... well, outlook was right there, so was lync and all my other projects and material for work, and just like that I'd be working. This never developed into a problem, per se, but I recognized that it could lead to a more dangerous habit, and that it would be more healthy to just leave well enough alone, and just leave my laptop at work unless I needed to take it home for some legitimate reason.

While this did free me from the shackles of my employment (at least when I wasn't supposed to be working), it did shove in my face the fact that a modern laptop might actually be a good thing to have again. That being said, we did recently purchase a laptop for my wife, a very handsome 13" Inspiron 2-in-1 - which for most trips is fine, often we just need one machine. However there are other cases (like sitting at home on the couch, or when I travel personally alone, or whatever) that it would be convienient for me to have my own laptop. I tried using the chromebook for a while, but that didn't really work that well. I also picked up a Latitude E4310 cheap from The Grid a while back, initially with the intention of flipping it, but I ended up getting attached to it. I tried using it for a while, and while it is smaller than the T410, it was no faster (same CPU, even) nor any cooler - though it did have a working battery, and the backlit keyboard was fairly nice.

Ultimately my biggest problem was the lack of a 1080 screen. I know people use higher resolution screens with higher DPIs these days, but I like 1080. I use it at home on my desk, I use it at work on my desk, and it's what my work laptop runs at. I am very comfortable in 1920x1080. My two requirements came down to this: a 1920x1080 screen, and a screen size of less than or equal to 15", prefferably 14". I started with looking at various secondhand Latitudes, especially the E5540 and E5440 - and while I liked what I saw for the most part, I had mixed feelings about purchasing another secondhand laptop, especially as this is something I wanted to last at least as long as the T410 had. While out to dinner not long ago, and discussing this with Liz, I couldn't help but wonder if I would just be better off getting a low end machine with a 1080 screen, then dropping in an SSD of my own. She suggested that we just go ahead and go to Best Buy after dinner and see what they have, so we did.

Once we got there I was surprised at how disappointed I ended up being - the selection was just awful. The cheapest machine with a 1080 screen was an ASUS, and if I recall correctly it was around $950. There may have been a cheaper option in a 17" desktop replacement, but I didn't want anything massive. I was about to shrug off the adventure and just go home to look on Amazon, but while looking around we happened to notice that the open box "cage", as it was, was absolutely full to the brim with generic brown boxes with either returned or display model machines. It took a moment to track down someone who was willing to unlock it and help us out, but once we did it was a fairly straightforward experience. The guy we worked with had no idea what was in any of the boxes - the labels affixed to them simply had a price and a manufacturer, so one by one we pulled out machines that were in my price range and scanned them into the system, looking up their components.

Eventually, we got lucky - a machine that exactly matched what I was looking for, an Inspiron 15 7573 2-in-1. Granted I didn't really want a touch screen machine, but it had other things I found appealing - the i7-8550U say, or the fact that it was configured with 12GB RAM. Really the only "problem" was that the 2TB hard drive was just that, a hard drive - but no problem, I have spare SSDs at home. Of course it has a 1080 screen, and a price tag of less than $600 was more than reasonable. So far I've had it about two weeks, and I'm very happy with it. Who knows if it will outlast the T410, but right now I'm not really that worried. I'm just glad I found what I was looking for.

My model in particular is a 7537-7012, which seems to be a Best Buy exclusive SKU. Since the C220M3 is currently out of operation, at least until we move, I pulled one of its 480GB SSDs for use in the inspiron and have since listed the original hard drive for sale, as I have no use for a 2TB 2.5" drive. Getting into the machine is very easy, just 10 screws - four of which, along the front edge, are fully removable, where the other six are captive. Why they chose to make any of them captive at all is beyond me. Once they're removed (or loosened) the whole bottom panel lifts off, as many newer laptops with metal frames do these days, revealing the entire motherboard, drives, and battery. Swapping the drive was just a few more screws. In addition to the 2.5" SATA bay, this machine does support full size NVMe drives as well - something I plan on getting in the near future. I'll probably aim for a ~500GB drive and return this 2.5" SSD to the C220M3 once it's back up and running.

So now that I've had this thing a while, what are my impressions? Well, I really like it - it has been able to do exactly what I want, and it's plenty comfortable to use. A common complaint I see about this series is that it's very heavy, but I don't really notice it any more than any other similarly sized laptop. The metal frame feels very sturdy and solid, and doesn't flex at all as far as I can tell. The keyboard feels great and is backlit, which I'm fond of - though I know that is very typical these days. Overall it feels very similar to the 5510, though I would still consider the 5510 to be better, though I'm a bit stumped at explaining exactly how. The trackpad does the job, but I don't love it - again, the 5510 wins here with it's silky smooth surface. The inspiron is a bit rougher, but it does track very well.

As far as IO goes it leaves me wanting nothing - three USB3, including one that can be "always on" for power, HDMI, a headset jack, USB-C (though I don't know what protocols it carries - it does not support the 5510's USB-C to Ethernet adapter), and a full size SD card slot that doesn't leave any of the card hanging out, which the 5510 does. The SD card slot is only USB2 attached though, topping out at around 25MB/s, which is a bummer. The 5510's SD slot, while not fully recessed, is much faster.

The screen is very attractive, but I agree with others in that it could be brighter. I don't have any issues with the color reproduction or viewing angle, however. I love the windows hello feature and have been using it extensively. Some Inspiron 15 models have a fingerprint reader built into the power button, which I would prefer, but this model doesn't have that.

Right now, I think, my only issue is with windows licensing. There is a windows license embedded within the system, and right now I don't know how to disable it. I'd rather use an existing windows 10 pro key I have, because with just 10 home there are a few features I find I'm missing - like WSFL, Hyper-V, etc. When I get the NVMe SSD and do a reinstall I'll dig into resolving this problem more seriously.