New Laptop!

Written by John Miller

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.