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October 21, 2010 / steve8

Qualitative Comparison of UltraPortable Laptop Designs

Anyone who knows me, knows I value efficiency.  Efficiency with space, weight, and energy.

I’ve been generally unhappy with the laptop choices recently and was curious to see what apple would do to their macbook airs.


Apple seems to be the only company who can take a step back and try to design an ideal product, rather than tweak the same design over and over again.


What is the perfect ultra portable laptop?

  1. The entire area of the screen-face should be used for display, no wasted area. (the 11.6” air could actually have a 14” screen without the wasted border area)
  2. thickness should be nearly zero
  3. full-size keyboard, and uncompromised pointing/gesturing.
  4. highest performance per watts
  5. no noticeable noise
  6. no noticeable heat
  7. low risk of damage/wear
  8. Assuming battery capacity costs mass, all other masses should be trivial to minimize weight.


The major step apple took with their new ultraportable is enclosure-less solid state storage, this kind of solution was marketed at ultra-low-cost products by SanDisk not including an enclosure is a way to save pennies, just like smaller cars in the 80s/90s in the US, are for those who can’t afford more.

Most manufactures have continued to design around 2.5” laptop drives, even on systems offering SSDs, in order to cater towards the masses who look for lots of “GB”s.  Also since almost all designs up to now has catered towards 2.5” enclosures, the lazy way is to simply keep doing it.

Here is the data I collected:


The upsetting number there is “2008” under the new apple products.  The Core 2 Duo’s used in the brand new MacBook Air were launched by intel in 2008.

Apple is using them because they want to use the chipset that they have been using for awhile now, the NVIDIA 320M, which is a single-chip southbridge/IGP for socket 775 CPUs.  New Intel CPUs put the IGP on-package in the CPU, and although the newer CPU unit is smaller/lower-power (32nm vs 45nm) and faster (in performance per clock, per watt, and clock speed with turbo boost when thermals allow), the on-package IGP is not good enough for some modern computer-games (full-screen 3d games like starcraft 2, not farmville).  Apple chooses to use a worse processor in order to connect it to a more powerful graphics IGP.  The nvidia IGP is not noticably better than the intel IGP for encoding/decoding videos, operating system graphics, or the 2d games, the only advantage the nvidia IGP has is in full-screen immersive 3D games, and although it’s significantly faster, it’s still pretty slow compared to a computer or laptop meant for gaming.


And packing in the two most power hungry chips in the same place has some physical advantages, here you can see the simplified cooling system Lenovo was able to use in their new Thinkpad Edge 11, the top being a separate CPU/IGP design, the bottom being the modern intel CPU/IGP in one package:


(note that the Southbridge without IGP doesn’t produce enough heat to require cooling)

Clearly the latter would reduce the complexity of the laptop physically.


The apple 11.6” deserves some props for the input system, a full size keyboard and fantastic touchpad, it joins the edge 11, as the only 11” laptops with decent input/pointing devices.


Final Words>

This form-factor is clearly the future, I’m excited to see attemps made at an ideal Ultra-Portable.

Mistakes I’ve seen the players make in their ultra-portable attempts:

  • putting full wattage CPUs in thin laptops
  • putting DVD-drives in ultra-portables
  • using tiny touchpads and/or touchpad buttons that are obviously imperfect in placement and resistance.
  • continuing to use 2.5” disk drives and in some cases (sony) multiple disk drives with raid in an ultra-portable.  Obvious choice is to use 1.8” or smaller SSD.
  • putting an unusably slow netbook CPU in a $1500 amazingly-ultra-portable laptop (sony)
  • Sacrificing General Performance or battery life or size (or anything) for rarely used gaming performance.
  • Skimping on battery capacity relative to laptop weight.
  • allowing large bulges of the thickness in the rear near the battery.
  • adopting wider aspect ratio screens, resulting in even more unutilized space.
  • insisting on VGA outputs in 2010′


I believe 2011 with next-gen large SSDs from the likes of intel, and sandy bridge LV/ULV CPUs with an on-die 32nm GPU/IGP make the year very exciting for this market.  There have also been rumors that Acer (and I’m sure others) are making progress on a frameless screen, from the data I collected 65% area use is normal today, 100%t would obviously be a huge step forward.


I can’t really recommend anything here, they all have significant issues, the Edge 11 is pretty decent, but not really thin.

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