I've been using my Asus Zenbook for about a year and a half now. And while I'm still happy with the choice back then, I'm very disappointed with Asus. I feel they could be more pro-active in getting linux support for this particular touchpad. It's really annoying that after all this time I still can only use the touchpad as a simple mouse and not scroll or other things. So I've started to look for a replacement.
Another reason that I had to dig into this matter was because my wife still has an older laptop that's actually relatively heavy (2.4kg) and rather bulky and I'm the one that has to carry three laptops and their chargers every time we travel abroad (mine, hers, and a work laptop). They're not very heavy on their own but it certainly adds up (2.4kg + 2kg + 1.3kg + whatever the chargers weigh). To mitigate this problem I want her to have a thinbook (sub 2kg). And I kind of want my wife to have the same model (or at _least_ to need the same charger) as my own laptop so that I don't have to carry two chargers either. She definitely doesn't care as much about the whole deal as I do. In fact, in her defense, she doesn't feel like she needs a replacement at all. But she's getting one regardless. Of course.
So I've been searching for a replacement today. Got up to speed with what is hot and what is not in 2018 and set out some rules and expectations.
- 1: good keyboard layout
- 2: numpad (yes.)
- 3: in the order of 14" to 15"
- 4: 16g or more ram
- 5: 8th gen intel
- 6: will have to run linux
- 7: weigh no more than 2kg
- 8: charge through usb-c
- 9: page-up and page-down above the left and right arrow keys
- 10: touch screen
- 11: finger print scanner (not that I expect it to work in linux but you know)
In short, I've landed on either the Thinkpad T580 or Thinkpad P52. Neither is actually available yet but I expect their release imminent since most-if-not-all of their announced siblings are already available. They're kind of the same and which one I'll actually go for kind of depends on the physical weight of the final build for either. And otherwise probably the P52 since they're pretty identical.
At the bottom of this doc is a small half-finished spreadsheet of models and things. In case you care or are looking for something yourself.
I'll go into detail on my requirements.
1: Keyboard layout
I'm a coder and I have needs. I'm fed up with these random minimalistic laptop keyboard layouts. I'll tell you what; Ultimately it's a crap shoot and for me the keyboard layout is what made me go for a Thinkpad. Asus got a new keyboard designer since I got my Zenbook and they SUCKS. All their models seem to have the new layout and it's just so annoying for me.
Keyboard layouts are a fickle beast anyways. For some reason keyboards in general are starting to get into this EU vs US fight. And it's even worse on laptops. For something that acts as an extension of your communication it sure lacks a universal standard.
I'd like to argue that this is even worse for coders. The position of pretty much all the special chars on a US QWERTY keyboard is quite vital. And while most of them luckily don't really change, the backslash seems to be a punching bag. Additionally, companies like Logitech like to put an extra button to the right of the left shift for EU models. The Logitech model I'm using at work also has the backslash between the single quote and the return key and that's actually a US model. Another source of annoyance as I still mistype that often.
Since I desperately wanted a numpad and considering my other requirements it kind of had to be a Thinkpad anyways. This was cemented by the fact that their keyboard layout has the godly page-up and page-down keys above the arrow keys. I think this design is really helpful for coders at least to quickly navigate through code. I use pgup/pgdn/home/end _a lot_ on a regular keyboard and am always annoyed to have to look them up on ANY laptop.
I can fairly easily type long numbers single handedly on a keypad. I can't say the same for having to use the number keys that are not in the numpad, certainly not with a single hand. And if I'm going for a 15" anyways, there will be space for the numpad so just give it to me.
I'm really saddened by the ongoing trend of dropping the numpad and delivering a subpar typing experience. But oh well. For what its worth, it definitely swayed my decision to not go for something like HP's Spectre or the new range of Zenbooks. Well played.
3: Laptop size
What can I say. I have large hands, large fingers, and I really do not like typing on mini keyboards. While I no longer partake in the 17" club, I feel 14" to 15" is definitely a requirement for me. Not in the least because there's no chance of getting a numpad on a smaller model... :)
The size is a bit misleading these days, though. 14" and 15" are much alike with widescreens. Advertisements are a bit annoying in this regard because somethings a 14" is really just a small screen.
4: 16GB+ RAM
The biggest problem with ultra lights used to be that by far most of them sported 8GB max. Only a few of them would hold 16GB.
While for most users that's far enough, for me it is not. This Zenbook I'm working on has 16GB and half of it is in use without me having much opened yet (thanks to an accidental reboot last night). When I do my thing I'll have dozens of tabs open, an IDE that runs on Java, and will want to open one or two node things that consume memory. I need my memory and 16GB is a must, 32GB very desirable. I'd go for 64GB but I did not encounter a laptop under 2kg that offers that at this moment. (And it probably would have failed some other requirement anyways...) Luckily 32GB is fairly common now so I can go with that.
5: 8th gen Intel
I don't actually keep up with cpu's. Haven't for a long time. It doesn't reaaaaally matter anymore I'd say. Most of it is just fast enough and unless you do some hardcore crunching or encoding/transcoding, you're not likely to see the difference. Basically you go for the "i7" with as many cores as you can get. That's been my tactic anyways :)
For these feather weights the cpu rules aren't that much different. Always go for i7. Always go for the highest number with the most cores. Always be disappointed that usually means 4. Always ignore the dual cores.
While I was doing my research I discovered
(like I said, I don't keep up) that Intel had released their next model and, more importantly, that it actually seems to make a big difference. The problem is that most models are pretty much locked into which family-version of cpu they're getting so I'm forced to make sure to get an 8th gen model and not a 7th gen.
So yeah, go for 8th gen Intel.
I've been running linux for years now and my hardware needs to be able to run linux. And sure, various things won't work. And sure, I'll spend one or two weekends cursing my way through getting stuff to work under linux. But if that means a fairly carefree life afterwards I'm happy to do so.
I think for the most things will just work. Fingerprint scanners are still a bit of a PITA and I don't expect to be able to use one on the next model (but who knows).
Linux support is the most heinous requirement since on the one hand I want to run new hardware and on the other hand I want to run linux. The two don't really work together. That sometimes means you'll work on a laptop without proper touchpad support for over a year (BUT NO MORE, ASUS. YOUR REIGN ENDS SOON.). No big deal.
For laptops the fn-keys are always a bit fickle. Not sure why that is. Keyboard backlight, touchpad toggle, sometimes even flight mode and audio controls don't work out of the box. If you're lucky somebody else will already have done the ground work, or (well, usually) actually wrote up how they fixed the issues. And sometimes you have to dig deep. With new laptop models that somebody is more likely to be you...
One reason for going with Thinkpad is that their range already has a fair amount of linux support. I can only hope that they don't stray too much from the hardware path and will only (or mostly) use hardware in their newest device that will be linux friendly.
A few years ago I bought a mobile power house to be able to work remotely at clients. I was freelancing and while I was doing most stuff on a heavy duty machine from home, sometimes I just needed to sit at a client. That's when I'd use this machine. It came in at 5kg+, plus another kilo or so for the proprietary power adapter. It was also huge, I think it must have been 17". This wasn't so much a problem when I drove to clients or whatever but the first time I had to fly out to a client with this bad boy in my backpack it didn't take long for me to realize that I needed to toss it for something that was a quarter its weight.
As it happened that was the period where ultra light notebooks became a thing for the non-apple users as well so I happily jumped on it and never looked back.
The Zenbook I have right now should weigh around 2kg. The Thinkpad at work should weigh around 1.3kg. My wife's laptop should weigh around 2.4kg and that feels too much. It's also quite bulky so that doesn't help. There's a thin line and I need to make sure not to cross it. This is also why I'm a little hesitant to even go for the P52 since it starts at 2kg and isn't modeled as a thin client. Neither is the T580 for that matter. We will have to see how much of a difference it makes to this Zenbook.
If it's too much I'll have to send it back and make do with a smaller model or something. It's all very annoying because you're basically guessing from a distance.
8: USB-C charging
While kind of a requirement it ultimately doesn't really matter. Not insofar that for most models that support this you'll need a stronger charger than the one you use for your phone. So at that point you're already carrying something extra. And provided my wife gets the same model (or at least same charger model) as myself, it doesn't really matter whether that's a proprietary or standard one.
However, having USB-C is still nice for better interop and for having more options in terms of the charger. A company may come up with something really nifty for USB-C chargers and then I'd (we'd) be able to make use of that. Which is impossible with proprietary chargers. Okay okay, preaching to the choir here.
Point is, I wanted to have it last time I did this and almost none of the models I considered had it. For the 2018 Thinkpad ranges all but one model seems to support it (the Yoga upgrade did not get USB-C charging for some reason) so, um, yay? :)
9: pgup/pgdn above arrow keys
I once had a laptop a long time ago that had this and I loved it. It makes sense somehow to have page-up and page-down next to the arrow keys. It helps with navigation, it just clicked for me. Unfortunately you don't see that design very often. I suspect it has something to do with patents, although I'm not sure about that. It's just weird to look at the Spectre
keyboards and see them have ugly holes above the arrow keys that could have had perfect usages. Maybe that's why neither of the two give a proper view of the keyboard in the first place...
While I did pay close attention to whether or not a model had this key configuration, it became quickly obvious that this couldn't be a hard requirement. Out of all the models I had found, only the Acer Swift and the whole Thinkpad range had the pgup/pgdn above arrow key layout. Maybe if Acer had more lightweight laptops...
10: Touch screen
This is a bit of a weird one and definitely not a requirement. My Zenbook came with a touch screen. Kind of by accident I suppose. And while for the most time it's more awkward than useful, sometimes it's just still useful. I think most of the time it was to either still use a mouse when linux forgot to wake up my touchpad (grrrr), or to use google maps because it required two fingers to move around (and my touchpad was a dull mouse and couldn't).
It's the little things. But if all things the same I can have a choice I'll definitely take the touch screen again.
11: Finger print scanner
And then I just hope it works in linux. It's no big deal to me. Really just a like to have (working).
So what about other requirements?
These days laptops are really all the same. Yes, I have my requirements and they definitely make a difference.
You have various levels of computation power, of course. And that's pretty much what you'll be paying for. To me, the actual CPU used is not super important. Right now there's the phase where laptop models are being upgraded or moving to the new Intel 8th gens. So that's definitely a concern.
Other than that, you won't have much of a choice in RAM other than the amount, the storage should be SSD (never ever HDD) of whatever brand they offer and I don't really care about 500gb or 1tb anymore either. The rest is pretty much peanuts and often you won't have a choice. Screen, networking, camera, microphone, battery, card reader, software, shrug. It's all the same or you won't have a choice in the matter.
You could consider the graphics card (I still prefer Nvidia) although even that probably doesn't matter as much these days. Hardcore gamers don't use laptops and anything else, well, won't care.
Ultimately Thinkpad currently meets my demands. I wish I could get more power into the box but as it stands, I guess I should be happy that I can get what I already can get. As the two models I've landed on aren't available yet I can't tell you yet whether that was the good choice. Probably some blog posts will follow about that. No promises.
The raw data
These are pretty much my raw notes. Or rather, a table with my raw notes. I stopped completing it after concluding that the Thinkpad was my only viable choice. I think it contains most current models that would qualify as ultra lightweight laptops. Let me know if I'm missing anything. Don't take the screen column too literal, I don't care much for HD or 4k.