Lowered Expectations – How Low Can Your Laptop Go?

[An Interop Aside: I visited with a couple of vendors at Interop who are sending some gear for me to explore. I’m holding off on their coverage until that happens, although another summary post may be forthcoming.]

I’m a big laptop fan. Afficionado, not cooler, mind you. It’s a problem, especially since my recent rebuild acquisitions and components are blocking the fireplace at the moment.

There’s been a disturbing trend over the last couple of years, whereby laptop manufacturers decide to move more toward the netbook specifications for memory (and often storage), rather than to the state of the art for the current generation of laptop processors. I was commiserating with my friend John Obeto about this recently.

For a couple of months now, you’ve been able to order a Dell Precision 7000-series laptop with 64GB of RAM. That’s twice as much as many desktops can handle today. And even if you don’t have room for four DIMM slots in your laptop design, DDR4 16GB SODIMMs are very affordable and readily available even at retail. So there’s really no reason for a 13″ or larger laptop to have an 8GB limit.

But it is the way of the world, for most lightweight laptops these days. Even Dell’s remarkable XPS 13 9343 maxed at 8GB – the 9350 model this year has a 16GB option but it’s online order only (and in the $2000 range as I recall).

What brought this up?

Well, I’m a fan of pushing the limits of laptop configs, even when the published specs disagree. I wrote about this about four years ago, in fact. But sometimes I’d like to just say “I want a 2-in-1 laptop with 16GB minimum and a 480GB or larger SSD.” I’ve been looking for that lately, because on those flights where I don’t get an upgrade, even my slim XPS 13 is impractical to use in the airplane… the XPS 15, which gives me 16 or 32GB of RAM and a nice SSD, is downright impossible to use safely.

There are a few options, including a couple from Lenovo, but if you want to handle the gear before plunking down $1500 for it, your choices get very slim, and in some cases you start to look at what is user serviceable in the models you do find at your local electronics or computer shop.If you’re not in Silicon Valley or another tech mecca, your choices are probably even more scarce.

Let’s search for treasure!

Let’s take an example. My local Best Buy has the Toshiba Satellite Radius 12 in a few different configurations. There’s an $800 one (at this writing) with Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB RAM (ugh), and 256GB SSD. I can double the SSD for another $300 apparently, but no 16GB configs exist on their site.

So I take the model (P25W-C2300) to Crucial and see what they give me. Crucial is fairly accurate and guarantees compatibility if they offer you an upgrade component, so even if you’re not buying directly from them, they’re a good resource.

Crucial gives me two single-sided M.2 SATA SSD options, one of which is out of stock. If it were in stock, it would be $150 to upgrade to 500GB, instead of $300. But the telling factor is that no memory upgrades are listed. This probably means that the memory is soldered to the board, much like contemporary Mac laptops.

Now next to the P25W at the store is the P55W-C5314, which is a 15″ 2-in-1. There’s an 8GB / 1TB HDD model for $750, so I punch that model number into Crucial.

This is better. DDR3L upgrades to 16GB for under $70, and 2.5″ 7mm SSD up to a terabyte for $300 (out of stock), or 960GB for $260. So I could bring that P55W up to 16GB and nearly a terabyte of SSD for barely over $1k. Or if I’d found a 960GB SSD on sale at Fry’s last month (which I would not deny), maybe right around $1k.

Now there’s no USB-C port on the P55W, and it’s 3″ bigger than the P25W, but the odds of being able to do actual work on it (even running VMs, for example, or more than 5 Chrome tabs at a time) are much higher. So it might be worth the compromise. And if I leave it flat on my tray table, maybe the nervous rocking person in the seat in front of me won’t cause any damage other than to my sanity.

I did find a Lenovo Yoga 260, which Ed Horley was wielding at Interop earlier this month. You have to dig into the “customize” options on Lenovo’s website to get to the i7 model, and I have found an i7 6500U-based machine with 16GB RAM (one SODIMM), 512GB SSD, 1080p IPS touchscreen, for just under $1200 through a refurb reseller.

Where do we go from here?

For any laptop manufacturers out there… think about showing off technology, not your ability to race to the bottom. There should be no reason you can’t do 6th gen Intel Core processors and 16GB configurations and/or user-upgradable memory and storage. If you’re going to force customers into non-upgradable configs, at least make them configs we wouldn’t want/need to upgrade (32GB surface mount RAM? Sure, I’d take that).

I’ve decided to hit snooze on my “must have 2-in-1” alarm for a bit. My travel is slowing down for a bit (averaging less than one trip a month through the summer, it looks like), and I have an XPS 15 9550 upgrade/transition to complete.

However, if any of my dear readers have experiences with a 2-in-1 (not the tablet-with-keyboard style, but a permanently attached style) in a quad-core CPU with the ability to run 16GB and a 1TB-ish SSD, please do share. I’ve seen a few in the $2000+ range that might be a bit much, but you never know when a refurb or an open box will come along, so feel free to share whatever you’ve seen/used/liked.

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