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Choosing a work laptop in 2021

Posted: 2021-03-27 17:51:32 |
Last update: 2021-03-27 18:11:12

Disclaimer

I was not paid by any company to write this blog post.
Opinions are my own and not for sale.

Preamble

Four years ago my employer has written a (German) blog post talking about his journey to find a good work machine.
Since then, many things have changed, but the main takeaways stay the same.

Right now is a terrible time to buy PC hardware.
The Bitcoin price exploded once again and even billionaires who pretend to care about the environment are telling their cult following to invest into cryptocurrencies.
(I wonder how many DDOS attacks that sentence will get me...)
All of this means that pretty much any hardware that can be used for mining is sold out and/or exclusively sold at twice or more of what it's worth.
In addition to that, there's a pandemic that has led many companies to move to working from home with portable devices, meaning even laptops that aren't as good for mining are difficult to come by.

However, right now also is a pretty interesting time to buy PC hardware.
Your choice of processor isn't just "the best intel chip you can afford" anymore, AMD has finally caught up and delivered (mobile) CPUs that take comparatively little energy to deliver impressive processing power, coupled with some of the best integrated GPUs I've seen.
In addition to that, Apple has launched its own silicon, starting the movement to end the reign of x86 and replace it with way less power hungry ARM chips.
So all in all, if you can get your hands on it, there is a lot of interesting hardware out right now, not necessarily making my choice easier.

My requirements

I really like the idea of only having a single cable plugged into my laptop to take care of charging, peripherals and screen connections.
Thunderbolt 3 is very neat, but USB 3.2 isn't much behind. I just knew that I would want one of the two.

When getting a computer, I want to be able to open it up and fix smaller issues myself to prolong its lifetime.
That means I won't take anything with a glued shut case, glued in batteries or soldered in RAM. That also means no Apple silicon for me :(

My workload comprises working on web sites built with frontend frameworks that have to be compiled every time I change something.
For development, these sites run inside docker containers.
To test sites, using VMs is necessary because I have to support IE and I don't use Windows on productive systems.
Combining all of these it is clear that I want as many CPU cores as I can with loads of RAM.

While I don't believe that productivity keeps scaling with the amount of screens you've got forever, I do like having 3 screens at my disposal.
One of these is a 2560x1080 ultrawide, the other is a very basic full HD screen and I usually leave the laptop's lid open to use it's internal screen, which has to be matte so the window behind me doesn't blind me.
So, no 4K screens but still not something every GPU is able to pull off.

Another somewhat personal thing about me is that I've got an aversion to a specific kind of plastic that many laptop (keyboards) are made of.
I cannot touch it without getting goosebumps and a very unpleasant feeling in my entire arms.

The contestants

People around me love Lenovo.
To be honest, I don't.
They are really expensive new (I know you can get used ones for cheap) and the current ones often have soldered in RAM.
Also the keyboards are hit or miss, many being made of the material that I can't touch and I, personally, don't get any additional value from the trackpoint.
Still, I did not want to rule out an entire companies offerings just because I had made not so great experiences in the past and I checked out what they've got.

The IdeaPad 3 did look promising, but for some reason even the Lenovo fan people I know seem to hate the IdeaPad line of computers, saying they are badly made.
So I decided to not go with one of these.

Another interesting computer is the Tuxedo Pulse 14.
A device made to run Linux that doesn't even have a windows logo on the meta key does sound good.
The hardware included also isn't bad and the price was in budget.
But it would've taking 3 months to deliver and I could not wait that long.

So I went on a list ranking the repairability of laptops released in 2020 and figured that there were a lot of Dell computers on there. Looking at the dell website I found a computer that matches all of my requirements and is not made of plastic. All with a price well within budget and below most "competitors."

The winner

I ended up getting a Dell Inspiron 14.
The computer only comes with 8GB of RAM but it has an unoccupied and easily accessible secondary RAM slot to allow for easy upgrades.
It has an NVME SSD for storage as well as an NVME wireless adapter that can be replaced by the user. There also is an empty NVME slot where one might be able to add another SSD, but I have not tried that yet.

When I got it I was positively surprised. Pretty much everything worked about as out-of-the-box as you can get when running Arch Linux and the performance was pretty amazing.
This little laptop could run circles around my desktop; at least when comparing CPU performance.

I actually liked the computer so much that I decided to get the cheaper version with "only" 6 cores to replace my aging (but still loved) MacBook air. I know, I recently wrote a thread about how I don't see any reason to upgrade my laptop right now but that was before I tried running PyCharm on there and before I saw what more powerful laptops can do today.

My personal laptop came with a fingerprint reader (which I did not anticipate) that I was sadly not able to get running with Linux since there are no drivers available.
Dell has apparently promised that they will release those drivers eventually and to be fair, it isn't even a feature I expected while ordering the machine.

Since I got to upgrade the RAM on basically identical laptops two times within the last month, I chose to document the latter and wrote a repair guide on iFixit.
Hopefully that will help some people.

Conclusion

While right now is a bad time to buy hardware, it is also kind of a good time because the market is more interesting than it has been some years ago.

Standards like USB 3.2 being widely adopted means that once you go with a certain device, you're not necessarily vendor locked because you can't use your dock with computers made by another manufacturer, which is pretty nice.

Most companies sadly don't see repairability as an important feature, ruling out the flashy new MacBooks or the Huawei MateBooks, which also looks interesting to me.
However, there still are companies that make more or less repairable computers and with a bit of searching I was able to find one that had pretty much everything I wanted out of it.


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