On the Death of the Laptop

June 15th, 2006

I know that I sometimes take a little while to get to the point, but this time I’ll try to be brief. Way back when, you could accurately refer to a portable personal computer as either a laptop or a note-book. The vision of sitting on the beach, with the computer in your lap, was a common reality.

However, you want far more from a portable computer than convenience. You want CPU horsepower, and, over time, the same chips that powered desktop computers filtered down into the venerable PowerBook. In fact, the term “desktop replacement” is common in an industry where roughly half of the units sold these days are portables. That’s the real growth market, while those big PC minitowers continue to stagnate.

But there is a consequence. Yes, portables use less power, and hence can run three or four hours on a single battery charge, but you don’t want to give up anything, or much of anything, in the way of performance when compared to your desktop. You demand enough processor power to run 3D rendering applications, graphics power to play games in a satisfactory fashion and to use a big monitor when tethered to a desktop. All that comes at a price, and that price is the freedom to put your computer on your lap.

It wasn’t too many years ago that we’d all joke about those hot-running Pentium-based note-books. Some of you might have even repeated the silly line about using them as frying pans in a pinch, but the point was clear. Even though chip makers made plenty of progress towards building tinier chips, with the magic combination of extra performance and reduced power requirements, you needed sophisticated cooling systems to make everything work efficiently without the danger of overheating.

When Apple announced plans to move to Intel, they made a big deal of the ratio of power to performance. You wanted the maximum of the latter with the reduced needs for the former. But something had to give, and so it wasn’t strange to hear complaints that the MacBook Pro ran exceptionally hot, and I’m not talking about number crunching ability.

I noticed this as well when I first spent a little face time with those preproduction units at the Macworld Expo. They ran exceptionally fast. They looked cool, but they didn’t feel cool. In fact they were quite warm, although I wouldn’t necessarily call them hot.

Now others had the same reaction, but it was widely felt things would be straightened out in the final shipping versions. Of course, when they arrived, beginning in February, nothing changed. They still felt a somewhat hot, although the frying pan metaphor might be a little extreme. However, if the bottom of these note-books touched bare skin for an extended period, and you weren’t looking for an extra dose of suntan, you might not find the experience too pleasant. I recall those days when I lived in colder climates, and I would have welcomed the extra warmth.

So did something go wrong? Was there some unfixed defect in these new Intel-based Mac portables? Did Apple rush the things out a little too fast, to avoid the possibility of some sort of sales hit, or at least minimize that possibility? Whatever happened to quality control, you might ask?

The real question is how long has it been since you used an Apple note-book for an extended period of time? Many owners of the 12-inch PowerBook, for example, complained that it ran too hot. We’re they expecting too much from modern-day cooling systems? Understand that the MacBook and the MacBook Pro are far more powerful. They have dual-processor systems, which, with Universal software, can rival and often exceed the performance of a dual-processor Power Mac G5. Apple’s desktop computers feature multiple fan arrays and liquid cooling on the speediest models.

If you achieve similar and even greater performance levels on a five or six pound note-book computer, surely there will be some compromises along the way. But don’t take my word for it. Pay attention, in fact, to Apple’s official stance in a recent Knowledge Base document. It’s worth a read, but the first paragraph really says it all: “The bottom surface and some areas between the keyboard and LCD hinge of your Apple note-book computer can become hot after extended periods of use. This is normal operating behavior. With processor and bus speeds in portable computers often matching, if not exceeding, those of desktop systems, increased operating temperatures in portable computing products are common throughout the industry.”

The main message is that you need to remove the word “laptop” from your lexicon. It hasn’t really applied for a while now, and it will take some new, major revolution in processor and cooling technology to change things for the better.

And, in case you’re wondering about my personal experiences: I definitely do not find the 17-inch MacBook Pro to be any hotter than a late model 17-inch PowerBook G4. Like it or not, that’s the way it’s supposed to be, at least for now.

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6 Responses to “On the Death of the Laptop”

  1. Allen Wicks says:

    Relatively powerful laptops have been hot since the G3 Powerboks. My maxxed out Wall Street was much hotter to the lap than either the TiBooks, the G4 PBs or the Macbook Pro. Logically, engineers have always been designing laptop boxes such that the more powerful boxes of each generation max out heat at what will br substantially hot to the touch.

    Personally I recognize the engineering issues and expect high temps from a maxxed out laptop when running Photoshop or other heavy graphics app. If it gets uncomfortable various cooling pads are available.

  2. gopher says:

    Yep, I use a an aluminum cookie tray to cool my laptop. In fact, I see the revolution that needs to happen is nothing short of room temperature superconductors. Once those arrive in integrated circuit size, then we’ll have a true laptop.

  3. Andrew says:

    I find that today’s laptops run both hotter and cooler than those of a few years ago. My 15 PowerBook is a great example. Plugged in it is set for adaptive CPU speed, while on battery I have it set for reduced processor speed. On batteries, the fan rarely comes on and the bottom of the machine, while warm, is definitely not hot. Plugged in the bottom gets very hot, as does the area just above the function keys near the display hinge. My 12″ PowerBook is slightly warmer on batteries, and slightly cooler on AC, go figure. I also have a Centrino IBM ThinkPad X32 that gets rather warm plugged in and stays nice and cool on batteries, but even at its warmest it doesn’t come close to either PowerBook for BTUs.

    Compare that with my old Pentium III Toshiba. Granted, that machine (Portege 3490) was an ultrathin model that weighed only about 3lbs, but that thing got so hot that it actually melted the top of a cheap desk, no kidding. Despite the heat, that too was a reliable computer that ran cooler (though still uncomfortably warm) on batteries.

    Going way back things were cooler. My first laptop, a PowerBook 145B was only slightly warm to the touch, though I’d imagine the processor itself got warm. That machine and all laptops of the day was over 2 inches thick, and the processor was actually nowhere near the case bottom or case top, so even if hot, the processor’s heat was already dealt with by the time it reached to bottom or top of the computer.

  4. Myles says:

    Apple portables have always been “desktop replacements”.

    Apple moved to Intel for “more power per watt”. They implemented the move as more power same watts rather than same power less watts. They do that because the desktops they compete against go the more power route.

    Companies with more models can choose to go both ways. They get away with less power by having fewer features, eg. no dvd burner.

  5. Michael says:

    The heat on the left top bottom of the MacBook measured 110F while idle and 113F doing the simplest things. This is a design flaw. I would take my desktop computer back if it had these heat readings.

    I think any notebook that in being developed by Apple should sit on the bare legs of an Apple designer for 4 hours. If he can recommend the experience then it passes the test.

    Hot notebooks to make them almost as fast as a desktop with the same chipset is a poor strategy in my book. I will avoid the MacBook and stay with my very useable iBook G4 1.2GHz laptop.


  6. Andrew says:

    Apple has tended to favor “Desktop Replacements”, but your statement is far too general and I’d imagine most 12″ PowerBook, 12″ iBook, 2400c and Duo fans would outright disagree with you.

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