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On the Death of the Laptop

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.