Looking for new laptop: not quite workstation, not quite ultrabook

Black Morty Rackham

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I've currently got a 2008-model Macbook Pro (the first of the unibody ones) with a 2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo, and it's been a good laptop for my needs, with (for the time, anyway) reasonably powerful GPU and CPU, a decent amount of memory, and relatively low weight. I'm looking to replace it, and I'm considering going non-Apple, as I'll be running Windows on it anyway (Fusion, 3ds Max, etc).

Here's a list of some key points I'm looking for:
  • Preferably not heavier than ~2.5 kg. The lighter the better.
  • Needs descrete graphics, preferably a reasonably fast Nvidia chip. Quadro card is ok, but not a requirement. Preferably 2+ gigs of VRAM. This is where the current-gen Apple MBPs fall short; they only come with 1 gig AMD cards. Some of my software uses OpenCL but there is some CUDA-based stuff that I'm interested in, so Nvidia is preferable.
  • Quad-core i7. I'm a 3D graphics professional, so this is pretty high on the list.
  • Upgradeable to 16 gigs of RAM. I looked at some Dells, but their XPS laptops can only be bought with 8 gigs, and they told me that it's not user upgradeable without voiding the warranty.
  • Good build quality, keyboard, etc.
  • User-upgradeable is a plus. The Dell laptops are apparently not, and I rather like the idea of being able to replace the hard drive or stick more RAM in it if I need to.
  • Price is not the main issue here; I'm willing to spend more money if it gets me a better product. Nothing unreasonable, but it's fine if it' a couple of thousand. It's tax deductible anyway.

With these key points in mind, does anyone have any good recommendations? There appear to be dozens of different potentially-viable brands, so I figured I'd try asking here. You guys seem much more up to speed on these things than I am.

Any help is appreciated, so thank you in advance! :)
 

fx_fury

Limp Gawd
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Look at the Sony Vaio Z series, it sounds like it has exactly what you are looking for.
 

/rant/

Limp Gawd
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Look at the Sony Vaio Z series, it sounds like it has exactly what you are looking for.
Sadly, no. The 2011 Vaio Z doesn't support i7 quad core, 2 GB VRAM is a no-go since GPU is an external HD6630M via Thunderbolt. GPU is okay, but the difference between dual and quad core is extreme for the tasks specified (close to linear scaling).

OP must be looking for something like the Lenovo ThinkPad W520: 15.6" TFT, Intel Core i7 2760QM (2.4GHz), Quad Core, 6MB Cache, Maximum 16GB 1333 MHz, nVidia Quadro 1000M with 2GB + Intel HD Graphics 3000 (Optimus), 2.61kg.
 

Black Morty Rackham

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The W520 with a quad-core, 16 gigs of RAM and a Quadro 2000 with 2 gigs of VRAM is just under £1800, including sales tax. That's really not too shabby! A bit on the heavy side, but nothing too outrageous. Any thoughts on the screen on the Lenovo? They claim 95 % Adobe RGB gamut, but based on reviews it seems to be a PVA or TN display, which is somewhat disappointing. Probably no worse than the screen on my MBP, mind you, but I was really hoping for an IPS of some sort.

The Dell Precision 4600 can be configured to a similar spec for a somewhat higher price (~£2000), but then it includes a faster CPU and an IPS display. Certainly not too shabby, either, but... it's a Dell. Have they managed to stop building horrible pieces of junk yet? The ThinkPad brand has a pretty good reputation, but I've never actually used one myself. I've used plenty of Dell machines, however, and they never impressed me particularly. They tend to fail spectacularly (in the explosive sense). Perhaps their Precision laptops are better than their XPS towers?

Also, is there any word on upcoming mobile Intel CPUs and chipsets? I'm not in a tremendous hurry to replace the MBP. If I can wait a few months for a hexacore/12-thread CPU, that would certainly be worth it.
 

Siriusmuzik

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im going to comment on one aspect often overlooked ... warranty. ive posessed numerous lenovo and dell laptops and the warranty difference is night and day. lemovo has hands down the crappiest warranty ever. if you ever have issues and send it in under repair of warranty then expect them to send you a bill back charging you full price for damages that they claim were caused by the user. extremely common as it has happened to me. dell business warranty is extremely fast, efficient and no hassle. and lenovo build quality is shit these days.
 

Black Morty Rackham

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Oh goddamnit, that's the opposite of what I was expecting. :( Is Dell build quality any better, though? I mean, I only have limited experiences with Precisions. I used a Precision workstation at a games company for about eight or nine months and it was great, but I have no idea how long they tend to last. The company that I work for most of the time bought a bunch of top-of-the-line XPS towers a few years ago (2007, I think), and about half of them were dead within the first three years. A few of them had power supplies that literally exploded (yes, really—loud bang). So... I'm sceptical about Dells.

Most reviewers seem to like the W520 build quality, too. I take it you have different experiences, then?
 
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/rant/

Limp Gawd
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I don't know, W520 build quality seems pretty fine to me, but I haven't used one for longer than a few hours. I know some students who use it as their main system. I've had a lot of trouble with Dell tower PCs as well in the past, don't know how they are now. But it felt like Dell's best days were over back in 2006.

Oh, and since you asked about upcoming CPUs and chipsets from Intel: No mobile hexacore is announced for this year. In April, new Ivy Bridge i7 models may be available. The top model of those will be the i7 3920XM quad core.
 

Black Morty Rackham

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So just a die shrink though, right? I take it Intel are still doing their new architecture every other year, followed by die shrink the next year. So the only real difference would be a potentially higher clock frequency with the same power consumption. Or the same clock frequency with better battery life, I suppose... Looks like it won't be a tremendous difference, at any rate. I couldn't find any information about soon-to-be-released new GPUs that might result in upgraded models, either.
 

AQ_OC

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I have a x220t Lenovo...the build quality is fine, as are the features. But if you have to get on the phone with Lenovo for anything, be prepared for a very poor experience. I think that if my laptop were to develop problems and I felt I needed support, I'd just get a new laptop (or just dump it).
 

Black Morty Rackham

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I have a x220t Lenovo...the build quality is fine, as are the features. But if you have to get on the phone with Lenovo for anything, be prepared for a very poor experience. I think that if my laptop were to develop problems and I felt I needed support, I'd just get a new laptop (or just dump it).
Ouch, that's a pretty poor customer service review.



I think I'm going to go with the Lenovo anyway, though, and just hope for the best. The W520 and M4600 are similarly-specced, but the final price is just too big a difference. With some coupons and config tweaks (like buying memory and HDD myself), I got the W520 down to £1450, and the M4600 is £2039. That's a 40 % price difference. And it's a few hg lighter, which is good for my back.

I rummaged through the websites of loads of manufacturers, but I couldn't find anything that fits my needs as well as either of these two. Thanks, everyone! :)
 

AQ_OC

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I read a glowing review of the W520 just the other day in a IEEE society magazine. I know the author personally and value his thoughts on the machine. If you can get one that works off the bat and survives the first few weeks, you'd golden. Just don't expect much after the sale, though.
 

AQ_OC

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Ouch, that's a pretty poor customer service review.



I think I'm going to go with the Lenovo anyway, though, and just hope for the best. The W520 and M4600 are similarly-specced, but the final price is just too big a difference. With some coupons and config tweaks (like buying memory and HDD myself), I got the W520 down to £1450, and the M4600 is £2039. That's a 40 % price difference. And it's a few hg lighter, which is good for my back.

I rummaged through the websites of loads of manufacturers, but I couldn't find anything that fits my needs as well as either of these two. Thanks, everyone! :)

Lenovo offered me 10% discount just for giving them my email address. I got that right before ordering, which then allowed me to upgrade the specs in my X220t.
 

Black Morty Rackham

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Right, so then we're looking at £1300 instead. That's actually pretty darned inexpensive, for this kind of machine.
 

jeremyshaw

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There is the ASUS U31SD or the U36SD. It's hard to tell, but on NBR, there are a few reputeable vendors that sell the rare quad core version.

Otherwise, it's a so-so laptop with a 13" 1366x768 display,. GT520m GPU, 83Whr battery, 2 DIMM slots, and not much else in it's favor.
 

Black Morty Rackham

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Well, I have the W520 now so here's a mini-mini review:


I'm very pleased with performance. The quadcore i7 is easily 4-5 times faster at rendering than my previous Core 2 Duo Macbook Pro. This makes a huge difference in my work. I have installed Lightroom, but I haven't yet transferred my photo library. Nice of Adobe to have a cross-platform license for it. I like that.

I only ordered it with the default 4 gigs of RAM. I'm planning on ordering two eight-gig modules to start with. It seems I can't really stress-test the GPU before then. I tried to get the viewports to slow down by increasing the polygon count, but I ran out of RAM before things started getting slow. Even when sculpting 12 million triangles in modo, it still ran at the vsync speed. Very nice. The only game I've installed so far is Baldur's Gate 2, and I haven't bothered benchmarking it. :)

All in all, this machine seems almost on par with my workstation a few years ago. It was a dual quad core with a top-of-the-line Quadro card, cost as much as a car and had a 1200 watt power supply. Now all that power (or a large portion of it, anyway) fits into an affordable and portable laptop. That's downright amazing.

As well as ordering it with the default 4 gigs of RAM, I also bought it with the standard 5400 RPM hard drive. I forgot how awful this is. My Macbook Pro has a 500 MB/s SSD. For those not already running everything off solid state drives: you're doing it wrong! This makes such a tremendous difference. My previous laptop actually feels faster than my new one, and I attribute this mostly to the SSD.

In terms of build quality, I'm not exactly amazed. It seems like pretty good quality, but compared to the Apple laptops it certainly feels like it's made out of plastics instead of being hewn from a single slab of aluminium. The screen flexes when I bend it. When I type, the chassis flexes. You can feel that it's... soft. But then again, the Macbooks actually feel like higher quality than they really are, and my three year old MBP has a few dents and bends that plastic laptops tend not to develop. Metal isn't always a good thing, even if it tends to feel that way. All in all, it seems like a rather solid machine. It gets warm underneath, but not so much so that it seems like a problem. It's louder than I expected, but not to problematic levels. The fan noise is not of the unpleasant kind, and there's none of the broken ball bearing noises of my old MBP. :p

The keyboard is really nice. I expected it to be good, and it is. I like the fact that it doesn't have too many dedicated idiot buttons. Who the hell thought it was a good idea to put a "shop" button on a keyboard? No numeric keypad like on some 15" laptops, but I don't really mind that much. At least it's got page up/down and a proper delete key. The keyboard isn't backlit, but this isn't much of a problem for a touch-typer. It also has a keyboard light mounted next to the webcam; a small white LED, shining down on the keyboard. This is actually a rather nice solution. While very low-tech, it means it can also double as a reading light in some situations. Doesn't look as fancy, but I've always been a fan of low-tech solutions. They tend to work better, in the long run.

The screen is somewhat less impressive than what reviews had me believe. Having a built-in calibrator is a huge plus, but I haven't yet had time to assess the colour reproduction. Viewing angles are terrific, for a TN panel. But I guess that's the problem: this is still a TN panel. The Dell Precision was the only laptop I was able to find with an IPS. Why is this so? The W520 is supposed to be a workstation. With a built-in calibrator, they are clearly targeting photographers and graphics professionals, as well as CAD/CG. Having an IPS panel would be more expensive, sure, but the difference is night and day. If the iPad can have an IPS panel, why can't the Thinkpads? It's nice to have a relatively high-density display, though; the ThinkPad is 1920x1080, versus the 1440x960 of my Macbook Pro. That raises another question: why not 1920x1200? There's plenty of space for more pixels on the monitor bezel. Oh well, that's a minor complaint.

A larger complaint, however, is the track pad. Seriously, what the hell is up with this? It seems that Apple is the only company who are capable of building trackpads. This is rubbish. At least it's got two finger scrolling instead of that insipid "scroll region" crap that most are stuck with, but it's the size of a stamp! It's got tap-to-click, but no tap-two-fingers-to-right-click! If they moved things around a bit and removed one of the duplicate sets of physical buttons, they could easily increase the area of the trackpad by a factor of four. Also, a trackpoint? I thought we got rid of these in 1994. Perhaps it unscrews or something...

It ships with a bunch of software. I'm not convinced about how useful this stuff is, but it seems less god-awful than on HPs and Dells. The fact that it defaults to shipping with 64-bit Windows Pro is a significant advantage, since I intend to upgrade it to 32 gigs of RAM. Home can only support up to 16 gigs (Premium) or 8 gigs (Basic), so Professional is pretty much a requirement. Nice that it's included by default. Some of the other laptops I looked at needed a £75 or so upgrade, which brought their price up even further from the Thinkpad (which was generally cheaper than the others to begin with).

All in all, I'm very pleased with this machine. There aren't that many 15" laptops out there that have four RAM slots and two gigs of VRAM, and most of them were significantly more expensive than the W520 while offering few (if any) advantages. Thumbs up for Lenovo, I guess.

If anyone wonders, I ended up paying roughly £1500 ($2400) for it, including a three-year next day service plan, VAT and a 10 % on-offer discount. I'm not sure how the UK pricing compares to the American pricing, but they don't ship internationally so I didn't have much choice in the matter.

Thanks for your input, everyone!




edit: addendum:

One does wonder over a few things, though... Why does a high-end portable workstation in 2012 ship with a VGA port, instead of something useful like Firewire, Lightpeak/Thunderbolt/whatever they call it, or at least a full-size HDMI, Display Port or DVI? Who uses VGA? It might as well ship with a floppy drive.
 
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AQ_OC

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I use VGA. Frankly, I encounter more VGA projectors than anything else, in the real world. HDMI seems to be more about watching movies.

I do think only Apple gets trackpads, or so I hear. I've never used an Apple computer, so I don't really know. I do agree with you on the trackpoint, though...I think it's a holdover from the IBM days. Seems a lot of space is wasted with that plus those two buttons. Makes things rather cramp. My X220t does have display port, though, but I have nothing that connects to it. IME, your comparison of a floppy drive to VGA is way off mark, at least in my world. :)

I have mixed feelings about the aluminum vs plastic thing. Yeah, aluminum is nice...it gives the impression of fantastic build quality, which today seems to count for something, but plastic or these other alloys works equally as well, but gives an impression of cheap to a lot of people...but it is very durable based on experience. A bit of flex doesn't have to denote cheap (I note no flex on my keyboard when I type -- I'm challenged to imagine using enough force in my fingers to flex this keyboard...and gosh, I'd be careful about bending the screen...you don't want to have to use Lenovo's support!!!). It's only cheap if it breaks easily. There was a thread here in another sub-forum of someone putting a MBA in a backpack and getting the screen cracked as a result. Might that be the result of no flex until it breaks syndrome....watch what you ask for. Apple overbuilding reminds me of the older days when companies overdesigned everything...printers lasting for decades (think Laserjets) and stuff. These days, people upgrade to faster processors so the overbuilt thing isnt always the best idea, unless you're into form over function (or form as well as function, which is what appeals to me).
 

Trepidati0n

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One does wonder over a few things, though... Why does a high-end portable workstation in 2012 ship with a VGA port, instead of something useful like Firewire, Lightpeak/Thunderbolt/whatever they call it, or at least a full-size HDMI, Display Port or DVI? Who uses VGA? It might as well ship with a floppy drive.

Until 90% of the projectors in business are replaced with varietns that have either display port or HDMI, you will see a VGA port on a business laptop. This means...another decade based upon how slow capital gets replaced in the current economy.
 

Black Morty Rackham

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Until 90% of the projectors in business are replaced with varietns that have either display port or HDMI, you will see a VGA port on a business laptop. This means...another decade based upon how slow capital gets replaced in the current economy.
Ah, that makes sense. Our projector is DVI, I believe. But it is quite new, as well.
 

Trepidati0n

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Ah, that makes sense. Our projector is DVI, I believe. But it is quite new, as well.

Which is effing annoying me though. On newer PJ's it is VGA + HDMI or DVI. I rarely if ever see both. I know you can make the cabling work and it is simple. But getting a conference room setup is annoying.
 

/rant/

Limp Gawd
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I always bring my adapters. I once saw someone get dumped on because he didn't bring an adapter for his MBP and the projector only had VGA. Poor bastard.
 

kevinsbane

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In terms of build quality, I'm not exactly amazed. It seems like pretty good quality, but compared to the Apple laptops it certainly feels like it's made out of plastics instead of being hewn from a single slab of aluminium. The screen flexes when I bend it. When I type, the chassis flexes. You can feel that it's... soft. But then again, the Macbooks actually feel like higher quality than they really are, and my three year old MBP has a few dents and bends that plastic laptops tend not to develop. Metal isn't always a good thing, even if it tends to feel that way. All in all, it seems like a rather solid machine. It gets warm underneath, but not so much so that it seems like a problem. It's louder than I expected, but not to problematic levels. The fan noise is not of the unpleasant kind, and there's none of the broken ball bearing noises of my old MBP. :p

I believe that it is a magnesium alloy? It is a rubberized paint on the surface.

A larger complaint, however, is the track pad. Seriously, what the hell is up with this? It seems that Apple is the only company who are capable of building trackpads. This is rubbish. At least it's got two finger scrolling instead of that insipid "scroll region" crap that most are stuck with, but it's the size of a stamp! It's got tap-to-click, but no tap-two-fingers-to-right-click! If they moved things around a bit and removed one of the duplicate sets of physical buttons, they could easily increase the area of the trackpad by a factor of four. Also, a trackpoint? I thought we got rid of these in 1994. Perhaps it unscrews or something...

Don't knock the trackpoint :p It's probably my favourite piece of equipment on my x220! Seriously though, Trackpoints are superior to trackpads in everything except gestures. You do need to learn how to use it, but once you do, you find yourself missing it when you don't have it. I mean, right while I type this post, I find myself reaching for the trackpoint 3-4 times... I did have to force myself to learn it, since my friends swore by it, and now I am a convert!

Granted, given no trackpoint, the second set of mouse buttons make no sense, as they are used in conjunction with the trackpoint. I do understand your frustration over the quality of the trackpad, as the one on my x220 is even worse...
 

AQ_OC

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Don't knock the trackpoint :p It's probably my favourite piece of equipment on my x220! Seriously though, Trackpoints are superior to trackpads in everything except gestures. You do need to learn how to use it, but once you do, you find yourself missing it when you don't have it. I mean, right while I type this post, I find myself reaching for the trackpoint 3-4 times... I did have to force myself to learn it, since my friends swore by it, and now I am a convert!

Granted, given no trackpoint, the second set of mouse buttons make no sense, as they are used in conjunction with the trackpoint. I do understand your frustration over the quality of the trackpad, as the one on my x220 is even worse...

I have the same issues as Black Monty regarding the trackpoint....how does one convince oneself to learn to use that thing? I end up defaulting to a mouse, because to me the only thing worse than a trackpoint is a trackpad! Still, I do see the benefit of being comfortable not using a mouse, but I have not been able to force myself to achieve that goal.
 

kevinsbane

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I have the same issues as Black Monty regarding the trackpoint....how does one convince oneself to learn to use that thing? I end up defaulting to a mouse, because to me the only thing worse than a trackpoint is a trackpad! Still, I do see the benefit of being comfortable not using a mouse, but I have not been able to force myself to achieve that goal.

I forced myself? To be honest, I just heard great things about it and thought to myself, "Well, my friends aren't (totally) stupid, so I should at least figure out how to use it before discounting it." In the past, I just spent an hour or two trying to use it, before saying I hated it. So I spent a week forcing myself to use it.

Basically I turned down the sensitivity to about 40% max, then spent a day surfing the web and random stuff like that. Once I felt comfortable with that (or once it felt "slow") I upped the sensitivity, such that by the end of the week I was at 100% speed. At the end of the week, I found that trackpoint use simply fits better with most tasks which are not dominated by precision mouse movement. The primary benefit is being able to use the mouse and the keyboard without moving either hand off the keyboard.

Trackpoints are the best when you are not at a desk (ie, on the couch, laptop on lap, or lying in bed...), or when you switch constantly between keyboard and mouse. In those cases trackpoints are superior to even "real" mouses. They are about on par with trackpads when doing graphics work (ie they both kinda suck).

Edit: Precision mouse movement = CAD design, snapping, clicking on toolbar icons constantly. Web surfing and following links I find to be very pleasant using a trackpoint.
 
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Yeah, I love my MBP and it's amazingly fantastic touchpad (and it's awesome, everyone admits), I would still love to have a Trackpoint for precision work on the road. I'm good with the touchpad, but when I'm doing really precise stuff it just isn't up to snuff IMO.

That said, I'll probably never get a MBP(or hackintosh) with a Trackpoint. The software I use requires OSX, so I'll live.
 
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