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Features for the Perfect Notebook

With the launch of both Windows 7 and Snow Leopard this holiday season, we may be getting the biggest single refresh of PCs that has ever happened at one time. At the end of September Apple shoots, at the end of October Microsoft shoots, and then for 60 days we have World War III. Because Apple wants to move as many products as it can before Windows 7 ships, and because the Windows OEMs will be fighting tooth and nail not only against Apple but each other for the 60 days of massive sales, the prices, offers, bundles, and deals should be amazing.

I know some of what is coming, but I actually haven’t seen my perfect product yet. So I’m going to provide my wish list.

I am going to leave the OS discussion until later. I should, however, point out that I have a bunch of friends who are running Windows 7 RC on Macs, and others who are running Hackintosh (MacOS on Windows machines, there is a great site dedicated to this) and they all seem to be happy. So if you are willing to do a little work, you can probably get a lot more choice. I want to see someone do Snow Leopard once on a non-Apple box before I write a piece on this, given the timing, but these are increasingly options to consider.

Lenovo X300The Magic Number 13.3

Right now, 13.3-inch displays offer the perfect blend between portability and usefulness. Smaller, and you make a trade screen and keyboard size in exchange for extra portability, and maybe a little extra battery life. Larger, and you really can’t open it on a plane, but you can get more on a page. A 13.3-inch display seems to be the best midpoint between too large for coach, and too small to live off of. For most of the women I know, I think I could drop this down to 12 inches, but guys tend to have larger hands, and 13.3 inches is likely our floor for a machine. It isn’t by accident that the MacBook Air and the Lenovo X300 (which BusinessWeek called the perfect notebook) both have 13.3-inch screens.

Panasonic F8Panasonic Experience

Of all the notebooks I’ve used over the last year, the Panasonic F8 has been my favorite. If all Vista machines ran as flawlessly as this one did, Apple would have nothing to pound on Microsoft about. Panasonic writes many of its own drivers, designs and builds its own optical drives, and this product is even semi-hardened, so you can drop it and it seldom even shows a mark. I only have to reboot it after the occasional patch, and it suspends and resumes flawlessly. But what I love the most is the handle. When going through airport security, I can hook the handle with my finger, juggle a bunch of stuff at once, and flow right through the security line. I can’t do that anywhere near as well with a conventional notebook. In short, I want a handle.

Dell AdamoDell Adamo

There is still something to be said about beauty, and of all of the notebooks I’ve had, the Dell Adamo is the best looking. The glass and brushed metal design of this thing catches my breath every time I see it. You have to baby it like you would a MacBook Air, perhaps more because it collects fingerprints, but man is it ever good looking. I have it sitting so I can admire it. Now, one thing to consider: I carry the Panasonic over the Adamo for two reasons, I worry about scratching it, and I really worry about it getting stolen. So while I love the envy it creates, I think something a little less stunning and a bit more practical would work better for a carry box.

Lenovo ThinkPad T seriesLenovo ThinkPad High-Nit Display

On the Lenovo ThinkPad T series I tested a few weeks ago, I fell in love with the company’s new outdoor viewable display. Right now, Lenovo is somewhat unique in offering an LED display option that doesn’t fry your battery, but is still outdoor viewable. I can work outside and love doing it, but the vast majority of notebooks (particularly the ones with the really pretty, glossy, displays) get so much glare you can’t use them anywhere near the sun. What’s the point of having a notebook if you can’t sit under a tree and see the damned display? For me, an outdoor viewable display is high on my needs list. They are incredibly hard to find at the moment.

NvidiaNvidia or ATI Graphics

I play games. Yes I admit it, I like to play games, particularly when I’m sitting in a hotel room and there is nothing on the TV. Years ago, when I was an auditor, after working my fourth 18-hour day, I took my laptop and started playing a game. The auditor in charge told me to stop. I said no, and he turned me in to the audit director. I said I’d been working 18 hour days through the fricken weekend, and I was taking a fricken (trust me I didn’t really say “fricken”) break. Fortunately he agreed, and that was the last 18 hour day that trip. But I hit a limit, and then I want to play. I want a machine I can play on, and Intel graphics suck, so good graphics are critical. Apple got smart and put Nvidia graphics on every machine it sells. I think others should take the example to heart.

Remember Windows 7 has a big graphics component with DirectX 11 and DirectCompute (Apple has Open CL) so graphics will be important. With Vista, it was the folks that didn’t have good graphics that were the most disappointed (they sued).

Over Six Hours of Battery Life

I mean real battery life, not the fantasy score most laptops have. This is another area where I think Apple generally does a better job, because they at least provide a battery life range. Most everyone else posts a number that is twice what you might actually get. I’m not going more than six hours off plug, so I don’t need 11 or 22 hours (and would rather not have the weight of mega batteries), but six hours is my floor. Typically, HP does the best when it comes to battery options to get to the battery life I want. They also offer Boston-Power-based batteries as an option (delivering a 3 to 5 year useful life) which is worth considering as well.

Price and Wrapping Up

Now, this won’t be a $500 laptop. Probably closer to $2,000, and you may want to make tradeoffs to get yours down to the price you want. At the moment, the most important to me is the outdoor viewable display, because I hate missing much of the summer sitting inside and working. Unfortunately that will be one of the hardest things for me to find. After the end of the year, I’ll tell you what my favorite laptop is, and whether it is still the Panasonic. It’s funny, I actually think that the perfect laptop might be a blend of Apple and Panasonic. Apple is form over function, pretty but not very robust, while the Panasonic isn’t much of a looker but is rugged, offers outdoor-viewable screens, and has the handle I’ve fallen in love with. You think Apple and Panasonic could be convinced to merge? Probably not…

In the end, if you have a firm idea what you want, you’ll be able to navigate the feeding frenzy better and end up with the laptop that best fits your needs. After the holidays, we’ll revisit this, and I hope you’ll let me know if you found your perfect laptop.

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