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The Results of My Year-Long Laptop Experiment

Last year, I replaced two laptops (an aging MacBook Pro and a lightweight Dell Latitude) and my desktop (a Mac Pro) with a Dell laptop running Windows 10.

I documented the process that lead to my decision in a series of articles, beginning with The Journey to My New Computer: Taking Stock.

It’s now a year later, and it’s time to assess the results.

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What works

Dell XPS 15
Dell XPS 15. (Click for larger image.)

The laptop I chose — a Dell XPS 15 with a docking station (and a new widescreen monitor) — has served me well in the intervening year. In fact, I’m typing on it right now.

There were hiccups, of course, the biggest being that the external display had a habit of blanking out intermittently. There appeared to be an issue with the docking station, and regularly updating the drivers for both it and the laptop resolved that annoying problem.

I’ve traveled with the laptop and honestly, it’s been handy to always have “my world” with me. If I needed to fire up a virtual machine running Windows 7 or Windows 10 Home (the laptop runs Pro), I could, no matter where I was.

And honestly, World of Warcraft looks great on the 38″ external monitor.

I did find, however, that I immediately needed to max out the RAM capacity if I wanted to run virtual machines with any regularity and reasonable performance. My upgrade took me to 32 gigabytes, and all’s been well since.

Well… “well” might be an overstatement. Which leads me to…

It’s just OK

As I mentioned in the “what do I do all day” article, 80% of the time — maybe more — the machine is twiddling its digital thumbs. You just don’t need that much horsepower to surf the web, write articles, and respond to emails. Even grabbing and annotating screenshots isn’t that big a deal.

However.

The three big tasks I mentioned back then are another story. Video editing using Camtasia, running a virtual machine (let alone more than one), and online gaming push this machine to its limits.

In fact, I’d say it’s being pushed beyond its limits. The machine can accomplish all three of those tasks, but can also be frustratingly pokey at times, depending on exactly what I’m doing. Even Photoshop (photography being another hobby of mine) can push its limits.

As I said, it works. It even works sufficiently, most of the time.

But I’d be hard pressed to say that for those applications it works well.

Solutions

So, what to do about it?

There are two approaches: fix, tweak, alter, or expand the existing system to make it more capable; or replace it.

I’ll go ahead and call my assumption a mistake. I assumed that a laptop — designed primarily to be portable and save power, so as to be able to run for a long time on battery — could be coerced into these more demanding tasks. And it could… sort of. As I said, the tasks are do-able; the laptop just doesn’t perform exceptionally well.

My opinion is that the laptop is operating at capacity. Not just physically, but in terms of what I’m demanding of it. Even replacing Windows with a lighter-weight operating system and alternative applications — even if they exist in some satisfactory form — won’t meet my needs.

And if all that sounds like I’m working up to an excuse to get a new machine…

…it’s because I am.

In fact, as I write this, the new one is on order.

I’ll share the details of exactly what I’m getting and how I arrived at its configuration in a future article.

Why this matters to you

Aside from simply watching my machinations, there’s an important lesson here I want to emphasize.

Whenever someone asks me “What machine should I get?”, my immediate response is “How will you use it?” The answer to that question is by far the most important information you can provide. It’s even more important than budget, since some budgets simply won’t allow for a machine to do everything desired, forcing you to rethink your intentions.

Think long and hard about how you use your computer and how you plan to use your computer in the future, and make decisions in line with that.

As part of my business, getting another new computer a year later is not unexpected or even unrealistic. But as a casual user, realizing that the computer you just bought isn’t up to the tasks you expect of it can be a wallet-busting mistake.

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Posted: February 20, 2020 in: Computers and Computer Systems
Shortlink: https://askleo.com/114067
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I'm Leo Notenboom and I've been playing with computers since I took a required programming class in 1976. I spent over 18 years as a software engineer at Microsoft, and after "retiring" in 2001 I started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place to help you find answers and become more confident using this amazing technology at our fingertips. More about Leo.

15 comments on “The Results of My Year-Long Laptop Experiment”

  1. I always appreciate your articles Leo as I still have a Lenovo Ideapad running Windows 10 (which I never use now) as well as on older IBM still running Windows 7…unwilling to lose the use of all the expensive Windpows apps I’ve purchased over the years.
    It was the upgrade to W10 ( I just couldn’t get on with it ) that prompted me to buy the MacBook Pro and just recently the new Air.

    I’m not one to usually comment but reading you replaced your Mac and with a Dell astounds me!
    I’m only sorry I didn’t choose a Mac when I first started with computers over twenty years ago.
    This Macbook Pro I’ve had for four years now and never had one problem with – it works the same as when first purchased…still boots and shuts down in ten seconds.
    Obviously not the comment you expected but as I said I was astounded you replaced them.

    Reply
    • They’re computers. They have pros and cons. I’ve long considered myself “platform agnostic” in that even after years of using the different systems extensively (as, indeed, I have) I don’t find one massively better than the other. My purchase of a PC is mostly a reflection, I think, of my feeling that I had many, MANY more configuration and long term growth options than I would have had in the Mac ecosystem. Not everyone needs that. Whatever works for you is fantastic.

      Reply
  2. Leo: Thanks for as-always valuable information. I had read an earlier article mentioning that Windows loves RAM, and tried to update my Dell laptop beyond the 4K that came with it, only to find that the motherboard was already maxed out with what it would accept. I wonder if you could comment on why there are these apparently artificial constraints on important things like memory. Another annoying memory restriction is the classes of micro-sized class 10 memory cards, that went from a small capacity version to SDHC to SDXC and who knows where from there. I still have no equipment that will use a SDXC card and so must forego using above the 32 gb storage limit. I would love to know why the makers of these cards kept on imposing apparently arbitrary limits, especially since memory is now relatively cheap and thus increasing available in larger sizes at still-low prices.

    Reply
    • Maximum RAM capacity is not an “artificial constraint”. It’s truly a limitation of the hardware — the motherboard must be designed to handle some maximum amount. That maximum must weigh the cost (eventually the increased cost to you) against the possibility that you’ll actually use it sometime in the lifespan of the computer.

      Again, limits are not arbitrary — they’s a reflection of the growth and design of the hardware over time, and the improvements made in the underlying technology.

      It’s kind of like saying automobile manufacturers put an “artificial limit” of 120MPH on your automobile, when in reality that’s simply a reflection of how fast your car’s engine and frame can be made to move. You can pay more (often much more) to go faster, if you like.

      Reply
    • It’s not an artificial constraint, it’s a physical limitation. I agree they should have allowed more expansion capabilities but laptops are limited in space for RAM expansion slots and they cost money. It’s a tradeoff over expandability, size, and cost.

      Reply
    • If you laptop is limited to 4GB (NOT “K”) of RAM, I’m willing to bet it is a low end (aka “cheap”, ie $500 or less) machine. That explains why RAM is limited. As others have already pointed out, the RAM limit is built in to the very “fabric” of the motherboard.

      Reply
  3. As a senior, and what would be called a casual user, I recently changed from a Dell Win 10 to a 2013 refurbished MacBook Pro. As Jan commented above, I wish I had been Mac from day one. I know I am not pressing the machine to its limits, but, it starts instantly, never hangs up when I open a new window, and never crashes. My Dell with it’s standard 4 GB RAM, would sit for 10 minutes when I would open a programme, say Firefox, or anything else after boot up. The Mac I bought is 4 years older than the Dell, and simply runs great. I know I am not a gamer, or use a computer like many people, but just saung that compared to my Dell, this Mac rocks.

    Reply
  4. I see this as a laptop vs desktop issue. All specs appearing equal, a laptop will never deliver the same performance as a desktop/tower, nor will it be as upgradeable. You can thank the “mobile processor” and other downsized parts for this reality. If performance is important, get a new desktop/tower. You can always use the laptop for travel but try to keep the number of simultaneous processes down and have realistic expectations of the speed.

    Reply
  5. About 2 years ago, I got a new Dell laptop to replace my old one. I got in Inspiron 17″ with a 118 GB SSD, 1TB HDD, 8 GB RAM and Intel core i7 processor. I changed out the HDD to a 2TB HDD and added another 8 GB RAM for a total of 16GB. I’ve recently upgraded the SSD to 500GB.
    I figure that as long as the hardware holds up, I can pretty much do whatever I want with it. It is big enough to watch video and light enough for me to travel with. I have family photos and other documents stored on it. Living in hurricane country I can just grab it and go when necessary.
    My two cents to the PC vs Mac debate is Apple lost me when Steve Jobs overrode Steve Wozniak in the direction the company was taking. Back in 80’s, I had an Apple IIc that came with documentation that allowed for learning how to write programs (ProDos). And back then you weren’t limited to just Apple software. Apple abandoned that approach with the introduction of the Macintosh.
    For all the complaints I’ve heard about Windows, I found Windows systems to be lower cost and more flexible.

    Reply
    • Mark:
      I have a laptop with very similar specs. Your upgrades are reasonable. BUT there is one very fundamental change I would have suggested. Instead of upgrading the HD to 2TB, I would strongly suggest that you swap out the HD with a new SSD. You can get a 1 or even 2 TB SSD for an affordable price. You will find that pulling the HD out of the mix will make a huge performance difference.
      .
      When I first got my machine it was setup to run entirely from the SSD. Apps loaded “in a snap”. Same with documents. Then I made some “improvements”, moving some stuff to the HD. Peformance was dragged down. I was back to the same speed to load apps and documents as I had with my old machine. I haven’t still been able to find the specific tweak that caused the problem. But as soon as I can afford it, I plan to swap the 1TB HD with a 500GB to 1TB SSD. I expect to see a large performance improvement.
      .

      Reply
  6. Typically when we think of a computer’s speed we think about the CPU model and RAM. There are other factors to consider. One variable is that the applications you use may be poorly designed CPU hogs and/or RAM hogs. Not much you can do about that. Another consideration is that most applications, even the OS, are designed to work in a single thread or on a single CPU, in which case all the cores on a “high end” CPU do you no good. Another factor is the CPU clock speed, which in today’s machines is fairly low, about 2-GHz. By the standards of 20 years ago, that’s a slow CPU. Yes, I know that clock speed depends on the machine instruction set, optimization techniques, etc., but given a family of CPUs from the same manufacturer, a lower clock speed is just slower. On a laptop CPUs run slower because of cooling constraints. As Sandy indicated above, other down-graded subsystems on a laptop contribute to the slowness, such as CPU cache and bus speed.

    Reply
  7. I’ve worked my way into asking myself a slightly different question than “how will I use it” when I’m thinking about buying a computer. I ask how long I want to use a computer to do whatever it is I plan to do with that. I’m typing on a Alienware gaming laptop that I bought five and a half years ago that still works perfectly fine for the typical Office tasks, light gaming, and SketchUp CAD work. It was a pretty hot machine when I bought it but has performed well through Windows updates and 5+ years of software getting more complicated. I just bought another Alienware gaming laptop for my daughter to use. She’s a high school junior and my primary thought was for it to get her all the way through college. The computers tend to be a lot more powerful than I need when I buy them but they hold up well through many years of use.

    Reply
    • Good point. “how long I want to use a computer to do whatever it is I plan to do with that.” can be considered a part of “how will I use it?” One thing I ‘ve learned through 40 years of using PCs, though is that often it’s better financially to get a less expensive machine that may last half as long as the more expensive one at twice the cost. The cheaper one may only work efficiently for 2 or 3 years but for the difference you save you can have a new machine 3 years later much more powerful than the more expensive one will be in 2 or 3 years. And you’ll have a useable second machine. One of my older machines si in ,y bedroom which I use for watching online movies and playing music.

      Reply
  8. Hi Leo,
    I’ve been lurking here for many years and really appreciate your articles. They are well researched, well written and informative.
    Your article about your Dell XPS was most informative. A couple of years ago I replaced my Dell XPS M1710 with the latest XPS. Dell said the screen and keyboard were as good as an Apple! Yes they were, most impressive.
    A little over a year after purchasing this XPS the motherboard failed! It was more economical to buy another laptop so I bought an Asus, with which I am very pleased.
    Iwas so grateful to you for plugging the “Back up” message and lost nothing except for a few emails which was due to finger trouble on my part.
    Thanks once again!

    Reply
  9. Hi Leo:
    I recall reading the “journey…” articles when they came out so I was glad to see this follow up.
    .
    In the “What works” section, the link to the specs article is appreciated (but more descriptive text on the link would be better), but frankly, this article would be MUCH easier to read (and comprehend) if you summarized the new machine specs in this article in just a few lines.
    .
    I’m surprised that you find the laptop not quite up to the work you want to do. On the surface, the CPU and RAM specs seem to be up to the job. I wonder if the problem is the bandwidth limits built in to laptop CPU’s and Motherboards and RAM when compared to the equivalent desktop chip and motherboard.

    Reply

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