Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Laptop I Want To Buy

I am pretty easy to please as a consumer. I know enough about technology, engineering, and business to know where real limitations and trade-offs have to be made when bringing a new product to market. It baffles me though, the laptop I really want to see? … nowhere to be found. I just want a machine with some simple “designed for home and kids” options. No one makes it and in my opinion the market exists, big time. So it’s really a shame. If it does exist, then whoever made it has completely failed to market it properly, because I have been casually looking for a few years and I read tech sites and some magazines regularly.

So… let me tell you what I want and if you know any good engineers and designers, you show them this article and maybe someday soon I’ll be able to buy one. I know I could go the DIY route, but I really don’t have time. I am a busy dad with both home and work responsibilities. If you read to the end of this post and don’t want one of these laptops, then I am pretty sure you aren’t a parent who uses the internet regularly.

Before I jump into my ideas and demands, let me define what does and doesn’t already exist, I think it will make the overall concept make more sense.

Rugged laptops. Yes those exist. I have worked on several. I used to work with Agriculture researchers and have spent lots of time around Fish and Game biologists. If they don’t have at least one rugged laptop in each department, they want one. Panasonic, Dell, HP, and a few other companies make rugged laptops and lots of professions use them: Wireless technicians, field researchers, contractors, and the military. You might have heard of the ToughBook from Panasonic. I mean these things are awesome, they are rated at the military’s “ MIL-STD-810” rugged and semi-rugged standards and can operate after being dropped in a lake, run over by a tank, shot, stuck in a snow drift, etc. They are water, shock and dirt resistant, have extra bright screens for working outside … and are indestructible, expensive, and bulky.

“Business rugged” is a hot new selling point. These are marketed to “road warriors”, frequent travelers and anyone who is constantly using a laptop out of the office. They are supposed to hold up to jostling around, have some shock resistance if dropped, and spill resistant keyboards, but it is mostly just a tough chassis. (Check some out if you are curious: ) The goal here is to have a laptop that survives when you need it at those critical moments so business people don’t waste any time or lose important work. These are also expensive, usually in the $2-3k range. A lot of that is an expensive metal chassis and the fastest new processors and internal components. Even these business rugged laptops are missing features and have a lot of things the home user doesn’t care about.

While looking around on google researching this post, I also discovered a new product I hadn’t seen. A netbook aimed at schools and kids with a $500 price point. (
A step in the right direction but not quite what I am looking for.

Price is important, there is a reason the $500 laptop has been such a big deal. People are really going for them. Notebook computers now outsell desktops. They rule the home market. For most users, speed isn’t the biggest issue any new mid range laptop on the market will do basic word processing any Internet applications you need. Games and video editing are a little trickier, but still for $1000 investment you can have that in a laptop too. Take your basic laptop with 14-15 inch screen (and at the time of this article) an Intel corei3 or i5 CPU, a few gigs of ram, DVD burner, 200 gig HD, etc. Just design some better features in the box around it. Improve the chassis and overall design. The point is you don’t need a lot of high performance parts before you justify adding reliability. Take that $500 laptop, add $200 worth of rugged improvements and I would buy it if it lasted a few years longer.

I use things till they no longer fulfill a need. If I upgrade my laptop, the kids will get the old machine unless it is broken. Sure, I could buy 2 netbooks for about $300 each and just plan on replacing one when it breaks, but I would rather buy something faster and guaranteed to last longer.

In my opinion the things I am going to list should be more or less standard. Yes, business people, I know design costs money, but put a little time into it and you might find yourself the new market leader of a huge segment. Not just parents, students and small business people, and really anyone who has an active pet. I want a “poor man’s ToughBook” It doesn’t have to be as rugged, but even cheap improvements are better than nothing at all. Put some inexpensive and useful options and get the laptop into the sub $1000 market. That’s the goal here.

I am a busy dad. I use this at home. At the kitchen table, on the couch, sometimes carefully on the kitchen bar if I need a recipe for reference. Most of the time though, it is in the living room because that is where the kids are. It needs to be versatile, but aimed at this kind of home use. I don’t ignore my kids, but I do play tag-team parenting a lot and so even when I am working I am where the kids are because they want me close by.

So finally let’s get to it… broken into categories feature by feature… The Laptop I Want to Buy.

Basic Chassis:
This is the case, the outside of the laptop that holds everything together and protects it. The most rugged ones are Magnesium alloy with lots of hard plastic and rubber protection. You would be surprised how many laptops use the same basic plastic case. Even models from “good” designers like Apple have some basic problems. The white plastic macs pretty much crack from everyday use and the titanium aren’t any tougher, instead of cracking they dent easily. Toshiba, Dell, etc use the same basic black plastic in everything. It works, its cheap and easy to mold and does a decent job of protecting the laptop components. Here is where everyone needs improvement.

Plastic is fine, but put some effort into it.

Fill out the corners inside the machine with something like silicone. Hollow corners are prone to cracking or denting if they take any impact. Something rubbery to fill in that air space will make it much tougher. Those Titanium iMacs? Don’t drop them on a corner, they will simply crumple.

Don’t use any snap on parts that use those little plastic tabs to hold it in place. If you need to attach a panel like the I/O panel with all the LED lights and power button, use small screws. Or just make the entire panel that goes around the keyboard one piece.

Don’t use those little plastic tabs that cover the hinges of the screen, they just get broken and lost. Use a large smooth piece of metal that curves under the laptop and put the screws underneath.

Small rubber trim on the corners would be very nice, but make is part of the chassis. Maybe run a small thin bumper all the way clamped between the top and bottom of the laptop being screwed together. The point is, make it part of the design, not just something glued on as an afterthought. It doesn’t have to be big, just prevent the plastic from cracking if something impacts it hard.

There is also a new trend in coatings or paint on electronics that prevent fingerprints. Yeah, not necessary but it would be nice to see on a laptop too.

While we are on the subject of buttons… don’t put any unnecessary ones, at least not on this model.

Place the power button in the middle above the keyboard and under the screen. Little fingers can reach the edges much more easily.

Don’t put things like toggle wireless on and off or a mute button on the edge and if you do don’t make them glow. (I am looking at you HP). I really don’t need to turn the wireless off frequently, I can do that in the OS.

I want a “lock keyboard” button that turns off input from the keys when I don’t need to be typing. If I am watching a long video or playing music, or just have it open waiting for a chat, I don’t want to babysit it in case my toddler decides to bang on the keyboard every time I look away or you know a cat jumps onto it.

The screen on a laptop is fragile. Probably the most unprotected part. If you live around here you will consistently hear me saying “don’t touch the screen!”

First, and this might not be possible yet or it would already be done, I want a nice screen coat that is scratch proof and finger print resistant. I am thinking something like the coat they use on the bottom of BlueRay Disks if it is clear enough to see through. If not then whoever develops this will make a killing. Every LCD sold needs this upgrade. How about at least a small thin sheet of non reflective plastic to just give it an extra barrier.

Also, the back of the screen can be a problem. Some laptops make this section thin and bendable to save on materials and weight. Go ahead push gently on the back of your monitor. Did it distort the image on the front? Then you have weak protection on the back. Don’t set anything heavy on that laptop. My kid frequently tries to use my laptop as a drum when the screen is closed. Make sure the back of the screen is enough to protect the laptop. User either a thin metal plate or thicker plastic.

Simple and straight forward here: Make them tough. My kid loves to walk up and put his hand on the top of the screen and pull down. I want to know that even if he does, the hinges will hold. Also, ever had to replace a laptop because the hinges gave out and the screen won’t stay upright? It just falls back down? Yeah, we want to avoid that too.

Keyboards are one of the weakest parts. Some models are badly designed and the keys pop off easily. Avoid that. But more to the point, computers moved from office machines to portable social and entertainment devices. On the same day someone took the first laptop to a coffee shop, a keyboard had a beverage spilled all over it. When I worked at a computer repair shop this was unbelievably common. With desktops, no big deal, just clean or replace. With a laptop, the keyboard sits on top of all the important internal components. Motherboard, CPU, etc. You can buy silicone covers for some models. ( on the cheap. But I don’t want a cover, I want a better design. I want to be assured not that I can drop it in a lake, but that if I spill something it is more likely to survive because it was designed that way. Not 100%, but more likely. Toshiba has been pushing a wipe-able keyboard lately in their Satellite L630. On its own not incredibly impressive, but a step in the right direction.

Two ideas:
Use the rugged laptop method of creating drain holes through the bottom. Just cover the areas under the keyboard with plastic or silicone and have two holes where the liquid can drain straight through and out the bottom of the laptop. Even if it wasn’t 100% it would be less likely to seep onto the motherboard and short things out. Alternatively, have two sloping drain holes out the front of the laptop. I don’t mind that you might have to take it apart to clean up any sticky fluid (such as a spilled Coke) or maybe take it to a geek who can help, the point is that the laptop survives.

How about a cheap sensor? I am thinking something like the sensors used in those $10 leak frog water alarms. ( If it senses water it cuts power to the laptop. Electronics have an amazing ability to survive water if they aren’t turned on and you dry them out before powering them up again. I bet a simple system like this would drastically increase the survivability of a large spill.

Seal all other possible openings on the top where water could drain through, such as the power button to force any liquid to go through the keyboard. This is much easier if the top bezel is just a single piece.

(Pro tip: if you spill something on the keyboard, the first thing you do is hold down the power button to force a shut down. Then tip it upside down and take out the power plug and battery. Don’t turn back on until all the fluid is cleaned up.)

Power Cord:
Besides spills on keyboards, the other most likely way to kill a laptop seems to be to damage the power connector. The hole where you plug the power cord in. If you drop the laptop while this cord is plugged in it can damage that connector. If it comes loose from the motherboard it won’t charge. Usually you have to replace the motherboard to fix this (meaning it is cheaper to buy a new laptop) or on rare occasions you can find a replacement part and someone to solder it in place. Mac’s have the advantage here with their flat magnetic power connectors and it is a legitimate selling point. 
However, they have a thin cable cover that is prone to fraying around the connector. This needs to be a design element on this home laptop. If that magnetic connector is patented, then design something different, but the power connector needs to survive being pushed in hard (the laptop being dropped on it) and the plug being pulled/ripped out hard (someone tripping over the cord).

Also, if you have to have a “wall wart” in the middle of the cable, make it close to the end near the wall outlet so that the power can’t be unplugged easily in the middle of the cord.

Make sure it has decent battery life. I am going to use this unplugged a lot and carry it around the house and if it has decent battery, I can use it around the kids without worrying about the power connector being damaged (see above) or having to figure out how to run the cable so it can reach safely from and outlet to where I want to sit.

This goes almost without saying. One way to keep price down is by using cheaper technology like spinning spindle Hard Drives, but you can forgo a lot of the shock resistant worries if you just put in a more expensive Solid State Hard Drive (SSHD). If, or more to the point, when they get cheap enough this is a required component. They fail less since there are no moving parts. I don’t know about you, but around here all those irreplaceable digital photos of my kids reside on my laptop until they are backed up. In addition SSHD’s make less heat which is important in the next section.

Something about a laptop used in a home… it isn’t going to sit on a table most of the time. It might, but more likely it will also be on the couch, the floor, on a blanket, throw pillow, etc. I am even known to put my netbook on the back of the couch so I can read webpages while I walk the baby back and forth.

Laptops use air cooling. Cheaper laptops actually have an advantage because the slower processors create less heat and can get by with fewer vents and fans, but it still has to be vented. The easiest (cheapest and most common) way to design venting is to stick a fan on the bottom and draw air in and blow it out the side, but there are other methods too. Like I mentioned above though, this laptop needs to be able to sit on upholstery and carpet, not just a hard surface. Also those fans on the bottom pull in dust and pet hair that will eventually kill the fan causing your laptop to overheat. The fan only spins when it needs to though so the cooler the laptop the less it needs to spin and the longer it lasts. Some experiments have been done with sealed laptops with minimal vents but they tend to quickly overheat. Some people even resort to buying those cooling platforms.

Put the vents on the sides. My netbook does this very well with a row of vents in the front. It can sit on the carpet where my wife’s laptop can’t without quickly overheating. Place a row of vents along the front to draw heat in and vent it out the back or side.

Also to complement that design the base to still have some airflow underneath to keep the vents away from the floor. Don’t glue those stupid little rubber feet on to the bottom and call it good. They just come off and don’t work on anything but a table, plus they hurt when put on your lap. Actually design the underneath to have rounded raised and lowered sections (not just a flat panel) to promote airflow even on carpeted surfaces. Make the four corners raised ¼ inch or more in 2 inch square sections to become the defacto feet. Or use a similar but ore creative design. This can also be designed to aid those drainage holes mentioned above.

Apply a dust filter between the Intake and the fan. Something that can be popped out with a screw and cleaned off easily. Nothing kills a fan faster than dust and cat hair (and incidentally cigarette smoke, but if you smoke around a computer there is little we can do to help). A removable dust filter, or an easily removable fan would help maintenance over long term use.

Nothing poking out:
The most damage will happen on the flat exposed surfaces, the keyboard and lid, and anything jutting out when it falls. The current standard is to just keep the usb ports, video out, headphone jacks, DC card slot, etc flush with the side of the case. That works fine here.

Also include an internal Bluetooth adapter. That way a wireless mouse can be used with no dongle. Although some of the new ones have dongles that are almost non-existent. That kind of design is what we are looking for here.

That was a lot of text, so to sum up:
I want a laptop designed to be dropped and placed on carpet. Pay extra attention to the screen, spill proof keyboards, detachable power connectors and venting. Use a tough but cheap case with smart reinforcement where it will take the most damage. I know design is expensive, but there is a market for this. Convince people they are buying something quality that will last and you will completely change the state of the nervous laptop shopper. There is a reason Best Buy can sucker people into so many warranty and extended warranty sales. People don’t trust electronics to last. Put this on the market and I will pay extra for it instead of extra for a warranty.

To be fair a lot of what I listed exists or could easily, but not together in a laptop and especially not one around the $1000 price range. Most of the ideas are actually pretty cheap to implement, a little silicone, rubber, and extra plastic in strategic places mostly. A few buttons and some smart design work.

I am waiting patiently.


  1. This one was emailed to me:
    Very interesting. I never really knew why I had a mistrust of laptops, but he gave voice to some concerns I didn't even know I had. If we had the money, we'd get a laptop, but right now there is no money. His grammar is nowhere near as good as yours, though. Sure, I understood what he was saying, but leaving out an "and" or misspelling a word is distracting. You weren't his editor, were you?

    No, I did not edit Orcrist's post. I did read over it and saw it would be appropriate and beneficial here, but I did not edit it. I'm glad you found this enlightening. Now if only the manufacturers do!

  2. I Love your laptop design!! I want one when they do build it. I currently have an HP that has stopped glowing, power cord has stopped charging, cost 1300 and is almost a year old. I mean if we are going to spend that kind of money for a machine it should work. My husband's new laptop has vents on the side but it still gets hot. I definitely want one that you can't pull the keys off of --- My dell that died because of Declan or that when you take the space bar off by accident you can easily get it back on. I also like the screen that is child friendly because I'm like you and say a hundred times a day...Yes I know Elmo is on the screen but please don't touch him!! I'm all for your model. Now we send your article to Apple and tell them this is what we as parents want.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...