Choosing a laptop

I wanted a new laptop computer. My MacBook Pro (15″, Late 2013) is eight years old. It’s been my Swiss army knife, able to dual-boot into macOS and Windows 10; I’ve used it for Mac programming, for Windows games, for email and web surfing and writing and family/friends tech support. It’s been able to handle anything I throw at it. But lately the fans have been spinning up and making it sound like a jet engine any time I boot into Windows, much less try to play any games (it has a very old GeForce 750M graphics chip); and it doesn’t support a laundry list of features in modern apps (such as virtual backgrounds in Zoom).

I was further encouraged to upgrade when, out of curiosity, I ran the GeekBench benchmark tool on my once-top-of-the-line MacBook Pro to see how it compares these days. It scored notably worse than an iPhone 12. So I began looking around to see what’s available these days that might replace the MacBook.

The MacBook Pro scored 832 single-core and 3437 multi-core; an iPhone 12 gets 1569 single, 3827 multi; my newly-built Ryzen 5600X desktop PC (not top of the line, but the latest tech) gets 1628 single and 8155 multi.

Spoiler: I eventually upgraded to a Lenovo Legion 5 16″ (AMD), but it took me a while to get there.

After some thought, I made a list of what I was looking for in a new laptop.

  • A 15″ QHD (2560×1440) display. That’s the next step up from an FHD (1920×1080) display, but not as many pixels as 4K (3840×2160). More pixels mean more detail, but also mean more data for games to push around, which can slow them down. Right now I feel that QHD is the current “sweet spot” balance.
  • A Geforce 3060 graphics chip. I am completely avoiding “integrated graphics”, which share the computer’s memory and can be really slow for games. In the world of “discrete graphics” there are AMD Radeon graphics and there are Nvidia GeForce graphics. I’m not very familiar with AMD, so I’m sticking with Nvidia, and the 3060 is the low end of their current generation. I play indie games on Steam, not AAA titles, so I don’t need something exceptionally powerful. But I also don’t want it to become quickly obsolete.
  • No numeric keypad stuffed in to the right of the letter keys. I prefer to have the keyboard and the trackpad centered, like the MacBook laptops I’m familiar with.
  • Good heat management. Laptops often have problems with this, and without good cooling, the computer will throttle back its performance to avoid overheating.
  • A metal chassis. I like Apple’s aluminum laptops; they’re sturdy and resist scuffs. Too many Windows laptops are plastic.
  • An RGB-backlit keyboard. Backlighting is necessary so I can read the keys in the dark. RGB is a nice-to-have so that I would be able to change the backlight color, which sounds fun. Some laptops have all the keys the same color, others have three or four “zones”, and others let the color be chosen per-key. I don’t have any need for more than one zone.
  • I decided that instead of getting an Intel i5 or i7 laptop, I’d try getting one with a recent AMD processor. Intel has been largely stagnant for several years (even Apple is moving off of their chips), but the performance of AMD’s Ryzen series of chips have been making headlines.
  • My price range: roughly $1400-$2000.

The fact that I wanted a discrete graphics chip put me into the class of “gaming laptops.” These are also noted for having more serious cooling systems and for being correspondingly heavier. But reconciling all of my bullet points immediately turned into a problem: most laptops with a discrete graphics chip have a lower display resolution (FHD); most laptops in the range where I was looking have Intel processors or the previous generation of AMD processors; many of them in this range have a numeric keypad.

It was clear I was going to have to prioritize.

My short list of laptops came down to:

  • The HP Omen 15. Lauded by many people on the SuggestALaptop subreddit for being powerful and having good build quality and a low price. But it’s partly plastic, and the design struck me as dated and ugly.
  • The Lenovo Legion 5. My problems with this one were the numeric keypad, the FHD display, and the fact that the 3060 model had an old-fashioned hard drive! (in addition to an SSD)
  • The Razer Blade 15. Lots of people love it, but lots of people also say it gets hot enough to burn laps and hands, even at idle. Also there have apparently been many quality control issues with them in the past year.
  • The Asus Zephyrus 15. Aside from the numeric keypad, this one seemed to hit most of the items on my list, though it had the strange quirk that instead of having two slots for installing RAM sticks, it came with 8 GB soldered onto the motherboard and an empty slot. This limits future expansion, but should be fine for now with an 8 + 8 = 16 GB configuration.

So, the Zephyrus it was. I went to the SuggestALaptop Discord to thank people for their help and to let them know I’d made my choice. But immediately there was a chorus of “nooooooo,” and people provided detailed graphs showing that, sure, the Zephyrus has good thermal management, but it does this at the cost of unacceptably slowing down the processor long before things get hot. They also pointed me to several posts where people were complaining about quality control issues, things arriving broken or breaking soon after purchase.

Instead, a few fervent fans tried to steer me towards their favorite laptop, by a company named EVOO, sold by Walmart for $900. Walmart? Seriously? But it had 16 GB RAM, a 512 GB SSD, last year’s Ryzen 4800H and GeForce 2060 chips, and even an RGB backlit keyboard.

I learned there is a Chinese company named TongFang which makes laptop chassis and sells them to other companies, who then customize them for specific offerings. To paraphrase Troy McClure, you may also know these same laptops under other brands such as Eluktronics, CyberPowerPC, XMG, and the aforementioned EVOO. These laptops are known for having quite good specs at quite low prices because you’re not paying for name-brands. (In fact, the logos on these laptops are merely stickers that can be peeled off if you want a laptop with no maker name or logo on it at all.)

I entertained the notion … for a while. What drove me away from the EVOO was that it has practically no support, the EVOO web site doesn’t even have drivers for it, and there’s no knowing whether it will continue to be compatible with anything in the future. Reddit is full of posts from people who are enjoying their new EVOO laptops … but there are also a number of posts from people saying “the display stopped working a few days after I bought it,” “it won’t charge the battery any more,” “smoke started coming out of the vents.” I’m willing to pay a bit more for a better record of reliability.

I began to question whether I actually needed to spend the money for a new laptop. My old MacBook Pro is still fine for just about anything other than Windows gaming, and I could stand to spend less time on games.

Three things convinced me to upgrade:

  • This autumn’s version of macOS, “Monterey,” will drop support for my Late 2013 MacBook Pro.
  • This autumn’s release of Windows 11 will also drop support for any computer that lacks a TPM security chip (like any Mac from the past decade).
  • And finally: out of curiosity, I installed the Windows app “HWMonitor” to see what this MacBook Pro’s internal temperatures were when I was running Windows and the fans were loudly blowing a lot of air. Turns out that the internal temperature was hitting 100° C, which is bad; the laptop at that point slows things way down in a last-ditch attempt to cool down. Maybe the fans are dusty, maybe the processor needs fresh thermal paste applied to it, but I don’t feel like taking an eight-year-old laptop apart to try to clean it.

Apple is expected to release a new 16″ MacBook Pro with Apple’s new super-speedy processor sometime later this year (September?). And I’m sure it’s going to be very fast and have lots of great features. But the dealbreaker for me is that it’s no good for gaming, as it won’t run Windows; and the price is likely to be sky-high. The current 16″ MacBook Pro models start at $2400. That’s way more of an investment that I want to risk losing if I were to accidentally drop it or someone were to walk off with it.

The one laptop model that people in SuggestALaptop seem to consistently like is the Lenovo Legion 5, so I took a closer look at that. There’s a “Pro” model of it with a 16″ display and better specs for not too much more money ($1700). And someone in SuggestALaptop said that getting the model with a 3060 graphics processor at this price was a bit too overpriced, but for $150 more I could get one with a somewhat more powerful 3070 which was a bargain for that amount.

Suddenly, I was looking at an $1850 laptop (after Lenovo’s “web discount”). I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to spend that much on a laptop … so I put it in the cart, and left it there for a few days while I mulled it over. This laptop had great specs. Display is 2560×1600, same width as 15.6″ displays but a little taller. 16 GB memory at 3200 MHz, two 1TB SSDs in two internal ports. Ryzen 7 5800H processor, GeForce 3070, and it supports Nvidia Optimus meaning that it can switch to the dedicated graphics chip for games then back to integrated graphics for lower-powered tasks. I still wasn’t keen on the numeric keypad, but at this point that wasn’t a dealbreaker.

A few days later, a different model of Legion went out of stock. I decided it was time to pull the trigger before this one also sold out — but I was too late; while I was in the checkout process the web site told me this laptop is now out of stock and it asked me to remove it from my cart. Darn!

I watched Lenovo’s site for another two or three days. The 3070 model didn’t come back into stock, but there was an otherwise identical 3060 model which had a great price – starting at $1700, their “web discount” plus my employer’s corporate discount brought it down to $1420. I decided to jump on it this time. Sold! It shipped two days later, and arrived two days after that.

I got extremely lucky, because right now Lenovo’s web site has the Legion 5 Pro with lower specs (8 GB RAM, only a single 512 GB SSD) at the same price point ($1700), and for new orders it says “Ships in 4+ Months. Shipping delay due to COVID-19 global pandemic.” I don’t understand how laptop prices and specs can change day-to-day. I noticed this when I had been considering the HP Omen, too; every day the available options would be slightly different. It’s less like a technology e-store and more like a fish market.

My first impressions of the new laptop:

First off, it’s heavy. My old MacBook Pro was 4.5 pounds; this Legion 5 Pro is 5.4 pounts. The extra pound feels like more than it sounds. Also, it comes with a 300W power brick that’s as large as two MacBook power adapters side-by-side. This Legion is actually a little bit narrower than my MacBook Pro, and a bit deeper. Most of the ports are in the back. (I’ve never been a fan of that, because I’ve seen rear ports snapped off a motherboard if someone lifts up the front edge of a laptop to tilt it back.) The build is solid and feels sturdy; the lid and the bottom of the chassis are both metal, while the top of the chassis around the keyboard is plastic.

The off-center keyboard and trackpad are taking some getting used to (I keep hitting the wrong keys), and I wish I didn’t have to have a numeric keypad, but I’ll deal. (Even on my desktop keyboards I prefer tenkeyless.)

The “Lenovo Vantage” configuration software has a lot of options to play with. I can enable “Rapid Charge” to charge the battery faster, or turn it off to keep the battery cooler and prolong its life. I can enable “Conservation Mode” which only charges the battery up to 60%, again intended to prolong its life. By pressing Fn+Q, I can put the laptop into performance mode or energy-saving mode. By pressing Fn+L, I can even light up the logo on the lid. There’s a section in Vantage for configuring the keyboard lighting; I can make rainbows of color wash over it, or set its four zones to any colors of my choice. I was slightly disappointed by this because the keyboard color zones have a lot of bleeding into each other, and the colors aren’t as vibrant or accurate as my selections, but that also isn’t a dealbreaker.

Some of the Fn-key shortcuts on the function keys are strangely chosen. The sensible buttons for mute, volume up/down, and display brightness up/down are there; but F10 disables the trackpad, F8 puts the computer into airplane mode (turning off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth), F11 does the same thing as Alt-Tab (task switcher), and F12 opens the Windows Calculator app every time I press it – so if I accidentally tap it a few times, suddenly I have a bunch of calculators.

The power brick uses a C13 power cord of the same kind that’s used by a desktop PC power supply. It came with a 16AWG cord, which is stiff and unwieldy and difficult to fold up and stuff in my bag after each use. I swapped it out with a slightly thinner, more flexible 18AWG cord that’s left over from some old HP laptop, and that makes things easier. At 300W and 120V, this power supply will only draw 2.5A, which is well within the 10A spec of these cords.

As I usually build PCs and use recycled laptops, this is my first brand-new name-brand Windows computer. So I was amused that it had stickers on it (Ryzen, Radeon, and GeForce RTX, and also a label telling me about Fn+Q). I was also not used to there being preinstalled software; I removed the trial versions of McAfee LiveSafe and Microsoft Office. During the Windows out-of-the-box setup I had to decline the use of OneDrive, the opportunity to link an Android phone, and an invitation to purchase Microsoft Office. A few days later after a reboot it asked me all of these again and I declined again.

I haven’t done much gaming on this laptop yet, but I briefly tried Guild Wars 2 and also Minecraft Windows 10 Edition with a free RTX map from the Minecraft store. It handled both games file, though Minecraft seemed to have a somewhat low frame rate (in the 20s?) until I tried it again later after a reboot. I might have messed up the Optimus configuration and ended up running it on integrated graphics instead of on the 3060. It’s difficult to know which graphics subsystem the computer has decided to use at any given moment. The 3060 doesn’t appear to be all-powerful, but that’s fine; once I figure out how best to tweak the games I play, it should be more than adequate for several years coming. That’s the blessing and the curse of switching from a Mac to a gaming Windows laptop: I now have way more options to configure and tweak, which gives me the ability to fine-tune performance and battery life or, just as easily, mess them up in grand fashion.

We’ll see if this Lenovo Legion 5 Pro lasts as long as my eight-year-old MacBook Pro, but for now it’s more than enough for my needs, and it was a thousand dollars less expensive than the MacBook alternative. And who knows what the computing world is going to look like in another eight years? Maybe laptop computers will be replaced by arm-strap computers and we’ll be seeing the world through augmented reality contact lenses.

Edit: There is one problem I’m seeing with this new laptop. Sometimes, it starts interpreting a trackpad tap as “open the Start menu” or “open the Notifications area” (which rolls out from the right edge of the display). I have tap-to-click enabled. I can move the mouse pointer to the center of the display and tap repeatedly on it, and the Start menu and Notifications area will roll out and roll back in again multiple times. It’s infuriating to want to tap on something but have the Start menu appear instead. So far I haven’t found any pattern to this, but rebooting seems to help, and there are some reports of it online which appear to have been fixed by a trackpad firmware update. The Vantage app says I’m all up to date, so I may have to go on my own hunt for updated drivers.

Edit 2: Turning off the trackpad three- and four-finger gestures seems to have made the problem go away. Looks like there were gestures to open Start and Notifications, and something was making the trackpad think I had more fingers on it than I did.

5 thoughts on “Choosing a laptop”

  1. I love hearing your thought process, Brian. I don’t think that I would have made the same decisions, but I also don’t really game at all.

    1. Thank you! And I’m curious – what choices would you have made differently?

      This laptop is just about the most powerful thing I’m comfortable carrying around with me. But some folks have no problem dropping $3000 on a ‘road warrior’ laptop, and on the other end of the scale I just recommended a $700 Acer Nitro 5 to Jill’s niece. Different strokes for different folks!

      1. For one thing, I would be hard pressed to use a Windows rig without extreme frustration. If I did get a Win machine, I would put Linux on it and then I would be frustrated with that as well, since I fight tech fires all day at work.

        I’ve been a mac user in my personal life for years now, because when I’m not on the clock, I don’t want to fight with and tweak my machine, I just want to use it. Also my laptop isn’t a primary device, so I wouldn’t need the top-of-the-world specs; I did that with my desktop.

        Sometimes I think about getting a little chromebook for portable stuff, maybe setting up a little vpn tunnel to the stronger machine back home or something along those lines. Then I remember that I almost never touch my iPad and I just keep the money instead. 😀

        1. I have to say – the moment that Windows added WSL, the Windows Subsystem for Linux, was a turning point for me. I use a command line as much as I use a mouse, and being able to interact with the PC through a bash shell was a big, big step.

          The other turning point was Windows Terminal, which is night-and-day better than the old cmd.exe shell. They’re finally putting effort into modernizing the command-line experience, and I like that Windows Terminal is a Github project with frequent releases.

          I agree with you about not wanting to tweak the computer. That’s one of my complaints about the Linux desktop experience; for the longest time people kept trying to sell me on it by telling me that it gives me the freedom to customize any aspect of it however I want. But I don’t want to have to customize it to be usable; I want it to come that way out of the box! The number of configuration options on this laptop are somewhat daunting, but compared with my MacBook Pro it feels like the training wheels are off and I’m learning a lot from it. (Not that any sane person should _want_ to learn this stuff, but.)

          1. I did not realize you had replied to the first comment for more than a month. Whoops! I will say- I haven’t really used Windows since they added WSL, so I have no common frame of reference here. Now you’ve got me curious. LOL

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