Not all laptops are created thin and light

Handpicked

Nick Heer, closing his commentary of Owen Williams’ article, Thinner and Lighter Laptops Have Screwed Us All:

Williams’ article also, as usual, blames Apple for the industry’s broader woes:

The pursuit of thinner, lighter laptops, a trend driven by Apple, coinciding with laptops replacing desktops as our primary devices means we have screwed ourselves out of performance — and it’s not going to get better anytime soon.

Apple may prioritize thin and light in their portable products, but that doesn’t make a trend. The industry following their lead does make a trend, but that’s the fault of those companies. If they thought that they would be constrained by the thermal envelope of thinner notebooks or that Apple was making a mistake in their priorities, they could have released different products.

The thing is — they have. At least some of them.

I follow Dave Lee on YouTube (one of the first to show the 2018 MacBook Pro’s severe CPU throttling just a few days ago), and Dave reviews a lot of laptops. Most are gaming-oriented machines, but in his balanced reviews Dave usually points out whether a particular laptop can also be suitable for creatives and creators. There are a few interesting candidates in his recent videos — all laptops which have clearly been designed to put performance first, but which are also decent in the looks department. Okay, they don’t have the Intel Core i9 of the high-end 2018 MacBook Pro — they all feature the 8th-generation Intel Core i7-8750H with 6 cores, they’re all 15-inch laptops, and with regard to the GPU they all feature the NVIDIA GTX 1070 (Max-Q). They are:

  • Gigabyte Aero 15X
  • MSI GS65
  • Razer Blade 15-inch
  • Dell XPS 15 9570

(The Dell in Dave’s review featured an NVIDIA GTX 1050 Ti GPU, and is also available with an i9 CPU.)

Now here’s an interesting comparison:

Laptop Thickness Weight
Gigabyte Aero 15X 18.9 mm 2 kg
MSI GS65 17.5 mm 1.88 kg
Razer Blade 15-inch 16.8 mm 2.07 kg
Dell XPS 15 9570 17 mm 1.93 kg
MacBook Pro (15-inch) 15.5 mm 1.83 kg

All these laptops are thicker and heavier than the 2018 15-inch MacBook Pro. All of them — at least according to Dave Lee’s tests — feature minimal to no throttling. In fairness, when it comes to i9 configurations, the only competitor here is the Dell XPS 15, but Dave notes that it, too, throttles the CPU under heavy, sustained load. The only other laptop with an i9 CPU that offers an astounding, unbridled performance, is the Acer Predator Helios 500, which is a true monster of a machine. And yes, it’s a gaming laptop with the trite, angular ‘badass gamer look’; yes, it weighs 4 kg — but it’s also a 17-inch laptop, with a generous array of ports; the RAM is upgradable (it has four RAM slots, two easily accessible) and supports a maximum of 64 GB; it has three drive bays (two NVMe, one SATA); performance and thermal design are excellent (again, according to Dave Lee, who has tested it); and, from what I understand, it costs less than a fully-specced MacBook Pro.

My point here isn’t that Apple should start making monster laptops like the Helios 500. Although if they wanted to produce a truly powerful, uncompromising pro laptop, I think they should favour an appropriate thermal design, more port diversification, and internal expandability over thinness at all costs and their ‘upgrade now or never’ approach at time of purchase.

My point is that, from what I can see, the competition has not blindly followed Apple and the company’s insistence with thinness and lightness no matter what. A lot of thin and light machines from PC manufacturers seem to clearly target the consumer and prosumer audience, and they are positioned more as good all-round machines than pro-oriented computers making promises they might not be able to keep. And when the competition really wants to put performance first, they’re willing to sacrifice sleekness and — in extreme cases such as the Helios 500 — even portability.

Another interesting detail about what the competition is doing differently is in the I/O ports they choose to provide. When back in the late 1990s Apple pushed the USB as a versatile, forward-thinking connection, everyone followed suit. Today, I’ve yet to see a laptop from another PC manufacturer that only offers USB-C connections. Even the Huawei Matebook X Pro, whose visual design is the one that most closely resembles the MacBook Pro, and which is actually thinner than the MacBook Pro, comes equipped with one USB-A port.

In other words, I think we’re past the race to the thinnest laptop. Now that the competition has shown they’re capable of building thin- and light-enough machines, my impression is that they’re focussing on ways to differentiate their products by trying to offer features that could appeal to frustrated Mac users in an attempt to win them over.

[Edited to clarify: Nick Heer does mention gaming laptops too. I chose to append my commentary to an earlier point in his piece because it provided me with a better way to introduce my point; I’m more in disagreement with Williams and I apologise if that wasn’t clear enough. Also: despite having cited several gaming laptops as an example, not all PC manufacturers offering thicker laptops than the MacBook Pro are necessarily offering game-oriented machines; so my point still stands.]

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