Saturday, August 31, 2019

Ultraportable laptops from Dell and Lenovo

Before continuing with this article, be sure you have read the first and second entries in this series.

To recap, I will be specifying ultraportable laptops (under 1.5kg) with small screens (under 14"), 16GB RAM, and a reasonable collection of ports. I will avoid units with speciality video cards and touch screens. Prices will be provided from eBay sellers of refurbished units. The goal is to find a bargain in an older computer, since these are just as powerful as anything released today.

I have personal history with laptops from Dell (2 models), Lenovo (2), HP (1), and ASUS (2). But I cannot be said to be an expert in this field, only someone adept at compiling information. From this experience I will only consider Dell and Lenovo units.

Dell XPS 13
I often recommend Dell laptops for general users, as a good compromise between power and visual appeal. The consumer-oriented Dell XPS 13 is thin and stylish. The 13.3" screen runs at 1920x1080 pixels, which is the 1080p video standard (also called Full HD). Being a consumer line, models vary almost infinitely in components and specifications. Read carefully before buying! Note that the XPS 13 units rarely include dedicated video ports, which is unfortunate.

The XPS 13 9333 (2014) has two USB Type A ports (3.0 and 3.1 speeds), DisplayPort, and an SD reader. But maximum RAM is capped at 8 GB. Unless you are sure this won't be a problem, avoid this model. £275.

The XPS 13 9350 (2015-16) upgraded video processing to either HD Graphics 520 or Iris Graphics 540. In addition, the processor was available in faster Core i7 variants. It pairs two USB Type A ports with a combo USB Type C / Thunderbolt 3. This is a "two lane" port, so not as fast as later 4 lane variants. As usual, a dongle allows you to use this as a DisplayPort. £725.

The Dell XPS 13 9360 (2017) increases the graphics resolution on most units to 3200x1800 but is otherwise similar. £800.

The Dell XPS 13 9370 (2018) has an option for a 4K touchscreen that supports the full sRGB colour space. The ports have been changed to two USB type C / Thunderbolt 3 (four lane) and one regular USB C / DisplayPort combo. Support for USB A has been dropped, so this is not optimal if you have any peripherals with this port. The card reader is now MicroSD, a pet peeve of mine. £800.

Notice how little difference there is in price and overall performance of these units. Because they are sleek and attractive, garnering rave reviews, the Dell XPS 13 retain their value.

Dell Latitude
Latitude is Dell's business line. Models starting with the digit "7" are their top-of-the-range laptops. The small form factor units have only a 12.5" screen, despite being about the same size as the XPS 13. The difference is made up by a larger bezel around the border of the screen. Latitude series 7 are made with quality materials like machined magnesium and carbon fibre. They will survive physical knocks and falls.

Unlike consumer lines, you get full access to all components (RAM, drive, fan, etc.) making repairs and upgrades easy. These models are consistent in components and specifications, increasing dependability.

The Dell Latitude E7240 (2013) has both HDMI and mini-DisplayPort for connecting to an external monitor. You get three USB A ports and an SD card reader, along with an Ethernet port (something you no longer find on consumer laptops). Note that the resolution on this model is only 1366x768 pixels, which might be a limiting factor. £200.

The Dell Latitude E7250 (2015) improved the graphics to 1920x1080 (1080p) and bumped up the main processor. £200-300.

The Dell Latitude E7270 (2016) was another incremental improvement. The DisplayPort was dropped but there's a SIM card slot. More intriguing, you get one open M.2 2242 expansion slot (there are three in total). But it's unclear what you can do with this. £350.

In 2017 the Dell Latitude 7280 marked a distinct change. The ports have been reconfigured to two USB Type A and one USB Type C that doubles as Thunderbolt 3 and hence DisplayPort (with a dongle). Unfortunately the SD card reader was replaced with MicroSD. Ethernet is still present. £400.

It's clear that these computers offer exceptional value. They are significantly cheaper than the used prices of the XPS 13, because they are 200-300g heavier and don't have the same visual appeal. But they are tougher, built more consistently, and have better port options.

Lenovo ThinkPad
I am still using a Lenovo ThinkPad X220 from 2011. It's an amazing workhorse that will become redundant long before it stops working. If you look at their line-up today, Lenovo offers a bewildering array of models. The ThinkPad line has long been the mainstay, so let's take a quick look at computers that meet our constraints.

Even within the ThinkPads, there are several series on offer. The P Series are the most powerful mobile workstations, coming in 15" screens only. The T Series are the standard workhorse business line, with 14" and 15" screens. The X Series are billed as "ultraportable" but come in 15", 14", and 13" models. Besides these there's an E Series, geared to small business (whatever that means) and the L series of affordable units, which have 13.3" to 15" screens. You can choose ThinkPad Yogas if you need a foldable computer that pretends it's a tablet. As if this wasn't enough, the new line of ThinkBooks are positioned somewhere between consumer and business products.

Of these many choices, the L390 and X390 meet our constraints. The L series is a discount line aimed at students. Unlike the business series, they have lesser build and don't offer docking stations. Though some models can be upgraded to 16 GB, they are not generally configured this way. Therefore there are no value propositions on the market.

The X series is a venerable line that can be traced back to IBM computers in 2000. The current model X390 is the 22nd generation! As a business line, these are slow to adopt new standards. They all have the possibility of an expansion dock. The screens are 12.5" (1920 x 1080) with the advantage of being matte, so they don't have excess reflections. They are not known for being exceptionally bright or accurate, however. But for work indoors this shouldn't matter. This series is unusual in having an option for a second battery, though it's often easier to carry around the charger.

I wouldn't recommend something as old as an X220 today, and will be looking to replace my unit soon... hence these articles!

Starting in 2015 we find the Lenovo ThinkPad X250 had only two USB A 3.0, VGA plus Mini-DisplayPort ports, and an SD reader. £350.

The Lenovo ThinkPad X260 (2016) was very similar in build, but had HDMI in place of the VGA and an extra USB A port. £350.

The Lenovo ThinkPad X270 (2017) uses the same case as the previous models. It swaps one of the USB Type A ports for a USB Type C. The display is darker and the computer runs hotter than its predecessor. £300-600.

It wasn't until 2018 that a significant redesign was made, producing a quieter and cooler laptop. The Lenovo ThinkPad X280 has USB A, USB C, and Thunderbolt 3 (though only the 2 lane capacity). It retains a dedicated HDMI port but has microSD. Strangely for a business unit, the RAM and Wi-Fi are soldered in place, so don't expect to upgrade them. Nonetheless this computer has a great balance of features. IN two years this will be great value! £750.

I should mention that all of these models have the Trackpoint pointing device popularised by IBM, as well as a trackpad. One or the other can be disabled.

Lenovo ThinkPad Carbon

In the category of light laptops the Lenovo ThinkPad Carbon X1 deserves consideration. Though this has a 14" screen (1920 x 1080) the units are almost as small, and even lighter, than other laptops in this article. This premium line comes with docking station options and higher resolution screens, though these are glossy. As a boutique line, the Carbon is not as upgradable as Lenovo's business computers; the processor and memory are soldered in place. But the Carbon does have a TrackPoint and includes MicroSD slots in the generations mentioned here. (The latest model has removed this.)

The third generation Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (2015) has only two USB A 3.0 / 3.1 Gen1 ports. £600.

The fourth generation Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (2016) increased the count to three ports, in a significantly lighter case. £600.

The fifth generation Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (2017) has two USB A 3.0 / 3.1 Gen1 ports and two USB C 3.1 Gen2 / Thunderbolt. A USB-C PSU is provided, and USB-C docks are available as accessories. The laptop has a Mini-Ethernet port but comes with an adapter to full Ethernet. It also has an HDMI to VGA adapter for old analogue video gear. This model looks to the future while still allowing you to access the past. But the price betrays this premium heritage. £800.


For your convenience I have compiled the useful specifications into a spreadsheet. This omits features like processor and disk speed, since these vary so much across different computers. The table makes it clear that laptops a few years old are often more versatile than contemporary models (in terms of connectivity) and provide a better value proposition, with no loss of performance.

Nonetheless, every model represents some sort of compromise in order to fit into the small form factor. If you don't need a portable computer you can take everywhere, then you can consider the wider array of offerings in the 15" screen size.

But someone else will have to write that article. :-)



robin said...


Though I am writing about laptops, I do not wish to encourage anyone to use such a device for any length of time. They are an unmitigated health disaster.

First, the keyboard and trackpad are in the wrong position an will over-extend your tendons and nerves. Always use an external keyboard and pointing device device that you can position where it is safest for your body.

Mice are not optimal. I recommend instead using a touchpad that you can vary in position. You can alternate between using it in your hands or on a surface.

Second, craning your neck down to see a laptop screen will do your thoracic spine no good. Plug in an external monitor at the correct height.

Working on a laptop should be seen as only a temporary measure by anyone who cares about their body and the future of their health.

I happen to know a good deal about this, since I was crippled with RSI back when no-one knew what that was. I subsequently worked for a while on a government program for assistive devices.

robin said...

January 2022 update

I continue to recommend the Dell Latitude E7240 (2013) or Latitude E7250 (2015). These both have backlit keyboards and an easily swapped battery, with full access to other internals. The Dell Latitude E7270 (2016) is similar, but requires removing the back panel entirely to get to the battery. Not a big deal.

These older models do not have a USB-C port, but have plenty of other connectivity options. You can get one for under £300 delivered. Add £50 for a new battery, if needed.

Compare to the contemporary model, the Latitude 7320. This retails for €2600, currently on sale for €1696. Seems a lot of money to me.

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