Tuesday, January 09, 2024

The best and cheapest laptop you can buy (2024 edition)

If you are looking for an excellent lightweight laptop for everyday use, I have a suggestion. My impetus for writing this article is not to encourage you to spend more money, quite the opposite. My goal is to highlight a strategy to counter the continuing wastefulness of the tech industries. Read on for a (slight) rant and some (excellent) advice. 

The problem: no improvements, more e-waste

For about a decade now, new models of computers and components have been released in profusion with only incremental benefit. 

On the desktop side we have a shining example in Nvidia. Their 4000 series graphics cards add little of note to the previous lines, but are nonetheless more expensive. The very fact they are "new" encourages gamers to upgrade from their perfectly-good current cards. Similarly, Intel CPUs of the 14th generation (Raptor Lake Refresh) are no faster than their predecessors. Indeed, we could go back to the 11th generation (Rocket Lake) without losing any features or performance that matters. Apple releases new iPhones that seem to differ from their last model only in how rounded the corners of the casing are. 

Reviewers will point to a 10% increase here or a 20% benefit there, using metrics specifically designed to show such gains. But small numbers don't matter. A good rule of thumb is that one requires a 100% performance boost before the change is likely to be noticed in everyday usage.

Turning to laptops specifically, the situation is similarly stale. Continued pressure from Apple sees functionality dropped in favour of producing the thinnest possible lifestyle accessory. As a design goal this has absolutely no advantages. Indeed, the restricted space inside the casing leads to overheating or the performance throttling that Apple has been known for. 

A micro-thin laptop means ditching useful ports and features. For example, it's now rare to find an RJ45 port for Ethernet, since this is ever-so slightly too tall for the housing. We have been taught to use wireless internet, even with a router within easy reach. Even though wired internet is much faster, more reliable, and energy efficient. 

Though the right-to-repair movement grows, especially in the USA, Windows/Linux laptops are following Apple in reducing user access to components. Granted, no manufacturers are as terrible as Apple in this regard, but it is now commonplace for RAM to be soldered to the motherboard. A few years ago it was still quite possible to buy a laptop that allowed a memory upgrade down the line, hence extending the useful life of the device. (My previous laptop was an example.)

In short, laptops have become ever-more wasteful machines, exactly as environmental pressures on resources are amplifying.

That's why I continue to buy laptops second-hand, keeping these units out of landfills, ensuring that perfectly good machines get used. As a bonus I get units that are at least as capable than those currently on offer... and often more flexible in terms of connectivity.

Laptops (circa 2011)

A decade ago (August 2014) I bought a refurbished Lenovo Thinkpad X220, upgraded the RAM to 8 GB, and replaced the hard drive with a fast SSD. Boom! A performant computer. This ancient model, dating to 2011, has since done duty as my music performance computer, pressed into service with an RME audio card and variety of MIDI controllers. 

Despite the aging specifications, this model has served me well. Reviewers will tell you that you can't create electronic music on such an ancient device. Meanwhile I am out there using Reaktor and other synthesis programmes without a problem.

But all good things come to an end... eventually. Recently the X220 has become a hindrance while travelling. The lack of contemporary ports (notably HDMI) has proven to be a liability at festivals and conferences. So, I set about finding a replacement. This process began with a short list of necessary features.

Laptop shopping list (circa 2024)

Since I already have a powerful desktop computer for media production, my requirements for a laptop are quite modest and mainstream. The picture would be quite different if I needed to game or produce video content while mobile.

My first requirement is a generous supply of contemporary ports including HDMI, USB-C, and USB-A. Dongles be banished!

Second, I need a laptop that can last all day on a battery charge. The weak battery life of the X220 meant that I needed to carry my AC adapter everywhere. But one area that has improved in the last decade is processor efficiency. The reduction in overall power consumption is better for the environment and allows longer periods between charging.

Contemporary laptops have largely switched to using the USB-C port for power delivery. This relief from proprietary power bricks means that means that, in a pinch, any USB power adapter can be used for charging. Convenient!

Third, I need something lighter than the X220, which weighed in at 1.7 kg, about the same as a contemporary Apple MacBook. That's too heavy for me. 

Since the screen size of a portable laptop is only going to be around 13", high resolution is not desirable. If I want more screen space i will attach an external monitor. The current standard of FHD (1920×1080) is already an improvement over my existing computer. But a matte screen is essential... and increasingly difficult to find. Glossy screens make films look flashier but are a hindrance in all other use cases. 

At a minimum I require the battery and SSD to be serviceable. This is especially important when buying an older unit, because these are the first things that might need an upgrade. It's a shame that I can no longer insist on upgradeable RAM, but so be it. 

Speaking of which, I'd prefer a unit with 16 GB of memory, but honestly 8 GB RAM is also fine for daily tasks. 

A good keyboard is a requirement. Similarly, it is essential to have a trackpad with physical buttons. This too is becoming increasingly rare. Why? I guess buttons break the sleek, clean lines of the chassis.

Quiet operation is also necessary, since quite often I am focused on analytical or listening tasks. The only time I will be stressing the processor is when producing music, in which case the background noise of a fan will be masked anyway. 

Almost there. But there are still two more constraints. First, price. With the cost of daily living so high, I do not wish to drop two grand on a computer that is, for me, secondary to my custom-built desktop. 

Second, service. After reading countless reviews and forum posts I discovered that almost every major brand is disliked for their build quality, service, and support. Dell, HP, ASUS... they all seem equally poor once one gets past the glossy reviews.

To summarise:

  • 13" matte screen at around 1920×1080 resolution.
  • Small and light, less than 1.4 kg. 
  • Long battery life: 6h+ for daily tasks, 2h+ for synthesis.
  • Serviceable battery and SSD essential. RAM nice too. 
  • Minimum 8 GB RAM, preferably 16 GB. 
  • Minimum 3 USB ports including both USB-C and USB-A.
  • HDMI video and minijack audio. 
  • USB-C charging.
  • Good keyboard without layout compromises.
  • Trackpad with physical buttons.
  • Quiet operation. 
  • Warranty: 1 year.
  • Company with quality service record and known reliability. 

Things I don't care about:

  • Speaker quality. They are all rubbish anyway. Why do reviewers focus on this? I own headphones!
  • Graphics performance. Won't be used for video editing or gaming.

So, which laptop?

This might seem like a ridiculously demanding list of features. But I am here to provide the impossible!

After much research, I ended up back at Lenovo. Here I am guaranteed a good keyboard and trackpad. Plus, as a bonus, that excellent little Trackpoint that I find superior to a mouse. YMMV. But you have the option to use either pointing device... or both. 

Like other companies, Lenovo have a confusing array of product lines. Of those that focus on portability, the pinnacles are the ThinkPad X1 Carbon and ThinkPad X1 Nano models. But these units are so small that performance and features are compromised in favour of style. Investigation revealed numerous complaints about DOA units or components that simply stopped working. 

The "next best" portable product line are the ThinkPad X series. These are only slightly larger than the Carbon and Nano, but this (apparently) makes a significant difference to air flow and heat venting. 

Oh, have you noticed? After weeks of deliberation I had now arrived back at the same conclusion I'd made a decade prior! A new ThinkPad X it will be. 

Every year since the X220 a new model had been introduced, even if these changed only slightly over the previous iteration. In the last decade the lineage went like this: X250 (2015), X260 (2016), X270 (2017), X280 (2018), and X390 (2019). The line was then rethought as the X13 G4 (2023) which was crippled relative to the older X line.

The ThinkPad X390 is the 10th generation of this product line, and the second-last model. So this looks like the best option to pursue, since it's just old enough to be available at refurbished prices. 

The X390 has a 13.3" 1920×1080 matte screen of sufficient brightness and accuracy. At 31 x 22 x 1.7 cm and 1.22 kg the unit is compact and light. Consider that this is about 200g more than the lightest laptop on the market, but 500g less than my previous model. 

The M.2 drive and battery are user serviceable. The computer runs cool and quiet for over 8 hours on a battery charge. At full steam a slight whirr of the out-take fan is audible. No fewer than four USB ports  are available, in a variety of configurations, including USB-C for power delivery.

You can read a review at Notebook Check for more details. 

I sourced a unit with 8 GB RAM and a small 256 GB SSD for €395 shipped. After upgrading the storage I will have a very capable computer at a quarter of the price of buying something new. (A similarly configured X13 is €1560.)

Eventually I could have found a unit with 16 GB RAM. But most refurbished units are not configured with extra memory, so it might have taken some weeks of waiting. On this occasion I had a pressing deadline and a busy schedule.

Here's the computer on my kitchen table, with my mobile phone (Samsung S23) for comparison. 


The 4-core Intel i5-8265U is an 8th gen (Whiskey Lake) CPU. But, as already stated, older is not necessarily worse. This model does support the H.265/HEVC video codec and 10-bit colour depth. DaVinci Resolve runs without complaint on this computer, though I wouldn't attempt more than simple editing. Nonetheless, it's good to know that I can view the assets I'll be shooting. 

I ran Passmark against my other systems. The CPU benchmark is double my previous laptop, while the built-in graphics are a 500% improvement!

This unit should last me another decade, while keeping yet another computer out of the landfill. I hope you will consider doing the same.

About refurbished computers

While it's perfectly possible to buy a used computer, locally or on eBay, this process is potentially risky. Some people may well have discovered a deficiency in their computer and wish to sell it on without revealing all the details to you. You have no guarantees. 

A better alternative is to source a refurbished computer. These are available in two main ways. First, directly from the manufacturer as customer returns. These are often labelled as "factory outlet" stock. The price discount is usually only moderate. 

For deeper discounts, turn to a third-party company dedicated to this task. These units are often lease-end stock from corporate environments. This is especially true for manufacturers like Lenovo and Dell, whose products are favoured in the corporate world. These units are generally like-new, perhaps with some small signs of wear. Any defective components are replaced, so there is no risk. A one-year warranty is typical. 

Before Brexit I bought directly from such firms on eBay. For this recent purchase I used the site Refurb, which amalgamates listings from European refurbishing companies. My computer actually came from Spain. The only thing to watch out for is that the keyboard is in a language you can deal with.

Thanks for reading this far. I'd love to hear from anyone else who follows a similar route. I do hope this article helps those on a budget obtain a useful tool for their productive lives!



Anonymous said...

Thanks Robin! I am working at Western now, and they propose to give me a computer. I believe that I will be given a Thinkpad (I have a Thinkpad T14 Gen2 as a loaner right now). I will keep you posted. I would definitely want ethernet capability. As I will be given choices, ethernet will be top of my list of requirements. I will also be looking for a number pad on the right. Let's see if I can come away with everything you have plus these two features. (Nancy in London)

Anonymous said...

Robin, can you explain "X13 G4 (2023) which was crippled relative to the older X line". The school proposes to give me an X13 or a T14.

robin said...

Yes, sorry for my cryptic remark. There are a few ways in which the Lenovo ThinkPad X13 G4 is inferior to the previous line. It is louder, especially when under load. The screen uses PWM, which pulses the intensity to change brightness levels. My sensitive eyes can't handle that. But some people don't notice at all.

Here's a comprehensive review:


robin said...

Lenovo ThinkPad X390 with 16GB RAM is now only €300. Best. Bargain. Ever.

Post a Comment