My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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PC recommendations

I love Macs, but i desparately need a smaller computer. I went and visited the new 13″ today and realized that i can’t use it. It’s too big, too heavy and the keyboard is too problematic. ::sigh:: So i’m starting to look around for a PC. 🙁 My big needs are <12", <5lb, cheap and above all else, a 90% keyboard (85-95% range... 16mm... *not* full-size) that is soft touch (i.e. it clatters rather than trying to be silent). I used to have a VAIO which i loved. Does anyone have any good suggestions? I'm very sad to need to switch back, but my hands never liked the full-sized keyboard and it's really catching up to me. I'm sad that Apple won't be going smaller than 13" and i'm even sadder that i will be forced into dealing with Windows, but i really need a smaller computer. Beh. (For those who think an external keyboard is the answer, if you find me one that is 90% and lighter touch than a laptop keyboard, i'm down... but i've never seen one that is both.)

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44 comments to PC recommendations

  • Maybe the Fujitsu? The P series is cute.

  • Jeff

    I love my Thinkpad X31, used it for several years. It’s about 3lbs, light/tiny/rugged, totally reliable, great battery life.

    The current equivalent is the X41, I think.

  • gilbert

    For the past few years I’ve been sporting a Vaio TR1A. I love it, although it’s got some flaws: the built-in wifi is B-only, and occasionally cuts out; sometimes the audio stops working and only produces a short ‘bzzz!’, needing a reboot; and after years of walking it places, the battery is starting to give.
    Other than that, it pretty much fits all your requirements, I think (although I’m not sure what “90% keyboard” means). And it’s pretty durable; I’ve dropped it from my shoulder to pavement, cracked the outside, and it still works just fine.

  • 1) I felt the same disappointment when I saw the size of the 13″ MB. My only hope is that in the next four months as I save for a new computer purchase, apple will come out with the 10.4″ powerbook that I’ve been dreaming of… but that’ll never happen

    2) i believe fujitsu makes a usb kbd with touchpad that is basically the bottom half of their small Lifebook. google says: this might be it . Though their metal-spring “happy hacking” keyboard is more up my alley, it seems you want very little key travel.

  • Dell x300, or the newer version of this line. Small, cheap, fiesty. Downside: battery life

  • Mano Marks

    As a Berkeley Student, you can get good deals on IBM ThinkPads at The Scholar’s Workstation. And ThinkPads are the semi-offical laptops of the at least the Masters Program. For instance:

    http://tsw.notlong.com

  • dell has the inspiron 710: http://www.dell.com/content/products/productdetails.aspx/entnb_710m?c=us&cs=19&l=en&s=dhs
    i’ve never so much as touched it, so i don’t know how good it is.

  • crzwdjk

    Thinkpads are quite good, and the X series is pretty much the lightest laptop available in 12″ size. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure it does have a full size keyboard. The Dell Inspiron 710 is also okay, it’s not too heavy, and the keyboard is just smaller than full size, which is exactly what you are looking for. And if you can get a $750 off, so much the better.

  • Unfortunately, Thinkpads usually do have a full-sized keyboard plus they have that damn button thing which makes my hands furious. I probably should focus on touchpads, which are much better for my hands…

  • I would also recommend the tiny Thinkpads. But… out of curiosity, why do you need a laptop that small? I love my 12″ Powerbook, but in many cases, I find it somewhat cramped. I can’t imagine trying to use something even smaller.

  • James

    The Toshiba Portege R200 (R205 seems to be a refresh) is a 12″ ultralight (2.7lb), but I can’t find any details on the key pitch. Otherwise, the Fujitsu Lifebooks are tiny and I’ve heard good things about them, but I’ve never seen one.

  • Bob – weight on my back for when i travel (i have a broken neck), small keyboard (i have carpal tunnel and small hands), portability since i never stay put…

    Above all else, it’s the keyboard that’s killing me… smaller computers come with smaller keyboards. 12″ is just large enough for people to put full-sized keyboards in and that’s exactly what i’m trying to avoid. I don’t have boy hands.

  • I have actually been looking into the same thing lately. I have been pretty impressed with the Sony Vaio. Its really light weight and tiny bu incredibly durable.

  • I have a 10″ Panasonic R4 and it works well for me and has an amazing battery life.

    I used dynamism.com when I was shopping for a small laptop.

  • crzwdjk

    The keyboard, at least for me is one of the most important things in a laptop, though in my case I actually like full size keyboards. But it’s a really personal thing, the place where your body meets the computer. Unfortunately, most manufacturers don’t really talk much about the keyboard, and the only way to find out for sure what the keyboard is like is to actually look at it in person. College campuses and starbucks are good places to see people with laptops, by the way.

  • Johanka

    Forced into dealing with Windows?
    What about Linux? Honestly, I’m a non-programmer running Linux at my laptop as I type this.

  • FG

    You need a tablet.

  • I used to have a Sony VAIO TR – a lovely 10.3″ widescreen notebook with integrated CDRW, webcam and mic…and only about 1.5kg. I think it’s been replaced by the Vaio TX. However, I would probably go for the new carbon-fibre VAIO SZ – about 2kg and a spec as good as a Mac Book…with any luck you could probably run OSX for Intel on there 🙂

  • carl

    why not get a refurbished 12″ powerbook?

  • Hey dannah,

    I’ve got a similar dilemma myself.

    I personally love my tiny ThinkPad X32, but unfortunately it belongs to work and I need to give it back when I leave in a few weeks time.

    Thinkpads are not the most aesthetically pleasing laptops, but they are ruggid and tough (I carry mine everywhere, and really appreciate the difference that makes).

    I think i’m getting an X60 but I’ll keep you posted as to what I decide…

  • I just got a macbook and so far the keyboard is ok, but it is much bigger than the one on my 12″ powerbook (which is better for me).

    This photo isn’t the best angle for comparison, but they are side by side

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ari/149716933/

    You might be able to get os x to run on whatever pc laptop you buy.

    But yes, Apple needs to make a smaller laptop.

  • joe

    If you’re going to go even smaller, Zeph… you should also throw an ergonomic keyboard in the mix with a sling so that you can carry it around… or your hands will just fall off!

  • Steve – do you know anyone who has been able to get OSX running on a PC? That would make me utterly ecstatic!

    Even though they are expensive as fuck, i’m starting to lean towards the VAIO TX series since they seem the most likely to meet my needs. I’m definitely going to first check out the Lifebook that Herwig mentioned and the Panasonic that Tony mentioned, although i’m curious about the powerfulness of them…

    Carl – i have a functioning 12″ (actually, two…) but my hands have been aching more and more because of it. I can’t keep pushing my hands much longer just because i love my mac.

    Johanka – if i’m going to leave Mac, i’m not going to move back to Linux. Back when i used to code, i loved Solaris and Linux, but now, i need a lot of consumer facing products to work. So much of what i want to use doesn’t work on Macs, but i’ve been stubborn about it anyhow and made it work. But Linux is a whole new ball of wax. I need anthro coding software, video manipulation software, Microsoft’s products, Adobe’s products, Macromedia’s products, gaming tools… i need to be able to access all webpages, view Flash and video (including Microsoft crap). I hate Windows with a passion, but things are far more likely to just work on that then on Linux. At least OSX makes me feel pleasant, even when it breaks. I don’t love Linux – i never did… as corporate as it is, i do love Apple because it’s about aesthetics above all else.

  • Joe – do you know of any ergo keyboard that is 90% sized? I know of none… full-sized “ergo” keyboards break me in about 5 minutes – that’s why i’ve always typed on a laptop. My fingers cannot reach the distance of full-sized keys without stretching uncomfortably.

    I’ve looked into “kids sized” ergo keyboards but most seem to have been discontinued or they don’t work with OSX.

    The ergo corporate structure is built on a one-size fits all model that inherently writes off guys with huge hands and those of us with itsy hands. I wish i could pay someone to make a keyboard that is my size, my ergo. ::sigh:: Stupid little hands.

  • Johanka

    I’m not willing to argue over Linux, just to note that I wouldn’t have switched to it for easthetic reasons either five years ago. But it has gone a long way since then, now I love KDE more than WinXP’s graphical interface. And isn’t the Mac essentially a unix system, btw?

  • Oh, Johanka, i love having UNIX below. I use my terminal all the time and grep always wins over the graphical find. I will inevitably install Cygwin the moment that i get a Windows box. And i loathe WinXP’s interface. But that doesn’t mean that Linux will work for me… Linux is worse off than Mac in the aethetics realm and it simply doesn’t function for 80% of the programs that i use on a daily basis. 🙁 That’s why i won’t switch to Linux, not because of UNIX.

  • Carl Caputo

    Do you touch-type, danah? I’m having a hard time imagining somebody’s hands being smaller than my sister’s, and she uses a PowerBook 12″ comfortably, but she also touch-types with pretty good form. I worked for a long time (10+ years) as a medical transcriptionist, and I’ve worked mostly on full-sized PC keyboards because of it, and I’m a boy-type with boy-sized hands, so I fit mandated design better than my sister, but she worked transcription for a while, too, and big keyboards never work well for her. I’m going on and on, but I’m wondering about how you hold your hands over the keys. Do you have your thumbs basically hovering past the space bar, more or less over the V and N keys or C and N keys? So your hands are curled as if they’re each holding a pear?

  • I do touch type. It’s not impossible to work on a Mac, but it requires stretching my hands more than natural. The natural positioning of my hands is about 90% keyboard size. Positioned to touch type, my hands are not at rest on a Mac.

  • Jheri

    My roommate is very small – 4’10” and very small hands. She uses a Mac mini and a mini usb keyboard. She was considering plugging it into a MacBook Pro that she was thinking about, but she hasn’t made that leap yet.

    I have the other problem. At 6’2.5″ I’m on the tall side for a female and I have very long fingers. If I wasn’t so uncoordinated, I’d be a great pianist. Full sized keyboards are fine and there are times when I wished I could find something about 10% larger..

    good luck!

  • I had very similar issues, including (1) long-time Mac user/fan needing to keep in the PC world for access to lots of ‘stuff’; (2) need for compact/light solution; (3) very fussy about good touch typing capability in small space.

    I opted for an HP T1100, and before you think “oy, a Tablet”, check out my analysis of the many strengths of a small tablet convertible *OTHER* than pen input (which I rarely use it for!), including a discussion of the keyboard strengths and weaknesses from a touch-typists perspective:
    Truth about Tablet PC

    Also a followup analysis I posted on Stowe Boyd’s old Get Real column. (scroll down for that one).

    Duh, it seems HP discontinued this one – but the point still stands, and it’s worth considering this form factor if you can find it…

    best ‘o luck!

    -Marc

  • I switched from a Powerbook 12″ to a Thinkpad X40 (and now an X60). My experience with the Thinkpad is that the nubby eraser thing is better for my hands than a trackpad. Because you use your forefinger instead of your thumb, there’s hardly any extension of your digits. This has meant for me that the strain and pain I periodically felt in my right hand when using a Powerbook has gone away since I switched. Also, I love the keyboard but I have average sized hands. The eraser thing takes getting used to. Everyone who uses my computer has troubles . . . which isn’t a bad thing since it means I can’t share. Since the X40 is on the outs being replaced by the X60 you might find a deal. I can’t stand my co-workers’ Sony TX machines. The trackpad is very slippery (very different than a Powerbook) and the keys I find hard to distinguish. Challenge with the X series: no built in optical drive. If you want it, it’s either external or a bulky slice. I’ve posted on some of this at http://ipath.blogs.com/innopath/2006/04/x60s.html#more

  • Ok, going a bit lateral here, for travel why not use Palm TX and a Think Outside keyboard, you can dock back with a Mac as and when, also the battery life is pretty good and the whole package is cheap. Or a Sharp SL C3000.

    Third option OQO, however I don’t know how well its supported by decent Linux ditributions.

  • Parker

    I Dont know much about computers but have owned a few and from experience never get an HP or Fuji-something something, they are the worst. The best one Ive owned (thus far) would be my Apple iBook, I use it to download music and book my bands gigs on the road and it hasnt crashed yet. If you go to cnet.com they have a reviews page and a laptop selector depending on what your going to use it for.
    Good Luck
    Parker

  • Yaron

    A few days ago I noticed this:
    http://usb.brando.com.hk/prod_detail.php?prod_id=00010&dept_id=015&cat_id=034
    Which is supposed to be a light and flexible “mini keyboard”.
    They don’t have size on the information page, but the mini label may indicate it’s smaller than regular keyboards. Not sure about the key responsiveness, or anything else for that matter, but you may want to ask them… It looks like it might be suitable as an external keyboard.

  • a. strups

    gnu/linux is the way to go because of freedom not because of convenience. Freedom is, well, important. Fighting for the possibility of being free also in the future is, well, important.
    Nevertheless gnu/linux is also convenient nowadays, it is less usable than MacOSx probably but ways more than winxp.
    And you could use wine ( http://www.winehq.com/ ) when you really need a program that runs under windows.

    Also check this video:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gE1XQyT_IbA&search=macbook%20linux

  • Dan G

    I saw someone mentioned it earlier, but if you’re willing to compromise on the “cheap” (and if you buy Apple hardware, you probably are), I’d check out dynamism.com. They find lots of miniature computers from Japan, install english versions of the software, and sell them in the US.

  • danah, try the X series Thinkpad with your choice of SUSE 10.1 or Ubuntu. It’s not a Mac, but these days you have several nice alternatives to Windows.

  • The 3-pound Dell Latitude X300 provides almost everything you could want in an ultraportable notebook. The only drawbacks are smallish typing keys and a standard battery.

  • Toshiba M400 (or M200 if you want to save some $$$). My M200 is the first notebook I’ve kept for more than a year. 12″ display, 4.4 lbs, great keyboard, 3 year warranty, and fits in a Tom Bihn Brain Cell.

  • Hi Danah,
    Having been a lifelong PC user and switching recently to a PowerBook, I can’t imagine ever going back!!

    Not sure what the current VAIO’s are like, but my VAIO from a few years back was a big piece of crapola. The docking station died right after the warranty expired and the hard drive crashed wiping everything out on it.

    As some folks have mentioned, what about a refurbished/used 12in PowerBook?

  • DB

    I have a 15″ and my wife has a 12″ and needs a new one – preferably lighter than her 12″. I made the terrible mistake of going onto one of the mac sites that talk about coming/recent products (I won’t say which one…) and asking when Apple will come out with a lightweight laptop.

    I could not believe the response I got. The basic tone was lectures from others on why the new macbook had to weigh so much (features, etc.) and a tone of “Boy are you a moron.” Even the moderator joined in.

    Apple used to be fledgling and needed its supporters to fanatically defend them. No longer. Apple (and its users) need to listen to the market. It has done this with iPods (more features, smaller size), but not yet with laptops.

  • Danah! Yo! This is Sam Trychin, from 1,000,000 years ago. I live and die by small laptops (contracting all over town, bike everywhere with my livelihood on my back [or bart, caltrain, or plane]).

    What I use, and what you really really want, is a Sony Vaio TX… this is the best small laptop they’ve ever made. Don’t buy the latest model new… get an older TX630 or TX650P from the first tranche of models released, used on CL or on EBay, etc… b/c the newest TX models (TX770?) go for 2x the price of the older ones… but are basically identical except for negligible 5% or so incremental improvements.

    OR, if you want an even cheaper laptop, I’ve got a Vaio T150, brand new condition, never used, brand new battery —> (was a backup laptop that never got used). This is one generation back, but has nearly identical features/hardware/performance of the slightly newer/slicker TXes.

    I’m about to sell it on CL For $900…

    Holla back if interested!

    smooch!

    Sam
    (415)-425-0930

  • I’ve got a big monster of Gateway notebook with a giant 17 inch screen. I skateboard (longboard, really) with it to the university. The key is just to get a REALLY good Targus backback with the puffy arm straps so the weight is distributed. Now I carry the thing everywhere as a deskstop replacement and can’t be without it. It’s about the real estate (and watching DVDs) on half the screen and RSS cruising on the other.

    The Targus backpack will even fit the furry hat you wore to the Duke Podcast conference.

    tbf