17 November 2013 - Difficulty in Finding a Good Development Laptop

When I started at working at Intel last year on the open source 3D driver I was given a spare Lenovo T420s (Sandybridge) as my development machine. Almost everyone on my team had upgraded to Ivy Bridge by February, but I planned just to hold out a few months until Haswell was released. I then spent all summer wondering where the Haswell laptops were, and only now, five months later has Lenovo released Thinkpads with Haswell. It's time for a new development machine, and after months of research the only conclusion I've come to is that it's really hard to find a good laptop for my (admittedly strange) case.

I use my development laptop for undemanding tasks like text editing, reading documentation, email, patch review, but also things that benefit greatly by fast multicore hardware: compiling Mesa, running piglit, and compiling large sets of real world GLSL shaders. All of these are parallel tasks that see linear speed ups given additional CPU cores. Spending less time waiting for a compile or a run of the test suite to finish means I can test changes more quickly and do my work more efficiently.

Given these uses, my requirements are a quad-core Haswell laptop with a large resolution screen (greater than 1080p), GT3e graphics, and at least 8 GiB of RAM, on a budget of $2000 (less than this is obviously easier to justify to the people with the checkbook). I also have no use for dedicated graphics, and do not want it if it will cause any problems in using the Haswell GT.

I'm looking for a high end laptop with fast graphics, but without a discrete card. Sort of unsurprisingly, this is hard to find.

13" – 14" laptops

An early favorite was System76's rebranded Galago Pro. It looks amazing on paper. I can configure a 14" quad-core GT3e system with 16 GiB and two disks for around $1500. Unfortunately many owners have said the keyboard was the awful. The "keyboard is literally the worst keyboard I've ever used in my life", said one reviewer, with other descriptions ranging from "attrocious", to "junk", to "a bit rubbish"; and that it was so bad that they had to return the system. I consider such a bad keyboard a deal breaker. To add to the misery, the touchpad is apparently equally terrible. Who needs to use input devices anyway?!

The Haswell successor of my T420s, the T440s, starts in price from $1419 to $1870. It contains a lower-end i5 4200U by default with the option to upgrade to a 4600U (for an additional $270). Those prices also get you only 4 GiB of RAM. Adding an extra 4 GiB SODIMM costs an additional $80; adding an 8 GiB SODIMM costs an additional $210! 16 GiB of RAM isn't even an option.

An interesting option is Lenovo's Yoga 2 Pro. It's top selling point is its awesome 3200x1800 13.3" screen. But other than that it's not super impressive. Having only a 1.8 GHz CPU leaves me wondering how much extra time I'll spend over the life of the laptop waiting for piglit test runs to finish than if I'd gotten a faster CPU.

Apple products aren't usually compelling to the Linux user in me, but the 13" MacBook Pro is a strong option based on its specifications. It starts in price from $1299 to $1799 (depending on the size of the SSD) and has a great 2560x1600 (16:10 aspect ratio!) Retina display. It offers a 2.8 GHz 4558U CPU with GT3 (no e) graphics and a PCIe-based SSD which according to reviewers has read and write speeds of 700 MB/sec! I've read that MacBooks often have cooling problems, but according to Notebookcheck.net's review the CPU didn't throttle after an hour at maximum load.

ASUS's unreleased Zenbook Infinity UX301LA seems compelling as well. Notebookcheck.net's review says that its price will be higher than anything else I've spec'd so far, and outside of my stated budget at $2450. It does have some really nice features to attempt to justify the price: 2.8 GHz 4558U CPU and GT3 graphics, 2560x1440 (16:9) screen, and strangely two 128 GB SSDs in RAID 0. The SSDs use some exotic connector I've never heard of, which worries me, and in general the potential for data loss in RAID 0 does too. According to the review, this laptop is designed to compete with the MacBook Air rather than the Pro, but offers higher performance than the Air. I'd be worried about throttling with this system (as I would with the Air) and the review confirms this – in testing the CPU throttled down to only 1.2 GHz after a few minutes under load.

13" – 14" dual-core laptops
  CPU RAM Graphics Screen Storage Battery Price
MacBook Pro 13" 2.8 GHz 4558U 8 GiB GT3 - 1200 MHz 13.3" 2560x1600 512 GiB PCIe 71.8 Wh $1999
T440s 2.1 GHz 4600U 8 GiB GT2 - 1100 MHz 14.0" 1920x1080 256 GiB SATA 23.2 Wh + 72 Wh $2074
Yoga 2 Pro 1.8 GHz 4500U 8 GiB GT2 - 1100 MHz 13.3" 3200x1800 512 GiB SATA 54? Wh $1599
Zenbook UX301LA 2.8 GHz 4558U 8 GiB GT3 - 1200 MHz 13.3" 2560x1440 256 GiB (RAID 0) 50 Wh $2450

In comparison with the MacBook Pro I can immediately remove the T440s and Zenbook from consideration based on price (and for the latter, that it's not yet available). I think the MacBook Pro is a better choice over the Yoga 2 because I believe that the difference in price is more than worth the improvement of a 1.8 to a 2.8 GHz CPU, 2x the graphics execution units, and that the PCIe SSD is amazingly fast.

I still haven't met my goals of a quad-core CPU or GT3e graphics (all GT3e are with quad-core CPUs). With the exception of the Galago Pro (why oh why don't you just have a decent keyboard?) these features seem to only be available on 15" laptops.

15" laptops

Apple's 15" MacBook Pro offers quad-core CPUs and GT3e graphics and has a 2880x1800 Retina display, satisfying all of my criteria. The price leaves no room for upgrades though, since it starts at $1999. But for that price you get a 2.0 GHz quad-core 4750HQ CPU, GT3e, 8 GiB of RAM, and a 256 GiB PCIe SSD. Compared with the 13", you're trading a higher frequency dual-core CPU for a lower frequency (but still higher than the Yoga 2) quad-core CPU, gaining 128 MiB of graphics eDRAM, and the increasing the dimensions and weight (by a pound). Parallel tasks like compiling code and piglit test runs will take less time on the quad-core CPU.

One potential concern is heat dissipation and the potential for thermal throttling. It's hard to find objective reviews of the MacBooks (Notebookcheck.net's reviews are really good, but there's no review of the 15" MBP), much less reviews that consider thermal throttling. Most reviews seem to be of the model with Nvidia graphics anyway. The battery size is also really impressive at 95 Wh.

An option suggested to me is the Toshiba S55-A5358. It's a compelling option based on price; Newegg sells it for only $850. It has a quad-core 4700MQ CPU, GT2 graphics, a spinning 1 TiB disk, and a probably overly large 15.6" 1080p screen. Even though it lacks GT3(e) graphics, it still has the same thermal output as the 15" MacBook Pro with GT3e. Effectively, this means that the time it will take to perform graphic workloads (e.g., piglit runs) will be longer while still producing the same amount of heat per time, so the threat of thermal throttling is actually much worse. It's also a half-pound heavier than the 15" MacBook Pro, but perhaps more worrying is that its battery is less than half that of the MacBook, only 43 Wh, while its CPU and GPU still consume the same amount of power as those in the MacBook.

As far as I know, there aren't any other laptops with GT3e graphics which is largely the reason for me to consider 15" laptops.

15" quad-core laptops
  CPU RAM Graphics Screen Storage Battery Price
15" MacBook Pro 2.0 GHz 4750HQ 8 GiB GT3e - 1200 MHz 15.4" 2880x1800 256 GiB PCIe 95 Wh $1999
15" MacBook Pro (faster CPU) 2.6 GHz 4960HQ 8 GiB GT3e - 1300 MHz 15.4" 2880x1800 256 GiB PCIe 95 Wh $2299
Toshiba S55-A5358 2.4 GHz 4700MQ 8 GiB GT2   - 1150 MHz 15.6" 1920x1080 1 TiB spinning 43 Wh $850 + SSD
Galago Pro 2.0 GHz 4750HQ 16 GiB GT3e - 1200 MHz 14.1" 1920x1080 many options 52 Wh ~ $1500

The Galago Pro is included in the table just to make me sick.

I need to think hard about whether portability or speed are more important to me, but regardless of the decision both paths lead to a MacBook Pro.

Tags: freedesktop intel linux mesa