Rethinking The Laptop

This morning, as I was waiting for my laptop to grind through its startup process I started wondering why I had a laptop. I travel a lot and had it with me in San Francisco and Los Angeles this week, but hardly used it. And, when I did, I was frustrated with how long I had to wait for it to “get started”.

Today, while I was waiting for my laptop to sync email (Outlook 2010) I grabbed my iPad, opened mail, and read/reply/deleted all of the email that came in over night. I was finished processing the email before my laptop was ready to be used.

I had this same experience yesterday morning in LA. Except then I processed all of my overnight email on my HTC EVO phone which was also acting as the hotspot for my laptop to connect. And, throughout the day, I just did email on my phone instead of firing up my laptop.

The only time I used my laptop last week was a three+ hour stretch in San Francisco when I was at First Round Capital’s office (thanks Josh for the use of your desk) in between meetings. I had turned on my laptop at 8:45am when I got to FRC’s office, did a board meeting from 9am to 12 (the laptop was in a different room), and then used my laptop from noon until I left around 3:30. By noon it had fully synched itself.

As I write this, I realize that Android and Apple both sync faster with my email on an Exchange data store than my Windows 7 laptop with Outlook. A lot faster. It doesn’t seem to matter whether I’m connecting over 3G or Wifi – my Android phone, iPad, and iPhone are ready to go right away whereas my laptop takes anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes to get into a fully usable state (where the disk doesn’t spin an slow things down, or Outlook is non-responsive, or something else funky is going on.) I’m on a Lenovo X300 with 4GB of RAM so it’s not the hardware.

I wrote this post on my iPad using the cute little iPad keyboard doc. It appears my laptop is once again useable, but it’s probably too late for me this morning. Time for a run.

  • This is one of the big reasons I think that Android and iOS are going to eliminate Windows from most people's lives. And for those with OSX laptops it's going to eliminate OSX for them. For everything I do on my laptop (email, web browsing, streamed video, blog reading, conference presenting) an iPad would do a better job than my laptop can. If you can do everything you need on the iPad, why even carry the laptop? And if you're not carrying the laptop you certainly aren't going to buy a new one in a few years when it's time to upgrade.

    I just hope the Android tablets are able to fill the same niche when they eventually come out.

    • Rick Gregory

      "And for those with OSX laptops it's going to eliminate OSX for them. "

      Nope. Because I don't start my Macbook up, I sleep it by closing the top and when i open the top it's ready to go, network connection live in 2-3 seconds. I don't sync Outlook, because I use GMail and assorted calendars and task lists that live in the cloud.

      Honestly, nothing Brad talks about here has anything to do with the laptop – it's his software choices and the way he shuts his laptop down vs letting it sleep.

      ". If you can do everything you need on the iPad, why even carry the laptop?"
      But I can't right now and even if the software was available to enable me to replicate tasks th iPad's screen is smaller than i'd want to work on regularly. And, frankly, if i"m going to do a lot of work that needs a keyboard I don't see the advantage of an iPad + keyboard over the macbook I'm typing this on (no, battery doesn't count – this thing lasts 10 hours).

      I do think phones and tablets will become important, but we need to stop doing the "A is going to kill B" dance in tech analysis. It's an unsophisticated way to look at things and is almost never actually true.

      • I don't shut down my Thinkpad x61 either, and I use all hosted apps, but it still takes on the order of a minute to get from a closed (sleeping) laptop to reading my email (or Google Reader or whatever.) That drives me to use my phone for the things that I have an app for whenever the laptop is closed. Macbooks are apparently better at waking up, which isn't surprising.

        I don't think think the newfangled mobile-OS based devices are going to kill windows and OSX. I do think they're going to make these older more heavyweight platforms something that are used primarily by people with pretty specific hardcore needs: programmers, 3D artists, professional video editors, etc. Startup time is only one reason for that opinion. A much bigger reason is the fact that you can easily find and install applications without constantly worrying that they're infecting their computer with something horrible by doing so. That's a big deal for the less computer-savvy members of my family.

        "I don't see the advantage of an iPad + keyboard over the macbook"
        Flip that around. Do you see an advantage of the macbook-running-OSX over the Macbook-plus-touchscreen-running-iOS we'll likely see come out in a year or two. I don't, at least not for less sophisticated users.

        • Rick Gregory

          However the difference between a 60 second wait to access email and what Brad describes here is significant. That's my basic point re the post – Brad's chosen to use Exchange etc for functional reasons and is suffering operational pain because of that. At some point the functional reasons no longer justify the operational pain. Where that point is will be different for different companies.

          "A much bigger reason is the fact that you can easily find and install applications without constantly worrying that they're infecting their computer with something horrible by doing so. That's a big deal for the less computer-savvy members of my family. "

          THIS is a point we agree on 100%. A lot of the appeal of tablets will be to Windows users who can shed things like that. It won't be a strong selling point to Mac users simply because we don't have a history of viruses etc on the Mac. I also think that a lot of people will start picking up iPads and their Android equivalents because they'll be CHEAP. $500 now isn't cheap… but in 2-3 years entry price will be $250-$300 and they'll become gifts at birthdays, the holidays, or spur of the moment buys for a set of people.

          I hope (and believe) that we'll see a plethora of computing devices. We started off the PC revolution in the 70s with a desktop. Moving computing out of the IT room onto a desktop was radical then. We're poised to decentralize again with computing moving off the desktop and even off the laptop to phones, tablets and consumer devices like the TV BUT people will still continue to use desktops and laptops for somethings because of things like screen size. However, people will expect things that CAN have computing intelligence to have it. Witness Chris Brogan's 4 yo kid who went up to the new HDTV and tried swiping on the screen… after all, Dad's phone does that, the TV should too….

          "Do you see an advantage of the macbook-running-OSX over the Macbook-plus-touchscreen-running-iOS we'll likely see come out in a year or two. "
          I don't see iOS migrating to the desktop or laptop. That move would be a poor one for Apple as a touch based UI doesn't make sense in those environments. Certainly they might add touch features here and there, but diversity is a good thing, unification isn't

      • Actually, I sleep my laptop.  But Windows 7 + Outlook 2010 has some funky new and exciting dance when you unsleep.  But I agree – totally a software issue.

        • per above posters — also my macbook + google apps (email) takes no time to start up from sleep mode, maybe a few seconds to reconnect the wifi connection.

  • "…Time for a run"

    Back is back, eh?

  • Hey Brad – i was having some similar experiences with my old laptop (Thinkpad T60) and it was driving me batty – 5+ minutes to boot up and be usable?!?!?!? Got a new machine a few months ago though (Thinkpad T410s) and ended up opting for a solid state drive – best decision i ever made. 40 seconds from the time i press the power button, my computer is booted and I have Firefox, Outlook and AIM all open and usable. SSD's are probably the best possible investment you can make in your computer right now if you're looking for a usability boost – makes using your computer so much more responsive and a generally more pleasurable experience.

  • I agree with your statement: "I’m on a Lenovo X300 with 4GB of RAM so it’s not the hardware." but I'm not sure it's about form factor entirely either. Rather, the bottleneck that you seem to be describing is software, or specifically a problem with Microsoft's current machine-based approach to their software.

    I've recently changed jobs from a Google Apps environment to an Exchange environment. My biggest shock? Everything I do now takes two or three times as long. The primary barrier is Outlook itself, which only runs in Windows environment. As you've noticed, a Windows laptop takes a painfully long time to wake up and be ready to go. I switched to a Mac 2 years ago and one of my primary reasons was the time with the lightning fast wake up time. (I ran the numbers when I switched, and realized I was saving 20+ hours a year in start-up time). Combine that with a light browser and Google's super computers doing in the cloud what Outlook makes painfully slow on a desktop and bingo: you get the opposite of your above described user experience.

    I agree that my Android phone is sooo much faster dealing with my exchange mail, but so is my Mac. The problem is MS insistance that my machine run large and bloated software to do something that cheaper and better software can do many, many times faster.

    You think you like the mail experience on your Android phone? That's just because Android makes your Exchange mail behave like a gmail account.

    • I agree with this. Also, teach your laptop to HIBERNATE. Then you don't have to wait at all for it to start up. It takes a chunk of your system disk, but if the show start up is bothering you, it's totally worth it.

      But really, your problem is not the laptop. It's Outlook.

  • Mmmm… Exchange data store? Ok… I know you like exchange from previous posts…. 🙂

    I'm in a similar use scenario….Laptop (Mac), iPad, Verizon Incredible, Google Apps.

    If I just need email, contacts and phone – Incredible is all I take.

    If I need to browse the web and consume media – the iPad comes along.

    If I need to write long docs or process media (video, music, graphic) rendering – the laptop comes along

    Then I use Google Apps in the cloud and IMAP to sync across devices.

    Data in the cloud with device based on functional need.

    • I’d love to dump my Exchange dependency.  As far as I can tell, the only thing keeping me on Exchange is shared calendar functionality (specifically the delegated calendar action and UI).  Oh – and switching costs, mostly measured in friction / energy.

      Up to this point I’ve been rationalizing that I’m both a content creator and content consumer so I need my laptop.  I’m responding to all the comments I got on this point on my laptop (instead of my EVO) – it is easier now that my laptop has been sitting here for several hours and is “totally caught up” (whatever that means.”

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  • Doyle Albee

    Brad, I just re-gifted my 15" MacBook Pro to a new employee. I now have a 27" iMac—which is wonderful to work on, especially for graphics and presentations—and carry my iPad everywhere else. A program like Log Me In allows me to grab things I may have forgotten (or didn't know I needed) and I can leave behind things like second batteries.

    I've not looked back!

  • Paul Kedrosky

    Brad — This whole post seemed otherworldly to me until you got to the part about "Outlook" and "synchronizing" data. I use all hosted apps and everything happens instantly.

    Dude, back away from the binary apps. Friends don't let friends use installed software.

    • Yeah, I know.  If only Google would get the shared calendar / delegate thing up to par.  Or maybe I should give up and just move on.

      • Clint Nelsen

        I have a similar setup, I use my Evo to power my Macbook Pro and iPad, I'm AT&T free and have a 4G iPad. Even better when you have a chance to establish a base for a few hours while traveling this app… allows you to extend your desktop on you laptop to your iPad via wi-fi. With a Macbook and an iPad you can have dual displays without a single cord for 10hrs. The Evo of course being the weakest link…. But you can feed it from the Macbook with a USB cable.

        All that is lacking is a pontoon boat, a grill and some TechStars teams to anchor in the middle of Lake Union on those rare sunny days.

      • D_B

        How is calendar delegation by Exchange/Outlook better than what Google calendar does?

        Here is a walkthrough for google calendar delegation:

        • It's pretty close. That's a really good video showing the current google action. My understanding is there are a few specific things missing – most around views of multiple calendars – but after watching the video my reaction is that i should just get over it and switch.

  • I agree with Rick, most of these problems are associated with using a Windows laptop. The idea of shutting down and booting up a laptop every time you need to use it is mind-boggling, and completely foreign to Mac users who just close and open it. Also, I’m stunned by the idea of having to wait 5 to 15 minutes for emails to sync. I haven’t used it in a while, but I imagine Mail for OS X with Exchange support will be faster.

    Your conclusion is the important point though, mobile phones and tablets will rid the world of Windows (Mac OS X is not going to be the one to do it). I haven’t done a long trip with iPad only, but I’m looking forward to it, especially with the bluetooth keyboard and improved cloud syncing.

  • Jamie

    Put an SSD in your laptop. Mine resumes from sleep almost instantly and boots in < 5 sec.

  • Isn't this a Windows (7) vs. Mac/Android issue, instead of a laptop issue? — Stephan

    • Yes. Definitely software although the one interesting hardware suggestion has been to try an ssd drive.

      • Tom

        In the same boat as you Brad. With all the travel I do, the 5-15 minute boot-up cycle for windows/exchange (and the fore-planning it necessitates) has caused me to punt. Not only is it frustrating to wait, but it is maddening when viewed from the context of MS' complete lack of competence wrt user experience.

        I've got a Macbook Pro with SSD on order. I'm going to try going Exchange-less too. All just to try to solve the topic of your post.

        It is incomprehensible to me how Microsoft has completely failed to improve usability and convenience over the last decade.

  • I inherently agree with your conclusion, but I think your logic is flawed.

    I used to carry my laptop everywhere. Not just trips, between all the places I work. (Boulder, Denver, Winter Park). It was a necessity.

    But starting with my Sidekick phone, I started taking shorter trips sans laptop. Now, with Droid, expectations of web kiosks, and dedicated thin clients at each of my workstations – I rarely carry a laptop. I still carry one when I know I have to do a lot of writing.

    I am not alone. I noticed it at GlueCon – tech conferences used to be the place to see the latest and greatest tech- and while there was some of that (iPads and Evos), the standard issue laptop was junk. "This is my travel laptop".

    The point of contention in your post is Outlook and presumably Exchange is more of the problem than the PC. Outlook is not a thin client and using it will require horsepower (and time). Switching to a web based client not only simplifies multicomputer computing, but reduces local computing cycles.

    Using an iPad to check your mail while your PC boots is great – there should be a commercial for that. It is similar to the issue of using a softphone client on your PC – I tell people the key benefit to a real phone is it allows you to check your voice mail while your PC is booting (or shutting down).

  • This is very true. I bought my macbook in 2007, then the iPhone and now the iPad. I find myself checking my email and social accounts on my iPhone in the mornings, go to work and use a Mac desktop, and then I go home and use the iPad. The only time I use my macbook now is when I need to use software such as Adobe CS5 to design/web work on weekends. The solution to not need a laptop would be to buy an Mac Mini and use software to connect to it from your iPad (iTeleport is a good app), this will allow you to use your old software that isn't available on the iPad yet. The only possible negative would be not having a mouse, maybe?

  • Tim Marman

    I don’t necessarily disagree with you -in fact I am reading / writing this on my iPad, lying in bed, with my MacBook sitting on the night table. But for me, my issue is more about form factor than in terms of time synicing. I run osx with fusion and win 7 and I’m up and running in just a few minutes. Outlook 2010 or outlook 14 for mac osx both start up and sync just as fast as the ipad or iPhone.

    But even now, with reeder and instapaper – iPad is my GOTO rss reader and consumption device. Of course, as you can tell by the comment, typing still isn’t great 🙂

  • I think by hours of use the iPad is probably number 1. It’s all about the instant on.

  • Brad, what you are waiting for is a Chrome OS Netbook. Me too. Instant start.

  • Pwb

    That’s embarrassing that you’re on a windows notebook.

    • Yep, if Brad has a 15" MacBook Pro (he could run Fusion, in order to slowly back off Windows), then he wouldn't have the slow start-time issue.

      I run a 17" MacBook Pro, EVO phone, and iPad. I would jettison the laptop and replace it with an iMac, but i use Final Cut Pro a lot for video editing. Outside of that, the iPad can handle browsing, email, and most other chores on the go, especially with my Bluetooth keyboard and the stand/usb converter. The EVO is working beautifully as a stand-in hotspot.

      Here's my (true) EVO story from Tuesday night's TechFlash! event in Seattle. Setting in the center of the packed auditorium. Beautiful lady and her friend set next to me. She turns to me in frustration, messing with her iPhone "do you know how to get on this stupid Wi-Fi network (so we can Tweet this event)? The passcode doesn't work!". I produced my EVO and said, ladies, may i offer a lite(up)? – of your own personal hotspot. And gave them my EVO's ESSID & WPA password. Sort of a modern-day, Geek's version of Bogie offering a lady a lite:)

  • Mark Wood

    Have you used your iPad with a bluetooth keyboard?
    I'm holding out for the 2nd gen hardware (believing there will be a forward facing camera), but can foresee the day I am carrying around an iPad and Apple wireless keyboard instead of my laptop. With multitasking in iOS 4, someone is probably already writing an app like Air Mouse to use an iPhone as a trackpad for the iPad. I'd even be willing to carry a wireless mouse if there were a multitouch emulating driver. 🙂

  • Get a Linux laptop. I love my HTC desire, but a keyboard and a real screen can’t be beat for a big chunk of my workload.

  • I might be able to relate, if I were using a bloated Windows laptop with a bloated office productivity suite. My Ubuntu 10.04 laptop boots to the login screen in ~45 seconds, and in another 45 I can be in Thunderbird.

    And that's only if I've shut down. The longest step in waking up from @slepmode is me typing my password — time to application from openinthe screen is about 15 seconds.

    This has more to do with Windows and Outlook than it does with laptops. It didn't take a tablet or mobile for me to give those up, just some common sense and awareness of the alternaives.

    Now that I look, I see this has already come up in the comments. Still, let me chime in on the ditch Windows / MS Office thread… that's your bottleneck

  • Daryl

    You need to ditch the pc and get a mac.

  • Have you considered that your problem may be the software, not the hardware? That is, it's Windows, Outlook, not that it's a laptop? Consider a Mac OSX laptop/notebook. Try linux on your thinkpad. Try other mail clients. Outlook Web Access, if you must, via a browser. Gmail. Something from Mozilla. Don't give up on a full keyboard and local processing power merely because the software installed by default is braindead.

    • I accept that the main problem is Outlook at this point.

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  • But isn't this more about the email and exchange synching than about laptops, tablets or whatever.

    I am web only on a netbook (small laptop) and find things fine.

    Ditch using Outlook

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  • It is clear that times are changing and need to adapt to new technologies

  • StartupTrekTV

    My recommendation for Mac software (no affiliation) is "THINGS", a GTD (sophisticated/glorified todo list) App by Cultured Code – both the iPad app, and the OS X Things apps. There is an iPhone app too, but i don't like it much – the fonts are too large, and you can't make them smaller.

    Things *sizzles* on the iPad, as a way to manage lists of actions pending. You can drag todo's by their handles, up and down in the lists; it's a great multi-touch interface. There are hundreds of GTD apps out there, I've tried many of them but this one gets my vote as the best for heavy day-to-day use. I have a blog post and demo video in the works about it. This one app, for me justifies the cost of an iPad. The MBP and iPad data can be kept coherent using the Things' built-in synchronization function. They are working on more seamless web syncing.

    Another obscure, but sweet app for OSX is BBEdit, for managing your code – it's the closest thing I've found to a windows-based version of the trusty old command-driven "vi" editor – ultra-robust, smart text editor for coders. And there's the OMNI suite – I prefer THINGS over OmniFocus, which is overly complex and hard to use. But the OmniPlan app, and OmniGraffle apps rock – the latter for wireframing, diagramming, or doodling during Board meetings. Both on OSX, and coming to the iPad.

    Also on my short list of recommendations: pick up a copy of Adobe Creative Suite CS5, mostly for Photoshop & Illustrator; install the free Evernote OS X and iPad clients; and subscribe to/install BackBlaze, the only online back-up service for Macs (that I've found) which not only backs up your internal drive, but also every external drive that it finds connected via USB or Firewire – and no backup size limits.

    I don't get the part about not taking the EVO. That thing's a portable hotspot, and in Alaska you're bound to need it. For example, to covertly download a programming book onto your iPad when you're out and about:) But maybe you have the 3G iPad. I run a Wi-Fi iPad, so no monthly charge for data, but with the EVO i have either 3G or 4G service on the iPad now – with no cap or over-runs on the data plan (thanks, Sprint).

    [I intended this reply for "A Month of Mac" – looks like somehow it ended up on the prior post "Rethinking the Laptop]

    • Well, since I won't be hanging around with anyone in Alaska other than Amy, I don't need the portable hotspot! More importantly, I'm pretty sure Sprint is crummy in Homer while AT&T is awesome (due to ACS).

      • StartupTrekTV

        I'd think you'd be missing your EVO, by now:) I have come to really prefer it over my clunky old 3GS iPhone. The Google local Maps integrated GPS navigation, the live Google map (and weather) homepage widget functionality, vastly superior camera, much better email client (for Gmail), (the list is long). This is my third Android (G1 – Droid – EVO), and the first one to flat-out "beat" the iPhone experience. Not to mention, I save about $60/mo since I no longer need a separate 3G USB modem, due to the integrated hotspot; and it also saves me from needing to upgrade my iPad from a Wi-Fi to a 3G.

        fyi – as goes Verizon, so goes Sprint. I learned from a very senior Sprint exec last year (neither Verizon nor Sprint publicizes this) that Sprint has a "silent roaming agreement" with Verizon. So when you fall off of Sprint, you're actually using Verizon's network. That explains to me, how much smaller Sprint is able to maintain such a strong nationwide footprint – even when I'm out in HI, their footprint is huge. I can't tell the difference when i'm traveling, between Verizon and Sprint – i've switched back and forth 3 times, the past two years. AT&T is a whole nuther' story.

        • Well – we'll see! As a hedge, I'm bringing the EVO to Alaska. And my X300, although after 24 hours I don't think I'll need it.

  • If you had access to a hosted Citrix environment, then you could probably live without the laptop because for those times when you need a full Windows desktop, you could just fire up the Citrix session and run the software that way.

  • Brad, I think the biggest thing here is a key question of software architecture. For example, I just installed iTunes 9.2 and it took 4-5 minutes to load for the first time. It said it was "processing my artwork images" and took quite a while to be ready. My Outlook often takes 5-6 minutes to catch up as well.


    At the end of the day, we've got a very heavy software payload working to give us the ability to work with our computers offline. (The cloud sort of sucks in that environment, after all.)

    The problem is, more and more people have little need to work offline. I'm in the minority on that – I don't want to pay for multiple 3G connections I don't need, tethering is cool but still a fumble and I also live in a rural area where all broadband choices are patchy and don't work the first time 100% of the time.

    Software also assumes I need "everything" while offline. What if iTunes was architected to not show me artwork if the background process hadn't finished processing them?

    Here's the problem: it's considered acceptable for software to lock up and be unavailable while doing the "catchup" process that doesn't benefit the user. SSDs, faster processors, more memory, all of that is great – but at the end of the day, software needs to be architected to do background work without an immediate benefit to the user IN THE BACKGROUND while the computer is fully idle.

    This is not primarily an OS architecture issue as much as it is an app architecture issue. OS X is lighter weight because Apple is better at drawing lines in the sand and saying "we won't support old tech in our new tech."

    I love Windows 7. If Microsoft had the guts to ship a version that could only run Vista and 7-compatible apps, I'll bet that would be a lightweight OS that could beat OS X on boot and wake times.

    Nothing is going to beat iPad for a long time. It has no tail of compatibility to load.

  • Istvan

    I never shut my laptop down: I use sleep most of the time and hibernate it here and there. After all, that's what you do with your iPad and phone. You don't shut those down, so why do you shut your laptop down. Try sleep on your laptop for a while–that will make it a better apple-to-apple comparison.

  • Pat

    I'm about a million years late on this comment, but besides what everyone else has suggested, I believe it also had to do with the level of interaction Exchange and Outlook have, compared to OSX Mail, Android and the iPad. I believe all of those devices are treated as Exchange Active Sync devices, which constantly receive push e-mail from Exchange in small chunks (or downloaded in full depending on settings and such) When Outlook fires up after turning a laptop or desktop on, that interaction is a bit different, as it's connecting to Exchange to give you the full experience… downloading items, downloading the global address list locally, and so on. Also, as someone mentioned, Windows 7 + hibernate is about 1000 times better than Vista/XP + hibernate. For the first time ever, I've recommended to my Windows 7 laptop users that they hibernate more often than shutting down.

  • Nayuki

    I agree with what you said about laptops being slow.

    However, I think you might be using your laptop suboptimally. For me, my laptop is always either sleeping (suspend to RAM) or active. I almost never leave it in shut down mode. So, putting it too sleep takes about 5 seconds, and resuming from sleep takes about 5 seconds as well. This is far better than a clean shutdown taking 20 seconds, and a cold boot taking 1 minute. Secondly, if I needed to check e-mail, I would keep Outlook/Thunderbird always running, so that it doesn't need to read the program and e-mails from disk again and again.

    With these in place, this is how I would check my e-mail: Turn on laptop (5 seconds), log in (5 seconds), connect to Wi-Fi (about a minute), hit Sync button on e-mail client (10 seconds), done. The Wi-Fi is unfortunately the slowest part, and it is beyond my control.

    I insist on using my laptop to do these things because I can't justify buying an iPhone/iPad/smartphone. I'm trying to extract as much value from my laptop as possible.

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