Physics Says You Can’t Have Cake and Eat It Too With Laptops

I’m a bit baffled by this Motherboard article on “screwing ourselves” with the pursuit of thinness in laptops.  This is of course coming out of an Apple controversy where some bad software and a lot of tipping the scales in favor of form over function has lead to a haus looking laptop spec turning out some pretty bad real world performance numbers.  As has often been the case, once the initial outrage of some Apple stumble starts growing old people start looking around at other vendors and then the quiet problems of the industry are shown the light of day.  Apple’s MacBook Pro thermal problem is more egregious than others but turns out they all are essentially hobbling performance on their UltraBooks and compact laptop chassis making the list specs nothing real world.  Why are we surprised by this though?

I know that most of us aren’t heat transfer or thermodynamics experts but common experiences tell the story too.  I do some heavy loads on workstations.  My graphics card cooling fans are the biggest volume of the graphics card.  My heat sinks on my processors take up a good chunk of room too.  When we look to cram all of that into a laptop that is thinner than the graphics card alone and with just barely more square footage should I expect that it will be able to crank out as many GFLOPS as my huge workstation rig?  Apparently some people do.  Certainly the Portable Workstation versions of laptops should be able to reach something close to comparable speeds, but these are hardly laptops.  These are the modern day equivalent of the original Compaq computer.  Even these behemoths can’t have the equivalent hardware of a true workstation but they sure can get close, at the sacrifice of portability.

Computer engineering is just like any other engineering where there is a trade off between factors.  The designers, and therefore the customers, need to decide what the right mix of affordability,  portability, performance, and other factors is right for them.  We should expect vendors to only state their highest metrics for each of these things, this is Marketing 101 going back centuries.  It’s not right, but it’s okay.  So why are we getting this obsession with thinness across the board, most exaggerated at Apple?  It’s because most of us don’t need that much computer anymore, compared against peak performance.

I have two laptops: a developer laptop and a personal laptop.  My developer laptop is pretty highly configured System76 Galago Pro from 2016.  My personal laptop is a MacBook Air from 2010.  The Galago is used for software development and computer simulations while my MacBook is used for web browsing, writing etc.  Neither has a solid graphics card, the compromise on battery and size for compactness.   Both are holding their own for now.  So think about that, I have a computer that is over 8 years old which is completely fine for my daily use of: browsing the internet, watching YouTube videos, basic “office” type work, and writing.  This is an UltraBook from eight years ago doing it.  With more modern processors and such the “thermally limited” modern UltraBook is still far more computer than most people need.  I wouldn’t want to run a high end FPS style game on it but most people don’t do that most of the time either.  You can therefore see why thinness has become the goal being pursued even at the sacrifice of performance.  Since the CPUs can throttle down it’s cheaper to throw a little too much processor in and self limit.  The average user isn’t going to notice the difference.  So in the end it’s not necessarily that the users aren’t getting what they need it’s just a question of skewed advertising.

Perhaps instead of posting just the burst speed in big bold letters, or even the base speed, they should post the “sustained speed” in big bold letters.  Fire up a YouTube or Netflix video and see where the machine stead states.  The users, nor anyone else, probably doesn’t care if it’s a 4 GHz chip that can only run at 3 GHz in the chassis. Nor do they care whether the designers “hobbled” the chip with their heat management gymnastics.  They just want to know what they can expect out of the machine.

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