Editorial: Thin laptops are the new mainstream, but what about battery life?

Bandwagons, trains and Tranes. Can't say that these three have a heck of a lot in common in most regards, but one thing's for sure: trying to stop this trio would be a Herculean task. And so it goes with laptops -- once upon a time, it was good enough to have something that resembled a portable tower, but these days, the ability to even see the chassis at all feels like a negative. I exaggerate, of course, but the proverbial race in the laptop world is hardly about price; it's about thinness. Intel's unstoppable quest to plaster the Ultrabook term as far and wide as possible has led to a change in the way consumers are viewing portable machines, and Apple's devilishly thin MacBook Air certainly played a role, too. What we're left with is a very curious priority list, and I'm wondering if too many OEMs have stopped to wonder if the "obvious" is indeed the "right."

I'll be the first to confess that I love the look of thin. Samsung's Series 9 and Acer's Aspire S5 might just be two of the sexiest machines to ever be built, and Dell's original Adamo was primarily of interest due to one thing: its jaw-droppingly thin frame. But there's some saying about putting form before function that seems to apply here, particularly when keying in on battery life. I've no doubt that the marketing and research teams for PC makers far and wide understand the realities of the market place, and perhaps the average consumer really doesn't need more than four to six hours of life on a single charge. Five years ago, squeezing that much life from machines under an inch thick would've required some sort of wizardry that exists only in a rarely visited corner of West Hollywood. But today, I'm a dreamer. And I'm dreaming of a laptop with "all day battery life" -- something that could be screamed from the rooftops, and honestly, something that could probably be accomplished tomorrow if our laptop options weren't on such a diet.

Let's look at the landscape. Apple's 13-inch MacBook Air measures 0.68-inches at its thickest point, and can burn the midnight oil for around five hours under what I'd consider "normal" use. HP's Envy 14 Spectre is but 0.79-inches thick, and peters out after around 5.5 hours of stressful toiling. The aforesaid Series 9 from Samsung is barely more than 0.6-inches thick, and managed just over seven hours in our rundown test. Acer's Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 checks in at around 0.8-inches thick, and mustered just over five hours in the same video rundown scenario. I could keep listing comparable machines for hours, but you get the point: thinner than an inch is the new mainstream laptop.

I'm fully aware that chubby alternatives exist -- the MSI GT70 that we recently reviewed sizes up at 2.16-inches thick, but it failed to be useful after passing out at the 2.5 hour mark. The point? There has to be an in-between, and moreover, there has to be a market that would appreciate if said "in-between" were filled with somewhat thicker machines that required an AC outlet only as often as my brain requires a moment of sleep.

Imagine this: a Samsung Series 9 machine (or your thin-and-light of choice) that measures some ~1.3-inches thick. Yes, that's over half an inch thicker than the existing build, but it's still just marginally thicker than many of the bargain-bin $399 PCs that you scoff at whilst thinking highly of yourself in Best Buy. While keeping the same CPU / GPU combo, there's plenty of extra room here to punch in a larger battery -- in fact, it's a model that has been followed before. Motion's J3400 rugged tablet shipped with room for two batteries, and somehow, an overseas knockoff vendor managed to do likewise on a KIRF MacBook. Even on the new iPad, there's more battery than ever before beneath the silver rear -- a necessary addition to maintain the ~10 hours of expected in-use life with the addition of the Retina display and an LTE module.


Look, I know that what I'm asking for here is appalling in at least two ways. For one, it'll be harder to sell a thicker (read: "uglier") laptop. And two, prices of these would have to rise to account for the extra battery power. But I, for one, would be willing to pay the premium. Is it really so hard to think about how much more wonderful freshly cut grass would smell and how much more tolerable gridlock would be if I had a 1.3-inch Series 9 that would last a solid day without needing rejuvenation? What if I had a laptop that could last nearly a week with an average amount of on-and-off usage? What if I had a MacBook Air Dense Fog that could outlast the iPad? What if the computer-using generation could go about their lives without fear of their laptop fading to black mid-email in the airport? What if "do I have enough juice?" was swapped for "there's surely enough life left!" as the prevailing thought during laptop use?

I also recognize that efficiencies are increasing across the board, and we're doing more with a 2200mAh battery today than we were a decade ago in this industry. And eventually, perhaps, efficiencies alone will lead to a ~1-inch laptop that can be used for a full day before petering out. But Ford didn't wait for naturally aspirated engine technology to improve enough to put 650 horses in a Mustang; it tapped a man named Shelby and bolted its way to glory. I think the world -- or, at least a select part of it with the right amount of disposable income -- is ready for an all-day laptop, and I think it's willing to deal with a bit more heft in order to get it.

Or, you know, maybe it's just another episode of 'All I Want For Christmas' from your caring friends at Engadget.

This article originally appeared in Distro Issue 40.