10 Ways to Make a Notebook Look Cheap

Every year at LAPTOP, we test hundreds of different notebooks. That’s hundreds of keyboards to type on, touchpads to stroke, buttons to press, and webcams to stare at. After playing with so many systems over the years, I’ve gotten a good sense of what makes a notebook feel like a premium product and what should give a buyer pause.

Many notebooks with these issues are still good products, and I’ll even recommend some of them. However, I’m dismayed that in order to save a few pennies many manufacturers decide to cut corners at your expense. Here are some of the most egregious offenses.

1. Flexing Keyboards

When you type, you need a rock-solid surface underneath your fingers, so nothing screams bargain bin like a keyboard that buckles underneath the force of your keystrokes. The real problem here is that the manufacturer didn’t bother to put a strong plate underneath the keys.

Whether the notebook costs $400 or $4,000 there’s simply no excuse for this. I don’t care if you need to pour cement into the chassis during manufacturing, just keep my keyboard from flexing.

2. Shoddy Build Quality

Soft or loose lids sink laptops. Unless you’re buying a business notebook, you shouldn’t expect much in the way of durability. Still, you have to second-guess a system whose lid depresses and makes puckering sound when you pick it up. How is that laptop going to hold up over time if you notice this type of flaw fresh from the box?

Notebook makers need to hire Inspector #12 to do quality control at the factory.



3. Springless Memory Card Readers

Even the world’s cheapest digital cameras have SD card slots with spring locks that allow the cards to snap in securely. However, lately we’ve noticed some high-priced notebooks with memory readers that have no ejection spring and keep the card hanging out of the chassis. One vendor was honest enough to tell us that they save money by omitting the spring mechanism. Lame!

4. Faux Metal Materials

How much could it possibly cost to purchase real aluminum for your chassis? They use the stuff in foil for God’s sake! Yet, we’ve been seen a number of notebooks with brushed plastic surfaces or faux chrome accents. Real metal makes a statement, but metallic-colored plastic makes an even stronger statement: that you’re trying to fool your customers.

5. Substandard Webcams

These days, webcams are standard (or should I say substandard) on every notebook. So many vendors cut corners by including only 0.3-megapixel sensors or ones that cannot handle indoor fluorescent lighting. Why even bother bundling a camera when the other Skype caller can barely make out my face when I’m sitting under direct light? Are manufacturers counting on me not to notice or just making a comment about my appearance?

6. Empty Space Between the Base and the Lid

Using a notebook ought to be an immersive experience, but how long can you stay engaged if you keep seeing your own knees through a gap in the chassis? When opened, many notebooks have a distracting space between the bezel and the base. On some netbooks, the space between lid and deck is large enough to push a pen or a child’s finger through. What this empty space says to me is that the manufacturer either 1) tried to save on plastic by using air or 2) can’t be bothered to create a proper hinge design. Either way, it’s the ultimate mark of carelessness.

7. Pop-Up Crapware Ads

Like poverty, crime, war, and taxes, crapware will probably always be with us. It’s just too profitable for vendors to preload trials of antivirus software, games, and other stuff on your notebook. However, most of the time, you can choose to ignore things you don’t want by hitting the Remind Me Later button or simply not launching it. Other times, however, you have a piece of trialware that won’t take no for an answer.

The worst example is Carbonite Backup (pictured right), which uses a persistent advertisement that pops up in the lower right corner of your screen once every few hours until you either buy or uninstall it.

8. No Multi-touch Gesture Support

One of the small but useful advances in notebook technology over the past two years has been support for multitouch gestures such as pinch-to-zoom on the touchpad. When I’m looking at a web page and want to zoom out to see more text, I just part my fingers on the touchpad, and when I want to zoom in to see finer details, I move my fingers closer together. Nowadays, almost every notebook supports these gestures, so those that don’t really stick out like a sore thumb. How much more would it have cost the manufacturer to buy a multitouch-capable pad?

9. Glassy Bezels on Glossy Screens

We’re talking about building a notebook, not running a restaurant that has to put mirrors on the wall to make it look like there are twice as many seats. When manufacturers go crazy with glossy plastic by putting it on the screen bezel, it picks up fingerprints, kicks back reflections, and generally lends an air of chintziness to your product. Go matte, go metal, or go home.

10. Wallwarts Instead of AC Adapters

Nobody likes carrying around a huge power brick, but there’s something that seems incredibly cheap about a lightweight but thick-bodied AC adapter that looks like it should be powering a hair drier rather than my computer. Not only do these adapters look cheap, but they also have more difficulty fitting into crowded power strips.

So how can vendors make their notebooks look expensive? Do the opposite of everything I said here and focus on the little things, rather than trying to save a few pennies here or there at the user’s expense.

Online Editorial Director Avram Piltch oversees the production and infrastructure of LAPTOP’s web site. With a reputation as the staff’s biggest geek, he has also helped develop a number of LAPTOP’s custom tests, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. Catch the Geek’s Geek column here every other week or follow Avram on twitter.

AUTHOR BIO
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
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  1. david stillwell Says:

    And why isn’t the keyboard backlit? When that is an option the manufacturer charges $25-. Push button phones have always had backlit keyboards. Why would it be necessary to backlight 12 keys but not backlight 100 keys?

    I won’t buy a laptop that does not have a backlit keyboard, which at presents limits my options, especially at the lower prices where choices are nearly non-existent.

  2. Nicole Scooter Says:

    Great list! I agree with all of them except for the faux metal finish. When its terrible agreed its terrible! BUT I’ve seen a few that have pulled it off, unfortunately more often then not its at the OEM level. Tragically they never seem to make it to market, if its possible to make a decent faux metal finish who is the idiot in charge of picking the shoddy ones?!?!

    For me the reason why I would like to see the faux finish rather then aluminum is weight, the netbooks i’ve seen OEMs would have my shoulder in knots!

    Awesome list! :)

  3. Ricky Cadden Says:

    David – I’m right there with you! It’s absurd that more laptops (or at least the netbooks) don’t have backlit keyboards, even as an option. I’d gladly pay an extra $25 to have it, too. I can only think of 3 laptops that currently have the option – Macbook, Alienware, and the Dell XPS Studio series. If you’ve found any others, PLEASE let me know!

  4. Jon Says:

    I’d like to add:

    - Cheesy patterns on the lid or body
    - Stickers all over the place
    - No velcro/rubber cable-ties on the power supply
    - More pages of FCC warnings than actual manual

  5. Jason Reece Says:

    Ricky-

    Dell offers backlit keyboards on Studio 14/15/17 models as well as the Studio XPS. They also offer it as an option on the Latitude E4310, E6410 and E6510 business notebooks. It’s also offered on their high-end Precision business lineup. They only charge $25 for the upgrade on the Studio models, but it costs $49 on the Latitude/Precision. I own a Latitude E6400 with the backlit keyboard and previously owned a Studio 15 with the backlit keyboard- the Latitude keyboard is far superior and well worth $49!

    All three of the BEST BUY exclusive “Blue Label” models have standard backlit keyboards- Dell Studio S15Z, Toshiba Satellite E205 and Sony VAIO with some long alpha-numeric model number.

    Toshiba offers the option on some Satellite configure-to-order models.

    Those are all the ones that I know of at the moment. Eventually, it will become a common feature across the board- it should already be standard! It’s a lot like my preference in vehicles- after owning a hatchback, I can’t imagine ever going back to a sedan with a regular trunk. After having a backlit keyboard, I don’t plan to ever own another laptop without the feature!

  6. david stillwell Says:

    In addition to the above HP has brought back the light to keyboards this year after getting rid of the option -again an option- last year. I think they have made it standard on the new ENVY line. I also saw a dv6 on Best Buy’s site which was under $700.

    Online at HP’s site you can for $25 have it as an option on the new dm3, which is sweet if you can roll with low powered ULV processors. $574 with the backlit keyboard option. 13″ screen and 3.99lb weight.

    Here’s a link to a picture of the dm3 keyboard lit up that someone posted in a forum: http://s186.photobucket.com/albums/x233/Wanderermy/?action=view&current=IMG_0330.jpg

    Sony offers the backlit keyboard on it’s 16.4″ F series -bad LCD screen- and it’s very expensive Z notebook.

  7. david stillwell Says:

    There’s no edit button so I’ll deliver the bad news in a new post.

    HP has removed the backlit keyboard as an option on the dm3. No more $574 laptops with backlit keyboards from HP. But HP sure got some attention from reviewers by briefly offering this option. Now those reviews sit on Web sites as false advertising, just as HP offered “Radiance” displays with 1600×900 resolution on the ENVY, briefly.

    Now the Radiance displays are gone, but the promo reviews sit on Web sites all over the Web as false advertising.

    This is called “bait and switch”. HP has become a master at it. The other name used in court to describe such behavior is FRAUD.

  8. K Baldwin Says:

    A note on plastic versus aluminum: I’m a materials engineer specializing in metallurgy. Using aluminum instead of metallic plastic doesn’t make sense for a whole host of reasons.

    First, as mentioned, there is the weight factor. Not only does aluminum weigh more than most plastics, it also cannot be simply “glued” into place or otherwise directly bonded to other plastic parts. It would need to be attached to any plastic pieces via actual fasteners, probably screws, which would further increase the weight of the final product.

    Second: aluminum is not cheap as you believe. The process for extracting aluminum is quite expensive and the ore itself is not particularly common. This is the reason that it is economical to recycle aluminum containers and foil-aluminum is one of the few metals that it costs less to reclaim than to refine. The use of aluminum for these food-related products does not have anything to do with the material’s absolute cost, but is instead due to aluminum’s low cost compared to other corrosion resistant metals.

    Third: another reason aluminum is used as foil and beverage containers is because aluminum is very “soft” and easily bent into the desired shape. Other corrosion-resistant alloys are not as easily manufactured into thin foils or smooth cylinders, which further reduces the cost to produce an aluminum can. However, this also means that aluminum must be alloyed with other, generally more costly metals before it can be used for a pseudo-structural purpose. This alloying process also increases the density compared to pure aluminum (actually, pure aluminum is used for virtually nothing due to how weak it is). And if the engineers decided to avoid alloying, they would need to make the aluminum fairly thick instead.*

    Fourth: Aluminum is highly conductive. You don’t want to coat your expensive electronic bits in exposed conductive metal.

    Fifth: Due to aluminum’s softness, it would basically never hold the kind of polish expected from these faux shiny parts. This is why aluminum products are almost always “brushed” (which is a fancy way of saying covered in tiny scratches) or “anodized” (which is a fancy way of saying covered in a thick layer of aluminum oxide and some pigment). Anodization greatly reduces the conductivity of the aluminum due to the oxide coating, but it is not possible to make the oxide super-shiny or chrome-like in appearance.

    *ok, let’s discuss soda cans and iPods. Soda cans are very well-known for their crush resistance and thin walls. The crush resistance is not directly derived from the wall thickness, but is instead due to the cylindrical shape and the way force is distributed along the walls. This is why damaging a soda can’s wall greatly reduces its crush resistance. The same principles underlie the aluminum iPod bodies. The outer casing of an iPod is generally much thicker than a soda can but some might argue that it is still not particularly thick. But the force-distribution benefits of a cylindrical shape is why iPods have round edges instead of four corners. The iPod is also likely to have internal reinforcements, including the forced end-pieces which preclude changing your own battery in the nano sizes. It is also highly likely that the iPod is made of a strengthened alloy as I mentioned earlier, which would give the casing very different “mechanical” properties from a soda can.

    And another reason that Apple chooses to use aluminum casings on its tiny products is probably to give them a bit of heft compared to their size. A couple of your “this feels cheap” comments are directly related to the psychological implications of the laptop’s construction. Apple tries to hit a premium price range, but people want to feel that they got their money’s worth. Part of that is directly related to tactile feeling! A small but heavy product triggers the subconscious to think that there is literally a lot of stuff inside. But chips, boards and solder don’t weigh much on their own. The largest weight contributors will need to be the screen, battery and case. Only the case weight can be modulated to hit that sweet spot between “oo, this if full of stuff” and “oo, this is going to be too heavy to carry”.

    If you don’t believe this argument, let me tell you about car doors. People (used to) want to buy cars that are sturdy and safe, right? But car manufacturers are always seeking to reduce the weight of the cars and use structural tricks instead to preserve crash resistance. So, car manufacturers figured out that one way people decide that a car feels sturdy and safe is if the doors feel heavy and make a deep thump. It triggers the mind to think that there must be a lot of steel in the body of the car. So what do manufacturers do? They play with hinge resistance and put sound-dampening materials in the car doors.

    But yeah, spring-less memory card slots suck.

  9. Andrew Says:

    Please create a list of netbooks or laptops that do NOT have the crappy glossy plastic bevels around the screen.

  10. stan Says:

    I think Cooling system can’t be “looked” to become cheap but it can be detected via hardware monitor softwares. If a laptop has standard temps around 60 Celcius, then 2 years later it will be a perfect egg fryer.. Such as XX brand… being one of the biggest chains.. disappointing.

    Also.. for business notebooks, HD protection is like a standard already.. some even have body shields, such as ThinkPad Roll cages. I think it’s like the safety standard among cars and they should be enforced to an extent too.

  11. novastor Says:

    Too funny! I was laughing the whole time reading the 10 ways. The responses you got were good as well. Yeah, cheap laptops suck. Great post, it made my day.

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