Choosing a New Laptop – The Other Things (Connectivity, Battery, Size/Weight)

The more the merrier when it comes to ports on a laptop.

This is the fourth part in our series on how to choose the most suitable laptop for your needs.  Please see the links at the bottom to the other parts in the series. 

As we discuss in the next part of this series on adding accessories, because laptops include less, they are likely to need to connect to more external devices than was previously the case.  Good connectivity capabilities are essential, and with the ever evolving standards and capabilities, it is important to both identify what connectivity options the laptop offers, and also what standard/version they have been updated to.

Internet & Bluetooth

Wherever possible I like to connect to my network and on to the internet via an Ethernet cable.  It offers better speed, better “traffic management” when there are lots of devices sharing one central feed, and slightly better security.

The LG Gram is so amazingly thin it can’t fit a regular RJ-45 Ethernet connector in it.  Other very slim laptops also have a similar challenge.

Some laptops kindly include a USB to Ethernet adapter dongle, but the LG did not.  However, there are USB to Ethernet adapters on Amazon at low price.  Indeed, don’t just settle for one that has only a single Ethernet port.  There are excellent adapters (see the picture on the left) that give you a 1Gbps capable Ethernet port plus three USB 3 ports, too, costing a mere $15 or so.  That way, instead of using a precious port for just an Ethernet connection, you end up with one USB port giving you three USB ports plus the Ethernet connection.  Sort of something for nothing (or, to be exact, something for $15.99).

Note also the reference to gigabit internet.  The evolving standard for Ethernet speeds suggests you should insist on 1 Gbps speed in your adapter, because increasingly, the once “unthinkably fast” 100 Mbps that was the former standard might be slower than your internet connection.  The next step up from “gigabit Ethernet” seems to be 10 Gbps Ethernet, known as 10-GBASE-T Ethernet, but there isn’t a lot of gear that supports this yet, and while I’ll probably eat my words in a decade, for now, 1 Gbps seems fast enough for me.  (Yes, I did say that a decade before about 100 Mbps, and before that for 10 and 1 Mbps too!)

For Wi-Fi, it was important for me to get the latest Wi-Fi 6 compatibility.  This is also sometimes referred to as 802.11ax; Wi-Fi 5 is 802.11ac, and the earlier versions 4/3/2/1 are considered to be 802.11n/g/b/a.

Most of the newer versions are also backwards compatible with earlier versions, with the only issue being the different frequencies – the original Wi-Fi standard that become popular with everyone, everywhere, was 802.11b and that was on 2.4GHz.  Not all devices even now also can connect to the second 5GHz frequency band supported by the 802.11a, n, ac and ax standards (but not by the 802.11b and g standards).

There is also an even newer Wi-Fi 6E.  As well as the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, the Wi-Fi 6E adds new frequencies in the 6GHz band, which allows your network to support even more devices and operate at even faster speeds.

While there’s not a lot of Wi-Fi 6 gear out there at present (and even less Wi-Fi 6E), it is definitely the wave of the future, and with internet connection speeds now easily reaching 500 Mbps and sometimes 1 Gbps or even faster, it is necessary to have fast Wi-Fi to pass on the fast raw internet speed being fed into the router.

Plus, if you have multiple devices all using the same Wi-Fi network (I have 25-30 devices on my at-home Wi-Fi network, dpending on if my daughter is home too) the more capable and advanced the router and Wi-Fi protocols it supports, the better everything can work together without significant congestion or slow-downs.  The bottom line is that Wi-Fi 6 sort of triples the available bandwidth within your LAN, and Wi-Fi 6E will boost this even more.

As for Bluetooth, while I don’t expect to make much use of it, I definitely wanted at least version 5.0, because the more modern versions go easier on battery life, both for the laptop and for any devices connecting to it.  I was pleased to see the laptop offered 5.1.

Wireless/Cellular Data Too?

Some laptops will also give you the ability to connect to wireless phone data networks for the ultimate in connectivity.

This might seem appealing, but be both cautious and realistic about this.  Do you really need the extra connectivity of wireless data?  The answer to this needs to then be matched with how much you’d be willing to pay for such connectivity.  You can probably get a data-only SIM from your cell phone wireless company, which usually costs a fee per month to have active, and then will either use data from your overall account allowance or might come with its own data packages and prices.

The big trap here is to appreciate just how much wireless data a laptop can consume.  Whereas phones and tablets are moderately careful not to use too much internet data, computers are designed with the assumption that internet is freely available in happy abundance.

My computer seems to be very busy “talking” to the internet, even when I’m doing nothing!

All sorts of programs on your laptop, including background system services and unexpected regular programs, are almost continuously connecting to central servers somewhere on the internet, and using up bandwidth as they do so.  This is hinted at by the results shown in my laptop’s Resource Monitor Network section, above – I was doing nothing on the network at all, and still it was showing 10 kbps of use, and look at the huge list of connections – both visible and also hinted at by the size of the scroll bar.

In the last 30 days, my laptop has seen 1.7GB of internet data used by “System”, whatever that means, 45MB used by OneDrive, although I’ve never accessed it, 38MB by a program that does nothing except check if I have the latest version of Corel Draw and keep nagging at me to upgrade it, 29MB of data for Word and Excel (I’ve no idea at all what they are doing going out to the internet) and so on and so forth.  To put it another way, of the 65.56GB of data used by my laptop in the last month, over 100 MB a day are just “disappearing” without any clear benefit.

This means two things – first, if you have a moderately slow connection, some of your connection will be drained away by these “invisible” background tasks, making whatever you actually want to use the internet for seem to be slow.

Secondly, your data use will be much higher than you expected, and if you’re moving beyond your free allowance and starting to pay per MB/GB of data, this can add up quickly.

There is another approach to getting internet to your laptop that might make more sense.  If you find yourself desperately needing to connect your laptop to the internet, almost all modern cell phones have a “hot spot” feature whereby you can have your phone’s wireless data connection shared with other devices, either in the form of an Ethernet connection, a Bluetooth connection, a USB connection, or by making the phone into a Wi-Fi router and allowing other devices to connect to its Wi-Fi signal.

Of the four different types of connection, the Wi-Fi connection is the easiest to enable in most cases.  Turn on the hot spot feature on your phone (and be sure to give it a password to stop other people also using your data access), then connect to it as you would any other Wi-Fi connection from your laptop.

Once you’ve finished doing what you need to do, be sure to turn the phone’s hot spot off again.

Note – using the phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot tends to quickly use up its battery life.  You might need a back up external battery or a regular mains charger to keep the phone suitably charged.

The benefit of using your phone is that you’re not paying any additional fixed cost per month for another “line” of phone service, and you’re not using up wireless data without realizing it every time you turn your laptop on.  If you do have an emergency need for internet access, though, your phone’s hot spot will give you essentially just as good a connection as you would get if you had a built in connection in your laptop.

USB and Similar Ports

With a modern laptop, you need to add external modules for things that may have formerly been included (such as DVD/Blu-ray players, and, reaching further back, floppy disk drives) and even Ethernet adapters.  Each of these devices needs a port to now connect to your laptop.

There are also devices that have always needed ports – external disks for backing up your work, for example.  Screen and keyboard connections.  A mouse.  Audio inputs and outputs.  Connections to phones and tablets.  Printers, possibly scanners.  External screens.  Maybe game controllers.  And so on.

That’s a lot of potential connections, isn’t it.  Happily, these days most devices can all connect through the same sort of connector, rather than every device needing a different connector, as was once the case.

There has been a series of changing types of “universal connectors” over the years.  You might remember all the way back to “Centronics” and “Serial” ports, and of course, to an assortment of different types of video output connectors, SCSI and Firewire ports, and various other shapes and sizes of connectors for various other things.  Then along came the USB, which has slowly over the years gone from a nightmarish series of pitfalls and challenges to now something almost as great as was originally promised over 25 years ago (way back in 1995).

Nine of the different USB connectors sizes/shapes/types.  There are still others, not shown (eg the USB-C).

 

The USB connection standard has changed, both in terms of its physical shape and also the wiring and capabilities.  These days, most computer USB ports will be either USB-A or USB-C, and often the device you’re connecting will have a Micro-USB-A type connector at its end.  Devices used to also have USB-B or Mini-USB-A connectors, but neither was very widespread.  Increasingly nowadays, devices are having USB-C connectors.

In addition to the physical description of the shape of the connector, there is also consideration for the type of electronic connection that can be routed through the connector.  Original USB connections were slow, then along came USB 2.0 which allowed for faster connections, and then more recently, USB 3, 3.1, 3.2, and now there is USB 4.0 – each being better than the previous, and happily all being backwards compatible.

There is now another type of electronic connection protocol that uses the same types of physical connections as USB – Thunderbolt.  The most recent two versions of this, Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4, use the same physical connection as a USB-C port.  Some USB-C ports can act as both a Thunderbolt 4 or USB connection – it “knows” how to configure itself based on what the connected device tells it.

To spare you a lengthy dissertation about the sometimes minor differences in all these various types of ports, it is fair to say that more modern ports are better than older ones.  You definitely want some USB 3 ports, ideally in both the standard rectangular type USB-A connector and the modern USB-C style, but if not, that’s no big deal because there are plenty of converters to change from one sort of plug/socket to another.

An HDMI 2.0 (or higher) port is great for connecting an external 4K monitor.  A Thunderbird 3 or 4 capability on one or more USB-C ports is good, too, because it can feed a hub that offers a wide range of connectors.  Beyond that, “the more the merrier” applies, but the presence or absence of other ports is not a deal breaker as long as you have a good USB 3+ or Thunderbolt 3+ port.  If you do, you can add an external expansion box to give you many more ports of all different shapes, sizes, and standards.  We discuss this in the next article about accessories.

Another new feature is that some laptops can use USB ports both to accept power into the laptop to charge their battery, and/or can use USB ports to give out power to other devices that wish to take power to charge their own batteries.

In theory, you might end up with lots of devices you want to connect to your laptop.  All of the following can connect through USB ports, sometimes via a USB-to-“something else” adapter :

      • External keyboard
      • External mouse
      • External hard-drive (for backup/archive/off-line storage)
      • External Monitor(s)
      • Printer
      • Scanner
      • Webcam
      • External DVD/Blu-ray reader (and possibly writer too)
      • Power input
      • Ethernet
      • Port to connect a phone or tablet or camera
      • Charging ports for other devices
      • Headset
      • SD cards

There are at least 14 ports required for the items on that list.  I’ve bolded the eight things I need to have pretty much all the time, with the others being needed variously rarely to most of the time.

The chances are you’ll seldom/never want/need all 13 items simultaneously connected, but for sure, you’re quickly going to want to add some type of external multi-port hub to have enough ports for at least some of these devices, and the more ports that hub has, the less hassle you have with needing to unplug and replug devices in while juggling too few ports with too many devices.  We discuss these hub options further in our article on Accessories.

For now, the key thing to look for is at least one “advanced” (as in USB 3.2 or 4 or Thunderbolt 3 or 4) port and as many USB ports in total as possible.

Video – DisplayPort vs HDMI

There are two common video outputs to connect your laptop to an external screen (or screens) these days – DisplayPort and HDMI.  They have both evolved their standards and capabilities over time, so if you’re reading older articles about the differences between the two, be aware the article may be obsolete.

You can also get adapters to convert from one type of output/input on your computer and the other type on your display, although we have a vague feeling sometimes those converters might introduce their own challenges and issues into the equation.  You can also get converters to go from a USB output on your computer to an HDMI or DisplayPort connection on your monitor.

In addition, external travel monitors often have a USB interface, and some tablets can also connect and extend or duplicate their display (or vice versa) through ports.  But for the scenario where you are using your laptop in a semi-fixed role instead of a desktop computer, and want to have a “normal” large screen on your desk, connecting from your laptop to that large screen is usually best done via DisplayPort or HDMI.

The latest version of the DisplayPort specification is 2.0, but monitors supporting that are only now starting to appear.  The most recent earlier version is 1.4.

The latest HDMI specification is 2.1, and the one before it was 2.0b and previously 2.0a.

Either DisplayPort 1.4 or HDMI 2.0a are adequate to drive a 4K monitor with HDR video.  Earlier versions will be sufficient for lower resolutions but probably not for 4K.

There are many more displays with HDMI inputs than with DisplayPort inputs.  Additionally, it seems that DisplayPort equipped monitors tend to be more expensive than regular consumer style monitors/televisions with HDMI inputs, while offering no clear extra benefit in exchange for the extra cost.  So for those reasons we mildly advocate HDMI rather than DisplayPort connectivity.

Battery (Life) and Charging

One of the two key improvements I wanted in my new laptop was longer battery life (the other being less weight).  I forget what type of battery life was originally promised in my Dell (to be fair, it was, initially, capable of its claimed life), but slowly over the years, it inevitably reduced down to something now well under three hours of typical use.

This reducing life is not only due to the charging cycles, but also because most laptops have chargers that are always keeping the battery at max or over-max charge when plugged in, and the never-ending full-charge state stresses and accelerates the battery wear.

The Dell also had a very practical problem.  The 130W power supply the laptop needed would invariably blow the circuit breakers on every airplane’s “at seat power” plug.  So, on a flight, I not only had a very short battery life, but no way of recharging.

I didn’t have a minimum amount of battery life that I would insist upon now, I simply viewed more as being better than less.  More battery life has two benefits.  Obviously, it means more battery life now.  But it also means, over the years, as battery life declined, 50% of a higher number to start with remains obviously better than 50% of a lower number to start with.

There are two other issues as well.  As part of the endless quest for smaller/lighter laptops, the earlier concept of swappable batteries has been replaced with a hard-wired internal battery.  This was unfortunate, and I’d have liked to have a swappable battery, but of course would accept a hard-wired battery if unavoidable.

If you do find and choose a laptop with a replaceable battery, two suggestions :  Either take the battery out when running the laptop off its charger, and/or get a second battery that you only use when traveling, so it doesn’t wear out.  Keep the second battery at around a 50% state of charge when stored and not in use.

The LG laptop offered a wonderful feature I’d never seen before.  There was an option to limit the battery’s charging to a maximum 80% full.  This massively reduces the stress on the battery (Tesla and most other EV manufacturers offer a similar option for their cars and urge owners to take advantage of it).  So that greatly reassured me I’d be getting good battery life, plus when you start off with a 19+ hour battery life, even if it drops to 50%, that is still almost 10 hours on a single charge.

The charging method had two considerations.  First, I obviously wanted a laptop that would charge with a lower powered charger, so I could top it up on a flight without blowing the fuse on the circuit.  The LG’s charger is a 65W charger (half that of the Dell), so it should work without problems on most planes.

The second consideration was I wanted a “modern” charging system that takes power into the laptop through a generic USB-C/Thunderbolt port, so I could charge it with any type of charger that provided USB-C charging with “Power Delivery” capabilities.  The earlier scenario of every laptop having its own unique charger and plug/socket was never a good situation – I have occasionally had chargers fail while traveling, and it is close to impossible to find a replacement charger with the necessary voltage and plug when in a foreign city with very little spare time or local knowledge of where to go.

This mess of incompatibilities was well overdue to be replaced by standardized chargers and connectors, the same as has already happened with phones and most other lower-power portable electronics.  It is great to see it now being better managed.

Power Delivery is a new industry and open standard that allows devices tell chargers what voltage they want, and the charger will then adjust its voltage to meet the request of the device.  An implied feature of the Power Delivery standard is the ability for higher rates of power transfer than the normal USB specification allows.

A related type of intelligent charging feature is “Quick Charge” – this is a proprietary protocol used by some Qualcomm powered devices.

Happily the LG supports the new Power Delivery standard.

Weight Issues

With my earlier Dell 6540 laptop, to travel, I had a weight of 7lb 11oz for the laptop, battery, and power supply, and then extra for mouse, cables and accessories, and – most invaluable and essential – a 2lb 10oz external second screen.  Yes, this came to something over 12lb just for the computer and related essentials.

Some airlines have ridiculously low weight limits on carry-ons (7kg/15lbs on Air New Zealand, for example – and yes, they do sometimes weigh your carry-on), so having just a backpack (2 – 4 lbs empty) and my computer gear inside it, nothing else at all meant I was already entering the “penalty zone” in terms of weight problems.

The airlines simultaneously tell you not to pack anything valuable or fragile or essential in checked luggage, but then turn around and limit how much carry-on weight/space you can have – just one of the many pinpricks of illogic and impossibility the airlines love to heap on us.

So one of the big things I was excitedly looking forward to was a chance to cut down on the weight of my computer kit.

I saw three areas of possible weight saving with a new laptop.

First was the obvious and ample opportunity to reduce the weight of the laptop itself.  Getting one of the new incredibly lightweight laptops out there – instead of having my 6 lb 6oz laptop (with battery), plenty now weigh considerably less than 5lbs.  The LG Gram weighs just under 3lbs, which is an extraordinary light weight, and less than half what I’d been carrying before.

The second area is less obvious.  These days, the newest laptops charge through a USB-C interface, with a lower-power and lighter weight transformer.  I could maybe pick up half a pound or so of weight saving with a lighter power supply (and maybe save more by using the generic USB-C power supply to also charge other portable electronics too, rather than needing to carry other USB chargers).

The third area was an optimistic one.  My Dell laptop had a 15.6″ screen.  Maybe if I got a 17″ screened laptop (the new thin-bezeled laptops with a 17″ screen have no larger a footprint than my Dell and its 15.6″ screen), I could spare the need for a second screen.  A 17″ screen, depending on the resolution, has perhaps twice as many pixels, offering both finer resolution and 20% – 25% more screen area (depending on aspect ratio).

If I could save the almost 3lbs for the external screen, that would be a huge further weight (and space and complexity) saving.  I’m still not sure if I’m willing to forego the external screen – it seems it is 3lbs well invested in extra productivity, no matter what.  But if you’re not quite as fixated on screen area as I am, you’ll probably be happier with just a 17″ screen with 1600×2560 or better resolution.

As for size, that was pretty much pre-ordained by the screen choice, with only half an inch or so variance depending on the size of the bezel around the screen (and possibly also the aspect ratio of the screen – 1080×1920 is 16:9, 1600×2560 is 16:10).  The LG Gram with 17″ screen measures 15″ x 10.2″; the 15.6″ screen version is an inch smaller in both dimensions (14.1″ x 9″), and also shaves half a pound off the weight as well.

Thickness of course varies, but with units often having a taper to their thickness, and even the thickest still being relatively thin, I didn’t see this as a relevant consideration and certainly in no way a deal maker/breaker point.  The LG Gram is just under 3/4″ thick.

Still More – External Extras and Accessories

Now that you’ve chosen a laptop model, you know what it includes.  So, by inference, you sort of also know what else you need to complete your computer resource and capabilities.

We look at these types of items next.  Please now click on to that or any other parts of this series.

Introduction and “The Chosen One” (The laptop I selected for myself)

The Invisible Bits (Memory, Storage, CPU, Warranty)

The Visible Parts (Screen and Keyboard)

The Other Things (Connectivity, Battery, Size/Weight) – this article!

External Extras (Screens, Hard Drives, Mouse and Keyboard, etc)

Connecting it All (An External Hub)

Bonus Article :  Choosing a New Desktop – Beware The Huge Lurking Trap!  –  to be published

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