Choosing a New Laptop – The Visible Parts (Screen and Keyboard)

The reference point of excellence from which to judge all lesser keyboards – the Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard.

This is the third 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.

Screen Size and Resolution

Too many people take screen quality for granted.  In truth, there is an enormous variation in screen quality, especially as most easily measured by resolution.

I considered it essential the screen should have at least 1080×1920 resolution, to show video in full 1080p quality (yes, I sometimes watch video and movies on my laptop, especially when traveling).  Beyond that minimum, the more resolution it offered, the better – 2160×3840 (ie 4K) would be lovely, but probably would be too expensive.  4K resolution is limited to only a very few models, and is of little benefit on such small screen sizes, anyway, while also consuming more power, so it was not on my “must have” list at all.

As far as screen size goes, bigger is always better until you reach the point where the extra size becomes impractical because of the extra physical size and weight it creates for the laptop.  Larger screens (and more pixels) also burn through your battery life faster.  So, as in everything to do with a laptop choice, there are tradeoffs, and tradeoffs within tradeoffs, to wrestle with.

For me, I considered my choices as ranging from a 15.6″ screen as the smallest acceptable size, and probably 17″ as the largest acceptable size.  Compared to my Dell, modern screens have less bezel (the trim or extra space between the screen itself and the edge of the physical laptop) and so for almost the exact same length and width measurements of my Dell with a 15.6″ screen, I could now have a 17″ screen, or I could have a smaller laptop than the Dell but still with the same 15.6″ screen.  Both were positive outcomes.

I gave preference to 17″ screens, but remained open minded, and compared the weight and cost implications in the various model ranges.  The laptop I ended up selecting of course seemed to charge more for a 17″ rather than 15.6″ screen (hard to tell exactly how much, because of other factors also changing at the same time), but a modest upcharge seemed acceptable, and I’d rather have “more” screen in the same laptop physical size than the same screen in a smaller size (compared to my Dell), so the 17″ option was my choice.  There was almost no difference in weight.

An important related benefit was that the larger screen has a higher resolution.  This improves the quality of text and allows you to clearly display more information in slightly smaller size on the screen.  Simply getting a larger screen but with no more pixels is only half a benefit, and some laptops offered 17″ screens but with the same “standard” 1080×1920 pixel count.  Only if you are getting extra pixels too are you getting the full benefit of a larger screen, and it is reasonable to hope that a 17″ screen has a higher than 1080×1920 pixel count.  The 1600×2560 pixel count on the LG Gram 17″ screen was excellent (they also offer that on their 16″ screen too).

Color Quality

Most laptop screens use IPS-LCD panel to display their image.  These are acceptably good for most purposes, but better quality screens do exist – AMOLED, OLED and QLED screens give more vivid color and blacker blacks, but cost considerably more.

Another seldom raised (and equally seldom revealed by manufacturers) consideration is the color gamut that can be displayed on the screen – how broad a range of colors will it display.  Normal screens are “good enough” for normal purposes, but if you’re a graphics professional, you’ll want to get some form of a WCG display.

I’m hurrying over these issues because, for most people, a “normal” IPS-LCD screen is plenty good enough, and if you want/need more than that, you probably already have a good understanding of the issues and what to look for.

Touch-Screen/Dual-Purpose?

Some laptops come with touch-screens these days.  Sometimes they are described as being “dual purpose” meaning you can pretend that your laptop is a tablet, folding the screen all the way over, and just using the touch screen rather than keyboard.

The concept of dual-purpose has never been sensibly workable for me.  Laptops, with a full Windows OS, will always take appreciable time to turn on and load, and Windows software is designed for use with a mouse, and many of the problems and their interface/layout just don’t work well with my “big fat fingers” but do work well with a mouse and its fine sized cursor.

Tablets are great, but they are great because they are so responsive and instantaneous and user-friendly.  I’ve never encountered a Windows device that offers those attributes compared to an Apple iPad, it being the one remaining Apple product I’ve not replaced and feel unable to replace, much as I’d love to be able to do so.

There’s another benefit of a tablet, too.  They are lightweight.  Depending on the screen size, you can get a tablet with about a 10″ screen and weighing about one pound.  The lightest laptop will be close on three pounds.

In other words, don’t expect a “dual purpose” laptop to actually give you anything extra that is useful.  Don’t pay extra for it.

Keyboard

This is an issue of greater importance to some of us than others, and I’m writing at length on something most people take for granted, because I’m one of the people for whom keyboards are of paramount importance.  Perhaps strangely, the better the typist you are, the better the keyboard you want/need.  In my case, I’m a fast touch-typist, and I seek out the best possible keyboard because of the tens of thousands of keystrokes I typically type every day.

While at home, I use an external Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard. We discuss this further in the article on external extra components, and one is pictures above.  I had been battling incipient carpal tunnel syndrome/repetitive stress injury with a regular keyboard, and switching to one of these keyboards seems to solve the problem entirely, so I can’t praise them enough.  Alas, when traveling, I am more or less forced to make do with the laptop’s own keyboard.  There are three or four things that make a laptop keyboard good or bad.

(a)  Full size or smaller than full size keys – measure the distance from the outside edge of the A key to the outside edge of the “]” key.  Presumably these are all the same sized keys.  For a full size keyboard, that distance will be right around 8.8″ or 22.5cm.  The dimensions of a full size keyboard and the keys on it have been more or less ergonomically set and are generally considered to be more or less optimum.  Going much smaller (or much larger) makes it harder to type accurately and efficiently.

(b)  Key “throw” (depress distance) and tactile feedback – This is harder to measure, but you probably know the difference between how far a “regular” key on a normal keyboard moves when you press it, and how some laptop and tablet keyboards hardly move at all.  Touch typists in particular are reassured by feeling the keys move when tapped.

A related concept is that the key has a sort of a “click” or “hump/bump” when pressed – it gets harder to push, then easier again to signify the key has been pushed far enough to be registered.  These are usually “mechanical” keyboards, as compared to less desirable electronic or membrane ones (good explanation here).

(c)  Key top contour and taper –   When you’re touch typing, contoured concave key tops (that dish in to the middle of the key) are all the time helping you to ensure your fingers are centered over the keys.  Flat key tops don’t do this and the next thing you know, your fingers have drifted off the keys they should be on.

Good keyboards also have a taper so that there is more “gap” between the tops of the keys than there is at the bottom of the keys.  This too helps a touch typist – if your fingers are starting to drift off center, the gap gives you further feedback that you’re on the edge of the key, and if part of your finger drifts off the key, with a gap, there’s less danger of accidentally depressing the adjacent key.

(d)  Numeric Pad and Function Keys – A “full” keyboard has three rows of alphabet keys, a row of number keys above, and function keys above and below the four main rows, making for six rows of keys.  Plus they have five rows of four keys for a separate numeric keypad, then assorted other keys for cursor control, etc.

Anything less than this starts to make using the keyboard and computer more and more clumsy, to a greater or lesser extent.  I seldom use the numeric keyboard, for example, so would be willing to sacrifice that if needed, but the more that is included, generally the better.

(e)  Larger keys – Some keys such as the “Enter” key, “Shift” key, spacebar, and so on, are typically larger than other keys.  This helps, because they are typically at the edges of the keyboard where some touch typists (such as myself) tend to be less accurate with our fingering.

The LG keyboard is full size and has a number pad and function keys, but it has flat key tops and I think a bit less travel than on a regular keyboard.  So it is average/better than average, but not excellent.  The Dell keyboards on my earlier laptops have all been excellent in almost all respects.

The keyboard is not at all a strength of the LG Gram, but because 95% of my time is using the laptop at home with an external keyboard, I’ve decided to accept the compromise.  If I’m going to travel somewhere for an extended time, I’ll simply travel with an external keyboard too – either a full Microsoft Ergonomic keyboard, or a regular (and smaller) keyboard with excellent keys on it.

Which Laptop is Best for You?

So, what else do you need to consider to optimize your choice of new laptop?  We’ll be adding our two remaining articles in this series next week, and of course, currently, you have the two preceding articles already available :

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

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

The Visible Parts (Screen and Keyboard) – this article!

The Other Things (Connectivity, Battery, Size/Weight)

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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