David & Goliath: Haswell Ultrabook vs Desktop Replacement Laptop

Okay, so it was only a few months ago I was rambling on about how I am quite happy with my four year old desktop replacement style Dell laptop. It’s been completely reliable, runs cool, has a roomy keyboard, and a native dual monitor dock. I didn’t have much to complain about at the time. In my eyes, laptop technology just hadn’t advanced sufficiently to warrant an upgrade so I decided to keep soldiering on with the beast.

But I’ve begun traveling regularly to speak at development conferences, and the downsides of having a large, heavy, power hungry laptop are becoming increasingly obvious. The never-ending hunt for plugins combined with a power supply roughly the size and weight of a literal brick have convinced me I’m using the wrong tool for a mobile lifestyle. So I decided to take the plunge and see how life feels with nearly the exact opposite: A Haswell Ultrabook. Seeing the two side-by-side is a striking study in contrast.

Yoga 2 Pro and M6400

Decision Made: Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro

My hunt took me through a variety of options that I outlined in my 13″ Haswell Ultrabook Showdown. I ultimately decided the Yoga 2 Pro was a no-brainer to at least try. It’s significantly cheaper than similarly configured alternatives at only $1199 and so far the Yoga has been nothing short of impressive. The contrast with my existing machine is pretty hilarious:

  Dell Precision M6400 Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro
Weight 8.5 3.1
Battery Life 1.5 hrs 6 hrs
Screen Size 17″ 13″
Screen Resolution 1920×1200 3200×1800

Yoga 2 Pro on M6400

The Yoga is the only high DPI 13″ Ultrabook that converts painlessly into a tablet. This initially struck me as a gimmick, but on a screen with such a high DPI, reading is a joy and quickly flipping between creation and consumption modes is a breeze. And converting the machine into a tablet creates a large, but not overly heavy tablet experience. The convertible options create some unique work options that didn’t occur to me until after purchase. For comfort, I really enjoy using a full ergonomic keyboard and mouse when away from my desk. Folding the Yoga’s screen back into “stand mode” offers a very comfortable high DPI work experience. Traditional laptops would require sliding the screen further away from you to allow room for the built in keyboard so the unique convertible format really shines here.

Mobile Ergonomic Workstation

DSC_6114

For a full on “OSHA compliant” level ergonomic setup I simply set a box or luggage under the Yoga to raise the screen to seated eye height. Voila! A complete ergonomic setup while on the go!

And since the screen flips 180 degrees, laying it flat makes it easy to work with while at a standing desk. Yes, I could hook up my larger external monitors, but text looks so much better on the Yoga’s high DPI screen I’m happy choosing quality over quantity when writing or surfing the web.

Standing desk setup

After a few weeks with a high DPI screen, I can’t wait for affordable 60hz 4K screens at desktop sizes.

IE11 Sidebar

As a bit of a sidenote, IE11 has become my new browser for consumption based activities on the Yoga for three simple reasons:

  1. Fast as Chrome
  2. Crisp text on high DPI screens.
  3. Rich touch support

I still prefer Chrome for development tasks due to its rich development tooling, but on these new high DPI touch machines, it’s no contest: IE11 rules. The touch interactivity is buttery smooth, text looks gorgeous, and interactions feel every bit as snappy as Chrome. In fact, IE11 is quite competitive in recent benchmarks. Well done IE team! As someone who does a lot of web development, I couldn’t be more excited to see continued competition in the browser space.

Machines that run this long (around 6 hours) really change how you work. I find I’m more likely to setup shop on the couch since I don’t have to grab a power supply. And when I run to the coffee house to work for the afternoon the only thing I grab is the machine. By the way, the difference in size of the power supplies is pretty hilarious. It’s nearly the difference between a deck of cards and a brick.

Power Supply Comparison

M6400 vs Yoga Pro 2 Power Supply

Now the world isn’t all rosy on the new Yoga. Windows 8.1 does an admirable job scaling to a whopping 200% to support such a high resolution screen, but it’s clear many apps still need to be updated to support scaling. Until they do, expect apps like Photoshop, browser plugins like Lastpass, and various install windows to ignore your scaling settings and thus render ultra-tiny text and icons. It’s occasional and not a deal breaker for me since I can still read these items (admittedly, with some squinting).

I expect the issue to be resolved soon – as more high DPI screens are shipped app developers will have little choice to remain competitive. The same issues occurred for awhile after Apple began shipping Retina displays, so this is a short-term nuisance that will certainly be solved for most popular apps in due time. That said, if you use one of said apps I’d suggest going with a lower resolution screen so you can avoid the need to scale altogether. Or you can just lower the resolution, though that’s a hassle and reduces the razor sharp clarity of the display.

I’ve also found the keyboard to be smaller than ideal, requiring more twisting in my wrists than I prefer. This makes prolonged typing on this keyboard notably less comfortable than my 17″ Dell. It’s a fact of life – smaller screens require narrower keyboards. Excluding the dedicated number pad section, my Dell’s keyboard is 11.25″ wide. The Yoga’s is a full inch tighter at only 10.25″ wide.

Yoga 2 Pro and M6400

So if you have a larger frame or bigger hands, be sure to try out typing in person on whichever laptop you choose. For reference, my favorite keyboard, the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard is a downright spacious 13″ wide (measured from far left key edge to the enter key).

I’m still toying with docking options. I had hoped to utilize a USB dock like the Pluggable UD-3900, but I found a variety of quirks with using a USB style dock. This is where my Dell excels – the native dock just plain works and runs my dual 1920×1200 24″ Dell Ultrasharp displays effortlessly. Thus, the Ultrabook doesn’t currently serve as my only machine since I strongly prefer coding on large dual screen monitors with a proper ergonomic keyboard. But when traveling and working mobile, it’s an excellent, lightweight compromise that I’m thoroughly enjoying.

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