A Tale of Three Notebooks

In the past 10 years I have owned three 15 inch Windows-based notebooks -from three different notebook makers. All three have one thing in common – a thing that’s a bit unusual for a notebook. They each have featured an AMD mobile processor.

Now I’d be the first to admit that Intel is by far the market leader when it comes to CPUs – especially in portable PCs. But I have always been a bit of an AMD fanboi, and hence I voted with my wallet when it came to a new notebook. Have I always made a wise choice? Read on to find out.

During the time I have been in the notebook market AMD has always been a bit of a technical laggard when compared to Intel. In generation after generation of processors, Intel exhibited superior performance, longer battery life and possibly a cooler temperature profile than AMD. All of these things are important in notebook design.

Did this mean that in choosing AMD I ended up with a hopelessly inadequate machine? Not at all. For the purposes I need a notebook for – email, web surfing, video, office work – an AMD equipped notebook was/is perfectly fine. Each one of these machines delivered value for money. They were all a bit cheaper than a corresponding Intel machine. Let’s look at the good and bad features of each one.

Dell Inspiron 15 M501R (2010) For decades, Dell had designed and built its desktops and notebooks with Intel hardware. The M501R – while looking the same as any Dell Inspiron 15 inch laptop – was one of the very first to go with AMD instead. Outwardly the laptop featured the same solid look and feel of a Dell Inspiron. The AMD P920 processor was a quad-core nerfed version of its venerable Phenom II series – slower and less powerful to keep wattage low. At this point in time, AMD had not developed its APU technology so the laptop needed a separate graphics chip. It was a decent enough video solution but was soldered to the motherboard. The laptop was quite functional, although its battery life was low and it ran a bit on the hot side.

I used the M501R quite happily for close to 5 years. Then the design choices got in the way. Overheating caused a weakening of the solder that held the video chip on the motherboard. As a result, all video ceased and I just had a black screen. I was able to reflow the solder temporarily by wrapping the unit in a blanket and letting it get even hotter. This allowed me to get my data off of it, but it was essentially DOA after this. I managed to wipe the hard drive, and then it was off to the recycler.

Lenovo Flex2-15D (2015) This was my replacement notebook. It was a “sorta 2-in-1” design. You could use it as a normal clamshell laptop, or flip it around and treat it like a tablet using its touchscreen. Lenovo builds pretty good notebooks, although this one was not bulletproof like a Thinkpad. It was one of the last consumer laptops to feature a DVD-ROM drive.

By this time AMD had come quite a long way with its integrated graphics and APU technology, so the Flex2 featured a quad-core processor-video combination that was designed for either a tablet or a lower-end laptop. It was pretty effective and responsive. There were a few major glitches though:

  • The hard drive was large but it was a slow 5400 RPM mechanical type. It took a long time to boot Windows.
  • The initial operating system was Windows 8.1 – better than the execrable Windows 8 but still not that great. A free upgrade to Windows 10 solved most of the problems.
  • The wifi solution – a Qualcomm Atheros chipset – never worked all that well with Windows 10 and after a few minutes would crash and burn. All you could do was reboot and go through the slow startup process again and again.
  • At the start of 2020, I had had enough. The Flex2 went to the basement workroom, I installed Linux on it, and it seems to be a much better machine for the change in operating system. It’s still chugging along as a secondary laptop. But I needed something better.

ASUS Vivobook F512 (2020) My latest and state of the art laptop is really quite a step up. It takes advantage of the latest AMD APU technology – A Ryzen 5 mobile processor with much more responsive Vega 8 graphics. In addition to the APU, the F512 has an excellent Intel wifi solution, which is much faster than the one in the Flex2.

The F512 also has a very good display – full HD (1920X1080.) It’s also thinner and lighter. It is not a gaming laptop but it is more than capable of web surfing, email, music, video, office tasks and (of course) writing a blog. The keyboard is full-featured and has a nice tactile feel.

The F512 came with Windows 10 and I’ll keep it that way. I like to have both Windows 10 and Linux running on household machines so I can provide technical help with both operating systems.

The Vivobook F512 has given me great value for money – especially since I was able to buy it on sale. About the only disadvantage is that the power adapter cord is a bit on the short side. I’m hoping this notebook will be a long-lasting solution to my mobile PC needs.

So that’s the story of my three notebooks. In one way it’s the story of AMD’s technical evolution – from badly trailing Intel in performance to the development of the APU (combining central processing and graphics into one chip) to the current generation of Ryzen processors (which rival Intel in capability at a lower price.)

At the very least it’s the story of how I can be an AMD fanboi without any embarrassment nowadays.

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