10 things we hate about laptops

Damaged. Lost. Stolen. Too big, too small. Insecure and unreliable. And just plain annoying. If you're in IT, there's just not much to like about laptops.

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Portable computers have changed the way business operates, so much so that we literally cannot imagine a work life without them. That said, IT professionals, whether they're dealing with accident-prone users or keeping the network secure, say laptops are nothing short of a support nightmare.

Some cope by outsourcing support altogether (see Laptops: To outsource or not); others cope by rigidly adhering to standards and trying not to personally take the hate mail they receive from disgruntled end users.

Either way, IT executives have a lot to say on the subject of laptops, nearly none of it good.

And that's just tough luck, because sales of laptops in the business sector are growing 20% a quarter, while sales of desktop computers are declining sharply, according to IDC.

By this time next year, IDC says, shipments of business laptops will have surpassed that of desktops, and the gap will continue to widen. This year alone, laptop sales in the US are expected to hit 31.7 million units.

IT has to support those 31.7 million machines, quickly and efficiently, whether the units are ensconced at a Starbucks or being dragged around remotest Africa, or even when the machine is run over by a train and sliced in half.

But we didn't say IT had to like it.

Here we present, in no particular order, the top 10 things IT professionals absolutely hate about laptops. (And yes, we did have to edit down a very long list.)

1. Battery life still bombs

Battery life has long been the Achilles heel of laptops, and even though battery life in newer models can now top four hours, it's not enough for mobile users and the IT pros who service them. Not nearly.

"I love my laptop, couldn't live without it, but I really hate it, too," says Dr. Joshua Lee, medical director of information services at the University of California at San Diego Medical Centre. "Battery, battery, battery ... it is such a pain."

Lee, who is both a practising physician and an IT director, means that literally. He oversees a team of 50-plus laptop-carrying doctors who sometimes are forced to stop a patient exam and go search for an AC adapter cord so they can continue making notes on the patient's records. "There's the hunting for the plug, then the unplugging and wrapping up of the cord ... it just feels weird to be doing all that in front of a patient," Lee says.

And, of course, there's always the chance that it's the wrong cord. Though the UCSD Medical Centre primarily uses Dell laptops and desktops, other organisations aren't as standardised on a single brand. For example, at the Kansas Department of Transportation in Topeka, when laptops hit the road, it's not always with the right AC adapter. "Why can't power cords just be standardised?" asks a frustrated Sue Swartzman, data centre manager. "Why do they even have those things? There has to be a better solution."

2. Laptops get broken

The number one place laptops get damaged is on airplanes, according to our highly informal survey of support managers. That guy in front stretches out, jams the tray table down and smashes the nice new laptop in the process.

"A lot of these laptops are assembled in China, and let's face it, they are flimsy," says Long Le, IT director at Atlas Air, a large international air freight company.

Le oversees 300 laptops travelling to the far-flung reaches of Asia, South America and Europe. Not all of those laptops travel business class, so he sees a lot of broken hinges from tray-table mishaps, as well as cracked screens and cases and parts that just decide to fall off.

But not even business-class travellers are immune. At Harvard Business School in Boston, certain unnamed campus leaders and senior managers sometimes forget and check their laptops in their luggage, which makes CIO Stephen Laster crazy. "Laptops are way too fragile for that," he says, recalling more than a few cracked cases and screens.

Laster does not stop there. With more than 3,000 laptops under his watchful eye, he's well aware the delicate machines are simply not suited for life in the real world. There are dangers everywhere: the spilled can of Diet Coke (particularly common at Harvard) or the venti latte (ditto) as well as everyday dangers like the drop into a puddle or the threat of children, who play with mom and dad's laptop a bit too roughly, and poof, there goes the door to the CD drive.

Imagine the potential dangers in the Manatee County Schools, where they have given each child a laptop of his own. While Tina Barrios, supervisor of instructional technology, says she's thrilled how well the rollout of nearly 10,000 Apple laptops has been received by her pint-size customers, she admits it's taken work to educate them on how to handle their new computing tools.

Of course, there have been a few problems. "The laptops seem to get tripped over a lot," she says, and then there are those few that have been dropped out of cars or trucks. It's not always a pretty outcome; luckily, she says, support is in-house.

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