10 reasons why IT hates laptops

How do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways.

Damaged. Lost. Stolen. Too big, too small. Insecure and unreliable. And just plain annoying. For those of us in IT, there’s just not much to like about laptops.

Oh sure, portables have changed the way business operates, so much so that we can’t imagine a work life without them. Still, IT professionals, whether they’re dealing with accident-prone users or keeping the network secure, say laptops are a support nightmare.

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

Either way, IT professionals have a lot to say on the subject of laptops, nearly none of it good. And that’s ironic, or maybe 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 in Framingham, Mass. 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 U.S. 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. (See When bad things happen to good laptops for more horror stories.) 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 Center in La Jolla, Calif. “Battery, battery, battery … it is such a pain.”

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Lee, who is both a practicing 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 Center primarily uses Dell laptops and desktops, other organizations aren’t as standardized 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 standardized?” asks a frustrated Sue Swartzman, data center manager. “Why do they even have those things? There has to be a better solution.”

2. Laptops get banged up and broken.
The No. 1 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 flimsy,” says Long Le, IT director at Atlas Air Inc., a large international air freight company in Purchase, N.Y. Le oversees 300 laptops traveling 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 travelers 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 (Tip: send your users to How not to pack a laptop). But Laster doesn’t 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 in Bradenton, Fla., where they’ve 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 Inc. 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. (For more on support issues, see Laptop support: to outsource or not.)

3. They’re tough to fix, and they die young.
Laptops last, on average, three to four years as compared to the healthier four to five years of the average desktop, according to IDC. Even worse, anecdotal evidence indicates many truly mobile laptops never make it past the two-to-three-year mark. Not only do laptops live shorter (and more difficult) lives than desktops, they definitely go down fighting — which is to say they give IT departments a much harder time when it comes to upgrades and repairs.

Today’s laptops are built just like today’s cars, says Matthew Archibald, senior director of global information security and risk management at Appl

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