by Malia Zee
As technology becomes ever more widespread, so does the market for technology add-ons and accessories. Cosmetic modification of laptops has been growing in popularity for the last two years, with the least expensive and most popular option in the form of lid stickers. This summer, NBR reviewed two of the many companies that offer both pre-manufactured and custom lid stickers, Schtickers and SkinIt. However, more and more of us are looking for something classier and more professional than a sticker but don’t want it to cost more than the laptop itself, so DIY laptop painting is a recurring topic on our forums. The task requires skills to remove the case, experience in spray painting or bravery in lieu thereof, a lot of open space, and even more time. Few meet all the criteria. That’s where Laptop Design USA comes in.
Launched last year, Laptop Design is the first company in the U.S. to offer laptop painting and sublimation on a large scale. While their focus is corporate, their individual pricing remains affordable at $99 to $199 per laptop, including one-way shipping. When I first heard of Laptop Design, I was interested. And, when Laptop Design agreed to provide its service for review, I knew what I had to do.
Fujitsu LifeBook N6210 on the day it arrives, obviously the black clashed with the cute apartment look (view large image)
My first attempt at painting was last year, a few weeks after I first bought my first laptop. I loved everything about it, except for the looks. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that it was ugly. But in my super cute apartment, its black exterior was simply out of place.
A few days after its arrival, I emailed Ivan at Portable One (where I purchased the Fujitsu), saying that I was thinking about returning it. He let me know what my options were, but also mentioned the option of painting. In a few days, it was settled. I mailed my laptop to P1, they disassembled it, and brought the case to a nearby Harley dealer to paint all parts that it considered paintable. What the dealer forgot to mention was that it was waiting for a larger job in the same color to come along – and who knew that waiting for white would take a whole month. But, once P1 began to put the case back on, despite two coats of primer and a powder coat, paint began to peel. P1 had never done this before, so they were as surprised as I was, and they were nice enough to get me a new case and not charge me for anything. The whole process, including shipping cross country (one week each way) and waiting for parts, took three months minus one week, and all I had to show for it was a lighter, white and silver case from my laptop’s predecessor.
Having lived through this nightmare, I was somewhat afraid to try again. But, having spent months on my lid, my gerbera Schticker’s edges had yellowed from skin oil and began to peel off, and I was tired of seeing silver borders on the right and left of the lid anyway. So, when this review opportunity came along, I decided to give it a shot.
While I just wanted my laptop to look cute, most of Laptop Design’ customers have a more serious reason in mind: theft protection. Once a laptop is painted, it is not going back, so the owner’s name on the lid devastates its resale value. And, in the corporate environment, a logo on the lid turns an everyday object into a marketing tool.
While Laptop Design is capable of painting more than just the lid, it is not the most commonly chosen option, in part because it may affect warranty. The lid, on the other hand, can be removed without interfering with the system, so Laptop Design has agreements with most popular OEMs saying that the process does not affect warranty. Earlier this year, Sharp even had a promo offering a free lid paintjob from Laptop Design with purchase of one of their laptops. With that said, it’s good to keep the option in mind for those of us with expired warranties.
Since I already had a white case from my first attempt at a paintjob, I had no reason to paint the palmrests. And, since my laptop is locked to my desk nearly all the time, I felt no need to splash my name all over the lid, so I wanted just a cool picture. I fell in love with this design when I first found it on DeviantART, so I knew what it had to be: Love Juice by ‘DivineError. Since it has rectangular blue background, I wanted it to appear on my lid surrounded by a white border with rounded edges, to tie it together with my white palmrests and keyboard. Before I got a chance to even ask, Mark (Laptop Design’s Director of Design) sent me these three mockups:
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Laptop Design felt that my design resembled a sticker, so they suggested options that better utilized their capabilities. My model is made by a company with small US market share and is in the least popular notebook category, so Laptop Design did not have a template for it, and the mockups were for another Fujitsu model. If I had a more common model, however, the mockups would have looked just like my laptop, which I thought was pretty cool.
To have the most control over the design and curvature of the corners without degrading picture quality, I e-mailed Mark at Laptop Design USA a file with three layers: one for cropping, one for corners, and one for the actual picture. The cropping layer was more for me than for Laptop Design because, by grouping it with the corner layer and nudging them up and down, I was able to find the optimal configuration. I also told Mark the desired size of the graphic over the phone, in case it needed to be stretched. I then shipped my laptop from New York to Detroit and, two days later, it began!
Laptop Designs offers two distinct customization processes: painting and sublimation. Each process has advantages and disadvantages. Paint does not lend itself well to graphics covering every contour, while sublimation does not result in a perfectly smooth finish. Since sublimation can only be done on metal while the great majority of lids are plastic, painting is the more popular option.
First, the lid is removed from the case and prepped for paint. Logos (such as the Dell button) can be either painted over or removed before painting and re-applied in the end. For an additional fee, logos can be simply removed and the resulting indentation filled in. The Apple logo can be masked. My logo was painted on, so it was removed during sanding.
Next, primer and one to two layers of automotive quality paint are applied, as necessary. More layers than that can cause problems at re-assembly. Graphics are printed on specialty vinyl, contour cut, and applied to the lid. One to two layers of clear coat are applied and the laptop is re-assembled.
In the sublimation process, the lid is prepped as before, then powder coated in white and clear. Graphics are printed on fabric using special inks. The lid is wrapped into fabric and vacuum formed for a nice fit. Then, the lid is baked. At high temperatures, inks turn into gas that becomes embedded into the coating. After that, the unit is ready for re-assembly.
Before: Nothing remarkable. Just a big, flat, smoth silver lid. Depressing lighting unintentional.(view large image)
After: Yippie! Happy lighting. (view large image)
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Shiny! Glossy! Mirror-y! (view large image)
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White border is visible from the front. Good thing it’s not blue! (view large image)
Defects in worksmanship (view large image)
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So, here it is in full glory. It feels nice and smooth, and overall, I’m happy with the results. Since my image had only 100 dpi, some pixelation is visible on close look, but it is not noticeable otherwise. Print quality itself is good, with no streaks or anything of the sort. The image is cut out perfectly, perhaps by laser, and positioned just as I expected. While the first, head-on photo has fragments that look like scratches, those are just reflections from the flash.
With that said, nothing is perfect. While the graphic looks as it should, the painted part has small black fragments embedded in the white paint. A few faint yellow spots appear from place to place. Plastic is peeking through the paint in the crease near the hinges. The importance of this is in the eye of the beholder.
Normally, painting takes a week. In my case, however, it took longer because the production line broke down and took a week to come back up, including waiting for parts to arrive. Things happen, so I can’t blame Laptop Design for such a mishap. What I am unhappy about is the lack of communication. My email a week after the work started went unanswered, and I found out about the delay only when I called to see if my laptop was already shipped back. Since each time, work was delayed by a day or two, I had to call several times just to find out what was going on.
At the same time, if our forums are any indication, much more expensive paint shops can have even worse communication problems. And, unlike Laptop Design, they are not always reachable by phone. Every time I called, I spoke to a live person, and if my main contact Mark was not around, someone else familiar with my job was there to update me on the status. Everyone I talked to was professional, so despite my extended computer-less-ness, the guys at Laptop Design made it a reasonably pain-free experience.
While the paint job didn’t turn out perfect, for what would have been only $169, I didn’t think it would. The flaws are not very noticeable (and those who saw it in person agree), but the overall impression is great. A month and a half later, the paint shows no signs of wear and it feels solid, so I am confident that it will continue to stay put as time goes by. So, when one day I’ll have a new laptop, I’ll definitely spend the money to do it again. And if you have realistic expectations, I think you should too!
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