Ultraportable Laptop and Economy-Plus Airline Seat is Work Travel Nirvana

by Reads (12,314)

This is the second time my new Dell XPS M1210 has gone on a flight with me, and since the flight was half full, I had a chance to compare the difference between United’s Economy, and Economy Plus cabin.

The flight was United 1131 from Chicago to Calgary, on a (pretty old) Boeing 737-300, in what is called the "US 1" configuration according to SeatGuru.

The United Boeing 737-300 the writer took for this trip (view large image)

The main differences are:

  • Economy Seat: 32" Pitch, 17" Width
  • Economy Plus Seat: 35" Pitch, 17" Width

Pitch is defined as the distance between the two rows of seats, therefore it affects the avaliable legroom directly.

According to United, Economy Plus offers up to 5 extra inches of legroom. You can usually choose to upgrade for a nominal fee during check-in. On my flight, it was a US$44 extra. I didn’t upgrade it on this flight, but since the plane was only half full, I moved from my original seat in dead last row with NO recline (21E) up to the Economy Plus section (10B) after everyone had boarded (we were in fact told by the flight attendants to move to a better seat). Below is an image to illustrate my original seat location, and where I ended up:

Now let’s look at how this extra space translates to being able to use a laptop more easily, see the images below:

Economy Seat (21E):

(view large image)

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Economy Plus Seat on an exit row (9E):

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In both instances the tray table was extended as far forward as possible, with the screen on the XPS M1210 tilted back to a normal usable angle for comfortable viewing.

Notice how the front of the tray table overlaps the armrest in the standard Economy seat (top row of pictures) by a fair margin, while there is a comfortable gap in the Economy Plus seat.

While you can technically "open up" the M1210 (or any similar sized 12.1" form factor notebooks) without needing to extend the tray table forward, it is simply, in my opinion, not usable as the opening angle will only be 90 degrees, and you’ll have to look down at the screen at an odd angle. Try this at home: put the system in your lap, sit upright, and then open up the screen at a right angle (90 degrees). Not very comfortable, ergonomic or easy to see the screen is it?

Walking up and down the aisle, I noticed a fair few notebook touting passengers as well, mostly having mainstream 14"-15.4" form factor screen sizes. I saw that most (in the standard Economy section) had to resort to using their system tucked close against their body on their lap, so that they could open the screen to a useful degree. The Economy 32" of pitch doesn’t give a lot of room to play around with, and when the person in front reclines their seat, that just makes things worse.

Since I was seated in the Economy Plus section, using the 12.1" screen M1210 on the tray table was comfortable and pleasant. I didn’t feel like I was trapped inside a closet due to the extra pitch and legroom, and I didn’t have to resort to tiliting my head at an odd angle to enjoy a movie from my system (for reference, I’m 5’11").

I can’t imagine how I was able to use my old 15" form factor systems in the past (Toshiba Tecra S2, Dell Inspiron 8200) on a flight. In fact, I mostly didn’t even bother to pull them out from the overhead bin and open them up, knowing it would be a futile attempt. Plus the 2-3 hours of actual usable battery life on those larger systems meant by the time I settled into a comfortable position (or that I’ve tried to tune out the discomfort of having the system on my lap) the system will have died.

Below are pictures of the 12.1" Dell XPS M1210 next to the Dell Inspiron e1505 15.4" notebook — see the size difference and imagine using that in the tight quarters of the economy seat instead of the XPS M1210.

Side by side top view (view large image)
Side profile view (view large image)


If you frequent the skies a lot and need a notebook with you, then I’d look no further beyond the 12.1"/13.3" screen form factor. Honestly, you’ll have a difficult and uncomfortable time using a system 14.1"/15.4" or larger… unless of course you only fly in Business or First class in which case you could go all out with the 20" screen Dell XPS M2010 even! But then again, I would guess if you’re in First class you’d rather be enjoying that glass of wine and chatting with your beautiful travelling companion than using a notebook.



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