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July 27, 2010 8:46 PM   Subscribe

It's time to buy a new laptop. Please advise.

Sorry for yet another laptop-buying-advice thread. I would really appreciate some help since I'd like to buy something quickly and don't have time for my usual obsessive research. Help!

My budget is $2000-2500. I use windows; this isn't going to change. Performance needs: My most often used programs are for email, web browsing, and editing documents (word, power point, xemacs, inkscape). I fairly regularly use picasa, google earth, and endnote. I use matlab occasionally on my laptop, sometimes for number crunching that might run for an hour - while this isn't a daily thing the laptop should be able to handle it.

My current laptop (a Compaq 6710b) is flaky, bulkier and heavier than I'd like - I'm sick of traveling with it, and I travel at least 2 times per month. It does have a 15" widescreen, which is nice. I would love to have a laptop that has good:
- performance
- durability/reliability (I drop things)
- light weight/small size for ease of travel
- long battery life
- large screen

General question: what should I get?

More specific side question: what do you think is the best screen size when trading off usability (working with multiple windows) and light weight?
posted by medusa to Computers & Internet (26 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Get a laptop with Windows 7 64 bit edition and a minimum of 4 gb of RAM.
posted by dfriedman at 8:50 PM on July 27, 2010


I'm currently looking at a Sony Vaio Z, 13.1" screen with the 1080p upgrade, which means a sharp screen, though I will probably have to increase UI size a bit. (not a big deal in Windows 7). I can't comment on the durability / reliability, since I don't actually have it.
posted by defcom1 at 8:51 PM on July 27, 2010


Nice budget.

Lenovo ThinkPad T410s.

You can upgrade to the multi-touch screen and get the 3-year warranty while staying in your budget.
From personal experience, the warranty service for ThinkPads is great should you ever need it.
posted by pants tent at 9:04 PM on July 27, 2010


Perhaps I should add - I am certainly open to general suggestions (thanks dfriedman) but it's super helpful to get suggestions for specific models (like from defcom1 and pants tent).

Even then, it starts to get complicated. For the Think Pad T410s: solid state hard drive, or no? Switchable graphics, or no? If you have opinions about details like this, I'm all ears.
posted by medusa at 9:11 PM on July 27, 2010


And by 'nice budget,' I mean 'nice budgeting.'
posted by pants tent at 9:16 PM on July 27, 2010


I just bought a Sony Vaio Z. So far so good, but I literally just got it 2 weeks ago.

Extremely lightweight and fast. Very happy that it has a solid state drive (hard drives make me nervous). Nice screen (HD display was a free upgrade). And Sony customer service exceeded my expectations.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 9:19 PM on July 27, 2010


15" Macbook Pro of your choosing. You won't beat the screen, build quality, dimensions, amazing touchpad, or the battery life. The performance is fair, though obviously for pure specs there are cheaper PC alternatives. At your price range, you can afford it along with a copy of Windows 7.

And when/if you come to your senses, you can leave that platform behind for OS X or Linux. None of your typical usage is really platform-specific to Windows.
posted by drpynchon at 9:27 PM on July 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


I just bought a Lenovo Thinkpad Edge 14". I have been VERY pleased with it so far, and Lenovos are legendary for taking abuse. I was a bit skeptical about the chiclet keyboard, but it's fantastic, and I'm EXTREMELY finicky about keyboards.

Of course, with your budget, it's not out of the question to just buy a 15" MBP and load Windows on it, but the more I think about it, after you max out the RAM, and buy Applecare and a non-OEM copy of Win7 you're going to get damn close.
posted by deadmessenger at 9:33 PM on July 27, 2010


It's not going anywhere, though. It's pretty much a desktop replacement. So if you're going for "large screen" and "ease of travel" don't get an 18.5". I have a 18.5" (1080p) HP quad-core @ 1.6 ghz and 4 MB RAM that I scored on Lifehacker. Check them occasionally for their "Gadgets and Gear Deal" segment and you can score yourself a well-priced laptop. This one was $1200, down from $1600. So, worth it, but huge.

Oh, and don't get anything but Windows 7 64 if you're going to use Windows.
posted by griphus at 9:38 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


the issue I have with the macbooks is to get the newest cpu, you have to go 15", at 5.6 lbs, while the vaioZ has a higher / much higher (depending on screen) resolution at 13.1", with similar GPU and CPU, at 3.1lbs. I love macbooks, but I don't want to carry around that much extra weight.
posted by defcom1 at 9:48 PM on July 27, 2010


the issue I have with the macbooks is to get the newest cpu, you have to go 15", at 5.6 lbs, while the vaioZ has a higher / much higher (depending on screen) resolution at 13.1", with similar GPU and CPU, at 3.1lbs. I love macbooks, but I don't want to carry around that much extra weight.

The asker is looking for a large screen.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:11 PM on July 27, 2010


A 15" i7 MacBook Pro with 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive will run you $2199USD.

Windows 7 ranges from $200 to $319. This machine will happily run Windows 7 using a variety of available methods.

The MBP is about the same weight as other laptops mentioned above (5.5lbs, compared to the Lenovo T410s's 5lbs), but the majority of the body is made of a single machined piece of aluminum. This provides the machine with incomparable rigidity. I lift mine with only a thumb and a couple fingers on the bottom-left corner; there is zero flex. I would cry if I ever dropped it, but I don't think the MacBook would mind much.

The laptop is narrower than most. Even when its weight is comparable to others, its soft curves, smooth, unbroken bottom (okay, this is getting obscene) and pill shape make it very easy to travel with. I always feel like I'm going to break other laptops when I travel with them. I never feel that way with my MBP.

The battery life is advertised as being between 8 and 9 hours for the 15" MBP. My 13" regularly lasts past eight if I'm not watching video. The Thinkpad listed above lasts 5.5 hours with the 6-cell battery, which is an upgrade option. Running Windows 7 with a standard set of applications and services, the T410s seems to be lasting about four (based on searches on forums.lenovo.com).

You'll find the LED-lit LCD screen brighter and more colourful than most on the market. Some take issue with the glossy screen.

The touchpad on a MacBook is legendary. Others are ordinary, and don't always track your finger quickly or smoothly. I have returned multiple "PC" laptops and netbooks because of poor trackpads. It's a deal-breaker for me. The trackpad on a MBP, in comparison, is monstrous and highly responsive. I've never known a better daily-use input device.

I think these factors put the MBP above the competition, even if I chose to run Win7 as my standard operating system. Others disagree vehemently, but you asked for my two cents.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 10:14 PM on July 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


the issue I have with the macbooks is to get the newest cpu, you have to go 15", at 5.6 lbs, while the vaioZ has a higher / much higher (depending on screen) resolution at 13.1", with similar GPU and CPU, at 3.1lbs. I love macbooks, but I don't want to carry around that much extra weight.

If you find the 1080p resolution on a 13 inch screen usable (I don't) on the Z series, then of course that gives you lots of pixel real estate to work with and less weight attached. But you also get the big ass end of those machines (lopsided with 1.3" on the rear) as compared to 0.95" front-to-back on the MBP, so what you save in weight, you lose in bulk. Am I the only person in the world that HATES the wedge-shape form factor PC manufacturers are going for?

I personally wouldn't want to work at a resolution much higher than 1680 x 1050 at 15" or maybe the 1600 x 900 on the Z series at 13". Aside from the matter of resolution, I haven't had a good look at the screen on these, so I don't know how these compare on other fronts (viewing angle, brightness, color gamut, etc.).
posted by drpynchon at 10:22 PM on July 27, 2010


I love how, even though the OP said "no Macs", people suggest Macs anyway.

I have a Sony VAIO laptop with an i3 chip that cost about $600 and it works well, and I wouldn't hesitate to throw $2000 at a VAIO Z machine. Although mine just has a cheap piece of plastic for a shell, it looks quite nice. Sony have really tried to improve their machines.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:53 PM on July 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Since you didn't rule out MacBook Pros, I'll suggest that tapesonthefloor's run-down is excellent. The MBPs are easily in your budget, run Windows 7 very well, have a large high-quality screen, and the build quality is second-to-none. They come with Intel i7 processors that run MATLAB capably. For extra performance, you can install CUDA support in MATLAB, to make use of the MBP's NVIDIA graphics adapter.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:20 PM on July 27, 2010


I love how, even though the OP said "no Macs", people suggest Macs anyway.

Unless we've decided to change how quotation marks work, I'm on my third read and I still don't see that anywhere. The OP said he/she uses Windows. The MBP is perfectly compatible with Windows, and meets the OP's listed specifications. I'm using it right now booted into Windows 7, and it runs like a gem, though I do find power management to be superior and the touchpad to be smoother in OS X, everything else is seamless.
posted by drpynchon at 11:25 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Given your pattern of use as described, I would consider a new high-end laptop, weight not a consideration, plus a netbook or even an iPad for travel.
posted by megatherium at 4:50 AM on July 28, 2010


I was recommending the Z because it's lighter for travel than the 15" MBP, with similar specs / gpu. Scaling in windows 7 has improved enough that you can run the screen at 1080p (roughly the same dpi as the iphone pre-4g), and increasing fonts / icons etc to a usable size.
posted by defcom1 at 5:24 AM on July 28, 2010



Unless we've decided to change how quotation marks work, I'm on my third read and I still don't see that anywhere. The OP said he/she uses Windows. The MBP is perfectly compatible with Windows, and meets the OP's listed specifications. I'm using it right now booted into Windows 7, and it runs like a gem, though I do find power management to be superior and the touchpad to be smoother in OS X, everything else is seamless.


If the OP is going to buy a machine that runs windows, they should buy a machine from a company that has something besides a passing commitment to it. The trackpad drivers suck and have for years. The bluetooth driver will reliably BSOD the system.

Apple, understandably, has little desire to support windows users and it shows.

I've had my (top of the line) Macbook for less than a year, and I wish I had gotten my colleague's Thinkpad instead. I get that you want to evangelize for your favorite tech company, but seriously, windows support on the Macbooks is lacking.

As for the OP - Thinkpad, full stop. Any particular machine may or may not have issues - that's kind of a crapshoot. But in the 15 years I've been doing IT stuff, the Thinkpad line has been the most reliably, consistently, good.

Get the accidental damage warranty, too.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 6:51 AM on July 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


For the Think Pad T410s: solid state hard drive, or no?

SSDs are one of the no-brainer speed upgrades right now, IMO. The difference is very noticiable even over a fast HD and they typically use less power so batteries last longer. Plus they're more (physical) shock resistant, though ThinkPads have always been great in that department.

Capacity and price are the major concerns for SSDs. They're still very expensive. But, if it fits your budget, and you can live with only 128GB (or whatever) then I'd say go for it. I haven't regretted it at all.

Switchable graphics, or no?

Others can perhaps address this better than I can, but my general impression is that unless you're doing a lot of large photo work or looking for a top-end gaming rig, this isn't as big a deal. It's a very personal, qualitative assessment though.
posted by bonehead at 8:09 AM on July 28, 2010


Also, if light is a concern, look at the X-series ThinkPads. That's what we use at work and we're very happy with them, but our big concern is portability for travel. If you want a more capable, rugged all-rounder, the T series is what you want. The Ws are boat-anchor desktop replacements.

The others models are less capable. We've just bought an Edge (~$1000) which seems like a nice compromise for the price point, but it's a bit less than what you're looking for.
posted by bonehead at 8:14 AM on July 28, 2010


[Folks, the "Macbook is an option" thing was covered pretty well already, it's fine to mention it as a one-off but do not turn random threads into arguments over mac vs. non-mac hardware.]
posted by cortex at 8:33 AM on July 28, 2010


Thanks for all these wonderful suggestions! You all rock the mike.

I've tried playing with Macs, and only having one mouse button drove me batty. So I think I'll probably not go that direction.

Thanks to you I have some great specific suggestions to look into more. Fantastic!
posted by medusa at 9:38 AM on July 28, 2010


Oh, one last thing which was new to me when we made our recent purchase: apparently it's now the mode to put a shiny coating on screens. Unless you like seeing your reflection all the time (doubful, given your username), or glare from the lights above you, look for a matt option for the screen.
posted by bonehead at 10:18 AM on July 28, 2010


Late reply, but I can recommend the Dell Latitude E6410. I've been using it at work (and on the road) for a few months now and it's excellent. 14" screen, not too heavy, great stability, a lot of ports (including firewire, e-sata, displayport) and the performance is good. Coworkers with the same model or its predecessor (Latitude E6400) are quite happy, too.

I have the version with an Intel i5 540 CPU, the higher WXGA+ resolution (1440x900), 4GB of ram, a 320GB harddrive and the 6 cell battery. You can upgrade the CPU to i7, put in a bigger hdd or solid state drive, up to 8GB ram, a keyboard backlight and a bigger battery, if you want.

Base price starts at around $1200, mine would have been around $1500 without the big business discount we get.

Bonus points: good and reliable docking stations available and it's the business line, so you'll get replacement parts and repairs in the future without any issues. The only thing that is bugging me - it lacks a DVI port and only has a standard VGA out, but you can use an adapter for the displayport to connect to screens digitally when not using a docking station.
posted by starzero at 10:34 AM on July 28, 2010


FYI: The ThinkPad T410s weighs 3.94lbs (replaceable 6-cell, 4.8hr battery), 30% less than the 5.6lb 15" MacBook Pro (built-in 8-9 hour battery).

Here's how I would get it:
Switchable graphics model which includes the 128GB SSD
Choose Windows 7 Professional 64
Upgrade Memory to 4 GB (or save $30 by doing this yourself)
Upgrade the WiFi adapter to Intel Centrino Ultimate-N 6300 (3x3 AGN)
Add the 3Yr Basic Warranty Extension (with ThinkPad Protection if you are confident you will break your ThinkPad)

And forget what I said earlier about the multi-touch screen option - not only is it an expensive gimmick, but it also adds about half a pound.
posted by pants tent at 11:02 AM on July 28, 2010


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