New Laptop Needed – Alternatives to Windows 8
August 20, 2014 6:20 AM   Subscribe

I’m in need of a new laptop, and I get the impression I ought to avoid Windows 8. What are my options?

My HP laptop hit five years recently and, perhaps unsurprisingly, has decided to turn in its resignation. It still boots, sort of, but the tech people at Best Buy said the hard drive could fail at any point, so I need a replacement. (As a grad student, I really can’t go for long without a computer.)

According to friends, Windows 8 is pretty damn terrible—the interface is clunky, it’s hard to do basic tasks, etc. I do not need that noise.

I’m sure a lot of people will recommend a Mac, but I don’t have that money to pay upfront. (I know, it’s a long-term investment, but still. I’m hoping to spend $600, give or take.) I don’t want a tablet. Can I (should I) buy an old Windows version and install that on a new machine? (My current one didn’t include any installation discs.) Use something else entirely (like Ubuntu or some such, which would be a future AskMe)? D’you know of any reputable retailers for refurbished laptops?

Thanks in advance!
posted by xenization to Computers & Internet (29 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You could always replace the hard drive. I have a 4 year old Thinkpad T400 to which I added an SSD. It's very very quick/snappy.

As far as refurbished, I bought said 4 year old laptop from the Lenovo Outlet as a refurb for a little less than $600. As I said, works perfectly, and w/ the SSD and upgraded RAM, I haven't even thought of upgrading.

I think you can still buy laptops with Windows 7. Here is a link to the lenovo outlet T-series laptops all with Windows 7. (I should point out, that use windows 8.1 at home and have no problem with it)
posted by czytm at 6:30 AM on August 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I bought a new desktop earlier in the year with Windows 7 installed and it wasn't a problem. In fact, it was an option on the manufacturer's website - I didn't even have to request it especially. Shop around and you might find the same option.

As far as I can see, there's nothing Windows 7 does that Windows 8 does better - at least for the browsing, typing and gaming I use my computer for. I have used 8 - my wife has it installed on her laptop. And by god, we BOTH hate the interface.
posted by Ted Maul at 6:35 AM on August 20, 2014

I second going with a Lenovo refurb that has W7 installed on it.

Also, the (unstated) job of the tech people at Best Buy is to sell you a new computer. Five years is a decent lifespan, but if you're short on cash, I'd get a second opinion from someone who doesn't have a vested interest in convincing you that your computer should be scrapped for a brand-new one.
posted by griphus at 6:36 AM on August 20, 2014

I've been using Windows 7 at home since it was released, and I recently used a brand-new Windows 8 laptop for few months. Windows 8 was definitely frustrating, but it got better once I dug the 7-style functionality out of the interface; for example, using Desktop Mode and changing settings via the Control Panel. But in general, I still find 7 easier to use. Personally, I'd try to either buy a laptop with 7 installed (slightly challenging, but possible) or just include the price of 7 in my budget and wipe 8/install 7 myself.
posted by neushoorn at 6:36 AM on August 20, 2014

Depending on what you need it for (for me that extends as far as a portable, lap-held way to use internet and type on a real keyboard), you might be satisfied with a chromebook. If you need a computer to do more standard computery things, then it would be a poor choice.
posted by phunniemee at 6:36 AM on August 20, 2014

Ubantu is good, if you find a old but nice condition 32 bit laptop (they're super cheap) you can install Lubantu. I've done this for friends that needed just the basics.

Do NOT get a chromebook, but that's just like my opinion man.
posted by sunslice at 6:42 AM on August 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

As someone who loved windows 7 and was very wary of Windows 8 and it's metro interface.. I just want to say that it's really, honest to god swear on the bible, not that bad.

It's very easy to get to the standard windows desktop we all know and love. From there it functions almost exactly like windows 7.. and the search function in Windows 8 is very very handy.

The only real annoyances I have with windows 8 has been Microsoft Office whatever-the-latest-version-is. It's not bad, but it as little farther removed from the older versions of office I grew up using.

I have windows 7 on my desktop at home and windows 8 at work. I can switch between the two without blinking an eye. I was even contemplating getting windows 8 on the desktop at home in the next year or so.

If price is your largest motivating factor, and you can find a laptop within your budget but it has 8 on it, go for it. It's not nearly as evil as people make it out to be, especially if you disregard the metro interface and use the desktop.

If it helps, this is my desktop right now, using windows 8.
posted by royalsong at 6:44 AM on August 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Windows 8.1 isn't bad - it's got a Desktop mode that looks more or less like Windows 7. Takes some getting used to and they've buried half (but not all!) of the options under the Metro interface, so if you're a power user you'll end up flipping between the two, but it's honestly not that bad. And if you're not a power user, just stick to Desktop mode and you are fine.

I have a Windows 7 laptop for work and a Windows 8.1 laptop for personal use. There isn't much difference between the two.
posted by Xany at 6:57 AM on August 20, 2014

I hated the Windows 8 interface and still do, but bought a new laptop with it because I'd have to pay extra for Windows 7 and Windows 7 would stop being supported before long anyway.

My solution is the installation of Classic Shell. It's free, works great, and brings back the normal Windows interface.
posted by schroedinger at 7:02 AM on August 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

The two things that people usually moan about can be easily solved:

1. Avoid using Metro by booting directly to the desktop.
2. Get your start menu back with Classic Shell.
posted by mr_silver at 7:02 AM on August 20, 2014 [5 favorites]

It is fairly trivial to get Windows 8 to act like Windows 7. You might want to think about trying this, as aside from the initial interface issues, the performance gains from Windows 8 is very nice. I've become a fan of it once I tweaked it slightly (really), and I didn't initially think I would like it at all.
posted by SpacemanStix at 7:02 AM on August 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

You can get pretty much anything Lenovo makes, brand new, with Win7 preinstalled as a theoretical downgrade from 8. No need to buy a refurb if you don't want to.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:02 AM on August 20, 2014

The Acer C720 Chromebook is a good deal and if you end up needing something more than ChromeOS, you can fairly easily modify it to run a real version of Linux.
posted by Poldo at 7:24 AM on August 20, 2014

Another "8.1 isn't that bad" vote from me. It does take some getting used to, but it's not all that different than 7 when you get right down to it.

I guess I should say that it's not that different from the way I used 7. I launched most of the programs I use either by Windows-R or by pressing the Windows key, typing the program/utility name and hitting enter (Ex: WinKey, "Control Panel", enter). I haven't used the Start menu as a way to start programs since XP.

That being said, if you buy a laptop from some place like Lenovo or Dell's small business division, you should be able to get one with 7 preinstalled.
posted by Gev at 7:24 AM on August 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hard drives are usually trivial to replace: a couple of screws, plug the old one out, plug the new one in, redo the screws, then reinstall the operating system (so you need to create a backup disk/thumbdrive before). Replacement hard drives are very cheap, and faster solid state drive can be had for not much money.

Unless you really want a new laptop, I'd just get a hard drive replacement.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:24 AM on August 20, 2014

My husband and I bought new laptops a few months ago and were also not willing to switch to Windows 8. We went with the Lenovo T440s, with solid state hard drive. No complaints thus far. It appears they no longer offer the T440s with Windows 7 (new), but you could get one from the outlet store.

We also considered getting one with Windows 8 pro with downgrade rights. So, perhaps that's an option.
posted by melissasaurus at 8:44 AM on August 20, 2014

As someone who loved Windows 7 I have to say that Win 8.1 is great once you've figured it out. Windows 8.1 is a free upgrade from Win 8 (which did rather suck.)

There are a few things I miss from 7, but I'm putting 8.1 on my new machines now instead of 7 (which is still available for me to use).
posted by anadem at 9:16 AM on August 20, 2014

Can Ubuntu Do This? — Answers to The 4 Questions New Users Ask Most
posted by Mister Bijou at 9:40 AM on August 20, 2014

Since it sounds like your only objection to a Mac is the price, I'm assuming that there's no Windows-specific software that you need.

If that's the case, I'd suggest picking up the best windows laptop that you can afford and installing Ubuntu. It takes a little getting used to, but you'll never have to pay for an upgrade again. There is a pretty extensive online community that's always willing to help solve problems that arise.
posted by number9dream at 9:40 AM on August 20, 2014

It still boots, sort of, but the tech people at Best Buy said the hard drive could fail at any point, so I need a replacement.

If the only problem with the machine is the hard drive, replace the hard drive. Get yourself a nice SSD for not that much money and you will experience a performance change just like getting a brand new machine, only, for a lot less. I did this with a 4 year old Dell not so long ago, and the difference was like night and day.

Then, there's probably some way of installing a copy of whatever Windows onto the new SSD, assuming you have the licence key, even without the discs. But seriously, do yourself a favour and install one of the Ubuntu shades - I personally would edge you towards Xubuntu rather than the main Ubuntu spin. You'll get better performance out of your slightly older hardware, with a nice and secure operating system.

If the machine really is fried, Lenovo Outlet and Xubuntu.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 10:04 AM on August 20, 2014

My new work laptop has Windows 8.1 and it's actually just fine with a few tweaks (I was terrified!).

You can add back in the start menu which is the biggest thing.

Also you don't have to use the Metro (i.e. Windows 8) apps at all. All the old Windows 7 apps are still there. If you use Skype you'll want to download Skype for Windows desktop.
posted by radioamy at 10:05 AM on August 20, 2014

Do you have a need for really, truly Windows-specific applications (or do anything particularly intense in MS Office/Photoshop/Illustrator that isn't doable in the free open-source Libre Office/Gimp/Inkscape equivalents)?

If so, you're probably not going to be able to divorce yourself from Windows (sad face), and I'd recommend 8.1 + the Classic Shell/Boot to Desktop tricks described above. There are good improvements under the hood in 8.x, so I wouldn't just dismiss it as yet-another-Vista. That said, the UI decisions they made for 8.0 were truly an abomination.

If not, which I believe is increasingly more the case for people, Linux Linux Linux. I especially like the pre-installed Ubuntu machines from System76, but Linux installs on most laptops pretty well. If you install it yourself on an off-the-shelf laptop, the recommendation of Lenovo up the thread is a good one.
posted by mcstayinskool at 10:29 AM on August 20, 2014

I got a laptop with Windows 8.1, and it really is EXACTLY as obnoxious as you've heard. I downloaded a program called Classic Shell and it gets rid of most of the Windows 8 crap and gives me an experience roughly equivalent to the vastly-less-annoying Windows XP. I still had to do some tweaking and there is still some Windows 8 awful that comes bubbling up at the worst times, but it's generally quite workable.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 12:20 PM on August 20, 2014

failing hard drive? Back up your data. Right Now.

I got an off-lease Lenovo Thnkpad a little while ago for 500US. Win 8, but they often have Win 7, which I prefer. (Metro interface is stupid and pointless.) I had to uninstall lots of craptastic apps, but it's solid.
posted by theora55 at 7:56 PM on August 20, 2014

Get a used Mac for $600. Still way better than a new PC.
posted by w0mbat at 10:07 PM on August 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm actually going to second w0mbat here. $600 is about the level at which i'd start telling someone to seriously consider a mac. You could get a pretty damn nice 2012 13in macbook air for that much, or maybe $50-100 more. I've even seen 2013s go for around that price.

Five years old is old enough imo that it's not really worth repairing and continuing to use. That's bound to be a core2duo-based laptop, and just generally outdated in general by now with a worn out battery and possibly other issues besides the hard drive. 5 computer years is like... 15 car years. Yes, there's people who meticulously maintained their machine or companies that have work vehicles(or computers) that old, but it's pretty much the point at which it starts becoming outdated enough to be worth upgrading and generally starts having real problems if it's not a mac, or a good thinkpad or something.

That said, and while i'm firmly in camp "get a mac" and think a 2012 macbook air is absolutely worth $600(the current revision and the recent refresh of it still use a CPU that has basically identical performance, they all have SSDs, the screens and chassis design is exactly the same, etc), i really think people oversell how bad windows 8 is. I think it's a meme at this point. Yea, some things about it are annoying but they can be easily worked around in 5 minutes or less. Most of it was just "i hate change!". Very few things about it are legitimately stupid, and it's easy to basically just use it like windows 7. If i was going to buy a new windows laptop, i wouldn't avoid getting it. It is faster, comes with a virus scanner enabled and auto updating/running by default, and lots of other nice new things(the stupid "we'll bother you forever!" update notifications are gone!).

Personally though, i'm never going to own a non-mac laptop again. They last forever for the most part*. I just sold my old 2009 macbook pro to a friend who is likely going to use it for years. You get free updates to the OS for longer than you'll own the machine(my 2007 imac is running the latest OS!), the support is for the most part awesome and better than any other manufacturer even if you don't have applecare, and as someone who repairs computers as a side gig to being a network admin... they just seem to be built better than anything else. The majority of macs i've owned have never, ever had a single problem. It's like debating buying a new GM car vs a used honda, or something. If you do "oil change" maintenance like cleaning the vents occasionally they seem to run to the computer equivalent of 250,000 miles. They're like old volvos.

Everything except for the support(unless you pay for a specific, applecare style support contract from them) applies to thinkpads as well though. Solid tanks. Even the cheapest thinkpad, if it's a real thinkpad and not an "edge" model, is superior to 90% of the laptops on the market.

In conclusion, for $600 +/- i'd either buy a 13in macbook air(at least a 2012, a 2013 if you see one around), a 2013 11in macbook air, a 2012 13in retina macbook pro, or a T series thinkpad.

*and this is coming from someone who has owned TWO dud macs. One which was an honest to god lemon and ended in a full refund, and another which had a USB port inexplicably die right after the warranty ran out. I just kept using it with one USB port though, and sold it that way later. Nothing else ever cocked up.
posted by emptythought at 11:01 PM on August 20, 2014

You might want to stay away from ‎the 2011 MacBook Pro. There are growing reports some 2011 MacBook Pros have a Discrete Graphics Card Issue
posted by Mister Bijou at 11:23 PM on August 20, 2014

Upgrade to 8.1. It's far easier to use than vanilla 8. My new laptop has it and I was afraid that I would have to wipe the drive and install 7. It was not necessary. You can have it boot to the desktop and it's faster on the whole than 7.
posted by Splunge at 8:49 AM on August 21, 2014

I was dragged kicking and screaming into Windows 8.1 after using a Mac for a couple years. I had a roughly 2011 vintage Mac (I think) and it crapped it's logic board (though it might be the GPU). And it isn't *that* bad. I installed Classic Shell and set it up to behave more like Windows 7 (which I did like, just not on a netbook with 1 GB RAM).
posted by kathrynm at 4:14 PM on August 28, 2014

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