In search of my new best friend...
December 20, 2008 8:32 PM   Subscribe

What New Laptop should I buy?

I know there are probably a bazillion threads on this topic, so I apologize now for being redundant. But with the rate that technology changes and upgrades itself, I figure you can never be too up to date on this stuff and those other threads don't deal with what I want.
I am in the market for a new laptop. I am open to any and all ideas. I have about $1200 or so to spend. I would use it for your typical joeschmoe computer stuff: internet, digital photo and mp3 storage, and organizing simple documents and spreadsheets for work. I have been given the money as a gift "for a new laptop" so while i realize this is quite a bit of money for what I would be using it for, I might as well go all out.

I am currently using a mac and am enjoying it, and definitely see why some people won't use anything else. But, as of right now, I am kinda of leaning toward going back to Windows, since that is what I am most comfortable with. Anyone care to convince me otherwise?
What if I was dead set against a Mac? then what would you suggest?

Here are a few negotiable specs -
i don't want it to be too heavy as I take it everywhere. That said, I am not the most careful person. Gimme something that can take a licking.
I would like a nice big screen, but would rather it be light, and for it to fit in a backpack type computer bag.
I am tired of my cramped keyboard on my iBook. A nice big keyboard with back lit keys would be great.
I also HATE the speakers on my iBook. is there a laptop with good built in speakers?

Thanks in advance.
posted by fogonlittlecatfeet to Computers & Internet (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think two of your specs, "light" and "tough," are kind of mutually exclusive. The Panasonic Toughbooks live up to their name, but they are huge and heavy.

I am very happy with my Toshiba Satellite, I paid around $1200. It's small and light, they keys are of more-or-less normal size, and the speakers are pretty good, all things considered. I did have one small issue, the fan failed after 2 years, but it was a pretty cheap fix.

I'll just add what I always say when discussing laptops: anything but a Dell. Consistently failing motherboards, and the worst customer service in the world. The. Worst.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:53 PM on December 20, 2008

Big screen and full-size keyboard don't usually go with light weight, unless you're willing to pay a pretty large premium. Do you already have the backpack? If so, what's the maximum size laptop it will accommodate?

You might want to get your hands on laptops of various sizes to determine what's the maximum weight you're willing to tolerate and the maximum size you consider easy to pack. (If you already have some idea of what these numbers are, let us know)

Thinkpads have a reputation for being pretty tough.

You can get more bang for your buck by getting something refurbished that still has a decent warranty. None of the uses you list would require the latest technology.

Speakers generally get better with size. Or, at least, for laptops the primary cause of the crappiness of speakers is the size. You can choose the model with the largest speakers, but I'd probably opt for getting a set of speakers to plug in at home and use headphones elsewhere.
posted by winston at 8:54 PM on December 20, 2008

Convincing you otherwise: You don't say what Mac and OS version you are using, but I can tell you the new aluminum MacBooks (starting at $1299) running Leopard are incredibly sturdy, relatively light, and very powerful with so many great features in the OS that I won't even try to list them. And you do know you can boot into Windows or Mac OS if you want, right?
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 9:05 PM on December 20, 2008

Response by poster: tough is more important than light... i'm strong. I guess I need my laptop to be too.
I do have a bag already, but I am not averse to getting another bag, I just want it to be the "backpack" style.
posted by fogonlittlecatfeet at 9:05 PM on December 20, 2008

Thinkpads are great. I have one, my dad has one, two of my friends each have one. Each of us has had ours for years and put it through the usual amount of wear and tear (we don't drop 'em, but both of my friends have had some liquid spillage, we take them to and from different classes every day and they get bounced around, etc) and they still look brand new. Try saying that about a Dell - several of my friends have had Inspirons for a couple of years, and every single one of them has at least four keys missing, a wobbly-wobbly screen, and runs slow (my Thinkpad is still fast as blazes for its hardware). If I were you, I'd get a thinkpad.

(That said, I'm thinking about getting a Mac when I need a new laptop in a couple years, but that's strictly a software choice [I'm a web developer], as I know nothing about how Macs hold up durability-wise. If it weren't for the OS issue, I'd be getting another Thinkpad.)
posted by ewingpatriarch at 9:16 PM on December 20, 2008

Anyone care to convince me otherwise?

Running Windows in a VMWare image on OS X is something you should look at. Admining an OS in an image is SO much nicer than having to deal with it as a living & breathing partition. MacWeek has an article on virtualization options right now.

I finally broke down & ordered a MBP last week and it's coming Tuesday. It & the 24" display are going to replace the 20" iMac I'm typing this on now -- Macs work as a tethered desktop better than Windows laptops IME.

The MBP is spendy but with a 5 year life @ 10hrs / day of usage I don't mind paying more for the best.

And the MBP is the best laptop (pound for pound) you can get right now.
posted by troy at 9:19 PM on December 20, 2008

There really seem to be only two choices. One is to get the most expensive mac laptop you can, assuming you can get a decent one for $1,200 (I don't know if you can).

Option two is to purchase both a laptop and a netbook. I think that's exciting. I wish I had $1,200 to spend.

For the laptop, get a cheap desktop replacement model that is heavy and runs hot and has a huge screen, like this one for $750 that will be fine for graphics, movies, and even some light gaming.

Then get a netbook that has the biggest keyboard you can find and weighs under 3 pounds, like this one for $430.

Spend the leftover money on a thumb drive or an external CD drive.
posted by Nonce at 9:36 PM on December 20, 2008

I just went through this same angst. I finally took a long hard look at my laptop history and use the past decade. I was a Powerbook guy - had a Powerbook 145b then a Titanium Powerbook. I loved 'em. I switched careers and the organization I work for is 95% Windows-World (much to my dismay). I'm now on my 3rd Windows Laptop. The reliability factor just isn't quite the same, and we all know that tomorrow the hard drives are faster, the operating systems are better, and the current software set isn't going to work with what you had yesterday.

That said... my new strategy is to buy laptops with good size HD's, heavy on the RAM, and a decent video to run a 15.4". That size fits nicely into a backpack and briefcase.

You have to have a good backup strategy, plan on getting 20-30 months tops out of your machine. For $800 or less you can get all of the above. I looked at spending $1500 on a machine- but why? An hour longer battery life? A 7200 rpm HD instead of 5400?

Save your money. Go for a Toshiba L305, or Acer. Surf. Email. iTunes. Some basic graphics work. Watch videos. Unless you are doing some hardcore gaming or video-editing you aren't going to need to spend the extra $$$. My two cents worth.
posted by bytemover at 9:52 PM on December 20, 2008

I wouldn't put much stock in people's individual subjective experience of durability. For instance, first answer here would tell you that a Dell is a ticking time bomb; I've had a Vostro laptop for over a year now and it's given me no problems.

I'd recommend going to a big box store like Best Buy and getting a feel for the different machines - keyboard size, screen size, design - and then head home and hunt down the best deal you can online. While you say you don't need blazing speed, make sure you get something with a discrete, reasonably powerful graphics card, as more and more software (digital photo software, for instance) is offloading work to the graphics processor and it's helpful to have a good one. Also, while you'll want a lot of RAM, if you're reasonably tech-savvy or know somebody who is, you should definitely buy that separately (that is, get as little as you can with the computer itself, then hunt down the best deal on RAM; manufacturers will gouge you on RAM, and to a lesser extent the hard drive, if you get it pre-installed).

Do not rely on virtualization. If you want to use Windows more than you want to use OSX, run Windows. Using it in a virtual machine, advanced though the technology has become, will be frustrating, and frankly, it's pointless if that's the OS you're more comfortable using. It's more important that the computer do the work you want it to do than it be the most fashionable thing going (unless, of course, you care more about design, which is perfectly reasonable).
posted by sinfony at 10:04 PM on December 20, 2008

I have a Toshiba Satellite that is over two years old, just like the first answer, and I really like it. It has a 17" widescreen and a large keyboard. It was actually pretty cheap but didn't have the most up-to-the second processing, but with your extra funds you could get a Toshiba that does. It takes a decent bit of bashing, as a small female I find it easy to carry around, and as a klutz I have set it down too hard on multiple occasions, as well as accidentally smacking the screen and just generally being mean to it.

They've come out with some new laptops that my non-Toshiba-loving friend drools over, as well.
posted by Night_owl at 10:21 PM on December 20, 2008

Nonce has a really good recommendation. It would be worth checking out whether you prefer the MSI Wind, as Nonce suggests or the Asus EEE PC or the Acer Aspire One. If you go into any reasonable retailer you should be able to check them all out.
posted by sien at 12:03 AM on December 21, 2008

I'm a computer tech for a school system. Most of the schools I work at are Mac schools. I've been doing quite a bit of work on the new MacBooks and one MacBook Pro. From a pure aesthetic perspective, they are gorgeous. They are also powerful little machines. The MPB isn't anywhere near as portable as the MacBook but both should fit in a back pack easily.

The only drawback I can see in the MacBook is that it lacks a firewire port. That may not be a big deal to you but I know it has really dampened interest in people that need firewire for digital video work and the like. It also makes them more of a pain to admin for.

If I were in the market for a new laptop, I'd be looking at a new MacBook Pro. They work, they are fast, they are elegant and damned sexy too.

But they also cost a fair bit more than $1200. The MacBook is no slouch and would definitely be my back up plan. But, if you don't mind a previous generation, you can get some excellent deals on the last MacBook model. Use the money you save to max out the ram.

And, sorry, but expecting great sound out of a laptop is kind of an unreasonable expectation. Plug in some external speakers or invest in some good headphones.
posted by fenriq at 12:20 AM on December 21, 2008

Refurbished Macbook Air: light, 13.3 inch screen, full-size backlit keyboard for $1149. Plus Parallels to run Windows, puts you just over your limit.
posted by whiskeyspider at 6:37 AM on December 21, 2008

I'm a mac guy and love the new macbook (I can't imagine any reason to buy the previous version other than your fridge is empty, maxed out ram or not, they're not in the same class).

That said, if you use a mac and still want to go back to windows, you might as well do it. No reason to try and convince you otherwise (though the ibook felt much more cramped than either of the recent macbooks, it's not yesterdays tech, it's last decades).

Then get a netbook that has the biggest keyboard you can find and weighs under 3 pounds, like this one for $430.

If you thought the ibook was small and cramped, welcome to hell.
posted by justgary at 7:18 AM on December 21, 2008

If you end up seriously considering a netbook, I'd recommend a Sylvania G Meso. I've been incredibly happy with mine--it's very rugged-feeling, for the size, and (while you can't buy them with windows), you can buy one for $350 bucks, slap windows on it (the drivers are available on their website) and use the rest of the money to buy a full size, big screen laptop.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:32 AM on December 21, 2008

You can get a very well-equipped MacBook for $1200, and run Windows on that through a number of options:

• BootCamp
• Fusion
• Parallels
• VirtualBox
• CrossOver

BootCamp lets you run Windows directly. CrossOver lets you run Windows applications by directly running Windows x86 instructions. The other three are virtualization environments.

It seems ironic that Apple sells the best Windows laptops, but if you don't want to run Windows, there are netbooks that can run Linux acceptably fast. You're not going to get very good results with a netbook and Windows XP.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:22 AM on December 21, 2008

Option two is to purchase both a laptop and a netbook.

This is what I just did. I got a big heavy fast (and cheap) laptop for home and a sweeeeeet Acer Aspire One for $300 to carry with me. It weighs nothing and the battery lasts six hours, so you don't even have to carry the power brick.
posted by CunningLinguist at 9:47 AM on December 21, 2008

I would just like to mention that you can get refurbished Macbooks from the Apple Store web site for pretty decent prices. You can save a couple of hundred dollars over a new model, and if you're doing regular computer stuff (no hardcore graphics, 3D modelling, etc.) it could be the ticket. And I can't do enough to recommend getting the Apple Care warranty.

I also have an iBook, and Apple Care has saved my life plenty of times.
posted by rybreadmed at 9:50 AM on December 21, 2008

I think two of your specs, "light" and "tough," are kind of mutually exclusive.

I'd disagree. The new unibody MacBooks are rock solid and only weigh 4.5lbs. Lenovo X series Thinkpads are exceptionally light, solid and can also include solid state hard drives if you want something extra tough. I'm a big fan of both.
posted by furtive at 10:38 AM on December 21, 2008

If you have a friend at university, they can get you a 10% discount on the new Macbook, which is extremely sturdy and has far superior audio to earlier (white) versions. Additionally, they run Windows faster than any laptop (or desktop!) I've ever used.
posted by luriete at 11:30 AM on December 21, 2008

Option two is to purchase both a laptop and a netbook.

I'd probably do that. I'm delighted with the Asus eee 901 PC I bought recently because it really is the size of a book. It's so small (around 1kg) you can carry it easily in a handbag (or manbag as I do) and because it's got an SSD, it can take knocks too.

But it is second computer not a first. And while the keyboard is OK for my small hands, if you have big sausage fingers, it wouldn't be great.
posted by rhymer at 1:24 PM on December 21, 2008

You have a interesting set of requirements; light but tough, small but large screen w. good speakers - sounds familar.

First, everyone thinks small = breakable, but small and tough is possible. Most of the middle to higher ultraportable laptop lines are actually much more tough than their larger counterparts - the IBM X series has titanium roller bars in a magnesium alloy body, the new macbooks are unibody aluminum, and sony models use either magnesium or carbon fiber depending on the model. My sister has a IBM x61, and it's one of the most solid devices I've ever used.

Second, keep in mind that the general rumor is that Apple might be launching a netbook (small laptop) early next year. Even if they don't it's all but certain Sony is - they already got FCC clearance for it.

Keeping that in mind I'd recommend one of the following right now:

Option A: Cheap desktop/cheap laptop + netbook
This would be my recommendation. Get a cheap desktop for home with a 20+ in screen - $700 or so should be enough. Otherwise get a gaming laptop (my brother got a gateway 17" gaming laptop for $800 on ebay). Then supplement that with a portable netbook. Netbooks are cheap, small computers. You said that you wanted something with a good keyboard, so I would recommend the HP mini note 1000 - has the best keyboard out of all the netbooks right now, and best speakers. Inital impressions here

The other netbook I'd consider would be the MSI Wind ( <-- you can find it cheaper than that). It's a good device, and you can load OS X on it and make your own Apple netbook.

Both of these devices can be had for $350, and with two computers you get more flexibility. Over the years my computer usage has evolved to this model, and I like it.

Option B: New macbook
The new macbooks are the best combo of what you are looking for right now. Small, light enough, tough, and still multimedia oriented. You will have to find a deal on one though to get into your price range, and only the higher end models have the glowing keyboard.

Option C: Refurb macbook air
Second best apple option; light, slim, and can be found in price range. Short battery life is still a issue, but the largest issue is that the refurb MBA's tend to be the first version. The first version had a tendency to overheat, and the graphics subsystem was not good enough for alot of the things people do in Mac OSX. The current air solves both issues but is well outside your price range. Look at engadget reviews of the macbook air and the second review of the current air to see some comparisons.

You could also go outside the box and get something like this, or this (more here). These kinds of systems can get pricey but nothing else can match their size or unique features. However I would not recommend them as a primary computer - even a very cheap desktop + these would be better.
posted by rmathew1 at 1:34 PM on December 21, 2008

I know there are a lot of Dell-Haters, but I absolutely love my XPS 1330. Light, tough, slides easily into a backpack, comes in snazzy colors.

Intel Centrino Duo T5450, 4 GB of RAM, 320GB HDD, 2 MP webcam built into the bezel. Had it since May. Bought it from the Dell Outlet for $800. I love it so much, I bought my wife one, and them my Mom one (she was getting to the end of her HP notebook's life). Neither one of us has had a single problem.

Dell was GREAT, too, I got the laptop (it was re-certified) boxed up like brand new, didn't have a single scratch or blemish. They shipped it within 24 hours, I received it within 72 hours after I hung up he phone with Dell.

If you go with the Dell, you still have $400 to play with. I like the netbook idea, I bought my son one a couple of months ago (Acer Aspire One), and he loves it. If not, then stash the remaining $$$ away and start saving for your next laptop.

just my $0.02.
posted by Master Gunner at 1:34 PM on December 21, 2008

a few items for consideration:
bigger screen = more weight
bigger battery = longer battery life & more weight.
Get a good warranty.
posted by theora55 at 2:21 PM on December 21, 2008

I don't think that you'll have many notebook options that aren't from Apple with backlit keyboards. Also, some PC manufacturers may have better speakers than others, but for the most part they are all no good for someone on-the-go. That said, I suggest that you put some of that money toward a nice pair of in-earphones or headphones.
posted by steampowered at 6:23 PM on January 14, 2009

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