What software do I need on my work laptop?
November 19, 2004 7:40 AM   Subscribe

So now that I've had to start looking for work and a new home, my five-year-old Dell laptop has decided to die on me. I'm probably going to order a Gateway at around the $1000 level (I don't do gaming or any of the stuff that would require something fancier), but what I want to know is what software I should make sure to get with it. I'm planning to do freelance work in editing and maybe translating; can anyone who does that tell me what I'll need besides MS Word (which I presume most files will be sent in)? Thanks.

I was going to preface this with "JobFilter" until I realized that looks like job 'work' rather than the intended Job 'guy to whom all that bad stuff happened in the Bible.' Damn ambiguous English language!
posted by languagehat to Computers & Internet (27 answers total)
You'll need Irfanview and it's plugins to view just about any image sent to you, it's free, wicked fast, and tiny. Also please look at sites such as fatwallet.com's deals forum to find coupons for Dell laptops etc, that way you can get it even cheaper.
posted by riffola at 7:53 AM on November 19, 2004

Oops I totally misread your question, I see now you're asking what other software to purchase with the laptop from the company selling the laptop. Honestly besides Word/Office (If you get MS Works, be sure to see that it has Word as a part of it) I am not really sure what you'll need to buy since I don't know what else do you plan on doing with your computer.
posted by riffola at 7:56 AM on November 19, 2004

Irfanview, sorry languagehat, I was just honestly trying to help but I'm messing up. :)
posted by riffola at 7:59 AM on November 19, 2004

Does it definitely have to be a laptop? You didn't mention. You could get a pretty good PC for a couple of hundred dollars.
posted by taumeson at 8:21 AM on November 19, 2004

MS Word is a good start. Other than that, I can't think of anything. You know more about translating than we, so you've probably got that covered. I imagine some things might be in QuarkExpress format..I know a lot of publishing is done with it.
posted by taumeson at 8:24 AM on November 19, 2004

Sorry to stray from the topic, but make sure you do a lot of research before you buy that laptop. Dell quality has gone down, not sure about Gateway, but I definitely wouldn't buy a desktop from either of them.

For what it's worth, I won't use anything but a Thinkpad, but they do tend to be a bit pricey.

Some rules of thumb: The battery life will be 1/2 of what they claim in six months or so. The larger the screen, the faster your battery will die. Don't spend the extra for a 7200 RPM hard drive, they will die faster and run hotter. A 30 gig hard drive will tend to be more reliable than a 60 gig hard drive. Buy a laptop with a slower processor and more RAM, it will be faster unless you crunch numbers for a living.

I wish I could help with the software, but I run Linux exclusively, and I think you'd be better off with Windows products for what you do.
posted by bh at 8:25 AM on November 19, 2004

I'd think about Acrobat or some other PDF tool too. As awful as the format is, its seems to be increasingly common. We get quite a few sciency manuscripts that way.
posted by bonehead at 8:29 AM on November 19, 2004

Get a thinkpad t22 or suchlike. It'll do all the jobs you need it to do and if it breaks you can just get another one (seeing as they're $3-400 each).
posted by Mossy at 8:33 AM on November 19, 2004

You could save some bucks by using OpenOffice instead of Word... I've been doing that for a year, and have yet to run into any compatibility trouble.
posted by COBRA! at 9:02 AM on November 19, 2004

Big thumbs-up from another T-21 user here. They're highly durable and IBM has great service, way better than Dell or Gateway in my experience (Dell is particularly horrible). They run just fine for XP/Office 200whatever. A bump in memory to 256MB (or more, if you can afford it) is all that's necessary.
posted by bonehead at 9:21 AM on November 19, 2004

Response by poster: Does it definitely have to be a laptop?

Good question. I was going to get one because that's what I had, and it's convenient to be able to take it along when I visit the relatives or whatever, but I'll be working out of my home and presumably won't actually need to move it around, so maybe I should get a desktop and save the money -- then if and when the money starts rolling in I can put some aside for a laptop. I'm a pathetic ignoramus when it comes to all this computer stuff, so trying to decide these things is painful for me.

I'll look into the ThinkPad, though -- sounds like a good buy.

You could save some bucks by using OpenOffice instead of Word

You mean you can download a free suite that's compatible with the MS stuff? Why do people pay through the nose for the latter? Can I edit documents sent me in Word and return the edited version and it will be just as if I'd done it in Word?
/computer ignoramus
posted by languagehat at 9:42 AM on November 19, 2004

You can, indeed. I go back and forth with Word-using editors and they have no idea that I'm using OpenOffice on my side. It's free and works pretty well. I think people stick with MS because they haven't heard of OpenOffice, or fear it, or aren't comfortable with the slightly different interface.
posted by COBRA! at 9:49 AM on November 19, 2004

off-topic: does OpenOffice do that reviewing comment thingy that word does? 'cause i couldn't live without that, what with sending my manuscripts back and forth with my advisor and both of us adding in notes and edits.

and, how's OpenOffice work with reference manager software (EndNote, etc.)?

and back on topic. i've never really understood the thinkpad thing myself - when everyone else is selling 2 ghz machines with 512 megs of ram, IBM is selling 1 ghz thinkpads with 128 megs for the same price. so, is it really worth all that much extra cash to get the IBM? i mean, they look nice and all, but that's a big performance hit.

also, office. if you do go the microsoft route bundled is far cheaper than buying it individually. otherwise there's not much you get standard these days from dell/gateway that's very useful. you can get acrobat 6 bundled from dell, but that's about it.

aside from that, what are you planning on doing with the laptop - type of work, say like writing, photo editing, composing music, what? that helps people like me recommend software...
posted by caution live frogs at 10:15 AM on November 19, 2004

Just bought a Thinkpad t-23 and am enjoying it greatly. I mention this not because I don't realize you're not looking for laptop recommendations, but because I insist you think about nixing the idea of the Compaq and going instead with a cheaper laptop. Expensive laptops are a trick to fool you. Very much not worth the price

(if all you want to do is surf the web and do work on it, you don't need much. If you want to play the newest games or do processor-intensive graphics editing, you are better served by a desktop, and your laptop will be too old to continue doing this in a couple years anyway.)

As for software, man, I think XP Pro is worth getting as opposed to XP Home, because Remote Desktop is a handy little tool. Other than that, you will be served by Office 2003 very well. There is no reason you should have to pay for either of these products if you don't, ahem, feel obliged.

But say more about what you want to do. It's hard to recommend anything without knowing what goes on in the daily life of a hat-wearing celebrity linguist.
posted by Hildago at 10:30 AM on November 19, 2004

In my limited experience mr. frogs, it's beacuse IBMs, particularly the T-series Just Work and Don't Break. We run an annual conference, bang them around in the field, send people around the world with these things and IBMs are the only laptops that consistantly work, and, when they fail, have quick turn-around times even in Come-by-chance Newfoundland. Toshibas also seem to be ok, but we've had bad experiences with most of the other major brands.
posted by bonehead at 11:04 AM on November 19, 2004

If you're dealing with publishing, Quark is a must. And personally, I'd just get a Mac because that's what everyone else is going to be using.
posted by dame at 11:22 AM on November 19, 2004

Buy a used laptop off of eBay. I got a dell c400 (1.2ghz p3, 256 mb RAM, nice (albiet small) screen, great battery life, 20gb hd, 24x cdrom, floppy, internal wireless) for $600, shipped. Seriously. Although, I would reccomend buying an IBM if you can swing it. The stinkpads are really indestructable. My dell is essentially disposable for what I paid for it.

As far as software ... you're going to need a couple of things. First, an Office suite. Open Office and MS Word sometimes don't agree on charachtersets, and if you get a document with 'curly quotes' you may run into some ... erm, problems. (As in, every quotation mark will turn into a box. And you won't be able to tell what kind of quotation mark it was...)

Second, you're going to need a full version of Adobe Acrobat. The full version will allow you to mark up final layouts with notes to the layout artists. This is also essential if you're proofing things just before they go to presses, because most of today's DTP (direct to plate) machines actually output to plate direct from PDF.

Third, you may need a layout package like Quark depending on who you're working with. If you're working with publishing houses directly, you may or may not -- they'd be better people to talk to. A number of them are actually on LaTEX or another platform-independent markup these days rather than proprietary, and people are starting to move away from quark and towards InDesign anyway. My experience though is that the designer and layout people use Quark and won't send you their quark files directly, they'll send you their PDFs.
Don't buy Quark unless you absoluetly need it. It's hideously expensive and the dongles don't always work and/or break easily and are a pain in the tuchus.
posted by SpecialK at 12:01 PM on November 19, 2004

If you're dealing with publishing, Quark is a must. And personally, I'd just get a Mac because that's what everyone else is going to be using.

Who emails Quark Xpress files? "Here's your document and 60 MB of graphics. Have fun re-linking everything, sucker!" If you need Quark, you already know it. And are prepared to drop 1500 bucks on it.
posted by Mayor Curley at 12:30 PM on November 19, 2004

Best answer: If you end up doing medical editing, it's very useful to have an online Stedman's dictionary. They gave a help package here, but I've never used it -- I just use their spellchecker, which is spendy but a great time saver. Otherwise, you're spending hours looking stuff up online.

I'd do the job for a stretch before making the investment, but if you like medical editing and want to stick with it, this spellchecker is invaluable.

For what you're doing, you don't need Quark. And I'd wait on buying the full Acrobat -- almost everyone I know doing this works with unglamorous Word files. The general rule of thumb with self-employment is to let the job dictate your tools. Don't burden yourself with a bunch of start-up costs. And no, you don't need a Mac, either. You're an editor, not a designer.

(And sorry your computer died in the midst of a house hunting and changing careers -- I'd say that you're a candidate for either Job filter either way.)
posted by melissa may at 12:39 PM on November 19, 2004

Response by poster: if all you want to do is surf the web and do work on it, you don't need much. If you want to play the newest games or do processor-intensive graphics editing [&c &c]... But say more about what you want to do.

Um, that's kind of why I said "I don't do gaming or any of the stuff that would require something fancier... I'm planning to do freelance work in editing and maybe translating." I don't know exactly what I'm going to be doing, since I've never done it before (from home, as a freelancer), but it ain't processor-intensive graphics editing; by "editing" I meant "fixing text so it's properly spelled and grammatical." Sorry if that wasn't clear.

I think melissa has hit it on the nose with regard to software requirements -- thanks, you're a doll! And thanks to all for the hardware discussion; I didn't exactly ask for it, but I should have, it's very useful. I feel less fish-out-of-water now. Bless you all, and bless Father Matt!
posted by languagehat at 12:49 PM on November 19, 2004

I'm not entirely sure what kind of work you are thinking of, but I would second the comments about Office and Acrobat PDF maker (or similar - but not just the reader) being essential.

If you are thinking of freelance editing, also consider some sort of bibliographic software like end-notes.

And consider one of the tools for making indices - freelance editing of academic or textbooks could involve making indices, a task the authors and copy-editors etc will try desperately to avoid.

However, the latter two probably wouldn't come from the hardware vendor at point of sale, anyway.

Spend the money and get the thinkpad, and get long battery life over performance for editing. You can work the day away in cafes, etc.
posted by Rumple at 12:54 PM on November 19, 2004

Um, that's kind of why I said "I don't do gaming or any of the stuff that would require something fancier... I'm planning to do freelance work in editing and maybe translating."

Ok, so why spend $1000 on a Gateway? What you want is a $500 thinkpad. Or, for that price, 2 $500 thinkpads. That's my point.
posted by Hildago at 1:27 PM on November 19, 2004

It's a good thing you didn't say "JobFilter," because my answer would have been, "Curse God, and die."

Job's wife was the biggest genius in the entire Bible. While I'm rambling about this kind of thing, let me just share the best joke in all of Shakespeare:

Glendower. I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur. Why, so can I, and so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?

(I Henry IV, Act 3, Scene i)

Okay, back to my answer. I absolutely agree with "buy a used laptop from eBay." I would also suggest buying a slightly-outdated version of MSOffice from eBay; be sure to read feedback, though, because there are a lot of scam artists selling software on eBay. You should be able to get all the laptop and software you need for $800 that way.

Don't get Quark or LaTex or anything like that until you need to--you may never need to, and it would just be a waste of cash. You can always get it if you need it.

The full version of Adobe Acrobat, on the other hand (i.e., the one that makes pdfs as well as reads them) is really, really useful.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:26 PM on November 19, 2004

You can set up a compleat LaTeX system on windows for free (emacs + command line utils). Configuring it and learning to use emacs might be a waste of your time, though.
posted by kenko at 8:40 PM on November 19, 2004

I also recommend ThinkPads - they're the only laptops I've ever used, and I have a 3, varying in age from 5 years to 6 months, and they all run perfectly. I beat the living hell out of my newest one, as I travel with it weekly, and it's a happy camper.

You can pick up a decent used ThinkPad directly from the IBM website. They're thoroughly tested, and they work well. Also, if you happen to know an IBM employee, there's a friends and family discount available.

I concur with the recommendation for OpenOffice - I use it instead of the MS suite, even though my company has a license for the MS products. I exchange files back and forth with my colleagues (docs, spreadsheets, and presentations) and they're none the wiser.
posted by bedhead at 11:23 PM on November 19, 2004

Oh, and OpenOffice can do a direct export to Acrobat, if you want to distribute documents in .pdf format. I also have the full version of Acrobat, and I've found that the OpenOffice converter works faster than the Acrobat converter. YMMV.
posted by bedhead at 11:27 PM on November 19, 2004

This may be a bit off topic, but I'd like to give another recommendation for a thinkpad. I love the things, they're just solidly built. I took one (bought used for sub-$500 on the ibm website) on a year-long trip in Central and South America, stashed in my backpack without a case, and it was just fine. I bought a 600x for about $500 (from overstock.com) when I returned, and use it everyday for word processing (MS Word) and the internet, taking it back and forth from my office to my home.

I don't think anyone's mentioned the quality of the keyboard as a factor in a your decision, but the thinkpad keyboard is, IMO, wonderful, better than desktop keyboards in general -- many laptop keyboards are not comfortable to type on.
posted by seventyfour at 8:55 AM on November 20, 2004

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