I'm thinking of getting a new laptop to replace my Sony Picturebook.
November 19, 2004 10:54 AM   Subscribe

I'm thinking of getting a new laptop to replace my Sony Picturebook (the 800x480 screen is just too cramped). I would very, very much like this to not be a Windows system. And since I'm finding out more by accident than I am by searching, I thought I'd throw out some questions here. Looking for suggestions on the best way to proceed. [mi]

For example, I learned by reading an aside in some thread somewhere that the hibernation code for Linux is widely regarded as "too buggy for production". I hadn't read that anywhere that I was looking at in doing my research. Since I want something with fast startup, that's kind of important for me to know.

I'm basically thinking along three possible lines, here:

1 - iBook. Advantages are instant on (or so I'm told), and solid integration of OS with hardware. Also, I could ditch my Windows desktop, since the key Windows-only software I care about (Macromedia stuff) works fine on Macs. This I can easily learn more about, so it's not my primary concern.

2 - Pre-installed Linux system. Chief advantage is that I don't invest my time in the endless tweaks I fear will be required to get Linux working properly on a laptop. And better screen resolution than the Mac.

3 - DIY Linux laptop. This the option I'm most leery of; anyone have any feedback on whether this has gotten easier? Or suggestions on best hardware?

Rapid startup, integrated 802.11g (or better), and long(ish) battery life are important to me; screen res is negotiable, if I can get at least 14" iBook res (1024x768). From the model it's replacing (which is about the size of a DVD box), you can assume I want something on the small-light side.

I don't want to start a flame war or a booster thread, and I figure the iBook has a strong dark horse position even if there are so many things I dislike about it (think: ONE BUTTON...for a start....). Mostly I'm interested in opinions about option 2 and 3: Feasibility, time+effort, appropriate distros (and vendors), etc.
posted by lodurr to Computers & Internet (19 answers total)
The 12" and 14" iBooks actually have the same resolution screen; it sounds like you would definitely prefer the 12" size-wise.

I think the iBooks are lovely machines, sturdily-built (problems with logic boards and pinched wires in the hinges in previous builds notwithdstanding -- those were BAD problems but as far as I can tell they've been worked out) and with a decent price point.

If the one-button thing bugs you, you can use just about any commodity mouse you like with a Mac -- USB or Bluetooth if that strikes your fancy. Macs do wake from sleep very quickly but they lack the "very deep sleep" modes of some PC laptops where you can *almost completely* cut the power yet preserve the contents of RAM.

I can't speak to the quality of other unix-y systems for use with laptops, but I think the days of Mac platform bashing are over and you'd get a lot of enjoyment out of an iBook.
posted by bcwinters at 11:11 AM on November 19, 2004

Response by poster: Derailing slightly (I know I said I didn't want this, but...): What value differentiators do you see between iBook and PowerBook? 12" iBook looks like a really good package; what are the reasons that a non-gamer would want a 12" PowerBook?
posted by lodurr at 11:18 AM on November 19, 2004

There's not much differentiating the iBook and Powerbook right now. The biggest thing I've noticed is the lack of a DVD-R/RW drive option on the iBook. I've got a 12" iBook G4 800, and it's fine for the Macromedia programs, but you'll want to make sure you upgrade the RAM to at least 512MB, preferably a 1GB. Battery life is great, and the OS has an option (called Energy Saver) where you can choose to preserve battery life. I think it ramps down the processor a little bit. I regularly get about 4 hours with the screen at max brightness, more if I darken it a little. It wakes up from sleep in about 5 seconds. Hope that's helpful.
posted by letitrain at 11:30 AM on November 19, 2004

I have a 12" PowerBook, love it, and could not recommend it higher. As for what makes it better than an iBook? I don't know. The keyboard is much nicer, in my opinion, and that's a big part of it. Plus it just seems more sturdy. Whether it has a better video card or is faster or more expandable or any of that sort of stuff, I'll leave it to you to compare specs. I will suggest you go to the 'special deals' section of the Apple Store at apple.com though. They update it every day, I believe, and you can frequently get great deals on Apple hardware there, and stuff you order there often times comes with free 'silent upgrades' such as extra RAM or the like.
posted by spilon at 11:31 AM on November 19, 2004

Hibernation support (suspend-to-disk) works pretty well with Linux. Suspend-to-ram is still a work in progress, but there's been great strides recently. The only thing that's keeping me from enjoying it is ATI's horrible Linux video driver. If you do end up going the Linux route, stay far, far away from ATI cards. Since this is a pretty fast-moving target, any kind of pre-installed setup you're going to get is going to have a distro too old to really work. DIY's the only way to go if you want this stuff to work *now*. Wait 6 months and it may be in the distros automatically.

If you don't want to screw with stuff, just get a Mac.
posted by zsazsa at 11:53 AM on November 19, 2004

I'd (sadly, reluctantly) recommend against the Linux route. I've spent a lot of time working with Linux on laptops, and have come to the conclusion that it's just not worth it, especially now that Apple makes high-quality commodity laptop Unix systems.

I love my 12" Powerbook. I chose it over the iBook to get the faster bus, faster processor, and superdrive option. I think they may have upgraded the iBook since I bought my computer to eliminate some of these advantages, however.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:41 PM on November 19, 2004

I run Linux (Gentoo) on a Thinpad T41, and I recently switched the install over to a T42p. While it works for someone like me, I wouldn't recommend it for most. My issues:

Suspend and hibernate have never quite worked right.
The integrated wireless can be a pain.
Getting the ATI driver to work properly was not easy.
Battery life is better with Windows - changing CPU frequency, etc in Linux can be a pain.

If you think you can handle it, it works great once you finally get it set up. But if I were in your shoes, I'd probably go for a Mac. A nice unix system with no issues getting the hardware to work.
posted by bh at 1:31 PM on November 19, 2004

And you can use almost any 2-button-with-scrollwheel bluetooth or USB mouse with the powerbook, too. I have a 12" and use a wireless mouse and everything works great.
posted by luriete at 1:55 PM on November 19, 2004

ibook: "Advantages are instant on (or so I'm told)"

That's just a sleep mode. It's about as reliable as Windows sleep mode on good quality hardware. The down side is that unlike PC portables, which continue to run happily when shut, Apple laptops always sleep when closed.

In any case, I was in a very similar situation earlier this year, with several machines including the IBM T series in the running. I wound up springing for a 12" PowerBook with the DVD burner. I'm still annoyed by the one button touchpad and a few other things, but overall I'm less irked by my hardware than I have been in a long time. I spend very little time wrangling drivers and dealing with compatibility, whereas that was a significant activity for me before.

If you do wind up going with Linux on a PC, I suggest:
avoiding Dell at all costs
considering IBM
making sure your hardware does not use Intel or Broadcom wireless networking
using Knoppix as an installer
using swsuspend instead of hardware hibernation
posted by majick at 1:56 PM on November 19, 2004

The down side is that unlike PC portables, which continue to run happily when shut, Apple laptops always sleep when closed.

This is true. iBooks release heat through the keyboard, so having your iBook run while closed would do damage to your screen and various other things.

The (huge) upside, however, is that iBooks (and PowerBooks) are much, much quieter than their PC counterparts, since they don't rely so much on fan cooling.

I got my 14" iBook in May and have loved every moment of its use. I'm a dual-platform guy, but (in my opinion) Macs own the laptop market, and it's not even close.
posted by savetheclocktower at 2:18 PM on November 19, 2004

I'd second the Powerbook recommendations. I went with the 15" G4 Aluminum to replace my aged Pismo.

The main reason I went up to the 15" and not the 12" is because I wanted to super cool backlit keyboard. It is really, really useful if you need to work in a darkened room.

Other than the keyboard, I kind of wish I had the smaller frame machine. The 15" is a pretty good sized package to carry around.

And I do use a Blue Tooth mouse now, a MacAlly Mini BT that I love. It works well, auto shuts off and doesn't munch through batteries too quickly at all.

On Preview: My new powerbook does run really, really warm. To the point that I don't think it can really be called a laptop as I'd end up with second degree burns if that sucker sat on my lap for too long.
posted by fenriq at 2:24 PM on November 19, 2004

Response by poster: Wow, that derailed fast. OK, go with the flow, I guess: as long as I've got a bunch of Mac folks....

From what I can see, the iBook doesn't support resolutions higher than 1024x768, even on external monitors. Can anyone say that's true or false?
posted by lodurr at 4:04 PM on November 19, 2004

i have an ibm thinkpad (supposed to be good with linux) and, like bh, wouldn't recommend it unless you like hacking linux. i use windows/cygwin and only boot into linux when absolutely necessary.

my partner has a little mac. nice machine. the only thing i don't like is the keyboard. oh, and the battery life isn't that good. but if you want unix on a laptop it's the way to go.
posted by andrew cooke at 4:19 PM on November 19, 2004

There is an OpenFirmware hack to let the iBook run at higher resolutions on external monitors. Can't quite find the link at the moment, but it can be done.

As for running Linux on a laptop, unless you are doing this as a hobby (along the lines of, say, a ship in a bottle), don't bother. It is a major pain to get everything up and running. Even after a successful install on my Thinkpad, the system still had power management issues and tended to hang unpredictably.

If you like the *nix, OS X is absolutely the way to go.
posted by 4easypayments at 4:21 PM on November 19, 2004

I'll give yet another endorsement of Apple laptops, being on my third (2001 iBook) and preparing to buy my fourth (probably a powerbook). I don't know how desperate you are to get the new computer, but if you can wait until january (Macworld SF) it may be worthwhile. The iBooks were updated pretty recently (like a month ago I think) so I wouldn't expect much to change there, but the Powerbooks are long overdue and will almost certainly be improved. It's pretty well agreed that there won't be a G5 powerbook yet, but expect some moderate performance upgrades and possibly a new form factor and/or new price points. If you are interested, you may want to check out Mac OS Rumors in coming weeks. Of course nothing is certain until the Keynote (Jan. 11th I think), but it's hard to believe that Apple would keep the Powerbooks and iBooks so closely spec'd for long. As others have said, you don't get much more from the Powerbook at the moment, so if you are going to buy now, that's probably your best bet.

As for battery life, a few things that are of interest: 1) New apple laptops get pretty good battery life, whatever Apple claims on their specs page is probably reasonably accurate. 2) Old apple laptops tend to get pretty piss fucking poor battery life - definitely counted in minutes, not hours. 3) I've been told (but have yet to confirm with experience over a long period of time) that if you are very strict about always draining your battery completely before charging, and always charging fully before draining, you can have excellent battery life for a much longer time period. I'm currently trying the following strategy: I bought a new battery which I only use for travel, and charge/discharge it fully every time. I use my old, crap battery most of the time, when I'm plugged into the charger constantly. Seems to be working so far, but I haven't had it for very long.
posted by rorycberger at 4:45 PM on November 19, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks -- all good feedback. I'd been looking at a lot of outfits that refit off the shelf models with Linux -- some of them pretty nice looking. And I'd started to worry about the power-management and suspend/hibernate functions.

I've never been fond of the idea of paying the "Mac tax", but I was surprised to learn that off the shelf Linux laptops (with a few conspicuous exceptions, like ElementComputers) are more expensive than Windows laptops. I'm bothered by the low screen res on the iBook (1024x768 seems really cramped to me), but it's hard to justify the extra cost of the powerbook for just that. I can make the Picturebook last enough longer to eval new PowerBooks -- which, anyway, should put them into Tiger territory, right? Save me the money and effort of upgrading the OS.
posted by lodurr at 8:31 PM on November 19, 2004

You can always run linux on the Apple machine too :)
posted by Space Coyote at 2:20 AM on November 20, 2004

15" PowerBook user here, took the plunge and have never looked back, I definitely encourage the switch. Also, my wife has a 12" iBook, and at 1024x768 its amazing how it presents, not cramped at all and for some reason doesn't even seem particularly small, but that could just be the Mac cult brainwashing kicking in.
posted by tetsuo at 2:45 AM on November 20, 2004

I wouldn't hold my breath on Tiger, I don't think that's supposed to be out until mid-late next year.
posted by rorycberger at 12:06 PM on November 21, 2004

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