Help me find the awesomest laptop ever.
April 16, 2009 6:03 AM   Subscribe

Laptop filter: please help me find an awesome laptop for business and personal use for the next 3-4 years. (Feel free to recommend an ideal setup, rather than the hardware itself if you feel so inclined.)

Hello all. I'm currently in the market for a new laptop and am having trouble finding one that gets me all excited.

For the purposes of this question, here are my key considerations:
1) let's pretend that money isn't an object;
2) I work out of a few different locations - I will hook the laptop up to a monitor and keyboard at some, but at others I'll be using the laptop itself (including at home), so I'd prefer a large screen;
3) I travel regularly but not a lot, so I'm not really concerned with weight this time around;
4) I live outside of most warranty zones (and/or have to ship it at my own, very high cost to get work done under warranty) so reliability is paramount;
5) I tried Mac many years ago, it was a disappointment and then the screen died, I had to ship it to the US and lost everything... I'm not likely to go there again;
6) I mostly use it for word processing, email and the internet. I also use some music recording and editing software, astronomy imaging and tracking software and will be loading up some photo and video editing software too. No gaming, no super-fancy graphics, and I'm not editing photos or music every day. So primary use is definitely low-bandwidth stuff, so to speak.

I'd appreciate any help you can offer - I'll be getting my chance to actually touch and play with some laptops in 2 weeks, until then I can only do research on the Internets.

posted by gwpcasey to Computers & Internet (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I recently procured a Dell Latitude 6500 (work would only allow a Dell because of specific agreements and Dell's replacement policy). The build of the machine is top-notch, and I managed to get the specs up to something decent without going broke (AU$2500).

However, the thing comes with Vista by default and that thing is driving me insane (I'd give anything for Mac OS or XP). But, when it comes to warranty and such, you can't beat Dell when it comes to extra cover. If you're willing to pay 20% of the total price towards warranty and whatnot, Dell might be a good choice…
posted by doctor.dan at 6:17 AM on April 16, 2009

I would consider a lenovo thinkpad. They're tough, business-class laptops. I've got one now that I travel with daily (I'm a law student). Fairly light, good battery life, and a screen that works at a wide number of angles (that's always been an issue for me, when the colors get all wonky with laptop screens). I have a T400 with a built in graphics card and it has enough horsepower for light gaming.

Its not the most exciting laptop in the world, but its a workhorse.
posted by craven_morhead at 6:58 AM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I second the Lenovo T400. The keyboard is excellent, the screen is bright, and the quality is high.
posted by demon666 at 7:24 AM on April 16, 2009

I have also had good luck with thinkpads. I would stay away from Dell, but that's my experience YMMV.

I'd get at least a Core 2 Duo and as much ram as you can get without breaking the bank. 4 Gigs would be ideal. Make sure you're getting a wireless card capable of 802.11n and bluetooth if you'll use it.
posted by JuiceBoxHero at 7:30 AM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Lenovos are top notch, but you will pay dearly for a powerful one, and even more dearly for a decent warranty.

In the end they are all made with the same parts on the inside, pretty much. and they all fail eventually.
posted by Amby72 at 7:31 AM on April 16, 2009

+ Thinkpad

- Dell Latitude
posted by distrakted at 7:35 AM on April 16, 2009

Best answer: Regardless of what laptop you buy, you should get or purchase a good backup solution (e.g. an external hard drive which you sync stuff to, and an offsite backup like Mozy. I would recommend having both, so that in the event of a burglary or fire, you don't lose your laptop and backup).

That way, you won't be in such bad shape if/when the laptop fails, as you'll still have all your data.

Speaking as a man with a Mac and Mobile Me (bleugh. .Mac was a better name), one good thing that came out of my hard drive dying was that all of my contacts and calendars were still safe.

Onto hardware, I've had good experiences with Thinkpads (pre-Lenovo) and MacBooks (apart from the HD failure), but it's been three years since I looked at anything.
posted by djgh at 8:04 AM on April 16, 2009

Thinkpad. My T61 is the first laptop I've owned that I actually trust to last more than a couple of years (as a matter of fact, each of my previous notebooks died after one year). Lenovo's great about putting out updated drivers, and I really like some of their ThinkVantage utilities.

Take a look at the T series (T500 has a 15.4" screen), SL series (SL500 w/ 15.4" screen), or W series (W700 w/ 17" screen, W500 w/ 15.4" screen).
posted by roomwithaview at 8:24 AM on April 16, 2009

+1 on Thinkpad T series. Possibly even +2, considering you're in a remote location, and there are thinkpad service centers all over the world -- that will honor your warranty, even if you're not in the same country where you bought the laptop.

Short of the Panasonic Toughbooks ($$$$, and more of a specialty unit), they're the best-built, longest lasting, most reliable laptops in the business.
posted by toxic at 8:54 AM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Nthing Lenovo - I would go for a ThinkPad over an IdeaPad or their "Value Line". T or W series if you're not trying for the cheapest possible. T series is the traditional business notebook - very solid, 15.4" screen, 5-6 pounds (depending on battery) The W series are desktop replacements with widescreen displays in 15.4" and 17", as well as one model that has a 10" retractable second screen (?!). Personally, that seems like it would be prone to breakage, but I've never seen it in person.

And I do feel compelled to point out the Lenovo Outlet - the refub category is exactly what it sounds like, but the "new" category are unused computers from big purchase orders that were canceled. If you're interested in a T series (many companies buy them in bulk), the "new" outlet is a good option, if you don't mind selecting from the preset configurations available.
posted by clerestory at 9:01 AM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Laptops, due to their portable design, have inherently crappy ergonomics. The most usable and versatile laptops I've found are ones that are convertible tablet-PCs.
I mainly use the pen so that I don't have to use the stupid finger-pad or carry a mouse around everywhere (the pen slides into a slot in the machine when not in use), but when using photoshop it's a godsend - a graded-pressure sensitive wacom digitizer built right into the screen!
I don't bother with the speech or handwriting-recognition stuff they have, but it's there if you find some use for that?
The reversible folding screen is wonderful for watching DVDs on a flight, and while being able to transform the laptop into a slate isn't something I use much (because I prefer to have the keyboard available), it's often pretty nice to be able to do that in certain situations.

I'm never going back to the old style of laptop.

If you're like me, and additional bonus if you decide on a convertible tablet-PC, is that the decision cuts the number of laptop models to chose from down to something much more manageable and less paralysing, and you can start seriously comparing prices and specs and getting down to business, instead of flailing wildly in an ocean of options :)
posted by -harlequin- at 9:13 AM on April 16, 2009

Best answer: I really like HP. I've had great experience with their hardware lasting several years longer than one would typically think it should. Their laptops are powerful, well built, and intelligently designed--no ports on the back, who knew??

I like their keyboard feel, and their EliteBook line is pretty top notch while still being decently affordable.

They look good, and you can get a 16" screen with a 1680x1050 resolution which is plenty for most types of work.

If you're plugging into a desktop station and want dual display, you can use Matrox's DualHead2Go Digital Edition unit, which will take a single output from your laptop and make it into one very wide output, which the box then stretches onto two displays. I use it at work and it's rather great.

HP's notebooks just have a bunch of smart things about them--I was pleasantly surprised to see that they had two headphone jacks by default, for instance.

Don't worry about Vista, but see if you can get a coupon for Windows 7, since it's superior and coming out pretty cool.

Go play with an HP at Best Buy. Stay away from Gateway, Acer, and Dell. Lenovo is pretty decent, too, but I tend to think of HP as more stylish, yet still VERY well built.

A base system from them should be a 2GHz+ dual core system, with at least 2GB of RAM (though HP offers free RAM upgrades often; do NOT settle for 1GB on ANY system), at least 320GB hard drive, and, if possible, a Radeon Mobility or a GeForce2Go chip, instead of onboard graphics.

HP has what they call their Infinity Display, which removes the bezel and basically produces the screen to the edge for an extra $50. It's pretty neat and really slick, and their screens are gorgeous, but make sure you get their BrightView option. (To be fair, I don't think you can NOT get it anymore, thankfully.)

Good luck!

(Disclosure: I own an HP. My dad owns a 4-year old HP that's still kicking and well built. We have two HPs at the office. And my mother, brother, and two best friends own HP, mostly because of me. They've all never had any hardware issues, and a great box can be had for about $800, depending on OS and such. However, late last year, HP *did* fly me to their "Connecting Your World" event in Berlin, which didn't make me love them any *more*, but was a fun trip nonetheless. I already owned and loved many HPs before this, though, and had no other relationship to them at all; I was covering events for a blog I sometimes write for.)
posted by disillusioned at 10:04 AM on April 16, 2009

You might see if Apple's warranty coverage has improved, namely if there are local repair providers now. I've had very good luck with third party repair services preforming work under Apple Care. Indeed, third party warranty providers are often far better than Apple Stores. Well, Apple Stores are too stupid to preform significant repairs in-house, and might void your warranty for even minor unrelated dents. I'd research local repair options for Dell, Lenovo, etc.

I've found that laptops invariably suffer hard disk crashes. So you need tree things : frequent & numerous backups, local warranty repair providers, end user replaceable hard disk & memory. If I suffer a crash, I can just mail the internal drive in, and boot the off a bootable backup drive. You should obviously buy a couple external drives for incremental and bootable backups.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:08 AM on April 16, 2009

I have had two Toshibas that ended up being rock-solid, usable machines for years longer than I would have expected.
posted by sageleaf at 10:43 AM on April 16, 2009

I love my Lenovo X61 Tablet, fantastic build quality, and the power is fairly decent. Great battery life, screen isn't huge at 15" but definitely good for extended use. If you don't need tablet functions, go with a regular Lenovo so it is one less part to deal with. In a crunch this week, I was able to hook it up to a 32 inch HDTV as an external monitor and edit 28 minutes of full HD footage in Premiere Pro. Rendering out took a while, but it handled it much better than expected.
posted by shinynewnick at 12:09 PM on April 16, 2009

old job we used thinkpads, which were always good. new job uses dells, which i hated until the latest one they handed out, e4300. its not a huge screen, but its pretty solid otherwise. i really like it no complaints. macs are nice, my wife has one, i had one, but its all about the o.s. youll pay through the nose to up the specs. dell e4300, check it out, with vista, pretty good. the new hps are nice too, ive helped a few friends set theirs up.
posted by fumbducker at 12:28 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Another thumbs-up for Toshiba, here. They just seem to run and run - I had my last one for at least five years (probably more like six) and it was on and running 24/7 for most of that time (not least as it was acting as my bittorrent client). When it finally stepped on a rainbow, I didn't even think about alternatives - just went straight ahead and selected a new Tosh from their online store.

Oh, and it may not be an issue for everyone, but I really dug that several models ship with restore media for XP as well as Vista.
posted by kxr at 12:58 PM on April 16, 2009

Best answer: Amby72 wrote: In the end they are all made with the same parts on the inside, pretty much. and they all fail eventually.

I have yet to have a Thinkpad fail on me in a catastrophic way. I had a disk fail once, and I had a fan fail once. In the first instance, IBM overnighted a disk to me. In the second case, Lenovo overnighted a fan to me.

Both were prior to complete failure, so I only had an unusable laptop for the hour or so it took to replace the part. (Well, replacing the drive took about three's a one screw affair, but imaging the new drive took about an hour)

In addition to being generally reliable, they have an excellent warranty policy in that you can buy a used one on eBay and as long as it has any warranty left, you can extend it for up to 5 total years for relatively cheap, and if not, you can extend it up to 5 total years for somewhat more. That's right, you can buy the warranty after the laptop has failed out of warranty. Gotta love it.

However, they rarely fail. And they're well engineered. And they don't have floppy screens. And they have excellent keyboards. And a trackpoint. And the thinklight. And they send you free restore media if you need it. (although they refuse to do it preemptively without fee) And they have drain holes so you aren't hosed when you spill your drink on them. And they have an excellent hardware maintenance manual that tells you in excruciating detail how to completely disassemble the laptop if need be. And magnesium. Need I go on?

There is one downside, though. They have a stupid whitelist in the BIOS that only allows you to install approved MiniPCI/MiniPCIe cards.

That said, one of my clients once had this Toshiba subnotebook that was a tank. I still never figured out quite how he managed to crush it.
posted by wierdo at 8:49 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Not the answer you wanted per #5 (how many years ago was it?), but here goes:

If you want your machine to last 3-4 years (or longer), then get a Mac. Period. Windows machines get sluggish due to OS cruft long before that time. Doing a reinstall of the MacOs is nearly trivial, as opposed to the headache that any Windows reinstall is. Do you *really* want to run Vista, and then have to install Win7 on top of it? And you can run Windows on the Mac anyway.

I've managed to pull the power cable out of my BlackBook more than a couple times now... it just falls to the floor (magnetic catch) - the machine is safe. Also consider that the Mac ships with basic music recording, photo / movie editing, and automated backup software, with no need for an antivirus subscription. The unibody MacBook & Pro is built like a tank. Go to the Apple Store, check out the current line, and watch DealMac for refurb deals. I'm very happy with my BlackBook 13" (bought a refurb with 2ghz core duo, 2GB memory, 120GB HD for $799 in December 2008).

I use Windows when I have to... and I am amazed at how many more clicks it takes to do anything. Finally, a recent link from

Good luck in the search!
posted by omnidrew at 9:22 PM on April 16, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you all for your thoughtful and thorough answers, very helpful. I have to admit, as great and solid as the lenovo's and hp's sound, in general, a Mac or a tablet are very tempting, just because they seem more exciting and 'gadgety'.

Thanks again.
posted by gwpcasey at 5:56 AM on April 17, 2009

Thanks for one of the "best" tags -- here's another recent article.
posted by omnidrew at 7:40 AM on April 17, 2009

Out of curiosity, hijacking the question, what exactly makes it easier to reinstall OSX than Windows? Most laptop manufacturers have this easy button that does it for you. ;)

All you have to do is make sure you have media to install any software you've added on and all your documents. Is it really possible to make the process easier? If so, I'd like to know how it's done so I can replicate it with the tools available to me, since basically all my clients use Windows and aren't switching anytime soon.
posted by wierdo at 11:59 AM on April 20, 2009

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