What do I need to look at when buying a new laptop?
June 2, 2009 9:28 AM   Subscribe

I'm in the market for a new laptop. Should I get a PC or Mac? What specs are important for me to look at when making a decision?

My Toshiba Satellite A65 seems to be on its last legs, so I think I'm getting a new laptop.

In researching, I've become confused as to which specs really matter when looking at a computer.

Here's what I would use it for:
- E-mail, IM, and Web
- Watching DVDs
- BitTorrent
- Word processing and spreadsheets
- Tracking my finances
- Some music creation (mostly breakbeats)

I've seen some places say that I need as much RAM as possible, others stress the importance of a large hard drive, yet others say I need the fastest processor.

Also, any recommendations as to brands that are more reliable than others?

Please help!
posted by reenum to Computers & Internet (31 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This is going to turn into a flame war. But I will try to answer neutrally.

It doesnt seem like you are doing really resource intense stuff (apart from music creation which I am not sure what you will be using) so I would say you dont need a mac pro at all.

So your decision is between a macbook and another pc laptop.

Pc is cheaper, you can get one with great specs for a very good deal. It will do all the things you listed. Some might not be as durable as a mac and all will probably not have the longevity. More prone to viruses if you are inexperienced and do not protect yourself. I have an HP and like it and it was cheap and has a lot of bang for the buck.

Macbooks a very nice, last a long time, and arent as finicky I feel. I also have one of these and it is a very good machine. Durable and will retain resale value and will most likely last longer. Unless you get a duo core one, you are also going to be screwed out of games on it. Another plus here is you can also dual boot into OSX or Windows so if you like Windows you can get this and only use Windows.

In short, unless price is a huge issue or you need more resources. Get a macbook.
posted by xdeliriumx at 9:38 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ok...one thing that you haven't mentioned is how much you're looking to SPEND, because that can really make or break the determination.

IF you go PC, I'd say ensure you DO have at least 4GB of RAM and a pretty large hard drive because with Windows 7 just around the corner you're going to want to be sure you can run it well. While Vista's problems are mostly stabilized, everything I'm seeing shows Windows 7 to be a cut above.

You DID specifically mention BitTorrent. This leads me to recommend a Mac for you. There are plenty of BitTorrent clients for Macs (I like Transmission myself) and without the copious number of viruses and spywares that you can get from file sharing Macs ARE a bit safer.

You also mention Music Creation and there I would also tend to go Mac. All Macs come with iLife which includes GarageBand which allows for basic beat/loop creation, and Macs also have a large number of both free and pay softwares for music creation.

Doing audio myself I've noticed less problems with large audio files in Mac than under Windows XP, but it may be anecdotal and perhaps not actually due to any OS difference.

Either way, since it's a laptop you want the largest hard drive possible (I can barely keep up with torrent files and free space on my hard drive) and still I say 4GB of RAM is a good baseline recommendation that will future-proof you for a while.
posted by arniec at 9:41 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There are 3 basic specs central to any task which you should compare first. The importance of the rest are variable depending on your task. These are:
Processor speed
HDD space

For your purposes I would say that you don't need to rush for the fastest processor, you will be more concerned with RAM and drive space. Movies, music and photos are the biggest space hogs so I would definitely get the largest HDD available (there are 500GB drives available to buy although 320GB is the largest I've seen in a computer to date) and I would consider an external drive mandatory as internal drives WILL fail you at the most inconvenient possible time. RAM is cheap nowadays so go for 4GB.

In terms of reliability I've come across all sorts of opinions, but from what I know the hardware is now so tightly designed that the difference between one manufacturer's quality and another's is minimal. On the Mac side, be aware that you are paying a style premium to an extent, but there are certain quality advantages too - the new unibody aluminium cases are very sturdy as well as looking swish, and you get included software which Windows laptops rarely have a match for in the form of iLife. Plus, viruses for Macs are few and far between, and it's absurdly simple to keep a Mac free of them even if you are downloading lots of porn.

On the other hand, having a laptop and £400 spare beer money you weren't expecting has a persuasion all of its own, which is why I've gone with a Windows one. Consider that you can easily get a run-of-the-mill Windows computer for £500 (sorry my American buddies, I don't know your prices so well) and the most basic MacBook is nearly 50% more expensive, I can't say I recommend Macs without reservation. If money were no object, sure, I'd get one.

As for which Windows computer, that depends very heavily on your budget.
posted by fearnothing at 9:50 AM on June 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Since most of what I use a laptop for is on the internet, I don't think it matters which platform you use to get there. I have a MacBook because it has a durable aluminum shell and a gorgeous screen. It is the exact size I want (13"), it works every time and has never crashed. I don't have to think about viruses or hackers. It has a mag power plug so I don't trip on the cord anymore and pull my computer to the floor. Finally, I love the iLife suite of photo/music/video software that came with the computer. It records and stores my world and talks seamlessly to my iPhone. As long as Apple makes them this good, I will never buy a PC again.
posted by birdwatcher at 9:53 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Whatever you do, RAM is the most effective and inexpensive option for making sure your computer is fast. Max out whichever laptop you get (4 GB minimum, but 6 or 8 GB would be even better) and you won't regret it.
posted by Simon Barclay at 9:54 AM on June 2, 2009

Metafilter is a heavily mac-centric community, so be aware of that when you read these answers. If you want to spend more and get less in terms of computing power, go for a mac. Caveat is that if you have no idea what you're doing in terms of viruses/malware/computers in general, macs are less easy to mess up than pc's are.

Full disclosure: I own a pc, and bought my wife a macbook. She loved it at first, and I thought she would be a mac person for life, until she asked me to trouble shoot for her, (her harddrive was inexplicably full), and realized that I can't fix her computer since I don't have the same knowledge of macs that I do of pcs. She has little interest in learning much about macs in order to troubleshoot them, and since I'm not much help, she has said that she might go back to pc after her current macbook runs its course. That could change, obviously, just thought I'd mention it.
posted by Grither at 9:55 AM on June 2, 2009

PCs are cheaper; Macs are funner.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:02 AM on June 2, 2009

You'll probably want 4G of RAM as it's cheap and a solid speed boost for any tasks. Beyond that: anything that appeals to you. You aren't doing anything that qualifies as intense these days so anything with a Core 2 or better would be fine.
posted by chairface at 10:07 AM on June 2, 2009

mac = fun.
pc = headaches.

i use a pc. will never buy another. when this one finally dies a mac will take its place in a week.

it's not how much you pay for something, it's what it costs you that counts.
posted by FauxScot at 10:10 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Here's what I would use it for:
- E-mail, IM, and Web
- Watching DVDs
- BitTorrent
- Word processing and spreadsheets
- Tracking my finances
- Some music creation (mostly breakbeats)

Pretty much any non-netbook computer on the shelf today can handle everything in this list, except for the last one. That would be very dependent on what software you want to use. That's probably your first decision.

I'm not even going to touch the Mac vs. PC debate. I will say that my ancient 1.6Ghz P4 desktop with 400MB of RAM can do everything you want, but I haven't tried music creation.
posted by meowzilla at 10:11 AM on June 2, 2009

I'll recommend the MacBook as well. The OS feels more "transparent" to me. You don't sit there stamping out pop-up alerts every time you turn it on. It sparks up whenever you open the lid and it's battery life is longer than my pc laptop.

Don't let Apple talk you into buying their RAM. Get 4Gigs someplace else and install it yourself.

Also, we got a refurbished MacBook (available from the Apple site) for a relative and it appeared mint.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:15 AM on June 2, 2009

If I could go back, I would have gotten a Macbook, although my HP dv6000 has quite the bang for the proverbial buck. Macbooks can generally take more abuse and have the advantage of running both Windows and OSX.
If you do go Apple, I would get a refurbished Macbook Pro- having a real graphics card can be nice, plus hey- it's aluminum.
posted by dunkadunc at 10:19 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you want to spend more and get less in terms of computing power, go for a mac

Here I have to disagree.

I just NOW went and priced an Apples to Apples (pun intended) comparison, the Apple Macbook 13" versus the Dell Inspron 13".

To start, the Macbook was $999 and the Dell was $499. But the Mac was 2.1GHz, the Dell only 2GHz so I had to upgrade the Dell's processor. The Mac OS has no limitations, but Windows Vista Standard cripples many things so I upgraded to Vista Premium. The Mac has a built in Webcam, Dell charged extra for it. The Dell came with the worst battery possible so I upgraded that to the middle of the line one. The Mac comes with iDVD for burning, the Dell charges extra for DVD authoring software.

By the time I brought everything in line, the Dell was up to $988 and the Mac was $999. AND The Mac came with iLife, had a faster front-side bus. AND The Dell came with a NVidia graphics processor while the Dell came with an Intel (I've never heard a gamer brag on his INTEL Video card)

Then I went and added McAffee 36 month of virus protection, not needed for Mac. The bell rung, the Dell cost more.

I will grant you this: There are more PC manufacturers competing on price, so they put together a nice looking package with 2 or 3 fairly good parts that they pump up, and then cheap out on video or on bluetooth, etc. Mac, to many people's chagrin, don't do that. They only sell machines with certain configurations that work together (no driver conflicts like you will find on many PCs), and where most all parts are solid, name brand parts.

But if you compare the hardware and software packages you normally can't build a PC with the same specs as a Mac and save any more than 10%, and often, as with the above, it costs more to go PC.

Oh, and BTW, I'm a Windows programmer and previous PC Salesman. I'm not Mac biased, but I hate the fallacy of the "Macs cost more" argument.
posted by arniec at 10:19 AM on June 2, 2009 [7 favorites]

Also, we got a refurbished MacBook (available from the Apple site) for a relative and it appeared mint.

Seconding the Mac refurbs from the Apple site. I've bought 3. ALL looked brand new, seemed brand new. Not a scratch, not a ding. The only difference I could find between the refurb and new? The refurb cost less.
posted by arniec at 10:20 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

A PC equivalently configured to a Mac will probably cost more so if the Mac is a good fit for you you probably won't do better with a PC. But if your needs are in any way different (want a bigger/smaller screen, better video card, don't care about bluetooth, more/less hard drive/RAM/CPU, ...) then you might want to consider a PC.

I have possibly irrational biases against HP (bad quality) and Sony (overpriced) and would avoid them.

If the sercurity/virus thing is what's keeping you from a PC you can always install a different OS on the laptop. A Linux distro like Ubuntu is dead easy to install (probably easier than a periodic windows re-install) and will be able to do everything you need it to. Plus running linux won't make your laptop obsolete when the next version of Windows comes out. My 5 year old generic laptop performs about as well now as it did when I got it.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 10:27 AM on June 2, 2009

See what I mean in regards to arniec? Heavy mac slant at this site. FWIW, I just priced up a dell laptop, and a macbook:
15.6inch screen, 160gb, 2ghz dual core, 2gb RAM, 8xdvd
13inch screen, 160gb, 2ghz dual core, 2gb RAM, 8xdvd
Dell $404
Mac $1299

See, I can cherry pick what a person "needs" to add or not add to match up to my own personal idea of what is equivalent across mac vs dell, and I can come up with an arbitrary price comparison as well. Yippee!
posted by Grither at 10:42 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Bottom line: Get what works best for you. If price is an issue, however, you will be able to do more with less cash going the PC route.
posted by Grither at 10:46 AM on June 2, 2009

Response by poster: I'd say that I want to spend less than $1100, if possible. I would be willing to spend up to $1250 if needed.
posted by reenum at 11:12 AM on June 2, 2009

You say what you're going to use the laptop for but not how. Some questions you should know the answer to before you get started:
  • Are you tech savvy or are you willing to be? (what is your plan when something goes wrong with your computer?)
  • Is this going to be your only computer? (if so you probably want the laptop to have a bigger screen and as much CPU/RAM/HD as you can afford)
  • Do you plan on carrying it with you a lot? (do you need to pay for portability/want a smaller screen)
  • If yes, will you have reliable access to power where you'll be using it? (do you need to pay for better battery life)
  • Do you plan on regularly using external mice or keyboards? (do you want bluetooth)
  • How often do you delete the stuff you download? (what size HD is right for you)
  • Will the screen be exposed to direct sunlight? (glossy screen or not)

posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:19 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @any portmanteau:

1. I am somewhat tech savvy and can do some diagnosing and troubleshooting, but I'm not a computer expert by any means.

2. This will be my primary computer. I also have a Dell Inspiron 4100 that I use on occasion.

3. The laptop will be stationary, so no need for it to be extra light.

4. I should have fairly reliable access to power, but I do take trans Atlantic plane trips, and would like to have a laptop I can use during these journeys.

5. I usually use an external mouse, but not external keyboard.

6. I'm decent about deleting installers and other old files.

7. The screen should not be exposed to direct sunlight too often.
posted by reenum at 11:40 AM on June 2, 2009

"Max out whichever laptop you get (4 GB minimum, but 6 or 8 GB would be even better) and you won't regret it."

I agree, BUT a 32-bit system can only utilize a maximum of 4GB of RAM. If you want more -- and I would -- get a 64-bit system. Even if you don't want more than 4GB of RAM today, a 64-bit system will be upgradable when the time comes.

I tend to recommend Macs for people who aren't tech-savvy, but since you already have some experience with PCs, I'd say just go for the PC, install free antivirus/anti-spyware, and be on your way. It'll likely be cheaper (MANY more choices in your price range), and you won't have to relearn how to use your OS. You'll also be able to use all the software you currently have.
posted by coolguymichael at 11:52 AM on June 2, 2009

Word processing and spreadsheets, Tracking my finances, Some music creation

Decide which programs you want/need to do these tasks with and the Mac/PC question will be answered. In fact, just answer the last one, that's the only major differentiator you have specified.
posted by bonehead at 12:18 PM on June 2, 2009

For similar features to a current Macbook (with its included programs), I think a PC laptop might cost around the same amount. But, if you don't need those features, then a PC laptop will be cheaper -- I just think Macbooks don't have a lower end model whereas many PC manufacturers do.

If you've never spent much time using a Mac, you should try one out first at an Apple store or borrow a friend's. I use a Mac at work, and find the OS really frustrating some times, but most people seem to like it -- just try it out and see. Also, max out your RAM -- and for both PCs and Macs it can be cheaper to buy additional RAM elsewhere instead of adding it to your system on purchase.
posted by bluefly at 12:20 PM on June 2, 2009

Dell 15" native resolution: 1366x768
Apple 13" native resolution: 1280x800
(For comparison, the native resolution on my older, pre-unibody Macbook Pro 15" is 1440x900)
posted by emelenjr at 12:32 PM on June 2, 2009

Best answer: With your minimal needs, neither Mac nor PC is particularly more appropriate than the other. I will say I don't know the resource needs for music creation but I suspect it's not intense like video or heavy graphics.

I use a PC at home and have used a Mac at work for about a year and a half. Starting up with the Mac was no big deal. Very easy learning curve for basic operation. There are some advantages and overall the OS has a prettier and smoother operation compared to XP. There are some things that annoy me about the Mac, just because I've always used PCs. The Finder (Windows Explorer equivalent) is not my cup of tea and I find it harder to use, though I imagine there are aftermarket substitutes. Not a dealbreaker. There are some software quirks, like no macros in Office for Mac 2008, which is like losing some fingers. And there are some other functional things, but mostly I've adapted. After being on PCs for so long, I'm not really motivated to go learn the Mac's deeper level operation to the degree I learned the PC's. Fortunately that's no problem at the level which I use it, which is similar to what you list. It does indeed just work.

I've enjoyed the Mac but would have been fine to stay with PC, if only for familiarity. I seem to have had fewer problems with Windows over the years than a lot of people, but I have had even fewer with the Mac. Its dirty secret is that it has an equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death. I think they call it the Grey Veil of Despair. Only seen it a couple of times though. It's artfully tragic when the veil slowly lowers. Otherwise it has been smooth sailing. The only notable blips I've had have been with MS Office for Mac (some freezing/crashing).

Though your needs are minimal, if you're buying a computer to last a while, you want to buy it with the best specs possible given how quickly things become outdated. For example hi def camcorders are affordable and common now. But processing and working with that video on your computer can be another story if it's a bit older. My PC can't handle it and my Mac just barely can. I've now read recommendations online saying I should have quad core and this or that much RAM minimum. So there was something I wasn't really expecting in the specs department back when I was picking out components. What will your unexpected thing be? As computers get better, the things you can do on them get more resource intensive and bigger in size... which means the computers have to get better... which can leave you behind. So max out as best you can afford despite seemingly modest needs. If you're torrenting movies you'll want a big drive or an external. Whatever the midrange level of processor and RAM is on the market today will be fine for your needs today, but if you can afford to bump that up a bit, that would be better for tomorrow, or lets say a few years down the road.

As for reliable PC brands, I'm on my third ThinkPad, starting in the IBM days and now in the Lenovo era. They were so good at work that I got one for home. I was worried when I no longer had my IT department to give me tech support for it, but I've had no problems. ThinkPads had a good reputation for reliability under IBM. From what I've seen, the Lenovo handover has produced some ripples in that reputation, but who knows - sometimes people just scapegoat when anything changes. And one person's experience isn't enough to go on.

Good luck!
posted by Askr at 1:22 PM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

I do the IT support in my family, and have done for more than a decade. We've had both PCs and Macs, but now PCs are banned permanently. I just don't have the patience for the difficulties that so regularly come up with PCs. We're a happier family now. This isn't as flip as it sounds -- I really am happier having fewer problems, and problems I can solve quickly and by myself and for free. If my computer requires me to diddle with it regularly, that's distracting me from all the things I want it to do for me -- unacceptable. If you do go with a Macintosh, get the AppleCare. It's worth it to get the phone tech support (and if you live near an Apple store, you can go in and get live support, which is really awesome).
posted by Capri at 1:38 PM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd disagree with the people saying you need the largest hard drive possible in your laptop. You can always get an external hard drive. Chances are you don't want to carry around too much data on a portable computer, anyway.

I've got two external hard drives for my Macbook Pro, for about 2Tb worth of total storage (though important files take up space on both externals, just in case one fails).
posted by Thoughtcrime at 3:30 PM on June 2, 2009

Best answer:
You DID specifically mention BitTorrent. This leads me to recommend a Mac for you. There are plenty of BitTorrent clients for Macs (I like Transmission myself) and without the copious number of viruses and spywares that you can get from file sharing Macs ARE a bit safer.
There's a lot fewer choices for BT clients on the Mac, and Transmission (as I've mentioned several times before) is often a problem. It'd be a lot better if they didn't introduce inexplicably horrendous bugs every other time they bump the build number.

Seriously, I'm a Mac person, and if the OP was just looking for something to run a BT client I'd be telling them to buy a PC, even if it did come with Vista.

That said, the difference between PC & Mac is this: PCs, you have to administer to use. Macs, you just use.

It's nice to be able to sit down to a machine everyday and just start using it, rather than wasting time faffing around keeping it organised & running properly...
posted by Pinback at 5:00 PM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

One more thing to consider: 91.79% of computers use windows (vista and XP) vs 7.31% using Macs OSX. And I'm pretty sure that doesn't count the people who have macs but load up windows on it anyway.
posted by Grither at 6:49 AM on June 3, 2009

On the question of Macs being more expensive.. Way back when, somebody asked "Help me decide what computer to buy". I said:
Dell engages in differential pricing, so you absolutely have to "buy smart" when dealing with them. On the other hand, Apple has consistent prices across the board.

Basically.. Dell accepts that some customers are unwilling to buy from them at their regular prices. They believe that, as long as they are still making money, it is in their interest to try and make those sales anyway. Hence Dell has occasional, but spectacularly good, one day only specials. On the other hand, Apple believes that maintaining the perceived brand value is more important than catering to customers with low willingness to pay.

You can see very clearly in this thread that they are both right. They both understand exactly what markets they are catering to, and do a very good job of marketing and pricing to attract customers that suit their own business models.
Kind of makes me sick, to be honest :)

Whether you prefer paying for "perceived brand value", or patiently waiting for discounts, which have the consequence of feeding the beast, is completely up to you, of course.
There is some new information though. Dell has started to put ID chips in their power adapters. If you buy a Dell, get one intended for business customers (latitude). Consumer units (inspiron) are intentionally crippled if the power brick ID burns out, or you use an after market replacement.
posted by Chuckles at 11:10 PM on June 5, 2009

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