Recommend a laptop
December 1, 2004 2:17 PM   Subscribe

Despite my fear of unleashing a deluge or being castigated for not paying attention to previous posts, I would greatly appreciate some counsel with regard to an upcoming laptop purchase. Previous posts on this haven't addressed some of the issues that I'm juggling, so please bear with me. (More inside)

Right now I’m trying to write my dissertation on a cranky, dysfunctional Dell Inspiron that I bought two years ago for the low price and for the lure of tech support. I consider the purchase to be one of the bigger mistakes of my life, and now regularly stick pins in my Michael Dell voodoo doll to make up for it. My current Dell lemon is a replacement they sent to replace the data-eating nightmare I originally purchased from them (they agreed only after taking several years off my life). I’ve come to the conclusion that since tech support seems to be a joke in this industry regardless of the brand involved, I need to make my next purchase based on the inherent quality of the hardware.

I’m agnostic on the Mac/PC issue, and don’t have any particular brand preferences, but I do have some constraints. I’m in academia, and many institutions of higher learning seem to be PC-centric. I take my laptop out and about to do archival research, so it needs to be light. And while I adore flash movies, all I really need to do on my computer is make footnotes and read blogs (I watch DVDs on the current one, when it’s not crashing or refusing to start, but I think that’s part of what’s making it so heavy)..

I’m willing to spend money for a machine that will allow me to complete graduate school without erasing my homework or driving me to drink.

I know this question must sound quite naïve, but I’m just trying to make the best consumer choice possible. I am very grateful for any and all advice.
posted by foxy_hedgehog to Computers & Internet (21 answers total)
IBM thinkpads are generally solid, particularly the T- and X-series. The support (at least in AsiaPac, which is all I can speak for) is very good, and the support website has everything on it that you will ever need.

The R-series is a good compromise, although tend to be heavier than the T's. Personally, I'd go for a T, as they seem to hit the performace/weight sweet-spot (to my mind). For an ultra-portable, the X-series is SuperSexy (tm). IBM's also have the only usable TrackPoint (that lil' rubber nipple thing) ever developed. I used to loathe them with a passion unholy, until I used the IBM version - it's actually a real option as a pointing device.

At work we use Toshiba's, and I don't like their support at all - it's a case of "find an authorised repairer yourself" which I find irritating in the extreme. Having said that, the units themselves seem to be adequate, but I still prefer an IBM. Sony Vaios are pretty, but I've heard horrible things about their support. Worse than Dell's, apparently.

Disclaimer: Until two months ago I worked for IBM, supporting Thinkpads and Desktops here in Australia.
posted by coriolisdave at 2:28 PM on December 1, 2004

I'll say it once, and again... Toshiba for a general all-around computer. I've had good luck with them and their ultra-bright screens that just came out are really nice on the eyes. They're going to be standard as far as weight is concerned. I found also that any metro area I'm in has a Toshiba authorized repair center, and as long as your Toshiba is under warranty you don't have to deal with the hassle of shipping it out and in, and actually get to talk to the guy who repairs it.

I've had bad luck with Sony's as their repair/replacement under warranty is a nightmare. They also seem to put form over function and have a lot of quirks that tend to break, or otherwise annoy me.

I have not had experience with Fujitsu beyond that they are small and have great battery life. I have a desktop, and I was looking into a pseudo-organizer that I could carry around and act as a laptop if I needed it (bringing it to a library, slipping it on a plane, light use as far as no games or autocad, but I wanted to treat it like a super notebook that I could do the movies, MP3 thing if I wanted to). I almost got it but decided to go the pen and paper route, on fear of losing an expensive piece of hardware.

Now you're going to get about a thousand "buy an iBook!" responses being that this is Metafilter. I have used iBooks occasionally and while I found it friendly and easy, as a heavy PC user myself who was born and bred on a Windows platform, I found a lot of little quirks that I would have gotten used to if I was playing around with it a lot. As a second computer I did not want to invest the time it took to get comfortable with it, especially because of the simple usage. Apple laptops are also very overpriced, and you're buying a brand name. I'm sorry, a lot of people will disagree, and I got my mom an Apple, but I did not feel it fit with me -- even though I thought it was by far the best looking and designed laptop.

I have no experience with IBM.

Take a look at the new Toshiba ultra-bright screens. They're most likely easier on your eyes and the weight difference not bother you.
posted by geoff. at 2:29 PM on December 1, 2004

As stated above, an IBM Thinkpad, or Toshiba Satellite should do, X86 wise. On the Mac front, you might want to check Ars Technica's Buyer's Guide, which details the pros and cons of various models.
posted by Smart Dalek at 2:33 PM on December 1, 2004

I am currently writing a dissertation. Here is my hurried, biased advice:

1. Get a 12" ibook.
2. get a flash drive
3. make sure it has 512mb ram
4. beg, borrow, steal a copy of maclink plus for dealing with wordperfect files
5. get the extended applecare warranty
6. get a gmail account

Here's a simplified workflow:

Throw your current drafts onto the flash drive frequently. Burn cds of your work all the time and salt them around your home and mail one periodically to a friend out of state. Email copies of your work to the aforemention gmail account.

Even if your ibook bursts into flames or even if it doesn't, you will have the peace of mind of knowing that you have redundant copies.

I recommend the ibook because a dissertation can be so draining that you don't want to d*ck around with some of the inherent annoyances of windows. I use both platforms, I'm not a zealot, but things will, generally speaking, go more smoothly with the ibook. The battery life is good, the sleep actually works, a bunch of stuff is integrated, and if you want or need to geek out with odd little scripts or text analysis or what have you, the bsd unix underpinnings await. In my experience it will remove some of the friction from that part of your life, which is what you need or will need.

This is not an invitation for a tedious holy war about platforms. If you don't want an ibook, then I would suggest a good thinkpad with the same sort of backup regiment. If you need a script to disable your wifi so you don't procrastinate, drop me a note.
posted by mecran01 at 2:35 PM on December 1, 2004

In my experience with Toshibas in our department, they are shit and break frequently. I wrote the above note before the thinkpad recommendations were posted. Ibooks are not holy artifacts, and if you think that the learning curve will slow you down, then don't get one. I just had this same discussion with some students, and my advice was to get the apple if you are spending someone else's money or using a loan, and get a decent thinkpad if you are raiding your sock drawer for the cash. As an ibook owner I wouldn't feel robbed if I were compelled to switch to a good, indestructible thinkpad, but I would be left with an empty place right in the middle of my user experience that could only be filled with the purchase of an ipod or some other compensatory gadget.

And if I had to make the decision again, I'd get the powerbook for the metal case, faster pc emulation (I have one program I use) and audio in-jack. But they cost sooooo much.
posted by mecran01 at 2:40 PM on December 1, 2004

I'd recommend IBM, Toshiba, and Gateway, in that order.

If you look at pcworld (i don't usually), they have an article that talks about notebook reliability. Note the scorecard graphic at the bottom of the page. The winners here for reliability are Toshiba, IBM, and Gateway.

pcmag says that Apple, IBM, and Toshiba are at the top.

As for personal experience, my girlfriend has an IBM laptop that she's used for work and carried around the world for a few years now without any issues.

In short, i agree with the general consensus: IBM, Toshiba are good.
posted by escher at 2:48 PM on December 1, 2004

In re: Mecran01's reply, what did you mean when you mentioned "dealing with" WordPerfect files? Is this something I would encounter when transferring my current PC materials on to a new Mac?
Sorry to sound dumb, but it's true. In the interest of not distracting from the bigger question of the thread, would you mind emailing me?

Thanks for all thus far, keep 'em coming...
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 3:03 PM on December 1, 2004

wordperfect files can't be imported directly to word. You can download the ubiquitous and free version of wordperfect that only runs in classic mode or install maclinkplus to convert them.
posted by mecran01 at 3:17 PM on December 1, 2004

I would also add my vote for an IBM Thinkpad.. Over the years, I've owned a Toshiba, a Sony, an HP, an IBM (laptops) and currently own a Dell Latitude. I've also dealt with a lot of people that have owned all of these....

My experience with Dell laptops is the same as yours. As good a desktop they make, their laptops absolutely stink!

Amongst all of the above, IBM was the clear winner. It was rugged, strong, great keyboard, and the few times I need the tech support (my wife broke the lcd screen once), they were a pleasure to work with. You really need to go with the T or the X series as coriolisdave mentioned.

Toshiba would probably be a distant second. They are typically quite nice and innovative, but reliability and service seems to be hit-and-miss; sometimes great, sometimes just miserable.

On the Mac issue; as much as I like Macs and find them drastically more reliable and user-friendly, do not underestimate the compatibility issues and software availability issues. A lot of various software that you take for granted will not be available for the Mac, and even though there may be viable alternatives each new alternative will bring a learning curve with it (unless all you use is Word on the computer of course). If I were you, I would look at all the programs you have installed on your current machine, make a list of the ones you regularly use, and consider whether all of them are available on the Mac or whether you can do without them.
posted by tuxster at 3:38 PM on December 1, 2004

IBM Thinkpad, definitely. I have 3 - a 5 year old 600X, a 3 year old A21, and a less than one year old R50 (which isn't available to the general public - suckas - but is generally comparable to an R40). The X series machines are very light and portable, the T series are workhorses.

My friends that have them tell me Toshibas are good as well. I used to have Dell laptops at my old job and my experience with them is that the only thing they excel at is sucking.

Disclaimer: I work for bigblue, but not in hardware sales or support.
posted by bedhead at 3:52 PM on December 1, 2004

Interesting, I'd been under the impression that most academics use Macs. But maybe that's just my own limited exposure showing?

I work on a PC and play on a Mac. I much prefer the Mac but that's a personal thing.

Stay away from used machines unless you know the previous owner well enough to trust. And yes, backup, backup, backup like your life would truly suck if you lost your work, which it would.

Back up again. And make hard copies too.
posted by fenriq at 3:57 PM on December 1, 2004

I am trying to figure out geoff's comment that Macs cost too much. A base-model iBook lists for US$950; as near as I can tell, that's right in there with other name brands.

If you choose to get a Mac, the iBook should be more than adequate (I think they're actually more rugged than the powerbooks). The 12" is obviously more portable, but try the 14" to see if the bigger screen (note: same 1024x768 resolution for both) is worth the weight. Get the extended warranty (Applecare) -- those are for chumps with desktops, but a good idea with laptops.
posted by adamrice at 4:00 PM on December 1, 2004

In the past six years I've owned seven laptops (all bought on various companyies' dime): a Thinkpad, a Vaio, four Dells, and a Toshiba (my current machine.

I have to echo your experience with Dell--crap for laptops (though I've been happy with Dell towers). I would go the Thinkpad/Toshiba route. I've had great support from Toshiba (though I haven't needed much) and I'm very pleased with my Tecra M2. I'm told the Vaios have improved but I was so completely scarred by a horrible experience with Sony that I can't go back.
posted by donovan at 4:59 PM on December 1, 2004

Toshibas used to be the best of the best as far as durability and features vs. price was concerned. I used to support them, and I have an old Satellite 330CDS right next to this comp I still use daily. It's only a Pentium MMX 266Mhz with 40 megs of ram, but it does lots of stuff like browsing, playing CDs and MP3s, acting as a filesharing client and server head, playing older games and game emulators, and much more.

This is the same series of Toshiba Satellites you still see in cop cars, hospitals, industrial shops and more. The thing is a tank. I've dropped it down brick stairways while it was running and playing mp3s from the drive with zero ill effects except for a few scratches on the case. I've kicked it, dropped it, spilled entire cupfuls of water into it*, and it's still ticking. I literally had to use it to hammer something or other once.

(*Note: It probabaly survived partially due to Toshiba's special keyboard tray on the older Satellites. I immediately shut it down by yanking the battery, prying off the innovative plastic latch-strip that holds in the keyboard, ripping out the keyboard and frantically shaking out all the water I could, then letting it bake for a while in warm sunlight. I was, uh, camping. With my laptop. Knocked over a full 32 oz Nalgene container of water into it while rooting around in my cluttered tent.)

However, it seems Toshiba took a wrong turn somewhere in the last three or four years, and I hear the durability and reliability isn't anywhere near as good as it was during their golden years. Remember, Toshiba had the PC Magazine laptop torture test locked in for a major portion of the 90s. Dell and/or IBM seem to be fighting it out for that spot now.

I hear plenty of good things about the IBM machines, that they're durable, robust, fully featured and otherwise a hacker's dream for the price. I highly doubt any of the current IBMs are as durable as the 330 I have, but there aren't many laptops at all these days that approach that kind of durability without being a special "industrial" laptop that costs 5,000-20,000 USD and is twice the size of comparably featured models.
posted by loquacious at 5:05 PM on December 1, 2004

I've got a PowerBook, a Toshiba, and a Gateway -- I'm also in the "PC laptop(s) for work, Mac at home" camp. My girlfriend, in school, uses an iBook. I have coworkers with IBMs, Dells, Sonys and HPs.

The answer is: IBM if you go PC, iBook if you go Mac.

On PCs: Toshiba varies from year to year. I've carried a Toshiba laptop of some sort since 1995, and I've gone through 5 of them now. 1 of them -- the 1998-era Satellite 4080, I believe it was -- was a total piece of junk. The rest have been just fine, but I've heard other complaints about quality constantly going up and down when the model line changes. IBM is more consistent, but often pricier. The Gateway is pretty poor, both in terms of performance and build quality. Friends with Vaios tend to have had them break down quite dramatically. The HPs are uninspiring. Look at IBM first, and if they're too pricy, try a Toshiba (whose warranty service on the 4080 was actually pretty good despite the problems I had with it.)

On Macs: The iBook G4s have actually become *inexpensive* these past few years -- Apple's got a bad price rep from the high-margin, high-end PowerMacs and the rather pricy-for-what-you-get iPod, but the iBooks and iMac lines are actually directly competing with low-priced PCs these days. The value of Macs really isn't ease-of-use these days, though, with WinXP and MacOS X being roughly equivalent in that regard (I know, sacriledge!) -- it's in security (no major virus, worm or spyware issues), stability (the UNIX core keeps the system running), and publishing features (the Mac comes with -- and displays beautifully -- a wide swath of fonts, and has native support for PDF instead of the kludgy Acrobat reader). And an iBook will give you a laptop that weighs less than 5 pounds with enough battery life to play two two-hour DVDs back to back.

But after you price out some IBMs, Toshibas and iBooks, the most important part is yet to come. Go to the store and touch them, pick them up, and most of all, type on them (laptop keyboard quality is, well, all across the board). If the laptops are tied down, let the staff let you pick it up. Choose the laptop in your price range that you're most comfortable with.
posted by eschatfische at 8:10 PM on December 1, 2004

Get an iBook. Sturdy hardware, rock-solid software, and no more expensive than a similarly equipped Windows machine. Everybody I work with who once had a Dell laptop has since replaced it with an iBook.
posted by jjg at 8:10 PM on December 1, 2004

I have an IBM ThinkPad G40 "desktop replacement" model which I love considering it has all the power I want and was relatively cheap. But if you're going to be taking it with you on a regular basis, the T series is great--I know someone with a T41 and another with a T42, and they both love their laptop.

Avoid Dell laptops.
posted by grouse at 2:24 AM on December 2, 2004

I just went through this process myself. I ended up with an HP NC6000. I love it- perfect keyboard, low weight, good warranty, etc. Here's what it all boils down to:

Let me start by saying that for performance, battery life, warranty, and for interoperability with the rest of the world, you will do better purchasing a Windows laptop over an Apple. Reasons? Bang for buck, mostly. Future-proofness, versatility, software availability. I just bought a 1.6Ghz Pentium M for $1200. The battery gives me 4-5 hours, and that's on a 6-cell battery. I can upgrade to an 8-cell. It has a 14" screen, and is under 7lbs. An Apple notebook capable of the same power would be almost twice as much.

Also, anyone who tells you Apple is better than Windows for security is just naive. Apple is better not because it's Unix, but because they're too small- why write a virus or worm for a machine with only 3% marketshare? Apple's security lies in it's marketshare- if that ever increases, you will be a target. Intead, focus on security on your machine. Run Windows XP SP2, install a good virus scanner (I recommend F-Prot), run a REAL firewall (I recommend Sygate), and use GOOD internet software- Firefox for your browsing, Thunderbird or anything but Outlook for mail, and any third-party client for IM- this will cover all your vulnerabilities in Windows, and make you rock solid secure.

So, I'm also going to preface this with my credentials- I work in technical support. I do last-tier and contract support for a major computer company. I support business machines- desktops to CAD workstations to laptops. I eat, sleep and breathe support and support logistics.

So, on with my overly verbose answer. (=

First, your assumption about technical support is based on consumer-level products. Now, I hate typing in bold, but it doesn't seem like anyone here realizes this:


Period. If you fuck yourself on the warranty, you fuck yourself out of getting the most investment on your notebook. It's just that simple. You can buy the cheapest notebook in the world, and you will get what you pay for: support from India, slow response, repeat failures. Realize that your laptop WILL fail on you at least once. Whether it's data or hardware, you need to be prepared personally, and get a machine with a warranty to back you up. The laptop I bought comes with a 3-year, 2 business day pick-up and return warranty. This means that they pay the shipping to pick it up, repair it in 1 day, and ship it back overnight. All free. For the next 3 years.

By the way, support is interesting. Realize that in the computer field, tech support isn't 'I need help with X' support. That's not what we're here for. Much like calling up Ford support and asking 'how do I turn left?', we're going to laugh and hang up. We're here to repair your computer. We're here to find out if it's hardware or software, and get you fixed. This may require us having you reinstall Windows or MacOSX. And a better warranty means that we get it fixed FASTER.

So, keeping in mind that the warranty is the most important aspect of your purchase, you need to focus only on commercial or business notebooks. Ignore all the consumer machines that you see in Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA and their ilk. These machines are designed for price- to be as cheap as possible and warranty is the first place they cut. Business machines, on the other hand, are solidly supported by all of the vendors that make them. They don't want to fuck over their clients. It's still Indian support, but it's a little better, and there's usually a ton of American support engineers watching over them like a hawk. The company I work for, we outsource our business product support to Canada.

Here's what else you should keep in mind:

1. Buy a Pentium-M powered notebook. Don't be confused by Pentium 4M, or Pentium 4. The notebook's speed should be less than 2.0Ghz. Yes, this is not a mistake. The Pentium-M processor is Intel's answer to the low power Transmeta and the incredible Apple G4. It's an incredible chip- it will slow down in clockspeed depending on what you are doing to save power. Intel's Centrino brand is a kind of a guarantee that you're getting a mobile/notebook oriented system.

2. Screensize. Because laptops use screens that have discrete pixel counts, you can get a laptop with a higher resolution than on a desktop, with a smaller screen, and be able to read it clearly. So, stick with something decent, at least 14" unless you are looking for an ultraportable. Also, make sure you get more than just XGA. XGA = 1024x768. You want anything higher than that.

3. Longetivity. Buy the most notebook you can afford, and buy the most notebook- it will have to last. When you get a machine, you want it to last as long as it can. When you get something powerful, that means your just buying more time at the end, and prolonging the inevitable: the next notebook purchase. This will save you money in the long run- by spending a little more, now. Get a warranty to match. At least 3 years- this is the standard computer cycle in all business industries.

4. Buy only First Tier. This means the main guys: IBM, HP, Dell, Gateway, Toshiba, Fujitsu. See, everyone pretty much gets their notebooks made by 2-3 companies in Taiwan. It's all the same, in the end. However, these guys will back up their machines with warranties and support that works... but only in business/commercial product lines.

5. Dont be afraid of refurbished. It just means that something was wrong, it got fixed, and they're selling it for much much less. This is a good thing. I like to think of refurbished products as just being 'double-checked'. Most major-tier companies have better refurbished quality standards than new-product standards. Just make sure to upgrade the warranty.

6. Buy a bus-powered external USB 2.0 or Firewire hard disk. This will SAVE YOUR ASS. Always backup, and this is now the way to do it.

Please, if you have any more questions, drop me a line on my e-mail. I'll let you know my bias right up in front (who I work for), and then I can answer any other questions you may have. There are as many options for notebooks as there are cars, and it's all a matter of finding the best for your needs.
posted by id at 3:01 AM on December 2, 2004

I just bought a 1.6Ghz Pentium M for $1200. The battery gives me 4-5 hours, and that's on a 6-cell battery. I can upgrade to an 8-cell. It has a 14" screen, and is under 7lbs. An Apple notebook capable of the same power would be almost twice as much.

See, this is what I was talking about. A 1.25GHZ iBook G4 (the Pentium-M's a great processor, but you're not going to see *that* much more performance) is only 5.9 pounds, with a 14" screen, with 4-5 hour battery life, and is -- $1200. That, er, isn't twice as much. Yes, it comes with a 60gb hard drive. Shipped free from Amazon. You can also look for refurbs even cheaper on Apple's site. And I don't know what you're saying about problems with warranties, since Apple consistently comes in tops on surveys of repair services, and you can purchase an Applecare 3-year extended warranty.

And, yes, MacOS X *is* more secure by default. To install a program that acts as malware -- one that alters system settings -- by default, you need to enter a password or alter file permissions. On Windows, the problem is that you *don't* need to grant access -- malware can hijack your computer easily and transparently, even under SP2. Even if Apple were number one, there'd be fewer security issues, because it's a *conscious decision* to install potential malware. More people would *try* to write malware, agreed, but that malware would have a much harder time spreading. Think "Why is this E-mail attachment asking for my system password?"

Crap, I don't want to sound like a hardcore Mac evangelist. I use both Macs and PCs, I've historically been a PC person, and I have a Toshiba laptop which has been a trusty companion for many years -- but the reason I added a Mac to my arsenal is because they've come down in price these past two years, and so far, it's been nothing but great. It's not an "if you have the money" thing anymore.
posted by eschatfische at 5:10 AM on December 2, 2004

A 1.25GHZ iBook G4 (the Pentium-M's a great processor, but you're not going to see *that* much more performance) is only 5.9 pounds, with a 14" screen, with 4-5 hour battery life, and is -- $1200.

Here's the contention I have with macs, performance wise:
A 1.25GHZ G4 is roughly equivalent to a 2.0 GHz Pentium 4. However, a 1.6GHz Pentium-M is closer to a 2.4 GHz Pentium 4- already a rather sizeable leap. 2.0 GHz Pentium-M's have already hit the market in sizeable numbers, and the Pentium-M is still going. 2.0GHz is almost a Pentium 4 3.0Ghz. I/O operations are also faster- the Front Side Bus in G4's is 133mhz, whereas the P-M is running at 400mhz- 100mhz quad-pumped.

Besides, I can't wait to see what stroke of thermal genius it will take to get the G5 into a notebook!

Now, the 14" ibook (here) has a XGA screen- limiting you to 1024x768. The notebook I just bought has a SXGA+ screen: that's 1400x1050, which is actually more pixels than the 17" Powerbook TI (here) which only can do 1440x900.

In terms of warranty, I am with you, eschatfische- I haven't heard anything NEGATIVE about Apple, but I haven't heard anything positive- that's what you get in this industry... only the bad news. I'm positive that Apple will back their notebooks with an Applecare warranty just as much as any other vendor would.

And, yes, MacOS X *is* more secure by default. To install a program that acts as malware -- one that alters system settings -- by default, you need to enter a password or alter file permissions.

I concede the point- you are right, due to the nature of a permissions based system, and one that doesn't log you in as Administrator by default, you get more protection.

However, this all boils down to good system usage practices. If you click on every link you see in your e-mail, you get what you deserve: a big fat trojan. I know it sounds harsh, but I'm honest- up until 3 months ago, I ran without ANY virus protection. I just couldn't find a good scanner that I liked. However, because of the practices I use in computing every day, I never got infected. How does the saying go... "Work smarter, not harder." (Of course, anecdotal evidence is always accurate, right?)

I have slobbered over the Apple portables like everyone else. And, when the Powerbook G4 first came out, it was worth every penny. Now, however, Apple has fallen behind. Way behind. And they are STUCK, because their next gen processor is too bloody hot. Give them a year and they'll be back in the game. Until then, I feel it's a PC dominated field.

By the way, I'm not a Windows evangelist by any means. I'm a "right tool for the right job" evangelist. That means to me, Windows on the desktop, Linux on the server, BSD on the Internet server, OpenBSD for the bastion host, Unix on the mainframe, and Apple for multimedia. Those are the best tools for their respective jobs.
posted by id at 12:22 PM on December 2, 2004

Thank you, thank you to all of you for your patience and for your help. This purchase will probably be the best-informed choice I make, marriage included.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 8:53 PM on December 2, 2004

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