Does Not Compute
June 16, 2009 10:17 AM   Subscribe

Please help me find the best laptops for our teens! Specifics inside.

We have decided to get new computers for our teens--the younger is entering high school and needs it for school, while the older is really into animation and we want to encourage that interest.

I was originally looking at the Mac mini. We decided on laptops because we like portability and assume they will as well, they want webcams AND their high school prefers the Windows setup to Mac.

I'd still be up for Macs, because I feel they are more secure against viruses and the like, if we could get below $1000 each. The basic white 13" Macbooks at the Apple store are $999 and we're hoping to get under that price. I know we can run Windows programs on them with the right software.

Here's what we want:

Memory--lots of it. Can't get too much of this. Would rather have more than the 4GB the Macbook starts with.

Graphics-- Is the NVIDIA Ge Force 9400M the best choice for animation and gaming? Could we do better?

Preferably under $999 each!

Here's what they want:

High-speed--both love to chat on Google and have complained about speeds with the ancient models we have now (an old desktop and a G3 iBook).

Webcam--yes, we know all about internet safety, thanks!

Incredible sound--the oldest is really into music and his friends are in a band, so he wants the best audio he can get, even if this means peripheral speakers. Would love recommendations for these as well!


If we got a Mac, we'd need to be able to run Windows programs on it as well--what software would we need, and how much is that going to cost?

We do not qualify (damn it) for educational discounts from Apple for the free iPod Touch promotion, as kids have to be accepted into college OR a parent needs to be a full-time teacher.

Thanks so much for your help!
posted by misha to Technology (16 answers total)
If you do the "Back to School" special, you'll get the MacBook for $949, plus you'll get a free ipod Touch and a free printer (free with rebates).
posted by jasper411 at 10:33 AM on June 16, 2009

Oops, didn't fully read your qualifier. Just fyi, all they needed to give us the deal was a letter of acceptance from a college. There was no verification involved. At one point we were going to buy online, and all they asked for was the name of the college (though we didn't complete the online transaction, and maybe they would have asked for more)
posted by jasper411 at 10:38 AM on June 16, 2009

Best answer: I can confirm they don't ask for anything additional online when you use the educational discount.
posted by olinerd at 10:40 AM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

based off your list:

Memory: a 32-bit operating system will at most support 4 GB of ram. There are 64-bit operating systems that can use more (and OS X is one of them), but I mention this because it's extremely expensive right now to get more than 4 GB in a laptop. You're in a whole different class of laptop.

Graphics: You can "always" do better graphics card-wise. It's one of those industries that constantly has the latest and greatest. The "best" graphics cards, are again, not going to be made for a laptop- they come with a desktop. The 9400 is a fine card for a laptop. It won't play the latest and greatest games at blazing speed, but will satisfy for most "work" requirements.

High-speed: Things like google chat are more dependent on your internet speed. That being said, compared to your current computers, these are going to be blazing fast. Anything new will satisfy this requirement as much as you can without getting a faster internet speed.

Webcam: Macbooks have built in webcams. Actually so do most laptops. They're also pretty cheap to buy separately.

Sound: Look into external speakers if you're really into sound. This won't depend really on the computer (either Windows/Mac).

Honestly, I think based off your requirements, you should just get a new windows desktop. A new "family" computer if you will. You don't say how old your oldest is- I would only buy him the laptop when he's about to go to college. If you get him a computer now, you're looking at getting him another laptop in the middle of college- laptops get ancient real fast.
posted by unexpected at 10:42 AM on June 16, 2009

As much as I love Macs, I agree with unexpected that if you want capability for games and animation for less than $1000, you'll want a Windows desktop.
posted by kidbritish at 10:57 AM on June 16, 2009

You need no extra software to run Windows on a Macintosh other than Windows itself, which does not come on the Mac. However, if you do buy Windows for the Mac, it will run faster and cleaner than it does on any laptop it comes bundled on, due to the lack of drivers and software trials like AOL and Office Demo. You will still need virus protection on the Windows side if you ever connect it to the internet.

I support your decision to go with laptops - they're so much more usable than desktops.

I do think you can get the educational discount from Apple simply for being in school -- even home-schooled students qualify. Not sure about the iPod Touch deal though.

Big pros of buying a Macintosh: much less tech support needed (good for everyone), iPhoto (which your kids will love), generally cooler (which is important for your kids too), and they last longer than most Windows machines (not sure why, but I've got Macintoshes I bought in the 1990s that still run, and none of my Windows machines have worked more than four years). If you do go with Apple, get the AppleCare warranty. It gets you free phone support, which is invaluable.
posted by Capri at 11:45 AM on June 16, 2009

Best answer: I'm going to attempt to answer your questions/requirements in order. Let me first preface this by saying that I am by no means an Apple fanboy, but for most people who are using a computer as they do their car (i.e. "I don't know what happens under the hood, I just drive..") a mac is the easiest and most pain-free way of going about it.

1)No, the NVIDIA Ge Force 9400M is not the best you can do for animation or games, but it will handle photoshop (and the video editing equivalent)and anything but the latest most resource greedy games fine. It is unreasonable on your part to think that you could get the best graphics processor for anywhere near $1000 complete, in either a desktop or laptop. If you look at a Lenovo or Dell or the equivalent for $1000 they're probably using the same NVIDIA processor. You could get the next step up in the 15 and 17" MacBook Pros, but they demolish your budget. And so will every other brand with comparable specifications.

2) Memory. 4GB is more than you will ever need. Many Graphics workstations had less memory than this until rather recently. For example, I have a 2.5 year old 17" MacBook Pro, with a 2GB memory capacity. I typically have some 20 applications running, including Parallels (we'll get to that in a moment) to run windows and linux virtual machines, photoshop and anywhere from 2 to 4 browsers at any given time. I never go over 75% of my total memory. From what you said that your usage patterns are I'll hazard to guess that you will use much less. Hard drive space, on the other hand is a different thing all together. It is there where you'll need as much as possible.

3) Chats. Your internet speed will be affected more by your internet connection (cable? DSL? Fios?) and your wireless network than your processor speed of your computer. Also overlooked is what's happening at the server on the other end. All of the Apple laptops now come with 802.11n wireless networking, which, unless you have fios (or are lucky enough to live in Japan with 100MB/s internet) is upwards of 10x as fast as what your ISP offers you. Now, if you or your kids use bitorrent and its not properly setup (bandwidth limits set) then it can use up all of your bandwidth and slow everything to a crawl. But that is operator error, not hardware.
As an example I am writing this from my blackberry bold on wifi. it perhaps has 25% the CPU power of the latest MacBooks and 1/10 the memory. I am typing this and talking to Mrs Chosemerveilleux on IM with no lag. you'll be fine.

4)All mac laptops have a webcam. They also have a really cool app called Photo Booth which uses your webcam like the photo booth at the boardwalk. Very cool indeed.

5)The sound on all smaller laptops is weak. It doesn't matter who makes it. Small space=small sound. My 17" MBP has pretty good sound, but its huge (you'd be nuts to carry this around with you) and more than twice the macbook's price. You can use an Airport Express and have the sound sent to your home stereo. They cost $99 at the apple store, and work great.

6)Software. I doubt that they'll find a need for it, but if they do they can use either Parallels or VMware Fusion to run windows (or any other OS for that matter). Both work very well and are less than $100. OSX comes with Boot Camp, which allows you to install a licensed copy of windows. The downside is you have to log out of OSX to run windows, whereas with Parallels or Fusion it runs from within OSX. But its free.

I'm sure that you will be able to find something less expensive than a mac, but anymore not by much (they're both basically PC's on the inside after all). I would recommend buying a Lenovo laptop and installing Linux, but linux is perhaps a bit hands on for the casual user. The best way I can describe the difference between a mac and a pc is to use a tool analogy. You have two hammers, one has a cracked handle and a loose head, and the other is fine, with a solid handle and head. Which would you rather use to build your project? A mac (more often than not) gets out of your way and lets you work. a pc running windows (in my experience more often than not) interferes with your ability to work quickly and efficiently.
posted by chosemerveilleux at 12:02 PM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Why not ask your kids to do the research and decide what they want? Give them a $1000 budget and make them put forth a well-reasoned argument for whatever machine they decide on?

In general, you're going to find that a desktop Windows machine is by far the most bang for the buck for gaming and animation. Cheaper Windows machines tend to come with on-board Intel video, which is not what you want for games, so be aware of that. You'll want nVidia or ATI of the current generation, but you're not going to get top-of-the-line with a total $1000 budget. There's usually a middle-range graphics card that is the best value and can play current games acceptably.

For a laptop, it can get expensive to try to pack in more than 4GB. Laptops generally have two RAM slots, and 2GB memory modules are cheap nowadays. The next step up is 4GB modules, which will add hundreds of dollars to your machine.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 12:11 PM on June 16, 2009

Refurbished Macs are often cheaper.
posted by mdonley at 12:21 PM on June 16, 2009

I also think you should allow your children significant input into the decision-making process. Let them choose between Windows and Mac, let them decide if they want the power of a desktop, or some level of portability for a laptop, let them do a tradeoff between more hard drive space, a faster processor or a better video card. Perhaps allow them to use their own savings to upgrade. As you're talking about computers that teens will be using, you will want to wall off a certain amount for some kind of warranty, at least with a laptop.
posted by jeather at 1:24 PM on June 16, 2009

Best answer: If we got a Mac, we'd need to be able to run Windows programs on it as well--what software would we need, and how much is that going to cost?

In my opinion if this is your priority you should get a laptop with Windows. But on the Mac side, you have a few options:
WINE via Darwin Ports
Cost: Free.
Advantage: Free.
Disadvantage: Won't run all programs. Needs XCode tools installed.

Cost: $40 or $70
Advantage: Better support than WINE, better front-end. Some games support.
Disadvantage: It's still WINE.

Boot Camp
Cost: Free + $50-150 for Windows.
Advantage: Just like windows. Support for DX9 and 10.
Disadvantages: Takes disk space. Hard to share files between operating systems.

Cost: Free + $50-150 for Windows.
Advantage: Just like windows, but lacking support for DirectX. Free.
Disadvantage: Won't play most games.

Parallels Desktop or VMWare Fusion
Cost: $40-$80 + $50-150 for Windows.
Advantage: Limited support for DirectX. Can play some games. Better support for copying files between operating systems.
Disadvantage: Support for games is spotty.

Personally, I use BootCamp when I feel the urge for Oblivion or Portal, and VirtualBox for those rare times I need something else that's only available on MSWin (currently Visual Studio Express.)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:40 PM on June 16, 2009

PC World does a nice job of putting together Top 10 lists for computers. Here is their Top 10 All-Purpose Laptop list and their Top 10 Value Desktops. As mentioned by many above, you will get more bang for your buck with a Windows machine, and more power for your money with a desktop as opposed to a laptop.

Another thing you nmay want to look into before you buy. I know nothing about is animation software, but Apple is generally considered to have an advantage over Windows for graphic development (not graphic playback, i.e., games). So there might be far better animation software for the Mac than there is for Windows.
posted by rtimmel at 3:14 PM on June 16, 2009

Best answer: If we got a Mac, we'd need to be able to run Windows programs on it as well--what software would we need, and how much is that going to cost?

Are you sure you would need to run Windows software? I've been one of the only mac users (faculty) at an entirely Windows-based college campus, and there was only one program I needed to use Windows for (an ancient, no longer supported math program called Derive). Mostly, software is available for both platforms---certainly Office, etc. is.
posted by leahwrenn at 6:31 PM on June 16, 2009

Seconding the AppleCare (which is $183 for a student priced MacBook). I got it when I got my MacBook back in 2007, and I've used its free repairs twice since. (A hard drive went bad, then later the inverter thing for the screen went bad—what with parts and labor, AppleCare's more than paid for itself, not to mention the peace-of-mind that if something comes up, I'm covered) To me AppleCare is a must-have, especially for laptops.
posted by blueberry at 12:09 AM on June 17, 2009

Response by poster: Well, we might NOT need Windows, if we can use iWork as it says--if it both recognizes Excel, Word and Powerpoint formatted work, and will save iWork creations in the appropriate formats.
posted by misha at 10:50 AM on June 17, 2009

Response by poster: We opted for the Back to School special from Apple and went with the 13" laptop I linked above, taking all of your advice into account, including signing up for the 3-year Apple Care Protection Policy, and adding iWork so we really don't need to Windows software.

Thanks again!
posted by misha at 9:54 AM on June 18, 2009

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