Help me find a lightweight laptop for basic lab work
December 7, 2004 5:22 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a light laptop (< 4lbs) to do basic work when at labs. cd/dvd a bonus (not required), hd > 10 Gb, RAM ideally >= 256 Mb, wireless inbuilt or pcmia slot. Budget ~$500. Extendable battery availability would be nice. Does anyone have any recommendations on good 2nd/3rd gen models?
posted by Mossy to Computers & Internet (12 answers total)
I have a dell c400 that I love, but they usually run in the $600 territory on eBay. You could keep an eye out for a good deal. They do have both a mini-pci slot and a pcmcia slot, I have a wireless card in the mini-pci slot that I paid $27 for.
posted by SpecialK at 5:45 PM on December 7, 2004

I totally second the C400 (even if it's from Dell). Very light, very small, looks good, you can open the lid with one hand (balanced), P3 1.2 is good enough. It has both a very nicely designed trackpad as well as a pointing nub. The screen is small (but so is the comp) but easy on the eyes. Various *nix flavours install on it very well.

The CDRW/DVD (or any drive) is external but most people have USB Flash or LAN for file transfer. There's only 1 USB slot which is a bit of a pain. Minor bad stuff includes: mono speaker (but stereo audio out), only 1 PCMCIA slot, and the 3 (6?) cell battery doesn't last all that long.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 6:22 PM on December 7, 2004

Re: the C400 ... It's one of the better laptops that I've used, and I've had thinkpads and everything. The keyboard, although small, is comfortable for extended use. It's actually my main work machine right now, and I have no problem sitting and writing PHP code all day on it. Once you use it for a little while, you don't realize how small the laptop actually is, until you put it next to a bigger one ... and then you're like, "WTF do you carry around that slab of rock for?"

I use a USB flash drive (256mb) to store work/school files on, and I've got wireless LAN for everything else. It's a fast machine ... even with just 256 mb of RAM, I can keep more applications open than I have taskbar space for and there's no real sluggishness.

The battery lasts about 3 hours if you're judicious with how bright you keep the screen. If you dim it just a little bit and aren't running a CDRom drive, you can get 3 hours easily. The batteries are easy to swap, though, and have an LED indicator bar built into them to let you know if your spare's charge is full or not.

I haven't tried, but my understanding is that you can run dual-monitor. Another complaint someone had was that you don't get a printer port, but you do have an IR port and my printer has both IR and a LAN connection, so there's no issue for /me/ there...

My only real beef is the lack of USB/Keyboard connectors. There's only one USB. On the other hand, my USB external keyboard has a USB hub on it, so it's not really that big of a problem.

Even my Mac-addict business partner, the guy with pretty much every electronic accessory that Apple has ever produced (when he Switched, he switched hardcore), thinks it's a great laptop.
posted by SpecialK at 7:45 PM on December 7, 2004

Dell Latitude x200 or Gateway 200. (They're the same computer, OEM'd from Samsung).

2.8 lbs. It's lighter than the c400 because it doesn't have an optical drive on board (I think the c400 has it built in, but not sure). You can get an external optical drive and floppy or a media slice base station with slots for both, plus a subwoofer. But if you don't need the optical, you can save some money on that front. The later revs of the x200 have 1.2GHz processors and will cost more, but the first round are 800MHz and should be affordable. They have 20-30GB drives. The processors are pentium III m. They share some of the memory with video processing, so you should definitely get some extra RAM. But RAM is cheap for these models because it's SIMMs, which newer models don't use.

If the battery is decent, you can get about 2 hours, assuming you are easy on the screen brightness, etc.

Caveat: I had some hardware troubles with mine, so if you can get one from a reseller that offers a warranty against DOA, that would be good. That said, the size and features were fantastic, and I knew many other people who had the same model and had no troubles.

The Gateway model originally sold for about $200 less and the base model had a 900mhz processor, so that might be a good place to start.

The latitude c400 is also a good recommendation.
posted by jewishbuddha at 9:11 PM on December 7, 2004

c400 does not have a built-in drive. Essentially, the same specs as the x200 or gateway 200 ... the big diff being that the c400 has an alloy lid.
posted by SpecialK at 10:20 PM on December 7, 2004

I think you'd have a hard time finding a laptop under 4 lbs. with an optical drive built-in. Removable media drives are the first thing manufacturers pull out when they're looking to cut weight. Built-in wireless for under $500 is also something of a long shot.

Everyone I know who used to have a Dell laptop now has an Apple because they got tired of the damn things breaking.
posted by jjg at 10:44 PM on December 7, 2004

i have an averatec 3200 series which has been treating me well so far. a little more expensive than your range, but for a new machine, the price is near to best in its class. i can't speak for their long term reliability, but it's worth looking at.

yeah, and it was either this or a power/ibook, in the price/weight range.

on preview: yeah, these are over 4lb by the way. although the built in wireless is good quality. i get a decent connection from signals my friends powerbook can't even see.
posted by too many notes at 11:00 PM on December 7, 2004

My main computer for past 6 months has been a ThinkPad r31 with 512 of memory and a DVD/cdr drive. I paid exactly $500 for it on ebay, and it's been great. Heavy daily use, lots of graphics work. It's my second ThinkPad from ebay, it's what I plan to buy for my next computer, whenever that is.
posted by dong_resin at 1:47 AM on December 8, 2004

re: C400

Dual monitoring is bloody sweet. It automatically recognizes when an external monitor is plugged in. The extended desktop is great for moving bits of data around (say, from excel into prism), the clone mode is nice for powerpoint - it displays the presentation version of the slide on the projector and the notes/whatever version of the slide on the LCD. The graphics chip supports a surprising amount of modes for the external device.

I love the (mostly - the PCMCIA port cover is plastic) alloy body design - sure it's been dinged a few times but it no obvious "wear" spots or edge-scratches like with plastic. I got mine "second hand" (it's got a wierd dell rep version of XP Pro on it) 2&1/2 years ago, haven't had a problem with it. ymmv, of course.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 8:44 AM on December 8, 2004

Response by poster: Hmm.. C400 sounds and looks nice - how loud/hot does it run? Is the screen good quality? Is there an extended life battery?
posted by Mossy at 6:51 PM on December 8, 2004

re: C400

Very quiet. Haven't noticed a non-speaker related noise. If I try really hard, I can sometimes hear the HD spinning up.

The heat is negligable - you'll never burn yourself on it. I can have it running for several days straight and the hottest spot on the bottom is maybe 42 - 50oC

I love the screen. Yes, it's small (it's a small laptop) and doesn't extend the the *very* edges of the bezel/frame but it's as clear, if not moreso, than my 15" Sony SDM-53.

The standard battery is a 3-cell (or was it 6?) - there are 8 cell, 12 cell, &c batteries that do increase the overall weight a little but there's the corresponding increase in battery life.

Some of the C400's has built-in wireless.

The only legitimate knocks against it, that I have, is that there's only 1 USB port, 1 PCMCIA port, no S-Video/composite video out, mono speaker (but stereo line-out), no 3D acceleration, no built-in camera, no touch-screen, the external nature of the drives, and it appears that Dell is out of some parts for it. The wall-wart is a pretty decent size. If you're looking to buy from eBay, ask if there are any bad/stuck pixels on that particular unit. Mine originally had a stuck red pixel, but it went away on it's own after I had owned it for a week or so (it wasn't obtrusive so I can't give a more precise time-range).
posted by PurplePorpoise at 3:27 PM on December 9, 2004

Response by poster: Good stuff. I just ordered one for $480 with a docking bay etc.

Is it tough to put a mini pc wireless card in?
posted by Mossy at 11:23 AM on December 10, 2004

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