New laptop - help me choose!
July 4, 2009 11:53 AM   Subscribe

New laptop choices - Fujitsu? Sony? Dell? HP? I know what I want in a notebook, but trying to figure out which maker will best meet my needs. I'm an English and Theatre teacher soon to move to Norway and I don't think my old laptop will last much longer. Looking for a Core 2 Duo and up, a 4-500 gig hard drive, Nividia or ATI graphics, a decent amount of RAM about a 16" screen.

As a teacher, I have about 60 gigs right now of documents and photos, another 60 of music, and I do a lot with music, photographs, and not a lot of gaming. (That could change she suggests unrealistically). I do a lot of work on the internet and usually don't travel around much with the laptop. If I weren't headed to Norway I'd probably get a desktop, but there it is. It would be nice to be able to help my students with editing short films on my laptop, but not vital. And oh yes, can it be a dependable machine?

Big note- I am an old school typist. I like to feel definable keys under my fingertips. And I hate the whale-snot, smear magnet surfaces of most of the laptops I saw when I went to Frys. I did like the texture of the keyboards/touchpad on Sony and Fujitsu. I know it's cosmetic, but I like a clean deck. Suggestions? And am I better off buying through Frys, Best Buy, online through ?? or manufacturer? I'll have to live with it for a long time so I want to make a good choice. And I thank the hive mind in advance - you guys are the best.
posted by aimeel to Computers & Internet (27 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You seem to have discounted the MacBook line entirely. Is this because you're afraid of the price? Or you don't want to learn a new OS? I'll tell you, the Macs look more expensive, but if you get even a bottom-of-the-line MacBook, and add the 3-year AppleCare onto it, you'll never have a more trouble-free computing experience. Anything that goes wrong with the computer which isn't obviously your fault will be covered for three full years, the machines themselves are ultra-reliable, and they come with excellent programs for managing photographs and music, as well as full capability for video editing should you be interested in that as well. Plus, most MacBook owners I know get at LEAST 5 years of use out of their machines, if not much more. (It is not uncommon for Apple laptops to still be working great even a decade after purchase.)

I know they seem like they're more expensive at first, but they really have a reliability and longevity which is unrivaled in computer manufacturers.
posted by hippybear at 12:09 PM on July 4, 2009

Response by poster: I've been attracted to the Macs for a long-time. My concern is that the schools I work with always are on PCs and I have literally decades worth of documents (all PC based programs - on Word Perfect and MS Word (gnashing of teeth) for the last ten years or so. And I guess I wonder if my documents would still work without a great deal of (or rather a great deal more) of teeth gnashing and the like. THEN the issue is, will the PCs in my current workplace be able to read my documents without a complicated conversion in the other direction - ah, there I suspect lies the rub. Everything I've heard is that the Mac is supreme at being able to read just about anything but as soon as it comes back to the PC and the ubiquitous "word" it dies a horrible contorted death. Sorry to get so Spanish Inquisition on you but I'm really tired today.
What do you think?
posted by aimeel at 12:18 PM on July 4, 2009

Modern Macs run Windows. You can either dual boot (with Boot Camp, included with OS X) or use a virtualization solution (like Parallels). Because Macs use Intel chips and Windows-compatible components, everything runs at the speed you'd expect from a dedicated Windows machine.
posted by aparrish at 12:59 PM on July 4, 2009

I would wholeheartedly recommend a Lenovo Thinkpad. I have had two now: it broke my heart so much when my employer replaced my old Thinkpad R40 with a Dell, that I found myself a Thinkpad T60 on eBay to replace it. The strong suit of the Thinkpads is the keyboard. They have full-size, definable keys, a trackpoint (mini joystick control) as well as a trackpad, and an excellent range of high-def screens. Without getting into the whole Mac vs. PC thing, a Lenovo represents the best bang-for-your-buck that I have found (and I'm an engineer, so I'm picky).
Different models have the choice of integrated or discrete graphics (my own priority). For example, the Thinkpad T500 with discrete graphics currently sports a 256MB ATI Mobility Radeon 3650. The great (*and rare) thing about Lenovo is that they update the drivers regularly: my 2.5 year-old T60 still gets regular, automatic updates for the graphics driver, which makes a lot of difference to its performance with Windows updates. This is important, as some brands of laptops are developing a really bad reputation for support.
Lenovo make two ranges of laptop: Thinkpads are slightly more robust, with engineering and support for office users. Ideapads are aimed more at the home user, with flashier multimedia features, but no automatic updates etc (although updates are kept up to date on the Lenovo website). I prefer the Thinkpads as they have such excellent keyboards, are really easy to upgrade yourself without having to pay manufacturer prices for RAM or a replacement HD, and will survive a lot of iunintentional abuse(!). Lenovo Thinkpads and Ideapads are eligible for a free Windows 7 upgrade, which will make dealing with Vista a whole lot easier to bear ... :-)
You'll be hard pushed to get a 4-500 GB HD with any range: most manufacturers seem to be sticking with 320GB drives for now. Personally, I use a couple of external USB HDs anyway, as you have a copy of the critical stuff when the inevitable happens (and can be kept separately from your laptop, in case it is stolen).
posted by Susurration at 1:14 PM on July 4, 2009

As an alternative to running windows on the mac, if it's mainly the MS Word compatibility you're worried about you can get MS Office for the mac - I regularly edit the same Word, Excel and Powerpoint documents on both my macbook and my work PC with no compatibility problems. I converted from PC to Macbook 6 months ago and haven't looked back.
posted by hibbersk at 1:16 PM on July 4, 2009

Response by poster: If you bring a document back from the Mac to PC, does the PC "know" it was created on a MAC or is that just a software thing like MS Word versions recognizing each other? Sorry, I'm a little behind the times.
posted by aimeel at 1:17 PM on July 4, 2009

BTW, Office Depot sell some Lenovo notebook models, so you can try out the keyboard there!
posted by Susurration at 1:23 PM on July 4, 2009

Response by poster: So good on the Lenovo Thinkpad and on the Mac - I can go into the store to "test drive" the keyboards. Any thoughts on the other manufacturers? Or on models of the Lenovo or Mac?
posted by aimeel at 1:28 PM on July 4, 2009

it doesn't matter where the file was created, like on a Mac or a PC or a PC running Linux or etc. (usually) - just the format of the data inside the file (e.g. Word document, Flash animation). if you get Microsoft Office for Mac, you're creating the same files that Microsoft Office for Windows does. if you put Windows on a Mac, you've essentially got a PC. (Mac hardware really isn't much different from your average PC nowadays; you're just running Mac OS X instead of Windows.)

if you go with a Mac, you're pretty much looking at the $1,599 15" MacBook Pro to stick with the screen size you want. keep in mind when you compare laptops that the diagonal size of the screen is, outside of telling you how physically large it is, mostly useless information - there are several 15-17" PC laptops that have the same resolution (and therefore display the same amount of information) as the 13" MacBook. you need to compare resolutions too, as that tells you how much data the screen actually shows. if you're wanting a 16" screen for visibility reasons, you might want to look at a laptop with a lower resolution.
posted by mrg at 1:29 PM on July 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Actually, TextEdit, a free program that comes with every Mac, can read and write .doc files just fine. It's not as full-featured as Word For Mac, but it does the job on the small stuff. You'll be fine if you get Office For Mac. Although, apparently Pages, which is part of Apple's iWork, will also read and write MS .doc files. And is about half the price of the MS software.

(There is also an excellent port of Open Office to the Mac, which also works great with MS Office style files, and is free!)
posted by hippybear at 1:36 PM on July 4, 2009

In the PC realm the Thinkpad T Series would be your best bet. The 14.1 display is a well-balanced machine. Sturdy as all get-out and on sale now. I don't know which OS you're used to, but for $79 you can get it with XP and a free upgrade to Windows 7.
posted by SteveInMaine at 2:01 PM on July 4, 2009

Toshiba make good laptops for the money. I recently bought a Satellite E105-S1402. Drawbacks: not as much disk space as you'd like, but a SATA port for expansion. 4GB RAM tops. Smaller screen than you're looking for (something like 15" or a bit less). Intel graphics processor, not as good as NVidia or ATI. Speakers are small.
Pluses: Cheap. Really light and slim. Illuminated keyboard, and fantastic to use as well. Quiet. Not much crapware to get rid of. Fingerprint-limiting finish on the whole thing, including the screen surface. Runs 4+hours on batteries. Webcam, natch, and a fingerprint reader if you like that biometirc stuff.
posted by nj_subgenius at 2:39 PM on July 4, 2009

Jumping on the Lenovo bandwagon. I've had nothing but good experiences with them (and their IBM predecessors), but have had crappy experiences with Dell and HP, as well as some less than stellar uses of a Toshiba...
posted by firei at 2:49 PM on July 4, 2009

I second firei, esp. with regard to past negative experience with Toshiba. They seem to have improved greatly, though, and have brought their prices down very nicely. I had to think twice before buying, but feel convinced it was best considering my budget of $700-800.
posted by nj_subgenius at 2:57 PM on July 4, 2009

My work machine runs Windows, and my home machines have always been Mac. It's been years - at least eight, maybe more like 10 - since I experienced any trouble with a Windows machine having trouble reading Mac-created Word/excel docs or vice-versa. As long as you keep each OS and the software it runs reasonably up to date, it shouldn't be a problem. I'm currently loving the new 13" unibody Macbook Pro I bought recently. Love it.
posted by rtha at 3:07 PM on July 4, 2009

If you are going for a Lenovo, either go to the Lenovo's refurbished website, or use the code "familyandfriends" at Lenovo's contractor website. Either way you get a nice machine at a significant discount that often eclipses the academic discounts available. The Lenovo code "USPNOTEBOOKS" may also produce savings. The higher-end Lenovo ThinkPad models (not the "SL" series) include a bunch of travel-related technologies that reduce the probability of failure. Next to buying a military spec'd machine for luggability, they are probably one reasonably available brand that is most suitable for portability. The lower-end Lenovo IdeaPad range are equivalent to consumer-level Dells/HPs/Apples and not really remarkably durable or in possession of the ThinkPad's finer keyboards.

As regards quality, many of the Apple-branded laptops are built mainly by Asus (other popular ODMs include Compal, Quanta and Inventec). Any upper-range Asus-branded or Asus-manufactured laptop will offer similar quality but at a lower cost, and usually with a better selection of ports. I have an Asus-manufactured 12" laptop that I bought in 2004 and have schlepped around every day since. It's a rock.

When people talk about the quality of laptop brands, they are really often talking at cross purposes. The large laptop sellers such as Dell, HP, Lenovo, Apple, Acer, Toshiba etc use different ODMs for different model lines within their brands, and even sometimes change ODMs during a model run. So a brand can have a higher rep for a while, then lose some for a partricularly bad run from a dodgy ODM. Some companies care more or less than others about paying more to rectify bad ODM runs, or instead of paying an increased up-front ODM cost may instead offer longer on-site or immediate support/replacement warranties at "no extra cost" to the end-user, amortising their increased support cost over the product lifetime. Some of these enhanced long lifetime warranties are global and portable between different continental support regimes while others are not. If you are travelling to Norway then reading the small print for any support contract would be a good idea.
posted by meehawl at 3:31 PM on July 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow. You guys (and gals presumably) are amazing. I appreciate all the wise advice. Long as you all keep advising, I'll keep listening!
posted by aimeel at 4:10 PM on July 4, 2009

Response by poster: OMG Meehawl and sussaration- Just logged onto the Lenovo website using the friends and family thing and started with the W series thinkpad - the one with the extra retractable monitor - I think I'm in love. Just having the extra screen is just too cool. (And I'm over 40 so I don't use this kind of slang lightly). Sadly, it would cost over 3,000 to increase the hard drive to 320 and have another gig of Ram. Ouch! I'll go back to the website and keep looking.

And hippybear - I also looked at the MacBook Pro and I think I am over my conversion fears, although the price is a little scary in that it lacks some features that seem to come standard on other laptops. I could see buying the MS office for Mac that you and hibbersk recommended. The CNET reviews are excellent on the macbooks and there was one user review that was very persuasive about Mac over PC. Curious as to the advantages of aluminum chassis on the macbook and as to why Mac hasn't chosen to include some features on machines that are so expensive.

As for Toshiba, well, my father has one that is absolutely CURSED and even though it has a little more power than my old HP zt3000, I won't use it so I doubt I'll be shopping Toshiba. And once again, why are these manufacturers so set on making wristrests that will show every little smear of your fingers? It's becoming a pet peeve to see a workspace that will only look nice if it is never used, don't you think? Back to the drawing board!
posted by aimeel at 5:26 PM on July 4, 2009

+1 for Mac and +1 for Thinkpads. Really, you should get a Mac. A few things to remember:
1) You can get MS Office for the Mac and it will read and write all your documents. There are educational discounts of which you should take advantage.
2) Google Documents will import just about anything these days. You can store all your documents in the cloud and edit them in your browser on whatever architecture you want.
3) OpenOffice and other alternatives exist to all of the above.

You may run into difficulty trying to network your Mac with a bunch of PCs (things like Windows NT Domains, print servers, etc). However, all can be overcome with a little bit of the ol' Google and you always have AskMe.
posted by jeffamaphone at 7:22 PM on July 4, 2009

I can't underscore enough, when you get your MacBook, you should purchase the best AppleCare you can, either when you buy the computer or shortly thereafter. It's gold standard coverage for computers. I know of people who have gotten 2 years and 9 months into a 3-year AppleCare contract and have had something critical fail on their MacBook... and they find themselves the proud owners of a brand-new state-of-the-art computer as a replacement. (And that's not an uncommon story.)

Also, Mac OS makes it incredibly easy to have maintenance-free backups. Purchase an external drive about 3x the size of the drive inside your machine (1TB drives are ~$100 these days), and set up Time Machine (automated backup) for yourself. You'll be SO glad you did.

Finally, skip having Apple install any memory upgrade... Buy the computer with minimal memory and find a 3rd party supplier to max out your machine. You'll save hundreds of dollars that way.

Feel free to mefi mail me if you have any questions you want me to geek out on for you.
posted by hippybear at 9:01 PM on July 4, 2009

If 'twere me, I'd go for the Elite Lenovo Thinkpad T500 with discrete graphics (15.4" screen) and a recordable DVD drive. It won't break the bank and it's a nice model with a large-ish screen to use as a desktop replacement. It'll set you back $1429 with an upgrade to 3 or 4 GB RAM (important) and a 320 GB HD. I might also considering going for the 15.4" WSXGA+ TFT, w/ CCFL Backlight screen option and an integrated webcam, which would add another $100. The screen and RAM upgrades are always way more important than slight upgrades to processor speed. In a year, with new processors released, there will seem no difference between a 2.53 MHz processor and a 2.8 MHz processor. But you'll be very glad that you have additional RAM when you are trying to get stuff done. As you can't see more than 3 GB of RAM in 32-bit Windows, you should consider getting the 64-bit Vista Ultimate operating system and then you'll be upgraded to the 64-bit version of Windows 7 & when it comes out in October. See why you should upgrade to 64-but Windows, at Gizmodo.
BTW, I'm with you on Toshiba, who are another company (apart from HP) that I would not touch for a notebook. My SO has been struggling with his Tosh for a couple of years. He finally gave up trying to get it all the components to work at the same time -- and bought a Lenovo ... :-)
posted by Susurration at 9:29 PM on July 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Whoops - I meant GHz processor, not MHz. Showing my age there!
posted by Susurration at 9:31 PM on July 4, 2009

If you go Mac:
Seconding 3 years of AppleCare, it will make the total cost of operation much lower than a comparable Dell or whatever. I recommend investing in Parallels or VMWare Fusion, and then using whatever academic discounts you can get for the Microsoft softwares.

For any way: consider buying a faster, smaller hard drive and upgrading RAM on your laptop. External hard drives are very cheap these days, even portable models. I'm a particular fan of WD Passport series, which are light, reasonably durable and relatively inexpensive. External hard drives can be formatted to NTFS so Macs and PCs can read/write equally easily (this requires a bit more software setup on the Mac, but nothing too hard).

also re: hippybear, Apple's memory upgrades are actually quite reasonable compared to 3rd-party upgrades, especially if you do not perform the upgrade yourself. At one time, this was not true and Apple made a lot of money from hapless customers.
posted by mezamashii at 10:44 PM on July 4, 2009

Oh, and if you buy a new Mac between now and the end of the year and it doesn't come with the new version of the operating system (Snow Leopard), you can get an upgrade for $10.
posted by hippybear at 10:50 PM on July 4, 2009

If you decide to go for Mac, since you're a teacher you should qualify for the educational discount on the Macbook as well as the Applecare ($240 instead of $350 for the Macbook Pro 3 year coverage).
posted by hibbersk at 11:21 PM on July 4, 2009

You might find it more economical to get the Lenovo you like and buy an external HD for things you needn't have with you all the time. That could bring your storage up well over 500GB without your having to dole out for a big fat onboard HD.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 8:54 AM on July 5, 2009

I had a lenovo t42 for 4 years and it's still going, so a +1 for them and do check the outlet store frequently.

I've recently upgraded to hp's elitebook line (I have a 8530w which has a 15+ screen). The elitebooks don't seem to get much press, but are a fantastic computer line designed and manufactured completely separately from their consumer lines; I like it just as much if not better than thinkpads, so give them a look as well. The keyboard is also awesome.

HP has their own outlet/ refurb page as well.

I also second the external HD. Or if you don't want to carry one around, you can buy a hard drive separately and upgrade it yourself for much cheaper, or buy a second internal HD if the model you choose has an optical/ expansion slot.
posted by stratastar at 1:07 PM on July 5, 2009

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