Options for a small & cheap Mac laptop?
October 2, 2009 2:01 PM   Subscribe

What are my options for a cheap, small Mac laptop?

I'm on a tight budget, but would love to get a laptop. I've been looking at netbooks because I love the light weight and small size. However, I may be about to get a job at my school, which basically is an Apple campus, so now I'm considering a Mac instead. I'd still like to find something cheap, small and light, and with some serious battery life. Of course one option is to buy a used or refurbed Mac (maybe an Air?). Could I also buy a netbook and install OS X? Or install some *nix - how compatible (not look and feel but interoperability) would this be?

P.S. I could probably do some research and get some good info, but I thought I'd see what ya'll can tell me first. I've read other questions here, and they seem to be either out of date or about desktops (or both).
posted by attercoppe to Computers & Internet (25 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Installing the Mac OS on a netbook can totally be done but it's a headache. Googleable term is "hackintosh" That said, it's easy to get a Mac with a Pentium chip and have it basically triple-boot OSX/Windows/Linux if you want. THAT said, Macs aren't cheap so wanting something cheap and wanting a mac puts you at odds a little. That said, this is just a sort of dollar sign ay of looking at things; for many people Macs are timesavers in terms of all the virus-protection and troubleshooting you don't have to do and so for a lot of people the extra up front cash translates nicely into more free time not fighting with it on the back end. YMMV of course.

I have an AIR and you're really paying a premium for absolute lightweightness. Plus it doesn't have a CD/DVD drive which is sort of a dealbreaker if you're only going to have one computer. I've had good luck buying refurbs from SmallDog or the Apple store. Check into educational discounts and be sure to get AppleCare [totally worth it and you can get it at a steep discount from eBay sellers].

Otherwise, yeah, look into the smallest form factor [13"? this is someone else's bailiwick, not mine] and think about a refurb Mac. Best of luck.
posted by jessamyn at 2:05 PM on October 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Check out the refurbs here.

Example - iBook G4, good enough for schoolwork, and batteries are easy to get off ebay, for just $300.
posted by chambers at 2:08 PM on October 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I haven't done this to my netbook (MSI Wind u123), but there's a whole community dedicating to hackintoshing MSI Winds. The necessary components for doing so (more memory and a different wireless card) cost less than 100 dollars. With a battery life of over 8 hours and a sub 400 price tag (there are a few versions of the u123 that differ in battery life and some other small features), I highly recommend the Wind. Unless Apple is releasing a netbook in the near future (I believe there have been rumors of a tablet), a hackintoshed netbook is the cheapest way to have OS X.
posted by pianohands at 2:11 PM on October 2, 2009

I have a PowerBook G4 12" and it is small (I like that it's about 8x11.5, so it fits in things meant for letter-sized paper) and relatively lightweight, and in good shape after several years of use. So that's another refurb to consider from chambers's link.
posted by theredpen at 2:11 PM on October 2, 2009

With educational discount, the white MacBook is selling for $850 on my (Apple lovin) campus.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:13 PM on October 2, 2009

I would not recommend using a site called Gainsaver.com, I've heard many stories of bad experiences dealing with them. They often come up n searched for refurbished Macs, but I've seen too many bad reviews to trust their prices.

I've used DVWarehouse several times before, and recommended it to friends, and it has always been good.

I work as an IT director for a company with a large amount of Macs. Some of our workers have mac laptops, but since the cost of replacing lost or stolen laptops could be huge, we usually get them iBooks from a few years ago. Great for everyday stuff, and if you lose it or break it, it's not the end of the world.

As long as you back up your data. Daily.
posted by chambers at 2:14 PM on October 2, 2009

I just bought a refurb MacBook. It was $999 because it had some extra bells and whistles (little faster, little more memory). Anyway, it was a lot for me to spend, being a poor man, but my god - I'm in love with it.

You can also get the ed discount, if you want a new one. But the refurbs are almost always cheaper (too bad they don't give ed discounts on refurbs!) I think the classic white Macbook is $795 refurb...which ain't to shabby, for a mac.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:18 PM on October 2, 2009

Apple direct factory refurbs from the online apple store are the way to go if you're looking to buy something that's the almost-latest model. You save about $200, and you get a full warranty, just as if you bought it new.
posted by chambers at 2:23 PM on October 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

The only issue with getting refurbs from Apple is they are not always available. Since school just started, most will be gone, but check oftern, you may get lucky. They come around in batches with no real set schedule.
posted by chambers at 2:25 PM on October 2, 2009

Best answer: you can do it quite easily on some of the dell mini's -- i currently have a mini 9 and from what i understand it is VERY easy to hackintosh (mydellmini guide)

you can also look at some pretty good used dell mini's on their "for sale" forum but be aware that you are not able to ACTUALLY buy a mini9 with OS X preinstalled but i am sure there are other ways around it...

fwiw some more askmefi's
Hackintosh + MSI Wind?
making a hackintosh (06)
posted by knockoutking at 2:50 PM on October 2, 2009

I've got my eee 1000he working with snow leopard just fine, pretty low effort but it helps if you already have a mac to make the boot image.
posted by iamabot at 3:00 PM on October 2, 2009

I bought my 12" powerbook g4 as a refurb from Powermax. I upgraded recently but the powerbook is still going strong.
posted by rtha at 3:33 PM on October 2, 2009

Seriously, are you doing IT work for the school? Who cares what people at your school use? Unless you are doing video production with FCP or something like that, all applications are available on either platform. I like my EEE 1000HE as much as I'd like any Apple (it's smaller than anything they have available) and it cost me <>
I'm not sure why you need to get a mac. They are nice and all but unless you are doing IT work for them and you need to know how something runs on a mac, I'm not sure what the big deal is.
posted by sully75 at 3:47 PM on October 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Everybody talks about the value of a Mac over time, and I'd like to give my personal experience.
We were an Apple family for years, starting with a Mac Plus, moving to a Performa 630 (I think!), then 2 Powerbooks, an iMac, and finally a MacBook Pro.

When my wife bought her first 'Book, it lasted a couple years, and died catastrophically. It was nothing she did to it - it simply died, and Apple was going to charge a ridiculous amount to fix it. So she bought another Powerbook, which lasted almost a couple of years as well, until one day it would not start. Same story from Apple. Then my rev-a iMac died after 18 months. After struggling with frustrating design issues for the life of the iMac (having to stick a paperclip into a small hole to reboot the computer when it crashed??? LAME!), I was fed up with Apple.

So I bought a cheap PC. 10 years later, it still works, and is used as a backup PC in a spare room. My wife has a 4 year old Dell notebook which still works fine, and I've got a Dell desktop which works beautifully after 5 years.

But in 2007, I, being apparently a sucker for punishment, bought a MacBook Pro. Today, when I booted it up, I have no display. Dead. Turns out it is a known issue and I will hopefully be able to get it repaired for free ( http://support.apple.com/kb/TS2377 )

So what is my point? My point is that if anyone talks about lower cost of ownership on an Apple product, my experience is that the hardware fails at a faster rate than Windows boxes. I love the OS - OS X is wonderful to work with.

But, Windows works FINE for me as well, at a much lower cost.

Your mileage may vary :)
posted by newfers at 4:13 PM on October 2, 2009

Best answer: I don't think a PPC Mac is a good choice, unless you need to run Classic Mac OS. Otherwise, go Intel, as less and less software that supports the PPC Macs will be released.
posted by 6550 at 5:03 PM on October 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have a Dell Mini 9 with Mac OS X, used for iPhone development. So it can be done (the Mini 9 is probably the easiest platform). But it's a hassle. It's also not tremendously cheaper--I was looking for the absolute cheapest Mac, which I got, but after I spent a bit on memory and a slightly bigger/faster drive I was out probably $450.

I find the small screen and the keyboard to be annoying, too much so if it were my primary computer. It is, however, amazingly small, light, and silent.

What are you using it for? If you're in an environment where there's computers all around, I've found that the smallest computer is the one I don't have to carry. Either a USB stick or webapps can carry all your stuff.

For me, the iPhone has all but replaced the need for having a laptop handy for most usual web type tasks. If the school has wifi perhaps you can look into a iPod touch which is way smaller than a netbook.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 5:11 PM on October 2, 2009

So what is my point? My point is that if anyone talks about lower cost of ownership on an Apple product, my experience is that the hardware fails at a faster rate than Windows boxes.

IIRC, Consumer Reports has consistently ranked Macs at the top of their reliability rankings, and by no small margin. I don't have my CR login right here, but I remember seeing that a few times.

I'm a Mac tech. I work with hardware issues for a local Mac shop. Yes, there are some issues with certain models (see: iMac G5 capacitors, MacBook Pro/PowerBook/iBook GPU issues, etc), but those are often acknowledged with service extension programs if they're truly widespread or if someone sues them. Overall, the build quality and engineering on Macs is still what I'd call "top-notch", with occasional exceptions and complaints.

Anyway, you wanted an actual answer to your question? I don't care for the Hackintosh route- yes, it can be done, but it seems like a lot of work and fiddling for the Mac experience. I also wouldn't get anything PPC (that is, iBooks or PowerBooks). They're already out of date, and I don't think you'll have a Good Experience on any of them if you're expecting this to last you for a few years.

My advice? Scrape together as much cash as you can and get an Apple refurb: they have full warranty coverage for $1-200 less. If you can, go for the MacBook Pro 13" over the MacBook 13": the plastic MacBooks still have some issues with build quality that haven't been resolved to my satisfaction. Nothing wrong with them, though; I have friends that have them and love them.

Best of luck!
posted by aaronbeekay at 10:23 PM on October 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure why you need to get a mac. They are nice and all but unless you are doing IT work for them and you need to know how something runs on a mac, I'm not sure what the big deal is.

If the campus is all-Apple, life will be massively easier if you have a Mac. Shared drives serving Mac files, tech support giving instructions for Mac, downloadable editions of Mac applications on campus deals, direct collaboration with fellow students and tutors -- and that's not even assuming they're using OS X Server functions like roaming profiles.

Nobody -- not even Apple's Cupertino campus -- can completely ignore Windows, and I doubt the university will either. But if you're focusing on studying, you want to take the path of least resistance wherever possible, and on a campus filled with Macs, that means running OS X.

OP: To be honest, Windows will probably be more compatible than some *nix-alike. The things that make a Mac a Mac are pretty much absent on Linux/Solaris/etc. But as above, I think you should get a Mac. An Intel one, which means either putting up with the slightly-crappy Dell 9 keyboard, or stretching to a MacBook Air.
posted by fightorflight at 10:43 PM on October 2, 2009

Best answer: On a Mac campus, you definitely want OS X. Do not try to get by with Windows or you'll be adding extra frustration to small tasks every day, and you don't want to waste time like that I am sure.

I have a MacBook Pro 13 (the current smallest official MacBook, not counting the Air) as well as an HP Mini 1000 netbook that I picked up for $200 at Best Buy and hacked OS X onto, with encouragement from a couple of MeFites. I use both almost every day, and I like both for different reasons.

Pro-MacBook: Best damn little laptop I've ever had or seen, in terms of construction and overall quality. Screen is amazing. It's as fast as you'll ever need, comes with decent memory and storage even in the base configurations, and Apple's warranty/service is great. Apple's online page for refurbs is great: I've bought many Macs from it. The deals change many times per day, so you'll want to bookmark it and stay vigilant. Downside: even if you catch the on-sale MBP-13 on the right day, it's still going to be $999ish.

Pro-Netbook: Very tiny, smaller than any Mac, and very cheap. Getting OS X running on a netbook is not Apple-one-click easy, but it's a lot less work than I expected: It took an evening of fiddling around, following online instructions a few times because I kept missing step 16(b) or something. But once it was all working right, it was solid, and everything from WiFi to BlueTooth to the little webcam work completely. It's been used daily for about five weeks now. It's very cute, and if I drop it or step on it or it fails, I don't mind much because that's just $200 lost. I could go through five of them before I spend as much as the MBP13, right? Downsides: very small screen, not Apple hardware so not supported or serviced by Apple, so even software updates might brick it (I turned updates off, which isn't too scary on a Mac anyway since they're not virus prone at all), it's a lot fiddlier to get working in the first place, and of course the build quality and general niceness aren't as high as Apple's ridiculous level. I wouldn't expect HP to swap me a new one if I had a problem, either, the way Apple would.

So do you want a great machine that's a bit expensive, or an adequate machine that's so cheap it's nearly disposable, and you can replace it later?

Neither choice is wrong, here.
posted by rokusan at 12:12 AM on October 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you can, go for the MacBook Pro 13" over the MacBook 13": the plastic MacBooks still have some issues...

A small amendment: some MacBook 13's are black plastic, some are white plastic, and some are aluminum unibody. Apple first replaced the plastic ones with a single aluminum model, called it by the same MacBook 13 inch name, and then a few months later changed the name by adding a "Pro" to it and making the teeniest of technical changes inside.

So there is a "MacBook 13 inch" that is plastic, and I agree it should be avoided, a "MacBook 13 inch" that is aluminum unibody, and a "MacBook Pro 13 inch" that is also aluminum unibody. Either of those aluminum ones are fine: they're almost identical but for the tiniest tech changes inside. You'll still find both on the Apple refurb page.

Apple doesn't sell PPC laptops anymore, so as long as you get it from Apple, it will always be Intel-powered.
posted by rokusan at 12:17 AM on October 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Everybody talks about the value of a Mac over time, and I'd like to give my personal experience.

Opposite of my life story. I've had a dozen many-branded PCs and probably forty Macs in my life. The PCs are retired when they fail, which is often: they have all died eventually.

Contrarily, I've never lost a Mac to fatal failure; they get tossed on eBay or given away when I can't resist something newer, but they've always been still-working when I said goodbye. As an example, I had an original G4 tower from 1999, for example, and it ran every day (first as my desktop, later as a file server) for nine years, until I donated it to a friend who needed an emergency replacement Mac last winter. I upgraded the RAM a couple times and updated the OS X to more recent versions, but the only service it really required in that time was a replacement clock battery in, like, 2006 or so.
posted by rokusan at 12:22 AM on October 3, 2009

Unless you are going into a specialized field, 99% of everything you do on your computer will be handled by a web browser and an office suite. You can run Firefox and OpenOffice on pretty much any install, so don't worry about the OS you're using. That's getting increasingly less relevant as more and more tech moves to web-only.
posted by Deathalicious at 2:22 AM on October 3, 2009

It is not worth the hassle to make a hackintosh from a netbook unless you're a geek and you can deal with constant functionality issues. After a month you'll realize the 300 bucks you saved was not worth the hours and hours of frustration you'll endure. (Don't get me wrong; I've done it for fun, and it can be done, it's just not for non-geeks or people who need reliable productivity from their machine.)

A used Macbook Air is a bad idea. Trust me.

You get what you pay for. A used or refurbed Intel Macbook can be had for less than $800 easily. Hell, a new basic one is only a hundred or so more if you have a student discount.

Anyone who says Macs are more expensive in total cost of ownership -- not just initial cost, but what it costs you over several years to own the machine -- doesn't know the facts or the math. Hate Macs or love them, they are not, in fact, objectively "more expensive" than the competition unless your time and geek labor count for nothing.

As I said, you get what you pay for.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:23 AM on October 3, 2009

The later white MacBooks seem to have avoided the case issues (cosmetic, but still...) of the earlier ones. First hand experience here, granted it's only one data point, but my early-2008 MB still doesn't have the case cracking issues I've read about.

Since no one seems to have mentioned it, search craigslist for a late model (2008+) MB, extra points if less than a year old (so it qualifies for AppleCare), more extra points if it's already under AppleCare. And ditto others' recommendation for Apple refurbs which also qualify for AppleCare. Buy more memory from a 3d-party supplier, buy AppleCare on e-bay, and you should have an excellent laptop with hours of battery run-time.
posted by TruncatedTiller at 9:32 AM on October 3, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks all, so much good stuff here! I've marked some top bests.
posted by attercoppe at 12:52 PM on October 5, 2009

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