Is mac really better than pc? Help me buy a decent student computer.
November 24, 2009 10:27 PM   Subscribe

I've been a happy Pc-er for the last couple years. That is, until a few months ago when my AVG failed me and my pavilion got all virused up... Twice. Ultimately I had to d-ban the poor thing. Since I was only 'mostly sure' I still had the original operating system disks, I have since been using my mom's mac. While I've been slowly getting used to the system (on a casual basis, no work yet, just internet) I still miss the windows format. My old tower is past it's prime, even with a new system. I'm about to become a student in English and am highly discouraged by previous Windows failings. Should I release the ghost and go with the more 'secure' mac? Or stick with my roots? I would like some advice on my next computer purchase. I'm looking for a laptop that can handle a students workload for the next... lets face it, many years, with minimal extras. The only thing it needs, is to be fast. I break things that go slow. I'm not looking to game (much) or download + store music (at all), I just need to research crap at high speed. All suggestions are greatly appreciated. Cheers!
posted by Miss Mitz to Computers & Internet (39 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm about to become a student in English and am highly discouraged by previous Windows failings.

If you've got an ex-Windows tower sitting around doing nothing, slap the current version of Ubuntu on it and see if you like it. It's a much less fiddly thing to install than Windows, the Gnome desktop environment is less bizarre (from a Windows-accustomed point of view) than the Mac, it's at least as malware-resistant as the Mac, and if it does end up suiting you, you're unlikely to need to spend money on software ever again.
posted by flabdablet at 10:34 PM on November 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


By the way, the current Ubuntu includes Firefox 3.5, which is pretty quick.
posted by flabdablet at 10:35 PM on November 24, 2009


Seconding Ubuntu. With Open Office you should be able to handle virtually any student type stuff.
posted by ktrey at 10:57 PM on November 24, 2009


I came in here to say the same thing that flabdablet did. If you're frustrated with the insecurity of windows and you aren't sure that you like a mac, try linux.

You can even try Ubuntu out from a live CD without installing anything. It'll be slow, but it will give you an idea of whether it's something you work with. Once you decide it's workable, do an install on your old box and play around for a week or two.

Lastly, the Ubuntu Forums are an invaluable resource for this sort of thing.

Finally, if you don't like the Mac OS, why on earth would you pay a hundred or even thousand-dollar premium for their products. Stick with a basic laptop - somethign from Dell, or if you're looking to drop a little more, a Lenovo Thinkpad.
posted by chrisamiller at 10:57 PM on November 24, 2009


Unbuntu is your friend. However if you're gonna get a new machine that is a Mac you can always use bootcamp or run parallels to access windows or windows apps. Warning; If you are a long time windows user this will not be as easy as it sounds. Also there is no substitute for good security practices no matter what platform you are on. I've used windows as my primary platform for more than 15 years and I've never been pwnd. It is much easier to be safe on a MacOS or a Linux distro just based on the number of exploits targeted at each because of market share. As non windows systems grow in percentage of total systems this will not always be true.
posted by white_devil at 10:59 PM on November 24, 2009


Whats your budget like? Do you want a laptop?

I'm totally biased towards mac, but I'll try to give you an objective perspective.

"Researching crap at high speed" will depend a lot more on your internet connection and browser than OS. New Safari 4 (on a Mac) is supposed to have the fastest launch time (.94s vs 3.28s for IE8 on Vista) Chrome (currently Windows only) is pretty fast too.

You'll get used to using a new operating system soon enough if you're willing to wait out the learning curve. There are resources for "switchers" including classes at your Apple store. It can be frustrating at first, but it doesn't mean you'll never learn. Give yourself a month to get very acquainted with it, maybe before your classes ramp up.

If you want a laptop, I don't care if you immediately install windows and never touch OSX, get a Mac laptop. They are very well engineered.

You can always dual boot windows if you get sentimental.

Of course keeping viruses off of it would be the best first step to keeping any computer fast.
posted by fontophilic at 11:03 PM on November 24, 2009


I came in to suggest that you try Ubuntu before you buy a Mac. Linux very often runs on "old" hardware far faster than Windows does. I find that I upgrade my computer only when some major component fails, or because I want some new piece of nifty hardware, not because it's "gotten slow".

So, try the Ubuntu Live CD before you drop thousands of bucks on a Mac.

It is much easier to be safe on a MacOS or a Linux distro just based on the number of exploits targeted at each because of market share. As non windows systems grow in percentage of total systems this will not always be true.

While I agree that part of the safety of the unix systems comes from their obscurity, it is not even kinda the only reason.

The main reason that unix systems are secure is that the architecture of a modern unix operating system is far more security conscious than that of the MS operating systems. OSX isn't quite as secure, because it tries so hard to be "friendly" that compromises itself. But most linuxen come, out of the box, set up in such a way that it's very difficult for an exploit on a desktop machine to really hurt much of anything. At worst, it deletes your user's files... but, you have backups for that, right?
posted by Netzapper at 11:09 PM on November 24, 2009


Nthing the Ubuntu recommendations. The switch from Windows to Ubuntu was a little scary at first, but I'll never go back. Ubuntu is so so wonderfully lightweight compared to Windows - the hardware requirements are minimal.

Also, I've learned more about how computers work in the 6 mo that I've been using Ubuntu than I knew previously. It's pretty cool.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 11:10 PM on November 24, 2009


I am a Mac and Linux user, and I'll nth at least giving Ubuntu a fair shot. It needs good hardware to work competitively, though. A lot of people (myself included, at times) have written off Linux after only trying it on some old piece-of-junk box they had sitting around in the back of a closet. If you want speed, at least use recent or one-generation-old hardware.

Yes, Linux will run on just about anything built since the mid-90s, but that doesn't mean you should plan on using it as a primary workstation that way. Give it a fair shot with a decent machine.

I'd say after that, just biting the bullet and buying a new Mac would be your next best option. The Mac OS is not necessarily faster than Windows out of the box (WinXP on bare metal on good hardware is actually screaming fast, I have to admit), but with Windows it's almost a necessity to have antivirus/antitrojan stuff running, and I've yet to find a package that didn't significantly impact performance. I despise those things, and as a result I only ever run Windows in a VM, where I can just scrap everything and go back to a known-good state with a few clicks.

And that is my third suggestion. Buy a significantly overpowered Mac or PC, and run either Mac OS or Linux as your host OS. Then use a virtualization solution (I'd recommend VMWare Workstation on Linux, VMWare Fusion on Mac) to run Windows. Strip the Windows install down to the bare minimum. Don't ever save any data in the guest (this takes discipline), and when it inevitably gets crufty, just revert to a clean snapshot.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:19 PM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Get the Mac.

If you find you don't like it, simply resell it on either Craigslist or eBay. Macs, generally, have the highest resale value of any consumer-grade computer. (I recently sold my 1.5 year old Mac on eBay for $200 less than I paid for it--it was in really good condition.)

Also, if you find you don't like it, you can always install Windows on it (via Bootcamp or Parallels/VMware). I have Windows installed on my Mac because I like the Windows version of Microsoft Office better.

Feel free to MeFi Mail me if you have any questions. I'll be happy to help you.

What web browser do you use on Windows?
posted by capitalist.pig at 11:19 PM on November 24, 2009


Oh, and if you want to use Ubuntu, I'd stick with the "LTS" releases. Some of the other interim releases include software that I wouldn't consider ready for prime time, and frankly wouldn't pass QA at Apple or even Microsoft. (Looking right at you, PulseAudio.)

The regular releases are fine if you want to be closer to the bleeding edge of software development, but I wouldn't recommend them to average users looking for a stable (rather than feature-rich) client system. You could easily run one in a VM later if you want to play around and see what you're missing, though.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:27 PM on November 24, 2009


Ubuntu.

And if you want a laptop that will last years (I can't work out whether your question is a 2-parter or not) I think Thinkpads are great - specifically the ultra-light ones. They are not cheap, but the build quality and in particular the keyboard is the most robust I've ever come across in a laptop. I'm typing this message on a 4yo X41 running Ubuntu, and I have no plans for a new machine right now. What I do is web, research, writing, and very occasional code.

I also have a windows install on the same machine but only use it when I absolutely have to (some work software only runs on windows) and the perceived speed difference between Ubuntu & XP is a factor of 2 or 3 on the exact same hardware. I dread to think what Vista would be like on this 4yo laptop.

FWIW I spent a brief period as a mac-user - with a secondhand powerbook, about 7 years ago. The OS is nice, the build was OK (still prefer the thinkpad keyboard though), but the way I kept having to upgrade stuff just because Apple had decided they wanted me to really began to get on my tits. (Particularly galling was the way my ipod worked with a windows machine over USB, but only worked over firewire on macs. Hey, Apple, if you've got the USB interface, why are you disabling it for your own customers? Oh yeah, to get us to buy more of your stuff...).
posted by handee at 11:35 PM on November 24, 2009


You say you're about to be a student in English, and I'm going to take that to mean you're going to college. If this is the case, you're probably, ultimately, going to want a laptop. Having that level of portability is really indispensable.

Apple's laptop prices are falling more in line with the equivalent mainstream PC prices as time goes on, but they still tend to be on the expensive side. I think any extra cost is generally worth it, but I'm a big fan of Mac OS and Apple's engineering/industrial design (seriously, the MagSafe power connector alone is amazing) and love the ease of running a Unix-based system. Regardless, though, if you're using a Mac right now and aren't feeling the OS, you probably won't like it any more over time unless you find something about it that you really love and decide you can't do without. I think most people feel like it's a love-it-or-hate-it kind of deal.

You should definitely at least try running Ubuntu on your old tower, just so you can get a taste of how it works: the folks who have been working on Ubuntu have done a decent job of making Linux pretty user-friendly*. Installation is a snap, and I've actually had some things work better and more easily in Ubuntu than either Windows or Mac OS.

If you decide that neither a Mac nor Linux on your old desktop are for you, and you're looking to get a new laptop, I guess I'd recommend a Lenovo. They generally have really good customer service and hardware design, though I think they tend to be a little more expensive than their more generic HP/Dell/whatever counterparts.

*May not apply for all situations. It's still Linux, after all, and while the vast majority of stuff (web browsing, email, office applications, etc.) is really easy to use, some more advanced things may require you to get down into the console and do stuff there. It's not that hard, but can definitely be daunting, especially at first.
posted by malthas at 11:36 PM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Here's a brief guide to installing ubuntu if you decide to try it.

If you're looking for speed, you might also try Xubuntu. (It's a variant designed for older machines.) I put it on an old Acer laptop and the difference was pretty surprising. In XP, it took about 10 minutes to get from pushing the power button to opening firefox. In Xubuntu, it's about a minute.
posted by Ljubljana at 11:49 PM on November 24, 2009


If you find Windows finnicky or problematic, you absolutely, positively will not like Ubuntu or any other Linux distribution. It requires more nitpicking, more poking and prodding, and has a far less unified user interface than any other common OS. If you like tinkering, tweaking and fixing things, Ubuntu is right for you, but it's not a 'throw it on a PC and have everything just work in a satisfactory and enjoyable manner' experience as many would suggest.

I just purchased a MacBook Pro 13", the first OS X-based Mac I've ever owned, and am greatly enjoying the experience. I'm not a Mac zealot or anything, but there is something to the fanbase's eagerness. It's up to you if it's worth a $700+ premium over, say, just buying the cheapest laptop you can find on Dell's refurb site.

The failings you attribute to Windows, though, seem to be solely the problem of the user. Your antivirus failing to diagnose a virus suggests you went to a site so shady it was laden with 0-day exploits, were using an insecure browser vulnerable to the exploit, and were using a profile with administration privileges. Don't go to shady sites on an admin profile (do it in a virtual machine if you must at all, such as a virtual XP or Linux install in VMWare Player), keep your AV up to date, keep a firewall enabled. These are precautions that will be required regardless of the OS you use - Just as you can run as root on Linux or the equivalent thereof in OS X, it's what must be done in Windows.

And then there's your target environment. OpenOffice isn't perfect, but will possibly do for what you'll use it for. This is the only native option available to Linux users.

Your experience, if you use OpenOffice on any of the available platforms, will not be comparable with most users, who will be using Microsoft Word or similar. You will run into issues with formatting of documents, or with formatting your own documents, and won't have as large of a social network at school to fall back on for help. For example, you may need to figure out how to add footnotes, or references, or sources to a document. Your professor and fellow students may not be familiar with OpenOffice, leaving you to figure it out through community websites on your own.

Microsoft Office/Word is available for both OSX and Windows, and you can make it run with varying degrees of difficulty on Linux by way of Wine or one of it's derivatives, but again this requires wrestling with software, and dealing with the issues that arise from this choice.

It's up to you how much you want to screw with it on a day to day basis, versus (in the case of Windows) occasionally having to nuke the site from orbit and restore from backup, or (in the case of the Mac) pay a premium and have similar compatibility issues to Linux, but a tech support line you can call to get actual help.

Rendus, user of Windows/DOS since 3.x/3.x, Linux since Slackware 3.2, MacOS intermittently since System 6.
posted by Rendus at 12:06 AM on November 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


If you find Windows finnicky or problematic, you absolutely, positively will not like Ubuntu or any other Linux distribution. It requires more nitpicking, more poking and prodding, and has a far less unified user interface than any other common OS. If you like tinkering, tweaking and fixing things, Ubuntu is right for you, but it's not a 'throw it on a PC and have everything just work in a satisfactory and enjoyable manner' experience as many would suggest.

^^^ Having used Windows, Mac, and various Linux distros, I whole-heartedly agree with everything Rendus has said above.
posted by capitalist.pig at 12:14 AM on November 25, 2009


I'm a huge mac fan, but I'd probably go the cheaper route first because of the type of work you need it for, and even more so, because you haven't enjoyed your mac experience so far. If you prefer one over the other it really doesn't matter what anyone believes to be the 'best'.

I spent a brief period as a mac-user - with a secondhand powerbook, about 7 years ago. The OS is nice

7 years is a lifetime. If it's been that long since you've used a mac your opinion on the OS borders on worthless.

but the way I kept having to upgrade stuff just because Apple had decided they wanted me to really began to get on my tits.
posted by handee


I gave my ibook to my mother when I decided to upgrade to a macbook. It's going on 6 years and runs flawlessly. She has no reason to upgrade. I know quite a few mac users that run their hardware into the ground until they simply want something new.

If I had the choice to use a mac for 5 years or a PC I'd take the mac every time. Your ipod example is comparing apples to oranges.
posted by justgary at 1:00 AM on November 25, 2009


Linux does have a reputation for being fiddly and arcane, as you'd expect from something that started as a hobby project and grew organically from there. But the whole point of Ubuntu has been to reduce that fiddliness to levels easily tolerable to the average non-technical computer user. In this, it has succeeded admirably. For about two years, it has taken less fiddling to make an Ubuntu box do what it's supposed to do than to stop a Windows box from doing all the stuff it's not supposed to do.

Cases in point:

The failings you attribute to Windows, though, seem to be solely the problem of the user. Your antivirus failing to diagnose a virus suggests you went to a site so shady it was laden with 0-day exploits, were using an insecure browser vulnerable to the exploit, and were using a profile with administration privileges.

This configuration (insecure browser vulnerable to more exploits than any other, profile with admin privileges) is the way Windows has shipped for years, and the way most Windows boxes in current use are still set up. The same is not and never has been true for most Unix (including Mac and Linux) boxes, and is certainly not true for Ubuntu.

A plain vanilla, all-defaults-accepted Ubuntu install gives you a desktop environment that runs without admin rights until you try to do something administrative, at which point you need to enter a password to unlock the admin capabilities. Every Linux app expects to be running in this kind of environment, and you never have to fartarse about with them just to make them do that.

keep your AV up to date

I don't know anybody who bothers with antivirus on Linux. I have also never heard of a Linux box getting infected by malware. In contrast, I make a modest living helping people whose Windows boxes are in assorted kinds of disarray, most of them malware-related.

keep a firewall enabled

Most people these days get to the Internet via an external box with some form of NAT, and that's all the firewalling that a Linux user needs. There is typically no need to turn one on in the OS itself.

Just as you can run as root on Linux or the equivalent thereof in OS X, it's what must be done in Windows.

It's more trouble to run without admin privileges in Windows because of legacy application program issues. Yes, you can adequately secure Windows, but doing so involves a lot of fiddling with apps and moving far enough away from the familiar default Windows configuration that you will strike issues that don't affect most Windows users, and this limits your support options to at least as great an extent as (for example) working with a minority office app. Which brings us to this:

You will run into issues with formatting of documents, or with formatting your own documents, and won't have as large of a social network at school to fall back on for help. For example, you may need to figure out how to add footnotes, or references, or sources to a document. Your professor and fellow students may not be familiar with OpenOffice, leaving you to figure it out through community websites on your own such as this one, which are actually very effective. FTFY.

Also, OpenOffice.org Writer won't slow to a crawl when your documents get big; nor will it mysteriously die and destroy them.

DOS developer since DOS 2.0, NT developer since NT4, Mac user since Mac ousted Lisa, Linux user since Red Hat 7; currently using Ubuntu Hardy at home, Windows XP, Windows 7, Ubuntu Hardy desktop and Jaunty server at work, and supporting Ubuntu Dapper, Hardy and Karmic desktops at customer sites, and very mature for his age :P
posted by flabdablet at 1:36 AM on November 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


My mother, by the way, had to abandon her Mac Performa 630 because the printer died and neither of us could find a new one that came with drivers for OS 8.

She's running Ubuntu Gutsy on a second-hand iMac G3 now, and it works just fine.
posted by flabdablet at 1:41 AM on November 25, 2009


"Researching crap at high speed" will depend a lot more on your internet connection and browser than OS. New Safari 4 (on a Mac) is supposed to have the fastest launch time (.94s vs 3.28s for IE8 on Vista) Chrome (currently Windows only) is pretty fast too.

That's a pretty bizarre benchmark. How often do you start the browser process, compared to simply opening a new window? I almost always have one browser window open.

The real question is how fast it can render pages once they've loaded. According to this comparison Chrome is the fastest browser, and they rated safari and firefox equally.

That said, unless you're running a really low end netbook, browser speed probably won't make much of a difference for you. (If you do get a notebook, though, Chrome probably is a good idea)
posted by delmoi at 1:42 AM on November 25, 2009


I have also never heard of a Linux box getting infected by malware

Sorry. That should have read "I have never heard of a desktop Linux box getting infected by malware". Of course there are loads of malware-infected web servers running everywhere, and many of those are on Linux.

It must be said, though, that most of that malware doesn't affect the actual web server OS, but uses it as a propagation vector to do drive-by installs on Windows desktop clients.
posted by flabdablet at 1:50 AM on November 25, 2009


Linux does have a reputation for being fiddly and arcane, as you'd expect from something that started as a hobby project and grew organically from there. But the whole point of Ubuntu has been to reduce that fiddliness to levels easily tolerable to the average non-technical computer user. In this, it has succeeded admirably. For about two years, it has taken less fiddling to make an Ubuntu box do what it's supposed to do than to stop a Windows box from doing all the stuff it's not supposed to do.

flabdablet is absolutely right about this.

Installing Ubuntu takes about half an hour. Installing Windows takes all damn afternoon, since you have to individually track down every driver (and reboot fifty times). If you don't buy your computer from some no-name place in Bangalore, and it isn't just-released-last-week hardware, then Ubuntu's very likely to run just fine without the slightest bit of manual configuration.

(Although you might want to install the "restricted" not-open-source graphics drivers. Which takes three clicks and a restart of the windowing system (but not usually a reboot).)

But, you say, your new computer comes with Windows installed? It also comes with a load of crapware installed which immediately robs you of much of your performance. Not to mention that they often install non-standard software components that squeeze out the standard components, and then do an inferior job (wireless network cards love to do this shit). Most power users take a new machine and spend all afternoon uninstalling shit.

Anyway, if you want to, buy a Mac. But don't discount Ubuntu because of people's third-hand experience with sever-class Linux five years ago.

For instance, when I finally convinced her to switch, my wife (who's not into computers) took to Ubuntu in about ten minutes. It took her several months to feel comfortable with her MacBook. And she spent those months bitching about how Ubuntu did it better.

There's also the entire opensource ecosystem available to you on Ubuntu. Suddenly realize you've got to design a logo? Don't buy Freehand. Just download Inkscape. Want a new game to kill time at the dentist's office? Just download one of the hundreds available. Ubuntu says that there are 25000 different programs available to me right now, from Amateur Radio to Graphics to Utilities. And this download-whatever-you-want capability is built into the Ubuntu operating system... it's a menu item in the control panel. And it's searchable.
posted by Netzapper at 1:56 AM on November 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


Rendus's advice is bizarrely off-base, particularly concerning OpenOffice.org. I graduated with an advanced degree in English and had exactly one instance of problematic openoffice stuff in eight years of schooling--when my school's thesis office insisted on Word styles for my electronic thesis. I use it to write novels on, traveling frequently between my Windows box at work and my Ubuntu box at home, and have never had any problems. It's the program I used to recommend to students when they were having trouble with Word2007. The only time that openoffice.org writer is not an acceptable word clone is when you need to use windows styles. Period. That's it.

My 61 year old mother runs Ubuntu without a hitch; I put it on her computer when it was being eaten up by malware a year ago. Latest builds of Ubuntu are as close to a plug-and-play experience as I've ever seen. I think it's definitely worth a try in your case. Once you're more comfortable with it, you might want to check out omgubuntu.co.uk--it's a blog aimed at more advanced users, but it can help you streamline your experience by adding stuff like Chromium (Chrome for Linux).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:24 AM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


For the last year or so.. I've been running a 15in Macbook Pro and used the BootCamp utility to dual-boot it with OSX and XP Pro.... It's my first Mac.. and I have to say, as much as I love Windows (and I've been a Windows admin/advocate for almost 20yrs) .. the Mac OS feels more solid/reliable.. and its much much more elegant and intuitive GUI.

Having read down through this thread.. there are many salient points. I won't discount the advice to atleast try some flavor of Linux (such as Ubuntu).. .because it has its merits (but also its drawbacks -- I personally still don't think its ready for prime-time)... i'd like to comment on some other peoples comments:

White_Devil said: "Also there is no substitute for good security practices no matter what platform you are on.

This is absolutely true. Don't kid yourself that if you install Mac OSX or Ubuntu that you can just get lazy and stop worrying about software updates, exploits or risky surfing. Security is a path you walk each day.. not something you "set and forget".

fontophilic said: "get a Mac laptop. They are very well engineered. "

Also very true.

I've found everything in Rendus comment (here) to very closely match my own personal experience. I have an entire stack of various Linux distros at home.. and I download the latest and greatest every 6months or so, and try them on a variety of 3 or 4 extra boxes I have laying around (or laptops) and although Linux (Ubuntu specifically, but others) are making huge advances.. I still don't think its "ready for prime-time". Sure, its easy to use for those people (like grandparents) where you can stick some shortcut icons on the desktop and they never change anything. But (in my experience) any time you push beyond the standard, you run into cumbersome configuration problems. Another fault I have with the Linux community is there is WAY to much fragmentation of effort and not enough teamwork to make things consistent (although they are getting better). Case in point: how many linux distros does the world need?.. hundreds?.. how many package managers?.. how many different wireless config tools?... I wish the linux community would unify a little bit and better coordinate their efforts. It'd be awesome to see less variety and more consistency and quality.

I have great admiration for flabdablet's contributions to MeFi.. but I want to make some comments on his comments:

"..it takes less fiddling to make an Ubuntu box do what it's supposed to do than to stop a Windows box from doing all the stuff it's not supposed to do."

I'm not sure I'd agree with this at all. I've spent endless hours toying with Linux boxes trying to get basic stuff to work (video drivers that support native LCD resolutions, reliable wireless config (no, I don't want to hand-edit a bunch of .CFG files at the command line, thank you very much) ..etc..etc... Windows boxes are just as reliable as Linux, if you spend even the tiniest amount of time doing basic maintenance (defrag,etc) and use commonsense to apply software updates. Hell, I've run Windows boxes without anti-virus for 6+ months and had no problems.

Flabdablet: "This configuration (insecure browser vulnerable to more exploits than any other, profile with admin privileges) is the way Windows has shipped for years, and the way most Windows boxes in current use are still set up. The same is not and never has been true for most Unix (including Mac and Linux) boxes, and is certainly not true for Ubuntu."

That may be true, but I don't see that as a failure of Windows. I see that as users not being educated (and responsible enough) to maintain their own boxes. People clean and tidy their houses.. people do basic maintenance on their cars (gas, oil, check tires,etc).. but for some reason people expect Windows computers to magically never break and for the computer to anticipate their every whim and always be wicked fast. Those expectations are not realistic (for any tool, technical or not) in an environment of no maintenance.

NetZapper said: "Installing Windows takes all damn afternoon, since you have to individually track down every driver (and reboot fifty times). "

No.. it doesn't. Hand me any computer made in the last 5 years or so.. and a blank (never used) hard drive.. and I can probably have Windows XP Pro w/ sp3 (and all relevant drivers,etc) installed in about an hour (not counting HDD format time - cause that would happen with any OS). Most manufacturers have all relevant drivers on their websites --and even if its some no name white box, the basics (video/network/sound/etc) are typically pretty quick downloads. Is this an acceptable expectation from the newbie home user?.. maybe not, but don't blame user shortcomings on the OS. Ubuntu MIGHT detect your hardware better (depending on your hardware) ... or Windows might detect it better. Just depends on your hardware.

NetZapper also mentioned Ubuntu's 25000 different software titles available free for download. While this may be true, I view that repository about the same way I do as Apples massive Iphone app store. Sure, there may be a lot there.. but most of it is crap.

For the record.. I have no beef with the Linux scene.. I honestly deeply support the vision of Open Source and I really want to see it succeed.. but I think it has fundamental problems (namely, being hobbled by a "hobbyist mentality") that IMHO might keep it from ever genuinely competing on the same playing field as Windows or Mac. (yes, I know, there are tons of happy Linux users out there-- great for you, really!. As a long time Windows Admin... I'm planning on making my next new computer purchase a Mac. (but I will still keep Windows boxes around for legacy software/systems)
posted by jmnugent at 6:51 AM on November 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Ask for a laptop recommendation, get a bunch of fanboys telling you to put Linux on your old tower. Assuming you wanted an answer to your actual question:
  • For durability in a Windows notebook, you want a ThinkPad. It will cost more than other notebooks with similar specs, but less than a Mac. You want: Windows 7, as much RAM as you can afford, any of these, and either Microsoft Office or OpenOffice.org (which is a really terrific substitute under the vast majority of circumstances. And free).
  • A Mac is a fantastic idea, if you have the money and can get comfortable with the user interface. It sounds like you don't and won't, so I won't recommend it.
  • If you're having trouble getting used to the UI of a Mac, I certainly wouldn't recommend Linux. Ubuntu is substantially easier and more newbie-friendly than most other distributions, but configuration of the stuff that doesn't just work can be a little arcane. And it's another whole new user interface. On the bright side, the price is right. You might consider trying out Ubuntu on your old tower, with an eye toward using it in your next computer. The only way to stop being a n00b is, you know, to stop being a n00b. Alternative Linux distributions for beginners include Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Linux Mint, and OpenSuSE (the latter installs best on my old hardware--YMMV).
  • It sounds to me like you might want to evaluate your internet connection. The fastest processor won't speed up a dial-up connection one whit. For "research[ing] crap at high speed," your best bet would be to make sure you have the fastest service you can afford in your area. This may be Verizon FiOS, broadband from your cable company, DSL from the phone company, or, if you live on campus, either wireless or wired Ethernet (both, if you can get it; local file transfers will be much faster on the wired) from your school.

posted by willpie at 7:09 AM on November 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Sure, its easy to use for those people (like grandparents) where you can stick some shortcut icons on the desktop and they never change anything. But (in my experience) any time you push beyond the standard, you run into cumbersome configuration problems.

That's nice, jmnugent (though, as someone who constantly plays with her Ubuntu set-up and has never had to edit a .cfg file, whatever that is, I don't agree), but the OP isn't looking to push things beyond the standard. For "research[ing] crap at high speed," Linux would work just fine.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:17 AM on November 25, 2009


"...but the OP isn't looking to push things beyond the standard."

Invariably (in my experience, almost without exception).. the people who say: "I just want to do basic stuff" ... always end up wanting to do more than basic stuff. Out of ignorance, differing opinions of "basic stuff".. or just simply human nature/change... eventually they're going to hit a plugin, need a piece of software, try installing some new hardware or communicating with some strange device.. and run into compatibility problems of some kind. This will of course happen with any OS.. but its my opinion that Linux distros still fall short (for debatable degrees of "short") of Windows and Mac. That doesn't make Linux "wrong" or a poor choice.. just depends on how much interaction you like with your OS. My experience has been that while using a Mac, I almost forget the OS is even there (everything "just works").. On Windows I have to wrestle with the OS a little (but mostly point-click ,etc) so its not terribly annoying. With Ubuntu, I'm finding myself constantly having to manipulate configuration files, run command line scripts, tar/unzip/something strange file names in order to get basic stuff to work. (like screensavers or Flash/Java plugins or adding functionality to IM clients,etc). Of course, due to usage, computer experiences differ from person to person.. so maybe I'm "doing it wrong" (hard to believe I've been "doing it wrong" for almost 20 years though.. *shrug*)
posted by jmnugent at 8:03 AM on November 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


jmnugent I don't know what you're doing with your linux. In the last 4 years I have had two problems with mine that required googling and config files - one was when an upgrade broke the webcam, one was when I bought a drawing tablet thing real cheap.
posted by handee at 10:28 AM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


handee,
The test boxes I have at home are: Compaq (tower), generic whitebox (tower), Dell (Tower) and a couple laptops (Dell and an HP).. I believe all of them are Pentium4 or newer.

The most recent issues (within the last year) that I remember specifically were:

1.) I believe it was the DELL laptop.. I got a standard install of Ubuntu (either 8.10 or 9.04) but the desktop just looked "off".. (lmited to 800x600, low res fonts. .just looked blocky and fuzzy).. so I did some research and found out there was an updated video driver package available through the package management tool. I installed that.. which if I recall correctly, prompted me to reboot and it came up to a grey wallpaper (no login, no icons, no nothing, just gray wallpaper).. I could move the mouse around.. but nothing else. No way for me to get out of it. Since it was a fresh build (no data).. I just wiped it and put Windows back on it. (not that I was giving up -- it was just a test and I needed the laptop for other things). If I recall correctly, I remember poking at it and figuring out that the problem was caused by something being wrong in my X11.conf file, and there was a solution by hand-editing that file and applying a string of switches to a certain command.. but why should I have to do that?

2.) Another instance of a fresh install of Ubuntu.. one of the first things I typically install along with my browser are Java, Flash and a PDF reader. I dont remember if it was Java or Flash.. but I remember the install being very convoluted. The packages were available in the package management tool.. but the install was not "one-click-easy". There were dependencies I needed first... then a reboot.. then try to install the packages.. said the install couldn't modify some files (even though I initiated everything with admin/root privileges). It went from a "Hey, this should only take 5min, right?" type of event to a "frustrated, what the hell,.. shouldn't this be pretty basic?" type of event.

There were some other minor software annoyances... lets say for example I wanted to do something basic like edit a photo, play some mp3s or edit an Office document... I'd go to the software manager and find like 10 different mp3 players. Well what makes one better than another? (Why do we have 10 mediocre ones and not 3 really polished and elegant and full-featured solutions?) ... I'd get a piece of software installed, and it might work for the basic task I needed, but the functionality would be limited, or I'd have to do 1 task with one program.. export the file to another program, change the file type.. import it into a converter.. re-adjust the layout..etc..etc.. I think this modularity is rooted deep in the design of Linux. and thats fine, it you're into that sort of thing.

I know the above problems aren't isolated to Linux... you could potentially have these problems in any OS... but I find that when I need to simply dive in and quickly get something done in 5 minutes or less.. I depend on my Windows box. Its there, it works, and its compatible with most everything. My experience with the Mac is that its a more elegant solution, the OS has more consistency (in design and GUI) but due to its relatively small market share - there are times I run into situations where there is no Mac application equivalent to whatever Windows app I need.

I'm not trying to bag on Linux.. as I said before.. I really want to see it succeed. I agree with the mindset of it...(and I hate Microsoft's licensing/activation BS)... it just still seems rather kludgy to me. I don't know how to easily describe to my sister what the hell "/dev/sda1" is..... by now shouldn't we have a more intuitive ID string for hard drives? I'd love to see some set of standards for menu layout and menu navigation and have developers conform to it.. so that no matter what Linux app I install from the package manager, it matches my theme, fonts, screensize,etc.

sorry for the diatribe.. I'm not trying to threadjack.. (if anything else, hopefully all the different OS debate comments here will give the OP food for thought)
posted by jmnugent at 12:10 PM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you can afford it, get a mac laptop (MacBook) and get the AppleCare warranty. As a student, you should qualify for some kind of academic discount. Macs are very popular in academia (less so than in the past, but still).

I am an expert computer user and have used Windows, Mac, and Linux for years, and have computers that run recent versions of each OS (well, no Vista here). For day-to-day use, I always go to the Mac. The simplicity and ease of use is top notch, and you just get stuff done without much hassle.

The greatest thing about Macs is the AppleCare warranty. If something craps out on you, you take it to the store and they fix it for you (provided you have one nearby and you have the warranty). There's very little downtime and tinkering, and as a student you won't be able to afford any downtime.

Linux is easier to use than ever, but still there's no real support for it, and what jmnugent says above is true - you still have to tinker around with esoteric things from time to time, and that fiddly quality is deeply embedded in the way the system is designed.

If you must use Ubuntu or Windows, I'd recommend going with a Thinkpad.
posted by kenliu at 12:40 PM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Installing Ubuntu takes about half an hour. Installing Windows takes all damn afternoon, since you have to individually track down every driver (and reboot fifty times). If you don't buy your computer from some no-name place in Bangalore, and it isn't just-released-last-week hardware, then Ubuntu's very likely to run just fine without the slightest bit of manual configuration.

I've installed lots of versions of windows on lots of machines, and I haven't had that experience, other then a few drivers I had to manually install for windows 95 back in the day. When I installed Vista, for example, I didn't have to install any extra drivers.

Besides, I'm sure the poster would be getting a PC with windows already installed.
posted by delmoi at 5:31 PM on November 25, 2009


Oh and if you end up getting a laptop, get an Intel SSD for it. That will speed things up a LOT. Make sure it's an Intel though, although there are now better non-intel drives out there, it can still be hit or miss.
posted by delmoi at 5:35 PM on November 25, 2009


Thanks people, I'm going to give Ubuntu a try for now on the old tower, with the ultimate goal of a thinkpad for the next machine. I'm getting the impression my options are pretty much between that and mac. At this point is windows even still in the running? I'd like to hear an opinion on windows 7.
Cheers.
posted by Miss Mitz at 9:01 PM on November 25, 2009


Also, while the myriad of advice on keeping current virus protection up is appreciated, I was firewalled with a legit and current AVG and regularly updating when the trojans struck. I feel that should have been enough and am looking for a system where it is, not what more I should be doing to make the old system deathproof.
posted by Miss Mitz at 9:08 PM on November 25, 2009


I think it's awesome that you're going to give Ubuntu a whirl, and I hope that it turns out to be something that you love. While you're in this test phase, if it's possible I would suggest trying it out with whatever Course Management System your university/school uses.

For instance, the university where I currently study and teach uses Blackboard for all of its classes; depending on the preferences of any given instructor, that can mean anything from "the Blackboard page for this course houses a copy of the syllabus but otherwise sits dusty and neglected" to "you will need to participate in discussion threads or wikis before every class, upload all your essays, and receive feedback from the instructor via the class Blackboard page."

For the freshman English course I teach I try to take a middle ground - I do use Blackboard as a repository for course materials, and I ask students to submit their work through it so that there's always an electronic copy available to both them and me, but that's about it. Even so, I do generally get a few students who tell me that they can't work with Blackboard on their Macs and have to go use a PC in a campus computer lab any time they need to upload anything. Heaven only knows what might happen if anybody tried working with our Blackboard setup via a Linux machine - to be honest I've not done much research on this because the problem has never arisen, but now that I'm thinking about it I'm honestly not sure if Blackboard even supports Ubuntu or any of the other Linux flavors. This is not at ALL to say that Mac- or Linux-based OS's can't work well with Blackboard, just that for whatever reason, Blackboard as our university has it set up does not seem to play nicely with things other than Windows - at least, not for people who want things to "just work" without having to take time to work with tech support or otherwise fiddle around with settings to make it so.

Eh, at any rate, that is all a very long ramble just to say that if you are about to become an English major at an institution where you aren't already accustomed to working with whatever online CMS most of your English instructors will be expecting you to use for at least some of your work, then "out-of-the-box compatibility with that CMS" might be another factor in deciding what's best for you. You could have a screamingly fast system that boots up in a heartbeat and launches your browsers, PDF viewers, and text editing software the instant you ask it to, and still end up having to schlep down to your campus computer lab or spend time on the phone with tech support trying to make it play nicely with whatever fussy system your university uses for all of its individual course websites. Since you're in a "trial period" right now anyway, that seems to me like another thing that would be very much worth taking into consideration.
posted by DingoMutt at 9:56 PM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, while the myriad of advice on keeping current virus protection up is appreciated, I was firewalled with a legit and current AVG and regularly updating when the trojans struck. I feel that should have been enough and am looking for a system where it is, not what more I should be doing to make the old system deathproof.

Nothing can really protect you if you run software of unknown providence on your machine without virtualization. Antivirus software is probably helpful but it can only help against known viruses.

But one thing you can try if you really want to try out software that you're not sure of is by running it in a VirtualBox virtual machine. You should be able turn VirtualBox on Unbutu and run a windows instance inside of there, to screw around with windows apps if you want too. You can also make snapshots, so if you get a virus in your instance you can roll it back.
posted by delmoi at 10:56 PM on November 25, 2009


Heaven only knows what might happen if anybody tried working with our Blackboard setup via a Linux machine - to be honest I've not done much research on this because the problem has never arisen, but now that I'm thinking about it I'm honestly not sure if Blackboard even supports Ubuntu or any of the other Linux flavors. This is not at ALL to say that Mac- or Linux-based OS's can't work well with Blackboard, just that for whatever reason, Blackboard as our university has it set up does not seem to play nicely with things other than Windows - at least, not for people who want things to "just work" without having to take time to work with tech support or otherwise fiddle around with settings to make it so.

I don't know about the current versions of BlackBoard, but I had zero problems using it in college (class of '06, I think). And I've been using linux of various flavors for ten years now.

I've installed lots of versions of windows on lots of machines, and I haven't had that experience, other then a few drivers I had to manually install for windows 95 back in the day. When I installed Vista, for example, I didn't have to install any extra drivers.

I just installed Windows XP Pro SP2 on another harddrive a couple months ago. It took me all afternoon to get it from bare metal to fully-functional. That's not just a blank Windows install... that's a browser, pdf viewer, Java, OpenOffice, etc. And I had to babysit it through each step of the process. On Ubuntu, most of that shit's available by default, I type "sudo apt-get install sun-java" and go have a smoke.

I literally felt like I did when I was building linux kernels by hand in 2001. Wait, what kind of sound card is this again? I spent as much time googling motherboard integrated peripheral chipsets as anything. Oh, and the driver for my motherboard's audio chip wasn't available from either the mobo maker or the chip maker. I had to pirate it. Literally pirate it from ThePirateBay.

I haven't tried Vista though.

I don't know how to easily describe to my sister what the hell "/dev/sda1" is.....

"'dev' stands for device. A harddrive is a device, right? Then the 'sda' bit means serial disk A; there's an sdb, and an sdc if you have more than one disk. The '1' is the first partition. A partition is a way of organizing a disk into several different separate areas, each with its own purpose, like different drawers in a filing cabinet."

My wife said, "Oh, that make sense. Wait! Is that partition thing why my D: drive crashed when my C: drive crashed!?"
posted by Netzapper at 11:40 PM on November 25, 2009


"...I was firewalled with a legit and current AVG."

Do you mean you were firewalled and had a legit and currently updated copy of AVG (brand) -- or do you mean "were firewalled and had a legit and currently updated anti-virus program."

Personally.. I think AVG is garbage. Yes, I know, many people "rely" on it.. but I think its a false sense of security and I think their detection rates are poor. (I've fixed way, WAY to many friends and acquaintances machine who had AVG and "thought they were protected").

I can't speak to anti-virus in the Linux environment (ClamAV is about the only one I know of)..but on the Windows side of things I can't say enough good thing about NOD32. The Wikipedia article on NOD32 cites some [good stats](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nod32#Reception), and on top of that its low on resource usage.

Having said all that though... No anti-virus is going to protect you against your own dumb mistakes. If you are running email attachments, downloading sketchy torrent files or otherwise participating in risky internet behavior -- at some point you're likely to get stung.
posted by jmnugent at 7:42 AM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


No anti-virus is going to protect you against your own dumb mistakes

Running something other than Windows can, though.

One of my customers (who runs Ubuntu Hardy) rang me in a flap one day saying that her computer was infected and she'd run the antivirus but it didn't seem to do anything and what should she do?

Turns out she'd found her way to somewhere dodgy via a spam comment on the blog of a political candidate whose campaign her housemate was involved in, and got one of those "Your computer is infected! Click here to scan" popups. This is a person with only the vaguest conception of what a website is. She didn't even realise that she was no longer looking at anything to do with the political site, and since she had no reason to distrust what she was seeing, she clicked OK.

Net effect on her computer: one useless Windows .exe downloaded to her desktop.

Net effect on a Windows computer belonging to anybody similarly naive would have been infection with a very hard-to-remove trojan.
posted by flabdablet at 3:47 AM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


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