Help a picky professor (me) find the right laptop.
April 30, 2010 6:17 AM   Subscribe

Please help me find the right laptop or tablet for me and my very specific needs and wants. I'm looking for something powerful but compact, and I think I want a tablet for teaching. A full list of requirements is inside.

So, my Lenovo T61 is, well, approaching it's end of life (at least with me; I'll probably pass it down to my lab), and I'm ready to replace it. Unfortunately, I'm incredibly picky and have a significant list of requirements (and desires):

0. I admit the MacBooks are quite nice, but I'm looking for a Windows-based machine for a variety of reasons. I don't think anyone is going to be able to sell me on a MacBook, but if I'm overwhelmingly wrong, you can say so. I just don't think I am.

1. Reliable/well-built. I don't need a ruggedized notebook, but I do travel a decent bit for work, and I need something well-made. I also want something stable. (My current Lenovo is decent, but it doesn't match the ThinkPads of the old days).

2. Compact/thin. I think I'd prefer a screen size approximately between 11"-13", and thin/light would be very very nice for travel. In fact, if it meets the other requirements, the smaller the better.

3. Powerful. I think I want an i5 or i7 based system. I don't like replacing my computers (there's a non-trivial amount of down-time and expense involved), so I want something that will last me several years. I don't need the absolutely fastest laptop on the market, but I'm definitely NOT looking for the suggestion of a netbook.

4. I generally use my laptop in my office with 2 largeish monitors, so I need a laptop with an available port replicator/docking station that will drive 2 external monitors. My T61 does this fine (although one has to be VGA and the other has to be DVI; I'd prefer to drive both with DVI).

5. I really prefer the trackpoint (the red nub) to a trackpad. I'd strongly prefer the laptop have this if possible.

6. I'd like an LED backlight and SSD instead of HD if possible. Battery life isn't my top priority, but it's certainly on the list.

7. Cost is not a huge issue. I don't want to squander money needlessly, but I'm not afraid of a reasonable pricetag. (I'm guessing I'll be looking in the $2000+ range, but I certainly wouldn't MIND spending less.)

So based on these requirements, it seems like the latest Thinkpad X-series might be the way to go (though I'm open to other suggestions, of course, or I wouldn't be asking this), but I have a special bonus requirement that complicates things:

8. I've been seriously considering switching to a Tablet PC for lecturing. (My students are sick of my handwriting on the blackboard, and I have to admit that they have a point). I've tried Tablets in the past and found they were decidedly NOT left-handed friendly, but I'm guessing that's changed in the past few years? So, Lenovo is sold out (Temporarily? Permanently?) on their X-series tablets. Is there a tablet out there that meets all my needs from someone else?

Or, I've considered an external tablet that can plug into the laptop just for teaching. I would, however, like it to have a display so I can annotate PowerPoint slides, etc. Does such a product exist at a reasonable price point? My efforts to google such a thing haven't turned up much below $1000, which is a bit high for my particular needs.

So, experts of AskMeFi, do you have any suggestions? Thanks in advance for your help.
posted by JMOZ to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Unfortunately, thin and light usually means not very powerful. You're going to be stuck with low clocked C2D ULV chips (1.2-1.6ghz) until the ULV i5's and i7's come out, which are going to be fairly pricey. You also won't find very robust graphics either.

I'd say wait 6 months.
posted by wongcorgi at 8:48 AM on April 30, 2010

Response by poster: It looks like I can get an i5 (and maybe an i7) on the ThinkPad X201. Is there a reason this wouldn't be true on a tablet? (I realize this isn't the thinnest/lightest computer in the world, but sub 3-lbs isn't too bad.)

I'd prefer not to wait 6 months, so I'm willing to compromise a bit; what's the best I can do today?
posted by JMOZ at 9:06 AM on April 30, 2010

The current Lenovo tablets are backordered because of processor supply constraints, last I read it looked like they wouldn't be available for order again until July. You may be able to find some existing units through other vendors, of course, but that doesn't bode well for other vendors getting the next gen chips out in tablet form anytime soon (though Fujitsu still sells one based on the 5010 chassis, but I have the original and find it too heavy for serious tablet usability).

Thin and light + tablet doesn't really co-exist well right now. I've tried MANY tablet lines trying to get the right one (HP, Motion Computing, Fujitsu, Gateway, Lenovo)... all seriously flawed in at least one way, and none that has done it all well enough that I'm happy.

Is there a reason you wouldn't consider a nice thin and light laptop that fits everything but the tablet portion, supplemented with either a Cintiq or bluetooth Intous from Wacom instead? That's the point I seem to be working up to...
posted by Pufferish at 9:11 AM on April 30, 2010

Response by poster: Pufferfish- well, I am considering that (and mentioned it above as a possibility), but the reason I was still considering a tablet PC instead of a Laptop+Wacom was the $1K pricetag on the Wacom Cintiq. (I wanted a display in the tablet so I can integrate writing with existing slides).

I realize that price is probably very reasonable for a graphic designer, etc, but I haven't yet found something that's a bit more justifiable as a teaching expense. (Any ideas if a cheaper input with a display exists?)
posted by JMOZ at 9:18 AM on April 30, 2010

Best answer: I'm not aware of a cheaper input with display... but maybe you could pick up a (possibly used) Motion Computing slate and use it just for that part of your purpose? I have an old LS800 that I use as an ebook reader and light sketcher (tiny, only 800x600 screen, but easily found in the $3-400 range), and I actually prefer it's tablet functionality over the other tablets I've tried -- no give, very responsive. If you're just working with things like office apps or basic sketching (not Photoshop), it might do for that.

All in one, the new Lenovos are the only thing currently in reasonable range of everything you noted. We'll probably see a lot more options in the next few months, though.
posted by Pufferish at 9:44 AM on April 30, 2010

Response by poster: That seems like the way to go. I guess there would be very little downside to getting a cheap tablet and a higher-end laptop.

Maybe the upcoming HP Slate or something equivalent.
posted by JMOZ at 10:31 AM on April 30, 2010

Unfortunately, news is saying the HP slate has been killed. :-(
posted by Pufferish at 11:11 AM on April 30, 2010

As far as an external tablet for presenting to classes goes, I'd suggest a Mobi. It's built for educational settings, and it's wireless. It comes with software that can, among other things, interpret your handwriting AND save what you've written on what screens as a sort of slide show that you can show again (for the next class or the next year).

You can use it with Windows or Mac, and it costs about $400.
posted by jander03 at 4:04 PM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So I bought a ThinkPad laptop, and will get a tablet to go with it. The Mobi does not seem to have a display of the screen, so I guess I will keep looking. I have only a few more weeks of class, anyhow.
posted by JMOZ at 3:56 AM on May 3, 2010

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