Laptop recommendations needed.
February 22, 2005 1:31 AM   Subscribe

Mac vs. PC. Thinkpad vs. Powerbook. Yet another laptop question: recommend me the best laptop as desktop replacement for a web designer.

I've read most of the AskMe threads on laptops, and I am sincerely thankful for all the information provided. I just need that last bit of guidance to make a purchasing decision.

I've become spoiled designing on my work's G5, and I want a fast, stable mobile machine to handle my web design applications: Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, etc. I also want it for everyday use--surfing, email, listening to music, and chatting--when I relax at home or when I travel (I tend to waste hours and hours on the web, so a good battery life and power management are also important). I like the ease of use of OSX, but I feel I more comfortable tinkering with XP's settings and configurations.

I don't want to spend more that $1,700 total, so what laptop will give me the most bang for the buck, a low-end Powerbook or a mid- to high-range PC notebook?
posted by lychee to Computers & Internet (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
All the mobile web designers I know of have powerbooks, including myself. They run all the apps you might (Dreamweaver, Illustrator, Photoshop, Firefox) and are gorgeous to look at and use.

Whilst you get a lot of flexibility in XP to tweak X, Y and Z, when I switched over to a Mac I realised that I didn't miss any of that. I certainly don't miss fighting with drivers, constant security patches, random crashes and fighting off virii, spyware and adware. As a result, I can just "get on with it" and work.

I'd probably recommend a good quality second hand powerbook. Mac owners tend to care for their laptops a lot more so the second hand models are generally in much better condition than their PC counterparts.

As an aside, here's nothing that compares with the sheer glee of getting a brand spanking new Powerbook out of the box. The smell, the packaging, the feel of cold aluminium, the incredible screen, etc, etc... I have never felt such joy about a new PC.
posted by gaby at 3:32 AM on February 22, 2005

I'm a mobile web designer who totes around a Thinkpad. But I'm also the code end of the partnership and I run Linux on it... the graphic-design end of the partnership gets mobility via his Powerbook.

That said, my relatively-new Thinkpad G40 is quite a nice machine, so if you decide not to go Apple I'd highly recommend it.
posted by ubernostrum at 4:23 AM on February 22, 2005

Echoing both. Thinkpads are, as a class, the best WinTel notebooks out there, and remarkably durable.

I prefer the Powerbooks, but I'm a Unix Weenie who thinks X needs to DIE NOW!, so OS X is perfect.

The big decision is size. I fly often enough that I replaced my 15" TiBook with an 12" AlBook, and it made a world of difference. I do miss the bigger screen, though.
posted by eriko at 4:27 AM on February 22, 2005

I am a graphics person. I own a 15" Al PowerBook, and have a Thinkpad and G5 dually at work. Get the PowerBook. WiFi configuration is awful on the IBM, and the display isn't as nice as the PowerBook. PowerBook also has an illuminated keyboard, which is genuinely useful as well as teh sexy. Neither seems stellar at battery longevity, but the PB power management makes it pretty simple to conserve battery life. Also, Photoshop and Illustrator absolutely rock on the Mac, even with the relatively slower G4. Get a least a Gb of RAM and you'll be a happy camper.
posted by Scoo at 4:36 AM on February 22, 2005

If tough is a concern, you can't beat a ThinkPad.
Well, you can actually, which I guess is the point.
posted by dong_resin at 4:43 AM on February 22, 2005

Even for non-video, is a Powerbook really worth the extra $ over an iBook?
posted by ParisParamus at 4:53 AM on February 22, 2005

I love my ThinkPad. But if you like OS X, why not get a PowerBook?
posted by grouse at 5:01 AM on February 22, 2005

I second the RAM upgrade, if you get a PowerBook, you should put at least 1Gb of RAM in it. With that, it will fly along nicely.

On another note, I have heard of thinkpads shattering when dropped, owing to the large amount of plastic in the cases. A friend of mine had dropped his powerbook from several feet onto concrete on a number of occasions, and apart from some warping of the metal casing, it still worked fine! If you do travel a lot you may find the PB a lot more robust than most laptops. Another reason to spend the extra $.
posted by gaby at 5:32 AM on February 22, 2005

I sold a Dell D600 (which is a very good machine) to get a 15-inch Powerbook back in March, and I haven't looked back. The 15-incher, however, is a little bit above your price range. That said, given the massive difference in life expectancy of an OS X laptop over (most) Windows laptops, the price differential isn't all that big. I'd normally say go with the Powerbook (but don't buy your RAM upgrade from Apple!).

You have, however, expressed two considerations that are relevant to that choice: a specific price point and battery life. Powerbooks are more expensive than most XP laptops (Thinkpads and specialty laptops excepted). If you find that you can't fit 1GB of RAM and (probably) a harddrive upgrade into your budget for a Powerbook, a slightly used Thinkpad off of eBay is a great option. Likewise, if battery life is a significant concern, you'll want to look at what Powebooks are getting these days (my 15-incher gets around 3 hours with Dreamweaver and Photoshop running and with 1.25GB of RAM to minimize disk swapping). Thinkpads generally have longer battery life, and have more second-battery options.

Of course, the other consideration is portability: while Thinkpads get cheaper as they get smaller, XP laptops are the opposite. So, your $1700 12-inch Powerbook is going to look awfully small next to that 15.2 inch Thinkpad, which could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your needs.

Here's my bottom line: you've got to pick what you want and can live with, and you've got to decide how long you want to live with it. If you buy an XP laptop but only keep it for three years @$1700 and you buy a Powerbook but are able to keep it for four years, you could spend anywhere from $2200 to $3400 (depending on how you want to measure the cost of replacing it) and have that be "equivalent" to your $1700 that you're spending on the shorter-lived machine. Naturally, the same thing is true for Thinkpads as compared to other, lesser, Windows laptops (but NOT Powerbooks as compared to iBooks -- iBooks probably last longer than Powerbooks).

So, we're back to what you want. Do you want nearly effortless configuration (when you even have to configure), great software, long life, and quality build? Do you want a UNIX core that's robust and tweakable? Go with the Powerbook. Do you want more low-priced options? Do you want more choices for second batteries? Are you more concerned with getting a large display at your low price point? Go with a Windows laptop.

Anyway, I went through this back in March, and, after 15 years of being a DOS and Windows user (still am, btw), I went with the Powerbook.
posted by socratic at 5:36 AM on February 22, 2005

socratic, while the cheap PowerBooks may have lots of plastic, they'll have a lot less than almost any other PC notebook. The higher-up PowerBooks employ aluminum and magnesium extensively.
posted by zsazsa at 5:51 AM on February 22, 2005

My personal recommendation is for a PowerBook. The combination of good hardware and OS X just blows everything else away for me.

I like the ease of use of OSX, but I feel I more comfortable tinkering with XP's settings and configurations.
Are there settings & configurations that you need to change in OS X, but don't know how? Check out some books on the command line, and you might get more comfortable with it. AND it's cool to learn.
posted by sluggo at 6:11 AM on February 22, 2005

One reason I prefer my PowerBook over a PC laptop is OSX as part of my "tool set". Exposé is a great tool to manage all the open windows on my screen. I find that I have a better process and I am more efficient using the Mac than the PC. When you have PhotoShop, Dreamweaver, BBEdit, and 2 or 3 browsers open, it's nice to have an excellent method to find a needed window quickly, or to review what you are working on from 10,000 ft, as it were.

Also, an iBook may suffice. For the most part, it is a choice over whether you need to run multiple monitors off your Mac. You have a larger choice on what resolutions to run an external monitor with a PowerBook. The iBook will only mirror its display - unless you run an unsupported hack. Even then I believe it can only run the same resolution as the laptop display. And, if I am not mistaken, you can only run a PowerBook closed with an external monitor. The iBook needs to have its lid open while you use the mirroring. I Need to check if that is still the case.
posted by qwip at 6:18 AM on February 22, 2005

Powerbook advantages: Great OS, great choice of applications, sexy.
Powerbook disadvantages: That damn touchpad.

Thinkpad advantages: Crappy OS, good choice of applications, very durable, trackpoint.
Thinkpad disadvantages: You'll be running Windows.

Personally, I chose the Thinkpad (running Linux). I'm using a T42p now, just upgraded from a T41, I also have a T22, a 600, and two 380s. They all still work fine. If you don't mind the security problems and bugs of Windows, a Thinkpad is an excellent choice. Don't buy RAM from IBM, but do get the integrated wireless.

I would love to be able to switch to a Mac, but I just can't use those touchpads. It would be nice to not have to fight with the drivers to get an acceptable Unix install. ACPI is still buggy on the Thinkpads, but I have everything else working fine. No such problems with a Mac.

You've definitely narrowed it down to two good choices, though.

Have you thought about going with something refurbished? Just max out the RAM and make sure the battery is new. You'll likely come in under budget, and you can do the same thing again in a couple of years.
posted by bh at 6:44 AM on February 22, 2005

Oops. I just noticed in my comment above regarding plastic, I meant ThinkPads, not PowerBooks. Sheesh.
posted by zsazsa at 7:04 AM on February 22, 2005

Paris: The PowerBook has a better graphics card, and DVI, and comes with a bigger hard disk etc, but the value just isn't there. For the price differnce between a 12" iBook and a 12" PowerBook you can buy a Mac Mini. That's what I did. The only disappointment is the iBook's screen, which has a really poor viewing angle.
posted by cillit bang at 7:39 AM on February 22, 2005

I've used a friend's ThinkPad, and while XP is mostly a mystery to this Mac person, it was a comfortable and fast machine. If you'd expressed no preference for operating system, I'd say get the best machine for your money of either platform. But having expressed a like of OSX, I think you'd be happier with a PowerBook. And as noted above, I think duration of use is important: My main travel/home machine is a 3yr old 15" Ti PowerBook with a gorgeous and bright screen that's still reasonably peppy and has been perhaps the most stable computer I've ever owned.

Given your price point, I might check on getting an "Apple Certified Reconditioned" machine that comes with an Apple warranty, though a quick look at some of the main Apple refurb places (Small Dog and PowerMax) show slim pickings indeed. If you can find a refurb, I'd poke around Apple discussion sites and vet the performance of any machine you were considering (i.e. the white monitor splotches that plagued some of the original 15" Al 'Books might be a reason to stay away from that particular model).

As to battery life, if I traveled more I'd probably consider investing in one of these external batteries that sit under your laptop and can give 12+ hours of juice. Not cheap, but if you're on the road a lot they're probably worth it.
posted by jalexei at 8:07 AM on February 22, 2005

we have both in our house (i have an x31, pauli a 12" powerbook). the apple looks nicer, has more hardware (x31 is same size but has no drive), and starts instantly, but the ibm has a better keyboard, gets better battry life, and appears tougher (difficult call, though). neither of us are designers, though, so can't comment on software.
posted by andrew cooke at 8:10 AM on February 22, 2005

Further to battery discussions, you can get a second batttery for a powerbook for about £90 in the UK, and you can hot swap it out by putting the PowerBook to sleep and changing the batteries. Takes about 20 seconds and doubles the battery life.
posted by gaby at 8:22 AM on February 22, 2005

I bought my first new, off-the-shelf laptop back in August, after pondering for a month or so on what to get.

I went with the 12" iBook G4 (800Mhz, refurb). It's the perfect size that I need for a portable system, but powerful enough to be a desktop replacement (as it was temporarily for the entire month of December when I was living in a hotel during relocation). The metal case, slightly faster memory bus, and different graphic chipset on the PowerBook 12" to me weren't worth the price difference.
posted by mrbill at 8:58 AM on February 22, 2005

I've become spoiled designing on my work's G5,

I really think this is the key.

When I switched over to a Powerbook in 2001 (after years and years of Windows use -- at least 8 -- in order to use the MAX/MSP programming language and in order to take advantage of the relative abundance of music software for the mac -- two reasons for switching that have now been supplanted by stabler PC OSes, a plethora of PC-only music software, and the release of MAX/MSP for the PC platform) my productivity with different tasks dropped considerably. I would still use my (considerably slower) PC for graphic design, etc, because it had a environment I could work quickly in.

I still *can't* work as fast on my mac (or any mac) as I can on my PC -- I'm simply too used to the windows philosphy regarding desktop design. While I realize Apple has tried to introduce some toolbar/program switching improvements to OS X over the years, I still find these annoying and not in tune with what I like best about the windows taskbar (good predictability and usability).

However, if you're *used* to designing on the mac, I'm guessing you've found a way to work faster on the mac, and your time, ultimately, is worth more than saving a couple hundred bucks on a laptop (which, I must admit, I do believe you will do if you buy a PC rather than a macintosh -- although I'm sure there are people who will disagree with me on this, I believe it is easier to find "bang for the buck" on the PC side of things, particularly when it comes time to upgrade/add memory, etc). I know you might think you're ambidextrous when it comes to OSes, and well, you really might be -- I have no way of knowing, to be sure -- but I can tell you that my powerbook sees still considerably less use than my PC. The one thing that's improved it considerably for me is the Drag-Thing toolbar.

Then again, the macintosh is a personal computer, so I haven't been *forced* to use it as a work machine, which would certainly make me more procificient within the mac OS -- so the upshot is that after a month or so, you'd probably notice little difference if you ended up going with a PC (although you'd probably still be annoyed by the way some things worked, just as I'm still annoyed with some of the "features" on OS X).

Another thing to consider: I worked on a laptop at work from 2000-2002, and have since worked exclusively on desktops, and I can say, I much prefer the latter. I would look into a "docking station" (like, a full-sized keyboard, mouse, and monitor) for your laptop at the places where you'll be using it most.

lastly, FWIW, i've preferred the design of the iBook machines of my friends rather than the TiPowerBook design that I have -- I know the TiBooks appear sleeker and whatnot, but the iBooks seem more substanial to me -- they seem less likely to just, well, shatter into a million pieces if i were to accidently drop it on the floor (something which I've come very close to with my tibook, and probably will before the day is out). Maybe it's a remnant of that hinge-shearing problem that was an issue with the first/second generation TiBooks. And the iBooks are way cheaper, btw (although I've seen them get munged by unclean [generator] power, so if you're a musician who's gonna play an outdoor, BEWARE).

if any of this has been gone over already, I apologize -- I skimmed the thread.
posted by fishfucker at 10:04 AM on February 22, 2005

I'd go for a Thinkpad, but then - I did. An x40, to be precise. I'd just like to point out to everyone, though, that "thinkpad" covers a lot of territory, from "cheap plastic desktop replacement with lots of grunt" (G40, mentioned above) to "ultralight ultraportable magnesium casing that you can stand on" (X40, T-40series for bigger screens). Also, bear in mind that the T20's mentioned above are what - three, four years old now? And people are still using, refurbing, and selling _those_, and getting decent resale on them as well.
For you, I'd say seriously look at the T-series40/41/42s. Since the T41 (beginning of last year) they shipped with the accelerometer which senses movement and parks the heads of the hard drive, to help prevent data loss. The newer T43s (likely out of your range, but you never know!) come with built-in fingerprint scanners. They also come with both a trackpoint, and a trackpad; both of which are actually usable. And like andrew cooke said there is nothing on earth like a Thinkpad keyboard - the powerbooks don't even come close.
However, more than likely it's probably going to be a tie hardware-wise. Go with the platform that you enjoy using, and are most productive with.
posted by coriolisdave at 1:59 PM on February 22, 2005

Response by poster: Wow, lots of great advice here. Thanks all! I'm still undecided, but I have a lot more info and personal recs to help me make a decision. I guess I'll be up late once again looking at Powerbooks and Thinkpads.
posted by lychee at 2:59 PM on February 22, 2005

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