Crippled iMac. Busted iBook. Tight budget. Do I repair the iBook or buy a netbook?
August 11, 2010 5:01 AM   Subscribe

I'm returning to school and would like to have some sort of portable computer. I have a few options, but an not sure which is best in terms of budget and longer-term investment.

I've been looking at netbooks and their price tag as well as their size make them a very appealing choice. (It would be my first PC computer in over 20 years.)

I also have an iBook from 2003 that hasn't worked since 2006. The display isn't working and there are probably other problems with it as well. How much does something like this cost and is it even worth doing? [If you happen to be a computer genius in the Los Angeles/ Orange ounty area who can mend such ill computers and are looking for some side tech work, please do drop me an email.]

The iBook or netbook wouldn't be my only computer. I have an iMac that is 2 years old but has had a whole slew of problems that I couldn't get any help with at Apple. It's been such a problem that I don't even know if I should consider Macs anymore, but for whatever reason, I really want them to work out. When the iMac meets its end, I'll likely replace it with a laptop rather than another desktop. Taking a longer view, should I just invest now in a MacBook Pro and forego the netbook and/ or iBook repair? The nice thing about the MBP is that it would come with an 8GB iPod touch and $100 rebate for a printer, which I also need to get. Of course, I'd be looking at closer to $2,000 as opposed to $400 or less for the netbook/ iBook option.
posted by bestillme to Computers & Internet (22 answers total)
If you're going to be doing a lot of typing, I'd avoid a NetBook, unless you have very small hands. The cramped keyboards get annoying very quickly.

A 2003 iBook really isn't worth bothering to fix, I'm afraid. Even if you do fix it, it will be horribly underpowered for even normal things like running a modern web browser.

Macs, in general, aren't problematic computers. My suggestion would be, yes, go for the MacBook Pro (or the cheaper MacBook, which is still a fine computer), but also pick up AppleCare for it. If you have problems, there's a phone number you can call to ask for help, and that lasts for three years.

If you're lucky enough to live near an Apple Store, do buy your new computer there, and tell them about the problems you've been having with your iMac. They'll probably be able to suggest what might be causing them, and how you can avoid it in the future.
posted by Mwongozi at 5:07 AM on August 11, 2010

Mwongozi is right about the repairs: for a computer that old, it's probably not worth it.

As far as what new computer to get, it all comes down to 1) what you want to do with your computer, and 2) whether you're willing to pay an extra 25-100% for that extra-special Mac shininess. Because really, that's what you're paying for. Sure, the OS is superior, blah, blah, but when it comes right down to it, you're paying for the brand.

Personally, I can't afford that kind of premium. You can get a perfectly adequate laptop which will last you until you finish school for $400 or thereabouts. Throw in taxes and accessories and you're still under $500. Walk into your nearest Best Buy, Staples, whatever, and get what's on special. Doesn't really matter what. I've had good luck with Acer, but Toshiba, Sony, Dell, and HP make a solid product. At this price point they're all functionally identical, but there will be some non-overlapping features which you'll need to look at.

You do the same thing with a Mac and you wind up with a shinier computer which doesn't actually do all that much more, only it's gonna cost you twice as much.

Your call.
posted by valkyryn at 5:16 AM on August 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

One option, if you go the P.C. route: a netbook, plus external keyboard, mouse, and monitor for use at home. Disconnect for easy and light portability.
posted by megatherium at 5:24 AM on August 11, 2010

Sure, the OS is superior, blah, blah
This is only something you should dismiss with "blah, blah" if your own time is of no value. Reasonable people can disagree about whether the OS is in fact superior, but it's not a trivial point, since the OS is still pretty fundamental to the experience, even for people who just use Word and the web.
posted by caek at 5:39 AM on August 11, 2010

Response by poster: I should clarify that my iMac is functional even though it's crippled, as mentioned in the post's title.

Mwongozi & Valkyryn- Thanks for letting me know that the iBook isn't worth repairing. I'm amazed that it only lasted 3 years even with the maximum upgrades upon purchase.

I'm tempted by the netbooks, particularly the HP Mini 5102, Asus Eee PC 1018 PB/1005 PE, Acer Aspire One, and Toshiba NB 305 as well as a couple of smaller laptops like the the Sony Vaio TT/Z/VPC 7116, or Lenovo Idea Pad.

Then again, the MBP seems to come out on top in most of the reviews I've read.

Hmmm... still undecided.
posted by bestillme at 5:42 AM on August 11, 2010

If you're going to use a portable computer as a portable computer, you need to take adequate care to buy one that is actually well designed to be transported. Many of the large-screen budget "laptop" computers out there are actually designed to be only moved from desk to desk very occasionally (e.g. as a second computer, or as a dorm computer, etc).

Contributing factors to a long-lasting portable computer: light weight, metal frame, small screen, metal lid. Not all of these are essential, but having two or more of these features is a very good idea unless you're just going to plop it down somewhere and not move it for six months.

In other words, don't buy a $500 15" laptop and expect to slope it around in a messenger bag for years. It's going to die if you do that. They're built for high school students to use in their rooms to do "homework."

I agree with valkyryn that Macs are expensive, but machined aluminum bodies and lids are not cheap, either. In fact, any computer that's similarly specified and as sturdy is going to be at least as expensive. Thinkpad, some of the higher end Toshibas and some of the better Sonys all have metal frames and are built like tanks. And are just as expensive.

So, if you want a truly portable computer that doesn't cost a thousand dollars, you're looking at something in the netbook range. Fortunately there are some decent keyboards out there. Type on a few at a computer vendor near you. If you want an extremely portable solution with an excellent keyboard, you could get a netbook with a tiny keyboard and add a bluetooth keyboard for use when you really need to type.

(I love my 13" unibody MacBook, and I loved the two Sony metal framed notebooks I bought 8 and 12 years ago -- and are still running!)
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:44 AM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Before you buy, you might want to check into what kinds of tasks you'll need the computer for, and what resources will be available from your school (IT support, cheap software for students, computer labs with specialized software,etc.)

This thread mentions some things to consider: my mac needs to play nice with the new kids in september
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:31 AM on August 11, 2010

I'm amazed that it only lasted 3 years even with the maximum upgrades upon purchase.

This is why I think you need to talk to Apple, whether it's the AppleCare helpline or an Apple Store. Macs don't just die after a few years, so it's probably something you're doing to them. I'd urge you describe the symptoms to Apple and see if they can figure out what's going on. (This doesn't apply to the dead screen, of course. Screens sometimes die on their own.)

Apple Support
posted by Mwongozi at 6:33 AM on August 11, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks SuperSquirrel. Yes, my school will offer all of that. Aside from email, I mostly need the computer to type notes in class, work on papers, presentations, and online research at the campus library or at coffeeshops. I get distracted at home and would love to have a portable computer again to work outside the home.
posted by bestillme at 6:36 AM on August 11, 2010

I mostly need the computer to type notes in class

GAH! I see many students struggling to do this with the tiny keyboards on netbooks. Maybe I just have a lot of fat-fingered students :-). Definitely take whatever you're considering for a test drive. I've been using a full-sized HP laptop for a year now, with a slightly different keyboard layout than my old Dell, and I STILL have to stop and think about the location of the Delete and PageDn keys.

Good luck in school!
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:18 AM on August 11, 2010

bestillmePoster: I get distracted at home and would love to have a portable computer again to work outside the home.

Have you ever actually used a netbook? Because we have an Eee PC and while it's great for travel, I absolutely cannot use it for work. The keyboard is WAY too cramped and trying to write a document on that screen would be torture.

The solid state and small size and light weight make it great for daily commuting and all that, but once you get to school I'm genuinely not sure how useful you'll find it. You should really, really get your hands on one before buying.

I think valkyryn was dead on the money. Just go to Dell and get an get an Inspiron for $379. Even low-grade laptops are more than adequately specced for word processing and web surfing these days. They are also slightly disposable which is not a bad thing - I just throw mine in a bag, literally, and never think anything of it while my friend is sitting there wrapping his Macbook like it's the shroud of Turin. There is no chance I'd carry a $2,000 machine outside my house.

FWIW we have several laptops in addition to the Eee in our house - a 2 year old Dell, a 3 year old Asus, and a 1 year old Acer and they were all budget buys, get daily use, swap in to run desktops, go places with us when we need to go, and not a single one cost more than $500.

You spend $2,000 on a laptop because that's the laptop you really want, not because there is any actual "need" for it when there is so much else that will do the job capably for less.

If you want optimal screaming fast performance on a low-spec machine, get Linux and run Ubuntu and Open Office. Your Mac friend will envy your speeds.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:23 AM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Back around 2005, I was buying laptops for my employer with a budget of around $1,500 for executives and $800 for entry-level employees. The expensive laptops were faster, lighter, prettier, had somewhat bigger hard drives and somewhat longer-lasting batteries, and that's about it -- they broke as frequently as the cheap laptops. There was one important guy who insisted on Apple and got it on a $2,000 budget. Only he can tell you if his experience was sublime (and he will).

The market has changed a lot since then. First, everything is cheaper. Second, a $1,000 laptop outperforms a $400 laptop in roughly the same way that an Acura outperforms a Honda: They both get you to Chicago, but one has more settings on its entertainment system and more fan speeds on its air conditioner. There's no longer any significant difference in processor speed, hard drive size, battery life, or anything else that makes a real performance difference.

I bought a $450 Acer at Walmart two years ago, and it's still doing fine I just throw it in my backpack with my books and my bicycle lock -- no problems. When it dies, I'll buy a $350 computer somewhere. As DarlingBri points out, the disposability of cheap laptops is a big plus.

If I was racing Formula One cars on the moon as a cover for my Interpol spying, I'd consider a machined unibody Apple laptop -- but only as part of my cover. I'm not going to make claims beyond anecdotal observation, but your story strengthens my inclination to believe that Apple is building pretty fragile computers these days, aluminum unibody or no aluminum unibody. I'm getting the impression that they fail as fast as anyone else's hardware.
posted by gum at 8:51 AM on August 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Not all netbooks have super-tiny keyboards. Some of the larger netbooks (probably most that are >= 10.1") have keyboards > 90% full-size, which might be fine for you, but you should try one first.

If I were after something I would be carrying around a lot, I would much rather buy 2 $300 netbooks than one $2000 laptop. If one fails, I'd have a spare and still be $1400 ahead.
posted by Zed at 9:54 AM on August 11, 2010

Netbooks don't just have small keyboards, they have goofy keyboard layouts. Mine has truncated shift keys and a tiny space bar and other odd problems. The cramped trackpad is also awful as they try to wedge a scrolling section in there too. It's awful.

If you have commercial software, I'd get a MacBook since the switching cost to Windows will include repurchasing that commercial stuff. But if not, a Windows 7 laptop would be fine. I don't have any recommendations though.
posted by chairface at 11:57 AM on August 11, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you everyone. Great advice. I'm going out today to test drive some netbooks and laptops. FYI, I think some of the larger netbook keyboards will be just fine for my hands, but will check to be sure.

It's possible I transported my laptops around too much, I still think a $1500-1800 iBook (back in 2003) should last more than 3 years. The iBook I owned before my last one also died after about 3 years. My latest purchase was the iMac simply because it was cheaper than another Apple laptop and I wanted to enjoy a larger screen.

Mwongoz-- Thinking the same thing you were, when my problems with the iMac started, I spent close to 40 hours at the Applestore in one month trying to fix things. Some things got "repaired," but mysteriously, my "new" combo drive developed the same problem again in a matter of weeks. I'm actually considering writing a letter to corporate. What a pain in the a--.

DarlingBri-- If you want optimal screaming fast performance on a low-spec machine, get Linux and run Ubuntu and Open Office. Your Mac friend will envy your speeds.

Thanks for the tips. I think you're right. I'm going to check these out and hopefully will come home today with a new baby computer!--
HP Mini 5102, Asus Eee PC 1018 PB/1005 PE, Acer Aspire One, and Toshiba NB 305 as well as a couple of smaller laptops like the the Sony Vaio TT/Z/VPC 7116, or Lenovo Idea Pad. I haven't looked into regular sized laptops yet, but will do.

Gum-- Thanks for your expertise. Glad that it's not just me and hearing it from someone familiar with the market makes me feel more confident about going the netbook/ laptop route. A sublime Mac experience is great, but when the difference is $1500 and an additional 3 years of life, I'd rather save myself the time and energy of making yet another purchase in a few years and take a sublime trip with the savings. Your point about the market changing is also well taken. I'm not that knowledgeable about computers, but it seems to me that $2000 is a lot to invest when products are changing so much, at an increasingly faster rate-- smaller, more portable, faster, cheaper....

Chairface-- I considered this as well, but honestly I don't have a lot of software that I need and the couple of things I do, I run on Parallels on my iMac. I can buy the software through my school for not much money at all.

Thanks again to everyone!
posted by bestillme at 1:31 PM on August 11, 2010

I have an Acer laptop that has been going for seven years. the tablet PC functionality doesn't work and so I don't really use it at all except for storage, and I think it's hacked but that's another story... Point is it served me well

I would strongly recommend a tablet PC. and when I say Tablet, I mean real tablet with a handwriting recognition, real processor, flash support, Bluetooth, and USB support--not iPad.

I've been using tablet PCs for eight years now. they really excel in the school environment. A tablet PC combined with Onenote, is one of the most undervalued tools out there especially for school. OneNote allows you to take notes directly on the computer in the handwriting with different sections for the notebook. It has handwriting recognition that allows you to change it into text or just leave it as hand written notes that can be searched through! this blog calls it the best little-known technology of the decade:

I'll save you time reading the article: this guy was able to go back and find his handwritten notes for a Project from three years ago. Imagine being able to search their every note you ever took for every class.

a convertible tablet PC also has a decent sized keyboard.

I recently purchased a new Lenovo X200. It has a decent sized keyboard and a 12 inch screen. the build quality seems quite solid. I personally preferred my old 14.1 inch screen for the tablet but they don't make those anymore. I spent at least 100 hours researching this and I believe it to be the best deal--at least for my situation. the runner-up was the Fujitsu series t5010 is the best in many ways as well and it has a larger screen, 13.1. However, I was able to get a really good deal on it and so I couldn't justify the price difference. I used the extra money to buy a larger external monitor for $130(?).

you can find a lot of reviews here:

there are other review sites out there, but it basically boils down to that the Lenovo and the Fujitsu's seem to get the highest reviews.

here were the specs:
Laptop Authority - Lenovo Thinkpad X200 Tablet 744943U Tablet PC Core 2 Duo SL9600 2_13 GHz 12_1 Screen 1280x800 160 GB HDD 2048 MB RAM optional 802_11a-b-g-n wireless, 10-100-1000 Ethernet, Bluetooth, 56K modem

upgrade to 4 GB RAM and have Win 7 Pro preloaded.

Price: 1364!!! After upgrade.

I got lucky because they were just upgrading the processors and I bought the slightly less zippy one.

There are also multi-touch models available which I desperately wanted but I couldn't pass up this deal.

I used the following website for my purchase: Cheap Tablet PCs/
They seem to have great deals, and they have great service. I was so ecstatic with the service that I volunteered to write them a testimonial. (I'm not connected to them in any way, but I'm trying to give them some Google love since they were so good.) I see that they have the T5010 for 1600 about now. ( wish it was that price a few months ago)

my latest intern/roommate is another Mac fan. She has the MacBook air. After seeing what a tablet can do, she wants one also and is thinking about selling her Mac. sure, it is Windows, but Windows 7 is also getting rave reviews, and so far it's a far cry from XP.
posted by chinabound at 1:42 AM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hi all-

I tried out some netbooks and regular laptops and was pleased to find that the small screens did not really bother me, although finding a keyboard I liked proved harder. Didn't find one that I liked well enough to take home so will have to try out a few more somewhere else. The store I went to didn't have many of the models recommended here or that I found favorably reviewed online.

Chinabound-- Thanks. This was a very interesting option to investigate. I love the tablet idea and tried out a few at the local computer store but the ones they had could not recognize my handwriting even though I wrote slower and neater than I would in a real class situation. I was disappointed, but will definitely keep it in mind for a future purchase.

As it turns out I'm going to wait til October to make my final purchase, but will circle back to post my final selection as well as how my last attempt to get my iMac repaired was received.

Thanks again to everyone for the generous insights! You've helped tremendously!
posted by bestillme at 10:51 PM on August 21, 2010

I'm glad you checked it out. Even without the handwriting recognition, still recommend it if you can take notes on your computer and leave them in handwriting. since some of the models I mentioned are below below the price point you have set, it's an added feature even if it's not perfect. I would buy my laptop again even without the tablet PC features.

Re: handwriting recognition
Are you sure you were using it the right way? I've seen tablets recognize almost anyone's handwriting and mine is atrocious. But you have to write smoothly. Slowing down can make things worse actually. Most people when they first try to use a tablet are much too delicate, often holding the pen too far away and afraid to put the hand on the screen. this is the incorrect approach. You should go ahead and lay your hand on the screen and don't be afraid to press down a bit just like you would pen to paper. not saying that you didn't do all of this and that it still didn't work, but I'm just saying that that's what a lot of people do...

And OM Gosh!!! I see that there has been a major price drop for Fujitsu ( just a few months ago it seemed they were all $1800 or more). The new T730 Tablet it is available with an i3 processor and a multi-touch screen for only $1300! I only wish this was available in February when I made my decision.

Hmmmm...wonder if I can sell my Lenovo...
posted by chinabound at 8:16 AM on August 24, 2010

Some of the newer, larger netbooks are pretty nice. The Dell Mini 311 has an 11" screen and quite a spacious keyboard, yet it's still low-priced and very portable. It has great battery life, at 5-6 hours, and weighs next to nothing. It's not as powerful as a full laptop, but it's great for taking notes and hauling to the library.
posted by Aanidaani at 3:44 PM on August 29, 2010

Response by poster: Chinabound - I wrote as I normally would with a paper notebook and pen knowing that if I had to "think" about how I was writing on the tablet while in class, it would never work for me. I write pretty quickly and while my letters might not be perfectly formed, it's generally legible. I tried over and over again. I'll head back in a few weeks to look some more. Good luck with your Lenovo :)
posted by bestillme at 8:24 PM on August 31, 2010

I'd just like to say that the handwriting recognition is actually quite impressive, because you really should just act like it is pen/paper asc hinabound implies. Just got a Lifebook TH700, $1149 at Fry's. Holiday sale?
posted by mnology at 12:38 AM on September 5, 2010

Response by poster: Sorry for such a late update:

Took my iMac in one last time before Apple Care expired to see if it would actually get fixed. Miraculously, they were able to recreate all the problems I had been having over the last few years and address them. Everything is working fine now.

About the netbook/ laptop...
My conclusion is this, netbooks are great for the short term or a specific situation that requires ultimate portability. But, in the long run, needs change and it depends on whether or not the short term plus upgrade purchase is the preferred choice or if a heftier purchase to carry you through the long term is more appealing.

Long story short, a family friend offered to lend me his spare Asus Eee PC netbook; which got me thinking, I won't be a student much longer and a netbook wouldn't be as fitting in the long run. Plus it would be better to have a second computer that could take the place of my iMac if it ever had issues. Since this buys me some time, I'll be saving up for a macbook pro or tablet pc which have similar price tags.

Thanks for all your help. I've passed along the recommendations to friends who are now enjoying their netbooks.
posted by bestillme at 10:55 AM on January 23, 2011

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