Help me pick a laptop!
March 15, 2005 12:21 PM   Subscribe

I've decided to buy my first ever laptop of my own (ie not a cast-off from a parent.) I know what I want it to do/have in functional terms, but I don't know enough about hardware to really make a truly educated choice.

Okay, so, this is what I want to do with it: your basic 'office' applications (word, excel, powerpoint, possibly illustrator, internet/email); watch dvds - so therefore good battery life and decent sound; wi-fi connectivity; lightweight - under 5 lbs preferably. AND, I want it to be under $2000.

My internet searching has led me to the HP DV1000 and the IBM Thinkpad T42. I'd love to hear opinions of these and/or recommendations of other options. Also, any advice on how not to waste money on performance options I don't need (ie I have no idea how much memory or hard disk space i should pay for) would be very much appreciated.
posted by Kololo to Computers & Internet (21 answers total)
If you've narrowed it down to those two options and only those two, take the Thinkpad without further consideration. HP/Compaq hardware is cheap and flimsy stuff, IBM makes truly good laptops (except for the really crappy pointing device).

Someone'll come along and mention Apple any second now, since both the Powerbook and iBook lines meet your requirements, and I have to admit to being quite happy with a 12" Powerbook G4, with the exception of the slightly anemic CPU even in the most current hardware revision, the minimal resolution LCD (1024x768) and the weak, outdated 3D graphics chipset. Battery life is acceptable -- 3 hours of honest use -- but not the outstanding 8+ hours I got with my ancient Dell Latitude C using dual modern high-capacity batteries. It's a good machine for everyday stuff as well as my major projects.
posted by majick at 12:39 PM on March 15, 2005

Another Thinkpad vote here. Definitely get something with a Pentium M (often bundled with an Intel wireless card and marketed as "Centrino"). If it says "Pentium 4-M" or "Pentium 4 Mobile", avoid! They suck battery power like crazy and get hot. There's also a Celeron M that's based on the Pentium M and it's supposed to be alright. Make sure if you get a Celeron M, it's the one based on the Pentium M. Get at least 512MB RAM, though it's probably more wise to buy memory elsewhere and install it yourself. Also, the smallest hard drive is usually enough unless you want to collect zillions of MP3s or take lots of digital photos.
posted by zsazsa at 12:43 PM on March 15, 2005

Getting a iBook a couple of years ago changed the way I used computers & organized my life. It has survived the deserts, mountains, beaches & tropics of a round-the-world trip.

I picked up a pair of these USB speakers which give excellent sound (altho' the headphone out is good quality & even the tiny stereo built-in speakers are OK). The battery seems to work for around 4 hours on normal use (tip: you don't need the brightness on full when you're using a laptop)

I run a lot of Office & 'life admin' software as will as Adobe Creative Suite (PhotoShop et al), Reason & the like. I can't run Final Cut Pro but the newer G4 iBooks can and I'll be upgrading to one when either I can afford it or this one gives up. I'm betting on the former to be first ;-)

What I like about it best is the way everything integrates so well. Even when I nerd it up with lots of extra widgets it all seems to work so much better than anything else I've used.

On preview: Glad to oblige majick. 'cept odinsdream got there before you ;-)
posted by i_cola at 12:49 PM on March 15, 2005

I'm on my fourth ThinkPad since 1999 (nothing bad happened to any of them, just kept upgrading as circumstances changed). I have a T42 with 1G RAM, 1.7G Intel Processor, 32G hard drive, and a 15" screen that I got last Wednesday and am completely in love with it. The WiFi and sound are amazing, as is the clarity of the screen.

Can't recommend them enough. Love 'em, love 'em, love 'em.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 12:50 PM on March 15, 2005

Here's some general advice from me:

Resolution: it's more important than screen-size. A 12inch 1400x1054 (or whatever the number is) screen is better than a 15 inch 1024x786. It also means the machine will take up less space and be more portable.

Weight: If you plan to carry it around on a daily basis, be sure that it weighs less than 6lbs. In fact, I would aim at the 4lb area if you're serious about portability. Having owned 5 laptops going back to my good old NEC 486, I can assure you that the heavier/more unwieldy it is, the less you'll use it.

RAM: In most cases, ram is more important that CPU power. You're more likely to have more than one app open than you are to crunch numbers. I would not consider anything less that 512megs of ram. Also, you'll never upgrade the CPU on your notebook, but there's a good chance that if you keep it for more than 2 years you'll want more ram in it, so make sure that it can expand to more than what you need right now.

Video: If you want to play current 3D games on your notebook, check to make sure that the RAM for the video is separate than the general RAM. A lot of notebooks save money by not including dedicated video RAM. Also, make sure your notebook has a Video Out port (or S-Video) so you can play your DVDs on your TV.

Warranty: I'm usually against extended warranties, but for my notebooks I've always had them and for 3/3 of my new notebooks I've needed the extended warranty to the point where it paid itself off.

Misc: You don't need a floppy drive. This is the 21st century. Your battery will start to dissapoint you after two years, but new ones are usually worth the $100. Owning multiple power adapters means less stuff to cary when going from home to the office, or even from the back-room to the living-room. I keep a power adapter under the couch so nobody sees it and it's always there. Wifi is Da-Bomb! Don't even consider a machine without it.

Finally: my prefered brand after all these years is IBM, followed by Toshiba, with a lot of respect for Sony. I would never own a Compaq/HP notebook. Dells seem to be a mixed back, leaning on the good side.
posted by furtive at 1:02 PM on March 15, 2005

A 12inch 1400x1054 (or whatever the number is) screen is better than a 15 inch 1024x786.

Not if you value your eyesight! Personally I wouldn't want higher than 1280x1024 (sometimes called SXGA) on a 15" LCD.
posted by knave at 1:14 PM on March 15, 2005

BTW, worth getting an extra battery no matter what you get. Having spare laptop, camera & 'phone batteries is always going to be handy.
posted by i_cola at 1:15 PM on March 15, 2005

Your question as worded is a no brainer. Avoid HP.

That said, a thinkpad is stil windows (and ibm just got sold). The ibook does everything you want and better imho (powerbook for showing off, but it can't compare to the ibook for better battery life and wifi.)
posted by justgary at 1:31 PM on March 15, 2005

Thinkpad Thinkpad Thinkpad. When I was in the same position as you, I went to my local Best Buy and was shocked that pretty much all the laptops - irrespective of price - were super plasticy, and looked like if dropped or mistreated (as tends to be the way with laptops) they would smash into smithereens.
The Thinkpad housing I believe is some sort of titanium composite, and certainly feels like it could survive a train-wreck or two.
posted by forallmankind at 1:32 PM on March 15, 2005

I love my ThinkPad (T40). It has been very reliable, has good battery life and the built in wireless works very well.
posted by caddis at 1:45 PM on March 15, 2005

I was gonna say Panasonic Toughbook until I saw the price issue.

Go Thinkpad. If you want to spend a little more money, get good performance and have an absolutely bulletproof machine, then go Toughbook. I love mine.
posted by TeamBilly at 2:23 PM on March 15, 2005

I have to umpteenth the Thinkpad, but must disagree with majick on the pointing device - for my money, it's the only usable trackpoint ever put into a laptop. YMMV, of course.

That said, the t42 is teh sex0r.
posted by coriolisdave at 2:33 PM on March 15, 2005

Thinkpad. No question.

Remember: More RAM = more battery life and longer hard drive life. Less swapping is a good thing.

Try to steer clear of a 1024x768 resolution. I think the T42 comes in 1400x1050 and 1600x1200. The T42p I'm using now is 15" 1600x1200, and it is great. My wife has a T22 with a 14" 1024x768, and I can hardly use it. Not enough on the screen at once. You can always adjust the fonts if you need to.

I'm going to cry when I have to turn this T42 back in (short term contract).
posted by bh at 2:48 PM on March 15, 2005

I own a Toshiba Satellite. Perfectly happy with it. It has taken a lot of abuse, to the point the case has cracks (and epoxy putty in those cracks!).

But I recommend you purchase a PowerBook. I have yet to hear of anyone saying they regret leaving the Windows world. I really think that if you are starting over (ie. purchasing a new machine, installing new apps, transferring bits of old data) you might as well get off on the right foot and go with MacOS.

If not that, then purchase the Thinkpad. I've only heard good things about their build quality. If not that, then get Toshiba: my personal experience is that they are great.

All other variety, including Sony and Dell, and especially HP and Compaq, I've heard nothing but a litany of complaints.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:57 PM on March 15, 2005

your basic 'office' applications (word, excel, powerpoint, possibly illustrator

Buying new?? Ouch. Those'll collectively set you back about as much as the laptop itself. Consider compatible open source alternatives like and The GIMP so you can put the savings toward maxing out your hardware joy (or buying more DVDs).
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 5:26 PM on March 15, 2005

Thanks to advice in a previous AskMe thread, I bought a Fujitsu S series Lifebook and I am still, a year later, madly, desperately in love with it. It weighs nothing, burns DVDs, and looks gorgeous. It has a screen so bright that strangers are always coming over to marvel when I have it open in public.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:58 PM on March 15, 2005

Second the OpenOffice.Org recommendation.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:14 PM on March 15, 2005

Well, I'd have to say that in the past few months, i've recommended iBooks to a number of my friends who weren't power users, but were previously PC types, and frankly, they couldn't be happier.
posted by Freen at 11:14 PM on March 15, 2005

Re Office applications, if you are a student or teacher (or I guess for example live with one) they are very affordable for both Mac and Windows. And I must say the new Mac version is very good.
posted by keijo at 12:45 AM on March 16, 2005

The last time I bought a new laptop I tried and returned two flimsy Dells and a faulty Toshiba before settling for a centrino-powered widescreen HP/Compaq which has worked fine for more than a year.
With my three faulty machines I learned:
Don't buy a consumer-oriented model, go for one that's designed for "business"; a friend of mine who owns a computer store tells me that they're better quality and better put together.
Incredibly, 25% of all laptops have a fault that requires going back to base during the first year.
Think about noise. The fan on a Pentium 4 laptop can sound like a plane landing. Centrino processors run cool so hardly ever need to call on the fan.
RAM. More RAM. As much RAM as you can. Usually cheaper to buy from a reputable third-party memory provider such as Kingston or Crucial.
posted by io at 1:38 AM on March 16, 2005

I bought my last notebook from this site and it has been awesome. If you figure out exactly what you want, this is one of the very few sites that will let you customize it completly and then build it for you. I put together an Asus Carbon Fiber Case with Weight: 5.8lbs / 15inch Screen that will run 1280x800 / Intel Centrino 1.5 / 2Gig Ram / 80 Gig Hitachi 7200 HD / Slim DVD-CDRW / Wifi / XP Pro / 1 year Service for $2015 just now. Most companies are going to sell you a bunch of crap that you dont really need while you end up getting shafted on RAM and Hard Drive Space. And no, I don't work for them.

If not, go with the Thinkpad. I will state again, as if it had not been stated enough already, buy RAM. As much RAM as you can stuff into the box. You will never, ever regret buying too much RAM. I would suggest 2 Gigs. Then get a cheap centrino processor and a 7200 RPM 60+ Gig Hard Drive.
posted by sophist at 4:33 AM on March 16, 2005

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