Help me buy a laptop
July 4, 2011 3:29 AM   Subscribe

Help me choose a new laptop

I know these questions come up often, so I've made mine as specific as possible.

I'd like to buy a 1) Lenovo or 2) Dell.

Cost + weight are primary concerns.

Still, I want one powerful enough to last. (I use a six year old Toshiba as a back up now, so I know the importance of not skimping on memory.)

I can spend up to $800. I use my computer to surf the web, watch movies on Netflix, store music, and primarily, for my work writing.

Switching to a mac is not an option.

I compared some models below and I had a few questions:

1) What feature is most important to a person like me who doesn't know what they are doing: memory or hard drive?

2) I prefer the 14" screen because the computer weighs less. But buying a 14" screen in my price range means buying 4GB memory. Is buying only 4GB of memory a mistake?

3) Why do the models below with more memory have smaller hard drives? Does this matter for me?

4) Is there anything else I should consider relevant to the comparison of buying a Dell vs. Lenovo in this price range?

Lenovo - IdeaPad V570 Laptop / Intel® Core™ i5 Processor / 15.6" Display / 6GB Memory / 640GB Hard Drive

Lenovo - IdeaPad Laptop / Intel® Core™ i5 Processor / 15.6" Display / 4GB Memory / 750GB Hard Drive -

Dell - Inspiron Laptop / AMD Phenom™ II Processor / 15.6" Display / 6GB Memory / 640GB Hard Drive

Lenovo - Edge Laptop / Intel® Core™ i3 Processor / 14" Display / 4GB Memory / 500GB Hard Drive

Dell - Inspiron Laptop / Intel® Core™ i3 Processor / 14" Display / 4GB Memory / 500GB Hard Drive

posted by vincele to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
the best piece of advice I ever got from computer geek is don't skimp on the processor. Because this will determine the life of your computer. Based on this, you should definitely prefer the I five over the I three.

I don't have any solid evidence, but I've heard Dell has more repair issues than Lenovo
posted by chinabound at 3:31 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Skimping on the processor is a delicate art :) Take the lowest-clocked processor from the latest family.

4GB is fine.

Battery chemistry is probably the most important factor in a laptop.

I would definitely take a model with an SSD instead of a hard drive.
posted by krilli at 3:44 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: krilli,

I'm sorry, could I ask you (or someone else) to explain "lowest clocked processor"?

SSD = Memory, right?

I'm sorry, I really don't know anything.

Thank you.
posted by vincele at 3:52 AM on July 4, 2011

1) Unless you plan to be storing hideous amounts of music, I'd say the memory is more important for you. The more your laptop has when you buy it, the longer you'll have to wait before upgrading it becoming preferable or necessary. Check in the specs to find out each model's maximum memory limit. A RAM upgrade a few years down the line should help to give you a performance boost.

2) If 4GB is the limit (maximum installable) for RAM on that model, then obviously that's not as good as a higher limit. Though I can't see you needing more than 4GB of RAM realistically for a quite a while with your needs.

3) More memory costs. They skimp on the hard drive. Both memory and hard drive will be upgradable (usually very easily, even for non-techies), so don't sweat it if you're getting a smaller hard drive. You can always upgrade it later.

4) The reliability of the brand? Customer support packages? Build quality? I've had my current Dell laptop for 3½ years now, and while it's been very reliable, the build quality is not so good. If you're going to be lugging your machine around (I assume this is why you say weight is important) then I would veer towards the Lenovos, as I've heard their build quality is better.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 3:54 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

To clarify: RAM is what the laptop descriptions refer to as 'memory'.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 3:56 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: be aware that IdeaPad is Lenovo's consumer line, build quality is not comparable than the Thinkpad line.

the gold standard for durability is the ThinkPad T-series. right now (july 4th sale) you can configure a T420i with an i5 processor and 4gb memory (RAM) for about $800.

if you want to spend less, you can configure the Thinkpad Edge 420 with an i5 processor for about $600. the edge series are not as well built as the T-series and X-series Thinkpads.
posted by at 4:27 AM on July 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

4) Is there anything else I should consider relevant to the comparison of buying a Dell vs. Lenovo in this price range?

Battery life. Especially if you plan to use the battery you might consider that a slower processor, smaller screen, etc. will use less of it. It could make good sense to skimp on power to save some power.
posted by three blind mice at 4:30 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: the gold standard for durability is the ThinkPad T-series. right now (july 4th sale) you can configure a T420i with an i5 processor and 4gb memory (RAM) for about $800.

This is very good to know. This thread has been incredibly helpful to me.

Question: should I go with the 320GB memory that is standard when you build your own, or do I need to upgrade to 500GB when I build my ThinkPad T420i?
posted by vincele at 4:51 AM on July 4, 2011

Best answer: Hi Vincele,

If you like to keep your laptops a long time, going with the better mechanical build quality is likely a very good idea, this would suggest going for one of the solid thinkpads.

If you don't already have a strong opinion on 320GB vs 500GB for the internal hard drive, it doesn't matter much for you and I'd go for the smaller one. External hard drives are getting cheaper all the time and when you start feeling constrained by the small space, you'll be able to buy a usb hard drive to move extra things off to for $50 or so.

I'm running 4gb of ram in my laptop right now, and I'm really happy with it. I did notice that in most of the configurations, the Thinkpads could take 8GB and upgrading the ram down the line will be inexpensive and straightforward.

good luck!

posted by ccoryell at 5:22 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

You're mixing up the word "memory" with the concept of "storage." "Memory" (in this case) refers to Random Access Memory (or RAM); and for almost any normal purpose (as you described your needs) 4GB of that is fine for Windows and running a few apps; upgradeable to 8GB in the future is worth having.

320GB vs 500Gb refers to *hard drive* storage (which can be replaced with SSD, a solid state -- no moving parts -- evolution of the "hard drive," always the most fragile component in any mobile computer, failure of which is the most common cause of data loss). It is advisable to get an SSD if you can afford one (they have a high premium still per gigabyte). Affordable SSDs don't get much over 256gb these days, arguably in your price range the best you can do is 128GB, which is if course much smaller than 320 or 500GB drives, so the tradeoff is you need to store your archived files elsewhere than your laptop hard drive (which is probably going to get easier and easier and safer and smarter anyway). If you need everything with you all the time, depending on your "everything," of course, a 320GB drive is fine for most people (depends how much video you have, primarily, stored on your machine, for most people again, unless you work in hi-res images or 24-bit/96KHz audio or something). If you travel a lot, and if you have a lot more than 320Gb of stuff already, I highly recommend changing your model entirely.

Store your archives on big hard drive(s), one at home, one at the office, to which you back up every day, or to an online backup service or cloud storage solution (these will get cheaper and easier and more capacious in the very near future). Keep only your current stuff on the laptop, and get an SSD drive. SSD drives are faster, cooler, use less energy, boot more quickly, and are relatively safe from most forms of common data-loss mistakes (dropping the computer, liquid damage), although still susceptible to electrical/magnetic damage and of course to theft.

*Every* laptop hard drive fails (as do all hard drives, eventually). SSD is still too young as a generic consumer technology to know exactly how far to trust it, although it is clearly better than a moving hard drive. The most important thing you can have as an accessory to any laptop you ever buy is a daily backup strategy.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:49 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

(Especially if you're using a 6 year old Toshiba, the world has really, really changed.... for many people, certainly many academics like us, the model of having a superlight subnotebook -- a Macbook Air, for example -- with a nearly indestructible drive, for everyday writing, presentation, and media/communications use, along with a solid online/cloud-based archiving and backup strategy and maybe a big monitor/external keyboard for those times we get to sit at our own desk and work -- is a really workable model, compared with carrying around 500GB of personal files on a drive that could fail from setting the computer down the wrong way, or looking at it funny, and especially given the risk of laptop theft. If you travel a lot, the difference between a 4.5 pound "laptop" and 1.5 pound subnotebook like an Air is extraordinary, over time a really big change. On top of that, an SSD based computer boots up in seconds and will have much better battery life. These marginal efficiencies add up to hours and weeks of saved time or extra working time (that last hour of the transatlantic flight, for example, when your old machine's battery would have quit; that 20 minutes of answering email on the subway because it's so easy to whip out the laptop even on a crowded train) over the life of the computer, not to mention all the saved 2-3 minute windows of watching your machine boot up slowly before you can use it.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:56 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just bought a new laptop 3 days ago. I am one of those guys who obsessively researches a purchase before it is made. I hope my obsessiveness can help you out!

I bought one of the models you mentioned -- the Lenovo V570. I was looking for a 15" laptop in the $500-$600 range that would primarily be used for home e-mail, web surfing, remote access to office servers, and light photo editing. I happen to be friends with one of my employer's IT guys and asked his advice. He told me that the Intel Core processors are the best, however they are overclocked (rated faster then they actually are). Because of that he suggested going no lower then the core i5. Additionally, he advised me that I needed at least 4gb of RAM, but I should get the most I could afford.

I went with the V570 because it fit my price range and seemed to blow all others out of the water when it came to the components my IT friend suggested. That, and last week it won PC Magazine's editor's choice award (I did a lot more research then noted here, but I figured I'd spare you the details). As to your specific questions:

1) Memory. Without a doubt you should accept a slower spinning or smaller capacity hard drive in favor of more memory.

2) According to my IT friend 4gb should be your minimum. If you get a 14" with 4gb, I'd make sure it is expandable to at least 6gb so you can add memory down the road. Remember you'll likely have this laptop for several years and don't want it to become outdated overnight.

3) No clue. Likely not.

4) My IT friend told me as long as you go with a recognizable brand, brand name isn't that important. Your more interested in the components.
posted by Mr. X at 7:06 AM on July 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have that thinkpad edge -- exact same specs, and I've been really happy with it. I purchased it wanting a thinkpad, but honestly wanting something that did look a little more snazzy. Even knowing that it's not the gold standard of the thinkpad line, it feels like a really solid build compared to some other laptops I've seen. It's also got more of a chiclet-style keyboard, which I did want.
posted by bizzyb at 7:07 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

4) You're (must preview from now on)
posted by Mr. X at 7:08 AM on July 4, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you all for your input.

I took advantage of Lenovo's July 4th sale and got the T420 that mentioned. It's about 4.4 lbs. I drop my work-issued Dell at least once a month, so I need a business-grade computer that will take a beating, even for home use. I'm glad that pointed out the difference between the thinkpad and the ideapad in that regard.

I stuck with the 320GB drive. I back up all my data to a green thing (external drive?) each day, so I don't need carry a lot of files around with me. Thanks to you all who explained what is going on.

The laptop came to $900 with taxes and shipping. I am confident I made the right choice.
posted by vincele at 7:26 AM on July 4, 2011

Sounds like it was a great choice. I've gone through a series of very reliable and robust ThinkPads. RAM (memory) is definitely one of the most important factors in how well the computer will perform, but it is also the easiest one to upgrade later, and manufacturers usually overcharge for it. I usually buy the lowest amount of RAM possible, and then immediately upgrade as soon as I get the computer. It's an easy modification, especially on a ThinkPad—one that most geeks would be happy to do in exchange for beer or baked goods.
posted by grouse at 7:55 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

+1 on grouse here

And this was asked: "could I ask you (or someone else) to explain 'lowest clocked processor'?" — For the record, I meant the one with 1) the lowest available GHz rating, 2) from the middle family 3) of the newest generation of CPUs. Spend the savings on more RAM and SSD storage.
posted by krilli at 9:30 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

FWIW...I recently bought a new laptop for my partner, and ended up getting her an Asus rather than a Dell or Lenovo. Couldn't be happier with it, spent less and got something of equivalent quality.

Nth-ing memory as the most important item. 4gb is the minimum. Ideally, you want something that can expand to at least 8gb.
posted by kjs3 at 11:20 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

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