What laptop should I buy?
August 14, 2011 7:15 AM   Subscribe

I need to buy a new PC laptop and have no clue where to start. My criteria: Good hardware, sleek design, good speakers, AWESOME customer service, NOT a macbook, under $900.

My current 2004 Dell notebook is seriously gasping for it's last breaths. Yes, I have not followed laptop news, reviews, improvements, etc since 2004 so it feels like I'm getting out of prison for the first time in 7 years and everything is so different and confusing. There's like 1000 more brands and I don't even know where to begin.

DISCLAIMER: I do NOT want a Mac. I use them at work and I hate them. Sorry. If you were going to suggest a mac just move on because I will not take your answer into consideration. Seriously. Please and thank you.

Here are some bullets:

- I'm thinking something with a 15' inch screen (not interested in mini-netbooks), 6GB of RAM and a pentium i5. Will this hold up, technology-wise, or will it be akin to owning a steam engine in 5 years from now?

- I will mostly just be using it for internet-ing/word processing, though every once in a while I like to tinker in making music on it (FL studio-type stuff, nothing advanced)

- I also stream/download movies and music, so good built in speakers.

- This is a weird one: I hate glossy screens. I was looking at the newest Dell Inspiron model and while the guts look perfect it's such an ugly machine, all shiny and glossy as if it WANTS to attract as many finger-prints/smudges as possible. Preferably it will be thin and sleek and strong and anti-glare. Like a mac, without being a mac.

- And an important one: Awesome customer support for when shit inevitably happens. Once a few years ago my Dell completely crapped out and wouldn't even turn on when I was at a hotel in the middle of nowhere. I was able to get a guy over the next day to crack it open and fix it through my awesome warranty and their awesome customer service.

- ...All of this for under $900?

So...what are some good brands? Would it be smart to stick with Dell? Should I switch to HP? What about brands like Asus or Acer, I know nothing about them? Any other brands I'm missing?

What do you use, and how is the customer service?
posted by windbox to Technology (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Lenovo. They've always had excellent customer service, in my experience, anyway.

Your stated specs are fine. You could go with less RAM to save initial cost and upgrade it later as prices fall. Same with the hard disk.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:28 AM on August 14, 2011

Seconding Lenovo. Very good computers, and I've had excellent experiences with customer service. When I first bought my computer (a few years ago, and it still runs fine), the website messed up the pricing on my order by not taking a discount into account. The customer service rep contacted me personally via email and it was taken care of immediately. I also had to send my computer in for a minor repair and it was all taken care of quickly.

I don't know of any specific models, and my Thinkpad would be out of your price range, but Lenovo is great.
posted by alligatorman at 7:39 AM on August 14, 2011

Thirding Lenovo I guess. I came in here to suggest the model I got, a 14" IdeaPad U460S. However I think you're going to have a hell of a time finding anything that's not glossy. The one I have isn't as shiny and fingerprinty as the Inspiron (which I used to have) but it still needs to be wiped down with cleaning solution about once a week. On the plus side it does have that streamlined sleek non-clunky look. On the down side it doesn't come with a CD drive, so I got an external one. Mine was about $750 from Walmart.
posted by bleep at 8:16 AM on August 14, 2011

No idea how much better they've gotten, but 2004 was more or less a nadir for the quality of Dell notebooks (and really, laptops in general; I'm shocked that you've got one from that vintage that is still functional and intact). You're probably going to be happy with most things.

I'd also say that Dell has some of the worst customer support in the industry. Yeah, it's OK if you pay for one of their (quite expensive) service contracts, but otherwise, I've not had good experiences.

I've used a fair number of IBM/Lenovo Thinkpads, and have always found them to be solid business machines. There *are* a number of PCs that are styled after the Macbook, but Lenovo's gear has always seemed to be fairly solid across the board. No idea if you're going to be happy with the sound though -- that was always a sticking point with the ones that I owned.
posted by schmod at 8:23 AM on August 14, 2011

The 520s do have better sound they put a set of Dolby surround sound speakers in them but to get one with a core i5, 6GB of RAM and onsite support direct from us is probably reaching. Looking around for a reseller though can get you a pretty good deal.
posted by Rubbstone at 8:31 AM on August 14, 2011

Response by poster: You're probably going to be happy with most things.

Oh I totally realize that. I could technically get a $250 machine from Walmart and be blown away by it's performance compared to my old Dell, but I want something that isn't clunky/cheapy looking and will not be outdated in 2 years.

As far as expensive service contracts, it's just a price that I'm willing to pay. I highly anticipate something screwing up at some point, I want the best service there is for when it happens.

I didn't even know Lenovo existed or was a thing. Really interesting - I'm looking at their website though and they don't seem to have anything with 6GB of memory.
posted by windbox at 8:33 AM on August 14, 2011

I think you're going to want to consider that part of your price point will be taken up by whatever cost you put toward your warranty. Two years? Three years? Via mail, onsite, priority, etc. You can get fairly good service, but to some degree you're going to pay a little more for the best service.

In the end I went with Lenovo as well (Thinkpad Edge). It did arrive with a faulty motherboard (or something along those lines) that had to be replaced, which was done very quickly and with minimum fuss from the company. I think I paid around $900 last year, but that was with 4GB RAM an i3 processor, and 2 years upgraded warranty.
posted by bizzyb at 8:33 AM on August 14, 2011

windbox, from what I can tell you can upgrade nearly any Lenovo machine to however much RAM you want. Just configure a 15" i5 machine, make sure to select the 64 bit operating system, and customize the RAM to 6GB.
posted by litnerd at 8:38 AM on August 14, 2011

It's often cheaper to upgrade RAM yourself, if you feel comfortable doing that or know anyone else who is.
posted by grouse at 8:58 AM on August 14, 2011

Will this hold up, technology-wise, or will it be akin to owning a steam engine in 5 years from now?

That's the wrong question. In five years' time, whatever you have now will probably look antiquated in terms of raw specs. The question is whether it'll still suit your needs, and for that, overall build quality is more of an issue.

So, Lenovo: not the fanciest-looking, even in the diffusion lines, but solid: the jury's still out on whether the Ideapad and ThinkPad Edge models will get the same long-term treatment as the main ThinkPad line -- good part availability, extremely user-serviceable.

Matte screens are becoming a niche category. Anti-reflective screen protectors aren't terrible.
posted by holgate at 9:02 AM on August 14, 2011

I've been very pleased with Sony's laptop PCs. They are very well built.
You can also customize one on Sony's website. One nice option is for a clean install of Windows 7 Pro 64 to avoid all the bloatware that normally comes preloaded.

Here is a link to their 14-15.5" models.

I recently tried a Lenovo T420. It was junk right out of the box. Nowhere near as nice as the T400 and T410 I had looked at previously. It was like Lenovo had cheapened all the parts.
That being said, others may have had better luck with their newest machines.
posted by nickthetourist at 9:09 AM on August 14, 2011

Lenovo is IBM's old PC division that got spun off and sold to another company. Depending on who you ask, the quality has either stayed the same, or gone slightly downhill.

And, yes. RAM upgrades are cheap and easy to do yourself, even if you have virtually zero experience doing so. You shouldn't void your warranty doing so either, although the company will usually want you to remove the extra RAM that you've installed before they'll troubleshoot or repair anything.

Check to determine your system's maximum RAM capacity before buying. Some low-end models have a fairly low maximum, which is something that you're definitely going to want to avoid if you want a machine that's "future proof."

Also, for some reason, some laptops have two RAM slots, with one being extremely easy to access, and the other being nigh impossible (IBM did this on a few of their T-series laptops back in the day; no idea if that's still the case).

And, yes. I'd totally consider build quality and serviceability to be a *huge* factor. Lenovo generally scores decently well on this front (a bit less so on their cheaper models). My last laptop was a 12" Apple Powerbook G4 (I know, I know). Naturally, Apple transitioned to Intel systems almost immediately after I purchased it, which made its specs seem very antiquated very quickly. However, because it had an *awesome* form factor, virtually-indestructible build quality, nice screen, and good keyboard, it served me well as my primary machine for about 4 years, and stuck around as my laptop for another 2 after I bought a desktop with a bit more oomph. I finally retired it in March of this year.
posted by schmod at 9:10 AM on August 14, 2011

Regarding brands:

The computer business is very much like the car industry--one guy loves his Ford Explorer and has never had a single problem, another guy with the same model has had nothing but problems. Anecdotal, me-too comments about reliability are what you're going to get from a message board, and in the main won't be indicative of a brand's overall reliability, which is tough to measure and highly subjective.

Nowadays manufacturers emphasize design and ergonomics as much as components. The biggest differences between the major laptop manufacturers--those you listed as well as Sony, Toshiba, Samsung etc--will involve does-it-suit-me, do-I-like-how-it-looks-and-feels kind of stuff.

Consequently, before buying a laptop, try it out if you can, and look for the following:

The keyboard shouldn't bend under the continuous tapping of a single key. Give the space bar and any key on the topmost, leftmost, and rightmost row 10 heavier-than-normal taps in quick succession. Make sure there's no bowing or flexing at any location

The touchpad (used to control the mouse cursor) should be large enough so that your finger can cover the span of the screen without having to double-back. The touchpad should also have a dedicated scroll area

Buttons should be easy to find, be sure to look for keyboard layout as close to whatever layout you're most familiar with--be it a full-size desktop keyboard, or an adapted laptop keyboard, the layout of which can vary considerably between manufacturers.

Carry the laptop around for 5-10 minutes in whatever backpack or case you'll be carrying it in most often. Make sure it's not too big and not too heavy. Too big means too conspicuous, which means easy target for theft. Also, turn the laptop on before you carry it around, because you're going to want to feel the bottom after the laptop has been on a while. A laptop should not get hot during use. Last, a laptop should run silently.

As for screens, glossy is now standard for laptops. Several manufacturers have added anti-reflective coatings with very mixed results. My two cents: you're going to have to suck it up and get a glossy screen

Regarding customer service/tech supprt:

Don't expect anything special or unique or effective from any manufacturer of a Windows-based laptop--that is, from anyone other than Apple, whose 15-inch laptops are way out of your price range. The free tech supprt that will come with your laptop will probably expire after one year. After that, if you still want round-the-clock help you'll have to pay an independent provider for support. This doesn't come cheap.
posted by BadgerDoctor at 9:30 AM on August 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

We went through a lot of computers at my last job; Dell still has the best customer support I've found. They do have computer building down to a damned art, though, and as long as you avoid "brand new this year" model lines you'll find they've designed reliability into everything. Warranty returns cost them money and all that. Basically unless someone has a unique need that a Dell just can't meet, I always recommend Dell. They aren't perfect, but compared to their competitors they're the best.

Lenovo is a close-ish second; we tended to have slightly more problems with those machines during the times we tried them. They do make some very nice laptops, though.

My wife has a Sony Vaio (~ 1 yr old now) and loves it; I hate Sony with an ever-smoldering passion, so I can't give a neutral opinion there.
posted by introp at 9:40 AM on August 14, 2011

Without knowing if they have a current laptop that meets your specs and price requirement, I was going to suggest that you look at Sony Viaos. I bought mine in 2004 and it's still going strong. It has a nice clean design and still does everything that I need it to do, which is primarily what you want your computer for (internet, word processing, and streaming/downloading). The only problem that developed in the last year or so is that the wireless doesn't work, but otherwise it's still working fine. I have an asus eeepc (netbook) that I bought used cheap to have something that I can use to take to cafes or conferences and figure that will tide me over when my sony bites the dust, which I imagine has to happen soonish, but other than the problem with the wifi, it's not showing any signs of slowing down.

As a counterpoint, my workplace uses Lenovo laptops and I find them ugly, clunky and slow. We have to use them for work travel and they seem a bit heavier than they need to be, although that is mainly down to the battery and it does last a good 6 hours or so. But otherwise, I'm not impressed with it, and I a lot of my coworkers feel the same way. Honestly, I don't come home and feel like my 2004 Sony is a dinosaur in comparison, which I would expect from a brand new laptop.
posted by kaybdc at 9:44 AM on August 14, 2011

I'm a big fan of the reviews at PC Pro.
posted by alby at 10:02 AM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Aside from glossy screens, what is it you hate about Mac laptops? The answer might be useful so that we don't suggest laptops that have those same qualities.
posted by BurntHombre at 8:40 PM on August 14, 2011

I just bought a Levono Thinkpad Edge with 8 gig of RAM, a 750 gig hard drive and an I7 processor for around $900 from their website. Sony Vaios or Toshibas are good too.
posted by joannemullen at 9:00 PM on August 14, 2011

Go through the CNET laptop finder, plug in all your essential requirements, and see what you come up with. You won't be able to find answers about customer service, etc, through that, but at least you'll narrow down your machines and then be able to check elsewhere online for info about customer service quality (seems like you've already gotten some good tips here). Also check out the reviews/prices on Newegg -- there's a ton of tech-savvy people over there and the reviewers seem to know what they're talking about. The prices over there are some of the best, as well.

I suggest narrowing down your requirements to the top 1-3 things that you must or really want to have in your new laptop. That will help you weed everything else out -- and you'll need that, because as you said, there's like 1000 brands and models out there. For example, 4 years ago I really wanted a laptop that would be awesome for watching movies and TV on and ended up with a Toshiba Satellite because it had Harman/kardon speakers and was universally praised for its sound quality in reviews. I have to say, I have never heard a laptop with better sound. I'm thinking about getting a new laptop (I need something lighter) and I'm really sad at the thought of not having the Harman/kardons anymore.

I've had very good luck with this Toshiba and in over four years have never needed to contact customer support. But as BadgerDoctor pointed out, you could easily have a very different experience. I would definitely at least check out the Satellites -- the prices look to be awesome right now, too.

You're going to have to give up on the no-glossy screen thing. There are non-glossy screens out there, but so few that you're really going to have to settle in other areas.

(And I totally hear you about the Macs.)
posted by imalaowai at 10:11 PM on August 14, 2011

The free tech supprt that will come with your laptop will probably expire after one year. After that, if you still want round-the-clock help you'll have to pay an independent provider for support. This doesn't come cheap.

This just isn't true. While Macbooks do come with a 1 year warranty, after that you have to buy the Applecare extended warranty. There is no accidental damage warranty available from Apple.

Lenovo, Dell, and HP all offer extended warranties - up to 5 years on most models - and also offer accidental damage warranties. These are manufacturer's warranties, not some third party nonsense.

I arranged the purchase of a Lenovo x200 tablet a few months ago for one of my son's classmates. The 3 year extended and accidental damage warranty was 250 dollars.

Aside from glossy screens, what is it you hate about Mac laptops?

If he's going to run windows, he should buy from a company that has an actual investment in supporting that. Although you can run windows on a Mac, understandably, Apple isn't putting a lot of effort into making Windows on a Mac the finest experience.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:16 PM on August 14, 2011

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