Help me by my wife a new computer since I'm several years out of date!
March 21, 2012 2:08 PM   Subscribe

Help me buy my wife a computer. We know about what she wants but it's been several years since purchasing a machine and we're out of the loop.

My wife's trusty 17inch HP laptop died and she needs a new one. We could fix the old one but really, it's 5 (almost 6) years old and it's just better to start over. We're tempted to go MAC but the price premium for an iMac or a 17" MBP seems crazy. We can't go smaller because she'll use it for PS for design work she does for her scrapbooking. Aside from that she just needs it to do the basics and be relatively speedy. She won't be playing games on it aside from the occasional kids game for our 6 yr old. She has to be able to do Windows (even if thru Bootcamp/whatever) to connect to her office machine. Even if it's a laptop, she would rarely actually move it off her desk. We're trying to keep it down below 1200 but realistically our budget is from 1k-1.5k.

We did find these two machines that seem to really be decent but I'm lost deciding the pros/cons of these specific machines or any other ideas out there. Are the MBP/iMac worth it to move to?

These are the machines we've found. HELP!
posted by damiano99 to Computers & Internet (35 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I would suggest a Mac - if only because I use one myself and like it - but I don't see why you need to buy a 17" MBP or even an iMac. Why not go with a Mac Mini and an inexpensive, large monitor? Big monitors are pretty cheap these days; my own setup is a 13" Macbook Pro hooked up to a big display, so I have the best of both worlds.
posted by Tomorrowful at 2:12 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

A 21" iMac starts at $1199, smack dab in the middle of your budget. What's the issue? FWIW, I find Mac Minis to be a little underpowered and overpriced compared to the rest of Mac line, but that's just me.
posted by entropicamericana at 2:17 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are the MBP/iMac worth it to move to?

Macs are worth the money, if you can afford them. If you've already got a monitor, just get a mac mini, instead of the iMac.

Macbook Pro's aren't worth the money unless you need the extra performance. If you just need a basic laptop, the Air is the way to go, and if you ever need a bigger screen, you can hook it up to another monitor.
posted by empath at 2:20 PM on March 21, 2012

If the machine isn't going to come off the desk, then yes, a lower-end iMac is probably going to be your best bet (if you are set on the whole Mac thing). It is a bit of a luxury purchase compared to buying a 21" monitor and building your own PC with some similar parts, but what you want is in your price range.
posted by gangsterscience at 2:21 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Apple also has a store where you can get refurbed machines at a decent discount if you don't need the latest and greatest.
posted by empath at 2:22 PM on March 21, 2012

I agree that the 17" display is overkill on a laptop. It may be nice to have a big monitor, but it isn't really necessary for design work--you can always zoom in or out in PS if you need to. Personally, I'd rate a good quality Wacom tablet higher than the large screen in terms of usefulness for design work. Additionally, the bigger the monitor, the heavier the laptop is. Sounds like no big deal, and I know you say she won't move it much, but believe me, if she ever has to travel at all, especially if she has to go through airport security, she'll regret not opting for the truly portable laptop. it just seems like you paid more for something less practical.

If the large monitor is a necessity anyway, Tomorrowful's suggestion of a Mac Mini and a large monitor seems like a better choice for someone who doesn't plan to take advantage of the portability a laptop offers.
posted by misha at 2:25 PM on March 21, 2012

She has to be able to do Windows (even if thru Bootcamp/whatever) to connect to her office machine

If she's just making a VNC connection, she can connect to a Windows computer from a Mac with no rebooting into Windows or any of that.

If she wants a laptop, I think that any of the Macbooks plus an external monitor would be fine. Whichever one she wants. Otherwise, the iMac is a nice machine.
posted by adamrice at 2:26 PM on March 21, 2012

Response by poster: We've been tempted by the 21" iMac. I just get frozen wondering if it's worth the extra 800 to jump the 27" Is it THAT much better or more of a boutique/niche thing? Has anyone ever played with the bigger Asus laptops?
posted by damiano99 at 2:29 PM on March 21, 2012

IMHO 17-inch laptops, even the Apple ones, are really pushing the limit on portability. Since it'll rarely be off her desk you can get a smaller laptop with an external monitor.

If you want you can save money by getting a used or refurb mac. Go with one of the dealers who's also an Apple reseller if you go this route like Powermax or Small Dog (search for "Powermax" in AskMe comments, you'll find a bunch of threads with recommendations).
posted by Runes at 3:10 PM on March 21, 2012

When my old HP laptop died I bought a Dell Inspiron that kicks the shit out of the laptop it replaced. It has a lovely display, amazing graphics, plays games I could never run before, runs PS without any issue, is shit fast to boot and launch things, etc. Mine is the entry level one but I'm sure the top end $899 one would be awesome. You could add a 21" external monitor for under $300 if you wanted to really, really push the boat out here but that would just be optional.

Aside from the sheer aggravation of having to learn a whole new OS and replace all the software (including Photoshop for Mac at $659), what exactly is it the Mac is buying you at the price differential besides a prettier box?
posted by DarlingBri at 3:30 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nobody complains about having too large a screen on a desktop setup. Why don't you just go to an apple store and check out the difference?
posted by oceanjesse at 3:30 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Unless you really, really, really know what you do, you don't want the 17'' MacBook Pro. Never. Others may disagree, but you very likely also don't want the 15'' MacBook Pro.

Apart from that, all other suggestions are fine. You should decide for yourself if you need a 21'' or 27'' screen. Both are sufficiently large and I don't think any of them will impact your wife's work for the better or the worse.

Now, I don't want to come off as a "fanboy" but let me tell you that the Asus, Samsung, whatever days are over. We live in a time where you don't have to compare feature and performance tables any more (cf. your first link). Unless you have very specific needs you shouldn't worry about "performance", or care what "Unreal Tournament 3 Medium, 1024x768 60.9 Frames per second" even means. You are the user, not the mechanic.

Unfortunately, only one vendor understands this. So, what you should know is that if you need "basic", you get any of the basic Apple products. If you need "more", you throw in some cash. If you need high-end, you throw in some more.

If it helps my credibility: I am a software developer. My job is to abstract details away from the user.
posted by arhammer at 3:33 PM on March 21, 2012

While I still don't think there is any competitor to Apple, DarlingBri makes a valid point: You have to replace all the software which might add up. Compared to other vendors, software on Apple's operating systems tends to be more expensive.

(But it also tends to be highly polished.)
posted by arhammer at 3:48 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Keep in mind that an external 24 inch monitor runs $150 to $200, and a licence of Windows to run bootcamp is an additional $100. A 13" macbook system is going to be at least $1500, without any extras.
posted by bonehead at 3:55 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Counterpoint to Darling Bri: You can dual-boot into Windows to continue to use Photoshop. Or, since Photoshop is likely overkill for scrapbooking, spring for a cheaper alternative like Acorn or such.
posted by entropicamericana at 3:58 PM on March 21, 2012

Bumping a MBP up to a reasonable 8GB costs an extra $200. Yikes.

An i5 system with 8GB of ram is pretty much what you want. The big question is: is an ssd affordable at your pricepoint. This adds about 200 to the price of most current systems (including macs) and is the single biggest improvement you can make to a computer right now. A 128 GB SSD is the sweet spot for value.

A 13" MBP with these specs is about $1700. Add another $300 for a 22-24" monitor and a copy of Win 7 home.
posted by bonehead at 4:08 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Bumping a MBP up to a reasonable 8GB costs an extra $200. Yikes.

Only if you buy it from Apple. You can get perfectly compatible memory from Newegg for $50.
posted by Runes at 4:30 PM on March 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

(This will be my last post in this thread, so it doesn't turn into a agree-disagree game here.)

bonehead, you never buy upgrades directly from Apple. You get 8 GB of RAM (good quality, for a MacBook Pro 13'') for about 50 Dollars. Installing it takes 10 minutes and is described in the manual that comes with the machine.

Now, I don't know what it takes to decently work with Photoshop but I would advice against from upgrading your machine from the very beginning. Buy a decent computer and give it some months. If you have any issues, upgrade later. One thing at a time. It is all about reducing complexity, only saves you from going nuts.

Also, while SSDs are awesome, I don't think it is worth the investment for "normal" users. Again, if you have issues later, if you need it, get it.

That was that. Now, forget any of the tech-talk, clear the word "speed" from your mind, buy a computer and have fun.
posted by arhammer at 4:31 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sorry, I continue to think that most of the "get a Mac" answers here are recommending solutions much more expensive and much less capable than the $1000 HP all-in-one linked above. A similar MPB can't be had for less than $2000 and even then it has considerably worse graphics, a real issue when considering photoshop usage. A 21" i7 iMac is 1500, with an additional 100 again for Windows.

With due respect arhammer, I think get a mac and don't worry about anything else is very expensive and inappropriate advice here.
posted by bonehead at 4:52 PM on March 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

Don't get a big screen laptop, get an external monitor of whatever size you want. A new 24" monitor is under $200.

If you could find a reputable used computer seller, about $200 would get you a great small form factor machine that will do all you need. Of course you need it to have a fresh OS install, so finding a dealer might be a big ask.. Less than $500 will get you all the laptop you need. This is without putting any effort into shopping at all.

I just don't have time or inclination to go into this in great detail, but I'll suggest an approach that might help you. Cut your budget to $700-800 and see what solutions people recommend. Then compare what you'll get out of machines at the two budget points and see if the higher price point buys anything you need/want.

I can't help wondering what killed your HP.. It may not be as bad as you think for performance or cost to fix. If you are just sick of looking at it, please don't throw it out! Somebody will want it for parts, even if it is only worth $50 it is better than landfill. Donate it to Goodwill or something.
posted by Chuckles at 4:57 PM on March 21, 2012

The entry level 13 inch Macbook Air should meet your needs. I do design work in Photoshop and Illustrator with large files and it's not an issue. The only thing it isn't good for is modern gaming and video editing. It's incredibly fast, super-portable and falls within your budget. I would go to your local Apple Store and fire up Photoshop on one of the floor models and see if you like it.

If you temporarily need extra screen real estate, you can always hook up an external monitor to it.

It's the best computer I've ever owned. One caveat, the Air line hasn't been updated in a while and will likely get a new updated model in the next three or four months.
posted by plasticbugs at 5:05 PM on March 21, 2012

My 13" MacBook Air runs Photoshop and Illustrator CS5 pretty handily, and I regularly make scientific illustrations and figures for a living. An external monitor makes the job easier, of course, but a MB Air isn't too much money, compared with other laptops. I love mine and I'd recommend one to others who do similar kinds of work.

And you can go pretty big on the external monitor, almost as much as your budget allows, probably. Flat panels are ridonkolously cheap these days. You might even find an 11" or a refurb that meets your needs, and you can budget more for the external. The only deal is that you have to get a $20 DVI-to-DisplayPort adapter to plug in an external DVI display.

As it has an Intel chip, you can run Windows if you need to. Windows is really cheap (~$15, cost of media, I think?) for academic staff and students, so see if you know someone willing to help you out there, if you really want a legal license of that.

My lab got me a Mac mini for the office and that works too. The current specs are pretty decent and I run my Adobe apps on that — can't see many downsides there. It's a reasonably cheap machine and there are lots of refurb and older models out there. You can get a very capable workstation for $400-500.

If you need more memory, just go third party. Newegg, Crucial, it's all good and cheap. No one needs to buy memory through Apple, unless you want the convenience of it.

If you do go with a new computer, you can always bring it back. I think Apple got rid of their restocking fee, so there's not as much risk as with other vendors. If that option sounds appealing, you can try it and if it doesn't work, just return it and get a Windows PC and you're done.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:39 PM on March 21, 2012

A similar MPB can't be had for less than $2000 and even then it has considerably worse graphics, a real issue when considering photoshop usage.

I can assure you that even a low end MacBook from several years ago runs photoshop just fine. Not to mention aperture and iPhoto.
posted by empath at 5:49 PM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

She's used to Windows and needs that for the office and her one must have program is PS for Windows. I see no reason for a Mac.

You need to clarify "rarely move it off her desk" because if it is not another laptop, she cannot move it off her desk.

Consider HP Probook 4730s laptop. This is in their better business line, not pure consumer line, and this line still has the 17" matte/antiglare screen. Newegg has two models, i5 or i7, at $950 and $1200.
posted by caclwmr4 at 6:37 PM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I wouldn't buy a Mac if I really needed Windows. You have to have Windows for work, so you're already buying that license. Buying another OS doesn't make sense to me.

I use a 17" Dell laptop at home. It seldom leaves the house, so the weight isn't a big deal. Add a nice big desktop monitor, and you can have a speedy, reasonable setup for under 1000. Get the warranty, so when the 6 year old, or another family member spills oj on it, you get the repair.

I've found Lenovos to be pretty rugged, and Dells are no more horrible than any other computer, and they offer a good warranty, aren't too proprietary, and are not too horrible to repair.
posted by theora55 at 7:29 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you are on a budget, you don't buy Apple (sorry fanboys). If the unit won't move from her desk, choose a desktop PC. Laptops are harder to repair and even the largest screened laptop can't compare to a desktop with a 24" screen.

What's not to like about Dell? Here is a link to a Vostro slim tower which starts at $499. Bonus, you get Windows 7 Pro (not Home). The only options I would add would be an extra 2Gb of RAM (taking it up to 4Gb total), the Office Home and Business License (NOT the Starter which is useless), and the 3 year Pro Support option (Pro Support - no Indian call centre guy!).

I would get a nice large monitor from the cheapie computer store nearest you and then you are ready to go.

Options to make it cheaper - use OpenOffice or LibreOffice (which is free) rather than MS Office. Don't buy the Trend Micro subscription from Dell, just download Microsoft Security Essentials instead (free too!).

Best of luck!
posted by humpy at 8:23 PM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Whatever you end up getting, make sure you get to see the screen in person before buying it. Our old Dell has a great screen (not as good as a mac screen, but very good), and our new faster toshiba has a terrible screen. The color changes significantly depending on what angle you are looking at it. If she is doing any serious graphic work, I would also suggest getting an external monitor if you are not getting a mac or other computer with a fantastic screen.
posted by markblasco at 10:18 PM on March 21, 2012

I would consider waiting to purchase a computer until May - a number of new ultrabook models were announced back in January with release dates starting at about this time. When these arrive (along, perhaps with some competing new releases from Apple) it should help to drive prices of other devices - of the type being suggested here - down.
posted by rongorongo at 12:50 AM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Folks, I know you like to play the PC/Mac game but can you stick to answering the question, not insulting each other and not talking about what you don't like about one or the other please?
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:38 AM on March 22, 2012

There are differences between the key set provided on Apple's keyboards and those on everybody else's, and more differences in the way their mice and touchpads look and feel and work. Anybody with strong muscle memory for PC-105-style keyboards and/or standard two-button wheel mice should spend some time actually operating an Apple machine before deciding whether or not to buy one.
posted by flabdablet at 8:50 AM on March 22, 2012

In my experience, the keyboard differences are far more noticeable when using Windows on Apple hardware.
posted by flabdablet at 8:53 AM on March 22, 2012

She has to be able to do Windows (even if thru Bootcamp/whatever) to connect to her office machine

When you say "connect", do you mean actually connect via some network or other, or do you mean something more like "be able to schlep documents back and forth and work with them on either machine"? Because that doesn't actually need Windows; all that needs is compatible application software.

The office machines will probably be running some edition or other of Microsoft Office, which is available for both Windows and Mac OS X. There are also non-Microsoft office suites (like the free LibreOffice suite, which runs equally well on Windows, OS X and Linux/Unix) that will interoperate with MS Office documents with a fair degree of success.

If you do actually mean "connect" as in "take the laptop to the office and connect to Windows servers or other Windows workstations over a network", you might be surprised how well-supported that very thing is nowadays in operating systems other than Windows.

If you mean "install the exact same software as the office uses, for which no non-Windows edition exists" then yes, you might well need Windows. Personally I would do that by running Windows in a virtual machine hosted on Debian; you might want to consider doing things that way if you have access to a friendly tech to set it up for you or you feel adventurous and don't mind Googling to find out how to do stuff.

But if you mean "make it likely that the office technician, whose job involves keeping the office Windows network running, will have a clue how to work with my wife's laptop" then running Windows on it is probably, unfortunately, your path of least resistance. In which case:

If you buy a new brand-name computer with Windows preinstalled, it will likely come with a whole bunch of fluffware to make it crappier and slower and push assorted branding in your face at every opportunity. PC Decrapifier will help with that.

Brand-name machines also usually come with a 90 day trial for one of the major commercial antivirus suites (Norton, McAfee or Trend are the usual suspects). None of these are worth what their subscriptions cost. Tear it off and install Panda Cloud Antivirus for background vandal resistance and Malwarebytes Anti-Malware for cleaning up after you get socially engineered into installing trojans.
posted by flabdablet at 10:23 AM on March 22, 2012

A laptop on her desk will also give her a choice between having a screen that's too low or a keyboard that's too high. If you do go the laptop route, prop it up on blocks to lift the top edge of the screen to her sitting eye height, and plug in a USB keyboard and mouse. Her back and neck will thank you.
posted by flabdablet at 10:26 AM on March 22, 2012

Response by poster: By connect to the office, I mean she has to vpn into it and run her oil/gas software that she uses. It's not vnc but an actual vpn. My issue with choosing isn't so much of what is fastest, per say, because really ... she's been on the same laptop since 2007 and ANYTHING is going to be screaming faster, it's just that I want something that will hav some longevity. As for moving it, if it's a desktop, she won't move it. If she has a laptop, she may take it with her from time to time when she visits her mother but it's not a requirement or an issue in choosing. Just looking for the most bang for the buck combined with longevity.
posted by damiano99 at 6:22 PM on March 22, 2012

Most bang for the buck is always going to start with a tower case (I like the Cooler Master Centurion 5 II in black; nice roomy case with high quality fans and fittings, unfortunately not on offer at NewEgg) that you build out yourself.

Putting a tower computer together from parts is not much harder than building Lego these days, and there are endless instructional videos on YouTube for the slightly tricky parts like getting the CPU cooler mounted properly.

If you base your design on the same CPU and GPU and RAM that are in that NewEgg Asus laptop you linked to, find a compatible Asus mobo to put them in and add a 2TB hard drive, a DVD burner, a decent 500W+ Antec power supply and a nice Dell 24" flat panel monitor, you should end up with something that performs better than the laptop for about half the money. Doing your own Windows installation also means you'll end up without bloatware and fluff.
posted by flabdablet at 1:11 AM on March 23, 2012

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