New Laptop: What to Get?
July 25, 2012 1:02 PM   Subscribe

I am currently writing my second novel and find myself in need of a new laptop on which to do the work. My previous machine, an aged Acer Aspire One, struggled through the first book but has now given up the ghost and gone to the great laptop skip in the sky. So, here is what I need:

-I have a budget of £400 and I need a machine that is sturdy and able to put up with constant use. While my first book may have ended up being some 180,000 words, I would estimate that I wrote about twice that in the long run when all corrections, rewrites and edits are considered.
-I would prefer a 10”-ish machine as I simply like the form-factor and – even though I have huge, piano-playing hands – really find the smaller keyboards comfortable. This is far from a deal breaker though.
- Battery life is a nice thing to have as I travel a lot and like to write on trains but again, not vital.
- I need it to have enough horsepower to be able to comfortably have a 400+ page document open, with track changes running, without hiccupping or choking. I know this does not sound much and you may think that office use is office use, but writing books is a lot more processor/cache/ram intensive and you stand to a lose a lot more if things fall over.
- Everything else is candy. Storage, HD shininess, optical drives, bells, whistles and gizmos are nice enough and if they can be folded into the mix with no great increase in outlay then so be it.

Why am I asking here rather than trolling through review sites, you may ask? Well the issue is that a lot of review sites review stuff that I am unable to actually buy. For example I got very excited about the Lenovo ThinkPad X121e after reading several reviews. It is tough, sturdy (it’s a ThinkPad!) and well priced: sounded great. Damn thing cannot be found anywhere though so I am still looking.
A note about OSs: I am a highly experienced systems engineer and am comfortable in Windows, Linux or (if I must) MacOs and equally as comfortable changing the supplied OS if needed/possible. The only thing that worries me is that Android is starting to appear as a Netbook/tablet OS and I am yet to be convinced that any of the available Office packages for said platform are up to the task that a writer will set it.

A few items I have considered to set you thinking:
Lenovo ThinkPad X121e
Toshiba NB550D
HP Pavilion g6-1325ea ( as I can get it cheap here)
Acer Transformer Pad (the newer one (not the 1080 one) as it can be grabbed for about £300 in some places)
posted by She Kisses Wyverns to Computers & Internet (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
As a long time Thinkpad user, I have to recommend you find a solid, used Thinkpad with a good track record. You can get good, dual-core machines for well under 400 quid and still have money left over to get a new, Lenovo original battery.

The X121e would be great, though I'm puzzled you say they're not available anywhere -- there are enough up for sale on Ebay. The trouble is that they are out of your price range.

(I think you may have to let go of the idea of getting compact power. That costs.)

Some models I would consider:

Thinkpad T400, T410 -- these are plentiful, decent machines, with enough power to handle your word-processing tasks; you will have money left over to get a big disk, more RAM, and that battery I mentioned (you'll want the new battery :) ).

They will handle basically any OS you throw at them.

On that note, I have a few things to say about writing books on computers.

First, word processors are absolutely terrible for this kind of work. They consume so many resources just to make things look pretty, and fall down totally whenever the document is more than a 100 pages. Pagination is a nightmare. In my experience, it does not matter how powerful your machine is: you will be tearing your hair out. Have you ever considered a text processing engine like LaTeX? The learning curve is a bit steep, but it's very doable. Having now learned it -- which required an investment of a few weeks -- there is no way I am ever going back. It is made for publishing, has automation that cannot be beat, delivers gorgeous output and costs all of nothing. I can concentrate on writing instead of worrying about formatting.

Second... since you mentioned it... Windows is not a very good operating system for this kind of work, either, for basically the same reason. If it's solid, predictable word processing you want to do, I'd do it on Linux, because it's much more stable and efficient (this also affects battery life.)

To cite my own case, I'm still running on a Thinkpad T40 built in 2004. The RAM is maxed to 2GB and I put the biggest drive that would fit into it (160 GB). With each successive Linux release I have put on it, it has gotten *faster*. The fact that this is a usable machine at all given its age is, by computing standards, miraculous. If I were running a T400, I'd be flying.
posted by rhombus at 1:32 PM on July 25, 2012

As someone who recently edited an 80k word novel, I'll second rhombus' point about word processors being terrible at handling large files. Have you looked into something like Scrivener? It breaks up your novel into manageable chunks, so you'll never find yourself scrolling through several hundred pages looking for a particular scene, and it's MUCH faster than the likes of Word.

If I was you, I'd go with the Thinkpad. I only use Macs these days, but before I made the switch I was seriously leaning towards getting a Thinkpad (it might even have been the same one you mentioned, now that I think about it.) I've heard nothing but good things about them. Their smaller ones in particular are supposed to be fantastic.
posted by anaximander at 2:16 PM on July 25, 2012

Suggestion from left field: you might also want to consider getting a dirt-cheap laptop of any brand for editing your drafts, and writing your first drafts on the highly portable Alphasmart Neo (look on Ebay for cheap, used Alphasmarts - often discarded by primary schools, where they are used to teach kids to type).

700 hours of battery time on two AA batteries, super light, super durable... This machine has transformed my relationship to writing; I can't recommend it highly enough!
posted by artemisia at 2:26 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I recommend against the Thinkpads in your budget. I'd had one of the more expensive Thinkpads and it was a really great machine, so I bought the SL400, and it was a piece of crap. The hinge between the screen and the keyboard actually broke after about a year, and there were some other serious issues as well. Definitely not suitable for lots of use. Of course, you can get the warranty, but then it bumps the price up quite a bit.
posted by lunasol at 5:01 PM on July 25, 2012

The SL-series Thinkpads (and the IdeaPads, ugh) are of a totally different caliber than the traditional T and X-series Thinkpads.

I am quite bummed that they are tarnishing the Thinkpad name with the SLs, rather than calling them IdeaPads which -- in terms of build quality anyway -- they clearly are. So definitely avoid the low end of Lenovo, but if you can get a good deal on a tricked out, used T or X series, I'd seriously consider it. While it's always worth a quick google just to make sure you're not buying a model that's a known lemon, I've had good luck with a wide variety of them.

Generally speaking, I think you will do better, if your goal is to purchase high quality, to get something that's used but higher-end than to buy a new economy machine. It's the higher-end machines (the aforementioned X and T series business machines from Lenovo, Dell's higher end metal-bodied Latitudes, etc.) that tend to have nicer keyboards, better build quality, and also tend to be more upgradeable and repairable. That's probably more important for a writing machine than getting the latest processor generation.

Both Lenovo and Dell have corporate-run used stores, if you want something that's faster to purchase from than finding a traditional VAR.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:19 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you know someone in the US who can ship it to you, it looks like you can buy a Thinkpad x120e from Lenovo's outlet for within your budget. (I don't think they ship outside the US.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:19 PM on July 28, 2012

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