Help me buy a cheap laptop
August 19, 2005 9:43 AM   Subscribe

Help me buy a cheap laptop.

I'm a Mac user, and plan to stay that way. I have a couple of Windows applications I need to run occasionally, and I have not found Virtual PC to work well with them, and I'm reluctantly concluding that I need a Windows box I can use on occasion. I don't want to burn desk space on it so a laptop that can live in the closet when I'm not using it seems best.

I need wireless but otherwise have no particular hardware requirements. I want as little hassle as possible in getting this thing working -- I am not knowledgeable about Windows or PCs, and don't really want to become so -- and am therefore leaning towards buying a new machine rather than used, with some sort of support option.

How can I spend the least amount of money to do this?
posted by bac to Computers & Internet (26 answers total)
that's rather a broad question - how about detailing the apps you want to run & what kind of price you had in mind?
posted by forallmankind at 10:12 AM on August 19, 2005

If your primary requirement is that it can use wireless networking and (I assume) your Windows applications are happiest in Windows XP, AND your only other requirement is a cheap probably want a laptop that's between two and five years old, used or refurbished.

Since PCs do not hold their value nearly as well as Macs, you should see severe price drops in anything over a couple of years old, and as far as I recall laptops started having wireless capability standard sometime around 2001 or thereabouts. So something in that range would be both cheap, and have wireless, and still be able to run Windows XP just fine.

A high-end Pentium III or low-end Pentium-M (or possibly a Celeron, although those tend to be cheap-as-in-quality) is probably what you want. Do not get a Pentium 4 laptop, as P4s run super hot and most P4 laptops are very bulky and inefficient for this reason. Plus any P4 laptop will likely not have a price you're looking for, as they're still fairly new.

You'll want at least 256 megabytes of memory if you wish to run WinXP; more is better, but laptops traditionally have less memory in them than an equivalent desktop. So if you find some that are great otherwise and only have 256, take 'em, but put at least a little effort in finding 384 or 512 MB if you can.

Good brands that tend to last (e.g. would still be in good shape used/refurbished) are IBM Thinkpads and Sony Vaios; Dells seem to be middle-of-the-road, some people love them but other friends of mine have had a fair number of problems with Dell laptops (and they're bulky). I'd avoid any other brand besides those three.

Get thee to eBay! :) and good luck.
posted by cyrusdogstar at 10:32 AM on August 19, 2005

Ran into an error posting this; if it turns up twice, my apologies!

One more thing--if you do NOT require Windows XP and are okay with a little bit of sluggishness (but still usable) you can aim even older, like the very late 90s and 2000, and get a lower Pentium III or a high-end Pentium II laptop. Obviously the point of that would be to spend even less money :)

On such a machine you can run Windows 2000 just fine, and if it doesn't have integrated wireless, you can get a PCMCIA add-on wireless card for not too much money. My elder younger sister has used a Pentium II Thinkpad 600 for a couple of years now, and it works fine for her purposes, including wifi in various places.
posted by cyrusdogstar at 10:40 AM on August 19, 2005

Response by poster: I have confidentiality requirements that prevent me from detailing the specific apps, but think "word processing". Low-end stuff.

As for price point -- well, there are boxes on that would meet all my requirements for $529. I'd like to do better than that.

cyrusdogstar -- I'd been thinking that I should avoid eBay and such simply because I'm not PC-aware (the last time I understood Windows or PCs was in the Windows 3.1 days and I have remained happily ignorant of Wintel technology ever since then) and I want the ability to get hardware and software support.
posted by bac at 10:48 AM on August 19, 2005

Are you sure you even need a laptop? Were I in your situation I would store a plain old Windows PC in my closet, and then run VNC to access it from my Mac when I needed to use Windows.
posted by mendel at 10:48 AM on August 19, 2005

Along the lines of mendel's point, could you stash a cheap old box somewhere then use a keyboard-video-mouse (KVM) switch to flip over? We do this at owrk with a couple of machines and it works quite well.
posted by bonehead at 10:53 AM on August 19, 2005

bac - I see. Well, I'll tell you straight out that you won't be able to find any sort of new laptop for less than $500 :(

If you're lucky there may be a mom-and-pop level computer store in your local area who might be willing to sell you a refurbished older machine, with a service contract.

mendel makes an excellent point, too, that using VNC (I'd actually suggest Microsoft's own Remote Desktop, for which there is a good OSX client) to connect to another networked machine may also work well.

You can get brand new PC desktops for $300, from Dell even, so that may actually be your best bet. It's a Celeron, but those still work, they're just not optimal. But for sub-$500 and not purchasing refurb, you can't really get optimal.

Try this link.
posted by cyrusdogstar at 10:54 AM on August 19, 2005

I'd go for a Thinkpad X22 (or thereabouts) off ebay. $350-400? Solid machines, and tiny. You just need to get one with wireless and (imho) 512MB of RAM, if you're running XP.
posted by socratic at 10:57 AM on August 19, 2005

crap, I just saw you say you wanted to avoid eBay. Well, it'd still be my suggestion, since Thinkpads don't break. :)
posted by socratic at 11:02 AM on August 19, 2005

I am seeing scads of mid-level laptops, with Pentium-M processors, 14/15" displays at moderate resolution, reasonable hard drives (provided you're not loading a ton of music on the machine), and too little memory --- all in the C$700 to C$1000 range.

They're virtually giving the things away these days.

They'd make great secondary Winboxen, especially if dual-booted with a BSD.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:08 AM on August 19, 2005

An IBM certified used Thinkpad. Thinkpad T-series are built like tanks and are plenty fast enough for what you're talking about. You get a warranty and no EBay hassles/worries. [typed on a 1GHz P111 T23 with a $20 USB wireless doohicky from tigerdirect.]
posted by tiny purple fishes at 11:09 AM on August 19, 2005

You could go for an all-in-one type of desktop system -- that is , one in which the CPU box has a flat screen monitor built in. I'm sure you've seen Macs like this, but there are also Windows boxes that are like this, and you can get ones that are quite small and portable. Sony has one, as does Gateway, but you'll probably want to pick one up used.
posted by CrunchyFrog at 11:23 AM on August 19, 2005

tiny purple fishes, I just broke a fully refurb (but not by IBM) T21 in 14 months. Guess I must be hard on computers.
posted by scruss at 11:43 AM on August 19, 2005

Another IBM angle: find out if you know someone with a corporate discount from IBM, and have them scope the bottom end of available laptops.

And, yeah, $550 is pretty much the bottom-end pricepoint for new laptops. For what it's worth, my brother just paid about that much for a little Gateway that he is absolutely loving. (Whereas I dropped $1300 on a 17" wide-screen gamer-friendly model with a gig of RAM and a (comparatively) big-ass hd. The fact is, a whole lot of that extra money went into RAM and the screen. As a longtime build-your-own-tower guy, it drives me crazy, but I'd do it the same again.)
posted by cortex at 12:00 PM on August 19, 2005

Watch -- best deals on the web!
posted by k8t at 12:25 PM on August 19, 2005

One general recommendation: check for various specials around the web on computers & other gear. I got my Dell laptop after this site pointed me to a one-day special they were running (and Dell in particular always seems to be running lots of deals...)
posted by pitchblende at 12:29 PM on August 19, 2005

Your zip code places you in Pleasanton - why not search craigslist for laptops? Not everything there is used, though you'll certainly get much better prices if you buy a used laptop.
posted by jasper411 at 12:33 PM on August 19, 2005 and Ben's Bargains
posted by dgeiser13 at 12:52 PM on August 19, 2005

Well, I'll tell you straight out that you won't be able to find any sort of new laptop for less than $500 :(

Dell gets pretty close to this, they always seem to have deals or rebates. I had some students recently in one of my comptuer classes who got on for $550 with a $100 rebate. Not bad at all for a new box with XP.
posted by jessamyn at 1:09 PM on August 19, 2005

I understand your reasons for avoiding ebay, but FWIW, I did *exactly* what socratic suggests - got an X22 on ebay for 400 bucks (last year) and it's one of the best purchases I've ever made. It's still got the original 256MB RAM and for tooling around it's fine. For a used laptop, the IBMs are ideal because they appear to be built to withstand a major thermonuclear event....
posted by forallmankind at 1:38 PM on August 19, 2005

Just get something new. Notebooks now are so cheap that some new ones are cheaper than the stupid prices people sell their used ones for on eBay. We're talking around $600-$700, of course, but if you don't mind 1024x768 and a 40GB hard drive (and it sounds like you won't), then there's lots of choice.
posted by wackybrit at 1:49 PM on August 19, 2005

You could check the Dell Outlet and the Dell Auction (think eBay for Dells) -- refurbished and returned systems at a huge discount.
posted by geeky at 2:14 PM on August 19, 2005

If you do buy a secondhand laptop, expect the battery to be dead, or have a life around 15 minutes.

Don't by "Twinhead", or Acer. Is Gateway still around? You don't want them either.

And ask around your extended social network. Chances are you'll find someone with an old lappy they don't use anymore...
posted by krisjohn at 4:20 PM on August 19, 2005

My sister just got an Acer with an AMD (I know, horrible on mobiles but I told them to get AMD principle) and it works great.
posted by abcde at 10:25 PM on August 19, 2005

On principle, rather.
posted by abcde at 10:25 PM on August 19, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks to all for the advice.
posted by bac at 11:54 PM on August 19, 2005

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