What kind of laptop should I get?
August 22, 2005 8:26 PM   Subscribe

What kind of laptop should I get? Mac, PC, or something else for an elementary teacher just starting out?

I know many have asked this before, but I am looking for advice tailored to my specific needs.

I am becoming a student teacher and eventually an elementary school teacher. I would definitely like to use my new laptop for keeping track of writing, notes and lesson plans. I already have a windows desktop at home which is still perfectly good and fast and has plenty of space on it and which does various important things including being my stereo.

I don't know what else I might want to do with my new laptop.

iMovie looks really good and some colleagues have used it to make fun movies with their students, which is what first drew me to consider an apple. That and the snazziness. The tablet toshibas are also drool-worthy: think how easy it would be to correct papers with that!
On the other hand Dell offers some super cheap ones. And will a non-windows machine play nice with my current computer?

So I'm stuck.

Important factors, in no particular order: cost, weight, ease of use, reasonable speed and capacity and ability to do stuff. Good looks. Lovability.

I don't have infinite money but I have some and would consider financing if I felt it were really worth it.

Are there features of a particular model that, once I get them, I will love them forever? What factors should be most important to me as I try to decide what to get? Please, put forth a convincing case for a particular kind. Get as specific as you can. For example, "I have a powerbook and it is nifty," is less helpful than "I think you should get a whoopty-dee brand 5775w with optional memory upgrade and booster rockets, because. . ."

Thanks for the input!
posted by mai to Computers & Internet (32 answers total)
If you write a lot (or collect a lot of articles/sources/references) I don't know a better tool than DEVONThink Pro. It's Mac only.
posted by dobbs at 8:41 PM on August 22, 2005

I have a 12" iBook w/ 512M of RAM (in addition to my PC at home and work) and I love it because:

- it's small enough to fit in yacht stateroom vault (which is to say it's really small);
- it's light, for a laptop;
- it's well designed and cute, but not too cute;
- my PC can't do anything that my iBook can't do, but i can do lots of things on my iBook that i can't do on my PC (Expose, anyone?)
- iDVD / iMovie is quite neat - i used it to make a slideshow with music for a friend's wedding, and i don't even know anything about video making;
- some things seem less than intuitive to me (being a PC user), but overall everything is ridiculously easy, including upgrading the Operating System.

So there you have it. Reasons to buy an iBook from a PC using geek :)
posted by geeky at 8:42 PM on August 22, 2005

Sounds like an iBook might be nice for you. The new models just came out about two weeks ago. They come ready to use straight out of the box.

The nice thing about Macs is that Apple makes the computer, they make the operating system, and they make the iLife suite. This makes them very integrated. You can get the educational edition of MS Office for Mac for $149, with a $50 mail-in rebate until Sept. 16. The documents will seamlessly tranfer between your PC and Mac. iTunes also works on both platforms.

The 12" iBook starts at $999, and Apple offers an educational discount. (At my store it's $50 off the 12, $100 off the 14, but online may be different.) This really comes in handy when you purchase the Apple Care (3-year warranty), because there's about a 30% discount.

Anyhow, I switched to Mac about three years ago, and I haven't looked back since. They just work. I had a Titanium PowerBook that just went and went and went until it died. Never had to work about crashes or virii. (BTW, an iBook will probably be everything you need. The only advantage a PowerBook would give you is if you want to hook it to an external display...to give presentations or play the students' movies, etc. PBs will go dual-monitor, while iBooks mirror.)
posted by ArsncHeart at 8:44 PM on August 22, 2005

I have to give an endorsement to the iBooks. I'm an OS agnostic (I have a PC and a powerbook), but the OS is extremely easy to use, and the iBooks are built like tanks. Somebody will probably meander on here and make a comment about logic board issues, but those haven't been a problem for a while.

You can get a cheaper laptop, but the iBooks last forever, and the PowerPC Macs are going to be around for a long, long time after Apple switches to Intel next year. $1000 for an iBook is probably more economical than $600 for a Dell, since the Dells are more fragile and Apple's support is so much better.

The downsides? Not many. iBooks (and OS X in general) will play nice with Windows networks (I print to the printer attached to my XP machine all the time from my Powerbook). MS Word for OS X works flawlessly with Word for Windows (as do the other Office programs). Office OS X unfortunately doesn't have OneNote, which is a fantastic program, but there are very good outlining programs for OS X (Circus Ponies Notebook, www.circusponies.com, stands out).

Now, I had a Dell D600 for a while, and it was a very, very good notebook. I'd happily buy one again, because I'm confident that I'd never have to call Dell support except in an emergency (to do a return and repair). D600s and D500s are light, fast, attractive. They're not as stout as the iBooks, but I don't know how violently you treat your computer.

And, of course, there's always a Thinkpad. Even a three-year-old Thinkpad off eBay would be a marvelous computer, and they're extremely robust computers with A+ components.

If you want more details, please let me know in the thread, or hit me at the email address in the profile.
posted by socratic at 8:47 PM on August 22, 2005

you might want to check and see what kind of software school systems in your area use predominantly--if it's mac, get a mac; if it's pc, get a pc. (i'm a mac fan tho myself)
posted by amberglow at 8:55 PM on August 22, 2005

You might want to look at what sort of software and hardware support is available through your school district. My district primarily uses eMacs in the classroom, so our educational and gradebook software was developed primarily for the Mac.
posted by SPrintF at 8:57 PM on August 22, 2005

Based on your wants/needs:

Price: no question, a Windows-based laptop will be much cheaper than an Apple.
Looks: no question, an Apple will look a heck of a lot cooler than anything for Windows.
Weight: this depends more on the specific model of laptop you choose. There are Windows-based laptops that weigh less than Apples, and vice-versa.
Ease-of-use: since you already have a Windows-based machine with which you are comfortable, there will be zero learning curve. Switching to Apple, while not exactly rocket science, will necessitate learning.
Speed and capacity: like with weight, you can find laptops for both platforms at all speeds and capacities. Whichever you choose, get the fastest, most powerful laptop you can afford - that way, it will become an old, slow dinosaur that much slower.
Ability to do stuff: this, to me, should be your deciding factor. What platform do the other machines at school use? I know that schools used to be dominated by Macs, but I've been led to understand that that is changing. You said you need to track lesson plans and stuff - what software is available to do this, and on which platform?

Hard though it may be, you need to base this decision less on your heart and more on cold, hard practicality. While there are certainly ways to get Macs to talk to PCs and vice-versa, it's still a bit of a hassle. So if most of the other teachers at the school are using Macs, get a Mac. If they are mostly using PCs, get a PC. As a new student teacher, you are going to have way too much else to worry about than whether or not your computer to talk to others at school when you need it to.
posted by robhuddles at 8:59 PM on August 22, 2005

I bought an HP Compaq TC1100 Tablet PC about 5 months ago and absolutely love it. It was 2nd hand via eBay because it had been upgraded to a 1GB of RAM and 80GB hard drive. The Pentium M CPUs are ultra fast and I find my tablet quicker to use than my 4yr old 2Ghz desktop. It has an attached keyboard which I can flip out if I need to type anything, but generally the pen/handwriting recognition is quite sufficient. The only thing it doesn't have compared to a full laptop is a CD drive, but I just use my desktop via the wireless network if I need access to any optical media.

Macs are great, but they don't make tablets yet and that's a deal breaker for me after using this one. The ease of use of tablet PCs is awesome... I've had totally non-techy friends pick mine up and play with it for ages.
posted by bruceyeah at 9:09 PM on August 22, 2005

Price: no question, a Windows-based laptop will be much cheaper than an Apple

As I have argued in other threads recently, Macs may not really cost more in total cost of ownership. This is demonstrably true for my own lab, which is mixed platform, but the reasons are somewhat specific to our kind of work. I still think that for non-computer-geek users, they cost less on an individual basis as well. As the saying goes, it all depends how much you value your time and what the user experience is like for you on each platform. Since you already know a Windows environment, switching will have some cost. If your life revolves around creative (albeit, not animation or CAD) as well as text/inernet work, and you're like most users I know who have made the switch, you'll be happy on a Mac. But it's totally personal. I think it's worth the experiment for one computer out of one's life, anyway.

Many school districts use iBooks, but Apple is less dominant in the education market than it was. It's still much more prominent there than in the business world, however. And having both PC *and* Mac skills might be a useful qualification in your career.

The iBook is a tremendous value. It isn't the most kickass latpop you can get, but at its price point (and you can probably get an education discount through your grad school or employing district, along with discounts on software, like the MS Office teacher/student pack that gives you three installs for $100) it is a lot of machine for $1000. People who know will endlessly debate service issues, but no one (including PCWorld and Consumer Reports) doubts that the customer service from Apple is industry-leading, compared to all but IBM. I have nothing but raves about Apple service and I've used them for 14 years, including managing several Mac-based labs with multiple workstations.

But my main point is that in primary/secondary education, skill using both platforms would be an asset, and thus a very good economic justification to use a Mac for a while, since you already know your way around a PC.
posted by realcountrymusic at 9:14 PM on August 22, 2005

robhuddles says: "While there are certainly ways to get Macs to talk to PCs and vice-versa, it's still a bit of a hassle. "

Really? I share files between my Mac and my PC all the time. It's far less of an issue than it was 2 or 3 years ago.

And, as far as the price, again, the Mac may cost more, but if it's going to last longer, it may still be less expensive in the end.

Note also that Windows laptops get more expensive the smaller they are, while Mac laptops are the opposite: the smaller laptops are the less expensive ones. On the other hand, you have fewer configuration choices with the Macs, but the Macs work (the only think I've even thought of adding to my Powerbook was more RAM, bumping from 512MB to 1GB because of some large files I work with). Windows laptops often suffer the nickel-and-dime affliction: the base configuration's out-of-the-box experience sucks, and only improves if you add half the cost of the base unit in options (that's how my Dell D600 was). The out-of-the-box experience of a base iBook is fantastic, especially now that they're shipping with 512MB standard.

Also, remember the Apple education discount.
posted by socratic at 9:15 PM on August 22, 2005

robhuddles Looks: no question, an Apple will look a heck of a lot cooler than anything for Windows.

Sorry, but... ok, I guess it's personal, but there are *awesome* looking laptops from Sony (! especially the sub/ultra compacts) or Toshiba, and the IBM "Darth Vader" look never gets old. (Although I'll agree with getting the most powerful affordable - although three years ago I was poor and needed a laptop; I got an older P3 1.2ghz subcompact that's still doing me just fine (It's a Dell [ugh] C400 that you can pick up for 2 - 4 hundred bucks off of ebay these days), although I *do* have a reasonable desktop too.

I'll second/third/fourth the - get what the school district supports in terms of OS.

This is going to be less helpful, but when you do get down to a few candidates, think about the weight. If you commute by car, no problems, but if you bike/walk every bit of weight that you can cut down on is good weight lost. I love the tablets, but from the people I know who owns one... <shrug> - it's not actually that practical unless you have a program that is built for tablet use that you *have* to use. You're talking elementary school anyway - unless you're in some gee-wiz $$$ computer savy school, I suspect that coloured pens & paper will do you a lot better than a fly laptop.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 9:18 PM on August 22, 2005

One more one more thing (sorry, but I remember the conundrum you're in): the Pentium-M that you get in Centrino notebooks and tablets is a fantastic chip. A 1.4GHz Pentium-M is fast as hell. If you go the PC laptop route, do not, under any circumstances, get a laptop with a "Pentium 4" (or even a Celeron) because it will fry your pants and have about 20 minutes of battery life. I exaggerate, but the Pentium-M is a wonderful chip. Don't be enticed by clock speed: a 3.6GHz Pentium 4 laptop isn't going to be much faster than a 1.8GHz Pentium-M, and it's going to be a far, far superior user experience.

(Obviously, Mac laptops don't have this issue yet, as they're still using the G4 chips.)
posted by socratic at 9:19 PM on August 22, 2005

robhuddles already answered quite correctly, but I just thought I'd chime in and affirm that, on the criteria of price/performance its not even close. You will buy a lot more computing power for the same price going PC versus Mac.

As others have said, though, the main criteria is really the human one. Since you already use a PC, interoperability and your experience make PC a good choice. Equally, and perhaps more important is your work environment, now and in the future. Also, most people need a "guru" to help them out when things go awry. Is yours a Mac or PC person?

If its a tie, go PC for price/performance and because, with computing there are many advantages to staying in the middle of the herd.
posted by Manjusri at 10:08 PM on August 22, 2005

its not even close. You will buy a lot more computing power for the same price going PC versus Mac.

I just so think this is a canard, meaning no disrespect. Maybe you buy a lot of machines, and that's your experience. But I buy 4 or 5 a year for my lab, one for myself, and advise a lot of students and colleagues on purchases, and I have hard numbers that show Macs cost me significantly less to own than Dell and Sony PCs (with whom my university has deals, so I'm limited to those brands).

If you mean "the sticker price on the box," it's trivially true that PCs save you 20-40 percent at the low end for supposedly "comparable" specs (but try getting 512MB, 60GB, firewire, drop protection, wireless, a huge software suite, and a CD-RW for a whole lot less than a grand on a PC). But all of these are commodity prices. We're not comparing $4000 vs. $3000 workstations. We're talking about a $700 Dell vs. a $1000 iBook, and that gives you neither a "lot more computing power" for the money, nor in the end does $300 compensate you for the difference in user experience, service (Dell is the worst in my experience, Apple the best), or longevity.

I'm not saying you get a lot more "raw power" for a grand with one or the other, just that the price and "power" differences are trivial for the average user, amortized over the life of the computer and applied to the real world computing needs of most users. A 1.4 GHz iBook with 512MB, 60GB, and wireless for $990 bucks at education discount is a terrific value. You get Apple's service and the nicest UI around, unix under the hood, really transparent cross-platform functionality with both file formats and netorks, some of the nicest bundled software (iLife) going, access to a world of open source apps that grows every day (another ancient canard,"no software for the Mac," which is laughable in all but a few highly specialized power-user functions, where the Mac also has some clear advantages as well). Get the computer that you like the best, that does the things you want to do with the most useful and manageable interface, and that people around you are using. There's nothing (that) wrong with XP on x86 (other than the security hassle, which is a very real cost consideration for people like me who have to administer a number of workstations and value our time). But a lot of people prefer Macs for reasons that might match up with your way of using a computer, and you do not get ripped off giving a Mac a shot. Among other things, if you hate it, Macs hold resale value better than almost any PC brand. Sell it in a year and buy a Dell with the proceeds.

Or get a PC and save a couple of hundred bucks. In the end, they're just computers. It's the wetware that matters. And the wetware's time that costs real money.
posted by realcountrymusic at 11:00 PM on August 22, 2005

Don't get a Dell. Or Twinhead. Especially don't get a Twinhead.

Toshiba's A3 family are a much better deal.

If you're willing to go "off brand", try Asus or Benq.

Whatever laptop you get, expect the battery to be dead in three years, so don't get too attached to it.

Regarding the Windows v Apple debate, get whatever your friends have. Then you can help each other, share tips or share files much more easily.
posted by krisjohn at 12:21 AM on August 23, 2005

Get a bottom of the line new iBook with a gig of ram, just for the no-hassles, everything works properly, lightweight and rugged, lots of good quality included software and the damn thing doesn't depreciate nearly so fast, or performance starts degrading due to flaws in the OS whole experience.

If on the other hand you go PC, don't go anywhere near Dell. They used to make nice laptops, but (at the bottom of the range anyway), they suck these days.
posted by singingfish at 3:17 AM on August 23, 2005

the iBooks are built like tanks.

I have an 12-inch 800 mhz ibook g4 with tiger and 384mb of ram. It is too slow to run many intensive apps at a comfortable speed. Granted, I need more memory. Also, it feels cheap, the case creaks, and (this is common) one of the feet has fallen off, causing it to wobble. The lettering is wearing off of the keyboard after two years.

Those are my only complaints. Otherwise, it is a joy to use, the battery life is great, the size makes it very luggable, so it's always with me, and if you download the free Abiword you can import wordperfect files, the only compatibility problem I've had that mattered.

Check out the ibook rumor pages, but there is supposed to be a machine with a huge l2 cache released in the next month. That means you could run virtual pc if you wanted at bearable speeds, although honestly you'll probably quit using it after a month.

That said, the only windows-based laptop that could entice me would be some sort of ultra-portable Sony Vaio with built-in goodies from Dynamism for about $3000, or the equivalent thinkpad. i.e. a tiny, tiny gaming laptop.
posted by craniac at 4:40 AM on August 23, 2005

If I were buying it for you, it would be the Mac.

More and more sysadmins have learned. If we buy our relatives macs, we spend much less time repairing those computers than if we buy them Windows machines.

(Really, when Mom calls with a computer problem, both flippant and short answers don't work. "RTFM, Mom" is a really bad idea.)

So, from a maintenance standpoint -- and I feed Windows machines and BSD boxen at work, and BSD/Apple Boxen at home -- Macs are much easier to keep running smoothly than Wintel.

As I often quip. I don't run operating systems. I run applications. The more the operating system stands out, the worse it is.

I know guys who are proud of all the things they've done to Windows to make it run better for them. Me? In that time, I've put up the website, written email, and played a few hours of Nethack.
posted by eriko at 5:29 AM on August 23, 2005

If you can afford it, and if there's nothing you desperately need, or are locked into, in Windows world, go for a Mac.

If your school is Windows only, or something, note that a Mac does Windows networking better than Windows, HOWEVER, the tech people probably won't be able to help you do some things - you'll have to figure out what you need to do yourself. Google almost never fails for simple stuff, but you know what I mean.
posted by 31d1 at 6:25 AM on August 23, 2005

I have an 12-inch 800 mhz ibook g4 with tiger and 384mb of ram

A 2+ year old PC laptop sold at the same pricepoint would be similarly underpowered. (However, if you up that RAM to 768, you'll see a marked improvement).

I haven't really noticed problems with hinges on iBooks, at least not worse than similar entry-level PC notebooks. Hinges are a problem on so many laptops. I agree that the rubber feet falling off is a problem that Apple really should have solved years ago. Grrr. iBook keyboards are also a little wonky feeling, and sometimes the KB bows out a little on the edges over time. On the other hand, I carry an iBook as a sidearm exactly because the thing is so durable. Over three years and as many iBooks (lucky me, I get a new laptop every year from the job, and could buy *anything,* which may say something about how much I like iBooks or how dumb I am, but I need absurd durability and reasonable portability, not power, in a laptop) I have dropped them countless times, used them in the rain outdoors, and subjected them to numerous other indignities. I've had no major problems (except a bad CPU on one, that had nothing to do with handling, and which Apple fixed, overnight, one month *out of warranty* -- take that, PC makers). All my old iBooks still run and have retired to honorable reserve duty.
posted by realcountrymusic at 6:57 AM on August 23, 2005

Amberglow hit the nail on the head!

Get whatever the school system has. No other features beat compatibility as a factor!
posted by Pollomacho at 9:29 AM on August 23, 2005

Get whatever the school system has. No other features beat compatibility as a factor!

Sure it does. Getting a durable, easy to use, great battery life, great looking laptop is much more important than being able to easily look at a word file. And most compatibility issues are solved easily.

Go with the iBook. You'll be happy.
posted by justgary at 10:01 AM on August 23, 2005

Hm. I realize nothing is as exciting as shopping for a new computer, but unless your school system will pay for a laptop, I'd wait to get one until they do. You have a great desktop you like at home - do you really need a laptop? I'm just thinking of my friend, who's been an elementary school teacher for more than 20 years. She now refuses to buy scads of supplies and other things for her classroom with her personal funds, in part because she thinks it misrepresents how far the school's budget dollars go in addition to draining her salary, which is small enough already. If you're planning on using it to make your students' educational experience richer through interactive presentations, etc., I humbly suggest your employer should pay for it.

One caveat: If you have no credit card debt and no school loans, then finance away and buy that computer tomorrow. Otherwise, if I were in your situation, I'd buy a Palm Pilot to carry notes and lesson plans back and forth, and pay yourself first by paying off your debt.

I have officially turned into my dad.
posted by deliriouscool at 11:45 AM on August 23, 2005

This is an AskMe favourite question. Both the above threads came out heavily in support of iBooks fwiw.
posted by Popular Ethics at 12:07 PM on August 23, 2005

If you go the PC laptop route, do not, under any circumstances, get a laptop with a "Pentium 4" (or even a Celeron) because it will fry your pants and have about 20 minutes of battery life. I exaggerate, but the Pentium-M is a wonderful chip. Don't be enticed by clock speed: a 3.6GHz Pentium 4 laptop isn't going to be much faster than a 1.8GHz Pentium-M, and it's going to be a far, far superior user experience.

Seconded. We made this mistake with our first laptop. Laptops are used very differently than desktops. Do not use the same criteria to judge both, or you will be dissapointed.
posted by Popular Ethics at 12:13 PM on August 23, 2005

able to easily look at a word file

And of course, MS Office files (like virtually everything else) work on a Mac just fine. I haven't thought about file format compatibility issues between PC and Mac in quite a few years.
posted by realcountrymusic at 12:38 PM on August 23, 2005

Most of the differences (price, performance, weight, style) are pretty much a coin flip depending on what model you pick, and how you define the tests.

The only real question is whether or not you have any OS-specific applications that you need to run. The tasks you described are all OS-agnostic, which leaves all options open.

I'd suggest either the 14" iBook (it has a DVD burner in it, and you mentioned iMovie) or if you want a higher-res screen a 15" PowerBook.

A PC laptop like a Toshiba Tecra or a ThinkPad T series can also meet your needs, but I personally prefer Mac to Windows because I spend less time dealing with my computer, and more time using it.
posted by mosch at 3:02 PM on August 23, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great answers so far. Just today I was using a friend's iBook and what struck me after I got over the beauty of it was that the clicker below the touch pad only has one frickin button. I am two-button kind of person and honestly that might be a breaking point.

Okay, so I've heard some strong opinions in favor of $950 on an iBook (what it will likely cost) over $700 on a Dell, but what if the Dell costs $500, as it does online today? That money isn't trivial to me, so I either need to convince myself that a Dell will meet my needs or that an iBook would be SOOOO much better that it would be worth it. So, what do you all think?

/And yes, I do need a laptop for teaching, primarily because in my program we take so many notes and write so much reflective journaling about our work, along with a host of other computer-oriented stuff. "Wait for your employer to pay for it," is bad advice b/c they are never going to pay for it. I'm going to work for the Chicago Public Schools and there ain't any money in it but that's not why I'm doing it - I am willing to spend a bit to be the best teacher I can be./ Off Topic in my own thread.
posted by mai at 3:05 PM on August 23, 2005

I'm not entirely convinced that a computer is a better way to take notes but <shrug>.

Schoolteachers aren't showered with the money that they most definitely should be showered with so I understand the price difference.

FWIW, I hate the idea of Dell but my little Latitude is actually a decent machine. SMALL, lightweight, and good looki reasonably attractice but most importantly, I haven't had a thing go wrong with it for the past 3 years (and it was a second-hand computer at that).

If you just want a lightweight (as in processing power) laptop, going with Apple imvho is just for the eye-candy. WinXP isn't that horrible of a system as a lot of people make it out to be, it's just that you have to spend a little bit more effort to educate yourself.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 4:24 PM on August 23, 2005

I am two-button kind of person and honestly that might be a breaking point.

I like the big button personally. I use it with either thumb, depending on how I'm sitting. And I use a third party trackpad driver which lets me define a right click as button click while one finger is on the trackpad.

I won't evangelize, but I do suggest you find someone with one of those Dells you mention and use it for a bit before you make your choice. Physical characteristics (like weight, heat, screen brightness, battery life) are SOOO much more important than a desktop user might think.
posted by Popular Ethics at 5:13 PM on August 23, 2005

lots of people get mini-mice for use with their laptops so that's not a dealbreaker.
posted by amberglow at 5:37 PM on August 23, 2005

Returning very late to this thread, I just looked at what you get for $500 from Dell. It's a joke. 256/30GB, no wireless, slower processor than an iBook in actual GHz, a 90 day warranty (you have to *pay* for more), and no backup discs. Who would bother with an Inspiron 1200? By the time you get it tricked up to the same specs, it costs as much as an iBook.
posted by realcountrymusic at 4:47 PM on August 29, 2005

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