Which laptop to buy for a college freshman?
May 16, 2013 10:08 AM   Subscribe

My brother is starting college in a few weeks and needs a new laptop. His only requirement is that it run Windows 8. My requirements are that it is under $800 and can withstand manhandling by an 18-year-old. I'm leaning towards a Dell because of their perceived good reputation - is this accurate? Any recommendations for Dell models or other brands? Bonus: he will click every suspicious link, download any fool thing, and therefore infects computers with viruses instantly. What can I do to prevent this? His favorite line is "Norton anti-virus IS a virus!"
posted by tatiana wishbone to Technology (34 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly, based on my experience with the laptop provided by my employer, bottom of the line Dells are not very sturdy--I'm talking thin, bendy plastic and failing USB ports--and they probably would not actually stand up to careless handling. Lenovos generally are better made, even at the low end.

As far as his virus protection issues, he is not wrong about Norton basically being a virus. Lucky for him and you, Microsoft Security Essentials, now built in to the operating system, will actually protect his computer well if he keeps it updated.
posted by hydropsyche at 10:18 AM on May 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

I agree with staying away from Dells, but don't have any specific advice as to brands other than that.

As far as dealing with the virus issue, aside from using and keeping MSE up to date, is backups (especially automatic online backups, though which one of these to choose is a separate conversation) and making sure he has/makes install disks for the OS (and knows how to install any other program he uses regularly), so that if/when the computer does get Virus-y, it is not a big deal to just wipe and start over.
posted by brainmouse at 10:23 AM on May 16, 2013

Acer laptops have always seemed like an excellent buy to me. I abuse laptops via constant travel and my various Acer models have always held up. Once I actually drove my car over my briefcase and the laptop worked well enough for me, despite a cracked screen, to get everything off of it with no hassle.

And nthing the advice to stay away from Dell.
posted by carmicha at 10:29 AM on May 16, 2013

just a small point: Microsoft Security Essentials isn't really included in Win8. Microsoft has rolled some of MSE's functionality into Windows Defender (which is included), but Windows Defender really sucks. Install the free version of Avast for effective and cheap protection.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:39 AM on May 16, 2013

Also, MSE will not function at all in Win8.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:40 AM on May 16, 2013

I'd be surprised if any non-toughbook could stand up to the abuse a Stereotypical Teenage Boy would deliver for more than a couple years.

Me, I'd go for a distinctly budget laptop. You can get almost decent ones in the $350-450 range that will be Good Enough for web browsing, email, paper writing. They will probably completely suck for gaming, which might not be a bad thing from your perspective.

Resign yourself to the fact that he's going to break it in a year or two.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:44 AM on May 16, 2013

Dell has a poor quality product that they don't stand behind. Find an alternative that will give you less of a headache.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 10:47 AM on May 16, 2013

Best answer: I work in IT at a major institution and I see hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of laptops every year.

You will get more for your money with a Dell, but more for your money is a relative term, because, yeah, it might have more memory or a faster processor or whatever the fuck, but the build quality is not great.

I really like Lenovo's ThinkPad stuff. Their IdeaPad machines seem like regular run of the mill consumer crap, but their ThinkPad machines are meant for the corporate environment and actually seem to be pretty durable and built to last. It's a bit pricier, but I feel like it's really a step up in quality.

Regardless of what you get, if it's a laptop, get a warranty. By default, most of these things will come with a 1 year warranty. Bump it to 3 years. If it's a desktop, this is negotiable because desktop PCs are largely user serviceable... but.. . for a laptop, yeah, I've never met a faculty or staff member who regretted getting the 3 year warranty. This will bite into your bottom line a little bit, but it's worth it.
posted by kbanas at 10:47 AM on May 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

And, really, if you have the patience and you have the warranty, a Dell is not a terrible buy. You can get some great bargains, especially if you scope out sites like dealnews.com.

Things might break, but they are pretty good about sending out technicians right away to service the machines and replace failed components, etc, etc... and for the money, you really can get a pretty good value.

The build quality is absolutely suspect, but if you know that going in and you take precautions, it's certainly manageable.
posted by kbanas at 10:50 AM on May 16, 2013

Please do not buy a Dell product. Shoddy workmanship and terrible customer service.

I agree with kbanas's suggestion - the Lenovo ThinkPad is very durable and good bang for your buck. It is, however, extremely ugly, and the touchpad mouse leaves a bit to be desired.

One of my friends has the Acer TravelMate, runs Windows 8, and absolutely loves it.
posted by sevensnowflakes at 10:51 AM on May 16, 2013

Install the free version of Avast for effective and cheap protection.

And change the localization language from "English" to "Pirate". This should immediately raise the perceived worthiness of the software in the eyes of any 18-year-old tech-savvy enough to recognize that Norton Anti-Virus is in fact a virus.
posted by radwolf76 at 11:06 AM on May 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Thirding ThinkPads; I still have one going strong after 2 years of daily to-and-from-school travel and another four years of knocking about the house. Sure, they're not real sexy, but they have a solid frame which goes a long way towards keeping the inner bits from getting all jacked up (that's an IT term).
posted by craven_morhead at 11:06 AM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I apologize--I didn't know MSE wasn't included in Windows 8. It's the best thing about Windows 7, but it sounds like your brother is pretty set on Windows 8.
posted by hydropsyche at 11:10 AM on May 16, 2013

If you lean towards "cheaper" than "tougher," check through weekly ads for sales. You can usually save $100 to $200 off of some laptops. My suggestion is to check online for the next week's ads, read reviews of the laptops to make sure they aren't absolute junk, and then go shopping early on the first day the sale starts. I saved around $200 on a nice big Toshiba that my wife has used for a few years. Our almost 2-year-old son has mashed the keys and killed some of the springs, so one of the Shift keys doesn't work, but otherwise it's withstood his mania. As a bonus, if you buy from a Big Box store, you (or your brother) can get the laptop serviced easily, at least as long as it's under warranty.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:12 AM on May 16, 2013

I apologize--I didn't know MSE wasn't included in Windows 8. It's the best thing about Windows 7, but it sounds like your brother is pretty set on Windows 8.

I'm pretty sure Microsoft Security Essentials (for Windows 7) and Microsoft Forefront Security (for Windows 7) and Windows Defender (for Windows 8) all use the same AV engine on the backend. I know for a fact that MSE and MFS use the same engine - it's just that Forefront has some more advanced hooks for domain management and yadda, yadda, yadda.

I really don't worry about this under Windows 8. The built-in Defender software seems to do the same kind of job that MSE does..... which is about the same as this rock in my pocket that keeps tigers away.
posted by kbanas at 11:15 AM on May 16, 2013

T-series Thinkpad; they're business machines, built to take some serious knocks. (Beware the consumer-grade Thinkpad Edge machines which aren't built to the same standard.) Check the Lenovo outlet for good deals. This new T530 is going for $706.40. That's what I'd go for on the criteria you've specified.
posted by pont at 11:17 AM on May 16, 2013

Also, not to be a total buzzkill, but you really should read this.

Intel's Haswell chips are shipping in like two weeks. You're right on the cusp of it being a good time to buy a new laptop, but right now is a bad time to buy a new laptop. If you can wait a month, you'll get a much cheaper Ivy Bridge or a much faster Haswell.
posted by kbanas at 11:18 AM on May 16, 2013

Best answer: As a new W8 laptop owner, I only have one suggestion: spring for a touchscreen if it's within budget. Due to spec requirements I couldn't get one, and every time I look at the start screen I just feel sad about it. The mouse is a second-class citizen on W8, and touchpads are a poor substitute.
posted by rouftop at 11:23 AM on May 16, 2013

if you're gentle with Dell's, I guess they could be a good buy. But they are built so crappily, noticeably worse than other brands, I feel. I've had decent experience with Acer, but would join the chorus of ThinkPad recommendations. I have an Edge Series, and it is thoroughly boring, but highly functional and decently rugged for the low price-point.
posted by skewed at 11:28 AM on May 16, 2013

FWIW, I don't really think the model or brand has as much to do with viruses as the OS that is running on the computer. I don't use anti virus software because I think it slows the computer down (I really don't have a source for this other than my own suspicion).

But when viruses are made they are usually made to target the OS that will have the most impact on the most people; i.e. Windows. If you wanted to go through a little more work to get extra protection in that area, I would recommend Linux. Ubuntu is highly user-friendly and the installation process is basically painless.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 11:33 AM on May 16, 2013

My workplace has an unofficial policy of never buying consumer line laptops. Ever. Business line laptops from HP, Lenovo and even Dell have been reliable. With a 3+ year replacement cycle for laptops, they have to last and withstand the abuses that come from people who take for granted that "someone else" paid for it.

If you do settle for a laptop that fits in your limited budget, I would suggest purchasing one from Costco and buying the 2+ year warranty Costco offers because it will replace/repair broken hinges, hardware failure, cracked screens, water damage, etc. While the laptop selections are limited and certainly not top of the line, it will be adequate for most academic and personal work. This is assuming he isn't running graphics or processor intensive software. A good number of models they sell have the touch screen for Windows 8. Bonus!
posted by loquat at 12:05 PM on May 16, 2013

Seconding getting a business grade laptop if you're concerned about reliability. If you're getting Windows 8, you must, MUST get a touch screen. It's a major PITA without one.
posted by cnc at 12:16 PM on May 16, 2013

Resign yourself to the fact that he's going to break it in a year or two.

I can confirm. Source: Daughter in college who cracked three laptop screens in three years. (and one iphone screen).

Buy with your Amex for the included accidental damage insurance, buy a sturdy padded backpack, and cross your fingers.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 12:41 PM on May 16, 2013

I used a Dell desk model for 8 uneventful years. The only problem was the MS software until I got XP and Office 2002. I have not used a Dell laptop; our lenovo laptop is ok I guess. I just do not have much use for a laptop's small screen.
I now have Windows7 and Office 2010. I subscribe to the suspicion that Microsoft makes a decent system every other time. Thus I will not 'upgrade' to W8, and will wait for W9 or whatever comes after 8.
posted by Cranberry at 12:53 PM on May 16, 2013

I bought an $800 HP when I started school about 5 years ago. It lasted the whole time, except for the battery, and I'm not too delicate with my electronics. I sold it to a schoolmate and it's still going mostly strong. Buy whatever can fit some kind of accidental coverage in your price range and you'll be fine.
posted by thylacine at 12:55 PM on May 16, 2013

I've been very happy with my Thinkpads. They've hardly given me any trouble, whereas with Dells I'd kill one every two years or so.

Also, make sure you install Prey just in case his carelessness causes the laptop to be stolen.
posted by Soliloquy at 1:06 PM on May 16, 2013

Intel's Haswell chips are shipping in like two weeks. You're right on the cusp of it being a good time to buy a new laptop, but right now is a bad time to buy a new laptop. If you can wait a month, you'll get a much cheaper Ivy Bridge or a much faster Haswell.

Or, alternatively, all the old models will be on fire sale.

Nthing t series lenovo thinkpad by the way. I'm gonna go against the grain and say dell latitudes(their business line) are fine too. But do not buy HP, and do not buy a "thinkpad edge".

Acer is also garbage. Get a thinkpad or latitude.

I used a dell latitude through high school AND college. It fell down the stairs twice, got stuff spilled it in, got dropped, got crushed so bad it ruined the hard drive. Besides a new hard drive(cheap) and a battery, I don't think anything else ever broke until I gutted it for parts. Oh, the power switch broke, but that was my fault. And it in no way stopped it from working. I know of several local companies that give out latitudes to traveling business guys who throw them around like rental cars. They're close to being on par with thinkpads.

That said, the no brainier solution here is a thinkpad. T series.
posted by emptythought at 1:42 PM on May 16, 2013

Another vote for Lenovo Thinkpads. My first one lasted me 5.5 years (from my junior year of high school to the middle of my senior year of college) and now I'm about a year into my 2nd Thinkpad. Definitely opt for the warranty, it is very much worth it. Also, I bought mine online directly through them and used my student e-mail address to save a couple hundred dollars on the total purchase. It was more than $800, but that was with a 4 year warranty, the best battery, a 3 year battery warranty, and several computer upgrades.
posted by lucy.jakobs at 2:04 PM on May 16, 2013

I would recommend whatever laptop he get, remove all the bloatware. It will come packaged with a lot of stupid software he doesn't need, including Norton's -- get rid of it. If you could reinstall Windows on it for a clean installation and then use Avast as an anti-virus, I would really commend that. Avast is free and warns me whenever I have clicked or downloaded something dumb. I strongly discourage you from Windows 8 -- I don't know why he wants it, but Windows really fucked up with they came up with the bird-brained idea to make computers behave like tablets and smartphones. I'd really recommend Windows 7.

I find Asus computers to be pretty good and have actually found the Lenovos I've been issued for my jobs to be pieces of crap. They seemed to get worn down easily, but maybe all of my office computers had crappy specs. I really can't remember. My Asus and Dell computers have lasted a long time and performed well. I have had pretty good experience with Acer too.

As far as specs, you'll want to focus on RAM (6GB or 8GB is good) and processor speed. The more cores, the better the processor is at not getting bogged down, but different models have different speeds. If you're really serious about a processor (CPU) cost-benefit analysis, you can use a site like cpubenchmark.net to give you an idea of how they perform. Solid state hard drives are faster (there isn't that little lag when you click on something for it to open), but they also cost more, so less bang for your buck. Solid state hard drives can get knocked around more that a traditional hard disk drive, but I've never have a problem with damaging my hard drive. Last thing to consider is graphics card if he wants to play games -- more RAM etc. (that website I gave you has graphics card benchmarks as well). And if he thinks he will update it or tweak it when the hardware starts to get old, you may want a computer that is easy to open up and swap parts. Some laptops are easier than others to open and upgrade.

That's probably too much of an answer. I'd get him a Dell or Asus with good RAM and a good processor and call it a day. Maybe spring for the backlit keyboard -- it's a nice feature.
posted by AppleTurnover at 2:18 PM on May 16, 2013

When my children went to college a few years ago, both schools indicated to incoming fresh people their computer and (very specific) software requirements and partnered with providers to offer good deals. So, you might want to check with the school. For what it is worth, my daughter got a Lenovo, used the hell out of it, and it lasted three years. My son got a Dell, used the hell out of it, and it lasted all four years.
posted by pasici at 3:30 PM on May 16, 2013

I'm another Thinkpad fan. I'm on my third one (over an 11 year span), and I might still be using the second if it hadn't been stolen.

I bought my last two from the outlet, which allowed me to get something a little better for the money I was willing to spend. It takes some luck and watching the site, but you can get pretty good deals.
posted by ktkt at 4:42 PM on May 16, 2013

check out newegg's refurbished laptops and then also buy a copy of windows 8 from the university. many universities sell operating systems at a discounted price to students.
posted by cupcake1337 at 5:23 PM on May 16, 2013

On the one hand, we've had a cheap Dell laptop for four years of near-constant use and it's still going strong.

On the other hand, I've had to get the motherboard replaced (on warranty) because it stopped charging, one of the keys has fallen off, water got into the screen (still works fine) and the fan clogged up with lint and borked the hard drive to death from overheating (<>
They're tinny, but they aren't terrible pieces of kit.
posted by Sebmojo at 8:03 PM on May 16, 2013

I am a BIG fan of ASUS laptops. In the old days of desktop computing, they made the best motherboards, and they make excellent laptops. Check out Tigerdirect.
posted by mbarryf at 5:27 AM on May 17, 2013

« Older Third party Plesk/Parallels Server Administration   |   Did My Education Creditor Forget I Owe Money? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.