Recommend a laptop for a grad student who knows nothing
August 2, 2013 8:28 AM   Subscribe

I finished my first year of grad school, passed my comps (so they're not getting rid of me!), and spent the summer using a computer lab to work on campus. I'm sick of it and want to buy a laptop but haven't bought one in awhile and I'm not sure what to get or the best way to go about it, so I thought I'd beg y'all for advice. Details inside.

I've been getting by on my home desktop and the graduate computer lounge in my department but since I'm going to be doing a lot of empirical work (and paper writing) in the next year, I'd like to be able to do it some place (1) that isn't my apartment and (2) where I can see sunlight.

I haven't bought a laptop since I started undergrad and I didn't really know what I was doing then, so I thought I'd ask you where to start.

So here's what I've thought of in terms of my requirements, fully knowing I may not be asking the right questions:

What I do and don't need it to do:
- Mostly this is going to be for writing and running Matlab and Stata code, screwing around in Excel, and writing/reading papers. If something is very computationally intense I'd probably do it on another machine or on my department's cluster.
- So far I've been getting by on using my desktop, which and was pretty close to top of the line when I built it three years ago. It runs everything I need it to quickly, so this laptop wouldn't be a complete replacement for that machine. As such I don't need a massive hard drive to store all of my music or whatever.
- Ideally, this will last me until I'm on the job market in four years or so (fingers crossed). Also my previous laptop started falling apart physically at the three year mark and was completely dead shortly after four so I'm a little nervous about that also. (This may be a sign that I'm a little hard on laptops so something a bit rugged would be good). I realize four years may be optimistic about the lifetime of a laptop in regular use.

- I have gigantic hands. I'm worried that smaller machines (i.e. the smaller macbook airs) will be uncomfortable to type on for extended periods of time.
- I walk around a lot and would be carrying the laptop with me, presumably, but am not super worried about weight - I don't need the lightest machine ever.

OS and other stuff:
- I really like Windows 7, or at least am very comfortable with it/am used to it. I am not fond of Windows 8 from what little I've seen. I have gathered there are ways (or soon will be ways) to make Windows 8 act more or less exactly like Windows 7, so maybe it doesn't matter.
- My department is pretty Mac-heavy (I've been using an iMac all summer). I am not crazy about using 'em, to be honest, but that might be lack of familiarity with the OS and the fact that it's a shared computer I don't have admin rights to and thus can't install my preferred browser, etc. There's an Apple store on my campus and I can get the educational discount. Other grad students and the faculty seem to be split about 50-50 between MacOS/Windows so it's not clear I absolutely should be using a particular OS to get by around here. Unless there's a clear reason to buy a MacBook, I'd probably prefer a Windows machine so that it's easy to switch between my desktop and the laptop if necessary.

Teach me how to retail
- I'm a grad student and am thus trying to save money if possible. I realize there's a tradeoff between 'saving money' and 'buying a machine that isn't a piece of crap' but I don't know what price point I should be looking at for machines that won't fall apart on me.
- Also I don't know whether I should be buying from Newegg, ordering from the manufacturer, or whatever. Massachusetts is having a sales tax holiday in a week, if that makes any difference.
- Should I buy a warranty? (My impression is if I go with a mac to buy AppleCare and no otherwise, but I could be wrong).

Also, is there anything else I should be thinking about? What am I missing?
posted by dismas to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
People will jump all over me for suggesting used electronics, but I have had excellent luck with craigslist.

You can get a decent used laptop for $200 or a great used laptop for $500 (macs excluded). Make sure you backup (I just use dropbox, and you should be backing up even if you get a brand new computer) and you'll be good to go. Thinkpads are ugly and slightly heavy, but they are incredible workhorses. My current laptop is a sony vaio that's 2.5 years old, it's also a great machine.

Just make sure the power connector is secure and not wiggly where it meets the laptop, that has been the death of the last several laptops in my household.
posted by zug at 8:46 AM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know Windows machines, so I can't make a recommendation on Mac vs. Windows, but I can say a few things about Mac notebooks. In my experience, the current MacBook line is fairly well made and tough. If you do get a new Mac, I do recommend AppleCare, though, for the 3-year warranty. The video on my old MacBook Air failed about 2-1/2 years after I got it, and Apple ended up replacing the machine with a recent refurbished model with twice the SSD storage and a much faster processor.

The keyboard on the MacBook Air is full-sized, even the 11" model. On the other hand, the 11" screen is a little small for reading article PDFs. The 13" is a good compromise between portability and screen size. The Retina Display model is steep for a grad student, but the high resolution does make PDFs somewhat easier on the eyes (maybe more of an issue when you're in your 40s, like me). The non-Retina model is a little heavier (but has an optical drive) but not too heavy, and it's much less expensive.

If your university has an Apple store in its bookstore, you can probably benefit from both the MA tax holiday and the small discount Apple gives to higher ed customers (last I checked, it was $50 off the retail price on laptops).
posted by brianogilvie at 8:54 AM on August 2, 2013

You really can't go wrong with a MacBook Air. It's an unbelievable combination of quality, performance, and size/weight. I honestly think that if you can swing the price, it's worth it for pretty much any application. AppleCare is probably worth it for a daily-commuter type of computer -- if you're like me and your laptop is docked 90% of the time, I wouldn't buy it.

That said, zug is right too. You can get a $300 Sony/Vaio/Dell/whatever laptop and not think too hard about it until it breaks or gets too slow in a few years.
posted by wrok at 8:56 AM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have you checked with whether your university has an educational discount for Windows laptops? Most universities do, usually for laptops from Dell, HP, or Lenovo. They'll also have arranged for discounted warranty. I really recommend getting the warranty in the case of laptops.

If your home computer is running windows, I would recommend getting a Windows laptop just to keep your computing environment consistent, including not having to have two versions of the same software (and I'm saying this as a Mac user with a full range of Apple products who nevertheless alternates between Windows and Macs during the course of the workday).

Instead of looking for a laptop that will last for four or more years, I would get a new laptop around the time you go on the job market, just so you won't have to worry about the machine dying on you in the midst of a job talk. By then, what you want from a laptop might have changed, too. For example, a lighter machine may be more important once you start having to lug it through airports on your way to and from campus visits.
posted by needled at 9:22 AM on August 2, 2013

The macbook air 11" and 13" have fullsize keyboards. Getting a bigger laptop won't make it easier to type on.

I grew up on windows, but I want to buy a haswell macbook pro when they come out. The model I want will set me back just under 3k, but I got over the price, and I know I'll be happy with the purchase.

If you want the best of both worlds, I would buy a mac if you can afford it, and set up boot camp. (Thats my plan on my future mac) Its not that difficult honestly. One of your friends probably has done it and would be more than happy to help.

If money is a bit of an issue you can probably find a nice generation old windows 7 laptop on amazon or newegg. Just read lot of reviews and watch out for overheating issues and stuff.
posted by NotSoSiniSter at 9:32 AM on August 2, 2013

The last three computers I've bought have been refurbished Dell Latitude laptops from the Dell Outlet. The only reason I upgraded was I wanted something newer/faster/with more memory than before; even the ten-year old one (D600) is still working just fine, and my five-year-old one was my everyday work computer until recently (when work bought me a dedicated work computer). You have to go into their Small Business outlet, but it's not like they ask for a tax ID. With a coupon (they always have coupons, you sometimes have to track for a couple of days) I got what would be priced at $1300 built new for $780, and keep in mind that I needed this to do computation-intensive work (MATLAB and R, specifically, which applies to you) and for gaming.

The three in question were a D600, E6400, and E6430, in 2003, 2007 and 2012 December respectively.

I'm unwilling to say "A $300 laptop would be very slow for numerical computation," because I have no idea what scale numerical computation you want to do, but... even though you say you know nothing, you know best what computational power you want. The rule of thumb is always more memory = more speed in numerical computation (and for things like MATLAB and R, your memory is the absolute limit on the size of your variables); as for CPU speed, I found very useful. For an easy comparison reference, you may want to compare the CPU you find in the computers that are available for sale with the CPU in your lab computer.
posted by seyirci at 9:43 AM on August 2, 2013

Fullsize keyboard is important. When you're at home, use a desktop keyboard. When you're laboring at a paper, having to contort your hands to type on a small keyboard will detract from the already unpleasant aspects of the whole paper-writing experience. (It's also nice to have the keypad when you can.)

Don't get HP-- they do many things well, but in my experience, laptops are not one of them. Dell can be good, as can Toshiba and especially Lenovo. If I was buying tomorrow, I'd go with a Lenovo; not entirely sure I'd get a touchscreen version, but I'm not sure I wouldn't...

All that said, I run windows (bootcamp) on a 2009 work Macbook Pro, and I'm happy with the hardware.

In terms of bang/buck, the laptop sweet spot seems to be around $750-850, but you'll end up at $1000 with accessories (max out the RAM if you can, and get a spare power supply). Consider a port-extender, but that can be bought later.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:47 AM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Step one: Walk into Best Buy or another local big-box store that sells computers. Wal-Mart and Staples/Office Max/Office Depot will do just as well.

Step two: identify your price point and and must-have features like screen size.

Step three: buy the laptop on sale at the store manufactured by a reputable company (Lenovo, Dell, HP, Acer, Asus, Toshiba, Sony, etc. If you haven't heard of it, pass).

And you're done. Laptops are basically commodities these days.
posted by valkyryn at 10:41 AM on August 2, 2013

Congrats on passing! Last year to celebrate my passing of my comps, I bought myself an Asus UX31A--it is an "ultrabook," powerful and light.

It hits your main needs. I am a crazy multi-tasker and I have run Stata (hefty national data sets, too) with Excel, Word, OneNote, a million Firefox tabs, Spotify and other programs simultaneously with no problem. The screen is a good size to have all the windows up. I am currently writing my dissertation so I can tell you that it has been a comfortable keyboard to type on.

I also just quickly Googled it and it is on sale via Amazon for roughly $850. Nice deal for a good, new machine. I never buy used so can't help you there. I use laptops for an average of 4 years and donate.
posted by inevitability at 10:42 AM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Get a docking station for your computer, keyboard and monitor. That will give you regular sized accessories, while keeping the actual machine portable.

I do this at work. If I need my laptop after hours, I'll make do with the squinty screen and tiny keys, but for day-to-day stuff, gimme that big, plastic, crap.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:47 AM on August 2, 2013

People above have already recommended a Macbook Air - I'll just add that my previous two Mac laptops lasted 5 years each as my daily use machines. I run most of the heavy stuff on other machines, but the basic stuff (coding, browsing, email, music, video) works flawlessly, and I've run some fairly intensive stuff without any problem too. I do use Ruthless Bunny's setup - a nice monitor, plug in keyboard and mouse - and my work can go back and forth with me. (This is not always a good thing.)

Con: It costs more to get an entry level Mac - they don't make machines for the cheapest end of the market. You'll definitely want Applecare, and you'll want a lot of RAM, a decent processor, etc. (I'm like a stuck record on this laptop advice.)

Pros: They are solidly built machines, and they should last 5 years easy without abuse. Applecare really backs you up for 3 years no questions asked. The Air is super-portable - my back feels better after I shaved a pound off my daily hike. (And if you configure an ultraportable to the Air's specs, the cost is pretty close.) No worries about Windows viruses. (Yeah Macs are not immune always keep your OS up to date and don't have unsafe USB sex.)

If your department is about 50-50 Macs/non-Macs, and (I bet) was 20-80 about 3 years ago, there's a reason for that.
posted by RedOrGreen at 2:11 PM on August 2, 2013

If I were you, I'd get a 13" MacBook Pro. I still use my 2009 model on a daily basis. Even after dropping it / treading on it regularly. It's so well built. The new retina displays look amazing as well.

However - the best reason for getting a mac, is every couple of years you can upgrade the OS for $29; you get a ton of new features, and it's normally leaner and quicker every time. No worrying about Windows 8 style debacles.

Also using your own mac with admin privileges will be a completely different experience.
posted by derbs at 3:13 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everybody! Going to go shopping this weekend. Am thinking that I'll probably try to get an ultrabook on sale-ish and then buy myself something nice (i.e. Macbook Pro-ish) in a few years.
posted by dismas at 4:54 AM on August 7, 2013

Response by poster: As a followup:

I bought a refurbished Ideapad from Lenovo's outlet store, which was additionally marked down because of some sort of employee pricing sale around the time I bought it (a couple days after I posted the question). Who knows how accurate 'full price' is but they claimed it was discounted something ridiculous (like 40 percent), so I got it for less than $500 including shipping/taxes/etc. No complaints so far.

Thanks for the advice, everybody. I'll buy a mac someday, I promise.
posted by dismas at 4:21 PM on September 1, 2013

« Older Site that reviews translations of classical texts?   |   So my son wants to enlist... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.