Cheap Dell or ThinkPad?
September 28, 2005 11:09 AM   Subscribe

Help me with a laptop purchase decision?

My 5-yr old Gateway is dying, and I need a replacement. I've been happy with it, but I don't think Gateway is the same quality anymore. Likewise, I had a Compaq years ago that was fine, but I hear they're junk since HP bought them.

I've always loved ThinkPads, but they're more expensive and I hear the quality has slipped. But with a discount through my employer, I can get a ThinkPad with a Mobile Pentium, 15" and wifi for $850 (plus tax), shipped. Which sounds pretty reasonable, actually.

Or, I can join the masses and buy a Dell with a Celeron for $500. I'd probably bump up to the $550 version, actually. (The S&H may be a nasty surprise, based on a previous almost-purchase from them. Plus no wifi, but I already have a card I can use.) I've always looked down at the Celeron, but I wonder if it really makes a difference given my uses... (I like AMD, but they're harder to find in laptops.)

What I'll use it for: Office apps, surfing, light photo retouching (nothing heavy-duty, just tweaking with Photoshop Elements), maybe watching DVDs occasionally -- all personal use. No desktopping, CAD modelling or gaming. I do use it pretty much everyday after work.

So do I go cheap with a Dell Inspiron 1200 w/ Celeron and 14", or cough up the extra $300 or so for a ThinkPad R50e w/ Pentium M and 15"? Care to share your analysis and why? Thanks in advance for all input. And PC only recommendations, please -- I don't feel like rebuying software to run on a Mac.
posted by pmurray63 to Computers & Internet (27 answers total)
FWIW, we've had good experiences with the Dell laptaps. I've always questioned whether it's worthwhile to go with the pentium over the celeron. I've gone ahead and gotten the pentium, as I do some statistical analyses with the machines, but I'm not convinced that the extra cost is worth it - just an example of the effectiveness of advertising and the "price=value" heuristic, I suppose.

Be sure to check out cheapstingybargains for dell coupons.
posted by jasper411 at 11:27 AM on September 28, 2005

What I'll use it for: Office apps, surfing, light photo retouching (nothing heavy-duty, just tweaking with Photoshop Elements), maybe watching DVDs occasionally -- all personal use. No desktopping, CAD modelling or gaming. I do use it pretty much everyday after work.

if thats all your going to be doing it on, have you even considered an iBook? depending on what type of Office apps you'll be using, you could even get away with buying Pages instead of MS Office for mac. based on what you said you'd be using it for, that would be the only software purchase necessary (safari for surfing, iphoto for touchups, dvd player for watching dvds... they all come w/ it). i know you said PC only, but if buying software was your only concern i just wanted to let you know you'd only have to buy one thing...
posted by hummercash at 11:28 AM on September 28, 2005

I'm fairly sure that you'll get about double the battery life with the ThinkPad.

Objectively looking at reliability, it's a tossup between an Inspiron and a ThinkPad R. I'm sure there are horror stories for both.

Service-wise, IBM wins hands down. Less time on hold, and (at least for the number I call) you get people who speak clearly understandable English. Dell home user support often goes to Indian call centers that don't seem to be staffed with a great deal of care.
posted by I Love Tacos at 11:31 AM on September 28, 2005

Unless things change notably I will continue to buy nothing but Dell Latitudes. They are not $500 but I've yet to have an issue with them and Dell support (which I always conduct via email) for the hardware has been fine, if not better than fine - they agreed most recently to replace a drive which was making a nervous-making noise although it was still working.
posted by phearlez at 11:33 AM on September 28, 2005

I recommend checking out Dell's online outlet store, which carries refurbished machines. I got a great deal on an Inspiron 600m last fall which I'm using at this moment. The available selection and prices change daily.
posted by justkevin at 11:41 AM on September 28, 2005

I switched to Mac at the same time my best friend upgraded to the top-end IBM Thinkpad X-series(?).

I spent half as much and have had less than half as many problems as her.

Needless to say, I'm thoroughly convinced that the only reason to buy a Windows machine would be if you are absolutely forced to purchase one.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:48 AM on September 28, 2005

If you're buying a new Thinkpad, isn't it Lenovo's service that's applicable, not IBM's?
posted by Zed_Lopez at 12:00 PM on September 28, 2005

While I hate the idea of Dell, I've had nothing but praise for my old Latitude C400.

IBM's Thinkpads *used* to be kings of quality, but I've read on slashdot that since Lenovo bought IBM's laptop division and quality has definitely gone downhill.

However, the Pentium M is an excellent chip (which in some areas outperforms the desktop P4) and is far better than the celery. Is there a cheap Laitutude that sports a Pentium M?

Maybe a factory refurbed Thinkpad?
posted by PurplePorpoise at 12:04 PM on September 28, 2005

but my horrible experiences with my Inspiron 600m

Inspirons and Latitudes are so different in composition and quality it's amazing they're from the same company.
posted by phearlez at 12:05 PM on September 28, 2005

the largest difference between Pentium and Celeron M machines at the moment isn't so much performance as it is battery management, so if you're planning on using it away from a socket for longish periods of time, then a P-M is probably your best bet. You may also want to drop by NoteBookReviews, as they're up-to-date and have a fairly friendly and knowledgable userbase.
posted by heeeraldo at 12:05 PM on September 28, 2005

got the URL wrong in the above post, it should be NotebookReview (without the s)

sorry 'bout that.
posted by heeeraldo at 12:07 PM on September 28, 2005

Have a think about too for a free office suite. 1.0x is reliable and 2.0 is looking pretty sweet. Works on Mac too, or Linux.
posted by at 12:14 PM on September 28, 2005

The Pentium-M is quite possibly the fastest processor I've ever had in a computer, desktop or laptop. We're almost exclusively a Dell shop here where I work, and I've nothing but praise for the Latitude line of laptops.

We ordered Celeron based laptops a few times for testing, and they were slooooow, unbearably so. Spend the extra dough and get the Pentium M, well worth it.
posted by kableh at 12:23 PM on September 28, 2005

An older IBM built Thinkpad will also do everything you need. Say a T22 or later. Add a little more RAM (handy for retouching photos), a faster hard drive (really speeds up T series Thinkpads) and you've got a stable, easy to repair or upgrade, reliable laptop for cheap.

The T series was the last bunch of Thinkpads to still be built by IBM (as opposed to a vendor). Many are coming off lease and being sold cheap.

Nothing you want to do is horribly CPU intensive. But you will need RAM and a faster hard drive.
posted by QIbHom at 12:32 PM on September 28, 2005

I *just* bought (one week ago), a Dell Inspiron 2200 (for $599 refurbed from their outlet) and my big dealbreaker and disappointment (i didn't do a lot of research because i was in a rush. damn. damn damn damn.) was that the screen res is only capable of 1024x768. This, to me, is almost enough to make me regret my purchase.

That said, if you're an honest man, you should also factor in the purchase of a copy of Windows XP Pro, because the Dell version has SO MUCH BULLSHIT PRE-INSTALLED that it makes the computer nearly UNUSUABLE.

I still don't understand why the hell dell would want to ship computers that are completely hobbled with all the BSware they throw on there, because if I didn't know any better, I'd just blame the processor specs.

The first thing I did was wipe that sucker clean, and it runs nicely enough for what you want to do ... but that screen res. DAMN YOU LOW SCREEN RES

Also, it appears that there's only a single expansion slot for memory, which means you'll have to buy an ultra-expensive mem chip, rather than two lower priced ones. you WILL need more memory. The 256 built-in is not nearly enough to do anything, and combined with the super-slow 5400 rpm drives that Dell uses in those suckers, it makes for slow-going once the swap starts running.

my rule of thumb for computers is buy the most expensive one you can afford at the time and then IGNORE ALL NEW SALES AND ADVERTISMENTS FOR COMPUTERS unless you want to cry about what you could buy now for the money.

the other rule is that it's always better to buy MORE than you think you need, because later on you will certainly need it.
posted by fishfucker at 12:47 PM on September 28, 2005

If you're in the market for a cheaper laptop take a look at Averatec -- they're quite well made, especially for the price, and aren't loaded will as much crap software as the bigger manufacturers. They're not as ugly looking as a Dell, either.
posted by TonyRobots at 12:50 PM on September 28, 2005

I think you guys are all geting alittle over the top. The celeron will be more than adequate for what you are doing. Computers go out of style so quickly it is dumb to buy more then you need so that it lasts you longer.

I've had no bad experiences with dells and say go for the cheap $500. With good computer management you won't have any problems. (And install Windows 2000) :)
posted by meta87 at 12:58 PM on September 28, 2005

The T series was the last bunch of Thinkpads to still be built by IBM (as opposed to a vendor). Many are coming off lease and being sold cheap.

I work at tech support/repair part-time, and I can vouch for the IBM-built Thinkpads. Really great computers. Averatecs are cheap, cute, and break often.
posted by ori at 1:33 PM on September 28, 2005

We bought my wife an Apple iBook instead of a Windows machine. She agreed mostly to humor me, since I'm no fan of Microsoft. She loves it and now extolls it without any prompting from me.
posted by elderling at 2:10 PM on September 28, 2005

oh boy

the new asus machines are looking cool.
posted by specialk420 at 3:41 PM on September 28, 2005

Response by poster: I should have mentioned that, either way, I know I'll need a RAM upgrade -- but I'll buy it from somewhere else.

Funny you guys mention the ThinkPad T22. CompUSA's web site has refurbs on sale this week for $399. I was toying quite seriously with the idea except for one potentially annoying detail: according to CompUSA, they don't have a USB port, which in this day and age is frustrating as hell. (I know I can add one with a PC card, but I need that one slot for the wifi card.) Oddly enough, IBM's support docs appear to say that all T22's have USB -- but I can't confirm this, and CompUSA won't do a return on a refurb unless it's broken.

I stopped at a CompUSA on the way home, and the guy there said they're all pretty much the same. Someone else had suggested I look at an Acer; my original reaction was "meh," but the CompUSA guy says Acer builds Sony's laptops, which I found interesting, given the price difference.

The more I look, the harder this gets. Sigh...
posted by pmurray63 at 5:40 PM on September 28, 2005

Response by poster: I should add that his advice for me was "Buy the cheapest laptop you can find."

Thanks for the web site suggestions ... I'll peruse them now.
posted by pmurray63 at 5:44 PM on September 28, 2005

Funny coincidence: NY Times' David Pogue reviews the new ThinkPad line today here. He likes it, he really likes it!
posted by rob511 at 2:48 AM on September 29, 2005

My T21 has a USB port. My understanding was that T22s did, and were superior to T21s because you could boot off a USB device. IBM's web page is unclear. I find it difficult to believe that CompUseless won't let you look before buying, but there are tons of sources for used Thinkpads out there. The folks at the Thinkpad Forum might be able to help.

IBM is having a sale on refurbs. They don't have a T22, but they do have a couple T23s under US$500. When I was looking, I saw them all over the place, freshly off-lease. eBay was generally a bit high.
posted by QIbHom at 8:09 AM on September 29, 2005

And, yes, it is very confusing. There are like 4 companies that make all the laptops out there. I was not happy when Lennovo bought the Thinkpad line, but the Ts were the only ones still being made by IBM anyway.

If you want to waste a lot of time, you can spend hours with google trying to figure out who makes which model. Which is why some salespeople will shrug, and say they are all the same. IBM made Thinkpads aren't, a few others aren't, but, for the most part, those salespeople aren't that far off.

You might want to look at the support available on each companies website before buying, too. IBM has nifty videos of how to put in more RAM and such. Some of the others don't have much.
posted by QIbHom at 8:13 AM on September 29, 2005

Response by poster: I find it difficult to believe that CompUseless won't let you look before buying

It's only available through their website, not in stores, hence why I pressed them for details about their return policy.

Thanks for the ThinkPad refurb link! I'll soon be the owner of a T23 P3 1.13 GHz for $520 out the door. Wish I could have gotten a combo drive -- newer ones had them, but they were close to the price of the new one I was looking at -- but I got the DVD and will live with my old external CD-RW. The CompUSA deal was cheaper, but the USB uncertainty made me uncomfortable.

Thanks to everyone for the suggestions and observations -- many of which were contradictory, but that's just the nature of the beast, I guess.
posted by pmurray63 at 10:38 AM on September 29, 2005

Response by poster: A follow-up for those who might be interested:

I found an IBM document which says that the T22 at CompUSA does indeed have one USB port. But it doesn't have built-in ethernet, surprisingly enough.

The T23 I bought from IBM has two USB ports and ethernet.

There's a great collection of info, including links to official IBM documentation of discontinued models (which I used to find what I just wrote), here. (Found via QIBHom's
posted by pmurray63 at 10:20 AM on September 30, 2005

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