Help me select a laptop. (Be gentle, its my first time...)
October 11, 2005 5:29 AM   Subscribe

Help me select a laptop. (Be gentle, its my first time...)

I'm gearing up to buy my first laptop. We currently have a quite powerful desktop PC that my boyfriend's brother built for us, so we've never purchased a "whole" computer before. I have to confess that all the lingo and such on the sales pages is making my eyes glaze over.

I really just need it to do the regular computer things -- run Photoshop (which I already have), run Office (which I already have), do Wireless Networking, enable me to play a few games (but nothing huge and cutting edge), maybe play a little music. Also, we travel quite a bit and I'd like very much to be able to watch DVD movies in the car when we're on the road.

Tell me what I want to buy (including brand and model suggestions). Budget is $1400 at the very most.

Note to Macheads: I already have a lot of existing PC software that I'd prefer not to rebuy for a Powerbook, so as much as I'd love to be an Apple girl I don't think that's the right choice for me. Also, there's the price thing.
posted by anastasiav to Computers & Internet (41 answers total)
As far as the price thing:

iBook: $999 or $1299...still under $1400. I know you still would have software on top of that, but just wanted to clear the "Macs are soooo much more expensive" air.

Not to turn this into the whole Mac/PC thing, I'm just sayin'...that's all...
posted by Wiggo at 5:59 AM on October 11, 2005

Pricewise I think this is a good deal and it's light. Have said that I just bought refurbed Compaq Presario mainly because it had the DVD-RW option.
posted by Ferrari328 at 6:05 AM on October 11, 2005

You can get a super Sony Vaio for peanuts at New Egg.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 6:08 AM on October 11, 2005

I currently recommend Sharp, Fujitsu and Sony for laptops. Everything in their current range will suit you, though you should try to avoid any with "shared video RAM" if you want to play games.
posted by krisjohn at 6:10 AM on October 11, 2005

The best advice I can give is to go with a big name maker: Dell, Sony, Gateway, HP, Fujitsu. I went with an off-brand laptop that had all the bells and whistles. 9 months later, the battery is busted (not dead, it actually broke) and the company is out of business.
posted by achmorrison at 6:23 AM on October 11, 2005

Best answer: I researched this alot recently and found dell gives the most hardware for dollars and has a great satisfaction rating, especially considering the large volume of business. It also has better gaming cards especially if you decide to go big size widescreen (inspiron 9300) I think this is the most underemphasized criteria and the most regretted by new buyers - that there screen is too big or too small. I have found many of my friends love the small screen dells that are out now, i think its the 700m, because its so portable, which I wish for a little bit when I struggle to pull out my 17" 9300. But I wouldn't have been able to get the best graphics card (and upgradable) with that small model (which i have), so which is more important, convenience or huge games? Sounds like convenience. By the way I think they're both in your price range if you grab the 35% coupon (just google "dell coupons").
posted by uni verse at 6:29 AM on October 11, 2005

Best answer: The only critical thing on your list is the photoshop requirement. Most laptops on the market will do everything you else ask.

Photoshop likes lots of memory, so get as much of that as you can reasonably afford; 512 MB is good, 1 GB better. Don't worry about the other numbers too much. Disk space is sufficient for most uses these days, and even the specifics of the processors don't matter too much.

Make sure that it has the 802.11g wireless (the "g" is the important thing there).

Aside from price, battery life and weight should be major criteria. Weight matters more than you think it will if you're schlepping it about. Battery life is always shorter than the salespeople tell you, particularly if doing something intensive like photoshop or watching a DVD.
posted by bonehead at 6:32 AM on October 11, 2005

I have an IBM Thinkpad and I love it. It has been very reliable and the built in WiFi antenna is far better than the ones I have been able to get for our desktop PCs. I would stick with a major brand, and IBM, Sony and Toshiba stand out. I have never liked the Dell or Gateway laptops, although their desktops are frequently very good. You can mix and match features when you buy, but I think memory size and hard disk size are more important than processor speed. However, I would try to avoid the Celeron if possible (although that may be based on one or two year old info; perhaps they are better now).
posted by caddis at 6:38 AM on October 11, 2005

802.11g is only relevant if you're going to be talking to an 802.11g router. And unless you're going to be transferring a lot of large files between computers on your home network (as opposed to over the Internet), then, unless you have a much better than residential DSL Internet connection at home, 802.11b is plenty.

802.11g would offer a modicum of future-proofing; the part where I'm disagreeing with bonehead is considering it a deal-breaker.

I agree with him about the memory, though.

If I were getting a new non-Mac laptop with that budget now, I'd be inclined toward a refurbished Thinkpad T42.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 6:43 AM on October 11, 2005

iBook or later model, previously owned PowerBook are the two ways to go. Apple is going to unveil new models tomorrow, so the market will soon be "flush" with awesome deals on PowerBooks, as the "I gotta have the latest & best model" people buy the new ones and start the eBay listings! Also start checking places like Comp USA, and other computer/electronic "toy stores." Good luck!
posted by thebarron at 6:47 AM on October 11, 2005

The T42 is an excellent laptop. The only limitation I can see with your requirements is the Photoshop thing; I think T42s are only available with 1024x768 screen resolution which many find a bit limiting for image work. Otherwise, they're great and pretty indestructible.
posted by blag at 6:49 AM on October 11, 2005

I have a t40 (which is essentially an earlier model t42) and it is great. The resolution is 1400x1050, which is also true of the t42.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 7:45 AM on October 11, 2005

Hmm... upon looking around, both 1024x748 and 1400x1050 are available, but the high-res version is outside of you stated price range.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 7:53 AM on October 11, 2005

Aside from memory (>512), the only othing thing that I care about is battery life. Really. Photoshop stuff is important, but most machines run photoshop well enough.

There's nothing worse than needing to be tethered.

I found this which looks semi spammy (best laptop battery dot com sorta thing)...but it's important. You're buying a laptop for portability, not performance.
posted by filmgeek at 8:19 AM on October 11, 2005

a 1400x1050 t42 can be found for less than $1,400 if you can find either a student or an employee to give you his School or EPP Code. It's also a hell of a machine.
posted by Kwantsar at 8:31 AM on October 11, 2005

Just another recommendation to consider the IBM ThinkPad T40 series. I have a T42 that I use to run Photoshop among other programs, and I'm really happy with it.
posted by jeffmshaw at 8:52 AM on October 11, 2005

A good friend of mine spilled nearly a pint of water on his PowerBook keyboard while it was running. In slack jawed horror, he up ended it on a towel, watching the water pour out of the side ports. He checked it periodically while it dried and saw that was indeed still running. This was weeks ago, and it's still running like a champ.

I too have a PowerBook, and am glad of it; they are nearly indestructable. If I had to go PC however, I'd get a Thinkpad, they share the PowerBook's ruggedness. It will be bouncing around in a backpack or case much of the time, after all.
posted by Scoo at 8:59 AM on October 11, 2005

IBM Thinkpads are some of the best in the PC business, but I have to agree with the others, that the Mac is probably the best way to go given your specifications and given the fact that they are well built, my TiBook survived a 4 ft fall on to concrete while on and didn't miss a beat (the case is a bit dinged up). For whatever reason though, I feel like my mac laptop hasn't aged as well as I had hoped, but then all laptops seem to age poorly when you compare them to desktops.
posted by Numenorian at 9:15 AM on October 11, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for your comments so far.

The T42 info is interesting, but bear in mind that I'm going to be using this mostly either in my own living room or in the car -- ultralight is not a big selling point with me, although battery life certainly is.

I note that Cnet rates the T42 as a 6.6, vs (for example) the Dell 9300 which they rate at 7.8? So why isn't anyone recommending the Dell? Service issues?
posted by anastasiav at 9:26 AM on October 11, 2005

Response by poster: Oh, and while I appreciate how great Powerbooks are, I'm not considering one. Please stick to PC recommendations. Thanks.
posted by anastasiav at 9:28 AM on October 11, 2005

She has a 1400 dollar budget and needs office and photoshop. Why are you recommending iBooks, when she will then have to re-purchase Photoshop? That's not helpful.

And thejessehelms links you to NewEgg for Vaio laptops, but they only have one under 1400.

Bottom line, just get a Dell. The only reason no one is recommending them is because it's the obvious answer and people enjoy not being obvious. They are absolutely great for everything you mentioned. They are not the most rugged in the world, but get the good warranty, and you said you won't be lugging it all over town anyways. I've been using dell laptops for 5 years now with minimal problems, all of which were fixed promptly by Dell.
posted by glenwood at 9:36 AM on October 11, 2005

At 5 lbs, the T42 is not "ultralight"-- the Thinkpad X41 weighs about half of that. The year-old CNet review dings the T42 for having only a 40GB drive and no DVD burner. These are available for the T42, of course, but not on the model that CNet tested.

If you've ever seen a Thinkpad and an Inspiron side-by-side, and tugged on them, peeled the plastic, tapped the case, et cetera, you'd know why Thinkpad zealots are so plentiful. The build quality difference is big.
posted by Kwantsar at 9:36 AM on October 11, 2005

but get the good warranty

An option that costs $250 on most Inspirons, but comes included on most Thinkpads.
posted by Kwantsar at 9:37 AM on October 11, 2005

Thanks to this thread, I bought a fujitsu S series and have rarely felt as much affection for an inanimate object as this baby. I can heartily recommend it. Best parts: very light, amazingly bright and crisp screen display that routinely prompts strangers to ask what it is, and DVD burner.
posted by CunningLinguist at 9:40 AM on October 11, 2005

The T42 is over 5.5 lbs... ultralight isn't one of its selling points.

The Dell 9300 is way out of your specified price range, so you're comparing apples and oranges.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 9:43 AM on October 11, 2005

Ah, the wonders of Dell site navigation -- doing the obvious thing and clicking Home & Home Office -> Dell Inspiron Notebooks brought up a $2K+ Inspiron 9300. But I guess that's a loaded one; following glenwood's link, I see there are cheaper ones too. So never mind my latter statement.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 9:49 AM on October 11, 2005

Dell probably has the best customer service. You can always get someone on the phone, pretty quickly, and it is never in India, usually Austin or Nashville. But you look like a big dork with a Dell, so its really a trade off.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 9:52 AM on October 11, 2005

The T42 weighs 4.5 lbs and up.

And the 9300 is in her price range.

And every time I call IBM, my call goes to Atlanta, where it is answered promptly and intelligently.
posted by Kwantsar at 9:55 AM on October 11, 2005

I have a dell inspiron 8600 that I bought for $750 (half off at the time) and I love it. Watch DVDs on it all the time and the big screen is really nice. The battery lasts for 3 hours or more depending on what apps I am using. It's powerful and I run Photoshop easily and play some higher end games on it too (City of Heroes, Total War, etc..).

I see the Inspiron 9300 for $1149. That fits your budget well. I guess they aren't sexy enough for people to reccomend, but I have a Dell desktop as well and have no problems.
posted by genefinder at 9:55 AM on October 11, 2005

I second recommendations that you shell out the extra bucks for the extended warranty. I'm having a problem with mine right now, and knowing that it's covered by my warranty is worth the money I spent on it.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:05 AM on October 11, 2005 [1 favorite]

Oh, good grief. I don't have any familiarity with Dell notebooks. I've recommended Dell desktops in the past. I suggested something I'm more familiar with, and consider a good deal.

Maybe, just maybe, there are other issues at play than who's a mindless trendroid vs. a free-thinker brave enough to be mainstream.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:08 AM on October 11, 2005

I had a terrible experience with Dell that went on for about 2 weeks. I will never do biz with them again, nor would I ever recommend them.

Right now, if you order online, Circuit City is giving $250.00 rebates on laptops and they're throwing in a free printer and wireless router.
posted by wsg at 10:49 AM on October 11, 2005

Maybe, just maybe, there are other issues at play than who's a mindless trendroid vs. a free-thinker brave enough to be mainstream.

Perhaps I overshot a bit on my snark. Many apologies. It is worth noting that DELL sells far and above more laptops than any of the other vendors listed here, and this creates a situation where a)people who want to look cool (I'm lookin' at you The Jesse!) will not recommend them and b) there are copious amounts of bad reviews on the interwebs about them.

I just wanted to make sure this person, working from a fairly limited budget, knew that Dell was a perfectly reasonable option for them and has in fact worked well for others.
posted by glenwood at 10:56 AM on October 11, 2005

I have also had good experiences with Dell. As far as price comparisons go, you need to compare price/performance, not just brand names to figure out where to get your moneys worth.

If you are not in a great hurry, keep your eye on Slickdeals and fatwallet for a good deal. There are some pretty savvy shoppers frequenting these sites (along with the usual assortment of internet nimrods) so reading the comments on pertinent items can net you some useful tips. If you wait long enough, and then move fast you can generally save a bit on a big-ticket item.
posted by Manjusri at 11:38 AM on October 11, 2005

You can see two long posts I made in support of Dell laptops in this previous ask.mefi post. I ran a 100% Dell shop when I was the IT guy for a 50+ person software development company, and I was very satisfied with them. I actually recommend refurbished Dells, as you can get them for $100-200 cheaper than new. They are covered by the same warranty you can get with a new system (I recommend 3 years for laptops, I see that Dell now has a 4 year option - consider it), and systems only go into refurbished inventory if they are returned within 30 days or an order is canceled after the system has already been built. In other words, you can luck out and get a "new" system for a "refurbished" price. Look for the Dell Outlet link within the Home -> Laptops page for inventory.

For the record, when I was working with them they briefly transitioned some of their tech support to India. There was a _massive_ backlash from customers about it, and at the time they went back to US-only support for home users, but were still doing some stuff in India for businesses. I believe since then they have returned to a completely US-based setup.
posted by autojack at 12:04 PM on October 11, 2005

Response by poster: As far as price comparisons go, you need to compare price/performance

And here, see, lies my problem. I don't know enough about all the numbers, etc. to figure out which is the best performance for price.

For instance:

9300: Intel® Pentium® M Processor 740 (1.73 GHz/2MB Cache/533MHz FSB
T42: Intel® Pentium® M Processor 725 1.60GHz

What's the difference? They're both M's - I'm guessing that 740 is faster than 725, but by enough to make a difference?

9300: 512MB Dual Channel DDR2 SDRAM at 533MHz 2 Dimm
T42: Just lists as 256 MB.
Again, I presume that 512 is better than 256 - but will either of these be enough to, say, have photoshop, a couple of web browsers, and perhaps my email open and being used all at the same time?

9300: Intel® PRO/Wireless 2200 Internal Wireless (802.11 b/g, 54Mbps
T42: Intel PRO/Wireless 2200BG
I'm guessing these are the exact same thing, despite there being less info in the T42 spec.

9300: ATI MOBILITY™ RADEON® X300 64MB HyperMemory™
T42: 32MB ATI Mobility RADEON 7500
I'm at a loss here.

And I don't see anything about sound cards anywere.

Thoughs? Again, thanks so much for your help so far...
posted by anastasiav at 12:31 PM on October 11, 2005

Response by poster: The two machines compared above are both the ones with the list price of $1399.00, by the way -- although I don't expect to pay that much for either of them. :-)
posted by anastasiav at 12:33 PM on October 11, 2005

I just got a Fujitsu Lifebook P1510D. It's not what you want, it's an amazingly small convertible touch-screen machine and I wouldn't really want to run Photoshop on it at all (too slow, screen too small). But I'm so happy with it that I would recommend Fujitsu's other products to you in a heartbeat. This really is a great machine and if their other products are as good, they'll make you happy too.
posted by kindall at 12:44 PM on October 11, 2005

Best answer: You're in good company, anastasiav -- it's impossible to keep track of all the CPU offerings these days. As nearly as I can tell, those are the same CPU running at different speeds (the speed is the GHz number.) The difference is fairly marginal -- 8%. Most people's needs aren't so CPU-intensive that they could notice a difference that small. The other interesting difference is the FSB speed -- that's a measure of how fast the CPU talks to the memory. The Dell's 33% advantage there is more likely to be noticeable, and the difference between 512M of RAM vs. 256 definitely will be. (You could do those things with 256, but you'll be happier with 512.)

I'd make the same guess as you about the wireless.

For the video, the 64M vs. 32M is the amount of dedicated memory the video processor has. I don't know anything about those GPUs, though.

Probably neither mentions sound cards 'cause neither of them have them, but have sound hardware integrated on the motherboard.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 1:10 PM on October 11, 2005

Like you, I wanted a laptop under 1400 and with enough power to run Photoshop, Office, and play music and surf the web. For your budget, I think a Dell or a HP would be best.

I've ordered a customized HP Pavilion for around 1100 total with an extended warranty (AMD Athlon64 3200+ processor, 40GB hard drive, 1GB RAM, an okay graphics card, and a free extra battery). It has pretty decent reviews, but I can't give you an first-hand advice.
posted by lychee at 1:52 PM on October 11, 2005

Either way, if it was me, I'd be popping in a GB of memory. The T42 you point to can take two sticks, and the second bay is "open" for more RAM. The Dell can also support 2 sticks, but to upgrade, you'll have to throw 256 out and replace it. Kind of a crappy way to save $10 or so in costs.

RAM is the cheapest way to make your system faster.
posted by Kwantsar at 2:28 PM on October 11, 2005

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