Is Windows tolerable these days? If so, what laptop should I get?
July 23, 2014 8:38 AM   Subscribe

My old MacBook just died, so I need a new computer. I'm broke, so I'm considering going back to Windows. I haven't used Windows since the XP days, and vaguely remember hating it, though I can't remember exactly why. What's Windows like these days compared to Mac OS in terms of ease of use or annoyingness? What are your favorite / least favorite features of one platform compared to the others? And if I do get a Windows machine, what models might I consider? Requirements are pretty simple: it should know how to surf the web, run Word and LaTeX, and play movies, and most importantly be cheap, reliable and long-lasting.
posted by zeri to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Try to get a refurb/recert from an independent Mac retailer/repair shop. My 2008 mbp just broke and I got a great re-cert 2009 mbp for $400 with a warranty and a fresh battery. I also could have gotten a 2010 re-cert Macbook for $250. Your minimal needs mean you don't need anything newer. Any PC you get for those prices is going to be flimsy hardware and start breaking sooner than you'd like.
posted by michaelh at 8:46 AM on July 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

The reason macs are more expensive is that they own the entire ecosystem and can avoid intentionally making cheap, unreliable, problematic machines in order to undercut competition. A windows laptop that is as reliable and long-lasting as a mac laptop is going to have a pricetag similar to an equivalently spec'd mac. I am not in general a mac person, I dislike the UI. The hardware is generally pretty nice though. If you enjoy the OS, get a used macbook IMO. has a refurb section in there somewhere.
posted by duckstab at 8:49 AM on July 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

Your options are generally Windows 7 or Windows 8.x, with its Metro look and feel. I say generally, because if you dig around enough, you could find some old refurbished computers with something older. For instance, I picked up a Fujitsu LifeBook tablet with Windows Vista Business back in November 2012, when Windows 8 was already out. Anyway, Windows 8 allows you to use the "classic" Windows 7 interface, if the Metro style is annoying, and there are various tools and apps to make your experience better, either in 7 or 8. If there's anything you specifically like about the Mac OS, chances are that you can get it emulated or copied with a 3rd party app.

As for the computer itself, I still have that refurbed laptop, after two years of constant use as my only computer. I'm even thinking about upgrading the HD and RAM, but that might end up costing as much as a new computer with a better battery. My wife is still using the laptop she got a year or two before that.

That all is to say: Windows computers aren't all unreliable. I bought my refurbished laptop online, which is not what I'd suggest, especially if you live somewhere with local shops. My personal preference is to browse through weekly deals from all the major office supply chains (Staples, Office Depot/Max/etc), plus Best Buy and any other chain near you. You can regularly get $200 off new laptops, and if you don't see anything you like that week, check again next week. Check the ads in advance of the sales (most stores have their ads in advance online), and head to the store the first day of the sale, as early as you can.

I bought my wife's computer on a Sunday morning from a local Staples, and I had to tell them that their website listed a few as being in stock, so they had to pull it out of storage, but I paid around $300 for a nice widescreen laptop that still serves her well. And by shopping at a local chain, you can deal with local folks first, instead of trying to deal with phone support. Local people might not be super skilled in all areas, but you can probably get replacement parts faster than having something shipped in.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:59 AM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

FWIW, Squaretrade rates Asus and Toshiba ahead of Apple for laptop reliability. They also specifically point out that netbooks suck, so don't buy a netbook!
posted by Poldo at 9:01 AM on July 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Hackintosh! I did it a few months ago and it's incredible how easy it is, and how utterly stable it is. Things have come a long way from the pioneering days. Take a look at the TonyMac site for pointers.

For your needs, you could also consider a ChromeBook.
posted by TonyRobots at 9:08 AM on July 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Requirements are pretty simple: it should know how to surf the web, run Word and LaTeX, and play movies, and most importantly be cheap, reliable and long-lasting.

I'm currently running Windows 7 on an almost three year old ACER laptop that cost me less than $500 (Canadian). No problems to report other than a few minor keyboard issues (stuck keys) that seemed to fix themselves in a day or two. It's the third ACER I've owned and none of them have ever had a mechanical issue. Software's another issue but my problems predate this particular box and Windows 7.

I do own a five year old MacBook as well but I long ago shelved it (except for occasional use as a music playback option) due to ongoing problems with the keyboard and touchpad (three trips to the shop and one more required), a dodgy attempt from Mac to sell me a replacement battery I didn't need (it was supposed to die over three years ago, and yet it's still holding a charge), and serious frustration with my software options.

My point in raising this is that, contrary to the Official Story, Mac (software and hardware) is the platform that's caused me by far the most grief ... and at triple the price.

posted by philip-random at 9:14 AM on July 23, 2014

I highly recommend Lenovo - I've had them for YEARS and they are rock solid. You can get them used and new for low rates at the Lenovo Outlet ( )

I've only ever had ThinkPads (which I recommend) but I think their entire line is very good.
posted by christiehawk at 9:14 AM on July 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

What's Windows like these days compared to Mac OS in terms of ease of use or annoyingness?

It's completely fine. The terrible security and stability issues of Windows XP are long gone. Windows 7 and 8 entropy (the install degrades over time) at about the same rate as OS X. I setup a Windows 7 machine and it ran fine for four-plus years, until I upgraded to Windows 8, which runs fine. (I use the Start8 start menu utility and ModernMix, which allows you to run Metro apps in a window. Both of these features are being added to Windows 9).

My 2008 mbp just broke and I got a great re-cert 2009 mbp for $400 with a warranty and a fresh battery.

In the near future, Apple will stop supporting Macs from before about 2009-2010. They will stop getting security updates at that point, and then you're running an insecure OS. If you buy a used Mac, make 100% sure it's capable of running Mavericks.

Hackintosh! I did it a few months ago and it's incredible how easy it is, and how utterly stable it is.

Only do this if you're prepared for your machine to break completely on update. Just because it hasn't happened to Joe or Sally doesn't mean it won't.

And if I do get a Windows machine, what models might I consider?

I'd get a refurb business laptop before I'd buy anything at an office supply or electronics store. Retail machines are often laden with crapware, which can slow the computer down and cause stability issues. Lenovo, Dell and HP all have refurb stores that sell off-lease business computers. You can also buy crapwareless machines directly from the manufacturers or from Microsoft.

If you get Windows 8, get a touch screen. Not only do you get touch, but the display quality is often leaps and bounds better than older laptops. With whatever machine you get, buy an SSD. It's the single best upgrade you can buy for a computer.
posted by cnc at 9:43 AM on July 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

This hasn't been the case historically, but it is becoming much more common; If you have a .edu account (or a friend willing to order a computer for you) you can track down some pretty good deals though Best Buy or other online retailers. When they drop the price a couple hundred bucks, stacked with the .edu discount, it appears that you can pick up a macbook air for around 700 bucks (said deal is a quarter down the page). That price point hits pretty close to comparable lenovo and asus laptops.
posted by furnace.heart at 9:44 AM on July 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

About 3 years ago we were looking for a laptop and decided on a $500 (Canadian) 17" Lenovo laptop over a Mac based on the idea that we could get the Lenovo now, and then when this one crapped out we could get another $500 laptop for the same price as getting a $1000 Mac. The Lenovo has worked great so far although one hinge is starting to fail. It is too big to be easily portable but it was more a laptop for the home anyway and was great for watching stuff on the big screen.

My understanding is if you want something more portable with good battery life you will be paying a fair bit for it, but if it is just staying at home then there are plenty of affordable options.

Windows up to 7 is pretty easy. My brother has a Windows 8 laptop, and the few times I have used it has been difficult to navigate, but this is likely something that you just need to get used to. One annoying thing is worrying about viruses/malware/spyware.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 9:48 AM on July 23, 2014

I personally do not think Windows is tolerable, though Win 7 is a BIG step up from XP. Win 8 is maddening because there are some really solid improvements under the hood but they made unreasonably bad choices on the UI (this has been somewhat remedied by 8.1, but not entirely). You can get around some of these by googling for how to make Win 8.x less ridiculous, and installing things like Classic Shell to get e.g. the Start Menu back.

However, there is another alternative. Consider Linux. Don't laugh, it really is a viable alternative. My macbook died at the end of last year and I replaced it with a Galago UltraPro from System76 and the entire family uses it and loves it. This includes an 8 and 10-year old and my wife who generally hates having to learn new tech.
posted by mcstayinskool at 10:06 AM on July 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Lenovos are tanks, if you can shop around for a good price on one with Windows 7, you should find the transition simple enough, and you'll be shocked at how not fragile your machine is. I have both a Lenovo and a MacBook (and a desktop PC with Windows 8) and as the MacBook is slowly dying my Lenovo with Windows 7 is getting more and more use. Consider pricing out a Windows laptop + apple touch device like an ipad mini or something to maintain some ios flexibility in your life. Windows 8 tries to be good for touch interface but it falls flat. The biggest thing to get used to is right clicking and using ctrl instead of alt.
posted by Mizu at 10:40 AM on July 23, 2014

And if I do get a Windows machine, what models might I consider?

I'm going to add my vote for Asus products. I recently retired a "desktop replacement" style laptop from them (i7, $900 new) that still works, despite spilling roughly a cup's worth of coffee directly into the keyboard several years ago. I upgraded to a 2013 desktop (i5, $750 new, $200 something for the monitor) for intensive home-based tasks like music production and photo work, and their T100ta convertible tablet (equivalent to a maxed-out 2013 MS Surface Pro, for less than half the cost) for mobile stuff. Both are running Windows 8.1, and both are running flawlessly. Both came with minimal bloatware, some of which is actually useful.

On the tablet, I use the "apps" aspect of the 8.1 interface more frequently, due to the ease of the touchscreen. On the desktop, I do most everything in the traditional desktop/windows mode. I don't think Win 8 is quite "there" yet, functionally, but it has a lot of promise and is very stable.

Basically, I got two powerful machines that seem to be well built and -- so far -- dependable, for roughly the price of one fully-powered Macbook.

Anecdotally, my girlfriend bought a nicely equipped new Macbook at the same time that I bought my new desktop. It already has cosmetic damage to its sexy surface, and can't seem to reliably stream video. It's about 1.5 months old. My previous girlfriend also had a Macbook, and in the time we were dating she probably threw the price of a lower-end Windows machine into it (repairs, replacement peripherals, etc.)... My brother, meanwhile, has had two refurbished MB's over the past decade, and they've stood up to incredible abuse. I guess my point is that these are mass-produced consumer products, like any other; some will be solid and a good value for the price, and others will be duds. I'd personally rather take that risk at a lower entry cost, but to each their own/YMMV.
posted by credible hulk at 11:00 AM on July 23, 2014

I encourage people, if they can afford it, to get a Dell and the on-site repair warranty (it's not nearly as much as other brands' on-site plans). If you have an issue with the hardware, someone comes to your house to diagnose and fix, and they are generally equipped already for most common fixes like bad display, keyboard/trackpad, or ports.

Windows is fine, and I believe even W8 now lets you reconfigure to a more "classic" style menu (I'm hanging on to my W7 machine for dear life, even though it's old and I'm probably due a new one). Honestly even most graphics and video work is just as good on Windows now (more if you throw your Apple premium at super-maxing your processor and memory). You need a Mac if you're a MacOS developer, and I assume you need it for iOS development, but that's the only time you must have a Mac.

I use a MacBook Air for my personal stuff (browser, video, social media, a couple of writing apps) because I get my husband's hand-me-downs but only because they're free and he's still extremely attached to Apple. I do all my hard work, including SQL stuff, on my W7 machine.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:28 AM on July 23, 2014

Requirements are pretty simple: it should know how to surf the web, run Word and LaTeX, and play movies

This is all simple stuff, although the "run LaTeX" requirement suggests to me that you'd be better off sticking with Unix - either Mac OS or Linux. But this:

and most importantly be cheap, reliable and long-lasting.

This is classic "pick any two" territory. If you truly want reliable and long-lasting, sorry, you'll be paying for it. On average - with plenty of specific anecdotal exceptions - you're probably better off paying for a decent Mac laptop that runs the current OS X version. With educational discounts and refurbished options, that needn't be an outrageous cost...
posted by RedOrGreen at 12:02 PM on July 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have a Toshiba that I got not too long ago. It has 8.1 and it's fine with Classic Shell. I had an old MacBook Pro that just crapped its logic board.

It's pretty sleek, not too heavy, though it is plastic. It runs like a champ. Pretty future proof as well... current gen i7, 8 GB RAM and a 1 TB HD. I've yet to make it break a sweat.

I think Win 7 is the better OS, but the netbook I had it running on was so underpowered, it was ridiculous.
posted by kathrynm at 2:22 PM on July 23, 2014

I have used Macs for work, but I find Windows 7 superior. Some functionalities that exist on Windows simply don't exist for Macs. Meanwhile, I haven't really found anything a Mac can do that a PC can't. I haven't spent much time with Windows 8, and I haven't tried their new update to walkback the stupid original concept, but I think Windows 7 is an excellent operating system. Regardless of whatever Windows 8 could have to offer, I don't really see a need to get Windows 8. Windows 7 is great. I have no clue what LaTeX is, but a simple google search suggests it runs on Windows 7, so I'd ignore advice telling you to throw money at a Mac for one program.

The hard part, however, is finding a computer that is long-lasting and cheap. Those don't normally go together. I will say I think Dell's are pretty good deals. Mine went about four years. My Acer made it about four years too. Personally, I think a desktop you build gives the best bang for your buck. Then when something stops working, instead of chucking the entire laptop, you open up the desktop and just replace the part. But I understand you may want a laptop, so you'll want to shop around.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:12 PM on July 23, 2014

I have a Lenovo laptop with Linux Ubuntu as operating system.

Works like a dream.

I've now owned several Lenovos... so far, no complaints.

Ubuntu has a software centre that should meet your needs.

Surf? Chrome, Firefox, etc.

For Word, think LibreOffice.

LaTex? No, problem! You'll be able to work with LaTex as Latex works on Linux operating systems.
posted by Mister Bijou at 1:35 AM on July 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

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