Please help me buy a new laptop.
November 9, 2005 7:16 AM   Subscribe

Please help me buy a new laptop.

I am starting graduate school in January, and as part of a grant I have $1500 to spend on a new laptop.

I would like something very light and portable, yet durable (as I'm not very graceful and tend to bang things around.) Would be nice if it's got good storage, battery life, speed, and any bells and whistles that people enjoy. I'm considering a tablet PC, but not sure if that makes for a good primary computer.

I've been using old, refurbished, clunky laptops for the past 8 years. I would appreciate any suggestions you have, taking the most recent models into account. Please help me join the exciting modern world of technology!
posted by mandlebrotz to Computers & Internet (37 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I would look at the specials the school's computer store may have, as educational pricing can save a bundle. I wholly recommend IBM, specifically a T43. It's very very portable, yet has a 1400x1050 @ 14" display (15" optional) - be sure you don't get the 1024x768 versions. They're ultra-durable as all IBMs are - I can't say the same for Dell, even though they're cheaper. You will get what you pay for. I might recommend kicking in about 300-400 of your own money so you can trick out the T43 with the nice display, 80GB drive, 1GB RAM (don't settle for less but you can get another 512MB aftermarket for cheaper if you get a model with only one slot filled), built-in wireless (also essential, the antennas in the lid are much better than a USB dongle or PC card).

Take a look at what the school offers, they most likely have a few IBM ThinkPad configurations for discounted prices. Don't be afraid to go over budget a little if it means getting what you want and being happy for three years. I cannot speak highly enough of IBMLenovo, coming from someone with various T21, T30, T40, T41, and T43s that have travelled all over the world in checked and carried luggage.
posted by kcm at 7:23 AM on November 9, 2005

I'd recommend the 12" Powerbook. I've been using OSX for over a year now and it. is. awesome. (Portable? From the site: "[...] just 10.9 inches wide, 8.6 inches deep and 1.18 inches thin"

As a student, you can get the educational discount.

I'm considering it myself.
posted by unixrat at 7:24 AM on November 9, 2005

A new Apple Powerbook changed my life. I mean that with no hyperbole.

I was always critical of what I perceived to be methed out mac fiends endlessly proselytizing for Mac.

So whatever, Mac went Unix and I waited and waited and finally got a Powerbook on the latest update.

The hardware integration, being closed, makes for a speedy machine. The apps that come with the OS (iLife, etc.) are really mind blowing in terms of power, design, and ease of use. It is light, slim, good looking, and you can just open up a fucking terminal and SSH anywhere you want, anytime, right out of the box.

Anyway, the Unix + design + application triad is impossible to beat.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 7:25 AM on November 9, 2005

Oh, I am using a 15" Powerbook myself at the moment and would recommend it if OS X fits your needs (runs what it needs to - such as some law schools needing special programs for exam or FEA stuff for engineers, you like the feel, etc.), but I don't think it's going to fit your budget even with the discount. I'm very very happy with mine even if the G4 architecture is dog slow some days.. can't wait for the Intel stuff.
posted by kcm at 7:26 AM on November 9, 2005

you can just open up a fucking terminal and SSH anywhere you want, anytime, right out of the box.

seconded. there's nothing like Cmd-N, 'bc -l' rather than clicky-clicky to find and open it, then navigate the interface with a mouse. all with a pretty GUI to do what it needs to *when needed*. :) I do have to disagree that it's a speedy machine, but it'll do. Speed is my only complaint even with the modern 1.67GHz I'm typing this on. I'll stop dominating the thread now.
posted by kcm at 7:28 AM on November 9, 2005

If you're using QuickSilver, as I do, you'd do something like:

Alt+Q 'cal' enter 12 + 10 enter .. and you got your answer..

The terminal is great, but it's not always quicker if you have your desktop-fu down. I can load any app within four keypresses without going to the mouse just by starting to type that app's name.

But in response to the question, get an iBook (if you can live with the res) or a 15" PowerBook with educational discount. That way you can do what you want without dealing with the "crap" that comes with a typical PC notebook.
posted by wackybrit at 7:32 AM on November 9, 2005

You don't mention what you're taking in graduate school.

If you're taking something other than computer science, a tablet PC would probably be great. OneNote is a fantastic application that really shines on a tablet. Most tables are also light & small, which makes carrying it around easier.

If you really need processing power, then I would second the recommendation of the Thinkpad. Fantastic machines. I used a 6-year old Thinkpad (600x!) for grad school (business) and it was fine - with a 500 MHz P3.
posted by GuyZero at 7:33 AM on November 9, 2005

You should also search through the AskMe archives - this kind of question gets asked maybe once a month.
posted by odinsdream at 7:43 AM on November 9, 2005

I'm typing this on a 12 inch powerbook and I recommend staying away from it until after Apple switches to Intel. The current powerbooks, specifically the 12 inch, are underpowered, used a slower front-side-bus, have an extremely limited display, and quite frankly, aren't worth the amount of money you have to pay.

Don't get me wrong; I love, love, love my laptop. But I bought it at a time when it was competitive with comparable PC alternatives. If I had to buy one now, i would wait... (very strong rumors suggest that the powerbook intel switch will happen in March of 2006 because Apple knows that the powerbooks are lacking)
posted by SeizeTheDay at 7:44 AM on November 9, 2005

i'd echo SeizeTheDay, go for the powerbook but be patient and wait for a while until apples new intel line hits the shelves. I think it would be worth the wait.
posted by tnai at 7:48 AM on November 9, 2005

The 12" Powerbook is lovingly known as "The Aluminum iBook", since it is especially crippled wrt. the rest of the Powerbook line - slower video, no Gigabit/lit keyboard, etc. It's not worth the money, thirded. The 15"/17" are much better values as Apple goes. ;)
posted by kcm at 7:53 AM on November 9, 2005

I'm glad to hear about Lenovo -- I had an old Thinkpad 600X too that I loved and lasted me well for years, but I was unsure if Lenovo was as good as IBM. I'm definitely leaning towards them.

Does anyone know anything about their tablet model? I think it's the X41. Or tablets in general? I don't know if it will be useful for taking notes, or if it's actually easier to just type them on the keyboard. It seems intriguing but I don't want to end up regretting following a flashy trend.

As for what I'm studying, it's Library and Information Sciences. Nothing too technical -- I'll probably be doing lots of internet research and maybe downloading a few specialty programs, but that's about it.

Also, I'm definitely willing to kick in an extra few hundred dollars for a better computer, although I have to check and make sure grant-wise that this is possible, since the school is making the purchase for me.

Unfortunately, waiting is not an option, because I have to use the money now. Thanks all -- this advice is so helpful!
posted by mandlebrotz at 7:53 AM on November 9, 2005

Here is the article related to the upcoming Powerbook updates. Yes, is just a rumor. But if you follow the rumor mill long enough you start to notice patterns (I have been following this because at one point I debated selling my 12 inch so I could upgrade to the 15 inch; I've long since discovered that I'd rather sell my first born that part with my little baby).
posted by SeizeTheDay at 7:54 AM on November 9, 2005

There is no need for clicky clicky clicky find calculator in windows.

WindowsKey-R, calc -- presto. Same damn number of keystrokes.

Not that I'm some microsoft advocate.. but really, Macs are highly overpriced/underpowered.. I love MacOSX, I really do.. but it's not immune to crashes, and it wastes a lot of processor on bouncing icons and stuff. Forget about expansion hardware (more important in desktops than notebooks), and forget about 80% of software working on it..

I'd recommend following sites like and for laptop deals.. When something interesting comes along, google for reviews.
posted by twiggy at 8:06 AM on November 9, 2005

I *can* run most anything quickly via Desktop Manager and C-O-R, and perhaps my one example can be replicated, but take it for what it was - just an example. The commandline is a nice nexus to do things from quickly without having to switch around to this window or that for simple tasks. Then, the GUI is much nicer for the other tasks. :)
posted by kcm at 9:14 AM on November 9, 2005

They get a lot of crap, but I like Averatec. Can't beat the price (especially for the tablet model) and after several years, several of them are fine, while several others have the niggling little things that seem to afflict all notebooks, like loose power sockets, touchpad issues, and so on.

Their customer support is terrible though. So if that is important to you, but through someone that offers multi-year on-site service/instant replacement, like a cvhain. Or just get IBM/Lenovo, or pay extra and get that option from Dell/HP/Apple.
posted by meehawl at 9:40 AM on November 9, 2005

it wastes a lot of processor on bouncing icons and stuff

Ha! What about all the processor cycles wasted by windows on running adware/spyware/viruses and their related removal tools?

If you can, spend an extra $500 and get a 15" powerbook. You'll never go back, i promise you.
posted by derbs at 9:42 AM on November 9, 2005

If you're buying a powerbook, check into refurbished ones through apples site. That compounded with a student discount got me a 15" for 1500. I added some ram and an external harddrive and I've been golden ever since.
posted by atom128 at 10:05 AM on November 9, 2005

I love the thinkpads, but they're too expensive my company's taste. I have a MPC TransPort U1000 which is ultra-light, fast, and with the extended battery (another $100) gets 8 hours of work done. Built in A/B/G wifi, media card reader, 80gb HD, firewire - everything but bluetooth. I'm very happy with it, as are my 4 co-workers who also have them.
posted by gregariousrecluse at 10:30 AM on November 9, 2005

Macs are highly overpriced/underpowered

Highly overpriced? Bull. Shit. Underpowered? Bull. Shit.

I switched from a Toshiba Satellite to an iBook this summer. I paid about as much for the iBook as I did for the Satellite. The iBook came with more: more memory, more hard drive space, more useful ports, wireless, Bluetooth, and the most-excellent OS X. This iBook feels faster than the Satellite in all regards, from opening OpenOffice to 3D motion in SketchUp.

A friend purchased an IBM X-something at the same time. She paid more than twice as much. It is, without a doubt, one helluva machine.

Nonetheless, I've had no problems with my Mac: it connects to all my wireless access points without issue, it was secure out of the box, it was dead easy to set up the way I want it, etc.

Meanwhile, she's going through the typical Windows Hell Experience. Drivers that fuck things up, wireless points that refuse her, gaping security holes, endless hassle trying to get printers and stuff to work, and so on and endless so forth.

Our experiences could not contrast more sharply. Other than having a delicious high-res LCD, she has not one thing over my machine. In short, she got screwed: as fine as her hardware is, her OS has in every respect crippled her productivity and caused her endless aggravation.

In my blunt opinion, you'd have to be stupid to purchase a Windows machine. The Windows OS is shit. No matter how good the hardware, no matter how cheap, it is all for naught when you slap Windows OS on it. You will pay for that mistake through loss of productivity.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:55 AM on November 9, 2005

When Lenovo bought the Think product group, they bought all the R & D teams, all the manufacturing contracts, the sales people etc. So, the product hasn't changed...still the same great Thinkpad.

The X41 tablet is a GREAT product but you'll have to throw in some extra money to get it. I think it starts at $1799. It's a convertable tablet so the screen swivels to be used as a regular thinkpad. Make sure if you go this route, you have it preloaded with Microsoft OneNote. It's ultra light though and rugged...I wish I had one.
posted by Ms.Pants at 11:07 AM on November 9, 2005

There is no need for clicky clicky clicky find calculator in windows.

That's a particularly bad example. Open firefox, if it isn't already. Type expression in search window. Answer appears, complete with relevant final units if you bother to put units in as you go.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:43 AM on November 9, 2005

I have a tablet PC (M275), for nearly two years now it's made a great primary computer and unexpectedly and very quickly took over as a "desktop replacement" too.
If you're going to go the tablet PC route and want it to be a primary computer, it should be a convertable model though - don't expect a slate-only model to make a good primary computer, as they're usually designed with different priorities in mind.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:56 AM on November 9, 2005

Also, if you go tablet PC, I suggest you get one with the wacom digitizer, not fine-point, as wacom is pressure sensitive, which among other things is good for art and photoshop, while finepoint is on/off, which is fine for handwriting, but... I don't know, it just seems like a half-way solution to me.
Also, wacom compatibility gives you a wider range of pen upgrades (while not all wacom products are inter-compatible, there is still a range avaibile)
posted by -harlequin- at 12:02 PM on November 9, 2005

Acer makes some nice laptops. I went with one of Acer's Ferrari models, and it will set you back a bit: but you get (depending on model) a 64 bit AMD processor, 1 gig RAM standard, 100 gig HD, some sweet screen software that makes your life easier (automatically handles external monitors for presentaitons, etc. with no hassle - even auto-activates or deactivates the "presenter view" in Powerpoint) - not to mention the 1600x1200 widescreen. Great wireless, built in signal boosting, built in 4-way media card reader, Bluetooth, Firewire, 4 USB ports, and a removable dual-layer DVD +/- burner, all in a glossy black carbon fiber frame. Battery life is somewhere around 3 hours with constant use, recharges in about half that time. Plus, bonus matching rechargeable Bluetooth mouse.

If you're a Mac person, go on and ignore me. If you're a Windows person check them out. I couldn't find anything that compared in terms of components and price.

fff, how about you stop throwing rocks at the neighbors and just say what you like about your own computer, like everyone else did, without turning it into juvenile name-calling? You might be surprised to learn that not everyone likes the Cupertino variety of Kool-Aid.
posted by caution live frogs at 12:19 PM on November 9, 2005

I have a 14" iBook G3 that I bought 3.5 years ago. It's been the model of durability - it's taken several cringe-inducing falls, and continues to run very well.

I know the iBook is not as sexy as the PowerBook, but it's as much computer as I need in my home, and for what you're doing, it doesn't sound like you'd need a PowerBook either.

It's a lot cheaper than the PowerBook, and if you spend some money to max out the RAM, you'll have a fine machine that should last you through grad school at the very least.
posted by rocketman at 12:45 PM on November 9, 2005

I just bought a Lenovo T43 based partly upon recommendations recieved here. Its still being built, so I don't have first hand experience, but I can relate what went into my decision.

First, I wanted 14". Most 12" models are underpowered or under-displayed because they are designed to be ultra-portables, rather than primary computers/desktop replacements. My laptop will mainly replace my desktop, so I need more. The next step up is the 14-15" range, which in most cases are basically the same machine with different case sizes. Also, in some cases, stepping down an inch in case size saves you a full pound in weight. As I envision carrying it alot, weight was important to me.

Second, 1280x768 was an absolute deal-breaker for me. I would highly recommend going to a computer store and actually checking out the difference between a 1280x768 and a higher-res display. The difference is dramatic. Additionally, as this is a (kinda-)desktop replacement, a dedicated video card with dedicated memory was important. I seriously, seriously considered an iBook, again mainly on the advice here, but for all the bells and whistles and ya-ditty-da, the display was just too damn small, the graphics too underpowered. The T43 goes (I can't remember exactly) 1500x1040, and has a dedicated ATI video card with 64 megs of video ram.

Third, DVD burning - great cheap and light-weight (as opposed to carrying around an external HDD) way to avoid running out of HD space, which is a problem I have ALWAYS run into with laptops. Fourth, support (a 3-year service contract on your laptop is a must). Fifth, durability and comfort. ThinkPads have one of the best keyboards availble, a typing light (handy if in a dimly-lit lecture hall looking at a presentation) and are definitely thought of as some of the toughest notebooks around.

Also, the cost of replacing all my software was prohibitive. Office, Adobe CS, Macromedia MX, programming suites, etc. This doesn't get discussed much, and may not be such an issue if getting your software academically, but if using your laptop for anything more than basic office apps, you have to add in the cost of software replacement to making the Apple switch. There are, of course, ways to mitigate this cost (Open Office, Gimp, educational discounts, sending your PC copy of CS back to Adobe and having them send you a Mac version, etc), but just be aware.

Finally, and this is what tipped me over the edge, silly as it sounds, was games. Again, this is meant to be a desktop replacement for me, as for you. The lack of 3D video power in an iBook, to say nothing of the fact that the titles just aren't there for Macs in general, meant that fun-time on my PC (which, on airplanes, in college computer labs, ad-hoc late-night lan parties, etc etc is significant) would be seriously curtailed.

So that was my thought process. Definitely upgrade to the 80gig drive and 1gig of ram. Right now, Lenovo offers a deal where they give you a free 512meg DIMM with purchase, which is nice. I also sprung for a second AC/DC adapter - one permanently in the wall at home, one permanently in the carry-bag - which I've found to be a nice convenience. Also upgrade from a 6-cell to a 9-cell battery, and buy a second one if you can afford it. Finally: a wireless mouse. Key.
posted by ChasFile at 1:07 PM on November 9, 2005

I second the iBook. For everyday user purposes, it's just as good, and the performance to price ratio is better.
posted by abcde at 1:10 PM on November 9, 2005

atom128: I don't think student discounts apply to refurbished items. So you may not have noticed, but I'd speculate that that $1500 was the actual price.
posted by abcde at 1:14 PM on November 9, 2005

To be specific, the top end iBook, which is fine for everything but heavy media work and data crunching, will be about $1100 with your ~$100 student discount. It's about 300MHz slower than the comparable model on the Powerbook line (though you get more per Hz on PowerPC), not enough to affect your user experience significantly.
posted by abcde at 1:21 PM on November 9, 2005

(To be clearer, the both the iBook and PowerBook use PowerPC, I was just saying that that span is a bigger difference than it would be on an Intel laptop)
posted by abcde at 1:22 PM on November 9, 2005

I apologize for being a looney Mac fanboy this morning.

I am so embarassed.

I just hate to see anyone buy into the bullshit about Mac being overpriced/underpowered: it was exactly that BS that kept me from switching years ago, and it cost me dearly in all sorts of non-cash ways. It was a horrible mistake on my part, and I hate to see others harmed by it.
posted by five fresh fish at 2:09 PM on November 9, 2005

Make that $1200. (Boy, this is a lot of posts).
posted by abcde at 5:28 PM on November 9, 2005

I fifth the 12" Powerbook. You could wait for the Intel models - probably the sensible option. However, if you must buy it now, I really don't see a problem at all. Mine seems plenty fast to me - never wait for anything, and do music production on it with no problems.

The only problem is that there is no PCI card slot. This is a downer, but if you don't need one, you're all set.

A word of advice - if you get an external mouse, get a wired one. Bluetooth mice (like the one I have) look very cool and seem like a good idea, but there is fractional delay/lag between moving the mouse and seeing the pointer move that can be irritating.
posted by pollystark at 5:22 AM on November 10, 2005

I cannot believe I'm posting a link to MSN, but I found this helpful.
posted by theora55 at 6:49 AM on November 10, 2005

though you get more per Hz on PowerPC

Apple abandoned all that "Megahertz Myth" marketing FUD when it decided to go suck at the "Intel Inside" promotional machine. Maybe it's time to get with the program?
posted by meehawl at 7:24 AM on November 10, 2005

Thank you all so much for the advice! I'm still weighing my options, but this is all really helpful.
posted by mandlebrotz at 12:56 PM on November 10, 2005

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