Talk me down from buying all the things
August 7, 2017 2:54 PM   Subscribe

I can't decide what devices I want to own. I have a laptop I don't enjoy and a tablet that I love, but is probably not that long for this world. I'm trying to decide whether I should spend some money now to update my laptop or buy a completely new one that will replace some of the things I use my tablet for. Help me future-proof myself, and possibly recommend small, lightweight laptops that are sometimes happy to be tablets?

I've owned computers for over 20 years, but never a new one, so you'll have to go gently a bit here as even thinking about buying a new laptop is huge for me.

My current laptop (and main computer) is a Samsung NP-QX410, I bought it off a friend a couple of years ago. He upgraded it to 6GB RAM and I put in a 250gb SSD. I run Linux (Kubuntu out of loyalty to an old friend). It works ok, most of what I use it for is in the browser. The battery is shot, so it has to be plugged in all the time. It's bigger than I'd like and heavy, so carrying it around isn't fun. But then I rarely take it anywhere, so it's not often an issue.

I could spend £100 or so adding another 2GB RAM and replacing the battery (which are very hard to come by, and also internal, so need some laptop surgery to do), and adding Windows 10. One annoyance is that I use Powerpoint a lot in my job, and I've not found a way to make presentations that look good in LibreOffice Impress and PP.


I keep eyeing up people's ultra lightweight, small laptops that they're writing novels on in coffee shops (or so I imagine). I've got some money I could spend, up to about £800, so I could afford a nice, new one. This is a big step, I've never bought a new computer. My current laptop works ok for me most of the time, I just don't love it, and I hate unnecessary waste, and this feels a bit like this. On top of that, I really want to be sure whatever I buy will last a long time, I don't want to replace it in 2 years time.

My tablet is a Google Nexus 7 and I love, love, love it. But much like my very, very old cat, I've accepted that it's coming to the end of it's life and it might suddenly go one day without warning, and I'm unlikely to find a similar replacement (Amazon is a no-go for Reasons). I use it mainly for social media, reading (metafilter, ebooks, Pocket, news apps), syncing all my calendars and occasional work email when I'm out and about.

When I was thinking about asking this question it dawned on me, that maybe I could think a bit differently about this...

Option 1: Upgrade current laptop for some money and carry on with my Nexus until it packs in. Together they might last for another 18 months - 2 years.

Option 2: Get over my emotional hang ups of giving up on perfectly serviceable things, sell current laptop, replace it with a nice, lightweight one I'll use more and carry round with me more. Possibly one which can convert to a tablet or the screen folds back, so when the Nexus finally dies, I can use the laptop for some of the things I use the tablet for now. Are laptops that do this worth it? I don't know many people who use them to know.

I'd replace the Nexus with an eInk device so I don't feel bad about reading in bed, which I do all the time. If I do this, I could justify spending a bit more on the laptop than I'd originally planned.

Or is there another option I've not considered?

So should I upgrade or replace? And if I replace, can you recommend any small, lightweight laptops that are sometimes happy to be tablets? Ideally ones that can duelboot linux. Not keen on Apple, and even with my big for me budget, I don't think I can afford them.
posted by Helga-woo to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, new laptops are lighter nowadays, and 2-in-1s are very popular, like the HP Spectre, Dell XPS and Lenovo Yoga. And really any PC can dual boot Linux. Whether or not they can replace your tablet depends on your use case. Where and how do use your tablet? If you use it one handed at all, then no, it's not really a replacement. Or if you use it in any position where you have to support the weight for a long time (like lying in bed with it)--they're still all heavier than even the largest iPad.

p.s., to answer your LibreOffice complaint- Have you tried powerpoint in office 365? It isn't as full-featured as the desktop version, but it will at least get you the same WYSIWYG as regular Powerpoint.
posted by thewumpusisdead at 3:29 PM on August 7, 2017

well, my computer's got second-generation i3 processors and it's always managed everything fine, i don't game, so i know for a fact that the lowest standard offer on processors is enough for normal people, despite i5 and i7 existing, if that helps. I have had crashes and stuff due to laptop being half-ruined on the motherboard (i'm using the other half) and things like that.

I have a Kindle Paperwhite 2nd ed, if i was buying now i'd just get the modern newest Touch, because i never use the light (but i'm unique in this)(you're supposed to have it dim in a dim room) but the higher dpi of the new Kindles is amazing (downside: it makes you find print hard to read, smudgy and blurry). I love my kindle and everyone i know who has a kindle or a kobo loves them, top recommendation. They do 'specials' on black friday and such, buy direct then. Mother's Day and new years. The adverts don't notice - it's just the off screen. Their big failing is no hole - you can't thread a loop anywhere - so you end up using a holder. I recommend igadgitz (?) with the loop to put your hand through for heavy public transport reading, which rides like a rollercoaster in the hills round here - might be a bit unnecessary in your bed. Try not to give amazon all your money though, do search around a lot, eg gutenberg has more than you'd believe, you can use Push To Kindle and other browser extensions to send longform journalism wirelessly to your kindle. Don't bother with the 3g thing, their browser is complete rubbish and even the shop app crashes. Just basic touch. (Kobo are hard to get now in UK.) I concentrate more with a kindle too, relaxing.

there's a good website for comparing processor performance, which is what decides the speed, which is 99% of computer pleasure. i think it's called. Use the 'popular processors comparison' and search using ctrl+F for the ones in the computers you're thinking of buying
posted by maiamaia at 3:36 PM on August 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Just a couple of points to clarify:

Unfortunately, the PowerPoint presentations I make are so image heavy they don't work well on Office 365, I have access to that through work.

Where I said no Amazon for Reasons, that includes Kindle. No kobos in the UK might be an issue in that case (thinking a couple years down the line).
posted by Helga-woo at 3:55 PM on August 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I believe in buying craptops: the cheapest laptop you can get that has a reasonable number of features. Mostly though, the goal is to be able to replace it frequently enough to never have to worry about it running poorly. Honestly, I feel the same way about almost all electronics. Early adoption and future proofing is literally impossible. Where are the 3D Tv's? How do the first gen Wi-Fi enabled Tv's stand up to today's? Can you find a full screen TV? How important is 4K resolution?

Does your laptop have a VGA output? HDMI? Is the amount of memory important for you, or are the things you do with a computer really limited by broadband speeds?

Does your TV act as a touch screen? How hard is it to get your laptop to appear on your TV?

What is the point of weakness for the device / what connector is going to need to be replaced? I tried the first gen surface and found the detatchable keyboard didn't reattach far sooner than I expected. (This was in violation of my craptop policy).

Do I need this to be portable, or do I need a connected experience? How many items do I have charging at a time? How long is the battery life? Is this rugged enough to be out by the pool? Can I see on the screen in bright daylight?

I ask myself a lot of questions about what I have and what I need. Generally the purchases that I am most happy with are those that fit a specific use that was needed, and not those that I buy trying to tackle every possible problem.

Once again, there is no future proofing, but thinking about how I use things is a great way to understand why for most meetings I take quick notes in slack on my phone, in technical meetings I use my laptop, and planning meetings I add in a pad of engineering paper either for easierbdiagramming or for the fresh doodle surface.

Ultimately though - pretend your cable box is no more and you are surfing your TV channels by this second screen... plan on that.
posted by Nanukthedog at 3:56 PM on August 7, 2017

I personally would not pay to upgrade that laptop if I owned it.

You didn't list it, but have you considered option:
3) buy a powerful tablet and use it as a main computer.

Microsoft Surfaces are held in pretty high regard these days*, though I don't have much personal experience. And they can dual boot to Ubuntu at least, and probably any mainstream Linux really. You don't explain what you need a laptop for specifically, but a surface (with separate keyboard/case making it a lot like a laptop) might do just fine.

Help me future-proof myself

While there are some good recs above on small laptop/tablet hybrid things, you cannot buy anything in the tablet or laptop or hybrid computer form factor that will be likely to run great and feel useful in 10 years. It's kind of a shame, but that's the way it is. Even with a lot of skill and knowledge and hacking ability and desire to exercise it, small powerful computers and "future proof" go together like milk and Drano.

*(long-term MS hater here, can't believe I even bothered to type this up but I do think it may work you better than a normal small laptop or any other tablet-as-sole-computer)
posted by SaltySalticid at 3:58 PM on August 7, 2017

While I agree trying to future proof is not practical, in a sense it's getting that way by default, an I5/7 with 8+GB and an SSD & a good graphics card is tech that's to some degree at a plateau. The next big jump may be serious GPU's in laptops but unless a gamer or ML wonk it may not be that useful. That Samsung specs don't look all that bad, other than weight. One thought would be a chromebook for light carry around use, serious limitations but if the main use is browsing, that's what it's for, but if it's bonked or stolen, well, cheap. If you're a reader, no going back from e-ink, just the best tech evah! Lot's of ways to acquire ebooks, but other than checking a simple web site the e-ink browsers are crap. Too bad anti, the fire tablet is cheap and works, that ads do have audio which the tablets don't so annoying.
posted by sammyo at 4:28 PM on August 7, 2017

Yeah, have to echo that "future proof" is an expensive dream to chase.

Cheap and replaceable will save you the most money in the mean time, especially as both laptops and tablets get more and more commodified as media-consumption machines.
posted by rokusan at 6:13 PM on August 7, 2017

I'm not good on computer specs but trying to use one of those laptop/tablet convert things suuuuucks. It's the one electronics purchase I've ever regretted. The set up for desktop on a tablet just doesn't work.
posted by raccoon409 at 7:10 PM on August 7, 2017

I had a Surface Pro 3 for a couple of years. A very nice machine, but neither a tablet nor a laptop. The biggest problem, actually, is Windows. The best Windows software is still "desktop" software, which by definition is not tablet-friendly. It was neither fish nor fowl, and I sold it in favor of an inexpensive Windows laptop and an iPad Air 2. I use the iPad for about 80% of my computing, the laptop for the stuff that the iPad doesn't do (Microsoft Office on occasion, music library and book management -- I also have a latest generation Kindle Paperwhite -- and photo library management).

Like others, I wouldn't put another dime (or shilling, or whatever) into that laptop. I'd often recommend a Chromebook here, but you can't run Microsoft Office on one, and there are times when genuine, desktop Office is necessary in the professional world.

I'd seriously evaluate a tablet powerful enough to do most of your day-to-day computing on and a cheap, moderately powerful laptop that can act as a base station and machine for specialized functions.

Reading on an e-ink device is far superior to reading even on a small tablet -- the differences between reflective and transmitted light are noticeable. I respect your dislike of Amazon (though I don't share it), but it looks like the Kindle will be the dominant e-ink reader for a long time to come. If you want e-ink, you might need to bite the bullet. If you don't want to give money directly to Amazon, consider a used Kindle. With a little effort, you can buy ePub books from Kobo or Barnes and Noble (are Nooks available in Britain?), and with Calibre and some plug-ins strip the DRM and convert them to Kindle format, then load them via USB.

Your concerns and quandaries are ones I've spent a lot of time thinking about. I spent good money on a new iPad and am very happy with it, but it doesn't completely replace my laptop or my Kindle.
posted by lhauser at 8:15 PM on August 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

OMG, I have one of those laptops, or very close variant, and it is probably the worst laptop ever! I've never taken a hammer to a computer before, but when this one dies, I will finally live the dream. This machine is also why I will not buy a consumer level laptop again, unless I was utterly desperate. I'm currently using it as a home theater PC, until it gets so bad that I can't stand it anymore.

As far as I know, your laptop being similar to mine, there may not be a replacement battery available. Not one that actually works and is worth the incredible trouble it takes to replace. And these compluters are budget consumer-grade models that were meant to be disposable. Do not spend any more money on it. It won't actually take more RAM either, iirc, as the 2 gb is soldered to the motherboard and the slot only accepts up to 4 gb. Which is why the damn thing has 6 gb of RAM. Making it even slower. The 10 year old netbook that I use to play audiobooks, that runs XP (which ran out of room on the 4 gig primary ssd), is faster and has more battery capacity.

If you want a reasonably priced laptop that will run either Windows or Linux, a refurbished Thinkpad (x230 and higher or t430 and higher) is a good way to go. There is a tablet version, the x230t, I think. There are newer and more exciting options out there, but I don't have any experience with them. I bought my x230 in 2012, I think. There's also a 10 year old Dell Latitude with a 1st gen i5 mobile processor, that does have a few quirks, but is fast and stable with maxed out RAM and an SSD.

If Windows is non-negotiable, and portability is the next highest priority, and a new machine was needed, I'd buy as much Surface Pro 4 as I could afford. But I also know that it is both a compromise and another essentially disposable machine, with maybe a 3-4 year lifespan at best.

I've been recommending Chromebooks to people who don't need to do anything Windows specific or processor heavy. But for an actual computer, I'd not get any processor less powerful than in i5 of any vintage. I've had to do some tech support for a friend who had an i3 powered machine and it makes a big difference for anything graphics related if using integrated graphics. Saving a hundred dollars or so isn't with the long term frustration.

And I'm afraid that I don't have any good suggestions for replacing your tablet. I have a cheap old Fire, my mother has a nicer old Fire, and we both have Paperwhite e-readers. Mine's a 1st gen, she recently got a 3rd gen and wow is the screen great.
posted by monopas at 12:46 AM on August 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thank you all! You have given me lots to think about and mostly confirmed what I knew but hadn't quite accepted, and now I'm going to spend a lot of money. It is immensely frustrating that it's acceptable to replace laptops every two years, such a shocking waste of resources. I know people who are working on this, but it doesn't look like it will change any time soon.

For completeness sake, I use the browser on my PC mostly for remote working, Office 365 in one job, Google Apps at the other. Wordpress and social media at them both. I do some freelance work as well, and unfortunately, MS is needed, so people can open the documents you send them and they will look exactly as you said they would. No amount of "but, but, but open source...!" will help there sadly.

I'll buy a new laptop and I will attempt to eke out it's life for as long as possible. Old laptop will be sold (it's really not that bad, its processor is alright, and it's lasted well aside from the battery, it's just not a good fit for me.) I'm looking at one of the Dell Inspirons, which does flip around, but I'm not getting it for that. It's got the right processor, memory, SSD and all the ports I need. Thinking about that was really helpful.

I'll worry about the tablet when I have to. And think about an eInk device at some point.

And for the record, aside from the usual reasons not to shop there, a severe lack of humanity at Amazon harmed a member of my family. Everyone can choose where they shop, but in this instance it's personal.
posted by Helga-woo at 4:03 AM on August 9, 2017

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