matchmaker matchmaker make me a laptop
February 1, 2018 6:25 AM   Subscribe

I need a new laptop and don't know how to buy a Windows machine. Complication: for use in rural areas in Africa.

I need a new laptop. I've been buying Macbooks for the past 10+ years, though, so I'm not sure what or how you go about choosing a Windows machine. Details!

Location: Rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa. (Yes, I'm being intentionally vague). Very, very hot (103* on a cool day). Alternately dusty and monsoon-y. Intermittent power supply at 220V, though will also use in the US at 110. Poor internet connection when available (so a Chrome book is not for me).

Use case: Mostly writing and Windows suite (Word, Excel). Some data processing using R; databases will likely be under 10k records.

Primary concerns: Weight - I have lots of weight restrictions. This is contradicted by my concern with battery (intermittent power = need long battery life) and durability (see location). I'm also not sure how you set up a Windows machine; I've heard some about bloatware. And antivirus stuff will need to happen.

Price: Would prefer around $500-700, but could spend up to $1000. Theft and damage are also concerns; I'd want to be able to afford to replace it.

I would love recommendations, but helping me describe what I'm looking for would be great. I have always just bought a MacBook, so this is confusing for me.
posted by quadrilaterals to Computers & Internet (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The first thing that comes to mind is a Panasonic Toughbook, though that might not work for your weight restriction. However, they are built for durability and battery life.
posted by SansPoint at 6:43 AM on February 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'd look at Thinkpads. Pretty sturdy, long battery life, not too heavy.
posted by corvine at 7:08 AM on February 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

XPS 13: Light and compact, good battery life, powerful enough not to be really annoying when getting your R on.

BUT, dunno about durability or heat tolerance, you can't easily swap the battery*, and you'd have to look in the Dell outlet to get into your price range. biscotti runs one and I'm pretty sure the only moving part is the fan.

*Which is to say, on some Windows laptop the battery is either external or easily-accessed so you can just swap to a fresh battery when the one in the machine is getting low. The XPS 13 ain't among them.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 7:24 AM on February 1, 2018

In case it helps, there are laptop cable locks. They with a loop on one end and the other locks into your computer. Mentioning in case that would be helpful for opportunity theft?

Linux Mint is almost better than Windows these days. In my experience, it's a lot faster to run, with fewer to no viruses.
posted by aniola at 7:27 AM on February 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

I can't recommend a laptop, but you might want to look into a portable external battery as well. I've only ever used these for phones (my laptop is enough of a beast that it needs more power than any of these can supply), but they might help if you find yourself without power for longer than expected.
posted by Hactar at 7:28 AM on February 1, 2018

Upon review, I'll second corvine, with the caveat that you get an actual ThinkPad, not the ThinkPad Edge line of laptops. (My partner has an Edge, and it's been fine for them, but it's the discount line with lower build quality.)
posted by SansPoint at 7:30 AM on February 1, 2018

The Lenovo X1 Carbon checks your boxes on weight and battery life (in my experience), but I can't speak to how well it handles heat or dust – a ToughBook is a better bet when it comes to adverse environments. My opinion (coming from 8 years of MacBooks) is that the X1 Carbon is an excellent laptop. I run windows and linux and so far haven't had any problems. I do hate windows 10, but that's not the laptop's fault.

That said, the X1 is probably outside of your budget unless you went for a barebones current model (~$1100). You might have some luck looking for used/refurbished/factory-new 4th generation models, though! I got my 5th gen model "factory new" on craigslist for $1200, and it had all the things I was looking for – 256 GB storage, 16 GB RAM, etc. etc. So it is possible to run into a deal like this (though perhaps less probable outside of the US, I don't know).

Actually, looking at The Google now, I see that Lenovo just released the 6th generation of this laptop, so you might even be able to snag a 5th gen model for Not Lots.

Here's a review of the X1, so it's not just my word.
posted by =d.b= at 7:30 AM on February 1, 2018

With any laptop, get rid of as much of the manufacturer's auto-starting software as possible. With limited bandwidth, you don't want some minor feature trying for days to update a driver. Whenever you have good bandwidth run any software that does updates. To save battery, turn off wifi most of the time. The recommendation to get a 2nd battery is a good one.

I have a Thinkpad T series. It's sturdy and reliable and has pretty good battery life, esp. considering its age. I have had and worked on many laptops, and the Thinkpads are consistently reliable.
posted by theora55 at 8:05 AM on February 1, 2018

The Lenovo Outlet Store sometimes has some crazy good deals. It sounds like your computing needs are pretty light, and an older refurb model could do just fine for you, and be crazy cheap.

Also, is there someone who is currently in the location, or who has recently been there, who you could ask?
posted by LarryC at 8:31 AM on February 1, 2018

I'd get a refurbished Thinkpad from the X series. Sturdy, light, affordable. Also quite easy to fix, hardware-wise, compared to most other laptops. And they don't look very shiny or desirable.
posted by Too-Ticky at 8:44 AM on February 1, 2018

Looking at LarryC's link, I think there's some good options. For your portability needs, I suggest a model with a SSD, which will be good for your battery life and for weight, along with the most RAM you can find. 8GB is good.
posted by SansPoint at 8:44 AM on February 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh yes, an SSD is definitely worth it for battery life and weight and also for being more shockproof as well as running cooler.
Okay: I'd get a refurbished Thinkpad from the X series and stick an SSD in it. It's something you can easily do yourself.
posted by Too-Ticky at 8:48 AM on February 1, 2018

Since it'll be sunny -- I'd find one with a matte display unless you like looking at yourself in a mirror while you work.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:57 AM on February 1, 2018

Are you going as part of an academic institution? Check with your IT department if so. They may have what I euphemistically refer to as "craptops." These are basically 5 or 6 year old laptops. I give them to people where I don't much care if I get them back or what condition they are in. If you are with an educational institution they may also have requirements the laptop needs to meet before using institutional data. If you are corporate the story is probably pretty much the same as far as your IT folk being able to help you. If they can provide you with a managed system, so much the better.

If this is purely personal, I'd still suggest going old and used, so you won't be devastated if lost, broken, or stolen. Bonus here is that you can often get more than one used for the price of new, so you don't have to worry about treating the laptop like it's super fragile. I've sent users with laptops to war zones, and I've generally tried to insure they had as much redundancy as possible including a spare laptop. It's a bit difficult to get a replacement or repair in the filed. It's awesome when your downtime consists of booting up a second laptop.

I would highly encourage you to encrypt your laptop and firmware password lock it. Also look into some sort of system management where you can remote wipe if lost, and make sure you have local and cloud backup of data (when you do have internet).
posted by cjorgensen at 9:27 AM on February 1, 2018

Thinkpads in the T4xx/T5XX series are solid choices, and reasonably durable as far as business laptops go. All other Lenovos including the X1 Carbon are far too fragile to be used like you want. Thinkpads are relatively easy to get parts for, as well. But really, just get a Toughbook.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 9:43 AM on February 1, 2018

I have killed two nice laptops and one crappy one while conducting fieldwork in rural Africa - two had their motherboards fried courtesy of the generator (I believe), and one died of unknown causes. Humidity and ants did a number on all of them. Don't buy an expensive laptop and expect it to be happy and healthy in those conditions. I have a Dell notebook that is my field laptop, and I have a much nicer computer in the US for doing academic work on. The Dell notebook is clunky and not ideal, but it has great battery life, is compact, and (most importantly) it was $249 and so I will not weep when it, too, meets its demise in the rain forest. Toughbooks are pretty good, but they are expensive and honestly may be overkill. If you're going to be doing frequent work in this setting, it might be worth it, but I'd seriously consider buying a cheap notebook. I can run r, SPSS, and the Office suite on mine without too much trouble. I even finished writing my dissertation on this one, after nice laptop # 2 bit the dust.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:14 PM on February 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Incidentally, you can look at my old asks, which primarily deal with trying to find a computer that will suit my Cote d'Ivoire rain forest needs. So far, this is my best solution.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:17 PM on February 1, 2018

Could you budget handle a power pack?
posted by gudrun at 6:27 PM on February 1, 2018

I currently work for Doctors Without Borders, and on virtually all of our missions worldwide, we use HP EliteBook 840's. Even in the some of the most remote areas of the world, in pretty harsh conditions (though I'm not too sure how well they stand up to being dropped, or left out in the rain, etc.). It seems like this could work for you as well, as they're within your budget. (For high heat locations, just make sure you have enough ventilation around the laptop, and give it a break every once in a while.)
posted by hasna at 12:02 AM on February 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you choose a just slightly older Thinkpad, you can get 2 identical ones on ebay or newegg. Lots of companies lease laptops, and there are many refurbished Thinkpads available that are terrific computers. That gives you 2 batteries as well, and if one laptop succumbs, you have a spare. Swapping a laptop hard drive is easy, but required a phillips screwdriver with a small head. Put one in with the spare. You could even back up hard drive 1 to hard drive 2.
posted by theora55 at 7:20 AM on February 2, 2018

If you will be charging/powering any electronics via generator, I would strongly recommend some kind of power conditioning. A quality transformer-based power filter or even a modest but good quality UPS to as an intermediate between the generator and your electronics. I live in a coastal community, and at least once a year, someone brings in a dead printer or computer that they tried to run off a generator, and it fried the power supply. Generators can produce all kinds of "dirty" power (square wave instead of sine; extreme EM/RF interference; neutral-ground leaks; voltage spikes/sags; voltage & current out of phase; ugh there is so much really...) Modern power supplies are precision instruments that are expecting a certain input. In the US, typically 120V 60Hz, with a clean sine-wave profile. A lot of power supplies use zero-cross as a reference, and if a generator is putting out pure square or a really terrible sine/stepped sine, it can cause all sorts of problems beyond the usual damage from spikes and surges. Especially if you will be moving around from place to place where whatever supplies the juice might change wildly, really a quality UPS is a good bit of insurance. Find one that is switchable from 120v/60Hz for the US, to 230v/50Hz for your 220v cases. I'm not sure about Africa, but I believe the EU standardized all their subtle flavors of "220-ish" to 230v/50Hz several years ago.
posted by xedrik at 8:26 AM on February 3, 2018

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