Just tell me what laptop to buy
April 15, 2019 12:03 PM   Subscribe

I guess I need a computer to do specific things now? But I don't know exactly what I need. I can explain.

My laptop, which has been running hot for a while and the monitor of which is hanging by one hinge, is about to bite the dust. It still functions, but I don't dare ask it to do much besides turn on, access the internet, and use LibreOffice. Now, it's having some difficulty doing even that. I knew this day would come, but I put off preparing for it by doing my research, and now I need to make a good decision fast.

The urgency: I am presenting at a conference and need to bring a working laptop with me to link to their projector system. This came up pretty suddenly; my only chance to meet with my co-presenter is in about ten days.

Why I'm not sure what I need: In the past, I mostly stuck to browsing the internet and writing on my laptop; maybe making the odd powerpoint presentation now and then or playing a video game. But I've begun learning Python and am extremely interested in machine learning. I generally pick things up pretty quickly, and I learn best by doing. So I'll probably not only be writing my own code, but also grabbing more advanced code and messing with it. I realize this is pretty vague.

So I'm not sure how much processing power, storage, etc I really need. It doesn't need to be super tiny or light. I tend to aim for screens around the 15" mark, and it needs to not feel like I'm lugging a bowling ball around and to handle a little jostling in my bag. Asus has served me well in the past, and I've heard good things about HP. I'm not interested in anything Mac-related. My budget isn't huge; I have always bought refurbished. I don't want to put out a specific number because I don't really even have a sense of what's reasonable for my needs. I paid a little under $500 for my current laptop, but only because I got lucky and stumbled upon a really good deal. I don't expect to get that lucky again.

Thanks for any and all advice!
posted by Urban Winter to Technology (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Just tossing a suggestion out there... maybe something like the ThinkPad X230? You can pick up a refurb'd (well, Amz calls it "renewed", whatever that distinction means) one for under $300, if 4GB RAM is okay for your needs. It's a 12.5" screen so it might be smaller than what you're looking for, but I find it to be a very handy size for traveling and delivering presentations.

If you want something a little bigger, maybe the T430? 14" display and you can pick one up with 8GB RAM and an SSD (admittedly a rather small 128GB one, but that's easy to upgrade down the road—this isn't a soldered-in Apple machine) for a bit over three bills. I think this is a deal for what you get. If you don't care about the optical drive, you can pull it out and pop in a second SSD using an adapter bracket.

I believe you can upgrade the T430 to 16GB RAM—you can actually buy a 16GB model refurbished from NewEgg, but it's $500+ and doesn't make sense (you could get the 8GB model, throw out the RAM it comes with, install 2x8GB chips for 16GB, and beat the price! Not sure what they're smoking). And unless you're going to start playing around with virtual machines or a bunch of Docker containers (or some other containerized infrastructure with a lot of overhead), I think 16GB is a reasonable memory load for a daily driver laptop. Most current-gen machines are only coming with 8GB or 16GB so it should be fine for a while, and I can attest to Win10 running fine with 8.

One sidenote: don't be tempted by the T440s you might see. Between the T430 and the T440, despite the "10 more" that the name implies with the latter model, I would choose the T430 hands down. It's the traditional ThinkPad design with the nice keyboard and external ports and stuff. The T440 is their new cost-optimized, stripped-down trash. Just like the USB-C Macbooks, it's a terrible downgrade that showcases how good the previous model was.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:23 PM on April 15, 2019 [6 favorites]

If you've been out of the computer game for a while, check out Chromebooks.

I have a somewhat rickety Windows 7 desktop at home, a decent Windows 10 laptop for games, and at work I use one of those Macbook Pros so fancy it doesn't even have an HDMI port. What do I pick up most when I just want to use a computere? My cheap ass Chromebook. It's just so uncomplicated, I love it.

IMO I think you should see if there's something that meets your spec needs and go for it.
posted by phunniemee at 12:24 PM on April 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

You can do the basics of machine learning on any old hardware, but as soon as you want to train large models, no laptop grade hardware is going to cut it - ML (or an least RNN ML) eats as much compute as you have and would like more.

Note that the current move in laptop-land is towards using USB-C for everything, so you’ll need USB-C -> Displayport / HDMI adapters for using projectors (and you wont be able to use VGA projectors without an expensive one)
posted by pharm at 12:26 PM on April 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

My current laptop is a ThinkPad X201s, 2GHz Core i7, 8GB memory, 250GB SSD. The unit itself is about 6 years old (the SSD and memory are more recent), and cost me US$300, roughly, refurbished. Came with a conventional HD, which would have upped the price from a diskless one by threequarters of sod-all. Irrelevant anyway, since you want to plonk in a SSD.

Except for the machine learning bit it's exposed to the same workload as yours, and that ML would be covered by more memory. Previous ThinkPads (X201, X61, X31 and T23) have served me well, standing up to being transported daily, often on a motorbike.

You probably want a T-series model, the X are 12..13", ultra-portable and lack an optical drive. T's have 14..15" screens.

Specs, comments and tips on every ThinkPad since the Pleistocene can be found on the ThinkWiki site
posted by Stoneshop at 12:40 PM on April 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Apparently Lenovo is having a big one-day sale today, so you may be able to pick up a new (as opposed to refurbished) ThinkPad.
posted by sardonyx at 12:49 PM on April 15, 2019

Dell usually has some deals in their outlet, as well.

One thing to think about; going with 'standard' kind of things like a hard drive can drop the price significantly, and then doing your own upgrade to an SSD to get more speed can be less expensive if you're OK with opening up the case and fiddling about.

Not much difference in i5 vs i7, bang-for-your-buck sort of thing.. though i3 to i5 is usually a larger step up and worth it.

My son has a Inspiron 15 - 5570, which I got bare basic, then dropped an SSD and memory into. He games on it, as well as does music capture and mixing.
posted by rich at 12:57 PM on April 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Unless you are doing ML on big datasets right now, I'm not sure I'd overspec the machine just for that. Though it depends on exactly what you're doing, a lot of the AI/ML people I know do their coding on a laptop, but the actual churning of the data happens in a datacenter somewhere, because that's the best way to get a whole mess of GPU/TPU cores for that sort of parallel computation temporarily. Some of them have very minimalist laptops.

There are also an increasing number of "edge TPUs" (Google Coral, Intel Neural Compute Stick, NVIDIA Jetson) and I think the price on these things will decrease substantially in the next few years. It could easily be that for the price of a souped-up laptop now, in 12 months you'll be able to buy a Raspberry Pi-size thing that has much more horsepower, specialized for the task.

This is the area where the hardware is really changing fast, and IMO you risk grabbing a falling blade if you buy for tomorrow's needs today.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:57 PM on April 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Echoing some of the above...

For your presentation needs, just about anything will do. With the right adapters, you could use an Android smartphone.

Usually the actual Machine Learning usually happens on a server somewhere outside of your laptop, though the instructional code would be written and probably tested on your personal computer. So a reasonable business-level laptop is fine.

The Thinkpad T-series has been pretty reliable and something of a business standard.

It sounds like you're a Windows user, so I wouldn't see a need for you to buy an Apple machine. At this point neither is better than the other, really. So get the one you're used to.
posted by jander03 at 1:10 PM on April 15, 2019

I am using a refurb Thinkpad T410 from ebay. I added RAM to get it to 8 gb. It is reliable and runs everything I need, was @ 100, plus RAM.
posted by theora55 at 1:19 PM on April 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

If I were going for a cheap laptop these days I'd look up mrchromebox.tech and use chrx to install something like GalliumOS on it. You'd get your libreoffice, your python, and basically a full Ubuntu version on there complete with the ability to install "snaps" to get modern software channels.

I'd go minimum 8GB of RAM, aim for 16, but if your budget is for 4 you can make do.

I recently converted my daughter's 4GB chromebook with this chain and it was kind of astonishing how much computer there is in those things!
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 1:52 PM on April 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

I regularly extol the virtues of the Lenovo Yoga. You can get them from as little as $550.

Whatever you do don't buy anything without SSD.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:22 PM on April 15, 2019

Jumping in to echo what others have said and say something I never expected to say: chromebooks can be kind of an incredible value, especially if you put linux on them. This allows them to basically (with reboots) exist in 3 ecosystems: ChromeOS, Android, and Linux. For the latter, you'd definitely want to check the mrchromebox/chrx documentation to make sure the hardware you want is supported, but if so, it's a great way to get even more use out of them.

Yes, they are lower-spec'd typically, but it's nice having a battery-sipping, no fan/much heat, light laptop for hijinks/work. The one I got was $200, has a 1080p display, HDMI out, and would be fine for light office/presentation use, as well as some python work. Not so much machine learning.
posted by destructive cactus at 2:53 PM on April 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

I just got this HP EliteBook last week and it's pretty ace. It has a VGA port for projectors. Like the reviewer on NewEgg, mine's under manufacturer warranty until 2021. I consider it quite a steal with the 500 GB SSD and the 7th Gen i5 processor.
posted by glonous keming at 5:56 PM on April 15, 2019

"Nth-ing" Thinkpad. I bought a used t420 with the snazzier lcd screen and an ssd pre-installed back in 2015 for around $300 from a guy who buys lots of them off of various corporations , wipes them, and then sells them on craigslist. He's still doing it because i advised a friend to get one a few months ago. Best of all possible worlds if you ask me because they don't have any craptastic lenovo bloatware pre installed. I upgraded ram to 16gb. it has an i5 processor. it is still meeting my needs! and nowadays it would be way cheaper than that $300 in 2015. if you're in the northeast memail me i can even point you in the direction of the guy i bought from. he has newer models as well, if you want.
posted by elgee at 10:28 PM on April 15, 2019

Another vote for refurbished/renewed Thinkpads. They last forever.
posted by Chairboy at 4:22 AM on April 16, 2019

Chromebook: Since you mentioned that you want to code in python, I'd look into Crostini (linux application) compatibility. Personally I found working with Crouton a bit limiting. Also, the twitchy touchpad on my Chromebook drives me up the wall.

Refurb Laptop: I just picked up a refurb T420 from newegg for $150 + SSD + Better Battery (the one that shipped with the laptop was about half rated capacity). I suspect it has a better CPU than my desktop currently. LibreOffice, Web, and Python are not too heavy, depending on what you plan to do. If you want to do heavy computing with machine learning, it might be a better idea to look at one of the cloud/cluster services for running machine learning experiments.

General Requirements: The shift to mobile and laptop computing has really cut down on CPU/memory bloat compared to 10-15 years ago where it was a race for more RAM and higher clock speeds. Many things (except for gaming) are expected to run underclocked or on a system with limited resources. Microsoft claims 2 GB and 1 GHz minimum for Windows 10. My previous laptop (Debian, XFCE4, Firefox) was comfortably web browsing with 2 GB. I'd shoot for 4 GB RAM minimum for a new purchase and budget money for an SSD. You should be able to find something for your presentation under a $500 price point.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 6:22 AM on April 16, 2019

Yeah, crouton is way limiting, and I could never get it working reliably. That's why I ended up using chrx. Crostini may be a more suitable modern solution, to be sure.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 11:17 AM on April 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone! You helped me figure out what I really need at this moment. I ended up getting a refurbished ThinkPad T430 for about $315. Should arrive in a few days. I may see about taking some of the parts from my current laptop and moving them over - but that's a topic for another ask.

Thanks again!
posted by Urban Winter at 1:46 PM on April 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

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