Help me put a new laptop in my lap
January 21, 2021 8:42 AM   Subscribe

I need a new, or possibly new-to-me laptop, and I know next to nothing about what to buy or how much I could reasonably expect to pay for it. Help?

My 2012 laptop has had a dying video chip for several years and, for the last week, has also had some sort of power issue (it's probably the port, which I had fixed a year ago). It's my only device, and I am holding my breath every time I power it up in case this will be the time it finally dies. I need to buy another laptop ASAP. I have four questions regarding my shopping for a laptop:

a) What kind of computer do I need? I've never been someone who really understands computers, and I don't know what kind of specifications my new computer should have. I'm a freelance editor and writer, I take a modest amount of photos, I [cough] use the internet rather a lot, and I watch movies and TV on my laptop. I'm not a gamer.

b) Would it be a good idea to buy a secondhand computer? I have almost no money and will have to, to put it euphemistically, "move things around" to pay for a laptop right now. But I'm afraid it will cost me more long-term to buy used.

c) If I buy used, what's a good Toronto or online place to buy it from?

d) What's a reasonable market price for a new laptop or a used one? I have no idea what prices are and want to be sure I don't pay more than the going rate.
posted by orange swan to Computers & Internet (24 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
A little bit of knowledge will go a long way in making you more comfortable making this decision. I highy recommend taking a spin through the Wirecutter articles on laptops. Although the prices mentioned (and sometimes even the availability) are US centric there’s a lot of useful information on what the pros and cons and costs and benifits are for lightweight vs gaming vs general business use.

You mention you’re an editor, if somehow you’re an multiemedia editor (video/photos) you should clarify that ASAP, because minimum viable specs for people who want to edit videos are a lot different then for people who are editing text and the occassional photo.

With buying second hand you can get burned (ebay) or you can get a decent deal (end of lease business machines) but what to buy is probably going to be your first choice. If you’re looking for lightweight or gaming there’s not going to be so many trustworthy options in the second hand market. On the other hand if you’re looking for cheapest possible half-decent machine then machines that are back from being leased are a possibility.

All that being said, as a result of the panedmic laptop sales are up, so prices may reflect that.

Now when it comes to two otherwise identirical machines, you may need to make choices about what to spend money on. Here’s my general order of preferences.

1) Processor - unless you are gaming or video editing the MOST recent isn’t necessary. I would get a Core i5 or better (because that’s the point at which you might notice in day to day usage, IMO) but I wouldn’t burn money on the top of the line Intel Core i9 (but I would take the i7 over the i5 at the same price, as seems to be the option today with the Dell laptop I mention below).
2) RAM - 16GB is good, 8GB is ok for a Windows 10 machine (again, if you’re not doing 3d gaming or video editiing). Spending money to go above 16GB would make sense for gaming or video editing, or if you’re the type of person who needs to keep 400 tabs open in Chrome.
3) Storage- faster is better, size is secondary. The single most noticeable upgrade that you can make to any given Windows computer is ditching magnetic spinning hard disk drives (HDD)and getting a Solid State Drive (SSD) instead. Everything from booting to opening programs will be much faster, and the battery will last a bit longer because SSD have no moving parts. Cloud storage provides lots of oppertunities to store TB of data easily (although offline backups are still a must). The storage that runs your programs and operating system should be as quick as possible, even if that means it’s not as big as you might otherwise get.

Anyway, per Wirecutter the best Windows ultrabook for most people is the Dell XPS 13. In Canada those start at about $1,500 and you can get a really good spec for around $1,650 for one with the newer i5 or i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a very decent quality 256GB SSD. Dell also has nearly moral financing so you can pay for it over 48 months for only 14-28% depending on how much they try to screw you over today. They do however (last time I checked) let you exit the financing early without penalty, so that’s something to consider.

On the other hand if you are a Mac user then the new M1 Macbook Air and Macbook Pro are amazing, as is the new M1 Mac Mini desktop. If you’re never leaving home again and price is a factor the M1 mac mini is worth about 2.5x it’s cost in terms of what you have to pay elsewhere to get that much performance, although you would have to factor in buying a monitor and keyboard/mouse on top of it’s price. At $899 Canadian it MAY be worth the hassel of learning a new operating system, but of course the viability of that will mostly be down to whether your workflows are possible on a Mac. The M1 Macbook air starts at $1,299 Canadian and is also a very good deal in terms of price/performance. The macs will also tend to hold their value longer, in most cases.
posted by tiamat at 9:11 AM on January 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

Since you are, as I am, on a budget, I would like to recommend getting a used&refurbished Thinkpad. You'll get a whole lot of bang for your buck and they are very sturdy; what's more, they are relatively easy to upgrade or repair.
I, too, would recommend 8 or 16 GB of memory (note that this can often be upgraded, if the machine supports more than it currently has) and an i5 or i7 processor. SSDs are great but if money is tight now, you can buy the laptop now and upgrade it to an SSD later.

A T430 is an example of a Thinkpad that I think will serve you well. If you can find the version with a HD display, so much the better.

Decent machines that will last you a while start at $300-$500 US.
posted by Too-Ticky at 9:18 AM on January 21, 2021 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm a text/print editor, not a video or photo editor. And I am not a gamer at all.
posted by orange swan at 9:25 AM on January 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

This may be a long shot, but you could try posting a request on a website like Freecycle or whatever people use in your area. I've seen several requests for old laptops on my local Freecycle (and updates saying that people have received them).
posted by pinochiette at 9:34 AM on January 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

I came here to recommend exactly what Too-Ticky did - a refurbished/off-lease ThinkPad. They're really tough, well-built machines and you get a lot of computer for your money.

If you're doing a lot of typing and movie-watching, I'd recommend a T450, T460, or T470, which have 14" screens and basically full-size keyboards. (I find the 15" ThinkPads too big, and the 12" too small.) In terms of what RAM and HD etc to look for, those Wirecutter articles really do serve as an excellent backgrounder.

For retailers, I've purchased from Bauer Systems before and had a great experience. Their stock does fluctuate a lot, but they're good to deal with and gave me a heads up when they expected to have more inventory of a model I wanted.

Good luck! Laptops have improved so, so much since 2012 - I hope you'll enjoy having a new machine.
posted by ZaphodB at 9:50 AM on January 21, 2021 [5 favorites]

With Thinkpads, make sure to get one with an IPS display. At best most Thinkpad displays are OK (although personally I do like that they're usually matte instead of glossy), at worst they're pretty annoying for watching movies (narrow viewing angle, not very bright). It's sometimes hard to find out what kind of display a particular used one has since they make them with a variety of displays. From what I've noticed, it seems most T4XX model thinkpads that have 1920x1080 or better resolution displays use IPS displays.

I wouldn't especially recommend the X2xx models because they have 12" screens, which is small if it's your only computer and you're not using a monitor. (T4xx models are 14")
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:35 AM on January 21, 2021

I'm afraid it will cost me more long-term to buy used.

Computers are always a crapshoot. The one time I bought a new laptop, it started giving me trouble much earlier than most (but not all) of the used ones I've had since then. But since you can get multiple amazing used thinkpads for the price of a single mediocre new computer, I'd definitely vote for used.

The one caveat is that if battery life is important to you, buying used can be a disadvantage. (I find it hard to trust third-party batteries.) And I'd recommend looking for a spare adapter or two if it's an older model of adapter that isn't sold anymore, because those will only get harder to find with time.

I've noticed that used laptops are more expensive these days than they used to be before the pandemic, but you should still be able to find some good deals. I do also second the recommendation to check out freecycle sites - it is a long shot, but I got a great laptop once that way. When I asked the people why they were giving it away, they just said "It's old." I got another 5 years out of it.
posted by trig at 11:00 AM on January 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

But I'm afraid it will cost me more long-term to buy used.

I'm typing this on one of two ThinkPad X201s that are 10.5 years old, bought second-hand four years ago. One of them had the fan getting somewhat noisy, so I replaced it. There are two more X201 lappies in regular use here, and one has been put aside because of a contact problem in the headphone socket and the ThinkLight that won't light. Oh, and one more that probably needs a new battery for the BIOS settings, but given the abundance of working ones it's not high on the list of things to fix.

Older ThinkPads (X60, X61, T61, X30, X31), all bought second-hand, are around and still working, although they just get the occasional check. None of them has needed fixing. Most of them did get memory and disk upgrades, but that's just par for the course. Only my very first ThinkPad, a T23, failed, at the ripe age of eight years. And another one, an X22, choked in a bath of Club Mate.

Essentially, what I'm saying is that although in the long run all electronic kit can and will fail, you can be reasonably sure of getting four or five years of service from a second-hand ThinkPad, for way less than half the price of a new, lesser-brand laptop, never mind a new Macbook. There's quite the selection of suitable ex-lease refurbished, checked-out ones well within your budget, and it's quite common for traders to offer a warranty on the machines they sell.
posted by Stoneshop at 2:43 PM on January 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

It's sometimes hard to find out what kind of display a particular used one has

The hardware maintenance manual for the model (Tnnn or Xnnn) lists the screen a particular type (nnnn-xxx; sticker on the bottom) is fitted with. And Lenovo is still publishing HMMs for the ThinkPad line.

I always ask a seller for the type code.
posted by Stoneshop at 2:53 PM on January 21, 2021

I have a used ThinkPad T440p that I got from MicroCenter. It an absolute champ. It seems like Ask's standard answer on these questions is a used ThinkPad.
posted by kathrynm at 3:43 PM on January 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'd keep an eye out on Lenovo Canada's sales page or look for a refurbished one from, say, Memory Express and Canada Computers. Both have physical stores in Ontario, and both are good companies. They have refurbished Lenovos; the nature of being refurbished means stock and models will fluctuate.

So long as it's "certified" and have at least a 1 year warranty, it should be fine. At MemEx or CC you should be able to see the specific unit in store; make sure the screen doesn't have any scratches and the fan doesn't go crazy if you lift up the machine and rotate it around. Check to make sure the hinges are tight and smooth.

It would help to have a general budget. Under $500 CAD, or under $1000 CAD?

I do highly recommend the T-series. If you want it to be a desktop replacement, the regular T is fine. If you want to lug it around, the TxxxS (S for slim) are a bit nicer. Which exact model will depend on your budget. Lower grade models should be fine, but the finish and reliability of the T series is worth it. Whether you go 14" or 15" is down to personal preference. The IPS screens are very good but regular is fine especially if you're using a larger external monitor most of the time. You don't want HDR.

The keyboards are still very excellent.

Looks like the Txxx is being phased out and new models are renamed to T14/ T14s or T15/ T15s. I don't have any direct experience with them but the Txxx are solid.

A modern (<5>
You might save a few bucks getting Windows 10 home (or whatever), but Pro is the complete package there's no bs paying MS more later. I think MS Office is subscription based or something now? You might be able to transfer the license to a new machine.

If there are some refurbished models available from MemEx or CC that look "right," memail me or post here and we can suggest whether its a decent deal or not.
posted by porpoise at 3:45 PM on January 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

I have had Lenovo Thinkpads for a while now, used, mostly from ebay. They are business-class, use better quality components, are made to be repairable and upgrade-able. Businesses lease fleets of them, return them after a few years, resellers buy them up, wipe the drive, reinstall the operating system, sell on ebay or newegg. A friend had a consumer-grade HP laptop, cheap from Best Buy, died after 2 years, impossible to repair, fell apart when I removed the hard drive for data recovery. Hooked him up with a used Thinkpad T550 (15" screen, several years old) that was 275US from ebay and he loves it. There is a failure risk, but equipment built for commercial sales has a lower failure rate.

I recommend an external monitor if you work at a desk.
Used Thinkpad Buyer's Guide. It's outdated; I would not consider anything under T450 or T550, so ignore the recommendations for cheap options.
Ebay being slow, I've gotten a nice Thinkpad from local Craigslist and a laptop from facebook marketplace for watching movies. Someone on recommended laptopcloseout.
When I buy a Thinkpad, I buy T series, recommend T450 and above. T is the series, 4 indicates 14" (diagonally measured) screen, 50 is the level. I presently use a T440, so 14" screen and a bit older, and it was doing well until the last couple Windows upgrades. Now it gets unhappy with too many tabs open. It has 6 gb RAM, and I will upgrade soon. Of my Thinkpads, several have had pretty good battery life, current one has @ 1 hr 45. Most Thinkpads have some form of keyboard light, and it is so nice to have. So Nice.
Some laptops don't have a CD; look for Optical drive if you must have one; external options exist.

Stoneshop likes the X series; I have no disagreement, just haven't used them. I suspect it's a nicer machine overall, may look into that if I see one.
Upgrading RAM on a laptop is not hard. No, really, I have walked many people though this, so if you find an okay laptop that's low on RAM, you can upgrade it for @ 60US. It requires a little screwdriver. (I will help by videochat or phone if needed)
Laptop batteries are a consumable item. No one tests them other than as functional.
Some ebay sellers list machines as A, B, C grade.
Older laptops have SATA hard drives, which are slower. Newer SSD drives are way faster.
The Goodwill (thrift) in my area sometimes has laptops with no Windows license; make sure you get a license for Win10.
If a laptop says the BIOS or UEFI is locked, Hard Pass.
Processors are likely Intel Core i3, i5, i7, in ascending order of speed/competence. I've had the best performance from Intel laptops.
You want at least 8 gb RAM for general use, many will have 4, budget for the upgrade

So, you're comparing: model, screen size, processor, RAM, then the details.
I did some quick looking on, which lists US sellers who ship to Canada; would happily use any of these
@$380CA T460
@$280CA T450
@$290CA T450
@$420CA X260
posted by theora55 at 4:07 PM on January 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Go to Costco and buy the Thinkpad that's approx. $1000.
posted by at at 10:08 PM on January 21, 2021

Stoneshop likes the X series; I have no disagreement, just haven't used them. I suspect it's a nicer machine overall, may look into that if I see one.

My primary requirement is portability, hence X series. The difference between 1.5kg (X201) and 2.2kg (T430) is noticeable, even where my backpack also contains a tool roll, two power supplies, an extensive assortment of cables and half a liter of coffee at the start of the day.
Portability also means that X series come with lower-powered processors (but for me a 2GHz i7 is fast enough) and they don't have an optical drive installed; if you need it you have to get the UltraBase, or an external USB drive.

Older laptops have SATA hard drives, which are slower. Newer SSD drives are way faster.

SATA is the interface; you can get SSDs in a standard 2.5" hard drive form factor that are just a drop-in replacement for the slower 'spinning rust' drives. However, SSDs also come as M.2 sticks and a couple of other form factors; the T430 for instance can also have an mSATA SSD installed next to the standard drive.
posted by Stoneshop at 12:04 AM on January 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

One more point about why Thinkpads are recommended so often in this context: the machines have two very discerning groups controlling their purchase. The first group are the leasing companies that are competing to offer their clients a machine that is technically impressive but also super reliable and easy to fix. They are betting their commercial success on those latter qualities- so you can be sure they are doing their research.

The second group is, well, us; people who are telling family, friends and AskMe questioners what laptop to buy when they ask for value for money. We know about the leasing companies and that they take all machines out of lease after quite a short time - when they still have years of life ahead of them. And we know most then go to refurbishing companies who clean them up, filter out any duds and often slap on a service guarantee. We probably use Thinkpads ourselves and we probably have helped set them up for others to whom we provide informal technical support.
posted by rongorongo at 1:45 AM on January 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

Great finds by theora55!

If I personally needed a laptop right away, and willing to gamble on ebay...

This T460s i5, 8GB, 256SSD, Win10Pro or

This T460s i5, 8GB, 256SSD, Win10Pro. States m.2 SSD (the faster kind)

would be my targets (2021.01.22 3:50am PST) at <$600 CAD (from Canada, free shipping) (sorry, my previous post had < and > that were misinterpreted as html and my comments on "specs" was lost.

If not a "must need right away" I'd keep looking, especially locally if $ is a hard bottleneck.

Or go with a desktop/ tower. If money is an issue but time isn't, checking in with your local "buy nothing" or "freecycle" or other non-profit can get you a desktop for far less.

Those T460s laptops, though, they're still very very nice. Depending on how you present, they will give your image a "legit" cred whether you want/ deserve it or not.

If your current rig is rickety - you've already made relevant backups of data/ text, right?
posted by porpoise at 3:51 AM on January 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

If your current rig is rickety - you've already made relevant backups of data/ text, right?

C$10 buys you a SATA-USB adapter so that, worst case, you can take the disk from the failing laptop and connect it to the new one. Keeping using that drive as a backup is an option, although I would then spend a little more on an actual drive case to mount it in.

But copy the data to an USB stick or something anyway.
posted by Stoneshop at 4:40 AM on January 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

Be cautious with "s" ("slim") models. Most (all? I've seen passing references online to "s" models without soldered RAM, though the Lenovo site says otherwise) "s" models have one of their RAM sticks soldered (see list of specs here) unlike the non-s models. I'm not sure whether one soldered 4gb stick + one 16gb stick (if you want to upgrade at some point) would be substantially less good than a more balanced pair of sticks, but either way it does limit upgradability in a way that most used Thinkpads aren't limited.
posted by needs more cowbell at 5:19 AM on January 22, 2021

Be cautious with "s" ("slim") models. Most (all? I've seen passing references online to "s" models without soldered RAM, though the Lenovo site says otherwise) "s" models have one of their RAM sticks soldered

Definitely not for the X201s and T430s, newer ones do. The ThinkPad wiki tells me that from the T440s on they have one memory slot, plus 4GB or 8GB soldered. The X240s has just one slot for a maximum of 8GB, no onboard memory.
posted by Stoneshop at 5:34 AM on January 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

There are basically "three" general camps of laptops: Macbooks, WIndows, and Chromebooks. (Yes, they are grouped by OS).

Please keep in mind that it's better to buy something MORE powerful than you need so you grow into it, instead of buying "just right" and found it's too limiting later.

Macbooks tend to be either desktop replacements (I need a powerful Mac to go) or light and simple (Macbook Air or the small Macbooks) users carry everywhere. They need their OS X and they don't want to settle for Windows. You're looking at generally well over a thousand unless it's quite an old model. For the really low-end, people tend to buy iPads instead.

Windows laptops comes in a couple different classes... from the Macbook Air Wannabes (slim / light / air ) which are thin but not that powerful, uber desktop replacement gaming laptops (from 1500 to over 3500, depending on how fancy you want it), or to the lower end, your basic "student" laptop about 12-14 inch, low memory, but pretty easy on the budget and to move around, about 500-750. They may get discounted on Black Fridays. And just above those are the business laptops, lousy graphics, but generally decent computers, basically for sales people to take their work to go. $600-1000. Fancier version go up a bit higher, but depends on number of peripherals.

Then there are Chromebooks, which runs on Google's ChromeOS, basically the Chrome browser on steroids. It's pretty simple to use, but all the stuff is saved in the cloud, usually Google's own, and since they are cheap (seen them as low as $150) they are often used a lot in schools where they get a whole cart of them for a classroom, one per student, and they are pretty weak so it won't play games except browser games. And for many people, it's "good enough" if all you do is emails, social networks, documents, and so on, and you trust Google enough to keep your documents safe, but not if you don't trust Google.

So, it depends on your existing computer knowledge and world view. :)
posted by kschang at 5:22 PM on January 22, 2021

about 4 years ago I got a Dell Latitude refurb with i5 and 256 Gb SSD which was definitely much better and faster than the HP consumer model I had bought previously. In that case I just needed something cheap I'm surprised it's lasted this long and well. Now I would either go for the ebay outlet store of a big retailer that usually sells new laptops, or one of the many companies that refurbs and retails business laptops when they come back from lease, rather than buy from an individual seller. Actually I am considering getting one of the T430 thinkpads mentioned earlier as I could upgrade to 16 GB RAM which I think would give it a bit of futureproofing. I am just debating whether to get a good refurb business laptop like the T430 albeit with the modest 1368 x 766 screen resolution, or to get a consumer laptop with a bigger 1980 x 1080 screen, since I watch Netflix and YouTube a lot.
posted by AuroraSky at 8:23 PM on January 22, 2021

There are basically "three" general camps of laptops: Macbooks, WIndows, and Chromebooks. (Yes, they are grouped by OS).

If you are grouping by OS, there are four: Linux is a very viable alternative nowadays. It does run on the same class of laptops that Windows runs on, especially on most vendors' business lines. Lenovo offers laptops with Linux preinstalled (others may too, but I have no need to keep up with that), and I've not found it to be harder to install on older machines than Windows, and even, in some cases, easier.

Please keep in mind that it's better to buy something MORE powerful than you need so you grow into it, instead of buying "just right" and found it's too limiting later.

If (as the Asker indicates) they have a specific task that they are using a laptop for, and that requirement has not appreciably changed in the past eight years, there's no reason to buy "more powerful that you can grow into, instead of just right". Especially not if that would mean spending more money.
posted by Stoneshop at 2:02 AM on January 23, 2021

@Stoneshop -- IMHO, Linux laptops should be reserved for powerusers.
posted by kschang at 2:22 AM on January 23, 2021

@Stoneshop -- IMHO, Linux laptops should be reserved for powerusers.

Then, apparently, Too-Ticky's mom (82, using Linux Mint since four years) is a power user. Well, she'll be glad to know.
posted by Stoneshop at 3:30 AM on January 23, 2021

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