Buying a Laptop for College
May 10, 2006 5:12 PM   Subscribe

My brother is going away to college this upcoming fall, and for a high school graduation present, my mom is getting him a laptop to take with him. He is interested in trying a Mac. We are both life-long PC users. I am the most technologically-inclined in my family. My brother knows the basics and has no trouble with them, but anything more is my job.

I started taking TV Tech in high school where we use Macs exclusively. At first, the switch was rather rough - so many things are just fundamentally different, but I've grown to love it. I'm not so sure the switch would be worth it for my brother, as someone who doesn't care about technology as long as it works.

We were hoping to spend less than $1000. He doesn't need an especially fast computer - all he uses is AIM, Word, iTunes, and Internet Explorer. Being the anti-technology person he is, he doesn't have his (massive) music collection on a computer yet. He has over 300 CDs that he would like to put on the laptop. I think that would probably require a portable, external harddrive, right?

So Mac vs. PC - old vs. new - etc. Where should I go here? I'm the one responsible for making the decision. Both my mom and brother are trusting me on this one.

Thanks a million!
- Will, his mom, and his brother!
posted by willmillar to Computers & Internet (34 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I was thinking the same thing about waiting for the Intel notebooks. Hmm... only 20GB? I think he'd want them at a pretty high bitrate, though as he's really intense about his music.
posted by willmillar at 5:20 PM on May 10, 2006

Used 12 inch Powerbook G4s with 20GB hard drives go for around $700-$800, and used iBooks are a bit less. They're perfectly good computers and there's no reason to wait for the Intel MacBooks unless it's to wait for people to rush to sell their PowerPC Powerbooks and iBooks, sweetening the price point a little.

If you encode the mp3s with LAME's alt-preset-standard, which is really, really excellent sound quality, you end up with approximately 100MB per cd. So around 29GB of hard drive is needed. I think the best bet for storage there is an iPod.

If you can get your brother a serviceable Powerbook or iBook G4 + a newish iPod, I think that would be perfect.
posted by evariste at 5:27 PM on May 10, 2006

...and it would be in your $1000 range, too.
posted by evariste at 5:28 PM on May 10, 2006

Wait for the Macbook. He can go back to Windows if he doesn't like OSX.
posted by mr.dan at 5:52 PM on May 10, 2006

Oh, and next time, please use the more inside feature.
posted by mr.dan at 5:53 PM on May 10, 2006

As a note about audio quality, anyone who tell you that they can hear a difference above 192kbps is lying.
posted by awesomebrad at 6:00 PM on May 10, 2006

As a note about awesomebrad, he thins that his subjective experience is objective truth.
posted by lekvar at 6:03 PM on May 10, 2006

Response by poster: Good point about XP, mr.dan, I didn't think of that! Sorry about the "more inside" feature. I'm rather new here.
posted by willmillar at 6:04 PM on May 10, 2006

You can usually save a few bucks on the external hard drive (if you decide you want one) by buying a regular internal hard drive and an enclosure off of NewEgg or similar. This is what I did for my iBook -- I was able to make myself a 250 gig external drive for about a hundred bucks. It's very, very easy to put the drive in the enclosure.

And, as a data point if nothing else, I am a student and I have an iBook, and I love it. Don't let anyone tell you that a mac won't be properly supported at your school -- this is most likely baloney. iBook and Powerbooks are ubiquitous on college campuses.
posted by rossination at 6:20 PM on May 10, 2006

Mod note: moved more to inside
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:35 PM on May 10, 2006

If he does go with the Mac, have him download iTunes-LAME. It integrates the best-of-breed encoder (see evariste's comment) with iTunes reasonably well. It's not a 100% solution for live and/or classical CD's (which have non-silent track changes), but it is the best that I've found.
posted by Mr Stickfigure at 7:27 PM on May 10, 2006

Student discount on Word is excellent too, and I would note that he will have to switch to safari or firefox (which won't be hard and he'll probably prefer) since IE isn't supported on the intel MacBooks.

A used or reburbished powerpc iBook would be very affordable as well. Add some RAM and he'll be very happy indeed.
posted by visual mechanic at 7:42 PM on May 10, 2006

Mr Stickfigure-thanks, I didn't know about iTunes-LAME! (Very recent switcher here). I previously encoded all my CDs with EAC and LAME on Windows and I haven't needed to rip anything with the new Mac yet. This will come in very handy.
posted by evariste at 8:29 PM on May 10, 2006

And as for hard disks, you can presumably swap out an old iBook's drive for something larger, if you want more space for music.
posted by hattifattener at 9:05 PM on May 10, 2006

I did all the research on buying a laptop very recently. Frankly, if Macs run all the software you need (which can be an issue), and you want a light very portable computer (really good for carrying around all day to the library, I do this), Macs are the best value for money. And I say this as a live long PC user.

Basically, Macs are the only company that charges less for the small end (4lb, 12"); every upmarket PC company charges substantially more, hoping to cash in on the executive market. Only the low end of the PC market is cheaper, and you will notice the difference in quality (I did).

2 years ago, my roommate and I both bought new laptops - both 12", 4lbs. Her iBook had twice the battery life and a larger harddrive. Sure, my PC was cheaper (very low end), but this month, I just had to replace my computer because the screen hinges had entirely broken and the power cord was sending up smoke.

I've since had to replace it with a new PC, and ended up spending more money than I would have if I had just gotten a Mac to start with, and I have a heavier computer. I gave up light weight in exchange for buying from a company with a very good warrenty - when you have to bicycle around town with your thesis, you need protection). The only reason I didn't buy a Mac this time is that I actually do use software that isn't available.

(By the way, $1000 might be a bit low. Is there any flexibility? Because I originally bought under $1000 - that was my budget too - and it turned out to be a false economy. Also, investing in 3-4 years of good warrenty is worth it, especially when your computer breaks in the middle of thesis research in another country - yes, this did just happen to me - something like Dell's complete care (with accident insurance) or Apple Care (does that cover accidents?)

I'm sure you know most of these pros and cons, but I'll

Mac Pros:

- good construction, best battery life available
- light-weight is cheaper than heavy weight
- OS isn't supsceptible to most viruses
- generally cheaper than PCs of similar quality
- stable operating system

Mac Cons:

- Fewer games available/would have to replace existing games
- Specialty software might be less available (more of an issue for graduate school)
- more expensive peripherals, though maybe some generic can be used
- harder to tinker if you want to (which you say your brother doesn't)

For most students who aren't big gamers, Macs run everything they need.

As far as PCs go, I would say that Dell is horrible on the phone and has been trying to weasel out of their warrenties, but they also have made some pretty sturdy computers lately, offer accidental coverage (so long as you bully them into honouring it), and my university actually has a Dell technician in the Student Computing office. They are also cheaper than other manufacturers such as Lenovo or Compaq.

As for the used/new argument:

Used can save a lot, but you need a very reputable source, and it's iffy on laptops. I bought a used destop that was great, but I knew the guys who built it, and I knew I could replace any parts. Laptop parts are just so much less robust, and student life puts a lot of stress on a laptop. A computer scientist friend advised me against going that route this time, but if money is really tight a used computer is better than none.

Refurbished is a good alternative - it's often somewhat cheaper than new, but has been fully checked out by the manufacturer. Dell computers through the refurbished outlet in the UK were about £100 cheaper than new, though you had to go with a given system.

My last piece of advice is: do try to get that university discount. But if for any reason you can't, or anyone else is reading this thread, I discovered that the same computer through Dell's small business website was £100 cheaper than the home website. So try to always buy either "educational" or "business".


For your brother's music collection: The iPod suggestion is a good one, as is the hard-drive with USB enclosure. That said, you should also check out the price of external drives - I just saw in the flyer (UK cheap computer sales) that external drives are now cheaper than what we paid several months ago for internal. But I don't know what the American prices are - it's probably worth it to comparison shop.
posted by jb at 9:40 PM on May 10, 2006

Response by poster: < op>>

1. First off, thanks to jb for his excellent contribution, and to the rest of you also. I've really been getting my $5 worth here at AskMeFi.

2. As for the iPod for music suggestion:
Isn't it like on PC's where in order to play the music on both the computer (iTunes) and the iPod, you need to store the music on both the computer's harddrive and the iPod harddrive? Or can you build an iTunes library where the music lives on the iPod? Does anyone understand my question here, it's kind of confusing! Sorry!

3. Thanks again!
-Will & Co.
posted by willmillar at 9:49 PM on May 10, 2006

Alternatively, if money is tight - burn Cds or DVDs with the MP3s.

(sorry for all the typos in my previous post - it's late here, and I can't sleep, which is why I'm up).

I was just on the US Dell website through my university link, and it looks like US Dells are quite cheap with an educational discount. I had thought they would be at least $1200, but a baseline system (15", 1.5Ghz, 512Ram - you need it with the bloated software- 40GB Hardrive) worked out to $1000 (they advertise less, but when you add warentee and actual memory, it goes up), while a 12" lightweight inspiron was $1200-1300. They do cut deeper discounts for more expensive computers, but that's no economy if you can't afford it to start with.

Of course, if your brother is not like me but like my husband, and prefers big screens (15" and up), then PCs would be cheaper than a mac. It's just one of those weird things - Macs charge a large size premium, PCs charge a small size premium.
posted by jb at 9:54 PM on May 10, 2006

Building your own drive, as mentioned, out of an enclosure and bare drive is cheaper than just buying it assembled. Just keep in mind that an iBook is silent, and some of these drives can get pretty whiny and annoying. I got a cheesy plastic case and I regret it--it doesn't turn itself off when I close my laptop, and I should have just spent the extra money on a nice metal one.

Also, never buy extra ram from apple, unless you have a good reason (like, say, trying to minimize the need to throw away old ram when you innevitably upgrade and need a spare slot.) It's always 3x cheaper to just open the door on the bottom and install some you've bought yourself.

What jb said about small laptops is basically true--macs are probably the cheapest source, with the educational discount, of "small" laptops out there--though my iBook is actually 5lbs. By small I really mean 12", which is the perfect size to take with you class. Weight-wise, if you want 2.5lbs you're still gonna need $4k.

So, wait a week or two, and then see what apple comes out with.
posted by maledictory at 10:02 PM on May 10, 2006

I think you can keep the music on the ipod, but not sure. I have all my music on an external drive at home, so when I'm away I just end up listening to my iPod mini directly. Were I to plug it in and attempt to start iTunes with only a 4gb subset of its music available it would get grumpy. The one anecdotal report I've had of someone keeping all their music externally is with iTunes on windows, however his iPod has broken three times so I'm not sure it's the most reliable option.
posted by maledictory at 10:05 PM on May 10, 2006

You just keep putting the music on the iPod, and you don't have to store it on the computer. It does mean you don't have a backup if your iPod goes, but your brother does have all the CDs. Many people (including me) keep a copy on their computer so they don't have to rerip, or because they have music from odd places (band's websites, friends, etc).

What the iPod does do is make it so you cannot officially transfer any files from the iPod back to the computer. So if you wanted to give a friend an mp3, you would not be able to. Officially. and if you try to load music from any other computer, it will try to wipe your iPod. (God forbid you own two computers.)

The US government has made manufacturers put these measures in, and they are not unique to iPods.

However, unofficially, you can get any and every file you put on an iPod off again (at least in windows and linux) by looking at it like a drive, and revealing hidden folders. You will then be able to see all the music, but it will be sorted randomly under truncated names. It's not ideal, but you can get it off again.

I do not know if this can be done on a Mac.

There are non-Apple players which can be set up to work like a USB drive - you just copy the files into the player like copying them onto another drive, and go. They can easily be taken on and off again. These players may also come with loading software, but any management software will have the same restrictions as iPods. (I briefly had a 256 iRiver, and it could be set up like a USB drive, but that was a firmware option and meant I loaded it by folder instead of using their program). I never looked into whether any of these worked with Macs (not having one), but I would be shocked if Apples couldn't handle USB drives. That would be crazy-dumb.

I hope this is of help, though rambling - I know it's a stressful process and there are so many factors. You may need to get your brother to prioritise on a few factors (eg small/light vs large screen for multiple windows or watching media files) before being able to narrow it down. Some people love tiny - I do, my husband loves to have 6 million windows open and hated my lovely doomed 12". I now have a 14", widescreen even, and it's crazy big. Good speakers though, for a laptop. (Dell gets one thing right. Makes up for the really loud keyboard, which is embaressing in seminars. I'm going to have to relearn how to write notes by hand.)


maledictory - that sounds a bit odd that your iTunes would be grumpy at not having the rest of the files. Could it be because it is looking for the drive and not finding? I have had files on my iPod mini which I had subsequently deleted from my harddrive without a problem. But I also don't have any kind of automatic updating to the iPod set up.
posted by jb at 10:12 PM on May 10, 2006

There are programs which will let you get past the whole messed up folder structure, like Ephpod, or Sharepod in windows, which you just run off the iPod and presents you with a list of files which you can drag anywhere.

Yeah, the problem basically is my iPod is very small and my collection is very large, so iTunes is always trying to download podcasts or sync things. If your iPod is large and can hold all your music it wouldn't matter.
posted by maledictory at 10:29 PM on May 10, 2006

Personally, since iPods can fail or be wiped or whatever, I wouldn't recommend only having your music on your iPod. You could keep the music on an external drive though, I believe.
posted by visual mechanic at 10:53 PM on May 10, 2006

maledictory, jb: if, with your iPod connected, you set your iPod preferences (in iTunes) to sync manually, nothing will be downloaded to the iPod (ie, no podcasts or other songs, etc.) unless you do it yourself by dragging from your iTunes library to the iPod. You can sync other songs this way too. This method also allows you to use your iPod with multiple computers - computers' iPod preferences should be set to syncing manually.

Senuti ( is a free program for Macs to move songs from the iPod to your computer or external drive.

With Senuti or similar Windows programs and iTunes set to sync manually, you can indeed give people mp3s using your iPod. I prefer to use a USB flash drive sneakernet instead, avoid ing installing Senuti, etc. if not needed.

You can theoretically rip all your music to an external drive and sync your iPod from there. or you can rip it to your laptop's drive, sync the iPod automatically with all music, then, before disconnecting your iPod, set the preferences to sync manually the next time. Then you can delete the songs on your laptop and still have them on your iPod. If you get new music, you can move it manually to the iPod. I would still keep a backup of the music on an external drive, but CDs are another option.
posted by cahlers at 6:02 AM on May 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

jb's breakdown is great; the new Intel Macs will eliminate the first two cons he lists, because you'll be able to run Windows XP for games and specialty software. Also, most Mac peripherals (except the fancy Apple monitors) use standard USB connections.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:15 AM on May 11, 2006

I'll just chime in here and say that an external hard drive would be a really nice addition to this gift, as it would give your brother a backup. Both laptops and iPods are carried around in public, and so are liable to be dropped, mislaid, or stolen. A hard drive at home with a recent backup (and with free programs that run automatically overnight, there's no excuse not to have a recent backup), at least you haven't lost data.
posted by adamrice at 7:29 AM on May 11, 2006

As others have said, the macbook is probably your best bet. And with bootcamp you can run XP if you really need to.
posted by chunking express at 7:30 AM on May 11, 2006

Thanks cahlers, that makes sense. I think I set my iPod to manual sync when I first got it.

Just a note though: the cheap iBooks do not support BootCamp and XP. That's only possible with an Intel processor mac, that is some mac desktops and the (very expensive) MacBook. MacBooks seem to be starting at about $2000.

You may be able to run Linux, but it sounds like your brother probably wouldn't be interested. Even if you are into fiddling, getting linux to work just right on a laptop just sounds like a huge headache.
posted by jb at 10:25 AM on May 11, 2006

kirkaracha: Mac monitors used to use ADC, which was video + power in one cord, but now they just use DVI (or, in the case of the iBook, VGA) like everyone else. I have the 12", which is great on the go but small at home, so I use a cheap external monitor when it's on my desk. The current iBooks only officially support mirroring your desktop (both monitors will show the same thing) but there is a quick fix. This may not be an issue with the upcoming Macbooks, as the iMac used to behave similarly, but now extends the desktop (adding space) ever since the switch to intel.
posted by maledictory at 10:31 AM on May 11, 2006

JB, MacBooks are going to replace iBooks. MacBook Pros have already replaced PowerBooks for the most part. The new MacBooks will probalby be comperable in price to iBooks.
posted by chunking express at 10:40 AM on May 11, 2006

One thing: When jb says Macbook he means Macbook Pro, which are indeed expensive. When I say Macbook I mean the (hopefully forthcoming) Macbook (NOT Pro) which is reputedly the intel-based replacement for the current iBook, and will probably be priced similarly. The rumoured date is always being pushed back, but it has to be in time for school otherwise the company will lose millions of dollars in sales.
posted by maledictory at 10:41 AM on May 11, 2006

I'm with the others who would caution you against letting your iPod be the only place your music lives. Mine has glitched at least once, requireing a re-sync from the iTunes mothership. Re-ripping all of that would have sucked.

You can store your iTunes music library on an external USB drive. I do this (on WindowsXP pro with a LaCie USB2 external drive) and it works great. I'm sure you can do the same on a Mac.
posted by wheat at 12:09 PM on May 11, 2006

Sorry, I didn't realise they were even coming out with Macbooks that weren't Macbook Pro. Are they suposed to come out for this year?

I am finding it a bit amusing that I keep being called he, despite refering several times to my big screen loving husband. I'm glad that metafilter is such an open place - we're from Ontario, so we could be husband and husband, but we're actually husband and wife. Not that I want to make a fuss about it - it's the nice thing about the internet that gender is not as pervasive as it is in real life.
posted by jb at 3:41 PM on May 11, 2006

From a completely personal standpoint-- get the mac. I am a sophmore at Northwestern, and after Christmas break this year it was a Mac invasion... not from the freshmen, but from all the returnees who had their Dells conk out. My computer, my roommate's computer, my twin sister's computer, the girl across the hall... all ended up switching when their PCs died. At least don't give Dell your money for anything but one of their high end computers. Their cheap ones will die in year.
posted by cynthia_rose at 10:32 AM on May 13, 2006

The macbook came out today, and it's pretty damn awesome. It's 1099, which is a bit more than your budget however. (It looks to be well worth the money.)
posted by chunking express at 8:38 AM on May 16, 2006

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