Replace My Old Dell
March 12, 2004 6:11 PM   Subscribe

My laptop, a somewhat rickety Dell C-series Latitude running Debian Linux, died. Can you help me choose or recommend a replacement? [Details of my requirements will be revealed when reading the comments.]

Even though I have a ton of batteries, AC adaptors, CD and DVD drives for Latitudes, I've given up on them. I've gone through two of them in as many years, one of which was factory refurbished. They're just slightly too flimsy for my needs.

The first question anyone ought to ask is "what's it for?" The answer is: light duty browsing, mail, extra light duty office stuff, web and non-web development, the occasional game, DVD and movie file viewing, VMWare for those stubborn Windows apps. The thing will get lugged all around the house with an 802.11b card hanging out of it, on battery power, for several hours at a shot. My needs aren't really CPU-bound -- I could live with something on the order of a PIII/650 or so -- but something with second-generation SpeedStep might save me a bit on battery consumption which is an important consideration.

A 12" to 14" display would be ideal, smaller being better. Like I said, it's getting lugged around. Some kind of 3D support, even if far from top of the line, would be nice. An ATI R200, S3 Savage4 or nVidia TNT would be quite enough.

I'm not picky about hard disks. I'm looking for something older and possibly used, and expecting to need to replace the disk with something quieter and faster. I've got a few laptop drives around the house already, including a nice one from the freshly dead Dell.

Durability of build is important: I've been through two of these Latitude C machines in the last couple of years, and they don't hold up well to the physical abuse of being hauled around the house all the time. Couch, easy chair, back yard, kitchen counter, this thing has to hold up against being opened, closed, carried, and reopened constantly. The Dells have known keyboard failures even under relatively light use, display hinge problems, and a generally plastic feel to them.

Good ACPI support is also desirable. Not everything suspends, resumes, and hibernates well under Linux, and it's going to be running Debian. While we're at it, generally good Linux compatibility is a must: sound, power management, and display should all have reasonably good support in a vanilla Linux 2.6 kernel.

Eraserhead pointers are a tool of evil. Touchpads are more desirable, especially if they aren't manufactured by Alps. I could put up with an eraserhead/touchpad combo, as I'm perfectly willing to disable or disconnect the eraser.

I'd rather have two batteries than a floppy drive, but a built-in DVD-ROM that doesn't have to be swapped out would be nice.

If possible, I'd like to hit a price point somewhere under a grand. That means I'm willing to hit eBay or buy used or refurbished, and current-model laptops are totally out of my price range. I've looked at Linux Certified, but the only model they offer in the price range is the IBM T20, which looks a bit large and expensive for what it offers. Plus, they only ship it with Red Hat, so I'd have to blow it away and reinstall from scratch anyways.

Someone's going to pipe up and say "get an iBook," and I've considered it, but the single mouse button would drive me absolutely batshit insane, and I want to be able to use a built in touchpad rather than hang a mouse off of it. The one-button problem is probably the big stopping point for many Unix users who are considering the Switch.

Essentially: Older, used laptop, decent Linux support, 12" or so, big battery with an option for dual. Help me find something!
posted by majick to Computers & Internet (21 answers total)
Panasonic Toughbook, if you want very small and sturdy.

Toshiba Satellite if you want cheap bombproof. I should take photos of the damage inflicted on mine -- cracks in the LCD shell and hinges, a majorly mashed corner -- because it's proof of its toughness.

I'm sold on Toshiba. My next laptop will very likely be either Toshiba or IBM.

Avoid Compaq like the plague and, by guilt through association, HP.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:53 PM on March 12, 2004

you should be able to find a less expensive Thinkpad, I'm pretty sure. IBM at least builds reasonably good machines. I don't really have any knowledge -- as a user -- beyond Thinkpads and Vaios (but Vaios should be too expensive for what you need) when it comes to laptops. Compaq/HP users I know are pretty underwhelmed.

I also know that the mouse thing didn't end up to be the end of the world for many people who switched from PC to Mac. more than a few I know switched and are quite happy

posted by matteo at 6:54 PM on March 12, 2004

Response by poster: Any particular models worthy of mention? I'm open to Panasonic, IBM, and Toshiba, but the product ranges over the past few years are so broad it's hard to pin down a particular model that roughly fits my feature/performance/price goals.

The mouse thing would run me around the bend. As it stands, I'm constantly using a left, right, and chorded faux-middle button -- all three are customarily heavily used in most X apps, especially the left and right in the big desktop environments (GNOME & KDE).

But since I'm still at least partially open to Apple: Is it even possible to get a reasonable OSX-capable iBook that isn't the toilet seat book? At the under-grand price point? Something like a 12" snowbook?
posted by majick at 6:59 PM on March 12, 2004

I don't know if it would fit all of your needs, but my black powerbook "pismo" kicks the ass of my friends' wussy iBooks anyday. That particular model has a cult following for being really stable and long-living. I got mine all souped up on eBay for about $600, and I couldn't be happier. Meanwhile I see and hear of iBooks crapping out all over the place at disturbingly young ages.
posted by bonheur at 7:52 PM on March 12, 2004

"iBooks crapping out all over the place at disturbingly young ages."

*stares worriedly at own screen, lightly touches white shell, prays*

posted by matteo at 8:49 PM on March 12, 2004

Thou shalt covet no laptop before IBM Thinkpad.

T series rocks in all respects that you mention except price (it starts at around 1500 new, but IBM actually has a refurb section on ebay which is worth looking at). X is very portable, while R just might be for you - it's like T but not as advanced and a bit cheaper.
posted by azazello at 10:17 PM on March 12, 2004

They are selling the G3 ibook models for under 1k... might be worth a look
posted by mhaw at 10:20 PM on March 12, 2004

my story would probably be the extreme, but i've had my logic board crap out and my hard drive go tits up within two weeks of each other on my g3/900 ibook. it's extremely upsetting because i've only owned it since late november - but to be fair i did buy it as an open box floor model from fry's. i'm surprised things didn't go bad sooner.

but do i wish i bought a pc laptop instead? hell no. the user expirence of os x blows any copy of ms or xwindows out of the water. when everything works it's a wonderful tool for creating and playing and living on. they're truly awesome machines - and this is coming from somone who's run slackware since 1995. don't belive me? if you have a local apple store do yourself a favor and carve out an hour or two to visit and play around with the os. you'll fall in love.

[to it's merit, when the logic board died i discovered that the last backup i'd run was two weeks old. thanks to target disk mode i booted my sickly ibook up and turned it into a firewire drive that i mounted on my friend's emac with a dvd burner. in two hours i had all my crucial data, mp3s and pr0n transfered over and burned off onto dvd. that alone was worth at least half the $849 i paid for the laptop.]
posted by boogah at 10:49 PM on March 12, 2004

Response by poster: "Thou shalt covet no laptop before IBM Thinkpad."

I like the looks of these but for one thing: The current models are all HUGE. The minimum display size of 14.5" makes for a laptop that doesn't sit comfortably on the lap. That lineup is crying out for a 1024x768-ish 12-incher. Are there more elderly models on the seconday market I should be considering?

I should emphasize that I'm not really considering a purchase of new hardware. Models from a year or two ago, used or refurbs, are far more likely to meet my especially modest needs.

"I got mine all souped up on eBay for about $600, and I couldn't be happier."

This is the kind of thing I'd love to hear more about: old, heavily upgraded hardware that is good enough to get by on. I absolutely adore hardware that stays useful long after its original lifecycle. My PDA, for instance, is an eBay find, a crusty old Palm III with a whole bunch of impossible upgrades; I picked it up for fifty bucks with a modem and some other goodies thrown in.

Meanwhile I'm sitting here typing on a prototype Gateway Solo 9100, which has almost all of the attributes I'm looking for except the display is way too big (and kind of dim) and I heavily distrust the ACPI implementation outside of Windows. It's built like a tank, with lots of metal, close to ten pounds, and predates both of the dead Dells by about a year. If there were version a little smaller, I'd just go with that, but there isn't.

"the user expirence of os x blows any copy of ms or xwindows out of the water."

The well-conceived UI of OSX is the chief reason I'd consider going with Apple, but I use quite a few free KDE apps for which I'm absolutely sure there are good equivalents. It's just that I don't feel a compelling need to abandon them unless the hardware itself really hits a sweet spot in terms of my needs. The OS is kind of a secondary matter to me, beneath display size, durability, and cost.

I'm not architecturally married to x86, but KDE under Linux is my preferred operating environment and a vast majority of laptops capable of running it are x86. Besides, everything else in the house is x86 and binary compatibility with all that is useful: it's kind of handy to be able to just bring a copy of /usr/local over from one of the other machines and have it work.
posted by majick at 6:24 AM on March 13, 2004

majick: I assure you that my t40 sits extremely comfortably on my lap with a 14.1", and t30/t20s are of similar dimensions except thicker. If you want an ultraportable, you'll want to look at the X series, which are 12"s as you desire (now that x40 is out, you should be able to pick up a well-equipped used x31 on ebay for under $1200) - but I wouldn't give up the versatility of a second drive bay (which accepts a combo drive, a second hard drive, or a battery).

Also, Thinkpads kick other laptops' asses in terms of Linux compatibility, not to mention many other areas where they're far beyond competition.
posted by azazello at 8:49 AM on March 13, 2004

For what it's worth, I know 4 people that have the white G3 iBooks, and they haven't crapped out. And they're $999, I believe.
posted by jragon at 2:56 PM on March 13, 2004

ive been pretty happy with the two fujitsu's ive owned...and their customer service is excellent.
posted by specialk420 at 3:40 PM on March 13, 2004

the place i work sells japanese laptops, but i love to wholeheartedly recommend the panasonic w2 -- either a japanese or US one. the battery life on those puppies is AMAZING -- 7 1/2 hours stated, but it is not much lower in real life use. very light -- less than 3 lbs with an internal optical drive and built in wifi. centrino 1.0 (at least the japanese one)

pricey, though. :)
posted by sugarfish at 5:03 PM on March 13, 2004

Response by poster: "I know 4 people that have the white G3 iBooks"

I, too, have heard complimentary things said about these, other than the WiFi antenna connector problem. If I were after Apple hardware, this is just about the right fit for me.

"ive been pretty happy with the two fujitsu's ive owned"

Any particular models? There's quite a bit of variation across the whole product line over the past few years.

"i love to wholeheartedly recommend the panasonic w2"

You might want to be a bit careful about doing so, sugarfish. The WiFi part of the Centrino chipset has essentially no Linux support whatsoever despite Intel's claims -- they haven't yet released a specification to allow a driver to be written. It's no skin off my back -- I have no problem throwing a PCMCIA card in there to do the job -- but the "Centrino" branding is a red flag for anyone not planning to use Windows.

It looks like the W2 is way, way, way beyond what I need. I wouldn't want to subject anything so precious to the kind of abuse that my everyday laptop gets.

Thanks for the help, everyone. I think I can find most of the brands for myself, and even though I was really hoping to hear about particular specific models, especially older ones, at least I'm getting a better feel for the state of the market.

Anyone with specifics about individual models, feel free to chime in. Keep 'em coming: I don't think I'm going to plunk down for this for at least another month.

It looks like I should be considering IBM and Toshiba foremost, and not necessarily blowing Apple completely off my list. On the no-go list are the obvious ones: Compaq, current HP models, eMachines and the like. I'll look more closely at the Fujitsu models to check out the degree to which the hardware is Linux-capable.
posted by majick at 6:06 PM on March 13, 2004


Intel has just released a binary Linux driver for their wifi Centrino chipset, if that helps any. (Not sure what distros/archs, but RH7/x86 is a given)
posted by azazello at 8:34 PM on March 13, 2004

Also, majick: if you wish to subject an old sturdy cheaper laptop to heavy abuse, then you should most definitely be looking for a Thinkpad T30 or T21. Those things are getting old, cheap, and sturdy. IBM salesmen like to stand on them with lids closed to show how sturdy they are.
posted by azazello at 8:38 PM on March 13, 2004

Response by poster: I really, really like the spec of the T21 -- it's just about exactly what I'm looking for in a day-to-day machine, sans one critical feature: the pointing device seems to be eraserhead only. It looks like a few other IBM models sport touchpads, but not the T21 and T30, or at least not those models I've scrounged up on eBay, and I'd sooner lop off my own finger than subject it to the curse of the eraserhead. I realize the design tradeoffs that make TrackPoint favorable, requiring a smaller wrist rest and allowing a larger, superior keyboard, it's just that I hate them. Vocally and repetitively. It's a personal problem.

As far as I can tell, there's a sub-model of the T22, the 4EU variant, that ships with a touchpad, but no equivalent for the T21. The T22's just a newer version of the T21, right?

"IBM salesmen like to stand on them with lids closed"

That's slightly more abuse than I plan to put any laptop to, but with kids, cats, and clumsy ol' me in the house, I really do need something nearly that tough.

Further investigation revels a number of Fujitsus that seem to have a great bang/buck ratio. Recent past models of the LifeBook C series are cheap on the secondary market and well-specced. I've yet to determine anything about their general durability, or that of particular models, though.
posted by majick at 6:25 AM on March 14, 2004


Not sure about the T21, but the T30 certainly does have both a touchpad and a joystick. Speaking of which, I have a choice between them, and I never use the touchpad. The joystick is an excellent pointing device the way IBM implemented it, and you don't have to take your hands off the keyboard when you use it.

Fujitsus are great, probably best P/P on the market. They may be your best choice, but keep in mind that Crusoes are slow if you go for a P2000, and that if you are serious about the abuse, IBM has no contenders.
posted by azazello at 5:53 PM on March 14, 2004

And yes, T22 is just a T21 with minor bugs fixed AFAIK. Not sure about the availability of touchpads on T20s - you should look at IBM's T20 manual, available from their support website.
posted by azazello at 5:55 PM on March 14, 2004

I picked up my wife's 12" powerbook (aluminum) at an apple store for 799. It was purchased and returned and they were just trying to get rid of the darn thing (as they had already made their profit with the restocking fee). It's tough as nails and pretty to boot. Sorry about the cliches, it must be the cheese. Also look at a pismo (Apple G3 500 p-book). The batteries last forever on them and they are extrememly durable. Unfortunately the dvd drive is swap-able with the batteries. They should be cheap for the having on ebay as they haven't been in production for several years now (3-year warranty is gone and people are upgrading). I know several people that refuse to upgrade, they love the machine so much.
posted by jmgorman at 7:29 PM on March 14, 2004

Response by poster: "...the T30 certainly does have both a touchpad and a joystick."

So it does! I could swear I looked at several T30s on eBay and IBM Refurb and didn't see it, but lo and behold, there it is. They seem to be going for between 800 and 1200 bucks, so if I snatch a particularly good deal, the T30 could very easily be the winner here despite being overkill for my needs. I imagine I could expect it to keep chugging away 4 or 5 years from now.

As far as the T22, there seem to be two major submodels: 4EU with a touchpad, and 8EU without. Spec-wise, it's closer to what I'm after, but if a mere couple of hundred bucks more gets me a T30, the outcome is pretty obvious.

"Fujitsus are great, probably best P/P on the market."

This is rapidly becoming apparent in my research. Still unsaid in every review I've found is anything about physical durability and longevity, which I take as something of a bad sign that it's not exceptional in either direction.

I know people who swear by Toshibas, but my every experience with them has been alarming, and I've yet to come up with a credible source willing to state that a Toshiba of any stripe is of exceptionally solid build. Again, I take that as to mean "middle of the road," but my experiences with the middle of the road -- the Dell Latitude Cs -- lead me to believe that average isn't quite good enough.

"...if you are serious about the abuse..."

My household isn't a particularly harsh environment, and apart from the occasional light bonk on a doorframe or being shoved between the bed and the wall every so often, I don't think I'm all that hard on my hardware.

Yet two Latitudes have succumbed even though I know all the tricks of keeping them alive: The first, a CPiA 400XT, felt solid as a rock throughout its life, but one good conk on the cardbus port -- solid but nothing too devastating -- rendered the motherboard senseless. The second, a CPxJ of remarkably crappier build quality (thanks, Dell Refurb!), began with random lockups not attributable to software (it froze in BIOS setup and even on the POST screen a couple of times, on AC and on every one of the 5 batteries in the house) and after a series of failures to even power on, gave up the ghost completely, even refusing to charge a battery. It might well be something as innocuous as a voltage regulator in need of replacement, but I'm not at all interested in doing motherboard surgery. Latitudes are a pain in the ass to get apart.

Anyhow, the point is that the "abuse" I'm dishing out is mosly just several hours of daily use, some lugging around, the odd bop on the nose, and an expectation of longevity beyond a year or two. It's not unreasonable at all, but I've been disappointed twice already.

"...12" powerbook (aluminum) at an apple store for 799."

Great score! I sincerely doubt I'd have the same luck, waltzing in and getting a steal like that, but it's heartening to know that there's a vendor out there that actually does this. Apparenly going for at least $1200 used, in any reasonable configuration, I think the AlBook is just a shade beyond my means.

The Pismo model does seem pretty servicable, but I'm still having a hard time getting over the lack of usable mouse buttons. Retraining myself to Control-Click after decades of habit of using 2 and 3 button mice (and about half a decade's habit using 2-button touchpads) is something I'm not sure I'm willing or able to tackle for what is in essence my everyday driver. I'd get one for my mom, but I'm so set in my ways that Windows still feels weird, let alone a one-button touchpad.

I'm already distraught over the dead laptop; the last thing I need is to deal with a new pointing device (be it eraserhead or one-button touchpad) while I'm at it.
posted by majick at 8:56 PM on March 14, 2004

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