Which laptop to buy?
October 2, 2007 12:35 AM   Subscribe

I want to spend about $2000.00 (USD) on an ultraportable (or close to ultraportable) laptop. Or I want to spend $1000 on a laptop. Too many options are making my head spin, so talk me through this, please?

The Dell XPS M1330 looks good, but what else would give me more bang for the buck? Plus, it seems to come only with Windows Vista, and I think I'd prefer XP. Maybe I should just get a Dell D630? Or do I want a Thinkpad?

I know I want a smaller (12-13 inch diagonal screen), and a full keyboard that doesn't require holding down function keys to use the up-down arrows, etc.

The truth is, I'm probably going to be using this principly for web browsing, and some minor coding. Should I just get a cheap laptop?
posted by orthogonality to Computers & Internet (38 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Should I just get a cheap laptop?

Probably. This is a really open ended question. My experience will Dells is that they tend to be not extremely reliable, but their support is adequate and they fix things quickly. If you're just browsing the web, you can get away with a $500 laptop, I'd imagine.

If you want to spend a lot, I'd consider something American-built and tested. I spent a lot of money on a laptop from Xtreme Notebooks and it is awesome. No problems in the 2 years I've owned it, and it's a beast -- it's still fast by today's standards. They have a couple 12.1" models that look nice.

What would help people answer this question is your prioritization of the features: battery life, reliability, processing power, video card (ever play games?), etc. From your description, almost any laptop would meet your needs.
posted by knave at 1:03 AM on October 2, 2007

Smaller screen and full size keyboard are kind of mutually exclusive. Go cheap.

And you're absolutely right about not wanting Vista; Vista is this year's Windows ME.
posted by flabdablet at 1:15 AM on October 2, 2007

posted by popcassady at 2:50 AM on October 2, 2007

Our sales team at work has settled on the Thinkpad X series. I think that most of them have X60s now, but the X61 is out now.

I've seen them in person-- they are really sweet little machines. You can get into one for about $1200, including the optical drive.

12" screen, full keyboard.

A few things to consider:

1. It only has a trackpoint, not the dual trackpoint/trackpad that the T-series has. Personally, this is fine for me, but for some, it would be a deal breaker.
2. You can order it with XP, which I would greatly recommend.
3. The optical drive is only available with the thing they call the "ultrabase", which is like a dock that attaches to the bottom of the laptop, making it rather thick. Again, personally, not a deal breaker, since I almost NEVER use my optical drive.
4. Do not, under any circumstances, get the default WiFi card. They call it the "ThinkPad 11a/b/g Wi-Fi wireless LAN Mini-PCIe US/EMEA/LA/ANZ", and it is a piece of crap. Spring for the "Intel PRO/Wireless 3945ABG" (which is what I have), or maybe the "Intel Wireless Wi-Fi Link 4965AGN"
5. Generally, most Thinkpads do NOT have DVI built in, and I think the X61 is similar. The ultrabase MIGHT have DVI, but I'm not sure.

Good luck!
posted by gregvr at 3:48 AM on October 2, 2007

I wanted pretty much the same kind of functionnality about a year ago and the store I went to had an old model of IBM laptops (thinkpad X30) they sold for 400 Euros. I installed Linux on it (it actually came with windows ME) and I have been very happy with it. It looks rather sturdy compared to the Toshiba laptop I had before, it's rather small, and although not very powerful, it's more than enough for what I do : coding and web browsing. The keyboard is small (as flabdablet is saying, small computers usually won't have a full size keyboard) but not overly so (ie it has real arrow keys).

If you are indeed planning to only do very basic, non memory/CPU/graphics intensive stuff, it would probably be a good bet for you as well to buy an older model versus a lower end one, and I suppose you could find the same kind of deal I did on a more recent Thinkpad model ?

Definitely avoid Vista as it wastes a lot of your computer's power...
posted by arnoooooo at 3:56 AM on October 2, 2007

If you're going to be taking the laptop places on a regular basis (especially in a backpack or something) I would recommend a small 12-13" screen. I've found that lots of them have as close to a full size keyboard as you can get, just that the keys are slightly closer together, but it is very easy to adjust. And you can always "downgrade" to XP as soon as you get your new pc if you have an old install disc lying around.
posted by cholly at 3:58 AM on October 2, 2007

Seeing gregvr's post above made me remember my Thinkpad also came only with a trackpoint, not a touchpad. Of course it leaves more room for the keyboard to be bigger, but some people really don't like trackpoints. I personnaly was a bit worried about it but quickly got used to it.
posted by arnoooooo at 3:59 AM on October 2, 2007

Thinkpad T61 with a 14" screen - much better than a crappy Dell that will break on you in 6 months, and significantly more powerful and sturdier than an X series.
posted by ellF at 4:02 AM on October 2, 2007

If you want XP, you could even go cheaper than $1,000 .. especially if you're willing to wait in line during black friday. This is essentially what my mother-in-law does; she buys a very cheap laptop , such as an Acer, every few years just expecting it to have some end-of-life physical defect. She's bought expensive laptops before and not been happy with the warranty and support, so why bother with them? It really seems to work for her. he's mostly browsing the web, using MS office, some php/mysql programming, and light gaming (think Bejeweled 2).

That said, I would still consider a macbook. When my wife wanted a laptop we narrowed it down to thinkpads, vaios, and macbooks. We didn't want the diposable route as it's not really friendly to the environment. After long consideration we got the macbook with the assumption that if all else failed we'd bootcamp it and run XP. I spent hours installing XP and Office 2003 with all the patching required.. she never used it and in the end I deleted it.
posted by dereisbaer at 4:13 AM on October 2, 2007

Good answers, and I especially appreciate the anecdotes/tips like gregvr's.

I should also clarify: I don't need a full-sized keybaord, I actaully prefer a smaller/tighter one, but I do need oversized backspace, enter, and shift, and real arrrow keys. And a pad, not just a nipple.
posted by orthogonality at 4:35 AM on October 2, 2007

The Toshiba Portege series (missing an accent there due to laze) are fairly good. Very light, small and yet still basically a normal sized laptop, with trackpad as requested.

Not a bad spec either - the one I've used is around 1.5Ghz I think. Hell, it runs better than my 2500+ laptop!

Worth a look I'd say for sure.
posted by opsin at 4:54 AM on October 2, 2007

Huh, the Thinkpads seem cheaper than the Dells for the same features. What am I missing?
posted by orthogonality at 4:59 AM on October 2, 2007

2nd-ing MacBook. You can run Windows or OS X. There's no reason not to run OS X. (Well, hardly any.)
posted by The Deej at 5:09 AM on October 2, 2007

Ultra portables rock. I have almost a dozen laptop/notebook/subnotebooks in my life and the ones that got the most mileage were always the ultraportable ones. 3lbs should be a max weight on any notebook! Right now I'm on a MacbookPro 15inch and although it is sexy and slim, it weighs at least 5lbs and feels like a brick compared to the Thinkpad X31 that my wife now uses. Another definite vote for the X series, although I was pretty happy with my Toshiba Portege for a few years, but it wasn't quite as solid as a Thinkpad.
posted by furtive at 5:33 AM on October 2, 2007


I'm a longtime windows person, but the mac laptops are so nicely made, they're light, they have everything, and now that they're intel they're even amongst the cheapest out there. And if you're just going to be web browsing and coding, why not?
posted by kavasa at 5:35 AM on October 2, 2007

Just got myself a used Vaio VGN-T350P. The EDGE antenna is pretty pointless, but the rest? Wonderful. Bloody wonderful. This thing is TINY, and the keyboard isn't as small as the review makes out. Plus, for something this size and with this battery life, the built-in optical drive is what settled it. Plus, real trackpad, and the buttons, though small, are humped, so they're pretty easy to get used to.

My purposes are the same as yours, and it's been perfect for that so far.
posted by saysthis at 5:35 AM on October 2, 2007

3rd-ing the MacBook. Light, fast, easy to use, great trackpad. runs all of the major operating systems (windows, osx, linux).
posted by qwip at 5:43 AM on October 2, 2007

I like subnotes too and have a Sony 10" since a couple of year. If I were you I would wait a few more months and would buy an Eee. It is so cheap (< US$ 400) that you keep all options open.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 6:01 AM on October 2, 2007

PS: They had an 7" and a 10" model but looks like they dropped the 10" model :-(
posted by yoyo_nyc at 6:06 AM on October 2, 2007

Another mac user for the Thinkpad X series. The macbook isn't an ultraportable and overpriced for your needs. I inherited my girlfriends two-year-old X40 so I wouldn't have to haul the 17" MBP around for casual browsing, and as much as using windows gives me the heebie-jeebies, it is a kick ass, solid little machine.
posted by lovejones at 7:05 AM on October 2, 2007

Dell is having a sale on their new Vostro line of business laptops. These are pretty sweet little rigs, with magnesium alloy cases and mylar-screened keyboards (read: durable and spill-proof). Plus they're cheap, and with the current sale, they're even more attractive (like, "well under $1000" attractive)

Here's the Vostro line overview. I recommend spec'ing out a Vostro 1400 (14" widescreen - not too big, not too small, full, comfortable keyboard, etc). Choose the $699 "Smart Value Package" for a really good deal: 2GB RAM, 120GB hard drive, 1-yr warranty, 9-cell battery, etc. You can customize it further and get double the warranty for just $40 more, and choose XP instead of Vista if you like. There's even an optional integrated webcam, just like the MacBooks! ;-)

Oh, and all the Vostro's have a 30-day satisfaction guarantee. If you don't like it, return it for free, no questions asked, no restocking fee.
posted by sprocket87 at 7:08 AM on October 2, 2007

I've been really happy with my Dell Latitude D410, and my wife has a D400. Both are small and light, built in wireless, 12" screens. You can get one re-furbished, or a new one from dell -- now the D430. XP is available on it.
posted by indigo4963 at 7:21 AM on October 2, 2007

I've got a Thinkpad X61 and it is freaking awesome. It has a full size keyboard and a small screen, is nice and fast and the battery life is nothing short of incredible. After lugging around a 15" acer aspire 2000 for 3 years, I've found myself double and triple checking my bag to make sure the X61 is actually there.

It has my vote.
posted by stuboo at 7:26 AM on October 2, 2007

Another vote for the T61 14" (non-widescreen) as a great, light and portable laptop which doesn't have the problems of the ultraportable laptops.
posted by JMOZ at 7:31 AM on October 2, 2007

And a pad, not just a nipple.

This is your preference (frankly I never would have pegged you as a pad user; nipples are so much better), and it rules out all the X-series thinkpads. Which is a shame because a used x40/x41 is the ultimate cheap ultraportable laptop.

The T60/T61 is somewhere between portable and ultraportable. It's utterly fantastic, and I bet you know an IBM/Lenovo employee who can get you his/her epp code. Be sure to play around on the Lenovo website, pricing both custom-builds and ready-to-ship builds. The pricing is a bit strange, and you can find fantastic deals if you look hard enough.

At that point, after you've priced out the feature set you want, call the regular sales number and get them to beat the price or throw in free shipping.
posted by Kwantsar at 7:39 AM on October 2, 2007

I'm a PC guy and my next laptop is definitely going to be a Macbook. They rock!
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 9:19 AM on October 2, 2007

The macbook isn't an ultraportable and overpriced for your needs.


I want to spend about $2000.00 (USD) on an ultraportable (or close to ultraportable) laptop. Or I want to spend $1000 on a laptop.

The base MacBook is $1099. It's not an ultra portable, but is a (close to) $1000 laptop. A refurb is $949.
posted by The Deej at 9:26 AM on October 2, 2007

The Deej - A refurb [MacBook] is $949.

My refurb Dell Vostro:

14.1" widescreen
160GB 7200 RPM hard drive
Intel 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo CPU
128MB nVidia graphics card

All for $819.

Just sayin'. Not hating on the Macs - I almost bought a MacBook myself, but just couldn't justify spending more for much, much less. If I was rich I'd get a top-end MBP, but where else can you get the setup I described above for under a grand?

I think the Vostro would be a much better laptop for the OP for $1000. If he wants to spend $2000 on an ultra-portable, then neither are viable options.
posted by sprocket87 at 12:37 PM on October 2, 2007

Bought a new laptop last month and did my homework.

In the end, it was a toss-up between an IBM Thinkpad T-61 (excellent quality, dual trackpoint/trackpad) and a Toshiba Dynabook Satellite K20 Notebook (excellent quality with larger, more comfortable keyboard).

Both were fine machines but ultimately went for the Toshiba because the sales staff were a lot more pleasant, competent and gave me a much better deal. Also, the Toshiba was more comfortable to work with (big hands).

Some things I learned:

1) Never buy Sony or Dell. Ever.

2) In terms of quality and value, IBM and Toshiba are your best bets.

3) Always deal with the business sales division. They offer better service than the general consumer division and give generous discounts when you ask them to fax you an estimate (so don't be scared off by the listed price).

4) Avoid Vista like the plague. Vista is not just this year's Windows ME. It is this year's Windows ME with stinky DRM sprinkled all over it.

5) Both Toshiba and IBM had Windows XP options in their business sales divisions here in Japan and I imagine they would offer the same where you are.

6) Don't buy memory from them! Like all laptop manufacturers, their memory options are expensive. It is best to order the minimum 512MB option and buy 2 x 1GB of third-party memory at an electronics store. It is easy to take the 512MB out and add the 2GB yourself (just need to loosen one screw and pop open a cover).

7) Don't use the anti-virus software that comes with the machine. In Japan it comes with 2007 Trend Flex Security (crap) and probably comes with Norton in the United States (many say Norton is worse than a virus). Uninstall it and get NOD32. It is much lighter and better at detecting new viruses.

8) Never buy Sony or Dell. Ever.

P.S. The Toshiba K-20 laptop arrived on the 27th of last month and it is absolutely gorgeous. Very happy with the build quality and design. Also, it didn't come pre-installed with GBs of useless crap adware and trial software that plagues Sony and Dell machines.

P.P.S. I have heard wonderful things about Apple notebook computers. Unfortunately, I need to run software that is only available in Windows so the Macs were not an option this time.
posted by cup at 2:28 PM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

I can't believe that no one has recommended Fujitsu yet. I've had my new laptop for several months, and I absolutely love it. I got a T4210, but there's the new T4220, a 12" tablet/laptop convertible that's fast and has good battery life. You can also buy a battery that sits where the DVD drive is normally, which adds a couple more hours to the battery life.

It comes with none of the crapware you get on some of the other major providers, and I've heard nothing but good about their system reliability.

The only complaint I have is that the home and end keys do require the Fn key. Seriously, that's the only thing I can find that I don't like about this computer.
posted by JDHarper at 5:40 PM on October 2, 2007

I'm not sure what everyone's beef with Vista is; I'm running Vista Business, and it's mostly fantastic. It's got a few issues, as you'd expect from a newish operating system that doesn't even have its first service pack out yet, but it's not "Windows ME II."

And for a tablet PC, the handwriting recognition is much improved over Windows XP Tablet PC edition.

Incidentally, I've had bad experiences with both Toshiba laptops I've used. The first one had the screen backlight go out, and the second one's screen hinge failed. Twice. And it overheated would shut down. And then the AC adapter plug literally broke off.

Toshiba's customer service process will take you at least a weekend if your computer breaks, BTW. Just so you know.
posted by JDHarper at 5:52 PM on October 2, 2007

Hi JDHarper,

Sorry to hear about your laptops dying. :(

I can't believe that no one has recommended Fujitsu yet.

Yeah, Fujitsu are nice machines. After IBM and Toshiba, I would recommend Fujitsu over all other brands. Fujitsu tablets are really sweet. :)

I'm not sure what everyone's beef with Vista is...

Well, I can't talk for the other people in this thread but here are a few reasons I avoid Windows Vista:
  1. Vista is slow. (I use computers mainly for business so I prefer speed over frills. A fast, responsive machine impresses me more than transparent windows.)
  2. Vista is buggy. (My business depends on my computers. To ensure stability, I avoid any new Windows OS until after SP2 has been released.)
  3. Vista's cost-performance is poor. (It is expensive but doesn't offer any features I would consider essential to business users. I found nothing in it to justify the cost of upgrading.)
  4. Vista's install size is huge. (On my main desktop machine I install the OS on a solid state drive so size is key - I usually trim down my Windows XP Pro installs from about 1.5GB to about 800MB cutting out anything I don't need using nLite OS.)*
  5. Vista's DRM is flawed. (Digital restrictions management hurts consumers with legitimate copies more than it hurts criminals, it adds no real value but will cost the entire computer industry and consumers billions. If you would like to learn more about DRM, the Anti-DRM Resources on TorrentCat are a good place to start.)**
  6. Vista's DRM hinders free competition. (There is a reason Microsoft is jumping on the DRM bandwagon and it has nothing to do with movies or mp3 songs. Vista's DRM will help Microsoft control what hardware and software will work on Vista machines. This will ultimately hurt small, independent software developers, hinder free market competition and cripple the free software movement.)
  7. Vista's TCP hurts democracy. (The so-called "trusted" computing platform can be used by oppressive governments to identify specific users online. Once anonymous posting is gone, true freedom of speech ceases to exist.)
So I guess you could say my reasons for avoiding Vista are both practical (size, speed and stability) and political (freedom of speech, free software and free market competition).

All in all, I view Vista as a plague on the computer industry. Hopefully, the Vista debacle will push more people towards Linux and Apple. One of my machines at home runs Ubuntu Linux (it is a great OS for home use but still needs a lot of work before it can become a viable competitor) and I would love to try Apple but my business needs software that only runs on Windows.

*Note: The makers of nLite OS have made a vLite OS for Vista you may want to check out. If you are using your computer for business, you may want to wait until vLite gets out of Beta. ;)

**Note: I refer to DRM as Digital Restrictions Management rather that Digital Rights Management because DRM does more to restrict legal, legitimate users and software companies from accessing the technology than it does to hinder professional criminals who mass-produce $3 DVDs.
posted by cup at 2:13 AM on October 3, 2007

Thanks for the in-depth comment about Vista. The first four things on the list seem to come up whenever there's a new upgrade for Windows. XP was much more resource intensive than Windows 98, was buggy, was huge for its day, and, at first, didn't offer users much of a reason to upgrade from Windows 98.

Time will heal most of those, I think: Hardware will improve and become cheaper, bugs will be ironed out, and eventually software that takes advantage of Vista's new features will come out to make it worthwhile to upgrade.

But right now I'd say you're definitely right about #3; it's not worth the money to upgrade an existing machine. (Although I hate using the old XP start menu after using the Vista's. It's nice to not have to organize the start menu any more.)

DRM is the one troublesome new thing I can see on the list. I'm hoping that tech companies and media companies will come to their senses and stop putting DRM into their products pretty soon here. With any luck, things like the Amazon MP3 store will become popular enough to prove that software that restricts legitimate users to one hardware company is a bad idea.

On the other hand, I haven't run into problems with Vista DRM yet. That may be because I've never tried to run a HD movie under Vista.

I am a little nervous about Microsoft using DRM to restrict hardware and software developers, but I can't imagine that they'll do too much restricting here. It's to Microsoft's disadvantage to prevent hardware and software from working with Vista, as they'll only drive users to other operating systems. I know that people are worried about this issue, but has there been any instance of software or hardware that was specifically prevented by Microsoft from working with Vista?

And if I understand Wikipedia's entry on trusted computing properly, the threat of an oppressive government taking advantage of trusted computing to identify a user is largely theoretical. For it to work, you'd have to have every web host access their users' Trusted Platform Module and keep records of who's doing what, and that's never going to happen.

It seems like trusted computing is a tool that could be used for good (preventing spyware from stealing your identity, for example) or for evil (preventing competition in the software and hardware). It makes me nervous, but no problems have actually manifested themselves yet.

</end thread hijack>
posted by JDHarper at 6:30 AM on October 3, 2007

For ultraportables, my personal preference is for IBM X series laptops, but I don't know if the quality is the same since Lenovo took over. I bought an "ancient" IBM X24 (PIII/m) off of ebay. I got it for $350, maxed out the RAM, and it runs Ubuntu nearly effortlessly.

In Walt Mossberg's (Wall St Journal) most recent review of ultraportables he reviews Toshiba Portege R500 and Dell XPS M1330. Link [allthingsd.com]

Here's a link to Walt's most recent laptop buying guide. Link [allthingsd.com]

posted by exaudio at 9:33 AM on October 3, 2007

I second yoyo_nyc's suggestion of the Eee by Asus. It's a great little machine. (or it will be anyway)

But may I suggest the OLPC, of the One Laptop Per Child project. They are thicker cased, longer battery life, sharper screen than 95% of laptops, run Linux, are completely open-source, and has longer range WiFi

And lastly? Your purchase will buy another laptop for a child in a developing nation.

posted by sethwoodworth at 1:37 PM on October 3, 2007

Thank you for the response, JDHarper. :)
posted by cup at 2:36 PM on October 3, 2007

Nice Thinkpad sale over at slickdeals.net right now.
posted by knave at 3:00 PM on October 8, 2007

Strange no one has mentioned dynamism yet, if only as a source of inspiration and model names (I could never afford one of their ultraportables, but they'll have some that are under 2000).
posted by allterrainbrain at 2:40 AM on October 14, 2007

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