Trying to find a laptop that doesn't suck
May 27, 2008 8:18 PM   Subscribe

Which brands/models of used laptops should I be looking at if I want (A) something that won't easily break, and (B) to avoid proprietary parts and chipsets?

I'm planning to buy used since I'm not doing any gaming, Bluetooth, or any of that stuff... just email, writing work, and the occasional old school game like Civ 3. Since many of you own the kinds of laptops I'm shopping for, maybe you can recount your opinion of your own computers or share some shopping wisdom.

To explain further:

A. Something that won't easily break

Are any brands or models known for being fragile? Two of my old laptops fizzled because of video problems: one was a LCD lamp that went out; the other was the internal video connector that eventually broke from all the opening/closing of the lid. Maybe that's common. I'd also like a well-designed power supply connector that won't split or break. My wife is a Mac user and is constantly pissed at her power supplies getting damaged from regular use... I'd prefer to avoid this kind of problem.

B. Avoid proprietary parts

I once had a Fujitsu notebook that would not accept ANY hard drive except the manufacturer's replacement. I also had HP and Dell laptops that had highly proprietary video, sound, modem, and ethernet drivers which could only be obtained by doing a full OS install from the rescue discs, or by going to the HP/Dell website and getting old, poorly documented drivers that often don't work with newer OS releases. With my last computer, a Dell M50, my rescue disc disappeared and after I lost the original OS I was never able to get the dialup modem working again, no matter how hard I tried. I want no more of this.

I'd also like to not get ripped off on accessories... I'd like to pay $40 for a replacement power adapter, not $110, and maybe have a laptop that uses a quasi-universal type of battery that's easy to find and cheap. Maybe I'm asking too much.

So any ideas on what laptops I should be looking at? Is there a review website that looks at things like this and doesn't just spout performance specs and parrot the manufacturer literature? Also models/brands to avoid would be welcome if you can provide some details.
posted by mr. creosote to Computers & Internet (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I can tell you what *not* to get - a Thinkpad T61. Known for having video card and wireless card issues as well as all of the proprietary stuff you've described (the so-called Thinkvantage utilities, which are near impossible to remove). The issues with the post-IBM/Lenovo Thinkpads are pretty well documented - steer clear!
posted by chez shoes at 8:37 PM on May 27, 2008

On the same theme as chez shoes, any pre-Lenovo Thinkpad is bound to generate sheer bliss. They used the same power supply for almost ten years, I have four of them. I looked for a fifth one on eBay and it was selling for $19.99 (let's just say I enjoy never having to plug/unplug or move an AC Adapter). Swapping the hard drive involved removing one screw (as oppsed to the 19 I counted on my Macbook Pro). The drivers for everything are easily available on the IBM/Lenovo website. You can run pretty much any version of Linux on them. They have a hidden boot disk image on the drive so you never need a rescue disc. You can download the field tech manuals for all of them online, the list goes on...
posted by furtive at 9:19 PM on May 27, 2008

creosote, all laptop manufacturers use "proprietary parts" - the problems you describe with your Fujitsu notebook and driver issues with HP and Dell are... fairly bizarre. I'm not an expert - no wait - I'm pretty close to being an expert... the description of your problem with the Fujitsu hard drive does not reflect reality. Perhaps you were misled? The driver problems you mention are usually easily fixed, though there is a trend among tech support to simply urge people to do a re-install rather than take the time to fix the issue.

Contrary to the previous posts, I truly can't recommend either Dell or Lenovo enough. Both manufacturers are producing the best laptop products on the market today. Of the two I would lean more toward Dell for ease of service, ample warranty options, and availability of support. Lenovo build rock solid laptops, but their various bells and whistles may be daunting to someone who isn't looking for finger print readers and advance hard drive parking...

Not to take a personal swipe at you - but it sounds like you're pretty rough on your hard ware. Laptops are fragile devices even today. Also, what's up with loosing cd-roms and ac adapters? Isn't it easier just to make the effort to keep up with that stuff rather than worrying about the cost of a hypothetical replacement?

Anyway, Dell has a warranty plan just for people like you. I forget what it's called, but if you configure a system at their website you'll see it. It covers everything - even coffee spills and drops - that that are the user's fault. You should consider that.
posted by wfrgms at 9:37 PM on May 27, 2008

Lenovo has the epitome of proprietary parts with their stupid fingerprint scanner thing.

I'd recommend a MacBook -- running Windows from an image is my personal definition of bliss -- but I suppose that's pissing in the wind here.
posted by tachikaze at 9:49 PM on May 27, 2008


We have two here. I run a MacBook Pro and my wife runs one of the black MacBooks. Friends around us have almost universally switched from PC notebooks to MacBooks and MacBook Pros. I literally don't know anyone still running a PC notebook.

You need to figure out your sweet spot in terms of price/screen/performance but it's really a no-brainer right now. You can dual boot to Windows using BootCamp, and run the same partition in virtualisation using Parallels. Or you can run it as a vanilla Windows machine.
posted by sweet mister at 10:03 PM on May 27, 2008

If you want a cheap cheap cheap used laptop that will continue to last forever, think IBM Thinkpad.

If you want a new laptop that should be quality for a while, think Lenovo Thinkpad (they have a couple [?] of other new lines that haven't been proven).

I used to have a Dell C400 - damn if it wasn't a handsome sturdy wee light reliable notebook that took a pounding and kept on ticking. Run Linux well, too.
posted by porpoise at 10:12 PM on May 27, 2008

Pre-Lenovo Thinkpad. Solid, lots of easily swappable bits, and the harder-to-swap ones are usually available from a wide range of outlets, with plenty of compatibility across models. Laptops have proprietary non-replaceable parts almost by definition, but the ones that are built for corporate road warriors, with the expectation of being stripped down and rebuilt in-house using the repair manual and a pile of spares.

You shouldn't really need the sort of Toughbook-style machines that are built to be flung about mountains or deserts. An IBM T43 or similar should really be fine, at about $300 -- look for government auctions and refurbishers who sell on ex-lease or corporate offloads.
posted by holgate at 10:28 PM on May 27, 2008

Personally I like Fujitsu laptops, but since you mentioned you had a problem with them, I've had great experiences with the Dell Latitude line of laptops. The Dell consumer lines (Inspiron, etc.) aren't really that great, but the Latitudes are a solid buy.
posted by pravit at 12:21 AM on May 28, 2008

You're seeing conflicting Thinkpad reviews because of the differences between IBM Thinkpads and Lenovo Thinkpads. The newer Lenovo models have/need some fancy gadgets that can cause hassles. Shop for an older IBM Thinkpad; I'd recommend something in the R series like an R51(I'm looking at a half dozen on ebay for $300). You'll want to upgrade/replace the RAM and HD, which as furtive says can be done by removing one screw each. Can be slow, but dependable and sounds appropriate for what you need. They're heavier, but that's because they're built solid and sturdy.
There is still a relatively large parts and documentation base out there for these models, and IBM's legacy support through Lenovo has impressed me where other makers have frustrated.
Drivers and some additional bonus utilities are all available through the Lenovo website, or you can skip them and just install plain XP if you have the install media. You can also (have to, if you swap the HD) order the CDs to rebuild the "recovery partition", which hides on your drive until you press the "I've messed this thing up; restore the HD and OS to factory condition" button.
Or you can skip Windows and install Ubuntu linux in about two hours, and have a working internet/word processor machine (on an ethernet connection). Getting the wifi to work in Ubuntu (ndiswrapper or madwifi) will take about another hour, which is one or two hours less than it would with most other laptops. Spend a few hours more installing WINE, and you should be able to use many of your old Windows programs and old school (maybe very old) games.

Like any older PC, it won't ever be that fast or sexy (weak graphics limit video to movies and late-90's games), but if you feel cramped by by the screen (the keyboards are great!) or find you use it as a non-portable more often, look around for the docking stations made for these; slap it down on a base and that single connection gets you power, network, keyboard, mouse, USB, and a VGA monitor connection that should support up to a 1440x900 monitor. One button pops it off to go in your bag with the 2nd power supply you got for $10 on ebay. Cheap extra power cables are good because it'll be harder to find cheap used batteries that'll hold more than an hour or so of charge, as you would for any older laptop - but you'll have better luck getting dead ones reconditioned (for a fee) if you're using an IBM.
posted by bartleby at 12:47 AM on May 28, 2008

Oh, and whatever laptop you get; Firefox, Thunderbird (with Lightning add-on), OpenOffice, VLC, Pidgin, KeePass. All free and run well on older hardware. All also available to run from a USB stick/HD if you find you don't even want to bring the laptop but have access to some other Windows PC.
posted by bartleby at 1:07 AM on May 28, 2008

We've had no issues at all with Lenovo ThinkPads where I work, but we do not run Windows.
posted by zsazsa at 7:24 AM on May 28, 2008

Just finished a bare-metal restore of a T40 (Pre-Lenovo) thinkpad, using a stock XP disk and up to date from-chipset-maker drivers: No signifigant drawbacks, and everything works.
Some of the hardware is propriatary (Ex: docks, CD-ROM drives), but the HDs aren't. (The 80GB I have in there now was recovered from an iBook.) So many units of the T and X series machines have been shipped and retired that even the propriatary stuff isn't hard to come by any more. (The dock is $30 @, right now, IIRC.)
If I had wanted to use the driver sets IBM provides, they're pretty up-to-date, But I didn't want the extra cruft of the various executive-handholding software.
posted by Orb2069 at 7:34 AM on May 28, 2008

There are personal-class and business-class laptops. Dell Latitudes are business class; Inspirons are for the personal/home use market. Get a business class laptop, and a serious warranty. Dell's warranty covers the display of my laptop, Apple's warranty did not cover the display of my colleague's laptop, and it was an expensive difference. Dell has done okay with keeping power adapters standardized for several models, but the battery replacement was not cheap. Swapping the hard drive on a Dell is pretty easy. Haven't worked on Compaq's for a while, but it used to be a pain to image Compaq laptops. That said, my home pc is a Compaq that I got used, off-lease from, and it has been a very good value.
posted by theora55 at 8:47 AM on May 28, 2008

I don't understand all the hate directed towards Lenovo-era Thinkpads. I have a T61 running a clean install of Vista. Aside from one piece of optional Lenovo software, I do not have a single pre-installed utility on my hard drive. During the course of rounding up drivers for the clean install, I found Lenovo's website one of the most comprehensive and useful in terms of availability of relevant drivers and support documentation. And what's wrong with the fingerprint reader? The one on my machine has drivers available directly from the manufacturer's website.

In sum, I would definitely consider a Lenovo Thinkpad if I were on the market for a used laptop. I find mine to be sturdily built, reliable, and backed up with excellent online documentation.
posted by roomwithaview at 10:05 AM on May 28, 2008

My IBM T41 Thinkpad is almost 4 years old and has held up well. And I am rough on my stuff!
posted by radioamy at 11:04 AM on May 28, 2008

My recommendation to friends and family is either; whatever is cheap (sub $750) this month at CostCo/Dell small business (never buy from the home store) with the plan to replace it when it breaks/flakes out in 1-2 years or a Thinkpad with extended warranty and some type of accidental breakage insurance.

For the extended warranty, spring for next business day onsite repair. I recommend getting 1 year less than what you hope to be the full time life of the laptop to be. This assumes that you can reasonably afford to buy a new laptop if it breaks earlier than you had planned for. If you can't, consider paying for the extra year of warranty.

For the accidental breakage insurance, I have never seen good experience with Dell's consumer option. As a business purchasing accident insurance it has been generally good (well, as good as Dell service ever is, which in my experience is crap). I use a rider on my renter's insurance. It's cheaper and covers more (most notably, it covers damage/loss if traveling abroad). Plus, I have enjoyed all of my interactions with my insurance company. Note, that whatever the manufacturer calls it, accident coverage is nothing but insurance, and you should treat it as such when figuring out the math of what is worth while.

As to the complaints about Thinkpad's since Lenovo, I can add my experience; I have owned Thinkpads before and after the Lenovo transition. I think the machines since Lenovo acquired the line are as good as the ones before. I have re-installed Lenovo thinkpads on several occasions and have had no troubles getting drivers (and skipping the extra utilities that I didn't wish). I have also had no problem simply removing the extra features and plugins (which I and most of the users I have supported generally like) from a factory install.

On the matter of power cords that break/fray; if this has happened more than once, perhaps you are being a bit hard on them. Every instance of a broken wire/power port on a laptop (and I have maintained fleets of 20-100 of them at work places prior) is because the user was abusive to the connector.

On the matter of cheap batteries; I do believe all laptop batteries are expensive and custom. The exception is external battery packs from third parties. Factor a new battery every 1.5-2 years into the life of the laptop. I would not recommend buying the spare battery at initial purchase.

On the matter of losing your installation media; Dell, Lenovo, and HP business at least, you can call them up and depending on how you ask you can get new media shipped for $0-$50.

tachikaze: You complain about a feature on Thinkpads which can easily be ignored as an example of a propreitary part, yet you than praise the MacBook pro which has no third party power supplies available?
posted by fief at 12:06 PM on May 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

If you want to spend the $$ get a Toughbook (you can pour water on it for 15min and it still works). But, for the money, ease of use and practicality i'd get a macbook. Mac's are so easy to use and you'll find far less problems than a regular laptop.
posted by Plug1 at 1:56 PM on May 28, 2008

The reason I say 'pre-Lenovo' is that unless you're on an expense account or can otherwise deduct the cost of a new one w/ warranty -- new Thinkpads are expensive -- you're better off looking for a model that's been returned at the end of a corporate lease and refurbished to sell on.

Given a three-year upgrade cycle, that puts you in 2005, just around the time of the Lenovo acquisition. You can get a T43 that sold for about $2000 in 2005 for about $300 today, and as long as you're running XP and comfortable with 2005 performance, it's a bargain. In a year's time the first Lenovo models will fit that definition.

(Put it on your home insurance.)
posted by holgate at 5:27 PM on May 28, 2008

If you get a used Thinkpad whatever you do don"t get a R series. Get a T series (business professional solid stuff) or X series (ultraportable). R is consumer grade shit.
posted by furtive at 10:36 PM on May 28, 2008

I'm guessing the power supply that was breaking was for the iBook. I've seen a decent number of them get messed up through normal wear and tear whether you're hard on them or not. I think that the new MacBook power cables aren't as prone to damage now...there's a special piece of rubber near the connector that's supposed to protect them.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:21 AM on June 3, 2008

Looks like Dell consumer models are crippled in special ways. New Dell power adapters have an ID chip. If the ID chip circuit is malfunctioning, the laptop will boot but only operate at minimum CPU speed, and the battery will not charge. Reports suggest that business oriented laptops will give a warning, but everything continues to work normally.
posted by Chuckles at 10:42 AM on March 26, 2009

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