Three Monkeys, Three Typewriters, Two Days

May 16, 2006

Looking for a laptop (and advice)

So I've finally decided to break down and get a laptop. My main criteria are as follows:

Now the thing is that I've never bought a laptop, or used one much, and I haven't bought any computer at all in about 5 years. So I'm trying to catch up on what the market looks like, etc, and if people have any advice I'd much appreciated. If you know of places in the Chicago area where I could go and look at actual physical laptops, other than the Apple store, that would be lovely too.

Posted by bzbarsky at May 16, 2006 12:43 PM

You're welcome to use my IBM T43 again :)

Posted by: Josh Aas on May 16, 2006 12:56 PM

I'd definitely recommend the MacBook Pro; I love mine.

Posted by: Eric Shepherd on May 16, 2006 1:13 PM

As a longtime Linux user, I just want to say that I've been loving my PowerBook since I got it last year. It takes a little getting used to, but you can do essentially all the UNIX-y things you want (or you can opt not to). I'm sure I use the terminal far more than most Mac people do, but there's nothing wrong with that.

As for general laptop buying advice, I took a look at Consumer Reports when I was shopping around (they'd just done a laptop survey at the time); that could be worthwhile. (They had good things to say about Apple, though they acknowledged that many people want or need Windows.) Apple laptops tend to be pretty high-end, so they're reasonably likely to last a while before obsolescence. And I can't suggest any other places here in Chicago to go browsing: I just went to the Apple store downtown.

Posted by: Steuard on May 16, 2006 1:48 PM

MacBook Pro: OSX or Linux. Possible head issues though and "not cheap".

Dell: Linux. Choose your bits wisely and it'll all work fine.

IBM Thinkpad: Linux. Seems to run it well, as every geek appears to have one!

Personally, I'd go with the MacBook Pro as if you end up disliking OSX, you can always fall back to (or dual boot) Linux. (or even Window/Cygwin!)

Posted by: Rob... on May 16, 2006 2:16 PM

Oh... I forgot...

I've got a Dell Inspiron 8600c btw, and it dual boots Windows and Ubuntu Linux just fine.

Posted by: Rob... on May 16, 2006 2:17 PM

I have a Toshiba Satelite M40-307 with Ubuntu on it (Dapper), it works generally fine, has a good screen, good connectivity and is not expensive (about 750). It is a better machine than the one I had before and that had cost me 1200 about 1 and half year ago.

The only problem I have is that some of the special toshiba function keys don't work, especially the brightness up/down keys.

Apart from that, I am happy with it.

Posted by: pascal on May 16, 2006 3:20 PM

You may also have a look at the new MacBook (non-Pro) which was released today. Much cheaper than the "Pro" version, but still most of the bells and whistles.

Posted by: Tristan Nitot on May 16, 2006 3:25 PM

I would definitely go with the IBM T43. I've heard nothing but good things about how they work with Linux.

The hardware is great; the design itself is great; and there's a lot of people who run Linux that have them and want to make Linux work on it.

Posted by: ispiked on May 16, 2006 5:31 PM

I've got a T43... it's by far the best built laptop I've seen. Mine is slightly noisy because of the fan (a flaw IMHO), but still quieter than most. I only hear it when I'm in a quiet room, still quieter than most desktops... but I guess I'm picky.

Posted by: Robert Accettura on May 16, 2006 5:56 PM

I'm also a ThinkPad fan (T41p in my case). They generally support Linux very well, and performance, quality, and battery life is stellar. I've never tried a MacBook Pro though ;-)

Posted by: Darin Fisher on May 16, 2006 6:41 PM

Pay special attention to keyboard layout.

More concrete example:
- If you use emacs, you want two big Ctrl keys.
- If you use vi, make sure ':' is where it's supposed to be.
- If you use bash, make sure '|' is where it's supposed to be.

You can't (easily) replace your laptop's keyboard.

Posted by: Eddy Mulyono on May 16, 2006 8:04 PM

Josh, I may well take you up on that if I don't have a laptop by then. ;)

Eddy, I use emacs and I always switch caps lock with the left Control key. Though now I wonder whether that's possible with MacOS...

Everyone else, thanks for the advice, and keep it coming if you have more!

Posted by: Boris on May 16, 2006 8:16 PM

I'm planning on getting a laptop also but I'm waiting until next month or the month after for AMD's Dual Core Turion 64 mobile processors.

Dual Core
64 bit
PowerNow to scale down the clock speed and battery consumtion when you don't need full juice. Like when you're playing solitare and don't need 2.2 Ghz, it'll scale back to 800 Mhz on both cores and reduce battery usage.

And it has Pacifica (now named AMD-v) which is the hardware virtualization technology that Xen and VMware can use to better run Windoze or another OS in a Virtual machine at near native performance so you don't need a dual boot.

AMD has always been pretty well priced also and if you're like me and aren't expecting to upgrade for another 5 years this might be a good option.

Posted by: Dwayne on May 16, 2006 10:40 PM

I'm happy with the quality of the components in my PowerBook G4. It has decent speakers, so I can use it to listen to music without headphones. It has a screen with a very wide viewing angle, so my family can watch a Simpsons episode with it. And, for the first time in my life, I can plug my computer into any printer and have it Just Work. I assume these things are still true with the new MacBook Pro.

Yes, you can switch modifier keys on MacOS (System Preferences - Keyboard and Mouse - Keyboard - Modifier Keys). I have both Caps Lock and Control mapped to Control.

When I'm compiling Firefox, it does get hot enough to make my legs uncomfortable, but I can work around that by holding it differently, putting it on a table/desk, or putting a pillow or (unpowered) laptop fan pad under it.

Posted by: Jesse Ruderman on May 16, 2006 10:52 PM

Get a Mac. Seriously.

Posted by: Ian Hickson on May 17, 2006 3:17 AM

Just to add to what others are saying:

I'm on my third Mac laptop now. Each has had a useful service life of about three years. My Wallstreet was essentially obsoleted by its ancient graphics chipset and the move to OS X. The Titanium PB G4 that replaced it in mid-2002 had a motherboard failure just over a year ago and got replaced by an Aluminum PowerBook G4, which I expect will probably give me another year or two of service until it really starts to feel like a dog next to a new Mac laptop.

The only reason I mention this is because as much as I love Macs, I'm not a particularly hardcore user (although I suppose hacking on Camino is probably using a lot more CPU cycles than, say, complaining about its flaws two years ago was) and I "ought" to be able to get more useful life out of a machine than that.

Such is the computer business, I guess. I've seen a similar upgrade cycle on the Windows side. I'm just too used to the fact that my first two Macs lasted about 5 years each (and that my parents are still using an 8-year-old G3 quite well).


Posted by: Chris on May 17, 2006 5:44 AM

AMD has just launched their Turion 64 x2's

It shouldn't be long now before manufacturers put out some decent laptops using them.

Posted by: on May 17, 2006 7:41 AM

take the new Macbook, almost as fast as MBP and you can link it to larger display in your office.

Posted by: Robert on May 17, 2006 8:09 AM

I've been wanting to get a MacBook Pro, but now with the MacBook's I'm not sure. I don't mind the smaller screen if I gain better portability out of it, but the main killer for me between the MacPro and Macbook is the graphics card... does anyone know if the intel card is any good? Obviously it's not an ATI, but will games and XGL run on it fine and fast?

Posted by: Jed on May 17, 2006 6:37 PM

You can remap caps lock to ctrl on macbooks (well, at least you can do it on my iBook).

I'm very happy with my iBook. However, fink (mac os x package manager) has some problems every now and then (stable packages are somewhat outdated, and the unstable branch doesn't always work without problems). I haven't tried DarwinPorts yet, though.

Posted by: Nico on May 19, 2006 12:43 AM

don't the macbooks (non-pro) have that glossy display? I would think that that would suck, but I don't have first-hand experience with that.

Posted by: christian biesinger on May 20, 2006 5:04 PM

I've been also looking for a laptop, to program on-the-go. Try get a T41/42/43p they're all good. But for the 15'' screen you'll have to go with the 42 or 43. 'P' designates workstation class, they get more expensive, but they have better graphics cards.

If all else fails, get a Powerbook or something.

Posted by: Jon Pritchard on May 22, 2006 12:09 PM

I'm (very slowly) looking for a new laptop, too. (Haven't found one I like, but I'm picky.) In addition to your list, here are some thing's I'm watching out for; you might want to think about them too.

- Hardware access. Being able to pull out your hard drive is a plus. On my IBM T30, you take out a phillips-head screw, then slide the hard drive out the side. Takes about 2 minutes, including finding the screwdriver. If something goes wrong with the drive, I can mount it in a case on someone else's comp and try to get my data off. Or if something goes wrong with the rest of the machine, I can pull out the drive and send the rest of it for repairs. Other computers are not so easy. On a typical Mac, I'm told it takes about an hour's worth of trained hardware support time to get the drive out. Given that Apple's tech depot (and possibly other companies') will replace your hard drive without notifying you if they find anything wrong with it, this is can be a problem. It also makes it hard to pull data off a problematic drive.

- Hinges. The hinges on many Apple and Dell models are flimsy: I've seen enough broken ones at the tech center here to be wary. Some of the Dell models we see a lot, for instance, use crappy metal that just breaks. The hinges on the ThinkPad models are much sturdier, and they're made of steel. You want steel hinges.

- Mice. If you're using your laptop on your lap, get a model whose mouse you are comfortable using. External mice work fine on the desk, not so much on your lap. :)

- Wireless antenna. If you travel a lot, make sure your wireless card gets a good range. Some laptop models have small wireless cards, and their range isn't so good.

- Keyboard. Like Eddy says, pay attention to the keyboard layout. Some laptops have stunted keys, or have shifted keys around to make the keyboard more compact. A 14" has enough space for a proper keyboard, so there really isn't any excuse for not having one on a laptop that size or bigger.

- Screen. There are two kinds of screens, that I'm aware of. Shiny ones, which are often brighter; and matte ones, which don't have any glare. If you get a shiny one, check that glare isn't going to be a problem for you. Also consider whether you want a widescreen or the usual h/w ratio.

Laptops aren't very extensible almost by definition. Room for a memory upgrade and a PCMCIA slot might be the best you can do.
Some models have swappable bays for the optical drive. ThinkPads, for example, can swap the CD/DVD drive with an extra hard drive, an extra battery, etc. Dells also have a modular bay. (I don't know about other models.)

If you're looking at Dell, check out the Latitude D620. My co-workers have been evaluating it (I work part time at the tech support center here), and they say it's a solid machine and fits my requirements. In general, with the Dell models make sure you get Intel network cards, not Broadcom, if you want to run Linux.

Whatever you do, keep your work backed up. Laptop hard drives are kinda delicate.

Posted by: fantasai on May 30, 2006 3:58 AM
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