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Laptop Research & Shopping

Posted by Cyn | Posted in Geekery | Posted on 21-02-2008

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Sam and I spent most of our date time looking at laptops. Yes, we're finally replacing the one that died last summer. Yay!

I find it easier to put what I find online in context after having actually played with a bunch of machines tonight, so I'll be doing a lot of research online.

Anybody have any strong recommendations or good/bad experiences to share? Knowledge of any places that give "educational discounts" that aren't just "steer your students to us and we'll give you a little lower price on your own machines" deals? Sure experience exorcising Vista from a "Vista-compatible" PC? Please speak up!

The options are darn near overwhelming, though. I mean, with desktops we've always built our own. It's harder with laptops, because while technically you could do that, there's no real advantage and you don't end up with a warranty.

I didn't really do much shopping for my last laptop. I just found something I liked at a good price and bought it on the spot. I didn't expect that I'd be replacing it so soon, and I'm much pickier this time. I'd really rather find something that's available in town than ordering online, if only because I don't want to deal with shipping a machine back if it doesn't arrive as expected and so on. Of course, that pretty much means taking what's on a shelf, so we may end up ordering a machine after all.1

Hardware

You buy a machine to suit what you plan to do with it. Well, I do a little of everything except serious gaming and CAD/CAM. I write, read, take classes online, browse like a maniac (tabbed browsing is dangerous), design needlework, edit graphics, work with very large documents, and mess around with web design. I tend to try out a lot of software, too. And listen to music, and sometimes watch DVDs. Oh, and record podcasts, and play with Second Life from time to time. I have to be able to use Microsoft Office for school.2

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The laptop will be my main machine, so it needs to be as good as any desktop I'd buy. It really, really needs to be reliable, which is why I'm looking at warranties more seriously than ever before. I know that I want at least 2GB of RAM, preferably 4GB. My current hard drive (90GB or so) is way too small, and larger hard drives have gotten much more affordable in the last few years. There are far more processor options than the last time I shopped for a new computer. Hard drives and RAM, of course, can be upgraded later. The rest you're pretty much stuck with, on a laptop.

Displays have definitely gotten much nicer, and if I can manage a 17" instead of 14" or 15", that would be nice. We saw quite a few machines tonight that had the 17" displays mated with a crappy video chip. WTF? I care more about the video performance now, partly because of Second Life and such, but far more because my eyesight isn't what it used to be.3

I'm picky about the feel of keyboards and mice, which is one reason I want to put my hands on a machine before buying it. I don't really "travel" to speak of outside the house, using my wireless external set works out well enough, but it's far more awkward when I'm bed-bound than just using what's built into the machine.4

How the audio sounds is important to me, but there are after-market PC cards (and USB options, I think) that can be used to juice that part up. The sound chips integrated into system boards seem to be much of a muchness. Perhaps I should get myself some nice little speakers to go with my sweet USB headset.

I adore the idea of tablet PCs, but the added expense isn't justified for me.5

A fair number of machines had spill-proof keyboards. They should be standard, if only because cats exist in the world.

Operating System

Since I get a license for whatever version of Windows (Vista, XP, 2k, etc.) I want as part of my student software package at DeVry, I find it ridiculous to pay for another. There are a ridiculous number of versions of Vista out there, too. Any of the Home versions would be useless to me, because of our LAN. I'd rather avoid Vista altogether, but it's hard to find any new machines that don't have it pre-installed. If I could be sure of being able to blow away whatever is pre-installed (which is what I normally do on any system), I wouldn't care. Unfortunately, at Sam's workplace they've had trouble trying to install any other OS on machines that have Vista pre-installed back to any other OS, so that I couldn't even be sure of being able to set up a multi-boot system.

System76 has Ubuntu laptops, and Sam has heard good things EmperorLinux.6 I think I'll look around for more non-Windows options if I can't find a good deal in town (good enough to negate the added expense of the unwanted Windows license).

Brands

My last machine was a Compaq, and I'm very unimpressed with it lasting less than three years. In that time, the hard drive had to be replaced several times. The PC slot died first, then the SD card reader, then the battery. I had to replace the AC adapter, and in the last six months or so the receptacle for it got so loose that it wouldn't charge the battery or power the machine reliably. From day one, I never got anything approaching its stated battery life, even if I turned off everything in the world and worked in a text editor! Then the same thing happened with the LAN port. Finally, the system board died.

I didn't travel with the machine much, and kept it properly-secured in a well-padded case when I did take it anywhere (and that was just local). It wasn't subject to any extreme stress. It was dropped once or twice, but from fairly low heights (say, a TV tray), the lid was closed, it landed on a carpeted surface, and it didn't seem to take any harm. Both incidents were relatively early on. I'm not inclined to look at HP machines (or the few Compaq-branded machines that are still out there for some reason) as a first choice as a result.

I detest Gateway, having bought my first PC from them and being treated like crap by the company. I've had to deal with Gateway since, for employers and friends whose machines I was working on, and they've never done a thing to improve my opinion of them. DeVry's school discount arrangements are with them, but if those are discounts, the prices are way too high to begin with.

Sam's employer uses Dells for the most part, and I have to say that their warranties and service availability are attractive. Their prices aren't, for the most part.

The Sony laptops Sam works with are "extremely proprietary," he says. Urgh. And he's had really terrible experiences with Lenovo machines there. Too bad, as I'd heard really good things about Lenovo, otherwise.7

I can't remember what it was Sam didn't like about the Toshiba machines, and my memories of them are running in with the Fujitsu PCs. I really like the hard drive protection feature on the Fujitsu machines, since it seems that no matter how careful you are, a laptop will be dropped at some point in time. Add in my growing tendency to fall or drop things due to muscle spasms and the like, and that feature looks even better. The Fujitsus we saw tonight felt more solid, somehow, too, than the other machines did.

So let's see - Panasonic? (Love those ToughBooks, but I can't afford then.) Acer? Asus? (The IEEE is cute, but not what I need.) What else is there?

Where to Buy

We went to Fry's and Best Buy tonight. The first had better options, and I might even trust them with a warranty. There was a serious hard-sell thing happening, which was annoying. The first sales-kid to target us tried to tell me that I'd need "at least 2.2mhz of memory." I proceeded to explain the difference between quantity and speed. He made a decent attempt at recovery, but then tried to tell me that "nothing can use more than 3.2GB of memory anyway." Nothing? Wow. After another (fairly gentle, I promise!) correction, he tucked tail and ran.

Another, more experienced young man responded to one of our questions about video RAM a short time later. We never could get solid information about that for several of the machines they had on display. He assumed that Sam was the decision maker, completely ignoring the crip in the wheelchair. To his credit, he did start interacting with me after Sam corrected him. Fry's displays are completely unfriendly to gimps, though. They're at a great height for the average shopper to poke at while standing, but even a relatively tall person in a chair can barely see the keyboards.

He kept on and on about rebates, too. I don't really count on rebates, because I know how many of them are never paid for various reasons. The price I pay when I get the machine is the price at which I'll compare it to others. If the store is going to give me $X off the price at the register and call it a rebate, fine, that counts. If I have to send off forms or fill out something online or whatever and wait for the money (or one of those bloody prepaid cards), it doesn't count. I don't give a flying flip how much a machine supposedly cost online last week, either. For one thing, I don't have any reason to believe this guy. For another, I'm comparing prices right now, and trying to put apples oranges next to oranges, as much as possible. He was playing Mr. Fast Talker, and that ticked me off.

Best Buy had better prices, but we couldn't get anyone to give us the time of day. I thought it was because of the chair, at first, because Sam was elsewhere. Even after he was in the department with me, though, the blue shirts were Too Busy For Customers. Any customers, apparently. Also, there's no way on earth I'd consider allowing them to service anything I bought there or elsewhere, considering their well-deserved reputation. That makes me much more reluctant to buy anything there, period.

Neither store had anything as nice and simple as, say, a chart comparing all their available machines. Asking after such a thing seems to be shocking to the sensibilities of po' widdle sales boys.8

We stopped at Barnes & Noble for a bit, and Sam happened to see a review about buying laptop computers in big-box stores. They only mentioned Best Buy, Wal-Mart, and, hmmm - what was the other one? Dang. Anyway, Best Buy was their best experience, and Wal-Mart their worst. The "worst" certainly isn't a surprise to me.

Oh! The other was Circuit City. Right. They're still around?

I wanted to go to CompUSA, but they only seem to exist online now.

Other

There are a lot of "off-lease" and refurbished machines out there at attractive prices, but I don't know if the savings is worth the risk when I really need a reliable machine.


1 I'm not considering Macs. I've never owned one and don't have a personal Mac guru nearby to help with any problems, and I'm not willing to pay their higher prices. If any Mac evangelists want to try to convert me, feel free to send a machine to me at 2107 N. Decatur Rd, #474, Decatur, GA 30033.

2 That's Office™ not any of the free suites. They're picky about that.

3 My vision has been crappy since childhood, but it really is getting worse. I once asked an optometrist what my prescription would be, compared to 20/20. He said, "When we get to 20/400 we stop using those measurements." My vision has been way, way, worse than 20/400, and not correctable to 20/20, for most of my life.

4 Being stuck in bed more frequently than most folks is the reason a laptop is a must for me.

5 If we were buying a machine for Sam or Katie, I wouldn't want to consider anything else.

6 Just looked at the Emperor site, and they're Dell or Lenovo machines with Linux installed. Again, pricey. Drat.

7 I'm beginning to think, based on my own support experience and Sam's, that anybody who has ever had to support hardware she didn't choose (and maybe even if she did) for any real length of time will inevitably grow to detest that particular hardware. The aversion may lessen with time spent away from the need to support that product, but that seems to be the only thing that might work.

8 Why were they all male, anyway? We didn't see one female employee at Fry's who wasn't cleaning, running a cash register, or in food service. The computer area at Best Buy was a solid no-estrogen zone, in terms of staffing. While I've never used their Geek Squad, I have noted the total absence of females in their territory.

Comments (1)

For­est has had a Dell lap­top for sev­er­al years and its still going strong, nice build qual­i­ty and very well designed. You might want to look at HP, his new desk­top machine is an HP and we just got a flatscreen mon­i­tor for it last night and we’re real­ly imp­resed with HP, sol­id machines with high-spec for the price and the mon­i­tor is love­ly, I assume their lap­tops are sim­i­lar, the ones we looked at in the shop while get­ting this desk­top seemed pret­ty good.

Vista isn’t as bad as peo­ple make out, been pleas­ant­ly sur­prised, and most of his old­er soft­ware works fine, though a cou­ple of things aren’t hap­py, Out­look from Office 2000 won’t keep its pass­words for exam­ple, and he can’t get his real­ly old scan­ner soft­ware to work, ancient html soft­ware from the 90s is going strong though so its a bit hit and miss, but then I had the same prob­lems going from win98 to XP myself.. Dell do lin­ux on their machines though.