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Laptop Research & Shopping

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

bedlaptop.gif
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.

1 comment to Laptop Research & Shopping

  • Blue

    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.