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Which Laptop To Buy? 732

Misha writes: "In this day and age, it seems that the advertisement offers for desktop systems have slowed down in term of features. Everyone has agreed that AGP, DVD, >1GHz, etc. is what everyone will want. This does not seem to be the case with laptops. Every year, they manage to cram a bigger resolution screen, more system and graphical memory, more battery life into a less-than-two-inch thick plactic box. So, what are everyone's preferences as far as laptops go? What kind of features are most important? How does price enter the equation? Which one is best for the money? And especially, can you get a decent machine for under $1000?" I've been using the IBM Thinkpad T20 for the last year or so, and love the machine -- with the exception of the WinModem *sigh*. What else is everyone using?
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Which Laptop To Buy?

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  • by dublin ( 31215 ) on Tuesday August 07, 2001 @11:32AM (#2129099) Homepage
    You suggest Sony, IBM, or Dell. I'd add Toshiba to that list and drop Dell, since they once again exhibited their commitment to being Microsoft's #1 lackey this week by pulling support for Linux on the desktop just when Microsoft's new licensing scheme for XP is making many customers take a serious look at alternatives. (Linux desktops are now only available through "DellPlus" custom orders, which have a 50-unit minimum - mark my words, Dell will make it increasingly harder to get a desktop Linux box, since they march ONLY to Bill's tune. How do I know? I used to be point man for software for both Latitude and Inspiron at Dell, and I can tell you first hand that they really care much less about their customers than they do about keeping MS happy.)

    The IBM's are weird but work well - I especially like the old 550, 560, and 570, which are truly portable and can be had used at pretty decent prices. Many of the laptops of a couple of years ago have the longest battery life readily available - the reason is that there were already low-power CPUs then, but the clock rates had't gotten so insane as to more than use up the savings as is the case in current laptops, some of which have pitiful battery life. (Realistically, is there anything you'll be doing on a laptop that requires more than say, 233 MHz? I doubt it.)

    The larger Sonys are pretty good, but have the usual frustrating proprietariness of all Sony gear, and often Linux drivers only "sorta work" on Sonys in my experience. Like Compaq, Sony insists on "adding prporietary value" in ways that actually decrease the value of the hardware for those of us clever enough to try to use it in new ways. (FWIW, I think Compaq laptops aren't worth the trouble or the money for this very reason.)

    Toshiba has been making good strides back after slipping for a few years. The new ones seem about as tough as the old ones that built their reputation, and they have some pretty good deals now. Avoid HP like the plague. Fujitsus are surprisingly good, but harder to find good deals on.

    Sadly, no laptop vendor seems to be interested in building what I think most laptop users want: A true thin and light notebook with a good screen and a *slower* processor that would allow battery life of 8 hours or more. This is now easliy do-able, and would sell, as I think most people are wondering what they need gigahertz CPUs in their laptop for, since they can't use even a quarter of that power in their desktop machines. That and built-in 10/100 Ethernet, which still seems maddeningly rare in today's world.
  • Used Laptops (Score:3, Insightful)

    by neuromantic ( 468525 ) on Monday August 06, 2001 @05:00PM (#2164369)
    If you want something decent for under $1000, you've pretty much gotta go used. I got a PII 400, 256mb, 14.1", 12GB for $400 off of eBay. ~Will
  • by lelitsch ( 31136 ) on Monday August 06, 2001 @05:06PM (#2164424)
    This might not be a popular response for /., but I have a bunch of laptops and notice that I always carry the lightest one if in any way possible. For most of the things you do on the road, anything you can buy nowadays is plenty powerful enough. Another rather important consideration if battery life. I have pretty good luck borrowing power in airports and hotels, but a laptop that shuts down after less than 3 hours is annoying. As far as quality goes, I had pretty good luck with Dell, some with Sony and none with Toshiba and IBM. But YMMVW. If your company is buying, get the replace-and-send-back warranty.
  • Macs (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Prion86 ( 463800 ) on Monday August 06, 2001 @05:09PM (#2164451) Homepage
    if you dont have the $ for a Tibook, the g3 laptops are getting cheaper. especially the first generation ones. most of the problems with the first gen g3s are gone these days. not to mention, who wouldnt want a cheap laptop that can run osx?
  • by Natalie's Hot Grits ( 241348 ) on Monday August 06, 2001 @05:11PM (#2164473) Homepage
    Is an IBM Thinkpad i1400. It's a decent thinkpad, winmodem, but intel NIC (integrated). the screen is only 800x600 (blah!) but the newer low end (read: ~1,000-1,500$) all come with 1024x768 Active Matrix TFT.

    Mine is a celeron 500MHz (this is good, as it is the 100MHz FSB version, not the 66MHz Crap they put in desktops).

    I have installed linux on it, in fact, there are about 5 different websites out on the web that tell me how to install linux on this exact model. I couldn't get the modem working tho :(

    If you want the best laptop for LINUX, then i would have to say IBM and Apple's iBook are your best bets. Sure, the iBook has a shitty CPU in it, but, it uses very little battery life (compared to a p3). And apple is all about not being compatible with the rest of the world. Well friends, when it comes to laptops, there are only a few things that matter. and CPU architecture isn't one of them. If you are running Linux on an x86 machine, or Linux on a PPC machine, its' all the same. I bet, if you are a linux guru that wants to run all the latest beta shitware on sourceforge, you wont want the iBook, because it will take some porting to get it to compile/running properly. but if you stick with software that comes with your distribution, then x86 and PPC are all the same.

    For 1,300$ base end, and 1,900$ for high end iBook, i consider it a good buy for a linux laptop. (I paid $950 for my IBM 500MHz Celeron, 192MB ram, 800x600 active matrix TFT, NIC, winmodem, generic sound, i810 video (intel's), I think it was a steal about when i bought it 9 months ago)

    If you were you, i would stay away from Dell laptops. For one, they are not like Dell desktops. They arent the "stable" machine on the block like the optiplex is. Not only that, but Dell is dropping Linux support on the desktop, so you can forget getting a Dell that is gonna run linux any better than IBM or apple. All in all, with my experience with dell laptops (i service them, gateway, and Apple's laptops under warranty where i work), I would have to say that Dells, and certain models of Apple's are the least reliable. (apple PB g3 Wallstreet comes to mind! Don't worry, bronze kb is a good one)

    I hope you like my brief review, this is just my experience.
  • It depends... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Kphrak ( 230261 ) on Monday August 06, 2001 @05:13PM (#2164479) Homepage

    It really depends on what you want. If power is what you want, you might sacrifice battery life and portability. If you want portability, you may have to sacrifice power, or might have to pay a premium. Cost also factors in. Who wants to buy a computer that has as much power as their desktop at double the price, even if it is portable?

    There are plenty of special designs in the notebook world that are made only for one purpose. There was a guy showing one at work the other day...it was an unbreakable laptop. He hurled it against the marble floor in the hall to test it...it wouldn't break....it blew my mind. Some of the subminis (Vaios and the latest Librettos) have digital cameras built right in... that's always a plus.

    I use a Toshiba Libretto [silverace.com] 70CT. It's possibly the smallest full-featured computer ever built; P120, 32Mb RAM, no 3D, no CDROM, no floppy, but dual-booting Linux and Windows on a 10GB HD. You can get one off eBay for about $300-$500 (of course, it's an older model; the new ones are far more powerful and cost $2500 last I checked). It's not powerful considering this day and age, but don't think of it as a small computer. Think of it as a big palmtop. ;)

    As you can see, I favor portability. In addition, I am hooked for life on Toshiba because they use a standard laptop HD. You know, the kind that you can plug into an adapter to connect to your desktop's IDE cable if you so prefer. Other than that, the only computer-to-computer I/O is done through a cheap PCMCIA card.

    Oh yeah, and all the chicks dig the Libretto because it's SOOOO CUTE! :)

  • Mac, No Seriously (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ritlane ( 147638 ) on Monday August 06, 2001 @05:13PM (#2164484) Homepage
    Prepare to loose all Karma

    The PowerBook G4 [apple.com], and iBook [apple.com] are still impressive offerings.

    Even if you don't accept a little Apple FUD [apple.com] there is still one thing that can't be beat: These things are amazingly light, fast, and have a great screen. Besides that, they run many Open Source OSes (Linux [linuxppc.org], Darwin [apple.com]).

    Keep in mind, I am not posting this from a "Mac zealot" perspective. I am posting this as someone who admires the aesthetics of a computer, and who realizes that one of the powers of Open Source is that you can compile anything to your hardware. What ever it is.

    All I ask, is that you don't mod me down simply because you dislike macs, just keep it as an option for some people to consider
  • by krismon ( 205376 ) on Monday August 06, 2001 @05:14PM (#2164491)
    The pointer is important (to me), I like the 'eraser' type that IBM has, and some others, like Dell who have dual. I hate those touch pad things(personal preference). So the laptop doesn't really matter as long as I can use some type of windowing system and ssh, and have the pointer.. it can be an old 486-66 thinkpad(which I had for a while) to a Gateway solo 3150 which I use now(pII-366, dvd, built in ethernet, a little over an inch thick).<p>
    For me, ergonomics plays a bigger role than the processor speed and all those fixins, next to that I'd like a nice clear screen, doesn't have to be big.<p>
  • Re:Used Laptops (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Splork ( 13498 ) on Monday August 06, 2001 @05:14PM (#2164492) Homepage
    agreed. anything new for less than $1600 will be a piece of shit that skimps on quality all over the place.

    New cheap laptops break easier under heavy use, from the keyboard wearing out to the display hinge failing. Used "cheap" laptops are more likely the higher quality ones that someone has put aside because they wanted a whiz bang upgrade. If they fail, they were cheap and you can generally find a replacement or the parts you need to fix for a low price on ebay.

    If you're buying a laptop new and plan on using it as your primary machine, the extended warranty is well be worth it so that repairs of such things are taken care of for at least three years.

    feature to not bother with: dvd-rom drive. how often will you use it for the extra $200+ it ads to the price (to pay off the MPAA)? Just buy a PS2, they're more fun and useful and plenty portable.
  • by tjansen ( 2845 ) on Monday August 06, 2001 @05:21PM (#2164550) Homepage
    Things to consider when buying a laptop:

    1. If you want to play (3D) games, make sure that you have a GeForce 2 Go chipset. It's the only one that allows you to play newer games at decent framerates

    2. For Linux you should check whether your built-in modem is supported

    3. Integrated WaveLan/WiFi is a cool feature if you know other people who have it, much better than an external PCMCIA card

    4. If you want to use external drives (CD burner, faster harddisks (Laptops harddisks are slooow)), make sure you have a FireWire/iLink/ieee1394 port

    5. built-in ethernet is always a useful feature

  • Dell Latitude (Score:2, Insightful)

    by jerkychew ( 80913 ) on Monday August 06, 2001 @05:21PM (#2164552) Homepage
    I say go with the Dell Latitude. My last two employers both made the switch to Dell Latitudes, and they are by far the best, IMHO. My last employer was previously an IBM Thinkpad shop, and we had nothing but problems - ever try to get serial, parallel, and infrared all working on a TP600 under NT? DON'T. Just burn the damn thing. The machines are a little better with Win2K, but they are still far from perfect (install Win2K on a TP 390. I dare you...).

    You can do a fresh install of NT or 2K on a latitude, load up the correct drivers, and you're off and running - with Thinkpads you had to install the TP utility (it's bundled with Win2K but still barely works) and then spend FOREVER tweaking the resources to get everything to play happy.

    However, if price is an issue, the Latitudes do come at a premium... they are geared for the corporate world, so they are on the pricey side. I had a Lat C600 with a PIII 750, 256MB, 10GB, and built in NIC/modem, and it cost roughly 3 grand when brand new (>6 months ago). However, Redhat 6.2 and 7.x ran flawlessly on the machine - once the 2.4 kernel came out, I didn't need to install drivers for anything on the box (unlike NT and 2K). Plus, the head of the Latitude design team previously worked on Apple's PowerBooks, so you know that they're gonna be more sexy than most other laptops, save the VAIO.

    You could go with a Dell Inspiron instead, as they are cheaper, and generally have more bells and whistles than the Latitudes (I believe you can get them with Geforce video), but in my experience they just aren't as stable as the Latitude.
  • by torpor ( 458 ) <<ibisum> <at> <gmail.com>> on Monday August 06, 2001 @05:37PM (#2164659) Homepage Journal
    Simply the best you can get, right now.

    I know, it's not Intel architecture - that's just fine. Cram it full of RAM (1Gig) and fire up a few Virtual PC windows.

    It's extremely well made - except for the hinges, which flake paint after a while, but you can just brush that off and it looks fine.

    Definitely a well-made piece of gear. Mac OS X runs great on it, too!
  • ASUS, KDS (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Bogey33 ( 446712 ) on Monday August 06, 2001 @05:39PM (#2164677)
    It is possible to get a decent laptop for just over a $1000. You just have to buy the models made by several asian manufacturers to compete with Dell, Combaq, etc. Laptops are beginning to push desktops aside, especially with the current sales slump that has hit the market. Laptops have higher margins and are still susceptible to branding (the whitebox social order hasn't hit yet). Manufacturers such as ASUS and KDS(not sure about them?) have been producing OEM laptops for the big boys for years. Now that desktop sales have slumped they are trying to push they own systems into the channel independent of their OEM partners. Basically they want to see a larger piece of that profit pie.

    What this means to you:

    • Cheaper Laptops
    • Local Computer Dealers Selling Their Own Line of Laptops (based on the ASUS,KDS base models)
    • Laptops WILL bump out desktops for the mid-low, mid markets
    • Desktops WILL be around for a while yet, as the ultra-cheapies (family room PCs *for the Youngins*) and high-end (power hungry video cards, huge fast hard drives that are needed for video editing, CAD design, game playing, music archiving, etc.)
    Check the notebook listing on pricewatch [pricewatch.com] for ASUS and KDS models. Should see a lot more activity (maybe new suppliers) in the not to distant future.
  • by jhoffoss ( 73895 ) on Monday August 06, 2001 @05:43PM (#2164709) Journal
    FYI, I just setup a new Gateway laptop for the Veep of my division, and discovered (and showed to the boss) that you can set the laptop up to use Just VGA, Just CRT, Both VGA and CRT with the same desktop, or VGA and CRT in a dual-head setup. He still prefers the single screen, of course, but for the power-user at home, that could be a decent productivity boost.
  • by Mononoke ( 88668 ) on Monday August 06, 2001 @05:48PM (#2164733) Homepage Journal
    What I've never understood though is why much of the Apple community puts up with the price gouging on its hardware, and still cheers on Steve at every conference.
    When you consider that Apple hardware is consistantly better-built and higher quality than equipment from most other manufacturers, the prices don't seem that far out of line.

    I've dropped a Mac laptop (520) from a height of 7' to an asphalt parking lot, and all it did was wake from sleep. Minor cosmetic damage, but nothing that affected the use of the machine. Don't try this with the average laptop.

    As far as "cheering for Steve" goes, every product launch for every company in the world is primarily a big cheerleading session. Nothing unusual at Apple's.

    ...so long as they don't proclaim that their platform is the zenith of all computing
    Not at all. I tend to think of Apple hardware as the Mitsubishi of computers, not the Zenith.

  • Titanium (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Wyatt Earp ( 1029 ) on Monday August 06, 2001 @05:53PM (#2164748)
    G4 Titanium 400 with 384 MB of RAM and a dual-boot OS 9.1/10.0.4. Airport, DVD, Firewire, 15.2 inch screen - everything I need in a laptop.

    And I have an iBook (Tangerine 300) running just 9.1 and 96MB of RAM. Works well as a sit around and surf machine.

    My work got some IBM A21s in, pretty nice for a Windows PC, not sure how well Linux or BSD works on it though.
  • by Onan ( 25162 ) on Monday August 06, 2001 @05:56PM (#2164776)
    There are two main reasons that Mac portables fare better against Intel systems than Mac desktops.

    The first is that no one's going out and putting together their own laptop from individual parts. Desktop Macs actually compare very favorably to pre-made desktop systems from Dell, Gateway, Sony, etc. It's self-assembled machines that get to be a lot cheaper than any of these, but that's not relevant for laptops.

    The other is that whole hardware/software harmony thing. Things like power management and docking behaviour are non-standardized enough that there are great benefits to having the same organization make the hardware and the software. Obviously this only applies if you're running Apple's software, rather than Linux, NetBSD, or OpenBSD.

  • by surfcow ( 169572 ) on Monday August 06, 2001 @05:58PM (#2164791) Homepage
    Todays kicking, expensive laptop will be junk in 2 years, and depreciate the moment you open the box. For half it's price, you can get a great 6 month old laptop every year.

    For example: if you want a good machine on the cheap, I recommend getting a refurbished IBM thinkpad 600x via ebay for about $900. Only 500mhz, but it can handle 576 MB or RAM. Still under warranty. Lots of folks using these for Linux. http://nav.webring.yahoo.com/hub?ring=linuxthinkpa d&id=6&list

    Add a DVD for $150, zip for $50, mondo hd for $150 and push the ram up, you have a nice cheap box.

  • Re:Used Laptops (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 06, 2001 @06:06PM (#2164822)
    feature to not bother with: dvd-rom drive. how often will you use it for the extra $200+ it ads to the price (to pay off the MPAA)? Just buy a PS2, they're more fun and useful and plenty portable.

    *shrug* I know that's your opinion, but it doesn't really apply to everyone.

    I like to watch region 2 DVDs. Unless I want to spend $300+ for a regionfree standalone player, $200 for a regionless/region-hackable DVD-ROM is quite a bargain.

    I have a PS2, but Joe Laptop might not want one. I can say that the PS2 as a DVD player is very sub-par.

    I watch a lot of DVDs. Usually on airplanes. That's a bit difficult to manage with a PS2 or standalone DVD player. ^_~

    Did I mention that many laptops have S-Video output, so I could use the laptop as my only DVD player if I wanted to?

    Sorry to scrap your advice, but you hit on the number one feature that I look for in a laptop.

  • iBook (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 06, 2001 @06:28PM (#2164926)
    It's slightly higher than 1000 bucks, but it's worth it. If you are really into Linux, you can install Debian or Yellow Dog on it. Those run well on my Rev A ibook. However, OS X is a fantastic OS and ever since it got released I haven't even wanted to go back to Linux.

    Basically, you can't get a cheaper laptop that will ship with a top notch UNIX system pre-installed. Sure you could get a PC laptop and dual boot windows and whatever, but why bother?

    The iBook is very durable. I threw mine in a pillow case, then put that in my backpack so I could skateboard to school every day and it has withstood all the abuse I have given it.

    It's great on the network. If the built in modem, 10/100 ethernet isn't good enough for you, you can have wireless for another 100 bucks. It's industry standard, too [apple.com] so you can fit in just fine on a PC network (did I mention that OS 10.1 will ship with SAMBA?) The networking code is all BSD goodness. It can't get any better than that.

    Aqua is also the best GUI I have ever used. I grew up on windows, and used WindowMaker, blackbox, and enlightnement for X. Aqua blows them all away.

    The only reason not to buy one is if you can't stand Apple computers or Steve Jobs for some reason. For me, I purchase computers based on technical merit, not based on petty biases, so the iBook was a great choice for me.

  • Re:Toshiba (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Malc ( 1751 ) on Monday August 06, 2001 @06:33PM (#2164947)
    I like everything about my Tecra 8100... except the dreadful keyboard: the navigation keys are down the right hand side. The number of times I've hit "Home" instead of "BkSp", or "PgDn" instead of "Enter"... aarrrggghhh!
  • iBook (Score:5, Insightful)

    by green pizza ( 159161 ) on Monday August 06, 2001 @07:02PM (#2165089) Homepage
    Aside from the P233MMX machine I bought for $150 in 1998, I haven't made a better purchase choice than the new (white) Apple iBook. It's small, it's light, it's fast, and the battery lasts a good 4 hours. Though perhaps my favorite feature is the keyboard... the keys are full size and have normal spacing, and the travel is decent. Best laptop keyboard I've ever used. Mac OS 9.1 works great, OS X is coming along nicely, and YellowDog Linux works like a charm -- even has zippy fast XFree86 acceleration via the RageMobility128 right out of the box.

    Get an iBook, you won't be sorry. (Now if only the 3 year extended warranty was cheaper...)
  • Re:Toshiba (Score:2, Insightful)

    by well_jung ( 462688 ) on Monday August 06, 2001 @08:06PM (#2165338) Homepage
    Heh. Roughly half of our Dell Latitudes are running Red Hat. We even have a standard image.

    Of course, we make sure they understand that we'll let 'em do it, even help them if we can, but that we are NOT gonna go out of our way to fix shit when it breaks.

    Honestly, that's what Firewalls are for. If you are really worried about managing them, simply don't support it. But to ban it is short-sighted. Think about it. How do you explain that you are not going to let people use the tools they feel the most comfortable using?

    Of course, our CIO is an old Unix Admin, so we have enlightened management :)

"Hey Ivan, check your six." -- Sidewinder missile jacket patch, showing a Sidewinder driving up the tail of a Russian Su-27