The Hunt for a New Laptop Begins

I have spent a chunk of the past few days looking at what I call “laptop porn” — enthusiast reviews and critiques of new laptops. Because I can't put off buying a new one much longer.

My trusty nearly five year old Dell 300m is in its death throes — not only is the body a bit damaged, and the battery good for only about 20 minutes, but the machine's 1.4 Ghz Pentium M chip will no longer go over 599 Mhz. I've turned off speedstep in the BIOS, put the power settings to their most greedy, I've downloaded various utilities to make sure the fan cools it (it's getting hot under there), and the chip is asked to give its all. To no avail. It's a slug. It's slooow. And I worry it may decide one day to slow itself further. So it's got to go.

I use my laptop a great deal, both on the road and in meetings at work, so for a combined birthday and 20th anniversary gift, I'm going to get a good one. But what is that exactly?

I thought hard about getting an ultralight Atom-powered machine. My wife's MSI Wind is a wonder of portability. It doesn't feel as slow as the specs suggest it should given the Atom chip and the 2GB RAM limit imposed by Microsoft. I hate the MSI keyboard because the “.” key is in the wrong place, but some competitors don't have that problem. But the deal-breaker, I've decided, is the screen just isn't deep enough — you just don't get enough lines of text on the screen to work well with a footnoted legal document.

So I'm going up a size for a bigger screen and a speedier computing experience. I still want as light a machine as I can afford, because airports are not getting any more convenient (have you seen what they did to MIA??? but I digress). That said, I don't want one that is flimsy and won't stand up to the abuse I seem to subject laptops to. I need a fullsize or very-close-to-fullsize keyboard so I can touch type. I figure, might as well get a core2 duo, so it will take everything I throw at it, but I don't have to have the very fastest clock speed. I won't play games on the machine, so I don't need a superfancy graphics chip. I will need an optical drive, but not every day, so it can be external, although a very light bulit-in would be nice. I want lots of ports, but don't need HDMI output.

It turns out that most of the brick and mortar shops that stocked the kind of laptop I am looking for either don't exist any more, or don't stock them any more. So I'm going to be even more dependent on reviews than for previous purchases. Being risk-averse, that tends to push me to established brands like Dell or, to my surprise, Lenovo — an idea planted by a commentator on my earlier post on this self-indulgent subject, It May Be Time for a New Laptop.

There doesn't seem to be a Dell available right now that meets my specs and gets good reviews, although I find their site hard to use and may have missed one. The closest might be the Adamo, but it seems to be glitz over performance and weighs 4lbs without an optical drive. (And before you ask, I'm a PC, not a Mac. I run wordperfect.)

The Toshiba Portege R500 & R600 have very impressive specs and low weight, but the reviews have scary words like “flex” and “loud fan”. The review of the Fujistu Lifebook P8020 didn't make it sound attractive at all. T

I need to learn about Sony's offerings, although at first glance the high-end Sonys Vaio seem expensive.

Lenovo has a trio of high-priced attractive machines offering a different mix of features and compromises. The list prices are mostly too steep, but there seem to be good prices sometimes on refurb jobs and I've had good experiences with those: both my laptop and my desktop are refurbs from Dell.

So I'm looking at the X200s, the X301, and the T400s.

The X200s is the lightest, in part due to the external optical drive. It's 2.47 lbs (!!!) with the 4-cell battery and a very attractive 3.0lbs even with the six cell I'd likely get. The problem is that there is no trackpad, and I've gotten pretty used to them. My experiences with that little red stick on the Lenovos hasn't been great — they seem hard use to make small adjustments as one often needs to do in documents.

The X301 might be perfect, at 3.3 lbs with a 6 cell and internal DVD, but it is expensive even refurbed, even with the smaller SSD drive — which I think will be enough for my needs. It seems to come mostly with various flavors of Vista, which is a bit of a problem as I'm still in XP land, and plan to stay there until I graduate to Ubuntu or am forced into Win7 or maybe Win8. I could get a regular drive, but I think I would very much benefit from the increased disk speed from solid state (and the modest weight savings) whatever model I get. My only worry there is that a future windows operating system, if I have to use one, might be so bloated as to fill the smaller SSDs….

The T400s refurbed isn't quite as expensive, although it's still up there, but the weight is getting up to 4lbs. I like its looks, although online X partisans sneer at its T-ness. But it weighs 4lbs, which is more than my current machine. Shouldn't progress mean things get lighter? (Although to be fair the T400s has a full 14” screen, and I'm used to the 12.x” variety.)

I'm thinking this isn't going to be easy. Or cheap.

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12 Responses to The Hunt for a New Laptop Begins

  1. Greg says:

    This is the biggest gripe I have with the ultra-portables; that manufacturers are still charging a premium for what is in many respects an inferior product!

    The 3 lenovos that you’re looking at are all good machines. I have used the X301 and it in quite light but pretty damned heavy. I know that in your previous posting you had mentioned that you weren’t a fan of the Asus keyboard, but if you were willing to reconsider it, the U6Vc (http://bit.ly/12TCA0) is quite good (I had one of its predecessors the U6S) and quite liked it.

  2. I’m about to pull the trigger and buy the Acer Timeline 3810T-6105.

    8 hour battery, 13 inch screen, ultra portable, 4GB ram, 500GB HD and it uses the dual core version of Intel’s new CULV processor. Think Atom style power usage, yet fast enough that you can actually watch full screen video (which is impossible on my current Asus EEE netbook).

    http://www.amazon.com/Acer-Aspire-3810T-6415-Technology-CineCrystal/dp/B002CKKK5G

    Sure, it costs 2x the price of a regular netbook, but it is still half the cost of anything that anyone else is selling with similar battery/weight/cpu specs.

  3. Get whatever thinkpad you can get cheap on ebay. I’m not convinced it really matters that much which one you get. They all work and some can be had stupid cheap. I see them as commodities these days now that laptop sales outpace desktop systems. I expect tablet/phone sales to outpace laptops soon though, so thye may get very cheap soon.

    If it were me I’d get an R32 and one of the first crunchpads 🙂

  4. John Flood says:

    You haven’t mentioned it but Apple? I manage to combine a desk PC and a MacBook. For writing and internet it’s great. I can handle the difference between them with no difficulty. It has all the elements you want. I used David Pogue’s transfer book to help me with the Apple OS. Apart from that MS Word, Firefox, etc all work the same. And you can always install Windows if you wish.

    CNET did a piece on the best 5 laptops recently and Mac came out number one. And the thing never crashes.

    Finally UM will give you a great deal on a new one, which is how I got mine.

  5. michael says:

    The Acer Timeline 3810T-6105 is one impressive compromise machine: a little slower than the leaders, a little heavier than the leaders, huge hard drive, unbelievably good battery life. Very low price for the specs. And it looks nice. If it were not for the weight, I’d do it.

    The Asus on the other hand has already attracted some highly negative comments at newegg.

    As for the MacBook, I am just not an Apple guy: I write in wordperfect.

    Now I just have to figure out what “quite light but pretty damned heavy” means.

  6. Melinda says:

    While I’m a died-in-the-wool Unix guy and really like Mac OS, I feel pretty strongly that if you want to run Windows you should run Windows natively. It’s pretty heavily resource constrained and there can be weird scheduler interactions when you run it under a VM.

    I’ve had a bunch of Sony laptops and thought they were terribly overpriced (my employer paid for them). Pretty, though, and reasonably sturdy.

    I like the Lenovo laptops, myself. When I was traveling quite heavily I had a Dell laptop and parts kept falling off. Nothing critical to the operation of the machine, but still … The Lenovos seem to be able to take a beating, and it *is* a laptop, after all. The Lenovos can have some unusual hardware, which can be an issue when you’re bringing up an OS that’s not supported by the manufacturer, but if you’re running it as-shipped it’s not a problem.

  7. John Flood says:

    Here are two pages that discuss using Wordperfect on Macs:

    http://www.columbia.edu/~em36/wpdos/mac-intel.html (WordPerfect for the Mac on Intel Macs)

    http://dfay.fastmail.fm/wordperfect/ (WordPerfect and Mac OS X)

    Some others like Neoffice (a variant of OpenOffice for Macs).

  8. Kat says:

    How much have you tried to use the little red stick — ever for more than an hour or so? I loathed them when I had a T42 and always used the trackpad instead — but I got an X61T earlier this year which only has the trackpoint and I find it much easier than the trackpad, even for fine adjustments, now that I’m used to it. Unless you know you won’t get used to it, I wouldn’t let it put you off a Lenovo.

  9. The non-Adamo Dell 13″ machines are too small? If not, it’s probably your best bet, price-wise. There are lots of deals out there.

  10. michael says:

    The atom-based minis are too weak. The Inspiron 13 starts at 4.9 lbs. What am I missing?

  11. The XPS M1330 starts just under 4 lbs.

  12. michael says:

    Great specs, good list price which rises quickly as you configure it…and a ton of consumer complaints that it runs hot and eventually fries itself probably due to a faulty Nvidia graphics card.

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