What laptop should you buy?

Posted by james on March 7, 2007

People keep asking me which laptop they should buy. Usually it's because their current laptop just turned into a smoldering pile of burnt plastic and oh-so-priceless digital photos now lost forever. I used to hate this question, because I knew deep down it didn't matter. Most laptops are made by the big manufacturers in Taiwan (which you've never heard of) and then rebranded as a Dell, Compaq, Gateway. So then it came down to the support provided by the company behind the badge, but now that isn't worth much either. The companies that used to be ranked #1 are now the worst-offenders as far as support goes, usually due to read-from-the-list “technical support" (in the way that the instructions for my toaster are “technical support"), and language barriers (to put it nicely).

But now that's all changed. Lots of companies are horrible and I still recommend staying away from some of the more popular ones. Dell is one of the worst in my books. They're still a bit pricey, though you can find decent deals (there's a different one happening just about every week), their hardware is some of the worst I've seen as far as reliability (known motherboard shorts that they simply replace but don't fix, harddrives crashing repeatedly) and their support is nothing short of moronic. I've called in with specific questions about my laptop (why does it turn on by itself and overheat till it burns stuff?) and gotten answers like... have you tried rebooting? What version of windows are you using? I actually was short with the person on the phone, and would not try their “suggestions".

Compaq and HP have the bargain bin, and their laptops seem cheap, good “value" (ie. lots on the paper for the price), and have fancy features. But their reliability seems to be pretty poor, don't know about their support. Toshiba seems middling... a bit more pricey, a bit more reliable, but I have seen quite a few of them turn to toast as well.

The bottom line is here: buy a Mac. You don't even have to run Mac OS X if you're paranoid and averse to change... just go get <a href="http://www.apple.com/macosx/bootcamp/">Bootcamp</a> which turns your Mac computer into a bona fide Windows computer (have to buy Windows separate), or get <a href="http://www.parallels.com/en/products/workstation/mac/">Parallels</a> and run Windows and OS X side-by-side. Yes, it really does work (imagine pressing a button, having your OS X slide to the left while Windows slides in from the right... and keep on working. It's that slick).

Check out the <a href="http://store.apple.com/1-800-MY-APPLE/WebObjects/AppleStore.woa/6104003/wo/UUo8YYHBhAlw2ZHbJEKDl7NEUSw/">MacBook refurbs</a>. They're good-as-new (everything replaced by Apple) and quite a bit cheaper. This is probably what I will do personally when I get a new laptop.

If you really don't want to get a MacBook (so slick... built in camera! Yuppie-friendly design!) then get a <a href="http://shop.lenovo.com/SEUILibrary/controller/catalog.workflow:category.details?current-catalog-id=12F0696583E04D86B9B79B0FEC01C087&current-category-id=19C791A03AF24034A0011B825513BCED">Thinkpad</a>. It's no longer IBM, it's Lenovo (Taiwanese manufacturer, I think) but they still have a high reputation. They're ranked #2 (after Apple) for reliability and support, and it's a bit of distance between the top two and the rest of the pack. The IBM's are business machines; no card readers, no MP3 players that activate when you bump it in your backpack, no built-in cameras (boo). Their utilitarian, thin, well-built, and are just decent. If I don't get an Apple, I will get a Thinkpad. I had a T40 for a while at work, and I'll probably go with the T60.

You'll look at these, then look at the $400 Compaq in the local CompUSA ad. It's very tempting, sure. But not many people buy the bargain-basement cars that are under $10k; most people look for the most “reliable" economical car. These laptops are a bit more expensive than the competitors, but they'll last. Lately the average lifespan for a laptop has been about 2-3 years that I've seen. Sometimes less. At this point people give up and just think that it's time for an upgrade. It may be, but it should be a choice of “I want something newer", not “I want something less burnt and melted-plasticky".

Some very interesting reading:
<a href="http://www.roughlydrafted.com/RD/Home/78CDDBA5-60D3-4AA7-8C24-3375B070A5DD.html">Study on using MacBooks</a> as Windows-only laptops in a business environment.
<a href="http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,1895,2006499,00.asp">PC Magazine's Readers' Choice: Notebooks Survey</a> - shows Apple on top, followed by IBM/Lenovo. Ignore #3, they're evil.