How to buy a laptop in 2010 (for the “normal person”)

Dec
31
2009

If you’re like me, you’re often asked “What kind of laptop should I buy?”

This question might not directly affect you, since many IT organizations dole out laptops to the whole staff, including you.
However, since you’re seen walking around with a laptop, or have that geeky-vibe about you, I’m guessing you’ve been asked more than once “What kind of laptop should I buy?”

You might be tempted to say “Buy a Macbook” – if only for the reason that you DON’T have a Macbook, and therefore would be unable to help the person in the future. (See this for the example of the problem: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/computers)

Anyway, with that in mind, here’s “Jeremy’s Guide to Buying a new PC-based Laptop in 2010.”

Again, there are a LOT of ways someone COULD do this task. This is what I send to people in my inner circle (friends, family, etc.) when I get the question.

These suggestions should be “good enough” for the common man / woman. Any one person’s particular needs may vary, but you, the IT Pro, should be able to “print out and hand over” these suggestions and have them work for about 90+% of the people you come in contact with. Again, desktop and laptops can be “infinitely configured.” But you don’t have time for that. You want to get back to real work.

So, here is a document you can send to anyone who has ever asked that question with some “straight dope answers.”

Jeremy’s Guide to Buying a new PC-based Laptop in 2010
———————————————————————–
We’re going to answer some questions here like:

() Netbook or real laptop?
() Where can I get good deals?
() What kind of hardware (and warranty) should I get?
() Should I get Windows 7 32-bit or 64-bit? Can I get Vista?

 

Part I: Netbook or real laptop?
Netbooks look like wee little laptops. And they are. They run Windows and all the programs people need. They’re portable, and dirt cheap.

The general problems with Netbooks is: the keyboards are tiny… really tiny. The screens and screen-resolutions are also tiny (which could mean a lot of “scrolling around” for many tasks, including web page surfing).

They cannot pack a lot of RAM (which means Windows and apps will run slowly), and the processors they use are usually “Intel Atom” processors. This is a low-cost processor used mostly in Netbooks to save money and extend battery life. Don’t worry.. Atom processors are fully compatible with all the Windows-stuff you’re gonna throw at it.

Netbooks are great if you want portability. Netbooks are great if you need web access, in a portable way. Netbooks are great if you want to run an occasional app.
But Netbooks aren’t as powerful as laptops. This means that many people COULD get away with a dirt-cheap Netbook if their needs are very modest and are OKAY with the limitations.

My feeling is that if you want a Netbook, try to get one as CLOSE to a laptop-spec as possible.

But for just a few hundred more I can have a FULL laptop, which, yes, is a little bigger and perhaps better, all around, for everyday tasks.

I own a Netbook, and I have a hard time with long sessions of web browsing and email, big Word docs, Visio and creating documents with Microsoft publisher. I’m scrolling all around the low-resolution screen and I’m mistyping a lot. Great.

Again, I’m not Anti-Netbook. Again, I own one. But I use it exclusively for travel purposes when I’m afraid my real laptop might be stolen, or I am only carrying a backback and not my real laptop bag. In short, I wouldn’t recommend a Netbook as your ONLY laptop, especially for a college or school student. But it does make an excellent SECOND laptop, but only if you’re religious about keeping “data” things sync’d with your “real” machine or you use something like Google Documents or Microsoft Office online where all your docs are “in the cloud.”

Part II: Which laptop brand should I get?

Here’s the thing, basically, they’re all the same.

Shocker, I know. But so are cars. They are all basically, almost exactly, 99% the same.

Yes, one laptop or desktop may have some extra ports or buttons or whatever. Some are a little faster or a little slower. Some are bigger, some are smaller.

But they all do the same thing. And for the MAJORITY of “Joe and Jane users” you almost CANNOT GO WRONG in buying a laptop nowadays.

My primary suggestion to prospective buyers of laptops and desktops is: UNDERSTAND THE WARRANTY. We’ll cover this in the next part of this talk.

Of course, you’re also looking for a good deal. So, here are my top three deals for anyone looking for a computer:

1. New Dell Vostro laptops. They’re cheap, decent, fast, and have Dell’s warranty (again, more on this in a second.) Click here to see them.

I wouldn’t recommend _all_ of them. Some of them have the “wrong” processor type. (again, more on this in a second.)

2. Dell Factory Outlet computers: http://www.dell.com/outlet/. This is Dell’s “island of lost toys.” This usually mans “Jane Doe couldn’t afford her new laptop for sonny Johnny Doe after all, so she sent it back after 9 days of light use.” It doesn’t really mean “It was dropped, so it’s now crap.”  Even if it did, Dell still puts an original warranty on everything they sell there, which is the most important part of owning a laptop.
I’ve literally bought 4 Dell laptops this way.

3. Tigerdirect.com. These all “fell off the truck, if ya know what I mean”, off-lease (meaning, used) or are closeouts in some way. But, holymoly.. lots and lots of awesome deals here. I promise you won’t find better deals than Tigerdirect. You will get the MOST bang for your buck, especially if you’re looking for something “higher end” at “lower cost.” But here’s the trick: Tigerdirect doesn’t warranty these. They’re factory warranties… whatever that means. And since they sell all brands, I don’t know what to tell you – even if you find a great deal. You’ll have to manually inspect the warranty yourself, call the company and see what their story is. Don’t expect Tigerdirect to help you when you have a problem. They sell it to you. That’s it.

Part III: Understanding the warranty

Let’s talk about Dell, specifically, for a second though. Why have I, historically, always owned a Dell laptop?

Simple. Their warranty is easy for my pea-brain to understand.

Here’s how it works:

  • The default warranty is 1 year if something “dies.” Examples are: Power supply, screen goes blank, USB port dies, whatever. You call up. They try to fix it over the phone.
  • If it needs a part you can replace (ie: battery, mouse) they ship it to you; you replace it yourself. You put the broken part in a pre-paid box back to them, and drop it in the mail. You are done.
  • If it needs a part you can’t replace (laptop screen, motherboard) the part is shipped “overnight” to a “regional center.” Then when the part arrives, the center calls you and you schedule a time to get your machine fixed.
  • For a little extra, you can get 3 years on-site (ie: they come to you) coverage.
  • For a little “extra extra”, you can get “I spilled coffee directly in it”, “I dropped it hard on a marble floor” or “I dropped it in a lake” insurance, which will cover things like that. Really. At least that’s what they say.

Now.. with that said: I, with my pea-brain, can understand this warranty structure, and can embrace what it means.

To be clear: this warranty structure doesn’t mean “my problem will be fixed in 24 hours.” (Especially on a Thursday or Friday.) It means “We (Dell) spring to action right away… If you called us with your problem after 2.00 PM or so, then we’re going to miss Mr. DHL delivery dude for today. So, we’ll have to ship it tomorrow to the local depot. And then you’ll get a call when the part arrives. Only after the part arrives at the local depot center, will we call you and schedule an appointment for up to 24 hours after that.”

That’s the deal.

So don’t expect “your problem to be fixed within 24 hours.” Expect them to get started on your problem right away and have it fixed 24 hours AFTER the part is in the hands of the depot.

So, because I ‘get’ the deal, so I usually recommend Dell. It’s the warranty-devil I know, and I’m totally cool with that deal.

That said, I always recommend Dells to Joe and Janes because I can EXPLAIN the warranty to them and they can decide if that’s what they want.

If you want to check out other manufacturer’s warranties, great. I’m just giving you’re my experience with Dell.

Part IV: “How much laptop do I, a regular person, need?”

Unless you’re running Quark, Quake, Final Cut, Movie Maker, VMware or Mathemetica, you’ve got “modest needs.” So, here’s my answer for your “modest needs” person in 2009 – 2010.

Chip type and speed:

  • Try to get Intel Core2 Duos. This is what I have. Try to get speeds greater than 1.8 Ghz. Don’t kick yourself if you must get a little less to save a bundle. You’ll hardly notice the difference.
  • Avoid “Intel Celerons” at all costs. None are acceptable.
  • Intel Core2 Extremes are for “gamer” laptops. Avoid due to the high price tag.

RAM:

  • 2GB minimum
  • 4GB is nice and recommended.
  • More than 4GB is not needed for most modest-needs users.

Hard drive:

  • At least 250GB.
  • 500GB is better.
  • For a moderate speed boost, check to make sure the speed is “7200″ and not “5400″ RPM. It’s worth the cash for this little boost. Just to be annoying manufacturers don’t always have 7200 RPM drives in all sizes.

Video card / chip:

  • Unless you’re playing games, it doesn’t matter.
  • Really.
  • Even if you’re planning on watching NetFlix or Hulu, those kinds of apps really don’t care about your video card much. Even on my Netbook, I was able to see full screen videos (wirelessly!) without any issue with a good network connection.

Screen Size / Resolution:

  • Look for something with WXGA or WXGA+ resolution. This can mean 1280×720 and up, which is decent on a laptop.

Wireless Network Card:

  • Most laptops now have built-in Wireless cards.
  • You don’t have to get all worried if you don’t have the fastest wireless card.
  • Ideally, look for one that has “n” in the spec, like 802.11n to get the fastest, but 802.11g is plenty fast for regular people.

Doing a quickie search on Dell Factory Outlet for laptops like this, I found many, many, many under $1000. Core2 duo. 250GB HD, 2000 MB RAM (That’s 2GB) and a DVD drive with Read/Write capabilities. You could upgrade the RAM yourself for pretty cheap to get it to 4GB. Perfect. Really.. what more does any human need?

Everything else.. everything else.. is just bells and whistles.

Part V: 32 vs. 64 bit and Vista vs. Windows 7

Most new machines you will get are 64-bit capable. 64-bit capable means you get two major benefits.

Since most machines (laptops not netbooks) you will buy nowadays are 64-bit capable, if you had an extra minute before clicking “buy now” I would check to make sure it’s 64-bit compatible. Why would you care?

Benefit #1: With 64-bit you can tap into all 4GB+ of memory you purchase, where with a 32-bit OS you only see 3.2GB of your 4GB purchase. Weird, but that’s how it works.

Benefit #2: By and large, the computer will be “faster” than a comparable 32-bit machine.  It’s faster all around because it processes (many / most) things in 64-bit “chunks” as opposed to 32-bit “chunks.”

Now, let’s talk about Windows. To keep costs down, many manufacturers put on the cheapest versions of the operating systems they can – even on machines that are capable of running faster with a better operating system.

For instance, in the Dell Outlet, I saw many machines running Windows Vista Starter edition – an operating system I wouldn’t force upon my worst enemy. And, worse, they are running on awesome 64-bit hardware! That means you are paying for the 64-bit  hardware you’re not using because the operating system is 32-bit and crippled. And, if you had 4GB of RAM in that machine, you would only see 3.2GB. Not a good deal for Joe and Jane buyer.

This puts Joe and Jane buyer at a disadvantage. While Mr. and Ms. IT guy can quickly wipe a machine pre-loaded with Windows Vista and install Windows 7, it’s another whole thing for “Normal people” to do the same thing.

My advice for “normal people” would be to spring for a machine with one of the following operating systems:

  • Windows 7 Home Premium (if you’re never going to join an IT department’s domain)
  • Windows 7 Professional (if you’re possibly going to join an IT department’s domain.)
  • Windows 7 Ultimate if the machine just happens to come with it. Note: You can always upgrade your existing Windows 7 Home Premium or Windows 7 Professional to ultimate if you discover there’s some wonderful Ultimate feature you “must have.” Most “Ultimate” features are IT / business related things like Bitlocker and AppLocker (again, geeky business-y things.)

This chart is excellent to see what you get in which edition: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windows_7_editions

Back to the 32-bit vs. 64-bit thing: In short, if you CAN get a 64-bit Windows 7 edition pre-loaded on your machine, I say “do it.” In the old days, there were driver problems with 64-bit editions. No more. If the machine comes pre-loaded with Windows 7 and it has 64-bit support, you’re likely quite golden with regards to drivers. You could, maybe possibly have some problems with some of the stuff ATTACHED to your machine, like Printers and Scanners. But Windows 7′s drivers support is excellent. It’s a rare (mostly modern) device that won’t work with Windows 7 64-bit. Note: some won’t, and that’s a possible 64-bit Windows 7 risk.

For more information on 32 vs 64 bit support from Microosft’s perspective, read this.

One final thought: Vista upgrade rights.

Some vendors want to sell you “last years” laptop pre-loaded with Vista with the “right to a free Windows 7″ upgrade.

It sounds like a good deal, but, for most people, I would PASS on this deal.

Yes, you can UPGRADE your Windows Vista to Windows 7 “in place” – but I personally recommend against it. (And note, that there is NO WAY to upgrade Windows XP to Windows 7 IN PLACE. The prescription is WIPE and RELOAD. Ow.)

Note even “Windows Vista to Windows 7″ upgrades are tricky. You must go 32-bit to 32-bit. You cannot upgrade 32-bit to 64-bit. You cannot upgrade Home to Professional.

In short, for regular people, my advice is simple: Get Windows 7, any 64-bit edition pre-loaded on your laptop if you want guaranteed success.

- Signed, your friendly neighborhood, Jeremy.

About my laptop.. what do I run?

PS: Some of you may wonder what kind of laptop I am running? Until recently it was a Dell D620. Now, it’s a Lenovo T500.

I can hear you now: “But what about Dell? You reference Dell like 80 times in this article.” Yes, I do. I recommend Dell for most people. I needed some special stuff that I could only get with a Lenovo.

Remember: I’m an IT guy, so my needs are greater than some others. I need 8GB of RAM in my laptop, abd 500GB drives and a lot lot more. If you’re like me, an IT geek, here’s how I did it.

To keep costs down I bought it at the Lenovo Outlet (http://outlet.lenovo.com/laptops/ca2241rf1.html) then manually upgraded the RAM, the hard drive, the on-motherboard cache and re-loaded Windows 7 Ultimate by hand.

Again – NOT RECOMMENDED for regular people. I also bought a 2 year extra on-site warranty at an extra cost of $350.

The laptop itself is awesome. I really like my new Lenovo laptop a lot.

But the buying experience was one of the worst buying experiences in my life. The laptop took forever to get and my assistant called every day for 90 days to get confirmation of the activation of the warranty.
I wouldn’t want to put Jon and Jane Buyer thru either of those experiences. And I’m bordering on afraid to use the warranty service. Haven’t used it yet, I’ll cross my fingers. Heck, I don’t even know where to call if I had a problem. And that’s a problem.

So, for regular people, I still recommended the Dell Outlet to get cheap, reliable computers and the Dell warranty for reliable, easy to understand warranty service.

Hope this guide helps you and your friends out.