How to Buy a Laptop in 2011 (for the normal person) 3rd annual Report

Dec
29
2010

This is a re-post / re-edit from 2009 and updated for 2011 (and the iPad). This started out as a post to “just my closest friends” but has become one of my popular blog entries of all time. Here’s to 2011.

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

If you’re NOT an IT geek, you’re likely asking an IT geek friend “What kind of laptop should I buy?”

This is a guide for both of you.

If you’re in IT, 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)

If you’re NOT in IT, your problems are substantial too. If you ask three geeks, you might get THREE answers.

With that in mind, here’s “Jeremy’s Guide to Buying a new PC-based Laptop in 2011.” 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. Seriously. I just email them a link to this blog entry, and .. I’m done. These suggestions should be “good enough” for the common man / woman for 2011 and the foreseeable near term future. 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.

If you’re NOT an IT geek, you’re looking at the internet and catalogs and specials and think that laptops could be “infinitely configured” (and you’re likely freaking out and freezing up.)

And 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 2011

We’re going to answer some questions here like:

  • Netbook or laptop?
  • What do you, Jeremy, think about the iPad?
  • What’s with the “Windows iPad killers” (ie: Windows Tablets) coming out?
  • What’s with the “Google Laptops” coming out?
  • 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?

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 usually 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).

Some cheaper ones 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 backpack 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 Dropbox.com, Google Documents or Microsoft Office Online where all your docs are “in the cloud.”

Part II: All about Non-Traditional NetBooks (iPad, Google Laptop, Windows Tablets)

You might be on the fence about getting a Laptop or Netbook at all. You might see folks with their flashy iPads and think “I want that.” Let’s see if it’s right for you.

What do you, Jeremy, think about the iPad?

Well, in addition to my NetBook, I also own an iPad , and like it quite a lot.

When I’m on the road, it’s my companion for movies, TV shows, music, NetFlix, quick web surfing and a whole lot more.

The real question you might be asking is: iPad or Netbook. Which should I get? Or, you might be asking “Why would you, Jeremy, also own an iPad if you already own a NetBook?”

This is actually easily answered. As much as I enjoy the iPad’s iPad-y-goodness, it’s really not super-amazing at “creating content.” It is hands-down the best “content consuming” device I have ever used. So, I love love love my iPad for, again, movies, TV shows, NetFlix, web surfing, eBook reading, games and Skype to name a few. The “instant on” and 12+ hours of battery life of the iPad are the two killers feature more than anything else for me. When I want to play, it’s Click, slide, ready. International flight? Not a problem.

Note, however, on my iPad list, I do not have “Create documents”, “Deliver Slideshows”, or “Make a spreadsheet” as things I usually do. Turns out the iPad –can- do all of those things. And, pretty decently. But I don’t ENJOY to do them ON the iPad.

It’s just not a super-fantastic “content creation machine.” Yet, I sometimes take it to seminars and take notes on it. It’s decent for that task, but even then.. not ideal.

When it comes to creating real, hard-bore content (like this blog entry), I need a real-deal keyboard. Yes, yes, you can get Bluetooth keyboards that sync with the iPad (and I have one), but still – the content creation software and experience isn’t the same as a Netbook, laptop or desktop.

It just isn’t.

So, here’s the verdict:

  • If I had “real work” to do, and had to only pick one “travel” machine for the next 5 years – sorry iPad, I’d have to go Laptop or possibly netbook.
  • If I’m sitting on a beach or restaurant or need to travel to my boring cousin’s house and want to read, game, surf or NetFlix… it’s iPad all the way.

Aren’t there iPad-like things for Windows (and non-Windows)?

Yes. There are some. This HP Slate 500 Tablet PC (click link if you like ) is likely the closest thing (as of right now) to an iPad killer that runs Windows.

There’s also the Samsung Galaxy tablet, which is NOT based upon Windows, but Google’s Android operating system (the same thing they use in their Google-licensed phones.)

I haven’t personally used either, so I can’t vouch for them. I’m guessing .. just guessing.. it’s not the “right thing” for MOST people at this time. But, I could be wrong, and looking forward to using one in person someday.

For most regular people, I would wait at least one, possibly two years for this market to mature, settle down, and get to the place the iPad has already made it.

What’s the deal with the “Google Laptop”?

Whew. This is a tough one. So, non-IT folks… stick with me here.

Yes, Google has a “full size laptop” it handed out to some testers which running a new thing called the “Chrome OS.”

Here’s the deal: It has no hard drive, and everything you do is “in the cloud.” Meaning, really, that when you “save stuff” you’re saving to a website which stores your stuff for later access.

Does it run Windows apps? No.

Does it run Mac apps? No.

Does it run iPad apps? No.

Might you want one anyway? Possibly.

This is going to be a hot one for 2011, but for now, I would say if you’re offered one, decline for now, only because it’s just-so-new-that-almost-no-one-has-one which can be kind of a bad thing (in terms of getting help.)

Back to laptops and netbooks.

Part III: 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 new laptop nowadays.

This is going to sound totally weird, but 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 “Mommy Doe couldn’t afford her new laptop for sonny Sonny Doe after all, so she sent it back after 9 days of light use.” It doesn’t really mean “It was dropped, the screen cracked in half, 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 using the Outlet store.

3. Tigerdirect.com. They do sell new computers, but also some which “fell off the truck, if ya know what I mean”, off-lease (meaning, used) or are market 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 always factory direct 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. They mail it to you. That’s the extent of your relationship.

Part IV: Understanding the warranty (the most important part of your laptop.)

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, removable DVD drive) 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 money when you buy your laptop, 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 the 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 (which is TWO days later). 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 warranty coverage to mean “your problem will 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 V: “How much laptop do I, a regular person, need?”

If you’re planning on: web surfing, using Facebook, listening to CDs, watching DVDs, using Microsoft Office to create docs and spreadsheets, work with Google Docs, Gmail, Hotmail, Office 365, watch NetFlix, talk on Skype and other “usual stuff” you’ve got “modest needs.”

If you’re running some “high powered stuff ” like Quark, World Of Warcraft (or other high end games), Final Cut, Movie Maker, VMware Workstation or Mathemetica, you might need more than what I’ve listed here.

So, here’s my answer for your “modest needs” person in 2011 (which is 95% of the people on the planet.)

Chip type and speed:

Here’s the dirty little secret the laptop manufactures don’t want you to know: This almost “doesn’t matter.” Or said another way, you almost “cannot go wrong.” Here are my suggestions:

  • Last year, I suggested try to get at least “Intel Core2 Duos” at speeds greater than 1.8 Ghz. I stand by that. If you got a laptop with these specs, you’d be perfectly fine, I promise.
  • The newer model chips are called Intel Core i3, i5 and i7s. The i3 is usually the best “bang for the buck” but I wouldn’t turn down the higher model i5s or i7s. Again, i3 (any speed) will be perfectly fine for almost anyone.
  • Avoid “Intel Celerons” at all costs. None are acceptable. Ever.
  • The confusingly named “Intel Core2 Extremes” are to also be avoided. These are for “gamer” laptops. Avoid due to the high price tag and puny battery life.

RAM:

  • Last year, I said that 2GB was “acceptable.” And, it still is. I’ve used laptops running with 2GB of RAM quite happily on Windows 7 (more later.) But…
  • Now, I recommend you get 4GB of memory. (More later).
  • Note that I am NOT recommending you get more than 4GB 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.
    • And, not all laptops express how fast the drives are. If you don’t know, assume it’s the slower “5400” speed, and avoid it.

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 super old Netbook, I am 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.

Finding the Vostro laptops in the Dell Factory Outlet was a little hard. So here’s a link.

I found many, many, many under $1000.

I am looking (as I write this) at a Vostro 1720: Core2 duo 2.54 Ghz processor, 500GB HD,  4000 MB RAM (That’s 4GB), Windows 7 OS, a DVD drive with Read/Write capabilities.

Total price: $889.

Everything else.. everything else.. is just bells and whistles when it comes to laptops.

Part VI: Windows 7 Editions & 32-bit vs. 64-bit

Windows comes in many, many flavors. The “Edition” is the name of the Windows product. My advice for “normal people” would be to spring for a machine with one of the following Windows 7 editions:

  • 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.)

Avoid “Windows 7 Starter Edition” which is not great. 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.

This puts Joe and Jane buyer at a disadvantage. While Mr. and Ms. IT guy can quickly wipe a machine pre-loaded and install Windows 7 64-bit (see later), it’s another whole thing for “Normal people” to do the same thing.

This chart is excellent to see what you get in which edition: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windows_7_editions. But again, stick with Home Premium, Professional or Ultimate as described earlier.

Next, let’s quickly talk about the idea of 32-bit vs. 64-bit Windows 7.

Most new machines you will get are what’s called “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 ensure your new machine it’s 64-bit compatible –AND- the operating system is Windows 7 64-bit.  Let me say this another way:

  • You DO want a 64-bit capable laptop running a 64-bit version of Windows
  • You DON’T WANT a 64-bit capable laptop running a 32-bit version of Windows
  • You also DON’T WANT a 32-bit (only) capable laptop
    • Most new ones you would buy today don’t fit in this group anymore; but it’s good to check.

Okay  — why would you care about a 64-bit edition of Windows 7?

Benefit #1: With 64-bit you can tap into all 4GB+ of memory you purchase. If you were to use the a 32-bit Version of Windows 7 you will 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 the exact same machine running a 32-bit operating system. Even though we’re talking about identical systems, the 64-bit is faster all around because it processes (many / most) things in 64-bit “chunks” as opposed to 32-bit “chunks.” So it’s overall, faster.

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 Microsoft’s perspective, read this.

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. Follow me @jeremymoskowitz

Part VII: Office 2010 — 32-bit vs. 64-bit

Okay. This is going to hurt your brain. So stay with me (IT and non-IT folks.)

In the last section I said “Make sure to get a 64-bit capable laptop, then also get a Windows 7 64-bit edition put upon it, like 64-bit Windows 7 Professional.”

Remember that? Totally true.

But, when it comes to Microsoft Office 2010 .. there are ALSO 32-bit and 64-bit versions. That’s right.. you can have Office 2010 32-bit –or- Office 2010 64-bit installed on your new machine.

The “common sense” answer would be to install the 64-bit version of Office 2010 on my 64-bit Windows 7 machine.

Ah.. Well, then, that would be wrong.

Sigh. I know.. I know. Weird.

For MOST people the “right thing” to do is to install Office 2010 – 32-bit .. even if you have 64-bit Windows installed.

The document to read about the “why” is called Choose the 32-bit or 64-bit version of Microsoft Office and you can click that link here.

If it makes you feel better – I am running 32-bit Office 2010 on my 64-bit Windows, daily, and driving it very very hard, and it’s totally fine. This is what you should do, too.

About my laptop.. what do I run for me and my family?

Some of you may wonder what kind of laptop I am running? Until recently it was a Dell D620.

My wife now has my “retired” 5 year old Dell D620, running Windows 7 64-bit with 4GB of RAM, and she is totally happy on this workhorse of a machine. It’s great for her as a “mere mortal.” Indeed, I like this Dell D620 so much, that, as a gift, I bought one on Craigslist for $250, added $80 worth of 4GB RAM and gave it to my parents to replace their aging laptop.

You might be thinking: “Whoa.. whoa whoa.. Didn’t you just spend 10 pages explaining what *I* should buy? And you’re using 5 year old Dell D620s?”

Yep. This article is about how to buy a NEW laptop. Honestly, neither my wife nor my parents NEEDED a new laptop. They needed a functional laptop.

So, for $300-ish they got just that. And trust me – they’re happy with their new super speedy latptop.

The Dell D620 (or D630 for that matter) is still a killer, cheap, used laptop you could buy and likely be perfectly happy. If you upgrade it to 4GB of RAM and throw a 7200 RPM drive in there.

True, I have zero warranty on either of these machines, but that’s okay. They’re only worth $300. If my Dad or wife drops their D620 and cracks the screen or spills coffee in it, I can buy another one for $200 – $300 and just move the hard drive and RAM.

Okay. Now, about me.  I’ve got a Lenovo T500.

I can hear you now: “But what about Dell? You reference Dell like 80 times in this article. Didn’t you basically tell me to buy a Dell?” Yes, I did. 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, and 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 my T500 at the Lenovo Outlet then manually upgraded the RAM, the hard drive, the on-motherboard cache and re-loaded Windows 7 64-bit 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 to me 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.