Laptop Recommendations

As previously noted, the Lenovo ThinkPad X61 tablet that I use for my lectures is limping badly these days (it blue-screened this morning, whee). The options for a direct replacement are pretty limited, but in thinking about it a bit, I realized that I hardly use the tablet functions other than to annotate slides during lectures. Most of what I do with it just involves using it like an ordinary laptop.

It's not clear to me whether the hardware is really a problem, but I might very well be able to wipe it, reinstall the necessary programs, then continue to use it as a lecture-only computer, while getting some other laptop for my fooling-people-at-coffee-shops-into-thinking-I'm-writing needs. Which means that I have a whole new query to throw out to the blog:

If I want to buy a good Windows-based laptop, what should I be looking at?

Mac and Linux cultists, please note that the Windows part of this is non-negotiable. For a variety of reasons I am constrained to Microsoft products, and I am really, really, really not interested in hearing about the wonders of the latest Apple products, or the glories of open-source, blah, blah, blah.

So, given that constraint, what product lines and features are essential for my next laptop purchase?


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Your request is underspecified. Things you need to decide:

1. How much you care about having a screen resolution other than 1366x768 (depending on which model of x61T you have you have either 1024x768 or 1440x1050 right now).

2. How important speed is to you (if that ancient, slow x61T is even vaguely okay for you, my guess is not very).

3. How important it is that the laptop be light.

4. How important battery life is.

5. What kind of pointing device you like (do you like the TrackPoint(tm)-brand pointing device on the x61T, or do you prefer trackpads?)

6. If you want a giant big screen or prefer a more compact laptop.

7. If you care about screen quality for photo-editing and the like (that x61T has a superb IPS screen, which few modern laptops do).

Without knowing those, you're just going to get answers about what people think of their current laptop.

I have quite nice desktop computers at home and office, so for a laptop I want something light and easy to carry around. For a while I was using a netbook. These are cheap, small, light, but ultimately so underpowered that they're really annoying. About a year ago I splurged and got a Lenovo X201s. Small, light, but reasonable sized screen, and very fast. Of the many laptops I've owned, far and away my favorite, very happy with it.

1) This is 1024x768, and a bigger screen would be nice.

2) Speed is nice, but I don't expect to be running molecular dynamics simulations on it, or anything.

3) Weight isn't a huge issue.

4) I'd like as much battery life as possible. The X61 gets about 2hrs these days, which is minimally adequate.

5) I'm not a fan of touchpads.

6) See 1).

7) I do most of my photo editing on the desktop at home, and don't anticipate changing that.

If you like TrackPoints, Lenovo is your only sane choice.

The new X220 series is the modern successor to your x61T (and Peter Woit's X201s). The screen is 1366x768, but is the nice IPS. It's similar to yours in size, but gets 8 hours of battery life, going up to 14 if you get the extended battery.

I have the T410s, which is actually a little lighter, has a larger screen (14" 1440x900), but only gets 5-6 hours of battery life (and that with the battery that goes in the DVD drive bay), and the screen is not suitable for photo-editing.

Speaking from the Engineer Side of the Force, I have had nothing but good experiences with a (bought from Ebay) Dell Latitude D600 in 2005, until I started needing more serious horsepower for electromagnetic full-wave solvers, at which point I upgraded to a (refurbished, bought from Dell Outlet) Latitude E6400.

I have been extremely happy with it, with one caveat: If you buy it refurbished, reinstall the operating system yourself, because they seem to mirror its settings from a computer built in 1992.

I like touchpads and have been generally happy with its touchpad, but it's got a nub too, and most of the time I use it with a cheap USB mouse anyway. You can get Latitudes at a variety of screen sizes.

While no fan of Windows, I've been using several laptops over the last few months for various work projects and I've found the HP Elitebook line to be much more pleasant to deal with than the Dell or Sony ones I've used. Sturdily built, good screens, not absurdly heavy for their form factor (I'm not a big guy, a 17" screen laptop is ridiculous to lug around every day) and nice dock systems.

I understand you don't want Mac OS X, but the Macbook Pro is a damned good beast to run Windows on. I have seen this many times. Fast, sturdy and reliable.

By John S. Wilkins (not verified) on 28 Apr 2011 #permalink

Macbook air is a nice lightweight machine and it will run windows 7 just fine.

I recently bought a Lenovo Thinkpad Edge with a core i5 processor. I an very happy with it. It runs very well and is inexpensive for the speed and memory that it has. It has the option of having a matte display rather than the glossy ones that you get on most consumer laptops these days, which is good if you work a lot in offices with florescent lighting.

The only negatives are that the screen resolution could be a little higher and the optical drive doesn't play DVDs very smoothly (it seems to consume a lot of power causing the fans to spin up and the video gets choppy when this happens). Also, it is not a machine for fancy graphics. If you want to fix these problems then you can go for a more expensive business category Thinkpad, but I think the Edge is fantastic for everyday work/surfing needs.

-For a variety of reasons I am constrained to Microsoft products-

I'd be willing to bet you're not. I know a lot of people who think that they are until they finally talk to an IT person without a particular axe to grind.

Anyway, to make a useful suggestion, I strongly believe getting an SSD is worth it if you can afford it and don't need massive amounts of onboard storage. The speed bump and startup speed boost are considerable. More important in my mind that a faster processor etc.

Again, depends on your needs.

My bias is towards lightweight laptops, and so I usually have ended up with a Sony for packing the most into the lightest package. I'm with Cranky: an SSD is a huge win if you can afford it. I feel the speed boost from that every time I start up a program, which happens instantly. Quiet and fast - I love my current Sony Z-series laptop with an SSD.

Can I ask what you use for anti-virus software on your Windows machine. I'm debating on whether I should save money and go for a Windows machine, or spend the extra cash and go for a refurbished MacBook Pro (1 year old Mac laptops are available on Apple's website for under 1000). Like what the commenter said above, you can always dual boot to Win 7 on a Mac. Sorry if this comment was irrelevant to you.

I'd be willing to bet you're not [constrained to Microsoft products]. I know a lot of people who think that they are until they finally talk to an IT person without a particular axe to grind.

I have not seen any evidence that Chad considers that battle worth fighting. There are too many IT people who treat it as a holy war. And even if there is somebody in IT who does not insist that Windows is thine Operating System and thou shalt have no other operating systems before them, there is no guarantee that person will still be around when you need help with your non-Microsoft OS.

I don't have enough knowledge of PCs to make any specific recommendations. But if you are planning to carry this laptop around (and not just between your office and the lecture room), I agree with the folks upthread who say you should go with the lightest weight product in the line you choose that meets your needs. Even if you think you need a 17 inch screen, you can plug it into a monitor when you are at you are in your office (my officemate does this).

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 28 Apr 2011 #permalink

I'll just reiterate a few posts above. The Macbook Air is a great machine, and it runs Windows as well as anything. For what you get, it is quite well priced, and it is very well constructed. Even if you don't go that route, I'm a big proponent of small, light, big battery (being able to make it through a whole day at a conference without charging is awesome). I would definitely spring for something with an SSD. The speed gains are tremendous, are battery life and noise (I'm a bit of a noise freak).

How much of an issue is price?

Like others have said, one of the biggest upgrades for speed, weight and battery life is getting a solid state drive. They cost a bomb, though, especially if we're talking about the higher end SSDs (as opposed to the default Samsung drive that ship with Macbooks or HPs).

Also, if cost isn't an issue and you want a bigger screen, then you probably want a Macbook Pro running Windows. Depending on how much you mind lugging it around versus screen size you might be choosing between the 15" or 17" version. The Macbook trackpad is not a trackpoint, but it's quite a step up from other trackpads. The form factor of the 17" Macbook Pro is probably the best I've seen for a 17" laptop, though.

The Macbook Air, once divested of MACOSX, is a great-looking machine, with one of the best trackpads out there. But it doesn't have a TrackPoint(tm)-brand pointing device. (And the TrackPoint(tm)-style pointing devices that I've used on Dells and HPs have been worse than the TrackPoint(tm)-brand pointing devices on Lenovos, which is why I recommend the ThinkPads to people who want that.)

I will amplify what everyone else is saying about SSDs: Don't even consider a legacy hard drive in a laptop, only get an SSD.

I recommend putting Windows on an 11" Macbook Air. 2.3 pounds for a normal-sized keyboard, Core 2 Duo, and a reasonable battery life is amazing.

I am easily amused, but it is funny to see lot of commenters straining not to mention the obvious answer to all your computer-related problems, the one you explicitly excluded...Just as a teaser, my home desktop has been on continuously for well over a year and Iâve never maintained it in any way. I'd say, join the cult, just imagine how many frivolous comments you can write in all that time saved.

Wait, you're on the internets asking for computer advice and you DON'T want people telling you to just buy a mac? Are you sure you're in the right place?

As with #6 above, I'm a big fan of the Dell Latitude series. Right now I have the E6400.

I have a fairly narrow window where large screen size and modest weight intersect - right about at 14" screens, and only the lighter ones.

One nice option with the E6400 series (or whatever they've replaced it with) is the choice for the smaller pixel size, so you can run 1440x900 on a 14" screen. When I first got it, I thought the resolution made text almost too small, but after using this screen size and resolution for the last six years, I would find it immensely difficult to change.

I only use a laptop at home, travel modestly, and often use the permanently installed A/V-service desktops in classrooms. If I carted the laptop around more, I might go for something smaller, like a 13" Sony Vaio or even smaller.

(in passing)

"If I want to buy a good Windows-based laptop, what should I be looking at?"

Generally, I've had good experiences with my Lenovo desktop, but Sony probably makes the best Windows-only laptops. They are expensive, however. *Consumer Reports* notes that Dell and HP have the worst reliability records.

There is not that much to choose among; Windows machines are Windows machines. The underlying computing hardware is fairly standard. You are buying mechanical reliability, style, and comfort. If you depend on the system day-to-day, make sure you have a good service contract and backup system. One decision that can be important: NVidia graphics processors are still superior to the AMD (formerly ATI) and Intel GPUs, and if you run any 3D scientific visualization software, having an NVidia GPU is worthwhile.

I'd recommend Dell's XPS and Inspiron lines. Have two XPS, the M1210 and M1330, which I bought used on eBay and both have worked fine for over a year now (The M1330 is now my primary computer for both writing and internet usage.).

By John Kwok (not verified) on 29 Apr 2011 #permalink

The Dell Latitude series is great. If you can get a cheap older Latitude, e.g. the D630, you could even go for that. Otherwise the newer ones (E series) are great as well.

One of the advantages of the Latitudes are that a *lot* of businesses use them, so Dell makes sure that spare parts and add-ons etc. are available for reasonable money and for a long time.

Also seriously consider getting an "professional warranty/support" or something similar. Most companies treat you like crap in case of problems if you just have the standard consumer package, but really try to help you if you have a pro support contract (this is not only valid for Dell but probably for all the companies).

And to echo many posts here, get an SSD. After you've tried one, you will never want to go back to a rotating drive. For example an older Dell D630 with an SSD will be faster for daily work than the newest E-series with a standard HDD. And this is really noticeable in contrast to eg. a faster processor (which is anyway idling 95% of the time, because the hard drive is the bottleneck).

And because memory is cheap anyway, nowadays you should go with 4 GB RAM (and Windows 7 64bit to be able to use it all). There is no reason to make RAM your bottleneck if you happen to use a lot of programs at the same time.

Seriously consider getting a laptop that has a recent NVIDIA or ATI video card, and one that has dedicated (instead of shared) video memory. That will give you much better 3D performance.

You may be thinking, I don't play games, I don't care about 3D performance. However, you never really do know when you might decide that you want it; some useful data visualization tool may come out that uses it, and you'll regret not having it. Or, maybe, just maybe, other scientists besides me and the few who already use it will start to find a use for virtual worlds as a collaboration platform.

Re: not being a fan of touchpads, as far as I can tell touchpads have completely taken over the world. I utterly hate them myself. My solution is a Logitech USB mouse that I haul around with my laptop.


You make this post what, once a year? Doing it just to see who can follow directions? :-)

Some other points to ponder:
* Do you prefer "widescreen" (16:9 or wider aspect ratio)
or "tallscreen" (4:3 aspect ratio)? Widescreen are much more
common nowdays, but you can still find tallscreens if you look
around (e.g., the IBM/Lenovo Thinkpad T40 series were all tallscreen,
and the T60 series include both kinds). Which is better depends
on what kind of stuff you do -- for example, widescreen matches
most current movies, but tallscreen shows you more lines of code
at once if you're a programmer.
* Keyboards -- do you like small keyboards or large ones?
Light or heavy key action? "Bouncey" or "flat"?

IMHO it's useful to go to stores and try typing on various models
to see how you like (or don't like) the keyboards -- while reading
reviews & looking at pictures on the web can give you a good idea
of (say) how big of a screen you want, and whether you want a
built-in cd/dvd drive, there's really no substitute for the
"personal touch" for comparing keyboards.

By Jonathan Thornburg (not verified) on 01 May 2011 #permalink