Laptop choice bleg

by Chris Bertram on May 12, 2006

So here’s a topic on which CT readers are bound to have opinions: which laptop should I buy? Or, more exactly, what should I be looking for? Productivity-wise I need a machine that will run a LaTeX implementation—currently I use MiKTeX plus WinEdt on my desktop machines (XP based) in the office or at home—but just about anything will do that. And I’d like something that will be generally OK for surfing, playing the occasional video-clip or mp3, but that’s about it. And, of course, wireless is essential (though I’ve got a spare wireless card for a notebook as it happens … it came packaged with my router). How much memory? What size HD?

I had thought about making the switch to Apple, having seen a grad student’s neat little iBook. But since Apple is moving to Intel and their low-cost laptops haven’t yet made the switch, that seems a bad choice at the moment. (If I’m wrong about that mattering, then I’m sure some Apple-fan will set me right.)

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Crooked Timber » » Laptop bleg update
05.16.06 at 8:39 am



Colman 05.12.06 at 4:10 am

If you can wait a little while, I would: it looks like apple are likely to make the move to Intel with an iBook replacement in the next few weeks – the rumour mills aren’t normally all that far out and it seems like a logical move.

Other than that, I use all the stuff you’re talking about and even the current iBooks would do the job nicely – the G4 chips are going to be supported for a while yet. The Macs just seem to make it all easier.

And in any case, the buying advice is always the same: pick a price and buy the best machine you can find for the price. You always need more RAM and more disk than you think you do.


Aaron 05.12.06 at 4:10 am

I am also looking for a laptop and have been thinking about the best options. I have about the same level of computing ambition as you and have narrowed down my best bets to something in the ThinkPad X series and the new consumer Intel Apple when it arrives. By the way most of the tech press thinks that the new ibook (macbook) will be announced next Tuesday (the 16th).

Basically I think that size and weight should be a major consideration given that you spend more time carrying the laptop than using it. I also think that the battery is central, I really hate the idea of buying a new laptop that can only run for two hours! The ThinkPad X series are the best ultraportables in terms of size, keyboard, durability, battery and performance. But they are expensive and lack a built in optical drive. So the Mac would be a budget alternative (hopefully). Does anybody else have a suggestion for a business-ultraportable-budget-alternative that still has a decent keyboard and a good battery?


fini finito 05.12.06 at 4:40 am

I’m currently working full time from a Dell Inspiron 9200 bought a little over a year ago, and the newest model 9400 looks to be this one’s superior. I am operating an entire multimedia studio out of this machine and it is a workhorse. The fact that Sony makes the Inspiron line for Dell probably has something to do with it.

HP also makes a fantastic line of reasonably priced workhorse laptops. The Z series notebooks from HP are the best bang for the buck on the market for the budget minded.

What it comes down to is this, brand names have reliability factors worth paying slightly extra for such as easy customer service and repairability. No matter what brand you go with, get at least 1GB and preferably 2GB of RAM, and any hard drive short of 80GB is a joke. All the new notebooks and laptops are standard with WiFi chips these days, but try to get a new machine using the 802.11n standard if available.


almostinfamous 05.12.06 at 5:05 am

heh, the first draft of the 802.11n got thrown out, putting a lot of the draft-n stuff into questionable territory. the pre-n stuff seems to be ok.

stick with standards, and as has been mentioned, the wait for the ibook should be worth it’s while. mine is a year old, and the battery still runs for about 4hrs if i turn the screen brightness down. the new ones are more power efficient, so you should have better performance with that.


dmathers 05.12.06 at 5:12 am

the word on the street is that the new low cost mac laptops with intel processors (now called macbooks) will be unveiled this coming tuesday.

i made the switch to a powerbook last year and i highly recommend it.


john m. 05.12.06 at 5:41 am

In my reasonably extensive experience of laptops of all shapes, sizes and makes I’ve come to the conclusion that the best process to buy one is:

a. Decide on your budget

b. Look for the fastest, lightest, highest spec (chip/on board wireless/ram/hd size) at that price – check online reviews and user comments especially for post sale support when it breaks, which it probably will.

c. Buy it and completely ignore all news about laptops until you are buying again as within 15 secs of taking delivery you’ll spot a better faster one.

That said, I have a serious soft spot for Sony Vaios.


Andrew Brown 05.12.06 at 5:56 am

Macs are tempting, but I’d have a very serious look at Thinkpads. They are really tough, and the X40 series is as small and light as anything with a full-sized keyboard and screen could possibly be. What I want more than anything from a laptop is that it should be portable, and I don’t think that anything comes close to the Thinkpad X series for the combination of robustness with light weight and a lovely keyboard. Also, you can get spares and service for years afterwards, anywhere in the world.

I’ve just upgraded from an X23 to an X40, after my daughter dropped the X23 off her lap onto a hard wooden floor when she stood up. She jarred it hard enough to knock out two cells of the battery — but the rest of the machine seems quite unaffected.

The T series are cheaper and heavier, but may be a better choice if you don’t want to carry them everywhere. They also have built-in optical drives. There is always a trade-off between battery life and large screens.


Richard Cownie 05.12.06 at 6:05 am

Your requirements sound similar to mine. I went
through this a couple of weeks ago and bought an
Acer Aspire 3624WXCi at CompUSA for $650.
I’m very happy with it – excellent wifi (big
antenna built into the screen), good screen
(1280×800 gives you 30% more pixels than the
usual 1024×768), quiet, 3-hour+ battery life for web browsing, 512MB DRAM, fairly thin and light.


Vizsla1086 05.12.06 at 6:51 am

I’ve been using laptops for years, having no choice about it really, since I routinely travel on business.

After trying virtually every sort out there, I’ve come to depend solely on Thinkpads because they’re robustly made, designed for people who really work their machines, and are well-serviced.

I currently have a T-43, and love it, albeit next time I may move to the X series. Their only downside? Thinkpads are more expensive, sometimes by quite a bit. I’ve come to accept that the extra 3 or 4 hundred dollars is worth it.

I see no advantage to the Macs unless one is working in a Mac environment. They’re beautiful, of course, and one is always allowed to indulge themselves, but if one is used to a Windows environment, staying there is a lot easier than switiching.


Tom T. 05.12.06 at 7:03 am

Chris, according to John Q’s subsequent post on advertising, in the standard neoclassical model, you as a consumer are supposed to know your own tastes and to be fully informed. :-)


Max 05.12.06 at 7:22 am

My short, sweet, recommendation: get an iBook. And get TextMate.


todd. 05.12.06 at 7:51 am

There were a ton of (mostly productive) comments on the same subject when Sean at Cosmic Variance asked the same question a month or two ago.

I think if you narrow it down to a Thinkpad and a MacBook, and then flip a coin, you really can’t go wrong.


Michael M. 05.12.06 at 7:52 am

Buy anything that will run whichever Linux distro or BSD flavor that catches your fancy. Most HPs, Dells, Lenovo (IBM) ThinkPads, Toshibas, and (I think) Acer’s are good choices. Sony’s can be trickier. Any Apple model will be more limited in terms of your choices — there aren’t that many PPC distros around, and the newer Intel machines are still a work in progress.

This, of course, is only if you actually care about your freedoms as a user. If you don’t give a damn, anything that runs XP or OSX will do — one is just as bad as the other in terms of soul-sucking proprietary vendor lock-in and all-around evilness. Personally, I wouldn’t want to support either.


Barry 05.12.06 at 8:05 am

I’d add that the first choice is really how small do you want/need it to be. If you really need a small, highly portable laptop, it’ll cost you more. If you need an occasionally portable machine (e.g., between your home and office desks), you can accept more weight.


schwa 05.12.06 at 8:09 am

I’d say buy a Mac if you don’t have a specific reason you need to buy a PC, and I don’t see anything in your spec list that a Mac won’t do. (If you do go with a PC, I join the chorus endorsing the ThinkPads as by far the best PC laptop available, even if they’re not exactly aesthetic masterpieces.)

Don’t buy an iBook at this point in the product’s life cycle. Even if they don’t announce MacBooks in the next couple of weeks, the line is old, and in six months to a year you’ll almost certainly be swearing it and thinking about replacing it. (You may be able to find end-of-line PowerBook G4s for iBook prices, though, and that’s a bargain I would take.) If your budget will stretch to the 15″ MacBook Pro, buy it; it’s a fantastic machine. If it won’t, I’d wait for the MacBooks if you can, or look seriously at a ThinkPad if you can’t.

As far as specs go, buy the biggest HD you can afford. On the MBP, this means the 120Gb option — I wouldn’t bother with the 7200rpm upgrade, it doesn’t sound like you’ll be working your machine hard enough to make it worth your while. 1Gb of RAM is ample to run OSX — buy more if you can afford it, obviously, but you won’t be wishing you had if you don’t.


SamChevre 05.12.06 at 8:23 am

I’m going to disagree with Schwa.

Assuming that you are not going to have the laptop as an only computer, I would prioritize in this way.

chip speed
HD size

If your HD is too small, you can plug in an external HD for storage of occasionally-used files (a good idea anyway for backup), or transfer to a desktop HD which is cheap and easy to install. And for most apps, RAM makes more difference than chip speed.


Steve 05.12.06 at 8:50 am

I’m a PowerBook user, but I’ll second all the Thinkpad recommendations. (I’ve also heard good things about Toshiba’s notebooks, but I believe they’re spendy.) If you liked your grad student’s iBook, though, I’ll go with the majority and recommend you hold off to see if the Intel iBooks are in fact announced next week.


Alex R 05.12.06 at 9:07 am

I will re-emphasize what a few other commenters have mentioned, that one of your first considerations should be “How portable do I want this machine to be?”

The difference between carrying around 1 kg laptop (yes, they exist.) and a 3 kg laptop is enormous…

I have a Panasonic Toughbook T1 which I bought about 3 years ago — a very nice, very light product — though if I were to replace it today,I would get a model with an internal optical drive. In the US, at least, Panasonics come with a 3 year warranty, and excellent customer service. Good warranty coverage is important for laptops, which are highly integrated and have more failure modes than desktops.


Guest 05.12.06 at 9:46 am

My opinion is that weight doesn’t really matter. If you carry the thing around enough to care about that, you’re going to end up getting a rollie-case anyway.

The thing you have to keep in mind in going light is that your keyboard is going to be smaller and “tighter.” You *definitely* want to try these various laptops out before you buy one, hopefully for an extended period (I would recommend borrowing one from a friend if possible) and see whether you actually like typing on them. Every single time you use it, you’re going to be using the keyboard, and if it’s uncomfortable, using the laptop is going to suck.


Aaron 05.12.06 at 10:02 am

What is a “rollie-case” and how does it defy the laws of physics?

A Thinkpad ultraportable has a full-sized or near full sized keyboard. That is one of their big advantages. I have heard that the HP nc4200 and nc4400 are ultraportables that have ThinkPad like keyboards and 5 hours+ battery life, but I have never used one.

What about the lack of an optical drive. I use this so rarely that I am not sure I would need to carry one around, but maybe I am under estimating its importance.


Branedy 05.12.06 at 10:30 am

I’m still using my 500Mhz G3 iBook 12″, it’s almost 5 years old now. It’s still running the newest OS-X and all I’ve done is max out Ram (640M), and I added a new battery this year.

What more can I say.


Zephania 05.12.06 at 10:31 am

These make me drool


Barry 05.12.06 at 10:34 am

A 12-inch PC or Mac doesn’t require a rollie-case; a larger one would only require that if it’s moved around more than once-twice per day.


Nabakov 05.12.06 at 11:17 am

Or you could just leapfrog over existing technologies and go straight to the pointy end.


Justin 05.12.06 at 11:37 am

Re:13, I think that in general, people who just want a computer for LaTeX, surfing and watching the occasional video are disjoint from people who have the technical savvy to make running Linux a pleasant experience. Same goes for people who need to ask what computer to buy. I hope I’m not slandering Chris with any of that, but it sounds like he’s in the same boat I’m in.


Arturis 05.12.06 at 11:59 am

I would say you’d be hard-pressed to find a laptop that can’t meet the needs you describe. And I would guess that’s why so many people are tacitly using other criteria for their recommendations. Literally any laptop will play audio and vido clips and run test programs like LaTeX converters.

So what’s important to you? Size and Weight? Battery Life? Performance?

I’ve never owned a Mac, but I would probably recommend one for you. From what you’ve described, you are who the people at Mac had in mind when they designed a lot of their hardware and software.

But I’m going to guess that you’re looking for a sense of scale when it comes to hardware statistics. My desktop PC has a 120-Gig HD and after about two years of casually collecting music and video (including entire seasons of shows) I just recently ran out of space and had to delete some of my old media. An 80-Gig should suit your needs, and more will just let you be more of a packrat for longer. If you’re running windows, I’d say you should get 1 Gigabyte of RAM. RAM is usually the cheapest performance improvement you can buy, and with Windows using 200-300 Megs, upgrading from 512 Megs to 1 Gig is roughly tripling your free and usable RAM. As for processor, I recommend getting one. Other than that, you probably can’t go wrong.


tzs 05.12.06 at 1:39 pm

One thing I can say: DON’T go for a Dell. I have a Dell (for work because they insist on evil evil MS) and an G4. The Dell is a bloody boat anchor that reminds me of the old IBM laptops (the Slab) and has less battery capacity than the G4, to boot.

If you travel enough, weight turns out to be very important. I’d suggest going for the lightest you can find (providing it’s robust enough.) I still mourn my 2001 Panasonic Let’s Note, which finally had to be replaced due to gagging on Excel files.


Randy Paul 05.12.06 at 1:50 pm

Don’t rule out a Windows XP machine with an AMD processor.


nick s 05.12.06 at 3:19 pm

A going-out-of-stock PowerBook G4 with education discount would be cheap. A MacBook (when they come out) with the education discount would be a decent investment. LaTeX on OS X is lovely: i-Installer makes life pretty straightforward, even if you’ve greatly customised your older environment. And, as John Gruber notes, you can run Windows on Intel Macs now.

If you do go the non-Mac route, then Thinkpads, definitely. For the keyboard and build quality.


John Quiggin 05.12.06 at 3:46 pm

As a general piece of advice, a second monitor is really worth getting along with a laptop – it greatly enhances the power of a laptop it’s at home, which is most of the time for most of us.

Even with a desktop computer, a second monitor gives more benefits than extra RAM, HD space or processor speed.

I’ve used two-monitor setups since 1990, and I would never go back to one.


Jon H 05.12.06 at 4:01 pm

If you go for an Intel iBook, make sure to load it up with RAM. Running PowerPC Mac software on Intel sucks up extra RAM, and the extra memory will definitely come in handy if you want to use a virtualization product like Parallels (, $40) to run Windows or Linux at near-native speed on top of Mac OS X.


Jon H 05.12.06 at 4:05 pm

I’m not sure about dual-monitor setups on Macs. Windows works somewhat better in multi-monitor configurations, because windows have their own menus. I used to run two 1600×1024 monitors on my G4 tower, and mousing across both screens to reach the menu got really old. I really do wish Apple would provide some way to have independent menubars on each monitor.

With my dual-monitor Mac, I generally wound up using one of the monitors all the time and using the other as little more than a digital picture frame for my desktop pictures.


Nathan Lundblad 05.12.06 at 5:36 pm

TeXShop on the Mac is a great setup. Jut finished my thesis using it. (and the teTex that comes with all Mac)


todd. 05.12.06 at 9:57 pm

I’ve known several Dell and (especially) Toshiba laptops that were constructed of excessively flaky material. Most of these were purchased 2-4 years ago, but back then they all suffered from shoddy casings which shed little plastic bits like cats’ hair in spring.


llld 05.12.06 at 11:10 pm

Check out the HP Compaq nc8200 series.
May be a bit more performance than you require.
(I run computational stats plus the apps you want.)
Comes in a sturdy case that won’t crush.

Either way – pay attention to the case. Go look at some cheapos in the big box stores. See how flimsy the flip up screens are. Run away.


Alan Green 05.12.06 at 11:49 pm

I agree with llld – if you plan to be lugging your laptop around on a regular basis, mechanical robustness is extremely important. Apple pay a lot of attention to their cases, but if you would prefer a PC, then a Fujitsu or one of the business model HP/Compaq machines would be worth a look.

Oh, and a friend who owns Dell tells me that, if you do choose Dell, the three year warranty is a wise investment.


agm 05.13.06 at 3:13 am

On the other end, is a pretty good place to browse for comparing specials too. You’re hereby warned about the other purchases you might end up making…


agm 05.13.06 at 3:19 am

And I’d also say that if you can live with it, don’t go over 14 inches on the screen if you’re going to be carrying it everywhere. Check beforehand whether the wireless switch is all hardware or part hardware part software (and all sorts of other things in linux). All things being equal, I’d say keep asking and shopping for a month or so til you see an acceptably good deal given reviews, rebates, maintenance records and rants, &c (in case Galt sees this).

Do you at least know which operating system you want? The new Fedora is awfully slick, and next month’s Ubuntu update is supposed to be the bee’s knees, but linux is always peskier than either XP or OS X. XP has widest range of software, if you go for that sort of thing. Someone mentioned indulgence above: custom paint job…

I heartily second maxing out RAM no matter what you get, then getting the best combination of cpu, hard drive, and other hardware.


novakant 05.13.06 at 3:37 am

Make sure you are comfortable with the screen-size/resolution ratio and the keyboard, it’s best to have a look at notebooks in a few shops to get a feel for it, even if you end up buying online.

Apart from that, for your purposes the tech-specs are really negligible, execpt for the fact XP shouldn’t really be run with less than 512 RAM and you might consider having 1 Gig for Vista.


goatchowder 05.13.06 at 3:54 am

My first criteria for recommending machines is software savvy and/or complexity, on a continuum of Mac –> Windoze –> Linux. You sound like you’re comfortable with Windoze so either Windoze or Mac will suit you.

Next criteria is horsepower. For what you want to do, a 5-year-old used laptop will do just fine. So again, it just depends on your budget. And yes, max out RAM if you can: even simple things like web-browsing can eat RAM like crazy.

Finally, ergonomics. For you, it sounds like ergonomics should be the only real concern. That means, keyboard, screen, and weight/package. This is where there’s no substitute for just trying these out in a shop somewhere, and deciding which “feels” best.


Wax Banks 05.13.06 at 7:48 am

Weight matters! I’m with those who say go for a light machine. My advice – and that of most of my (mainly CS-type) geek friends – is buy the smallest Mac that will comfortably display your work, but definitely buy a Mac. The elegance and efficiency of working on the Mac, particularly when you’ve nailed down intermediate-level tools like the command line, shell scripts, and keyboard-driven tools like Quicksilver and Textmate, simply blows the Windows experience out of the water. There are good LaTeX tools available for Mac (and good LaTeX/PDF integration), and you’ll be able to escape from command-line-ville into a breathtaking GUI when you need a break (no Unix GUI compares to Tiger).

The Mac laptops didn’t change design during the Moto/Intel switchover because they’ve gotten the design right; none of the inelegant Thinkpad buttons or that odd clitoral pointing device, and none of the garish clunkiness of Dell’s machines.

Toughbooks are freakish and magnificent but as an academic you’re not likely to benefit fully from them. A couple of engineer schoolmates of mine swear by them, though I can’t imagine typing on anything but an almost-full-sized keyboard.


Francis Sedgemore 05.13.06 at 7:57 am

I would recommend a Mac for ease of use combined with the stability and sophistication of the Unix operating system. Also, there are a number of LaTeX front ends for OS X, and TeXShop and iTeXMac are both well-designed and functional. Windows to me has always been more trouble than it’s worth. GNU/Linux, which I used extensively for over a decade before switching to OS X, is great for those who enjoy tinkering and have time for such, but for productivity alone OS X takes some beating.

I have a 12″ PowerBook G4 and have been very happy with it, although it might now be time for me to consider selling it. iBooks are OK but not nearly so nice to work on, and PowerBook keyboards are far superior. And another good thing about PowerBooks is that they work seamlessly with external displays, keyboards and rodents.

Unless you cannot do without the power of a powerful desktop computer, with faster RAM, bus, hard disk, graphics processor, expansion bays, etc, why not consider having a PowerBook as your sole computer, and when working at the desk hook it up to a large DVI display? With a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, you could even run it with the lid shut so that the graphics processor has to drive only the external display. With the lid open you have access to both (independent) screens.

Unless you have absolute need of the latest and best model, you would do well to consider a second-hand PowerBook G4 in top condition. As Apple fanboys tend to be obsessed with owning the latest models, you will often find as-new condition PowerBooks listed on eBay, but be warned that the resale prices of Apple computers tend to be significantly higher as a proportion of the new cost than for Wintel machines.

Some people complain about the cost of Apple computers, but looking at the various high-end Wintel machines available today, I’m not so sure this criticism is valid. Also, unless you zero-rate your time, you should consider also time spent farting about trying to get things to work properly. Macs are then without a doubt good economy.


Gray Lensman 05.13.06 at 12:52 pm

Since nobody mentioned it, I’ll offer a comment on the ability of the new Macs to run Windows XP and MacOSX. We have a Mini with both (my wife needs the XP for a real estate app) and so far it and we are happy. It’s fast, stable, and runs all the Win apps we have tried. We ordered it from MacMall and they installed the XP with BootCamp.

Overall opinion? Windows suffers bigtime from the direct comparison.


Stephen M (Ethesis) 05.13.06 at 6:30 pm

I’m going to give a bit of contrarian advice …

First, check out your eyes. What size screen do you need?

Second, check out your fingers. What keyboards can you live with.

Third, check out your arms. What weight can you live with?

Then, consider the cheapest laptop that fits those three limits. Carry something that form factor around as you plan to carry your laptop, and at the same weight.

For most purposes, anything currently being sold has enough power. More ram is generally better than more processor power if you need processing power, and ram is pretty cheap, with a functional limit at about 2 gigabytes of ram.

Anyeay, look at it that way, then make your choice. By the standards of only three years ago there are a lot of incredible choices available out there.

Even more if price is no object.


todd. 05.14.06 at 12:05 pm

By the way, Chris, please do let us know what you choose, and what you think of it after you’ve used it for a few weeks.


Chris Bertram 05.14.06 at 12:17 pm

Will do! I’m inclining to Apple but waiting to see what — if anything — they announce next week.

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